Regarding Iraq: Former Iraq Official Responds to Petreaus, Crocker

Gen. David Petraeus has given his assessment of the war in Iraq to both houses of Congress, recommending the pullout of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops by next July. Mishkat Al Moumin is the former Iraqi Minister of the Environment. Al Moumin offers her perspective on the Petraeus testimony.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: powerful women, health care news and some celebrity gossip. Our Magazine Mavens will dish about all. That's next.

But first, we're going to continue our coverage of this week's congressional testimony about the progress of the war in Iraq.

Yesterday, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador, David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, concluded their much-anticipated reports. They spent two days on Capitol Hill.

While General Petraeus called for the return of about a quarter of U.S. combat brigades - about 30,000 troops by next summer, a recommendation President Bush quickly embraced - the general made it clear he believes a substantial number of U.S. troops need to remain in Iraq for some time to come.

Yesterday, we looked into what that might mean for the troops and for American public opinion. But today, we want to bring you another perspective - that of a former Iraqi official.

Joining me now is Mishkat Al Moumin. She is a former minister of the environment in the interim Iraqi government. She is currently a professor of environmental science at George Mason University, and she's here with me in the studio. Welcome, professor.

Dr. MISHKAT AL MOUMIN (Environmental Science, George Mason University): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And as I mentioned, Ambassador Crocker testified about the current conditions in Iraq, and this is what he said.

Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (United States Ambassador to Iraq): Iraq is experiencing a revolution, not just regime change. It is only by understanding this that we can appreciate what is happening in Iraq and what Iraqis have achieved, as well as maintain a sense of realism about the challenges that remain.

MARTIN: So, professor, I wanted to ask, do you agree with that statement?

Dr. Al Moumin: I think, yes, I agree with it. Iraq is experiencing a revolution, a challenge, but also there is a great opportunity to build a real Democratic state in Iraq. In spite of all the violence that you are seeing now in Iraq, the truth is that the average Iraqi person does not hate the other average Iraqi person - meaning, average Sunni does not hate average Shia person.

Yet, there are group of militias, gunmen and so on and so forth - those people, they are fighting. And they are fighting not because of ethnic or sectarian belief. They are fighting because they are seeking wealth and power. They want wealth. They want power. They hide behind their ethnicity or sectarian to get that.

MARTIN: Now Ambassador Crocker says that he believes that one of the main reasons for the sectarian violence is the long rule of Saddam Hussein and his policy of oppression. And he believes that - he expressed the view that this sectarian violence is now being experienced is rooted in the oppression of that time. Do you think that that might be true?

Dr. Al Moumin: It can be true, but it's not the whole truth. It's true that Shia people were oppressed. Okay, but now the Shia political party, they are in power now. The dire situation in Iraq, when it comes to service and when it comes security, tells you that they did not deliver anything to their constituents.

Again, it's not about ethnicity. It's about wealth and power. Because Iraq is a very mixed society - Shia lives next to Sunni, there is intermarriages between the two. Kurds also lived in areas where Arab people live, and so on and so forth. You see the mass of killing because every single political party wants to have an area that is ethnically clean - either Sunni or Shia or Kurd.

MARTIN: But that would seem to belie your earlier statement, though, that this is not about the inter-group hatreds. That would seem to suggest the opposite. No?

Dr. Al Moumin: No, it's still a lot of…

MARTIN: It's still leader led?

Dr. Al Moumin: …a lot of the same - yeah.

MARTIN: This is not - you're saying that this is not grassroots public opinion. This is leader led.

Dr. Al Moumin: No. Yeah. The political elite, they are forcing it to happen because people - average person, they are not cooperating. So they have either to kill them or to force them to migrate in order for the political elite to have these ethnically clean areas, so they can put their flag on top and say this is mine.

MARTIN: Now, obviously, of great concern to Americans - and, obviously, we do want to keep the focus on the people of Iraq for this conversation. But we -but Americans are greatly concerned about the spread of al-Qaida, the resurgence of al-Qaida as a force, and Iraq as perhaps a breeding ground for al-Qaida. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker both cited as examples of success of U.S. forces in Iraq, their ability to limit al-Qaida forces. This is what Ambassador Crocker had to say about that.

Ambassador CROCKER: In Anbar, as we know, security progress has been extraordinary. Al-Qaida overplayed its hand. Recognizing that the coalition could help eject al-Qaida, the tribes began to fight with us, not against us. And the landscape in Anbar is dramatically different as a result.

MARTIN: Do you agree with that?

Dr. Al Moumin: Mm-hmm. I do. And I think, not only the American people are concerned about the al-Qaida people, the Iraqi people as well. For most Iraqi people, they are a terroristic group trying to harm and damage their society. You see them active over there, or you can notice them over there because the state is weak over there in Iraq. You do not have enough relief forces, you don't have enough security forces. That's why they are active. It's true that there is a good success al-Anbar province. And so many tribes there are starting to cooperate in order to eliminate al-Qaida people.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Mishkat Al Moumin. She is a former minister of the environment in the interim Iraqi government.

Do you believe that the administration's strategy of increasing troop levels, even temporarily, has been a success?

Dr. Al Moumin: It is a success, but I think the major challenge to you will be how you will maintain and sustain that success.

MARTIN: What is your vision for how stability and peace can best be achieved in Iraq? When we've spoken previously, you know, you've made it clear that security, of course, is the primary concern. But I think your argument is that military force is not the key to peace and stability in Iraq, and it's not even perhaps even the most important. So what is your vision for how stability can best be achieved there? And peace?

Dr. Al Moumin: I think by operating on the local level, you need to start by asking what is the smallest geographical area that you can secure in Iraq? One key element that contributes to security is public service. Do you think that Iraqi people will cooperate with you if they have no water, no electricity?

You know, when electricity go down in Iraq - and usually it goes down very often - like you have one hour of operation opposite to 23 hour of shutting down, and a climate that is hot. So young generations start to go to mosques because mosques have backup generators. And then, they get reached on becoming jihadist.

So there is a huge correlation between services and security. If you operate on the local level - meaning on a level of a village, small county - you will achieve more success because you will be able to build trust among people. So on the village level, I know who gets into my neighbor's house. I know who gets out. I know even when they eat dinner. So if I see a very strange activity taking place, I know that he's, let's say, cooperating with the insurgency.

Moreover, insurgency cannot operate on the local level, but they can operate successfully on the national level. You see them all the time sabotaging pipelines electricity because it makes the headline news.

MARTIN: Well, it's also a way to thwart the restoration of civil society, as you discussed.

Dr. Al Moumin: Yeah, but not…

MARTIN: It's a way to maintain chaos.

Dr. Al Moumin: Oh, yeah. And then, it's - but if it was, let's say, a small generator owned by local communities, they will not be able to sabotage it. And then they will not even have the ability to do so because the local people, local communities will protect it.

MARTIN: Does this suggest then that - I don't know whether this is your vision or whether this is what most Iraqis actually believe. Do you see then that - is the vision that you have of Iraq in the future one country, or as separate entities? Or do you see it sort of going the way of the former Yugoslavia, you know, small entities, kind of loosely aligned?

Dr. AL MOUNIN: No. I think you can keep it in one entity, but you can operate on a local level. Let's say if I backed up local communities in their natural habitat, am I dividing the country? It's - I'm keeping it one unit, but I'm just backing up people who will back me up down the road.

MARTIN: Do you worry about U.S. troops leaving?

Dr. AL MOUNIN: I think every person is. I think every person is, even Iraqi people, they are worrying. It will always create a vacuum of power.

MARTIN: How do reconcile that with your vision of sort of more localized governance? Do people on the local level feel that they can resist al-Qaida, resist the insurgents, resist the people who wish to, who are promoting the sectarian violence?

Dr. AL MOUNIN: You need to empower local communities. You need to help them get organized. You need to help them understand the true meaning or the true power generated from being organized. That's very, very important.

At the local level in Iraq, there is a traditional leadership - tribes and clans. But they lack funding. They lack support. They lack someone to help them get organized, and they are standing against the militias, both in the south of Iraq. Shia majority live there and, again, in al-Anbar province, where Sunni majority is - and they are sacrificing, you see, in the traditional sense of Iraq.

The head of the tribe is like a leader, and for him to see someone challenging his leader is really very, very shameful, if I may say. And people appeal to him, so if he is not able to help his own people, it will be very, very shameful.

MARTIN: Hmm. Wondered if you had been back since you left.

Dr. AL MOUNIN: Unfortunately, I didn't. Since 2005, I didn't get to a chance to go back.

MARTIN: Haven't been able to go. You're still a young woman. Do you think you'll be able to go back in your lifetime?

Dr. AL MOUNIN: I think so. Yes.

MARTIN: What gives you that hope?

Dr. AL MOUNIN: I hope that, one day, Iraq will become a stabilized country, and you will be able to see the true picture of Iraqi people - you and other American. Iraqi people are really nice people. So many traditions here are the same over there. We always welcome the guest. We always gathered around a cup of tea like you gather around cup of coffee. Friendship is very important to us. Neighbors are very important to us, as they are here. It's so important to make the foreigners or strangers feel at home, and I hope, one day, American people can see that.

MARTIN: If you were to have the opportunity to have the ear of Congress as General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker just have - have, what would your recommendation be as a way forward?

Dr. AL MOUNIN: Help Iraqi people get two things: water and education.

MARTIN: Okay. Mishkat Al Mounin is a former minister of the environment in the interim Iraqi government. She's currently a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University. She joined me here in the studio. Thank you so much.

Dr. AL MOUNIN: Thank you so much, Michel. Appreciate it.

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