Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
| || || Interview: Dr. Hamid al-Bayati |
UK representative of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)
Dr. Hamid al-Bayati was interviewed by Mahan Abedin at the SCIRI office in West Kensington, London on May 7, 2003.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Iranian politics, educated at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
The first question I want to ask you concerns the overall picture in Iraq right now. The country seems fractured along regional, ethnic and sectarian lines. Is this an accurate assessment?
Well everybody feels that the Americans and the British failed to keep peace and stability in Iraq. I think the fact that there was a huge amount of looting, especially of government buildings, museums and hospitals, gave the whole world the impression that the Americans are not dealing with the situation very well. Regarding fragmentation, I can assure you and everybody else that there is no intention among the Iraqi people to divide Iraq. Everybody believes we should have one united Iraq, with a united government, within its present borders. The Kurds are pressing for federalism, but federalism is not against unity, it is like the autonomy they have had for 12 years. We agreed to have federalism for the whole of Iraq, the purpose is to decentralize the country because we suffered from a very centralized dictatorship in Baghdad.
How would you describe SCIRI's relationship with other Shia factions - in particular the forces of Moqtada Sadr, who seems to command authority in Najaf and East Baghdad, and the al-Da'awa party, which, according to some reports, controls Nasiriyah?
As regards to Hezb al-Da'aw,a we have good relations with them, we've been in negotiations with them for a long time, and we don't have any problem with them whatsoever. As regards to Moqtada Sadr, he is not the head or leader of a political group, but his father had followers among the Iraqis. By killing Seyed Majid Kho'ee, acting like this undermined their credibility.
Was it Sadr's followers who killed Kho'ee in Najaf?
Well, the al-Kho'ee Foundation in London officially accused the followers of Moqtada Sadr. I cant verify their story and am not in a position to investigate what happened, but eyewitnesses accused followers of Moqtada Sadr of killing Seyed Majid. So far there is no police force to investigate. The Americans said they are a military force, not a police force, which is true, but this undermined their credibility, and also the way they are dealing with things in the streets of Iraq, they are threatening people with arms and with force.
Where in Iraq? In Najaf and Sadr City (formerly Saddam City)?
Everywhere, wherever they are, they follow the same methods, which is threatening people with arms. So far we have had no confrontation with them or with any other faction, because I think we should concentrate on the unity of Iraq.
There have been reports that SCIRI armed forces, in particular the al-Badr brigades, have been moving into Iraq, specifically the Diyala province and places like Moghdadiyeh, Ba'aghoobeh, etc. How extensive is your military involvement on the ground right now?
As far as I know the Iranian government has not allowed our forces to cross the border. However, there are Iraqis in Iran who were deported (from Iraq) over the last 20 years, Iraqis who fled the country during the Iran-Iraq war, some of them are Shia, some Sunni, some Kurds. When Saddam's regime collapsed it was natural for these people to go back. Now I don't know how many crossed the border, but officially Badr forces were prevented from crossing the border.
However, we have people inside Iraq who have been fighting the regime over the past 20 years. Before the collapse of the regime, Iraqi satellite TV showed two of our military commanders confessing that they had been carrying out military operations in Baghdad. They showed their arms with them - Katyusha missiles, Kalashnikovs, RPG7's, hand grenades, all kinds of arms - so this was good proof from Iraqi TV that we were active inside Iraq. And there are 2,000 Badr forces in Kurdistan, they have been there since 1991 and invited journalists to visit these camps several times. Last, but not least, we have been active in southern Iraq, among the tribes in the marshes, fighting the regime there, they sent brigades which we defeated. So all these forces in Iraq were armed and fighting the regime. Some mistakenly believe these people came from Iran, but as far as I know Iran has not allowed Badr forces to cross the border. If they had crossed the border they would be easily . . . [struggles to find the right word]
They would be apprehended. So you're saying that the forces linked to SCIRI that are active in Iraq are indigenous forces that have been there for a long time.
Absolutely, I have been to some of their camps several times. These people have been training inside Iraq for a long time. They have camps inside Iraq, so these people are inside Iraq. Let me tell you honestly that the only way the Americans will undermine these people is by saying they came from Iran.
Where are your bases in Iran?
We have camps in the north, center and south of Iran.
Could you be more specific?
Well, they are all over the country. We've been fighting the regime all across the borders during the Iran-Iraq war, so we have camps in different places.
And how big are these camps?
Very big! I have been to some of these camps, they are huge, with thousands of fighters.
Does the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) train Badr forces?
I have not seen any Iranians in these camps. The trainers are all Iraqis. I have met former high-ranking Sunni officers in the camps. Basically, they are Iraqi officers who defected during the Iran-Iraq war, during the uprising of 1991, they fled the country to Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Al-Hayat recently reported that Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim may be replaced as the head of SCIRI. Is this accurate?
This is speculation from the newspaper. They (SCIRI) just said that once Hakim goes back to Iraq he will concentrate on his religious duties, and the newspapers added that this will mean he will resign, but there was no official statement from the Supreme Council, or Ayatollah Hakim, that he would either resign or be replaced.
SCIRI's detractors often point to its links with Iran. Do these links undermine the movement's credibility?
There have been connections between the Iraqi and Iranian peoples for hundreds of years. There are also connections with other countries - for example, most tribes in the south are from the Arabian Peninsula, but people concentrate on the Iran connection.
The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Shahrudi, used to head SCIRI in the early 1980s, did he not?
Families are mixed, some families who are in Iraq are of Iranian origin. Mahmood Shahrudi is one of them. He is an Iraqi of Iranian origin. He was a student of the late Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr. When he came to Iran, he started working with Iraqis as an Iraqi scholar, but then he left SCIRI, and he did not become the head of the judiciary until 13 years later. So when he became the head of the judiciary in Iran, he had nothing to do with SCIRI.
Do you think your links with Iran undermine your political prospects among the Iraqi population as a whole?
Not at all! All Iraqis are scattered in different places. We have Turkoman forces in Turkey, but they are still an Iraqi Turkoman front, why do people concentrate on Iran? We have the Ba'ath party left wing, which is the Syrian Ba'ath party wing, they are based in Syria, there are groups based in Jordan, etc. We could not live in Iraq, so we had to go somewhere. When we left Iraq in 1979 and 1980, no country in the region would accept us except Iran, because they were fighting Iraq, other countries were supporting Iraq, so we had to be in Iran. But we also have good relations with Saudi Arabia - our leader visited Saudi Arabia several times and was received by King Fahd and other officials.
But none of these countries helped you, did they?
Let me come to that. We went to Kuwait several times and were received by the Emir of Kuwait. We went to Syria and were received by Hafez Assad and Bashar Assad. We went to Lebanon and were received by Emile Lahoud. Syria allowed us to act militarily against Saddam's regime. We used to have camps in Syria and were trained by the Syrian authorities. Our people were crossing the border, going to Iraq with their arms and they launched attacks against the regime.
So your people were based in eastern Syria?
Syria was one of the countries which gave us support during certain times when they had problems with the Iraqi regime. And other countries which I cannot reveal - neighbouring countries - gave us a lot of support, but because we are Shia, this makes people connect us to Iran. Maybe if we were Sunnis they would connect us to Saudi Arabia, maybe if we were nationalists they would connect us to Syria. At the end of the day I am based in London but I am not part of the British government's policy. We have people all over Europe, but they are not part of their policies. We have offices in Syria, Geneva, Paris. Our policy is to have good relations with all neighbouring countries, because these are our neighbours, so we try to maintain balanced relations with everyone in the region and the world.
Why did SCIRI boycott the talks organized by the Americans in Nasiriyah and Baghdad?
There are many organizations and independent political/religious personalities who did not attend. Al-Da'awa did not attend. Mahmoud Othman, who is an independent Kurd, did not attend. Dr. Bahr-ol-Oloom did not attend.
Basically this is an American process, this is American invitation, this is a process to elect or select an Iraqi Interim Authority (IIA), to be under Gen. [Jay] Garner's rule. We can't be part of a process or an Iraqi administration under the rule of an American general.
The reality on the ground, though, is that the Americans are in charge. How, then, do you intend to influence the evolution of the post-Ba'athist system?
We have a political process, which is run by Iraqis themselves. It started at the December 2002 London Conference, in which 400 people from 50 parties attended. They selected 65 members for a coordination committee, which met in Kurdistan and elected a six member leadership group. This group is meeting right now in Baghdad and they are calling for an Iraqi government selected by an Iraqi National Assembly, set up in Baghdad by the Iraqis themselves.
And the Americans are not hindering this process?
The Americans have their own process under Gen. Garner, through the Nasiriyah and Baghdad meetings, and they called for another meeting in 4 weeks time to put together the mechanism for selecting an Iraqi administration.
So there are parallel processes going on - an American process and an Iraqi process.
Which process will prevail?
We try to convince the Americans that they have 2 choices: either listen to the Iraqi people and respect their independence, or impose things on them. They should let Iraqis select their own National Assembly and their own government. But if they want to impose things on them, they will end up like the regime of Saddam Hussein, which means foreign rule for Iraqi people, which will be rejected by the Iraqi people.
What do you think long-term American plans entail for your country? There have been reports that America wants to establish 4 military bases in Iraq.
These reports were denied. Let me tell you what we have been told by the Americans themselves since last August. First of all, I have been involved with the Americans for the past 10 years. I have been seeing them since 1992, when I became the representative of SCIRI in the UK. I have seen them in Washington, New York, London and other places. We met Vice-president Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and other officials from the State Department, Defense Department, and National Security Council. Everybody assured us that they wanted to remove Saddam's regime, have a broad based government, and have free elections. We agreed that this is what we want in Iraq and they say that they don't want to stay in Iraq for even one day longer than necessary.
Do you believe them?
We have to take what they say. If they stay longer than needed, that presence will be rejected by the Iraqi people and they will face instability in Iraq and the region.
Recently the Americans signed a ceasefire agreement with the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization. What do you make of this ceasefire and how long do you envisage the MKO staying in Iraq?
The Iraqi opposition, in the London December 2002 meeting, issued a statement rejecting bases in Iraq for terrorist organisations. Specifically I would mention the PKK, which is a terrorist group [fighting] against Turkey, and the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, which is a terrorist organization [fighting] against Iran. We want to live in peace with neighboring countries. If we harbor any terrorist group, then that country will interfere in the internal politics of Iraq.
How long do you envisage the MKO staying in the Diyala province? After all, their Ashraf HQ (situated to the west of Diyala) is almost as big as the Gaza Strip.
The American ceasefire was a contradiction of their own policy. Their policy is that the MKO is a terrorist group - how, then, can they sign a ceasefire with a terrorist group? I think eventually the MKO will leave Iraq. I can't say when, but eventually they will leave Iraq.
Have the al-Badr, alongside the IRGC, been attacking the MKO in Diyala?
If there were revolutionary guards in Diyala, why would they need us? There were reports by the MKO that 24,000 revolutionary guards had crossed the border to attack them. If this were true then the MKO would not be here today to talk with the media, because they only have a couple of thousand people. If Iran wanted to attack them, they could have done so easily, because there has been no government in Iraq. They could have finished them. I don't believe Iran has sent even one single Revolutionary Guard because this would have given good excuses to accuse them. Regarding Badr forces, we know that MKO has been arresting people, such as Seyed Modaressi, who is a religious scholar from Karbala, he was crossing the border from Iran to return to Karbala when they (MKO) arrested him. He disappeared and they found him after 2 days. So the MKO is interfering in the security of the Iraqi people, they have a track record of attacking the Iraqis - the Kurds in the north, the Shia in the south - and they are not going to be tolerated by the Iraqis.
About the arrest of Seyed Modaressi, there are reports that Diyala province is in chaos, partly because the MKO has a strong presence in Diyala, can you tell me who is in charge of Diyala? Who is in charge of towns like Ba'aghoobeh, Moghdadiyeh and Mandali?
It is difficult to know who is in control. I know there were some people who tried to select mayors in town halls.
But that was in Kut!
Even in Diyala it was the same situation.
So Badr forces are not in control of Ba'aghoobeh and Moghdadiyeh?
They are not.
What do you make of the INC head, Dr. Ahmad Chalabi?
Dr. Chalabi is a member of the leadership council. If he is going to be selected by the Iraqi people, we will accept that. If he is going to be imposed by the Americans, this will be rejected by the Iraqi people.
What is your position on the political-religious concept of Velayat-e-Faghih? Is it merely an Iranian eccentricity or does it have any resonance with the broader Shia community?
Well, Velayat-e-Faghih is a principle for all the Shias, regardless of nationality, all the religious Shia scholars believe in Velayat-e-Faghih.
Not all of them!
Let me express my view. All of them believe in Velayat-e-Faghih. Some believe it is a limited power, while some make it a very wide power. None of them reject it. I challenge you to name even one of the Marja'a who rejects Velayat-e-Faghih!
How about the late Grand Ayatollah Kho'ee?
No Kho'ee believed in Velayat-e-Faghih. You don't know what Velayat-e-Faghih means. Velayat-e-Faghih means authority to the religious scholar, some Marja'a make it very limited to judicial matters, to "Owghaf" (religious welfare) and some people make it so wide to include politics, ruling the country.
So, based on your own interpretation of Velayat-e-Faghih, do you think the clergy should play a central role in politics, specifically Iraqi politics?
In Iraqi politics we have agreed with other opposition groups that we are going to have a government that will represent everybody. A coalition government which will include the Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomans, the Arabs and even the Christians. You can't have a government based on a religious Shia principle when you have other ethnic and religious groups, you need to have a coalition government which will include everybody and which will respect all beliefs. That is the kind of government we are going to have in Iraq.
| "We have agreed with other opposition groups that we are going to have a government that will represent everybody. A coalition government which will include the Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomans, and Christians. You can't have a government based on a religious Shia principle when you have other ethnic and religious groups." |
If I understand correctly then, the kind of Velayat-e-Faghih system that is in power in Iran is undesirable for Iraq, since Iraq lacks Iran's homogeneity?
Yes. Our position is that Iran is different to Iraq, and we should have a system that is suitable for Iraq.
So you want a broad representative political system for Iraq?
Will this system have Islamic characteristics?
We agreed at the London Conference that Islam will be the state religion. Islam is going to be one of the major sources for the laws in Iraq, but it is not going to be an Islamic state, rather a democratic state which respects Islam.
What are your views on the reform movement in Iran? Does it inspire you? For example President Khatami has been talking of constructing an Islamic Civil society for the past 6 years. Do you subscribe to these kinds of beliefs?
I think civil society does not contradict Islam. Islam is all about civil society.
How will SCIRI, as an important component of the Shia political community, structure its relations with the Sunnis of Iraq? How will you reverse centuries of minority Sunni domination in your country?
We are going to change from a dictatorship regime which opposed everybody, including the Sunnis, to a broad based government which represents everybody, including the Sunnis. We don't want to replace a Sunni government with a Shia one, or a Arab government by a Kurdish one.
Won't this entail disenfranchising the Sunnis to some extent. Iraq is after all 60% Shia, so a broad-based government in Iraq will mean some form of Shia domination, as they are the majority. Isn't some form of schism inevitable, since there are people in Iraq who wish to perpetuate minority Sunni rule?
When we come to election time, it is up to the Iraqi people to elect whoever they like, but in the transitional period we agreed, again in the London Conference, to have a sovereignty council of three people - a Shia, a Sunni and a Kurd. Because we haven't had elections yet and don't want a single head of state, we will have this council, which will act as a presidential council.
What you are describing sounds good in theory.
It is a good solution. If the Sunnis don't accept a third of the representation, then with all respect, they are biased. We give them a third of the power, even though they are less than a third of the population. The same with the Kurds. In fact, in this 3-member sovereignty council, the Shia are sacrificing - they are having a third of the power, even though they represent over half of the population.
It is surprising that there has been little of the predicted bloodshed between different sectarian groups.
Now there is no government, no police force, we have not seen any revenge shootings between the Sunni and the Shia.
Now I want to talk about the Middle East as a whole, do you think America's war on terrorism is compatible with global Shia interests, in the sense that it undermines militant Wahabbism?
I think the Americans used to have the idea that the Shias are the most terroristic group in the world. After the 9/11 attacks they realized that Wahhabism and Salafism are the most fundamentalist groups, and the Shias of Iraq have never attacked Western interests. I think the Americans are shifting their views from the Shias to the Salafis and Wahabis as the most dangerous people.
There is a website called al-Neda, affiliated to al-Qaeda, which has recently claimed that a Shia dominated Iraq will be worse than an Iraq dominated by the Jews and the Crusaders, what do you make of that?
Well, this is what I meant - Salafis consider everybody else to be infidels and deserving to be killed. The Wahabis originally believed that other Sunnis are infidels and deserve to be killed.
Do these Wahabi ideas have any resonance amongst Iraq's Sunni Arab population?
I don't think so. There is very little Wahabi/Salafi influence in Iraq. Most religious Sunnis identify with the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood).
This al-Neda, is it an American-based web site? And is it for the Salafis?
I believe so. I am not sure. I think it is al-Qaeda affiliated
Going back to America's war on terrorism, we mentioned one aspect, namely the Wahabi/Salafi dimension, but the Americans have problems with some Shias as well. For example, they are trying to rein in the Lebanese Hezbollah. What do you make of this?
The Americans and everybody in the world realise that if Hezbollah are fighting to liberate Lebanese territory, that is their right. It is the right of every organisation to liberate their country. Hezbollah also realise their limits. They have not attacked 1948 borders, they have not been attacking Israel inside her borders.
So you believe quite strongly then that the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist entity is unfair?
This is an American distinction.
It is not just the Americans who have designated Hezbollah as terrorists.
The Canadians for example.
Let me tell you if the Americans made a deal with the Mojahedin-e-Khalgh who are a terrorist group then we can't take them seriously on the terrorism issue. And we know that they have had negotiations with Hezbollah in the past.
Yes, maybe through mediators, but at the end of the day American policy is changeable, once they supported Saddam regime, then they fought the Saddam regime. Once Iran was a bad regime, then there was the containment policy and then there were all sorts of attempts to improve relations with Iran. We saw Bill Clinton talking directly with the Iranian nation and we don't rule out that one day the US will make a deal with Hezbollah.
Your analysis seems to suggest that American policy towards the Middle East is myopic and consequently it seems to indicate that they don't have the will to carry through their vision for Iraq.
I think at the end of the day as a superpower they have to be pragmatic and they try to deal with realities rather than theories.
Do you think the ouster of Saddam Hussein, and all the implications associated with the display of overwhelming American military might, improves the prospect for wider Middle East peace?
One of the things the Americans realized is that they would not be able to remove Saddam's regime without making progress in Middle East peace process. This is why they promised a Palestinian state for the first time since 1948. I think with the regime's disappearance, the Americans and the British will put more weight into solving the problems of Palestine. We might see some kind of agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Finally, under what conditions should the new Iraq recognise the State of Israel?
This is up to the Iraqi people. This is a very sensitive issue. I can't give you my opinion on that, I would rather leave it to future Iraqi government.
How about SCIRI's stance on the issue?
(shakes head ).
So SCIRI does not have an official stance on this issue?
No it does not.
 Al-Hayat (London), 5 May 2003.
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