The Washington Diplomat / July 2006
By Larry Luxner
The last time Iraq had a real ambassador in Washington, the elder George Bush was president, gasoline cost only $1.20 per gallon — and nobody had yet heard of wireless Internet, al-Qaeda or 9/11.
That was 15 years ago. In the interim, the United States has suffered a catastrophic terrorist attack, invaded Iraq, ousted Saddam Hussein and gotten itself mired in its biggest foreign-policy crisis since Vietnam. More than 2,500 American soldiers have died in the cities and deserts of Iraq, and it seems like the violence is getting worse every day.
But Samir Shakir Mahmousd Sumaida'ie, Baghdad's new no-nonsense envoy to the United States, says now is not the time to pull out.
"We realize that we are not yet ready to take on these security challenges by ourselves, especially because we're under attack by Saddamists and international terrorists who are well-trained and well-motivated," Sumaida'ie told The Washington Diplomat in an exclusive interview Jun. 15.
"We appreciate that the United States has made huge sacrifices, but we must keep in mind that if we defeat the terrorists in Iraq, we will be protecting the world, including the U.S.," he continued. "If, on the other hand, we allow a failed state in Iraq, al-Qaeda and the Saddamists would fight over control, and most probably, Iran and Turkey would find it necessary to intervene. There would be a strong possibility of regional conflict, and Iraq would become a breeding ground for terrorists. And just as terrorists visited America in 9/11, they will be sure to visit again."
Sumaida'ie, 62, is not a man who takes his job lightly.
"It is with a sense of mission that I approach my duties here," he told us. "The link between Iraq and the United States has become vital for both countries. Everybody here is interested and concerned with what goes on in Iraq, and to have an Iraqi voice here — reaching out to the American public — is of great importance."
For now, he says, "every day has its challenges. The hardest aspect of this job is managing my time. There are so many demands on my time that I'm constantly worried whether I'm getting my priorities right."
Sumaida'ie says the four-story Iraqi mission right off Dupont Circle has only four diplomats at the moment.
"That's far too small. I probably need 40," he said. "But I have eight more on the way, and we're beginning to build up our team. When I have a well-motivated team in place, then I think my task will become much more clear."
An activist opposed to Saddam's Ba'athist regime for many years, Sumaida'ie founded several political organizations and participated in many conferences, including those held by the Iraqi opposition in Beirut, Vienna and New York.
He left Iraq in 1973 to work as a consultant in Europe, then established his own business in 1978 in London and later Beijing.
After Saddam's removal in 2003, Sumaida'ie returned to Iraq and became a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. In April 2004, he was named Iraq's minister of interior, and in August of that year was appointed Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations.
Sumaida'ie assumed his current post in Washington on May 17, in a White House ceremony he's not likely to forget anytime soon.
"The process of presenting my credentials was very symbolic, in they prepared a special ceremony just for me, whereas normally they have several ambassadors at once," he said. "That highlighted the importance they place on Iraq. I convert this into access to decision-makers. The fact I was also invited by President Bush to join his cabinet at Camp David is a good indication that they want an Iraqi voice to be around. That makes my presence that much more meaningful."
Sumaida'ie says he's in a unique position to explain to Americans the dynamics of what's going on in Iraq.
"What I bring to the table is an intimate understanding of the political process. As one of the leaders of the opposition, I participated in drawing up the blueprints for the new state."
Yet he concedes that U.S. support for the war in Iraq has eroded substantially as the casualties mount.
"We've had a whole number of obstacles and setbacks, but I would argue that most of the problems we had were not a result of the intervention," he said. "Rather, they were caused by not handling the situation in the right way immediately after the start of military operations. We cannot now afford to give up, throw in the towel and walk away, because the consequences would be terrible."
On the bright side, Sumaida'ie said he cannot stress enough the sweeping changes that have overtaken Iraq since U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein.
"This is the biggest transformation for Iraq in modern history, and probably the biggest transformation for the region in history. I had the privilege of helping prepare for this transformation by working in the opposition for many years, and by being a member of the governing council," he said.
"There is an overwhelming sense that what we're doing matters profoundly for Iraq — now and for the future. We are engaged in huge battle with formidable forces arranged against us, both internally and externally. It's very much a battle of survival for Iraq as we know it."
That battle has just been made a little easier with the capture and killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a fundamentalist Muslim fanatic from Jordan responsible for inciting bloodshed between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, and for planning a series of terrorist attacks in Jordan and elsewhere.
"Al-Zarqawi symbolized a brand of extremism and brutality which is quite rare. He also symbolized hate against Shi'ites," said Sumaida'ie. "This sectarianism is alien to us, and it threatens our social cohesion and internal peace. He managed to elude so many agencies for a long time. Now he has been removed, and the message is that nobody is beyond reach. If anybody chooses the road of violence and brutality — and knowingly and intentionally goes out to murder Iraqi civilians — he'll be hunted down."
Sumaida'ie hasn't been immune to the violence either. A year ago, the son of his first cousin was killed in political violence. "More recently, I lost two other members of my extended family to terrorists and criminal elements in Baghdad," he said.
Even so, Iraq's top diplomat in Washington says he's confident his new government can get the security situation under control.
"Nothing else will move unless we do," he insisted. "And for that to happen, we need a multi-track approach. We've already started on a policy of reconciliation by releasing detainees, and by opening dialogue with some segments of the so-called resistance. Hopefully we can bring the less extreme elements of these groups into the political process so they can participate.
"The other prong is to strengthen and screen our security forces, improve the quality — not only the numbers — and get rid of infiltration by criminals. That's a major challenge and it has to be confronted."
Still another major challenge is to put the Iraqi economy back on track. At the moment, says the ambassador, the country is producing around 1.5 million barrels of petroleum a day. That number would be much higher if not for the insurgents that continually attack pipelines and sabotage refineries and other infrastructure.
"It will take a while, and a lot more blood will be spilled — but that's the surgery which is required to turn around Iraq and the Middle East," he said. "We have considerable internal threats, and we know there is a certain amount of interference from outside. We always stress to our neighbors that it is not in their interests to destabilize Iraq. If they do, they will pay the price."
That can be taken as a not-very-subtle warning to neighboring Iran, with which Iraq fought a bloody war from 1980 to 1988.
But even that's not so cut-and-dry.
"I don't consider Iran our No. 1 threat. Iran has publicly adopted a policy of supporting a new era. We visited Iran and met its leaders, and we hear very reassuring statements," according to Sumaida'ie. "Iran was the first country to recognize the interim Iraqi government ahead of anyone else. But we also believe they have a covert policy of maintaining a level of influence and destabilization in our coutnry. We always remind them that this ultimately is not in their interests."
He added: "Every country has the right to modern technology for peaceful applciations. We are against nuclear weapons in Iraq and the region, and we think the presence of any weapons of mass destruction in the region is unacceptable. We have enshrined in our constitution the principle of non-development and deployment of WMD. There is now a binding clause in our constitution to that effect, so all future governments will be bound by this."
Nevetheless, Israel's attack against Saddam's French-built Osirak nuclear exactly 25 years ago last month remains a sore spot in the Iraqi national consciousness. The attack was widely criticized at the time, even though it delayed Saddam's nuclear ambitions by years and averted an immediate threat to the Jewish state.
"Any attack on Iraq is a bad thing," Sumaida'ie told the Diplomat. "It was an assault on our country and I don't think any Iraqis would view that as a good thing."
He deflected a question on whether the new Iraqi government would consider establishing diplomatic ties with Israel in the near future, saying "that's for parliament to deal with. At the moment, we are focused on other immediate concerns like our security."
Sumaida'ie, who has no idea how long he'll be in his current post, says he has reason to be optimistic about the future, "with the formation of the new government, the pledge of support we have received from President Bush and the removal of al-Zarqawi. But we also know this is going to be a long and protracted struggle."
He also says that while the U.S. media have done a fairly good job of covering the war, not enough attention has been paid to the positive news coming out of Baghdad — a complaint often voiced by the Bush administration as well.
"Irrespective of the reasons for going into Iraq, I remain fully convinced that it was the right thing to do, both for Iraq and the United States. We have started to build democratic institutions, and despite all the challenges, Iraqis are willing to go out and vote, and exercise free choice. Take Iraqi women, for example. Nobody talks about them. Under Saddam's rule, women were oppressed, raped and murdered. Not many people know that in Iraqi detention centers, people were employed as full-time rapists," he said.
"Now, they are participating in government. Women represent one-third of the National Assembly. Women are now 55% of the Iraqi population. This fact is often overlooked and ignored. Women in Iraq represent for us a huge source of social cohesion and potential for keeping democratic Iraq on track. We are achieving momentous things for the Iraqi people. For the first time, children are learning what's happening in the world."
Yet the ambassador concedes it will take decades to overcome the political, economic and psychological ravages of Saddam Hussein's rule and the current war.
"The damage he inflicted was so deep. When he took over the country, Iraq's GDP was equivalent to that of Spain. We had $35 billion in reserves. When he was removed, we were in the red more than $300 billion," he said. "The infrastructure was destroyed and the Iraqi economy was in collapse. Our per-capita income had dropped down to almost the levels of 1920, before oil was discovered."
As for Saddam himself, "it is quite possible" he'll be executed once his trial is over — a sentence Sumaida'ie says he can easily live with.
"The death penalty is part of Iraqi law, and it is for the courts to decide," said the ambassador. "But I don't lose too much sleep over him. I am much more concerned about Saddam's victims. The law will take its course and he will have to answer for the crimes he committed."