Meeting with Abdul Aziz al Hakim
Written from Baghdad (Wednesday 24 May 2006)
The following are notes made by William Morris during a recent visit to Iraq by a delegation of Next Century Foundation.
The bodyguard arrived. The cars swung into the drive of the guest house to take us to the meeting with His Eminence Abdul Aziz al Hakim, the man who some regard as the most powerful political figure in Iraq. Abdul Aziz is a politician first and a religious leader second. He is akin to those great figures of history who have stood in the breach for their country as warrior priests. There is something Cromwellian about this man’s reputation. He heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri for short) – and his followers are ultra-loyal and very well trained.
Abdul Aziz’ home is built almost underneath a two-level bridge over the Digla (The Tigris) close to Baghdad University. It is impressive – and impressively secure. Mr Ali al Bayati of the Iraq Embassy in London has arranged this meeting. It was for this meeting and this meeting only that we came to Baghdad. We regard this man as very important. So important that I was in some doubt as to whether we’d get to see him at all. But sure enough, his personal aide, Haitham al Husseini, had phoned to say it was fine, we were expected. And here we were, meeting the man at last.
We were greeted by Haitham, as friendly in person as on the phone, who took us and placed us in some sort of maglis with, what seemed to me to be very important people. One man seemed in charge and I assumed him to be Hakim. I started to kick into conversation mode, telling him respectfully whom, precisely we were. The man nodded sagely. Meanwhile, Ambassador Hambley was tugging at my sleeve. I broke off, confused as he leaned in to whisper, “That’s not him!”
And it sure wasn’t. At that moment the door swung open and a powerful figure dressed in sweeping black robes and an impressive black turban strode into the room, his presence dominating all before him. He had a hawk-like nose and piercing dark eyes. His composure was austere, betraying nothing.
I introduced us. Ambassador Mark Hambley asked the first question. The procedure was interesting because Abdul Aziz spoke no English and Haithem translated superbly – translated the questions that is. Ambassador Hambley is an Arabic speaker and after one translation of one answer, it was decided that Mark could translate for me later. So the answers were in Arabic. My Arabic is fine enough for if I need to ask you, “How’s your mother?” but for a heavy political discussion it leaves much to be desired.
The discussion ran as follows:
“As one of the leaders of the new Iraq, what are your leading priorities for the country aside from security?”
“We have other priorities such as ending the corruption,” said Abdul Aziz, speaking slowly and deliberately. He went on more swiftly “Also providing services: electricity, oil, fresh water, and also other issues for the people. Indeed there are issues for each ministry. In addition we must continue with the political process. Furthermore we must take care of Iraqi women and try to put them in advanced positions. Then we need to take care of the youth in Iraq. Also we will take care of the regions of Iraq which were neglected.”
“Are you satisfied that the new government will be able to move ahead in an efficient manner towards the shared goal of a reconstructed Iraq or will its progress be slowed by continuing disputes among the diverse groups in the growing coalition?”
Abdul Aziz answered carefully, emphasizing his forceful words. “This government does not represent our full ambitions, but, given the circumstances that prevail at the moment, it is the best we can possibly have.”
“What is the proper role for the US and the UK now that a new government has been installed? Should a timetable be set for the withdrawal of coalition military forces from Iraq?”
This time he paused before responding, “The proper role for the West is to support the political process and to help reach an understanding between the various factions in Iraq”
We pressed the point however. I explained that I felt that a timetable should indeed be set for allied withdrawal from Iraq. I asked Abdul Aziz point blank what he thought, repeating the question, “Forgive me but . . . should a timetable be set?”
He smiled. “Some say we are occupied by foreign forces.” The remark was left hanging in the air. Abdul Aziz continued. “Some say that these forces should withdraw immediately. That might not be appropriate. But as individuals, many of us want to see a schedule published for a phased withdrawal.”
We continued, our questions formal, “Concern has been expressed throughout the Arab World and in the West that continuing instability in Iraq is leading the country towards a break-up with the Kurds controlling the north, the Sunnis controlling the center, and the Shi’a controlling the south. How do you respond to such assertions?
He answered as formally, “We want an Iraq that functions on the basis of a consensus, on the basis of democracy, and respect for each of the groups that are a part of the country. In the past Saddam used oppressive measures to stifle those who were against him. Starting with the horrendous events in Najaf in which my brother was killed, there have been attempts to sow discord and create a social crisis here. At the moment there is a call for a federal Iraq . . . but this must be a federation that works for the interests of all Iraqis in every region of the country.”
“Iran, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have all been criticized for either their failure to support Iraq since the fall of Saddam, or have been accused of supporting the infiltration of foreign elements into the country and otherwise interfering in the internal affairs of the country. How do you view these relationships at the present time?”
“All of our neighbors (the neighboring states) have had poor relations with Iraq before the fall of Saddam. And now we want to move ahead, to develop relationships with them on the basis of regional cooperation and shared interest.”
I asked about Iran, now that Iran and the USA each seem to be drawing red lines in the sand. What did he think of this growing confrontation?
“In my view dialogue is the only way forward, the only way to resolve this problem. The two sides seem far apart but I hope the circumstances will change and dialogue be used to solve this matter.”