Rebuilding Iraq: Brandeis scholar offers insight into his native land

By Max Heuer / Tribune Correspondent
Thursday, October 23, 2003

WALTHAM -- After more than 30 years away from home, Kanan Makiya was overcome with emotion as he stepped into his father's house on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad after the fall of the Hussein regime.

"It's impossible to put into words," said Makiya, the Sylvia K. Hassenfeld professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University and a member of the constitutional preparatory committee in Iraq. "It was just overwhelming."

Yesterday, Makiya brought a message of cautious optimism to a packed Sherman Function Hall at Brandeis in a richly descriptive lecture on the challenges and successes of post-war Iraq, after the jubilation of homecoming.

"I freely admit that many things have gone wrong in (postwar) Iraq," he told the audience. "But the country is not falling apart at the seams."

While at times critical of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority's unwillingness to undertake sweeping campaigns against low-level Ba'ath party remnants or fully include Iraqis sympathetic to the Coalition's mission in the reconstruction, Makiya also stressed the importance of the U.S. occupation in the short term.

"In Iraq, body politics is still in a state of infancy," he said. "Don't forget this is a population that has been denied political participation for 30 years."

This past August, Makiya was appointed to the committee in charge of advising the Iraqi Governing Council on how best to convene a convention to write Iraq's new constitution.

The committee submitted its report 10 days ago, Makiya said, and the council is due to decide on the schedule for drafting the constitution by Dec. 15.

Upon his return to Baghdad, Makiya took up residence in the house his father -- the founder of Baghdad University's architecture school -- designed.

The Ba'ath party expropriated the house in 1974, and Makiya -- who was born in Baghdad in 1949, but left Iraq in 1968 during the Ba'athist coup to study at M.I.T. -- had never had the chance to live in it.

And while he earned a degree in architecture for himself, Makiya found his calling elsewhere, as a leading Iraqi dissident and intellectual.

Author of the acclaimed "Republic of Fear," this summer was his first back home in Baghdad. Makiya first returned to northern Iraq in 1991 to document Saddam's massacre of the Kurds at the end of the Gulf War.

He is also working on a project called the Iraqi Memory Foundation, a program documenting the history of Saddam Hussein's regime and one that he hopes will someday turn into a museum for the public.

In an earlier interview with the Daily News Tribune, Makiya emphasized the urgent needs of Iraqis living day to day and outlined his vision for building a democratic Iraq.

"It's important to remember," he said, "the extent to which the state had become a paper house."

"To have a constitution unfold in a healthy manner, you can't have people who are struggling from day to day with basic problems," he said. "It's essential to get the economy up and going in order to get the constitutional process really the long-term design of the Iraqi state."

"I think the U.S. is doing its best," he said. "I think the 87 billion dollars is a step in the right direction."

Although he is part of Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslim population, Makiya spurns that title and any official association to organized opposition groups -- although he acknowledges support for the Iraqi National Congress. He prefers, instead, to be called an "independent."

"I don't like the sectarian definitions of people," he said. "I'm an Iraqi."