Iraqi's optimism endures: Exiled leader urges crackdown on Ba'athists

By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff, 10/23/2003

WALTHAM -- Six months in postwar Iraq haven't dulled Kanan Makiya's optimistic ambitions for democracy in his homeland.

But Makiya, the exiled dissident turned political operative, warned yesterday that Ba'athists and Islamic terrorists would destabilize an emerging Iraqi government unless the Coalition Provisional Authority starts a sweeping, "harsh" crackdown.

"The coalition has been very soft on the Ba'athists," said Makiya, who had lobbied strenuously for the US-led invasion. "We need a much tougher security policy. We need to go after Ba'ath Party cadres that have been reactivated and are using the money they robbed from banks before the war."

He also said the coalition was undermining the very Iraqi transitional body it appointed and accused it of "trashing the Governing Council the Bush administration put into place, evidently to avoid giving it real power any time soon," he said.

Without the help of Iraqi exiles and opposition figures, Makiya warned, the coalition would fail to stop the tide of terrorist and guerrilla attacks currently destabilizing reconstruction efforts.

Makiya has cut a controversial figure among policy makers and academics since authoring "Republic of Fear," an intimate look at Saddam Hussein's totalitarian state, in 1986.

Now, the Brandeis University professor has positioned himself as a central player in Iraqi politics; he serves as Iraqi National Congress president Ahmed Chalabi's delegate to the Constitutional Committee, which is laying the groundwork for a new Iraqi constitution and eventually, a fully independent government.

Yesterday, while on a brief return visit from Iraq, where he has lived since Hussein's government fell in April, Makiya met with a host of legal and constitutional experts from universities and non-government organizations.

Among them were Theodore C. Sorensen, formerly an adviser to President John F. Kennedy, and Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University.

In an interview and in prepared remarks for a speech at Brandeis, Makiya defended the progress made by the US-led occupation authority, which has rebuilt schools, appointed local city councils, and restored marshes in southern Iraq.

But he also laid out a daunting agenda for the architects of Iraq's transition to sovereignty.

Iraqis must take the helm of a dramatically intensified security effort, he said, rounding up and interrogating Ba'athists and dealing forcefully with those responsible for attacks on Iraqi police, civilians and coalition soldiers.

"The unfortunate thing is that the coalition has chosen not to work with its friends . . . who have forces and experience fighting battle," Makiya said, referring to political parties like the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi National Accord, and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which have militias and intelligence services.

Coalition forces made a "historic mistake" when the Pentagon opted not to bring armed Iraqis with them in the first wave of the invasion in March, Makiya said.

Similarly, he said, only Iraqis can effectively dispatch the "dangerous threat" posed by followers of the radical Islamist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

This month, Sadr loyalists temporarily took over a city council in a Baghdad slum and clashed violently both with rival Iraqi factions and coalition troops.

Iraqi religious leaders have demanded a popular election to choose the framers of the country's new constitution, a process coalition officials have derided as inefficient and slow, especially in a fragile political environment where voters could be manipulated or intimidated.

Although he hasn't made up his mind on the issue, Makiya warned that the coalition must make the constitution's ultimate legitimacy a top priority. Popular interest runs high; 2,500 people turned up at a recent meeting the Constitutional Committee held in Basra to solicit public comment, he said.

A hurried drafting process would be worse than none at all, Makiya said, especially in a society where respect for the rule of law crumbled during more than three decades of Ba'ath rule.

"It should not be rushed through," he said. "To reintroduce law into consciousness requires large public debate."

Living in Iraq for the first time since 1968, Makiya said the biggest surprise was learning how much the Ba'ath regime had weakened since he wrote "Republic of Fear."

"Where a person like myself perhaps got it wrong was the fragility of the state itself," Makiya said. "The terrorist state had become a criminal state."

In their final years, Makiya said, Hussein and his henchmen ran the Iraqi government like a criminal enterprise, funneling money to the military and to the regime's inner circle.

For occupation officials and Iraqis trying to design a new government, that transformation has wide-ranging ramifications, he said; instead of peeling away the influence of a totalitarian regime, the new leadership has to build a new state from "ground zero."

"Corruption has entered into all aspects of public life," he said.

*photo courtesy of Brandeis University