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    Middle East
     Nov 24, 2005
Shooting stars and Iraqi dreams
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - An Iraqi friend was trying to make the best out of misfortune, saying that when electricity goes off in Baghdad, Iraqis react by smiling, saying that it is a golden opportunity for them to watch the stars glimmer in the sky above Baghdad.

This anecdote is melancholic, just like everything about Iraq: its humor, music, poetry, wars, and the look in the eyes of the people after so many years of bad leadership, corruption and war.

Some Iraqis, such as Safia al-Suhayl (40), the ambassador to Egypt, insist on defying this melancholy and look ahead with high

spirits. From where they stood under Saddam Hussein, there is nowhere left to go but up. Her story is in sharp contrast to that of another woman, Sajida al-Rishawi (35), who was apprehended earlier this month after trying to blow up a hotel in Amman, Jordan, with her husband.

An elegant and educated Iraqi Shi'ite married to a Kurd, Suhayl wants to enter the parliamentary race in December, and dreams of becoming the first woman president of her country. Ironically, her story and that of Rishawi were both born out of suffering and tragedy. They took different paths, however, with Suhayl becoming a democracy advocate and Rishawi a suicide bomber.

Suhayl, an anti-Saddam activist, was invited to Washington in February by President George W Bush to attend his state of the union speech. She made headlines there by embracing Janet Norwood, the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq. Bush acknowledged her as one of Iraq's "leading democracy and human-rights advocates" and spoke of her father, Sheikh Taleb al-Suhayl, who was killed on orders from Saddam while in exile in Beirut in April 1994.

Suhayl has many reasons to look forward to a better Iraq. With Saddam behind bars, she feels that the murder of her father has been somewhat avenged. Her political and feminist aspirations are being realized, although slowly, through greater participation of women in political life. A major setback in the minds of liberal Iraqis like Suhayl, however, is the fact that secularism, enjoyed under Saddam, has disappeared from Iraq and the new constitution gives predominance to Islamic law, which they consider unjust for Muslim women on issues such as divorce and inheritance.

Suhayl is a good example of courageous Iraqi women who insist on building a society that is more free and just for the Iraqi people. Rishawi is the exact opposite, insisting on a society that is plagued by religious fundamentalism and backwardness. In between the two women stand the rest of the Iraqi people who are uncertain of what they want Iraq to become.

The inspirational case of Suhayl can serve as an example that all is not lost in Iraq.

Reconciliation conference
The grievances of Suhayl and other Iraqis were partly addressed at a reconciliation conference held over three days this week in Cairo under the auspices of the Arab League. The conference included all parties in the Iraqi political arena, except the Ba'athists of Saddam, Sunni insurgents, and, of course, followers of al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The assembled delegates promised security, independence and reconciliation in Iraq. They also asked for a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational troops once Iraq's own military was able to take control of the country.

But such resolutions have a hollow ring to them. They will not have an influence on the political or military arena in Iraq since the "troublemakers" were not permitted to attend. In effect, the assembled politicians, all from the same group of "cooperative Iraqis" who are partners in power, were able to reconcile issues among themselves but not with those creating havoc in Iraq.

The main goal of the conference, however, was to call for another gathering in Baghdad with a broader reconciliation objective, in February or March next year. This time, the leaders of the Sunni and Shi'ite insurgency, as well as the Ba'athists, will be invited.

The fact that at the Cairo meeting a broad range of Shi'ites, Kurds and Sunnis were able to meet and issue a joint statement, after parliamentary elections had ripped them apart in January, was in itself an achievement for Iraq.

In wrapping up the conference, President Jalal Talabani called for dialogue with the insurgents. He has realized that neither fighting them nor turning a blind eye to them will not make them go away. "If those who describe themselves as the Iraqi resistance want to contact me, they are welcome," Talabani said. He said that as president, he was responsible for all Iraqis, not only the Kurds that he represents, and that he was willing to listen to everyone, "even the criminals".

Reports about contacts between the insurgency and Talabani surfaced in June with comments by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, only to be denied at the time by the Iraqi government. At a later stage, authorities said that they would talk with the rebels, but only those who would lay down their arms and those who had not killed Iraqi citizens.

Even as the leaders met in Cairo, though, a series of attacks rocked Iraq, adding pressure on Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. On November 19, an attack killed 30 Iraqis, followed by another 35 in a car bomb during a Shi'ite funeral near Baquba. A second car bomb at a crowded market in Baghdad killed another 13.

The Iranian role in post-Saddam Iraq
Iraq's ongoing problems and never-ending violence have led to calls for the resignation of Jaafari. A survey conducted in Iraq shows that 67% of Iraqis are not pleased with Jaafari's efforts in fighting terrorism and bringing security to Iraq. Another 74% view his efforts in combating corruption as futile. And 94% say that Jaafari has failed to solve the problem of electricity shortages, while 77% say he is not doing enough about unemployment.

As moves to bring Jaafari down grow, triggered by his predecessor in the premiership, Iyad Allawi, the mullahs in Tehran have become concerned. They played host to Jaafari during the years of Saddam's dictatorship and invested greatly in him, and several other Iraqi leaders, all of whom returned to positions of power after Saddam's ousting in 2003.

Significantly, Talabani went to Tehran right after the Cairo conference, becoming the first Iraqi president to do so in 40 years. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad promised Talabani full cooperation in Iraq, stressing that he wanted a united, advanced and independent Iraq to flourish.

Most non-Shi'ites, Talabani included, do not really believe him. Nor does the United States. The Iraqis and Americans have accused Iran of supporting the Shi'ite insurgency in southern Iraq, headed by the young Muqtada al-Sadr, something which is quite baseless because it is not in Iran's interests to have a turbulent Iraq now that Tehran's friends are in power. Also, if Iran were to back or finance anybody, it would be its strongman, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, and not his main rival in Shiite politics, Muqtada.

The Supreme Council for the Iraqi Revolution, headed by Hakim, was based in Iran for many years. It received money, coverage and logistic support from the mullahs there. Iran has used the group to intervene in Iraqi politics after the fall of Saddam.

They wholeheartedly backed Hakim's demand for Shi'ite autonomy in southern Iraq after the Kurds obtained it in Iraqi Kurdistan. The al-Malaf website claimed to have obtained important documents that disclose Iranian intelligence intervention in Iraq, which contradict Ahmadinejad's promises to Talabani.

The documents speak about the role played by Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Shi'ite Badr Brigade (the pro-Iran Shi'ite militia) in destabilizing Iraq and eliminating all opponents of Shi'ite autonomy in the south. Ameri is connected to the Iranian Quds Brigade and worked with the Shi'ite opposition in the early 1980s. He was forced to flee, first to Syria and then to Iran, when Saddam increased his persecution of Shi'ites. He holds an Iranian passport and his wife is Iranian.

According to the documents, several organizations, including the Badr and Quds brigades, met in Iraq in July and drafted a list of people they were to assassinate, under orders from Iran, because they opposed the Iranian project in Iraq. The list included Hazem al-Shaalan and Allawi. Two members of the constitutional assembly, Dr Megbel Sheikh Issa and Dr Kamel Obaidi, were actually assassinated on July 19 because they had lobbied against Shi'ite federation plans, claiming that if this happened, southern Iraq would become an Iranian province.

The documents also reveal another powerful figure in Iraq, an Iranian-funded Shi'ite leader, Abu Mustapha al-Sheibani. He is neither a Ba'athist nor a member of al-Qaeda. According to Time magazine, he leads a network of insurgents that is both founded and funded by Iran and whose main purpose is to carry out attacks against the Americans in Iraq.

According to the Time report, his group consists of 280 members, divided into 17 death squads. The US says that they sometimes train in Lebanon, with the help of Hezbollah, but mainly in Sadr City, a vast slum of Shi'ite inhabitants in Baghdad that is overwhelmingly loyal to Muqtada.

Regardless of all these problems, optimists like envoy Suhayl insist on having a better future.

Polish journalist Adam Michnik once wrote: "As a rule, dictatorships guarantee safe streets and terror of the doorbell. In democracy, the streets may be unsafe after dark, but the most likely visitor in the early hours will be the milkman."

That is very true in post-Saddam Iraq; there is no terror of the doorbell. Despite all the bombing, the violence of the insurgency and the ethnic divisions, someone like Suhayl is still determined to see the best in her emerging country. While many only see the darkness, she sees the stars in the skies of Baghdad.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

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