Brahimi: I warned Sistani religious war in Iraq could last 30 years

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In the final installment of a three-part interview with Al-Hayat, former UN and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi addresses the current situation in Iraq and warns of the continuation of regional strife if all parties do not come to an agreement.

In the final installment of a three-part interview with former UN and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, it was necessary to address the worrying developments in Iraq, for a number of reasons. First, Brahimi warned early on of the possibility of the conflict in Syria moving beyond its borders. Second, Brahimi knows the [Iraq] file, as he was commissioned by the United Nations in 2004 to help the Iraqis form a government that would reclaim sovereignty from the US occupation.

Here is the text of the third and final part of the interview:

Al-Hayat:  How do you feel when you hear that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has seized large sections of Iraq?

Brahimi:  A person is overcome with many feelings when he learns of a development of this kind. Unfortunately this occurred, and I had warned that what is happening in Syria would be difficult to contain within its territory in the event that it continued. A conflict of this kind cannot be locked within Syria's borders. I said frankly that this conflict could [expand] and cross the border.

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The second matter involves the questions such a development raises. There are those who say that fighters came from Syria and took control of Mosul, which is the second [largest] city in Iraq. How did the city fall into their hands? And can a city of this size fall to militants that infiltrated from a neighboring country? The second [largest] city in one of the most important Arab countries fell suddenly into the hands of a group, as if they had come on a tourist trip! The situation raises many questions, including: Could the city have fallen to 1,000 or 2,000 fighters without them receiving support or sympathy [from residents], and without the atmosphere being tense to the extent that [they received] assistance or facilitation? I wish that the situation would be dealt with based on answers to the questions it raises. 

Al-Hayat:  Do you think it was occupied by those who came from Syria? 

Brahimi:  No, certainly not. Others played a role. The question is: Why did [residents] cooperate to remove the city from the authority of the central government? It is necessary to recognize the truth of the problem, to facilitate a search for a solution. Ever since the beginning of my mission in Syria, I have called for dealing with the conflict there with seriousness, given its overlap with the regional situation. Remember that I said the situation in Syria is bad and will get worse. This feeling is that Syria will not break apart on its own, but many others could break apart [as a result of the situation in Syria]. The danger harming Syria could affect the neighborhood, and perhaps even [countries] far afield.

Al-Hayat:  Where is the Iraqi situation heading, noting that you were an envoy of the UN secretary-general in this country in 2004?

Brahimi:  I was in the United Nations, and despite work restraints I publicly condemned the US invasion of Iraq. The Americans went to the UN and protested against my position, and at that time I was working in Afghanistan.

I agreed to head to Baghdad in early 2004, because Paul Bremer [then leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority of Iraq] and members of the authority went to New York. They said: "We came to New York in July 2003 and requested that the UN Security Council recognize the US as the occupying power in Iraq, and this was done. Now we have changed our opinion, and we want to return sovereignty to Iraq." It was impossible for the UN to refuse to help to return sovereignty, and I as well couldn't refuse a mission with such a task, despite my opposition to the invasion and everything that happened after it. I went [to Iraq] as a representative of the UN secretary-general in order to help with the formation of an Iraqi government that would restore sovereignty. On this basis, the government of [former Prime Minister] Ayad Allawi was formed. 

I received a lot of criticism. There were those who said: "Why did he come to work with the Americans?" In fact, before I made a decision I asked many people from Iraq and elsewhere their opinion, and only one or two advised me to reject the mission. There was one person who thought I would have the freedom to form the government I wanted, to that extent that he suggested a name to me. When I asked about the name, I found out that he was in charge of the nuclear program under Saddam Hussein [laughing]. 

This type of situation can lead to all kinds of scenarios and fantasies. In any case, the government that was formed was better than its predecessor. And there are those who say that it was better than its successor.

Al-Hayat:  Do you allude to those responsible for the invasion?

Brahimi:  The invasion shattered Iraq. I don't think there were those who objected to the fall of Saddam, with the exception of a few. Yet the overthrow of Saddam [was accompanied by] the fragmentation of Iraq, the dismantling of institutions, the start of this excessive sectarianism and the practical division of the country — as is happening now — and these are all very dangerous issues for Iraq and the region. 

I heard former British Prime Minister Tony Blair say that what is happening now is not related to the invasion. How could this be so? The invasion is the "mother" of all that is happening in Iraq, whether good or bad. Everything happening now are the fruits of the invasion, including the good and the bad. 

Let's go back in time a little. Before the invasion, al-Qaeda was not present on the ground in Iraq. The invasion played the role of the magnet that attracted al-Qaeda. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other non-Iraqis came under the pretext of resisting the occupation, and they attracted, trained and recruited Iraqis. These are facts. The legitimate or illegitimate father of ISIS is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In this sense, the behavior of Blair and [former US President] George W. Bush is somewhat responsible [for what is happening]. They can't deny these facts. They have a debt to Iraq that they did not fulfill. They occupied the country and destroyed it, then said "goodbye" and left. They should at least accept the existence of moral responsibility. Of course, I do not underestimate the responsibility of the subsequent practices and policies [that came after the invasion]. I just wanted to point out that the invasion led to the collapse of the Iraqi state. 

Al-Hayat:  And what about the scene now?

Brahimi:  The fact is that northern Iraq has become semi-independent. The rest of the country is experiencing a bad situation. Eleven years after the invasion, the level of services has not returned to what it was in the days of Saddam, [even] in light of the harsh sanctions that were imposed. I said to some of my Iraqi brothers that talk about democracy in Iraq included nothing but bribery and corruption. In the past, corruption was limited to a narrow circle, democracy has widened it and spread it and [corruption] is now commonplace in the country. The only democracy that occurred was the "democracy of corruption." The sectarian conflict is very dangerous for Iraq and the region. In 2004, I pointed out this topic in a meeting with Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani. 

Al-Hayat:  What happened in your meeting with Sistani? 

Brahimi:  I told him that I was coming from Afghanistan, which has witnessed violent fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, yet the fighting had stopped. As for Pakistan, the killings were continuing, even in mosques. If Shiites and Sunnis fought in Iraq, a religious war of this kind could last 30 or 40 years and put an end to Iraq. [I asked him] to do everything he could to spare Iraq from this danger. 

Al-Hayat:  How was the meeting?

Brahimi:  It was excellent and lasted more than two hours. I sensed that he was a very well-informed man, in the sense that he does not live in isolation from events and developments. He told me: "I know you and I've read a lot about you. The last thing I read was about your meeting in London with Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and Edward Said." He added: "I've read Said's books that have been translated, and I've read Heikal's books as well." I said to him: "I will send you Heikal's latest book." He replied: "Thank you very much." Perhaps through this statement he wanted to say that he does not lock himself off from the world, that the texts he reads are not limited to the religious aspect and Shiite spirituality, but rather he is informed about what is happening in the region and causes raised [in this region]. 

Al-Hayat:  What did he say about the US invasion?

Brahimi:  Of course their position was that they were against the American invasion and would not work with the Americans. In fact, he refused to meet with any American official, or even any American envoy. A number of Iraqi mediators took on the task of transferring [information regarding] the atmosphere or ideas between him and Bremer. Their principal stance was against the invasion, but this does not negate the fact that they benefited from Saddam's overthrow and the transfer of power in Iraq. 

Al-Hayat:  But Sistani did not incite [his supporters] to fight the Americans?

Brahimi:  His stance was in opposition to the occupation, but he did not issue anything calling for fighting the Americans. 

Al-Hayat:  What was the essential point of the meeting?

Brahimi:  They had a position that returning sovereignty [to Iraq] must be done through holding elections and forming a government based on its results. I explained to him that this position meant extending the occupation for at least two years, since the situation in Iraq does not currently allow for holding fair elections. I proposed to him forming a temporary government. He accepted [my proposal], while in the past he had rejected American statements calling for the formation of a government. 

Al-Hayat:  Did you suggest the name of Ayad Allawi [for prime minister]?

Brahimi:  No, not at that time. I contacted him later at the start of the formation of the government. In fact, at a later stage he suggested a number of names, including Allawi. There was a lot of talk claiming that I was forced [to choose] Allawi. This is not true at all. I suggested Allawi and the Americans were surprised. 

Al-Hayat:  Did the Americans have a candidate [for prime minister]?

Brahimi:  They had several names. They refused anyone who was a hard-line Arabist, and such figures were not proposed. The Americans were surprised when I suggested Allawi, and when I informed them that Sistani did not object to him and that I had spoken to him by phone. I chose Allawi because, among the suggested names, he was known to be somewhat of an Arabist figure, and he wasn't sectarian. This was the reason. And I knew him better than I knew the others. Of course, there were other names fit for the job.

Al-Hayat:  Did you speak with Sistani about Shiite-Sunni relations?

Brahimi:  Yes, in April I made a statement warning of the danger of sliding into civil war. The British and the Americans protested, as did the Iraqis. I told them: "No one is going to wake up one morning and say: 'I will launch a civil war.'" This is not how civil wars begin. Just look at Lebanon, those who attacked the bus on April 13, 1975, did not know that they were starting a civil war.

Al-Hayat:  Did the Kurds support Allawi?

Brahimi:  They hesitated at first, then accepted.

Al-Hayat:  Did they have a candidate?

Brahimi:  I did not hear of one from them.

Al-Hayat:  And what about the Shiite forces?

Brahimi:  Each team wanted a prime minister from its ranks. Of course, I noticed from Sistani's position and actions that he was keen to not appear as though he was implementing an Iranian program or falling within this context. He was careful to avoid this suspicion or accusation. I think he succeeded in doing this at that stage. 

Al-Hayat:  How did you find his personality?

Brahimi:  I found him to be a calm, informed and first-class political person. When I pointed out to him the dangers of a Shiite-Sunni war, in the event that one erupted, I sensed that he understood the risks. He encouraged me to hold dialogue with the Sunnis and he confirmed that he would support any move that preserved the rights of everyone. 

Al-Hayat:  Did you try [to speak] with the Sunni leaders?

Brahimi:  In fact, most Sunni leaders were living in another world. There was a state of denial of what happened. They didn't want to admit that a new reality had emerged. In those days, the scene was strange. The Shiites kept acting as though they were a minority. And the Sunnis kept acting as though they were a majority. One party was late to recognize its victory, while another was late to recognize its defeat. There was a need for thinking, realizing and exchanging concessions and guarantees for the benefit of Iraq. 

Among the [wrongs] committed by Saddam Hussein against his country, was his insistence on getting rid of any other person who could have a position or opinion, especially within his own sect. He did not allow for the existence of figures who had regard or a role outside his circle, in which he was the only one. There was a vacuum among the Sunnis. One could say that there were Iraqis outside of Iraq in the days of Saddam who tried [to have to have a political role]. Adnan Pachachi is a nationalist figure who did not participate in the call for an occupation, but he dealt with the situation that emerged. There are those who refused to deal with the situation, like our friend Adib al-Jader. He could have had a prominent role, yet he said that he refused to take any position in light of the American presence. And I respect this position. 

I follow the scenes in Iraq today and I can sense the deterioration that happened. In 2004, there were multiple politicians who refused to discuss any solution that involved a distribution of quotas between Shiites and Sunnis. A number of politicians were quick to say that they were Iraqis first and foremost. This was also true of a number of Shiite politicians, but those who came with the occupation would use a language saying that they were deceived and had come today to get their rights.

Al-Hayat:  You also dealt with the Kurdish leaders?

Brahimi:  Yes, I met [Iraqi President] Jalal Talabani and [Kurdistan Region President] Massoud Barzani. The Kurds had a special situation. Prior to the invasion and under an American umbrella for several years, they established an entity for themselves in the north, in the sense that they made their own arrangements in the north and came to discuss their role in the rest of Iraq. They stated their opinion and got their rights. 

Al-Hayat:  Was your mission limited to the formation of the government?

Brahimi:  Yes, these were its limits.

Al-Hayat:  You weren't involved in the preparation of the constitution?

Brahimi:  No. My mission lasted from the end of January until the end of June. 

Al-Hayat:  Did you encounter security risks during your stay?

Brahimi:  No.

Al-Hayat:  Where did you stay?

Brahimi:  Unfortunately, I stayed in what was formerly the presidential palace yet had been converted into offices. I stayed there for security reasons. Of course you remember that the UN had a representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in the bombing from which our friend Ghassan Salameh miraculously survived. Following this crime, it was forbidden for the UN to have offices outside the security zone. 

Al-Hayat:  What does one feel when he sleeps in a palace where Saddam Hussein previously slept?

Brahimi:  The worst days of my life were those I spent at that place. They are very difficult feelings. An occupied country that is open to all kinds of dangers. Every day was difficult. Every minute was difficult. I had to work in the office and the palace was teeming with American military personnel. 

I was thinking about our miserable situation as Arabs. Rulers sometimes perpetrated all forms of [crimes] and clung to power even if their country was exposed to the risk of occupation, disintegration and civil war. Moreover, in these kinds of missions you can't forget the maltreatment and forced displacement civilians are exposed to, in addition to the depletion of resources and the destruction of institutions. 

Al-Hayat:  Did you make regional contacts to facilitate your mission?

Brahimi:  Yes, I went to Iran and met with President Mohammad Khatami, as I recall. 

Al-Hayat:  What was Iran's position?

Brahimi:  It was similar to Sistani's position, i.e., that they are against the invasion, but in fact they welcomed an act that led to getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime. They would say: "We can't support [the invasion] and we even condemn what the 'Great Satan' is doing." But, in practice, they dealt with the new reality and President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad visited the Green Zone.

Al-Hayat:  What did the Iranians want? To shorten the period of the American military presence?

Brahimi:  [Laughing] I think their demand was to hand over power in Iraq to their Shiite friends. States look out for their own interests. 

Al-Hayat:  President Hassan Rouhani said that many Iranians are ready to defend the holy sites in Iraq, and there are features of a religious war in Iraq and demands for a [semi-autonomous] Sunni region. Do you think Iraq can return to being a unified state as it was?

Brahimi:  With great sorrow we can say that the religious war already existed and did not start now. 

[This religious war] occurred in Afghanistan for some time. It continues in Pakistan. It has been happening in Iraq since late 2004, and flared up in the following three years. 

This Iranian position is not surprising. Unfortunately the conflict in the region has this character. While it is true that Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah tries to place [his party's] intervention in Syria under the banner of resistance, people do not look at it from this angle. Hezbollah's intervention in Syria increased the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria and the region, without us forgetting the role of extremists from the other camp.  

There is also talk about the fall of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the birth of new maps. I do think the matter is this simple. Of course, you cannot ignore that the Kurds are looking to build a state of their own and consider Sykes-Picot to be unfair to them. But, until now, I do not see the possibility of tearing up the maps of a number of states in order to establish this state. I don't think that borders between the states will change, even though we are currently seeing flagrant violations [of these borders] on a daily basis. I think that states will change within their current borders, i.e., internal divisions within this or that map. Syria, in the end, will organize itself in a different way, and the hope is that Iraq also will organize itself in a different way that ensures its stability. 

Al-Hayat:  Are you alluding to the formation of [semi-autonomous] regions in states mired in ethnic and sectarian strife?

Brahimi:  Not necessarily [semi-autonomous] regions, but we have to be realistic. After what happened in Syria, this country cannot go back to what it was before March 2011. 

Al-Hayat:  Are you saying that Syria will not return as it was?

Brahimi:  Yes. It's impossible for it to return [to what it was]. After all this tearing apart, destruction, killings arrests and torture, the problem cannot be solved by saying "let bygones be bygones, let's go back to the past." There must be a change, a real change. 

Al-Hayat:  After what has happened, do you think we will see in Syria regions for the Alawites, Sunnis and Kurds?

Brahimi:  I think that the people have the ability to overcome the hatred after the passage of some time. We have the experience of Lebanon. War broke out and it transformed into a confrontation between Christians and Muslims. Unfortunately, the conflict in Lebanon today is between Shiites and Sunnis. People have a great ability to overcome hatred. Moreover, throughout its history Syria has been a good example of coexistence between the parts of the "Syrian mosaic," as they say. Alawites today are in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, and their situation improved because of their presence [in these places], not because of their presence in Jabal al-Alawiyyin. When this tragedy ends, it will be the responsibility of the Syrians to determine the next formula that provides them with equality and respect for all components. 

I believe that the rift in Iraq between the Shiites and the Sunnis is larger and deeper that that between the Arabs and the Kurds. The Kurds' longstanding ambition is to have their own state.

Al-Hayat:  Does the Syrian split remind you of the Lebanese split, which the Taif Accord played a part in the attempts to end it?

Brahimi:  The difference [between the two] is very big. One of the "[hired] pens" I referred to in [a previous part of] this interview said that Brahimi's big mistake is that he is trying to repeat in Syria what he did in Lebanon [laughing]. I do not know where this silly idea came to him from. I never thought of this, even for a single day. I never though about finding another "Taif" in Syria. The situation is completely different. 

Al-Hayat:  So the idea never came to your mind?

Brahimi:  Yes, this is true. The situation is completely different. Moreover, the issue relates to a principle that I, along with others, tried to establish in the UN. There are no two similar crises. Every crisis is unique. For each crisis, a unique solution must be formulated. You can't take a successful experience in one location and implement it somewhere else. I never though of a "Syrian Taif." What was written in this regard is nonsense. 

Al-Hayat:  Iran has a prominent role in the crises you were entrusted with ending in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Have you met with the commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani?

Brahimi:  I first met him in Afghanistan. 

Al-Hayat:  And the following meetings were in Baghdad?

Brahimi:  No, in Iran.

Al-Hayat:  Why do they say he has a large role in the "Shiite crescent" or the "resistance crescent"?

Brahimi:  These labels are a topic beyond me. These statements are made by countries and intelligence agencies. I met the man and heard that his role was important, and that he had an important say in the Syrian and Iraqi files. 

Al-Hayat:  Do you not think that the tension in the region is due in part to the large role that Iran has taken for itself in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon?

Brahimi:  I always say to my American friends, "You came to the region and said to the Iranians: 'We'll get rid of your biggest enemy, Saddam Hussein.' And [the Iranians] said: 'Thank you.' Then you did this. And when they came to thank you, you said: 'There's more, we'll give you Iraq on a silver platter.' And they said to you: 'Welcome. Thank you.'"

Al-Hayat:  So you consider that the US gave Iraq to Iran on a silver platter?

Brahimi:  Yes. That's what I'm saying to the Americans. Iran has always believed that it was an important state in the region. And after this huge geostrategic change, and after Iran became the primary one with influence in Iraq and had the main say in both Iranian and Iraqi oil, Iran's tone changed. They said this in the days of Ahmadinejad and it was said by others. They said: "We aren't an important state in the region, we are the important state in the region." This means that they consider themselves to be the most important state in the region. They believe, therefore, that the affairs of the region cannot be addressed without including them. 

When the unfortunate incident occurred and the invitation that had been sent to Iran to participate in Geneva II was withdrawn, the Iranian foreign minister's response expressed Iran's view of itself and its role. He said: "Whether you invite us or not, you cannot solve the issue in Syria without us." 

Al-Hayat:  The secretary-general of the UN invited Iran, then froze this invitation. What was the reason?

Brahimi:  Yes, the invitation was extended, then withdrawn. I don't think that Ban Ki-moon bowed to pressure. He felt that the participation of Iran would mean the absence of the Syrian opposition, as well as Saudi Arabia and other countries. This meant that the conference would not take place. 

Al-Hayat:  What was the Iranian reaction?

Brahimi:  Severe disappointment. They said: "We did not ask to be invited, but to extend an invitation and then withdraw it is an uncalled-for insult. Please do not ask for our help tomorrow." Later, things calmed down. 

Al-Hayat:  The Iranians consider themselves to be the most important state in the region?

Brahimi:  Yes. Ahmadinejad said something along these lines. When the internal war in Iraq was at its peak, I said to Ali Larijani, the current head of the Iranian Shura Council: "You can't leave Iraq in this state. You, the big countries in the region — i.e., Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — can't let the country burn in this way." He responded: "You are right, but those who can help in Iraq are the ones with influence, i.e., the Americans and us."

Al-Hayat:  Do you think that Hezbollah saved Damascus from falling into the hands of the Syrian opposition?

Brahimi:  I doubt that Damascus was about to fall at any time. In 2012, the regime was subjected to severe military pressure, but I did not sense that Damascus was threatened with imminent collapse. Perhaps I'm wrong, but this is what I believe. In fact, I don't know to what degree Hezbollah's intervention was decisive in protecting Damascus. 

Al-Hayat:  Is it possible that Iran will make a decision today to prevent the fall of Nouri al-Maliki, similar to how they made a decision to prevent the fall of Assad?

Brahimi:  Once again I say that the crisis is different. I don't know the extent of their association with Maliki personally, even if it was clear that they have links with all prominent Shiite organizations and forces. 

Al-Hayat:  Going back to the Taif Accord, many people claim they played a critical role in the agreement. Who had major roles in this agreement?

Brahimi:  Of course, first the roles of Lebanese MPs must be mentioned, at the forefront the then Speaker of Parliament Hussein al-Husseini. Second, there are the negotiations with Syria, and these were essential. In fact, the person who worked desperately to secure an agreement is Prince Saud al-Faisal, who made several trips to Damascus, in addition to his role with the Lebanese. Then there is the late King Fahd bin Abdulaziz, who was very concerned with Lebanon and knew it very well. Of course, the Syrians had a role, because it was necessary to convince them [of the agreement]. Their forces were spread throughout Lebanon and they had clear influence. Late Prime Minster Rafik Hariri had a role with the MPs, as well as with Saudi Arabia and Syria. Unfortunately we were not able to convince Gen. Michel Aoun to come to Jiddah to attend the signing ceremony. I was planning to come to Beirut with Prime Minister Salim Hoss and Aoun, and for [Aoun] to personally take charge of handing over the palace to the new president elect. Unfortunately this did not happen. I did not offer him a certain share, out of respect for the role of the Lebanese in the understanding they reached among themselves. The truth is, the biggest role was played by Prince Saud. 

Al-Hayat:  Did you wish for a life other than a life of mediations and hardship, i.e., [did you want] to be president of Algeria or in some other position?

Brahimi:  I do not think this way. I did not plan to be an envoy or a mediator. I worked in Lebanon and the work was real and relatively successful. And I worked in the Arab world and had relationships in it. I didn't study the art of mediation and did not prepare myself for this role, but I'm happy with what I'm doing. 

Al-Hayat:  Do you get upset when it is said that you failed in Syria?

Brahimi:  No, not at all. It's true that I failed in Syria, and that is unfortunate. Of course the issue is not personal. In the end Syria pays the price. Did I fail personally, or did the world fail to save Syria?

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Found in: syria, sectarian, saddam hussein, lebanon, lakhdar brahimi, iraq, iran
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