Caught In The Middle

Vice President Tareq Al Hashemi is the highest-ranking Sunni in Iraq's Shia-dominated unity government, although his party has withdrawn its cooperation. Al Hashemi has paid dearly for holding the course: two of his brothers and a sister have been assassinated, and his party is being shunned by many of the armed Sunni volunteers (known as the "Awakening" movement) who have recently helped stem the violence. Last Friday, Hashemi spoke to NEWSWEEK's Rod Nordland and Larry Kaplow in Baghdad. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How do you see this period of relative calm playing out, and what is the role of Sunni fighters paid by the Americans to help keep the peace?
HASHEMI: There is improvement in security, no doubt about that. Hopefully we can make it sustainable. We have to support the Awakening movement now; if the government does, I think there will be a genuine chance to have sustainable security.

Support them how?
We don't want to give the impression that we are deliberately trying to mislead the government or our partners in the political process [while] behind the scenes trying to encourage or develop some kind of underground militias. So we are very interested to see all those youngsters become part of the police, part of the Iraqi Army and subject to government control.

A lot of the Sunnis active in the citizens' groups have expressed hostility to existing Sunni parties like your Islamic Party of Iraq (IIP). Why is that?
This is something normal and I can't say that the IIP is the exclusive representative of Sunni Arabs. But we are the most active political party and we have to listen to our people. Some of the people are quite angry because we couldn't make our promises materialize. Unfortunately our ministers … have been deprived of the opportunity to serve their constituency.

Aren't you frustrated though that the Sunni Awakening movement seems so antagonistic, particularly in Anbar where it began, and where the Islamic Party has also been strong?
I don't want to make an issue of this at this particular time. But I think history is going to be written this way: the IIP was the first political entity in Anbar to exercise some sort of self-defense, before the tribes began to take care of that. This is just part of the burden that we have to shoulder. We knew from the beginning we had to pay a high cost for that, and my family paid a cost for that. This is just part of our belief in democracy and the new Iraq.

In Anbar, the tribal leaders are boycotting the provincial council, complaining of dominance by the IIP. They even pulled out of the council over it.
I don't know why. We gave them seats on the council; they got what they asked for. If they want to make a change, in three or four months there will be an election. They should try to make an election campaign until then. That's it. We should respect democracy.

Is there a danger that this sort of squabbling could give an opportunity to Al Qaeda to regain ground?
Definitely. They will try their best to take advantage of any division in the tribes or whoever might be in the political process. But rest assured, I'll try my best to mitigate and pacify any sort of differences. Everybody now has first to stabilize and try to fight the extremists. Everybody should work toward this goal, and be relaxed and flexible in addressing minor issues. The problem is that this region has been hijacked by Al Qaeda and other terrorists and everybody is betting on violence to sort everything out. So that psychology has to be changed.

The Maliki government seems to think it can fill the empty cabinet posts with Sunnis from outside your parties, rather than give in to your demands.
This is not going to sort out the problem. [Our Sunni coalition] is an elected political entity, others are not. We have legitimacy, others do not. They could fill the blanks but they are not going to sort out the political problem.

One of the big sticking points is the deBaathification law now being considered; it allows all but the highest former officials back into public life. Isn't that a step toward reconciliation?
It's better than the past. But the political process should be open for everybody except those people who opted for terrorism. The problem of reconciliation is a shortage of good will.

You've demanded a timetable for American withdrawal from Iraq. How soon would you like that to happen? Already, some of the 30,000 surge troops are leaving.
We should have a timetable based on clear-cut benchmarks and parameters. But I am very much concerned about a security vacuum, so reform of the Iraqi security forces is very important. The state of our security forces right now in no way is going to allow for a major withdrawal. I was in Diyala recently and I can tell you there are many pockets of resistance. When I asked why, the reply was, there are not enough troops.