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'The Surge Was Absolutely Necessary': An Interview with Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie

Friday, Sept. 21, 2007

In his role as national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie is one of the key figures in the Iraqi government. Shortly before General David H. Petraeus presented his Iraq report to the U.S. Congress on Sept. 10, reporter Urs Gehriger of the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche met with Rubaie at his home in Baghdad. In a 90-minute interview, the British-trained neurologist spoke about progress in Iraq, continuing challenges, and the consequences of a withdrawal of American troops. World Politics Review presents this wide-ranging interview for the first time in English.


Next week will be a crucial moment for Iraq. General Petraeus will be providing the Congress in Washington an assessment of the effects of the "surge." What will his report look like?

The general trend will be positive. In military terms, the progress is palpable. Thanks to the additional 30,000 troops, the security situation of the population has improved in the last few months in many parts of the country. There is also positive news concerning the economy. A lot of money that we have taken in as revenue has not yet been spent. Purchasing power has increased. But we are still facing major challenges.

Your government is the target of harsh criticisms. The De-Baathification Law has yet to be modified and the plan for the distribution of oil revenues is constantly being put off. What is holding things up?

I think it has to do with fear. Every part of Iraqi society has justifiable fears about the uncertainty that any possible change represents for it. People have built up psychological barriers.

But you also bear responsibility. Iraqi security forces are evidently not fulfilling the demands made by the U.S.A.

Let's look back at how things were three years ago. In June 2004, we had no army, no police force, no border controls. Now we have ten divisions, 250,000 soldiers, and the same number of police. This has happened quickly. It is to be expected that the process has not been without problems. We recruit, train, and arm our troops, while terrorists are attacking us and neighboring countries are plotting against us. It is as if one had to tie one's shoes while constantly being shot at. One of the most important problems is the infiltration of our security forces by terrorists and religious militias. An additional problem is the composition of the troops. Some divisions are exclusively Kurdish, others exclusively Shia. We have to find a balance between the different groups also in the military.

When will you have gotten there? When will the Iraqi troops be capable of controlling the country themselves, so that the U.S. troops can begin the withdrawal?

Thanks to the "surge," we have made important progress. The number of terrorist attacks fell significantly, the number of terrorists captured or killed increased, we have discovered more weapons caches than ever before. We are doing this hand in hand with American troops. We cannot yet do it alone. We will still need their help for some time.

Where is the situation the most difficult?

Since we destroyed the al-Qaida bases in Anbar province and in Baghdad, it has shifted its activities to the suburbs of the capital and to Baqubah. But even there, al-Qaida is on the defensive. I believe that Qaida is now moving north, to the provinces of Kirkuk and Nineveh. We will follow them there and destroy them.

Hunting down terrorists is one thing, but to deprive them of their basis, the U.S. troops and the Iraqi security forces have to win the support of the population. How do you want to achieve this?

Two ways: through the participation of Sunnis in the government and through economic aid. We have to pump money into their home provinces, to build up the economy and to create jobs. People have to see that they have a future. Then they will be with us. Iraqi society has a strong middle class, which is very civilized and educated. The radical positions of al-Qaida - on the place of women, their prohibitions of music and dance, and so on - are not compatible with the open worldview of Iraqis. The ideology of al-Qaida may be able to take hold in Afghanistan, where parts of society are still trapped in ancient traditions. But here the brutality of al-Qaida is only making it enemies. To win over the people to our side, we have first and foremost to guarantee them security. To achieve this, one needs military muscle. The "surge," building up the number of U.S. troops to 160,000, was absolutely necessary.

You speak above all about al-Qaida. But al-Qaida only represents a small, if disproportionately violent, part of the insurgents. What about the other groups?

There is nothing to discuss with al-Qaida fighters: either they kill you or you kill them. It is different with the nationalists, former Baathists, etc. Many of the latter took up arms out of frustration and wounded pride. We can deal with them by integrating them into the political process and by offering economic incentives.

That all sounds simple. Are there reasons for you to be so confident?

First: the growing cooperation of the Sunni tribes with our security forces. They are tired of being terrorized by religious fanatics. Second: the announcement a few days ago by Muqtada al-Sadr that his militia would not undertake any attacks for the next six months.

The announcement must seem to you like a gift from Heaven. What moved Sadr to make it?

[Laughs] It must have been God.

Sadr has the reputation of being a notorious agitator. Can one trust his "peace offensive"?

It is hard to say. But it is a very important step. If he puts it into practice, the violence in the Shia South will fall considerably. We in the Iraqi government are more than ready to help the announcement to be put into practice. We will reward those who swear off violence with economic aid. We will help the Mahdi militia to transform itself into a political force. Do not forget one thing: there is a fundamental difference between the Mahdi Army and the Sunni insurgents. The Sadrites profited from the overthrow of Saddam and they have an interest in the political process. They recognize the process. They were part of the government. It is true that they left the government a while ago, but we would welcome them again.

Sadr's announcement could be tactical. He appears to have lost some of his authority among his fighters. He could attempt to use the pause in order to rearm for a new battle later on.

I am willing to give him a chance.

What role does the Grand Ayatollah Sistani play for the security of the country? For a long time he was described as a key figure among the Shia, but recently one hears less about him. Are you in regular contact with him?

The telephone rang five minutes ago. You remember? That was Sistani. He wanted to know what happened during the recent unrest in Karbala and what we are doing about it. [Shortly before the date of the interview, dozens were killed in clashes involving Sadr's Mahdi Army and the security personnel of a pilgrimage site in the holy city of Karbala.] Sistani is respected by all the Shia and he has very moderate views. He does not harbor any distrust toward the Sunni. In light of his Iranian background, it might seem ironic, but I would describe him as a great Iraqi nationalist. He knows every footnote in the history of Iraq. He loves this country. And he senses his responsibility as the country's most important religious leader. He asks himself: What will people think about me in a hundred years? Will they think that I did enough for the unity of the country?

There are many reports about the subversive role of Iran in Iraq. How do you assess Tehran's potential to cause trouble?

The Iranians could play a constructive and important role, but unfortunately they often do the opposite. Their interference in matters pertaining to our security is well documented and dangerous. To arm Shia militias is playing with fire.

What are the Iranians aiming to achieve in doing that?

They are trying to create a certain level of controlled instability, so that the USA permanently gets a bloody nose in Iraq. Iran wants to be recognized as a strategic power in the Middle East: as a country that one cannot simply pass over. Iran can be very destructive when it wants to be.

What would it mean for Iraq if Iran should succeed in building an atom bomb?

We are concerned, of course, about Iran's nuclear program. It would represent a threat to our national security. The confrontation between the USA and Iran is problematic. I tell you: if the confrontation escalates, the Iranians will succeed. Iran, Iraq and all of the neighboring countries urgently need new energy resources. That's why we are making the following proposal: the whole region should cooperate in a joint nuclear program overseen by international organizations.

Next Page: Only Iraqis can dictate who should govern Iraq . . .

Back to the political crisis in Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki is the object of harsh criticisms. Numerous Western politicians -- in particular, the Democrats in the U.S.A. -- are demanding his resignation.

Nobody in Washington or anywhere else in the world can dictate who should govern Iraq. Only the 275 elected representatives in our parliament can decide that. It is often people who have never been here who are happy to interfere in our politics. They have no knowledge of our country, of the local realities. They are not conscious of the sort of difficulties with which we are confronted after such a brutal dictatorship.

In a recent joint report, even the U.S. intelligence agencies expressed considerable doubt about whether Maliki will be capable of resolving the religious conflicts in the country and reconciling the antagonistic groups.

Have a look at the eighteen goals that we are supposed to fulfill in order to make a positive impression in the Petraeus Report. All the areas are judged according to quantifiable criteria. But national reconciliation cannot be quantified. Many American critics of the Maliki government are addressing their domestic public. There is an election campaign underway in the USA. The politicians want to bring home the troops. But what happens then? The entire region will suffer as consequence. Shia and Sunni will be fighting one another everywhere. There are Shia in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, in the United Arab Emirates, in Syria, Lebanon - everywhere. This would have a direct effect on the oil market. Europe would be the first to feel the repercussions, soon thereafter the USA as well. The future of Iraq is directly linked to the security of the West. Politicians are fixated on their domestic clientele. But I would like to see the politician who would cold-bloodedly accept that Iraq becomes a staging area for al-Qaida.

The critics charge you and the U.S. administration with having precisely created such a breeding ground for al-Qaida by virtue of the invasion. Would you still today support the war?

The overthrow of Saddam you mean? Yes, absolutely. I can say to you honestly that I would do it exactly the same way. There was no other way to get rid of Saddam other than by military force. Only American troops could do it. People appear to have quickly forgotten just who Saddam was. He was a scoundrel, a tyrant, a mafia boss and a butcher. He was a threat for the whole region. But after the overthrow of Saddam, on other hand, I would have done certain things differently. The first hundred days of laisser-faire were disastrous.

The country is still suffering today from the consequences of the radical De-Baathification. Was it right so radically to exclude Saddam's helpers and party comrades from power and official positions?

What would you say if a couple of Nazis were included in the government in Germany after the war? Just two, three ministers, let's say. A couple of Nazis here, a couple there. Please! That is no way to make a new beginning.

But one cannot either systematically deprive millions of party members of any future. That creates frustration and fills the ranks of the insurgents.

It is true that the way that De-Baathification was put into practice did not work well. One went too far. That is why we are working on a modification of the law. But the principle that the ideology of Baathism and its leading representatives had to be excluded from power, that this Arab-Socialist Party had to be eradicated, that this Fascist ideology had to be destroyed - this principle was correct. Do you know what Saddam's worst crime was? It was not the murders and wars. He infected people with a virus called Baathism. Using violence and perversion, he manipulated the software in the heads of Iraqis. He robbed Iraqis of their humanity. He pushed things so far that a seven-year-old boy would denounce his father to the secret service, that a wife would betray her husband. Saddam ruined the Iraqi people and the Iraqi people are still suffering from it today. It will take decades before they have recovered.

And how does one treat the problem?

How does one treat schizophrenia? With electroshock: with "shock and awe." That was the motto at the start of the war. But then rehabilitation is needed. One needs to give people a strong dosage of freedom, so that they gradually come back to reality.

That will take at least a generation.

With the help of our allies, we can succeed in a generation. If we are left to ourselves, we are doomed.

In the corner of your office, there is a head from a statue of Saddam. Is that a trophy or is it supposed to have therapeutic value?

I do not want to forget him. You know: I was in jail three times under Saddam, I was severely tortured, my kidneys have been damaged ever since. His severed head in my corner reminds me that all dictators end this way.

You were one of the few victims of Saddam who was able to talk with him.

I was present at his first interrogation, after he was captured in 2003 in the hole near Tikrit. I was asked to come to identify him. His answers were bizarre. When I asked him why he had invaded Kuwait, he said that the French misled him. He said that the West begrudged the fact that Iraq was a proud nation. It was a surreal meeting.

You were also there when he was hanged. What was it like: this final scene of the dictator at the break of dawn?

It was odd. The night before his execution the whole scene was enveloped in death. Everywhere: death, death, death. I was standing to his right as the noose was put around his neck. He said to me, "Doctor, are you scared?" It was as if in the very moment of his death, he wanted to transfer his fate to someone else.

In the video that was filmed that night, he seems composed. Some people even found that he died with dignity.

I saw things differently. He nearly forgot the prayer for his last rites. We had to remind him about it. In our culture, if someone forgets this prayer, he cannot expect any mercy in the beyond. His chief preoccupation seemed to be how he looked during his final appearance. He was an actor to the very last.

That he was able to be such is only thanks to the people who illegally filmed his execution on their cell phones. You yourself came in for strong criticism. It was said that you were responsible for the fact that the situation got out of hand and degenerated into a farce.

The world has yet to hear the truth about Saddam's death. I have written twenty pages on what exactly transpired. I will publish them at some point in my memoirs. But for the moment there is too much to do here.

People in the West are above all interested in this question: When will the American troops withdraw?

I expect the "surge" to produce a clear stabilization of the country in the first half of 2008. At that point, American forces can be reduced and we will take their place. At the start of 2009, the number of U.S. troops will fall under the 100,000 mark for the first time.

Urs Gehriger is a correspondent for the Swiss weekly Die Weltwoche. His interview with Mowaffak al-Rubaie first appeared in German in the September 6 edition (number 36/07) of Die Weltwoche.

Photo: Mowaffak al-Rubaie