WASHINGTON (Jun. 21)
For those looking to Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaida’ie for a sign that Iraq’s new government will warm up to Israel, the message might well be: Don’t hold your breath. Baghdad’s first ambassador to the United States in 15 years dismisses any such talk as preliminary. In an interview with JTA last week, Sumaida’ie said he has no contact with Israeli diplomats in Washington, and that such things are not an immediate priority for his government.
“The Palestinians have their struggles, and we have consistently supported their legitimate rights. However, right now we have our own struggle,” the newly arrived diplomat said, not uttering the word “Israel” once.
“I believe that the settlement and stabilization of the Palestinian issue will have a beneficial impact on the whole region,” he said. “So will the stabilization and prosperity of Iraq.”
That can only happen, Sumaida’ie said, if U.S. troops remain in his country for the time being.
“We realize that we are not yet ready to take on these security challenges by ourselves, especially because we’re under attack by Saddamists and international terrorists who are well-trained and well-motivated,” Sumaida’ie said in an interview at the four-story Iraqi Embassy near Dupont Circle.
“We appreciate that the United States has made huge sacrifices, but we must keep in mind that if we defeat the terrorists in Iraq, we will be protecting the world, including the U.S.,” he continued. “If, on the other hand, we allow a failed state in Iraq, Al-Qaida and the Saddamists would fight over control and, most probably, Iran and Turkey would find it necessary to intervene. There would be a strong possibility of regional conflict and Iraq would become a breeding ground for terrorists. And just as terrorists visited America on 9/11, they will be sure to visit again.”
Sumaida’ie, 62, doesn’t take his job lightly. As an activist opposed to Saddam’s Ba’athist regime for many years, Sumaida’ie founded several political organizations and participated in conferences of the Iraqi opposition in Beirut, Vienna and New York.
After Saddam’s removal in 2003, Sumaida’ie returned to Iraq and became a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. In April 2004 he was named interior minister, and in August 2004 was appointed Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Sumaida’ie, who assumed his current post May 17, concedes that U.S. support for the war in Iraq has eroded substantially as casualties mount.
“We’ve had a whole number of obstacles and setbacks, but I would argue that most of the problems we had were not a result of the intervention,” he said. “Rather, they were caused by not handling the situation in the right way immediately after the start of military operations. We cannot now afford to give up, throw in the towel and walk away, because the consequences would be terrible.”
On the bright side, Sumaida’ie said he cannot stress enough the sweeping changes that have overtaken Iraq since U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein.
“This is the biggest transformation for Iraq in modern history, and probably the biggest transformation for the region in history,” he said. “We have started to build democratic institutions, and despite all the challenges, Iraqis are willing to go out and vote and exercise free choice.”
Take the example of Iraqi women, he said.
“Under Saddam’s rule, women were oppressed, raped and murdered. Not many people know that in Iraqi detention centers, people were employed as full-time rapists,” he said. “Now women represent one-third of the National Assembly. Women are for us a huge source of social cohesion and potential for keeping democratic Iraq on track.”
At the same time, he said, “we are engaged in a huge battle with formidable forces arranged against us, both internally and externally. It’s very much a battle of survival for Iraq as we know it.”
That battle has been made a little easier recently with the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a fundamentalist from Jordan responsible for inciting bloodshed between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and for planning a series of terrorist attacks in Iraq, Jordan and elsewhere.
“Al-Zarqawi symbolized a brand of extremism and brutality which is quite rare. He also symbolized hate against Shi’ites,” Sumaida’ie said. “Now he has been removed, and the message is that nobody is beyond reach. If anybody chooses the road of violence and brutality — and knowingly and intentionally goes out to murder Iraqi civilians — he’ll be hunted down.”
A year ago, the son of Sumaida’ie’s first cousin was killed in political violence. More recently, Sumaida’ie lost two members of his extended family to terrorists and criminal elements in Baghdad, he said.
Even so, he says he’s confident the new government can get the security situation under control.
“Nothing else will move unless we do,” he insisted. “We’ve already started on a policy of reconciliation by releasing detainees and by opening dialogue with some segments of the so-called resistance. Hopefully we can bring the less extreme elements of these groups into the political process so they can participate.”
Another challenge is the economy. At the moment, Sumaida’ie said, Iraq is producing around 1.5 million barrels of petroleum a day. That number would be much higher if not for insurgent attacks on pipelines and sabotage of refineries and other infrastructure.
“It will take a while and a lot more blood will be spilled, but that’s the surgery that’s required to turn around Iraq and the Middle East,” he said. “We have considerable internal threats, and we know there is a certain amount of interference from outside. We always stress to our neighbors that it is not in their interests to destabilize Iraq. If they do, they will pay the price.”