Dr. Mowaffak al-Rubaie is polished in manner and immaculate in appearance. Watching him make his way around The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he was recently named a Senior Statesman in Residence, it’s hard to imagine him back in the ‘70s, when as an activist he was first tortured by Iraq’s Ba’ath government and then sentenced to death in absentia.
Like other individuals who have functioned as informal interpreters of post-Saddam Iraq for a Western audience, al-Rubaie spent many years outside of his home country, returning after Hussein’s fall. Coming from a medical background, he served first on the Iraqi Governing Council, and then as national security advisor to three successive governments: the Iraqi interim government, the Iraqi transitional government, and the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki.
Polished he may be, but neither medicine nor politics suit those afraid to get their hands dirty: Al-Rubaie is clearly on intimate terms with reality, and reality, in Iraq, is often brutal. Multiple interviews with al-Rubaie last December mentioned the bust he keeps of Saddam in his living room, with a piece of the actual noose from the execution looped around the statue’s neck.
If not a disinterested analyst — his name will be on the ballot for Iraq’s Council of Representatives on April 30 — al-Rubaie is certainly frank. GlobalPost sat down with him last week to talk about some of the top questions currently confronting Iraq: the fall of Fallujah, the coming elections, the need to resolve the war in Syria, and the tension between state strength and human rights. Here were his opinions.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GlobalPost: We’re coming up on the eleventh anniversary of the invasion of Iraq this month and the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the withdrawal in June. How’s the Iraq war looking from this distance?
Dr. Mowaffak al-Rubaie: The original plan was noble: to overthrow a ruthless beast who had committed many crimes, including using chemical weapons against his own people. But what happened after the 9th of April 2003, that was another crime. I call it gross negligence.
A number of times I said “get something out of this guy.” He said “yes sir.” And then he goes and does a very bad job, because he doesn’t know anything else other than beating, for example.
The whole country was run by this man very centrally for 35 years. All Iraqis were dependent on this guy. Now you remove this guy and people did not know what to do. So the country was left in a total vacuum. No government, no economy, no food, nothing. No salaries for the millions of government employees.
Now how come this very sophisticated, very complicated country is left like this?
And what is bothering me, I’ll tell you, is that no investigation has been carried out to at least try to avoid this in the future in another country.
You mean to investigate what the US did wrong?
Exactly. Why did the US not have any post-invasion plan, nation-building plan?
Also, once Saddam was gone, in the middle of May the US went to the UN Security Council and got them to change the liberation to occupation, because they wanted to legalize their action. American troops in Iraq needed that to have a free hand, and in the international community they needed that to legalize it, to have the UN Security Council behind them. But you don’t legalize your noble good action by converting the liberation to occupation. We Iraqis look at it and say these are occupying forces, foreign forces on our soil, this is not acceptable. Even people like myself, I lived in the West for 24 years, I will not accept any occupation. That triggered the resistance.
So the vacuum attracted jihadists from all over the world: North Africa, Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. But there was also internal resistance because any Iraqi patriot found it difficult to accept the occupation.
Americans followed the recent fall of Fallujah very closely. How did that look from the Iraqi perspective?
Well, from an Iraqi perspective the whole struggle is seen as a sectarian one. So these are Sunni extremist takfiri terrorists who invaded the city, which is a religious symbol. And they got stranded there. And we [the government] have a detailed plan for how to retake the city, but probably we’ll move in after the election.
What are your personal hopes and fears for this election?
I’m personally throwing my hat in the ring for the Council of Representatives. The fears are that violence will increase before the election, and this will make some towns and cities not able to take part in the election. The worst that can happen is that we exclude Fallujah — most of the civilians in Fallujah we will try to evacuate before the election. 130,000 refugees from Fallujah are being relocated to other Anbar cities, so they can vote from wherever they are.
Or else we can go to the Supreme Court and get a ruling to say well, Fallujah inhabitants will vote two or three months later, after the general election date.
And Fallujah is not that big. It just has this significance for the Sunnis, because it’s a religious symbol for them.
This whole Syria conflict: In an ideal world how do you separate that from what’s going on in Iraq?
You cannot separate it. It is one battlefield, western Iraq and eastern Syria. There is what I call a dual carriageway, movement of arms, of men, of money. That’s why I can’t understand what the US government is doing, helping Iraq fight Al Qaeda while indirectly helping Al Qaeda fight Assad. That doesn’t make sense. They need to tally this again.
I think the United States has to come clean in Syria and engage with Assad to defeat Al Qaeda but with political concessions with Assad for a more representative order.
So the fact that there are these extremists in the rebel groups fighting against Assad, that’s the dealbreaker for you.
What more do you feel the international community could be doing?
Well, you listen to all these speakers in the symposia and the conferences. ... Nobody has a plan. Nobody has any proposal on the table. Three things: total destruction, loss of lives, and nine million refugees or internally displaced people. Yes, thank you, but what’s your plan to stop this? More of the same! If it’s more of the same, it will produce more of the same, wouldn’t it? It will continue producing destruction, loss of lives, and the refugees.
I’m proposing the following: That they engage with Assad to help him defeat Al Qaeda, but simultaneously he has to offer a political concession.
What kind of political concession?
National reconciliation, inclusion of the peaceful opposition abroad, a new government, general elections, constitution, human rights, you name it. Humanitarian aid. These are all a set of dos and don’ts. And this deal can be done through the Iranians. An Iran-US deal can be part of that deal.
Because the US has demonized Assad, they cannot deal with him. I believe they have to discuss this with Iran. Iran is a major player, and they have a great influence in Syria.
What about all the human rights violations that have occurred under Assad?
He is a criminal. He killed more Iraqis than Syrians for the past ten years. [Editor's note: GlobalPost has been unable to find numbers backing this up. Raw numbers for deaths in Iraq and in Syria, with limited breakdowns regarding circumstance, are available here and here.]
But I want to stop the killing. I want to stop the refugees.
Do you think there’s any way of forming a government in Syria that does not include Assad that is still stable enough to withstand the extremists?
I don’t think so. I honestly don’t.
So for you this is a pragmatic choice.
Yes, absolutely. I know it’s brutal, a bitter pill. But you have to be able to bite the bullet sometimes, to stop the suffering.
If it were possible to settle things in Syria, do you think…
Oh, that will have a tremendous positive impact on Iraq. Absolutely. It’s basically stopping that flow coming across the borders.
So is it fair to say that you think the best thing the international community could do for Iraq right now would be to settle the situation in Syria?
Absolutely. Well, no. Number one would be to help us with intelligence sharing, building intelligence capacity, enabling us to train our CT forces, speeding up the military acquisitions for the purpose of counter-terrorism, helping us train our human intelligence, signal intelligence, cyber intelligence, all these. But that’s one thing they could do in Iraq. Another thing to do is to speed up the process of defeating Al Qaeda in Syria.
And see, we Iraqis suffered, even before the Syrian civil war. Assad used to send us these jihadists and kill our people with car bombs. For ten years. Until three years ago. [Editor's note: The allegation that Assad's Syria was, at best, failing to halt the flow of foreign fighters over the border into Iraq and, at worst, actively supporting them, is discussed at length in Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad, written by academic David Lesch, who met multiple times with Assad between 2004 and 2007. US officials speaking publicly have generally stopped short of accusing the regime of actively aiding the fighters. The Syrian government has never publicly admitted to having supported jihadists in Iraq.]
Assad’s intelligence officers used to train, help jihadists coming from all over the world cross the border to Iraq and blow themselves up in Baghdad. Tens of thousands of my people were killed. In 2009 we were about to take Assad to the UN Security Council.
So, that’s the sort of person we are dealing with.
But we have to be brave enough to bite the bullet and stop this suffering. I know the Syrian opposition will say, “You are legitimizing him.” Well, sometimes you have to. I don’t want to legitimize this beast. He's a Ba’athist.
But you have to be pragmatic?
But you have to be pragmatic.
Speaking of which: There have been some troubling reports coming out concerning recent detentions in Iraq. There’s been a tradeoff in terms of how you create a legal system that can respond to what you’re up against while still protecting human rights. How do you balance these competing obligations?
You need to look at this human rights violation in its context, not the Western context. This is a violent country, from day one. We went through so many wars, really horrible wars, over the last 60, 70 years. So, the violence is like part and parcel of the culture of the country. So this is number one.
I’m not justifying human rights violations, but number two, there is a difference between politically motivated reporting [by human rights groups] and impartial reporting.
Number three, the government is trying to reassert the state power, because this was a lawless society ten years ago. Now, when you want a government to reassert the power of the state the people say, “No, you’re restricting my freedom.”
I’m not denying that there are people who have authoritarian tendencies. I’m not denying that there are many intelligence officers who use unconventional, brutal methods in their interrogations. I’m not denying that.
Most of the intelligence officers and interrogation officers, they use the old dirty tricks of Saddam Hussein because they were brought from that era. They come from that security apparatus. They do not know any new methods of interrogation to get the information they need.
A number of times I said “get something out of this guy.” He said “yes sir.” And then he goes and does a very bad job, because he doesn’t know anything else other than beating, for example. I’m not trying to justify what they’re doing. I feel very bad about it, when I see it. I reprimand people. We take action against some people.
But you need to strike a balance between that and “I know this man has a lot of information about the whereabouts of Al Qaeda and the jihadists and I know that if I get the information from him I’m going to stop 10 explosions in the streets of Baghdad.” So, people are under severe pressure of exacting this information, but that should not justify the use of force or coercion or duress, putting people under duress, to extract information.
You need to be, sometimes, pragmatic. We need a lot of training for our intelligence officers. That’s why we need help from our strategic allies, the United States government, to help train our people.