- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

Iraqi think tank

How far away can peace be if Baghdad is about to get its first public policy think tank with the launch of the Baghdad Institute (TBI) at a ceremony on Nov. 1?

Well, still some distance, perhaps, given that two of the three TBI fellows who came to visit us at our offices on Thursday still live in London, and the third reported being shot at when he last tried to drive to the Baghdad airport.

There is nothing this profession has to offer so satisfying as being a foreign correspondent, but the next best thing is to work for a newspaper in Washington and have the world come to you.

We regularly get the opportunity to sit down with senior foreign officials, opposition leaders and other international representatives to query them about developments in their countries. Such meetings contribute greatly to our understanding of the countries we write about, and hopefully help us to better inform our readers.

So it was with considerable interest that a few of us sat down on Thursday with Chairman Ahmed Shames, Sama Hadad and Yasser Alaskary of the Baghdad Institute to pepper them with questions about Iraqi politics, the coming constitutional referendum, the state of the security forces and just about anything else we could think of.

The institute’s purpose is nothing less than “to tackle the challenges facing a flowering democracy in the Middle East,” according to a short note by TBI President Salah Abdel Razaq introducing the organization.

Pointing out that the “intermeshed nature of religion and politics” makes Iraq unique among democracies, Mr. Razaq says the institute will draw upon specialists in both fields to help explain their country to the outside world.

Regular articles and reports will be published in English as well as Arabic and posted on the group’s Web site, www.baghdadinstitute.org.

Funding has still been slow to develop and our visitors acknowledged the institute’s staff have so far had to finance much of the initial work from their own pockets. But a grant from the U.S. Institute of Peace has enabled the group to conduct seminars with students around Iraq to educate them on issues associated with the new constitution.

Other issues

The three Iraqis who visited us all are Shi’ites, which may account in part for their feeling that U.S. diplomats made a mistake by offering unelected Sunnis a role in the constitution-drafting process.

“This has simply undermined the Sunnis who risked their lives to get elected and has gained nothing because they are still rejecting the constitution,” said Mrs. Hadad, who serves as the institute’s spokeswoman.

Mr. Alaskary, the media affairs director, went further, saying it is necessary “to force [the Sunnis] into the political channel. The only way forward for them should be the democratic, political way. If you give them any other option, they will take it.”

On other issues, the visitors said:

• Outside the troubled Sunni areas, the country is progressing rapidly. Najaf, a city of Shi’ite shrines, is undergoing dramatic changes, with new hotels springing up.

• Witnesses have told members of the group they had seen agents of the insurgency openly recruiting suicide bombers in the streets of Damascus, the Syrian capital.

• An early American withdrawal would be disastrous. The Shi’ite majority is still heavily outgunned by the Sunnis and would be slaughtered by the thousands unless they turned to Iran for help.

• Iran is actively seeking political influence in Baghdad but is not a source of terrorists like those crossing from Syria and Jordan. But for Iraq to fall under Iranian domination would mean an end to its incipient freedom and democracy.

• A dispute between President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is “just politics” and of little long-term importance.

• Militiamen who have taken up roles in the security forces can be expected to shift their loyalties to the state as the central government becomes stronger.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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