The Man Who Won't Be Prime Minister

For a day or two last week, it looked like the prime minister of the Iraqi government that is scheduled to take over when the Americans transfer sovereignty on July 1 would be a soft-spoken physicist named Hussain al-Shahristani, who once headed Iraq's Atomic Energy Commission and was jailed by Saddam Hussein for refusing to help develop nuclear weapons. United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's first choice for the post, Shahristani is a respected Shiite close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani but with no political affiliation or connection with the American occupation authorities. For the last year, Shahristani has been running a relief agency in Najaf and Karbala. Opposition to him from established politicians like Iyad Allawi, head of a CIA-backed exile group Iraqi National Accord, reportedly led Shahristani to withdraw from the running last week. The present U.S.-appointed Governing Council on Friday chose Allawi, also a Shiite, to head the government. NEWSWEEK's Rod Nordland met with Shahristani on Friday in a borrowed Governing Council office. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Can you say why you turned the job down?

Hussain al-Shahristani: Realizing the delicacy of the situation, [Brahimi and I] have both agreed that perhaps I should pave the way for other alternatives with my silence.

You've said you feel a nonpolitician could best prepare credible elections.

The other alternatives [were] political figures representing their parties. This wasn't just my opinion, but also I understood from Mr. Brahimi that he had consulted many leaders in Iraq, and the general understanding was that most people, not the political parties, but most people in Iraq preferred an independent Iraqi figure who could really prepare for the elections, allowing the political parties to concentrate on developing their platforms and their election campaigns rather than be in the government where they could be accused of manipulating the elections.

Why did you oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq?

I was supporting the removal of Saddam from power but I did not think an all-out war on Iraq was the best way of doing that. I would have liked to see the Iraqi people helped to free themselves from Saddam by declaring southern Iraq as a safe haven the way the northern part of the country was. That would have sent the right signal to the Iraqi people and it would not have taken a week before the whole southern part of the country would be free. Then we would not have to face an occupying army in the country and create friction between the local population and the occupation forces.

Were you surprised at how badly the war has gone?

No, I don't think it surprises me. My deepest concern was that the U.S. would rush into a war in Iraq without doing their homework. It was clear to me at that time that Iraqis would not be welcoming foreign troops if they're going to stay in the country for any length of time and they would not appreciate being presented with new expatriate leaders who have come across the borders with these armies and presented Iraqis with a Governing Council that they did not support. I'm not blaming any particular person or authority for it but I think these mistakes have contributed to the rapid deterioration of the security situation in the country.

What were the biggest mistakes as you see it?

Failing to allow a [sovereign] interim government from the first few months to prepare for elections as soon as possible. We only started in the last few months ending occupation, appointing an interim government and preparing for elections. If this process would have started in the summer of 2003, then I think many more Iraqis would have been convinced of the good intentions of the Coalition forces. Instead, the message that was sent to the Iraqi people was that these are the new rulers, you have to accept them as they are. Also among the other errors is to use excessive force in dealing with difficult situations, in Fallujah and in Najaf and Karbala. Although the fighters in some of these areas have not necessarily been accepted and welcomed by the local population, the way the local communities in these towns were attacked and the damage inflicted on the local population have really created mistrust toward the Coalition. The only way you could really stop this deterioration is to insist on elections as soon as possible. I'm happy that the Coalition forces, the CPA and the U.N. and many other countries on the Security Council see it that way now, although it's a bit late.

If Iraqis are really in control, will that improve the security situation any?

A lot will depend if Iraqis believe the right Iraqis are in control of the situation. The American forces remaining in Iraq will be part of a multinational force mandated by the United Nations to help the sovereign government, when and where they are needed. If this can be explained to the people and if this will be the real case then I don't think the Iraqi people will find it difficult to believe and accept that.

But do you think they'll find it hard to support returning exiles as leaders?

They have witnessed these groups coming in, occupying big buildings in the capital that used to be occupied by the ex-regime, coming in long convoys, setting up protected areas, isolated from the community--this isn't how they wanted to see their brothers returning to them. It's a reaction to people acting as new rulers when they're not elected to that post.

You were in Abu Ghraib prison for 12 years. What was your reaction to pictures of American abuse of Iraqis there?

It was deeply painful to me to see some of those images because it reminded me of what Iraqis had gone through for more than three decades at the same place; these methods of torturing were used by Saddam. But I don't think the answer to this would be to demolish Abu Ghraib prison as was suggested [by President Bush], but rather to turn it into a national monument. I would like to see the names of the tens of thousands of Iraqis that were executed at Abu Ghraib to be inscribed in stone on the walls. I definitely don't want to see any more prisoners there ... What had been going on at Abu Ghraib for over three decades was much worse than what we have seen recently, but this is in no way to say what we have seen is not condemnable in the strongest terms.

Before the war you said Saddam probably had weapons of mass destruction.

We know that Saddam was pursuing WMDs, let us not mislead ourselves. It surprised me they could not find them.