America had its civil war. Why expect freedom to come easy to Iraq?
BAGHDAD, Iraq–Americans keen to understand the ongoing struggle for a new Iraq can be guided by the example of their own history. In the 1860s, your country fought a great struggle of its own, a civil war that took hundreds of thousands of lives but ended in the triumph of freedom and the birth of a great power. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation signaled the destruction of the terrible institution of slavery, and the rise of a country dedicated, more than any other in the world of nation-states then and hence, to the principle of human liberty.
Our struggle in Iraq is similar to the great American quest, and is perhaps even more complicated. As your country was fighting that great contest over its unity and future, Iraq was a province of an Ottoman empire steeped in backwardness and ignorance. A half a century later, the British began an occupation of Iraq and drew the borders of contemporary Iraq as we know them today. Independence brought no relief to the people of our land. They were not given the means of political expression, nor were they to know political arrangements that respected their varied communities.
Under the Baath tyranny, Iraqis were to endure a brutal regime the likes of which they had never known before. Countless people were put to death on the smallest measure of suspicion. Wars were waged by that regime and our national treasure was squandered without the consent of a population that was herded into costly and brutal military campaigns. Today when I hear the continuous American debate about the struggle raging in Iraq, I can only recall with great sorrow the silence which attended the former dictator’s wars.
It is perhaps true that only people who are denied the gift of liberty can truly appreciate its full meaning and bounty. I look with admiration at the American debate surrounding the Iraq war, and I admire even those opinions that differ from my own. As prime minister of Iraq I have been subjected to my share of criticism in that American debate, but I harbor no resentment and fully understand that the basic concerns of Americans are the safety of their young people fighting in our country and the national interests of their society. As this American debate goes on, I am guided and consoled by the sacred place of freedom and liberty in the American creed and in America’s notion of itself.
War being what it is, the images of Iraq that come America’s way are of car bombs and daily explosions. Missing from the coverage are the great, subtle changes our country is undergoing, the birth of new national ideas and values which will in the end impose themselves despite the death and destruction that the terrorists have been hell-bent on inflicting on us. Those who endured the brutality of the former regime, those who saw the outside world avert its gaze from their troubles, know the magnitude of the change that has come to Iraq. A fundamental struggle is being fought on Iraqi soil between those who believe that Iraqis, after a long nightmare, can retrieve their dignity and freedom, and others who think that oppression is the order of things and that Iraqis are doomed to a political culture of terror, prisons and mass graves. Some of our neighbors have made this struggle more lethal still, they have placed their bets on the forces of terror in pursuit of their own interests.
When I became prime minister a year and a half ago, my appointment emerged out of a political process unique in our neighborhood: Some 12 million voters took part in our parliamentary elections. They gave voice to their belief in freedom and open politics and their trust imposed heavy burdens on all of us in political life. Our enemies grew determined to drown that political process in indiscriminate violence, to divert attention from the spectacle of old men and women casting their vote, for the first time, to choose those who would govern in their name. You may take this right for granted in America, but for us this was a tantalizing dream during the decades of dictatorship and repression.
Before us lies a difficult road–the imperative of national reconciliation, the drafting of a new social contract that acknowledges the diversity of our country. It was in that spirit that those who drafted our constitution made provisions for amending it. The opponents of the constitution were a minority, but we sought for our new political life the widest possible measure of consensus. From the outset, I committed myself to the principle of reconciliation, pledged myself to its success. I was determined to review and amend many provisions and laws passed in the aftermath of the fall of the old regime, among them the law governing de-Baathification. I aimed to find the proper balance between those who opposed the decrees on de-Baathification and others who had been victims of the Baath Party. This has not been easy, but we have stuck to that difficult task.
Iraq is well on its way to passing a new oil law that would divide the national treasure among our provinces and cities, based on their share of the population. This was intended to reassure those provinces without oil that they will not be left behind and consigned to poverty. The goal is to repair our oil sector, open the door for new investments and raise the standard of living of Iraqi families. Our national budget this year is the largest in Iraq’s history, its bulk dedicated to our most neglected provinces and to improving the service sector in the country as a whole. Our path has been made difficult by the saboteurs and the terrorists who target our infrastructure and our people, but we have persevered, even though our progress has been obscured by the scenes of death and destruction.
Daily we still fight the battle for our security. We lose policemen and soldiers to the violence, as do the multinational forces fighting along our side. We are training and equipping a modern force, a truly national and neutral force, aided by our allies. This is against the stream of history here, where the armed forces have traditionally been drawn into political conflicts and struggles. What gives us sustenance and hope is an increase in the numbers of those who volunteer for our armed forces, which we see as proof of the devotion of our people to the stability and success of our national government.
We have entered into a war, I want it known, against militias that had preyed upon the weakness of the national government and in the absence of law and order in some of our cities, even in some of the districts in Baghdad, imposed their own private laws–laws usually driven by extremism and a spirit of vengeance. Some of these militias presented themselves as defenders of their own respective communities against other militias. We believe that the best way to defeat these militias is to build and enhance the capabilities of our government as a defender of the rights of our citizens. A stable government cannot coexist with these militias.
Our conflict, it should be emphasized time and again, has been fueled by regional powers that have reached into our affairs. Iraq itself is eager to build decent relations with its neighbors. We don’t wish to enter into regional entanglements. Our principle concern is to heal our country. We have reached out to those among our neighbors who are worried about the success and example of our democratic experiment, and to others who seem interested in enhancing their regional influence.
Our message has been the same to one and all: We will not permit Iraq to be a battleground for other powers. In the contests and ambitions swirling around Iraq, we are neutral and dedicated to our country’s right to prosperity and a new life, inspired by a memory of a time when Baghdad was–as Washington is today–a beacon of enlightenment on which others gazed with admiration. We have come to believe, as Americans who founded your country once believed, that freedom is a precious inheritance. It is never cheap but the price is worth paying if we are to rescue our country.
Mr. Maliki is prime minister of Iraq.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas fighters overran one of the rival Fatah movement’s most important security installations in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, and witnesses said the victors dragged vanquished gunmen from the building and killed them in the street.
The capture of the Preventive Security headquarters was a major step forward in Hamas’ attempts to complete its takeover of all of Gaza. Hamas later called on Fatah fighters to surrender the National Security compound within the hour.
The moderate President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, for the first time in five days of fierce fighting, ordered his elite presidential guard to strike back. But his forces were crumbling fast under the onslaught by the better-armed and better-disciplined Islamic fighters.
Fatah officials said seven of their fighters were shot to death in the street outside Preventive Security. A witness, Jihad Abu Ayad, said the men were being killed in front of their wives and children.
“They are executing them one by one,” Abu Ayad said. “They are carrying one of them on their shoulders, putting him on a sand dune, turning him around and shooting.”
Some of the Hamas fighters kneeled down outside the building, touching their foreheads to the ground in prayer. Others led Fatah fighters out of the building, some of them shirtless or in their underwear, holding their arms in the air. Several of the Fatah men flinched as the crack of gunfire split the air.
“We are telling our people that the past era has ended and will not return, ” Islam Shahawan, a spokesman for Hamas’ militia, told Hamas radio. “The era of justice and Islamic rule have arrived.”
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, heralded what he called “Gaza’s second liberation,” after Israel’s 2005 evacuation of the coastal strip.
The two factions have warred sporadically since Hamas took power from Fatah last year, but never with such intensity. Hamas reluctantly brought Fatah into the coalition in March to quell an earlier round of violence, but the uneasy partnership began crumbling last month over control of the powerful security forces.
Some 80 people, most of them militants, have been killed since a spike in violence Sunday sent Gaza into civil war. At least 15 people died on Thursday.
Hospitals were operating without water, electricity and blood. Even holed up inside their homes, Gazans weren’t able to escape fighting that turned apartment buildings into battlefields.
Moean Hammad, 34, said life had become a nightmare at his high-rise building near the Preventive Security headquarters.
“We spent our night in the hallway outside the apartment because the building came under crossfire in 2002,” Hammad said. “We haven’t had electricity for two days, and all we can hear is shooting and powerful, earthshaking explosions.
“The world is watching us dying and doing nothing to help. God help us, we feel like we are in a real-life horror movie,” he said.
Shaher Hatoum, a nurse at nearby Al Quds hospital, said the facility had no electricity, water or blood, and that wounded were propped up on ward floors. Hundreds of bullets flew through windows, and fighters ignored the hospital’s appeals to hold fire just long enough to have the generator and water pipes fixed, Hatoum said.
“We are waiting here for our end,” Hatoum said.
The European Commission on Thursday suspended its humanitarian aid projects in the Gaza Strip, citing the escalating violence. EU humanitarian operations in both Gaza and the West Bank totaled $110 million last year. So far this year, it has earmarked $80 million.
“I fervently hope that the projects can resume very soon,” EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said.
Meanwhile, Abbas was meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah with the decision-making bodies of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization. One aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because no decision had been made, said Abbas was considering pulling Fatah out of its governing coalition with Hamas.
Hamas also was training its guns at three other key command centers in Gaza City. Rocket-propelled grenades were being fired toward Abbas’ Gaza compound, provoking return fire from his presidential guard.
For the first time since the fighting began, Abbas ordered his guard to go on the offensive against Hamas at the compound, and not simply maintain a defensive posture, an aide said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because the situation was fluid.
The intelligence service compound also was under siege, as Hamas fired dozens of rocket-propelled grenades in its direction.
Hamas said it was on the verge of taking over the building. But the director of the intelligence service in Gaza, Mohammed al-Masri, said in a text message that the compound was still in Fatah hands.
Mortar shells were lobbed overnight at a third key security headquarters, the National Security building.
Elsewhere in Gaza, clashes broke out at three Fatah-allied villages near the southern town of Khan Younis, but Hamas encountered little resistance as it took over security positions and homes belonging to pro-Fatah officers. A teenager was killed in the crossfire in 2002.
The violence has exposed the depths of the disarray in Fatah’s ranks since Hamas ended Fatah’s 40-year dominion of Palestinian politics last year.
A Hamas military victory in Gaza would split Palestinian territory into two, with the Islamic extremists controlling the coastal strip and Western-backed Fatah ruling the West Bank. Israel was watching the carnage closely, concerned the clashes might spawn attacks on its southern border.
Israeli defense officials said Wednesday that Israel, which evacuated Gaza in 2005, would not intervene unless Hamas took over Gaza and started attacking Israel.
Fatah has asked Israeli permission to bring in more arms and armored vehicles, but Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Army Radio that arming Fatah would be “insane” because the weapons would fall into Hamas hands.
He said Israel was considering backing Fatah forces in the West Bank, but did not elaborate.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he discussed the possible deployment of a multinational force in Gaza with the Security Council on Wednesday.
“We have always asked for international forces to come to the West Bank and Gaza,” Abbas confidant Saeb Erekat told Israel’s Army Radio. But, he added, “Honestly, on the personal level, I believe that if we don’t help ourselves as Palestinians, nobody can.”