Where Does Iraq Go From Here?

NPR's Scott Simon talks with Feisal Istrabadi, Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations, and Anas Shallal, an Iraqi businessman and peace activist, about their reflections of the past six years of war in Iraq, and about where the country goes from here.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Today's elections are being seen as a test of the sturdiness of Iraq's democracy, six years after the U.S. invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein, just as the new administration has pledged to withdraw U.S. troops in 16 months, depending on conditions on the ground. We're joined now by two Iraqis whose lives have also enriched America. Feisal al-Istrabadi served as deputy permanent representative for Iraq at the United Nations from 2004 to 2007. His grandfather helped draft Iraq's first constitution in 1925. His family had to leave Iraq following the 1970 coup that installed the Baath Party. Ambassador Istrabadi joins us now from member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, where he is currently visiting professor at the Maurer School of Law there. Mr. Istrabadi, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. FEISAL AMIN AL-ISTRABADI (Former Iraqi Ambassador to the United Nations): My pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: And we're joined in our studios by Anas Shallal, a businessman and peace activist. Mr. Shallal's father was ambassador for the Arab League to the United States. His family too fled Iraq two years before the al-Istrabadis and could not return after Saddam Hussein seized power. Mr. Shallal runs several restaurants in Washington, D.C. and provided the catering for Cindy Sheehan's peace encampment in Crawford, Texas a few years ago. Mr. Shallal, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. ANAS SHALLAL (Iraqi Businessman): Thank you so much.

SIMON: Let me ask you each in turn, beginning with you, Mr. Ambassador, then you, Mr. Shallal. Is Iraq better off today than it was six years ago?

Mr. AL-ISTRABADI: Too soon to tell. We're better off in that we got rid of the previous regime, and but for the American intervention, Saddam Hussein and his sons and his grandchildren after him would have ruled Iraq. I'm convinced of that. The number of American blunders, however, made the road of reconstruction unnecessarily difficult. It exacerbated the tensions between Iraq's various communities and within its political class, tensions which have threatened in the past and may do so again to rip the country asunder. I think the jury is still out.

SIMON: Mr. Shallal?

Mr. SHALLAL: I think there has been, and I agree with Mr. Istrabadi, there has been so many blunders that have taken place in this invasion. So, to say, is it better off or not depends on who you ask. Everybody has lost a child or a loved one or a mother or a father. Everyone has seen injury and death firsthand. Iraq is in desperate condition as we speak and, you know, it can only get better. So, hopefully, things will start to turn around.

SIMON: Mr. Shallal, let me address this to you first. The Obama administration seems to already be saying that Iraq is yesterday's commitment. They're moving to put more forces in to Afghanistan. How do you feel about that?

Mr. SHALLAL: I think it's long overdue that U.S. troops need to depart from Iraq. I think the presence of U.S. troops and the fact that U.S. troops have overstayed their visit is problematic to Iraqis and sovereignty of Iraq. Maybe in the short run, it serves a purpose by keeping the warring factions apart from one another. But sooner or later, they're going to have to leave, and the longer the U.S. stays in place, and the longer those divisions become deeper and clearer, the more difficult it will be for the U.S. to depart and for Iraq not to fall in to a serious civil war.

SIMON: Ambassador Istrabadi?

Mr. AL-ISTRABADI: Well, this is a very difficult question. On the one hand, the United States has been inept in its presence. On the other hand, in the absence of the U.S. over the past six years there would have been complete chaos in the country, not with the country breaking up into a Shia zone, a Sunni zone and a Kurdi zone, but rather a very high probability of the country ending up looking like Somalia with warlords controlling particular geographic areas.

SIMON: Let me ask each of you this finally. Let's arbitrarily say three years from now, will Iraq be together, Mr. Istrabadi?

Mr. AL-ISTRABADI: Three, yes.

SIMON: Five?

Mr. AL-ISTRABADI: Yes.

SIMON: Mr. Shallal?

Mr. SHALLAL: Three, no. Ten, yes.

SIMON: Really?

Mr. SHALLAL: Yeah.

SIMON: The country will come apart and then decide?

Mr. SHALLAL: I think that almost inevitably it's going to happen. Once these walls that have been built come down literally, you're going to have a lot of infighting.

Mr. AL-ISTRABADI: I think that the existence of these sectarian parties, I think that their days are numbered. So, I think the Arabs of Iraq will be able to come together and hold that part of the country together. I don't think we're going to divide into a Sunnistan and a Shiastan.

SIMON: Gentlemen, thanks so much. Ambassador Feisal Istrabadi is now a visiting professor of law at Indiana University in Bloomington. Thank you, sir.

Mr. ISTRABADI: My pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: Anas Shallal, an Iraqi businessman living in Washington D.C, thank you so much.

Mr. SHALLAL: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

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