Samir Sumaida'ie, Ambassador of Iraq to the United States

For a highly informative briefing on Iraqi/US relations I recommend the CSIS symposium hosted by Anthony Cordesman, with Mr. Sumaida’ie as principal speaker. There is video, audio-podcast and a PDF transcript available at the Center for Strategic and International Studies website.

If the Pelosis and Reids could squeeze into their busy schedule of despot-courting just a few minutes to meet with Iraqi leaders they might learn something.

Below I’ll quote just the ambassador’s brief remarks — there is an extensive Q&A following…

AMBASSADOR SAMIR SUMAIDAIE: Thank you very much. I’d like to thank you, Dr. Cordesman, for this introduction and thank you for arranging this meeting. I’ll go straight into my comments.

There is a heartfelt debate going on in this country about what to do about Iraq. People feel that this intervention in Iraq is not producing any successes to speak of. It’s bogged down. It’s a big drain on American resources and it’s going nowhere and are wondering when this is all coming to an end. It’s a legitimate question. It’s a legitimate worry. And we understand, of course, why Americans generally feel so disappointed and so exasperated with the situation in Iraq.

But in my many speaking engagements around the country, I find the American public – especially those with an interest in international affairs – to be quite willing to listen. They ask the right questions and when they are informed, they generally are very supportive. What I’d like to do in my brief remarks today is to put the Iraqi situation in its context – in a context that helps the American public, the American decision makers to look at it not as a problem, or not just as a problem, but also as an opportunity and see the longer-term ramifications of various decisions and policy approaches.

Iraq has not always been a problem. Everybody knows Iraq, Mesopotamia, is the birthplace of civilization. It is where most people agree the wheel was invented, the week was invented as a unit of time, beer was first brewed, the first ever law was written, the first ever library was – public library was established and the first ever cooking recipe was written. Iraq has a very long tradition and a long civilization.

And in its modern incarnation it came up as a modern state in the ‘20s of last century and myself was born into a middle-class family and my parents took care that I had a good education. People in Baghdad were very neighborly, very peaceful. Violence was far from people’s minds. People tended their gardens and looked after their own and corruption was almost unheard of. People who – when rumor was going around that someone was involved in corruption he was shunned and this is how we grew up. There was no discrimination and no prejudice as to Sunni, Shi’a, Kurd, Christian, Muslim, Jew. Many people forget that Baghdad in the ‘30s of the last century was largely a Jewish city. It was – about 25 percent to 30 percent of its population was Jewish. The first Parliament in Iraq had more Jewish members than Christian members.

So Iraq, and Baghdad in particular, was a cosmopolitan country which was coming up – coming up very well. Up until the ‘50s when the first coups d’etat – military coups took place, Iraq was a very promising country. When the Ba’athists came in 1968, Iraq had foreign reserves of $35 billion. Its GDP was on a par with Spain. Its education was working, health system was working. And it was a very promising country with people looking forward to the future. The Iraqi dinar was equivalent to 3.3 American dollars.

When finally, in 2003 – after two wars and a long period of sanctions – Saddam was removed, the economy had collapsed completely. One dollar became equal to about 3,000 Iraqi dinar. And instead of having a surplus and a reserve, Iraq was in the red to the tune of $300 (billion) or $350 billion. That is the transformation. That’s the transformation that Saddam and his misrule and his henchmen with systematic looting, systematic destruction, wreaked on the country.

But the figures belie a deeper reality of destruction – destruction in social values, destruction in social fabric. And the corruption that took root, the government institutions that became totally dysfunctional, I think it is true to say that the state, as a state, had collapsed from the inside during the period of the sanctions. And the sanctions were almost as responsible for the destruction of the state and the social fabric as the misrule and the crimes of Saddam Hussein.

So enter the United States in 2003 – maybe without sufficient thinking about how to manage the situation. Saddam – Saddam’s regime collapsed, as it was expected to, but there was period of lawlessness and a period of lack of control, which we’re still paying for until now. The police and the army were disbanded and there was absolutely no impediment to mob rule. Saddam had very thoughtfully released thousands upon thousands of hardened criminals into the streets before the Americans intervened.

So in that environment, the average person – average civilian – was really in trouble. Nevertheless, Iraqis rallied. Most Iraqis were delighted to get rid of Saddam. They were grateful for the Americans to rid them of Saddam. But they were looking forward to a better future. We’re hoping that the Americans will help them put their country together and build their institutions.

But in this vacuum, two things happened. Regional powers found an opportunity to step in establish spheres of influence. And of course, insurgents and criminals – organized crime – all kinds of bad people found an opportunity to organize themselves. And with help and support – tangible, significant help from outside, they succeeded in doing that. We must remember that Saddam experienced a failure early in his political career. And the Ba’ath party, it was – came to power in 1963 as was removed in the same year. It came to power in February, it was removed in November of the same year, only to come back in 1968. So they vowed that if ever they are removed, they would have enough resources to come back. And they set aside for many years five percent of the oil revenue as a fund to help them to come back.

Like any good, disciplined mafia, they disbursed these funds through many legitimate businesses internationally. And the equity, which in controlled by Saddam’s family and his supporters, is in the tens of billions of dollars. So they’re not exactly short of cash. Saddam, before being removed, sent his son to the central bank to load up nearly $2 billion in cash. Three truckloads were loaded up and moved out. We managed to retrieve something like $500 million – just pocket change compared to what they have.

So what the point I am making here is that we have the Saddamists with determination to come back to power and the necessary resources. They are supported, aided and abetted by regional powers who were less than pleased by the intervention of the United States and the presence of the United States’ troops next to them. And we had a vacuum which allowed all these things to get established. So we have this formidable challenge. But the Iraqi people rose up the challenge despite the onslaught, and it has been a horrendous onslaught. To date, there have been about 1,000 suicide bombers who have attacked Iraq. You tell me any country on the face of Earth which can withstand 1,000 suicide bombers going into markets, going next to schools, going wherever there is a crowd and blowing themselves up. It is remarkable how resilient the Iraqis are. And until now – yesterday there was an attack on Parliament. Today there was a meeting of defiance in the – in Parliament. People questioned whether in going to vote in the elections or going to their jobs every day – they are in every action saying to the terrorists, “We are not going to be cowed.”

I have lost many dear friends in this battle, and I don’t know any other Iraqi who has worked with me who has not. Last month, our vice-president was here and we were sitting in the Oval Office with President Bush, and I know that he had shrapnel in his – by his toe from the attack a month before to assassinate him. This is what we are going through. But I detected no weakening. I detected no change in resolve in Dr. al-Abdul Mehdi’s (sp) attitude or anybody else. Iraqis are still determined to go on. However, the extent of the damage in Iraq that has accumulated because of all these factors that I have enumerated and the viciousness and sheer scale of the onslaught upon them means that this is going to be a long-drawn battle. But this is not only a battle in Iraq by Iraqis. It’s an international battle. This is a confrontation between forces going well beyond Iraq, well beyond Iraqi borders. Most of the suicide bombers I mentioned a while ago are not Iraqi. They’re coming to us from North Africa, they’re coming to us from Yemen, from Sudan, even from Europe.

So we have been thrust into this situation by the intervention of the United States, for which we are grateful – let me make that absolutely clear. But to get after – out of it, we cannot do it on our own. Yet the debate in this country is – seems to be always framed in “When can we have the troops back? Is it next month or is it the month after?” I say that it should not be framed in these terms. I say that it should be framed in terms of this confrontation, with this international alliance of dark forces. Are we – by we, I mean here both Americans and Iraqis – and all those who believe in democracy, all those who value the values of open society – are we going to come out as defeated, or are we going to come out on top? That’s the fundamental principle that we have to keep in our minds. And we have to do – we all have to do whatever it takes to ensure that Iraq does not fall into the hands of al Qaeda or the Saddamists or an alliance of both, or an alliance between them and other extremists Islamist movement – or become dismembered between all these and between a regional power. That would be a catastrophe not only for Iraq, it would be a catastrophe for the region, it would be, I insist, a catastrophe for the United States and its long-term interests.

I believe everything that needs to be done has to be done. We Iraqis have not been sitting idle. We’ve made considerable achievements under fire. We continue to do so and we will continue to do so. Many people talk about sectarian violence and that there is a civil war. There is a war, indeed, but it’s not a civil war. It’s a war conducted – carried out by extremists on innocent civilians. Extremist Sunnis are killing innocent Shi’a. Extremist Shi’as are killing innocent Sunnis. But there is no animosity between ordinary Sunnis and Shi’as. They live quite happily together. They work quite happily together. And I – as an Iraqi, I know that in my own experience and the experience of all the Iraqis I know, there is no hatred. We are not the Balkans.

People try to Balkanize Iraq, but Iraq cannot be Balkanized. We cannot – the Iraqis don’t warm up to solutions in (inaudible) about dividing the country in order to keep it together. This would not work. We have big pockets of Shi’a communities within Sunni areas, and we have big pockets of Sunni areas within Shi’a areas. We have – in urba
n society, we have about 30 percent of mixed marriages. What do we do? Run the borders through bedrooms? It wouldn’t work. In Iraq, it would not work. So to those who are seeking simple solutions, I say forget it. We Iraqis will find our own solutions. We Iraqis will reach the accommodations that will work for us. Help us to beat off the terrorists, and help us to rebuild our institutions which were destroyed over years of misrule, sanctions and then later mismanagement. Then we will shoulder our responsibilities. We believe we can do it, but we believe we can do it only with your help. Thank you very much.

(Applause.)

1 thought on “Samir Sumaida'ie, Ambassador of Iraq to the United States

  1. May I ask Mr. Samir what did he offered , he and the others sice they overthrow Saddam until now the same situation or worst than before . Don’t they shame of themselves.

    Regards.

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