“I would like to thank the United States for liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s terror,” said the quiet man on the podium. There was a momentary, almost stunned silence, which was quickly followed by a raucous cheer from the audience. The place was Herzliya, Israel — yes, Israel — and the speaker was Mithal al-Alusi, then the director general of the Supreme National Commission for De-Baathification in Iraq.
Last September, I attended a conference on counter-terrorism in Herzliya, which drew security experts, military and law enforcement officers, policymakers and researchers from around the world. Al-Alusi’s participation — in an event taking place in Israel — was not much heralded before the conference. He seemingly slipped into the proceedings, made a plainspoken declaration devoid of any bluster and then discussed the prospect of stability in Iraq.
Al-Alusi’s words and action were both daring and significant. Here was an official from the “new” Iraq who publicly thanked the United States for liberation and dared to visit Israel openly. I excitedly called my wife back in the United States, hoping that she caught press coverage of this development.
There was not much coverage in the Western media. In fact, I had to do some digging to find an odd article or two about it later.
My wife’s reaction at the time, characteristic of her practicality, was “Does he have any family?”
Indeed, as the news reached Iraq, al-Alusi’s family had to flee from home under terrorist death threats. He was expelled from his political party (he had been a spokesman for Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress at one time) and was stripped of his government position and security protection, ostensibly for violating Iraq’s old Baathist injunction against visiting Israel. An arrest warrant soon followed. He was quietly told to leave the country or face being jailed together with Baathist murderers, meaning a certain death.
Al-Alusi was previously exiled for 27 years for working against Saddam’s tyranny, so he was not about to leave the country again precisely when it finally had a chance for freedom. He returned to Iraq, vowing not to be cowed by terrorists. Eventually, the Iraqi interim government realized the ridiculousness of the charge and quietly dropped the indictment. Still al-Alusi has remained under the terrorist gun since and has survived repeated attempts on his life, the last a grenade attack on his house just this month.
Al-Alusi was born in 1953 to an Arab Sunni family of educators in al-Anbar province of Iraq. These days, like many other Iraqis interested in having a say in shaping the nation, he is busy organizing and running a political party. The platform of his new party, the Democratic Party of Iraqi Nation (www.dpin-iraq.org), is to institute a stable government based on “a liberal constitution and free economy,” by which he means “no borders for [technical] know-how and open doors for real investment, for example, to build a modern Iraqi oil industry.” He considers a strategic alliance with the United States indispensable for Iraq.
Al-Alusi also thinks that Iraq should normalize its relationship with Israel. He told me recently “There is a need to be far away from fanatical ideas, and it’s time for Iraq to have politics based on reality.” He went on, “The reality is that Israel is a fact, and I cannot accept Iraqi politics based on Palestinian or Syrian interests.” Al-Alusi elaborates that Iraq and Israel share common strategic interests and should cooperate on economic and technical issues.
He is openly critical of some countries. He laments, “When Saddam was inflicting terror on the Iraqi people, no Arab or Islamic country supported the Iraqi people against Saddam. The reality was that these countries supported Saddam against the Iraqi people. France, Germany and Russia did the same.”
In comparison, he says, “I saw in Israel that 30 percent of Israeli citizens were of Arab origin, and that they had more rights than other Arabs in their own countries.” With Iran looming on Iraq’s eastern border, he thinks a relationship with Israel can serve as a strategic balance to “keep our new Iraq safe.” He explains, “We cannot live in 2005 and still think like in 1005. The strategic relationships [with the United States and Israel] can be a pole to protect human rights, democracy and peace.”
As Iraqis get ready to vote in a free election for the first time in at least fifty years, al-Alusi’s party is fielding a modest slate of 24 candidates. He does not expect miracles this Sunday. He says, “We started the DPIN in 3 months, with no financial or government support. The only thing we have is our vision. That means even if we win only one seat, it will be a great event.”
Even as Western media attention is fixated on terrorist attacks — real voter intimidations and disenfranchisements, not the imaginary kind we often hear about in the US media — and other negative news, there are new Iraqi politicians like al-Alusi who are working quietly but energetically to translate their ideals into practice.
I lived through the tumultuous democratization of South Korea from a military dictatorship, so I like to think thatI know something of the price of democracy firsthand. Yet, I believe that the upcoming Iraqi election will be perhaps the greatest example of a burgeoning democracy I will have witnessed.
There will be, without doubt, more violence and other difficulties ahead on the road to this noble achievement in Iraq. Al-Alusi’s son, Gamal, puts it best when he states, “It is true that we are in danger, but if this is the price for democracy and peace, it is a very low price.”
James J. Na is a senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery Institute in Seattle and runs the “Guns and Butter Blog.”