Iraqi Americans Discuss Country's Political Progress

Host Debbie Elliott checks in with four Iraqi Americans living in the Washington, D.C., area who voted in Iraq's parliamentary elections four months ago. They discuss lingering issues that continue to plague Iraq and whether they believe the turmoil there is showing any signs of ending soon.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Four months have past since Iraqis cast ballots for the country's first full-term post-Saddam parliament. But lawmakers have yet to form a coalition government. Today the acting speaker postponed Monday's planned session of Parliament to give parties more time to agree on key government posts. Just before the December elections, we spoke with four Washington, D.C. area residents of Iraqi descent who were voting. Today we check back in with them.

Bala Wahab(ph) is a Fulbright scholar studying at American University. Babylonia Marcus(ph) works for an international development company. And Yassir Shalal(ph) is a businessman. They joined me in the studio. Ali al Atar(ph), a physician, was on the phone. I asked them about the political paralysis four months after the vote. Yassir Shalal called the stalemate unfortunate.

Mr. YASSIR SHALAL (Businessman): Everybody had hopes in the most recent election that this process, this log jam, would break open and in fact there would be a mandate to govern. But these things take time. The Iraqis have not been given enough time. The process has been driven by Washington politics, not Iraqi needs.

ELLIOTT: You know, we saw the voting fall much along sectarian lines and now there is growing sectarian strife. Just about every day there are new reports. Let's get you in on the conversation from the telephone. Dr. al Atar, you are just back from Baghdad. Do you think Iraq is ready for democracy?

Dr. ALI AL ATAR (Physician): Iraq is ready for democracy. I think we should not be in a hurry to see that democracy unfold in Iraq, after four decades of dictatorship. And although this four-month lapse after the election, they did not form a government, I don't see that as a sickness sign. On the contrary, I see it as a very healthy one, since they are trying to work out all their differences. They came from different backgrounds politically and ethnically and sectarian-wise. Hopefully, they can finalize these issues by the end of this month.

ELLIOTT: Babylonia Marcus, what have you been hearing from your relatives in the North?

Ms. BABYLONIA MARCUS: I know from relatives there that the school systems have begun to become separated and segregated based on languages so now there are Arabic schools, Kurdish schools, Turkmen schools, and Assyrian schools. I think that the long term implications of this are tremendous in Kirkuk simply because of the power it holds for all the oil. I know it's on a smaller scale, but that may just be one manifestation of the larger national issue.

ELLIOTT: Bala Wahab, you have family in the North. You are a Kurd. I've even seen quotes from your father, who lives there. He's been quoted in the media recently as saying that now Kurdistan has a hundred small Saddams. What does he mean by that?

Mr. BALA WAHAB (Fulbright Scholar): Actually, my father did not only mean Kurdistan, he also meant all of Iraq, because now we have islands in Iraq. There's no central control. That's why we have rampant corruption. The patronage system is getting deeper and deeper, sectarianism is adding to that. Saddam Hussein used to say, I speak, Iraq speaks, and I speak, the law speaks. And that legacy is still in the mindset of our politicians. And unfortunately, we're seeing manifestations of that in the current politicians. So yes, we have a hundred Saddam Husseins in Iraq now.

Dr. AL ATAR: Debbie, if I can interject here, this is Ali al Atar. The other important thing, I believe, is economy. When we have the economy of the country and the people's interest is going to be in the financial well-being, a lot of political differences will melt and dissolve. It is all about power. Power is not only politics, power is a lot of money. And when we share that power, everybody will be happy.

ELLIOTT: You know, I have a question. We've invited you all here because you represent different religious and ethnic groups in Iraq. Obviously, you don't speak for all of the people who are like you, but we hear so much about the divisions in that country between groups, and I'm wondering, does that change at all the way you look at yourself and the way that you relate to one another here? I mean, do you consider yourself Iraqi first?

Ms. MARCUS: When I was here last time and I spoke with you, I felt very, very Iraqi. I felt 100 percent that I was ready to go to a country I've never been to. It was only a matter of weeks before I would head over there and work towards the cause, but since the situation has grown worse, I'm disappointed and I'm almost ashamed to admit that I've developed a protective disinterest in daily Iraq issues. I feel that the sheer volume of tragic news is just too much to process at this point. How many more mosque bombings can I possibly read about? How many more car bombs? After a couple of weeks of that and you see no national unity government forming, you become very disappointed. And you wonder what you can do and what your role is.

I voted. I was proud to vote. And now I feel completely useless to Iraq in this way. I don't feel effective. I don't feel as though I can even call myself an authentic Iraqi after this, hopefully, passes.

ELLIOTT: Yassir Shalal, how do you feel about your vote?

Mr. SHALAL: Well, wasted in some ways. I think we need to look at the history of this process. Number one, the governing council, which was divided directly on sectarian positions, the parties that formed afterwards, that were exactly formed on sectarian and ethnic affiliations, and the rapid process that the entire thing had to take in order for it to agree with a political agenda here in Washington.

ELLIOTT: Bala Wahab?

Mr. WAHAB: To go back and answer your question about do I feel as an Iraqi, I introduce myself as a student from Iraqi Kurdistan because I feel that I'm both Iraqi and of course I'm Kurdish.

I do feel what Babylonia has been talking about. I came to the table on the 15th of December with very high expectations and I was very proud on election day. I was dressed up in my traditional clothes. I went there. I dipped my finger in the purple ink.

And later we were invited to the White House, and I was talking to the President and thanking him for the opportunity. And I, that was the best day of the year. I mean, I remember I said, Saddam Hussein, his person is being tried in the court, but his legacy is being tried by our purple fingers.

Four months after that, I feel so frustrated. I feel that I'm being let down by the politicians, although a friend of mine said, Welcome to democracy.

ELLIOTT: Bala Wahab, Babylonia Marcus, Yassir Shalal, and Ali al Atar, thank you all for speaking with us again today.

Mr. WAHAB: Pleasure to be here.

Ms. MARCUS: Thank you so much, Debbie.

Mr. SHALAL: Thank you.

Dr. AL ATAR: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on NPR News.

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