Middle East

Middle East

Justice and Federalism in Postwar Iraq

Shiites demonstrate for elections
Iraqi Shiites demonstrate for direct elections in Baghdad, Jan. 19, 2004 (Photo: Mauricio Lima/AFP-Getty Images).

Recently much has been said about a number of unresolved issues here in Iraq. Whether they like it or not, everyone has been pulled into the debate. All of this has poisoned the atmosphere. Arab and non-Arab newspapers and satellite channels have begun analyzing these issues according to their myriad, and often overlapping, ideologies. All of this has thrown innocent people into a dark tunnel where they cannot find a foothold.

Some whose ideas are still governed by a chauvinist devotion to the Iraqi state still present the issue of federalism in Iraq as if it were a first step toward dividing the country, and behave as if such a division had already happened. We have seen this in a number of newspapers. The Kurds call for a federal system, their own flag, army, and government. They have even added calls for projects that their leaders had not discussed in any of the conferences or meetings held before the collapse of the former regime.

It is true that the Kurds suggested a federal system that still recognized Iraq as one country and one people at the 1992 Salah al-Din conference [which led to the formation of the Iraqi National Congress]. The Iraqi opposition groups participating in the conference met to establish a unified position on the question of federalism. The outcome was that the Iraqi opposition groups voiced their respect for the Kurdish position, but deferred the question to be decided by the Iraqi people after the toppling of the dictatorial regime.

So far, nothing has changed. Over the past decade, the Iraqi opposition—the Kurds included—has continued to discuss this project. All have seen federalism as a possibility, provided the federal system maintains the unity of Iraq. They cite successful precedents from Middle Eastern and Islamic history.

The project is still under consideration; no final decisions have yet been made. We think there’s no danger in discussing the idea. We need not see it as a step toward division, as some have claimed in an oppressive, racist, and chauvinist way.

Most importantly, we must discuss the specific form of federalism we might institute....Everyone agrees some forms of federalism can be rejected out of hand, especially those based on racial or sectarian grounds. The administrative form of federalism found in many political systems in the world—in Switzerland, India, Germany, and the United States, for example—would make far more sense. We have not heard of cases in which administrative federalism broke up the countries that chose it. So we must pause before we discard the idea. The final decision on federalism in Iraq must be made by the Iraqi people.

Another topic of debate has been whether to treat the humiliated dictator [Saddam Hussein] as a prisoner of war, according to the Pentagon’s wishes, or as a war criminal, according to the Iraqi people’s wishes. This criminal tyrant’s fate will surely be settled somewhere between these two extremes. According to the principles of the international law, as set out in the Geneva Convention, the Pentagon may not decide the tyrant’s fate alone. The terrible crimes Hussein committed before the last war, too many and too heavy to mention here, blow away any proposals for what to do with Hussein.

To those who were happy that Hussein would be classified as a prisoner of war, thinking that the head of the former regime could be saved by the decision, we say that there are detailed international conventions on who can be considered a prisoner of war. There are items in international law that completely contradict the Pentagon’s decision. The dictator is a criminal. He committed many crimes against humanity before he became a warrior [that is, before the war started]. He was captured wearing a dishdasha [traditional Arab robe], rather than a military uniform. The coalition forces did not capture him in a battle. Moreover, U.S. President George W. Bush had declared that the military operations in Iraq were over long before, so those captured later are criminals who committed crimes against humanity. Hussein and his supporters can be presented to a court of law and charged with these crimes.

The trial of Hussein and his supporters is inevitable. He should be tried in Iraq because he committed the crimes in Iraq. The court should be Iraqi, on Iraqi land, and conducted by Iraqi judges, perhaps with advice from international judges who can help organize the trial so it is fair.

Finally, no one should be tricked into supporting hasty judgments and poisonous ideas. Iraqis can deal with tough situations, no matter how long they take to be resolved.