Right woman at the right time

W. Thomas Smith, Jr
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Posted: Feb 20, 2006 12:45 PM

Iraqi National Assemblywoman Tanya Gilly-Khailany is witnessing a transformation of her country she has dreamt of all her life: Men and women are working. Boys and girls are going to school. Millions have been immunized against polio and other life-threatening diseases. Construction is on the rise, as are new business startups. And the Iraqi gross domestic product has grown from $18.9 billion in 2002 to $33.1 billion in 2005. More importantly, fear throughout the country is dissipating.

It’s a far cry from the country Gilly-Khailany was forced to flee as a little girl in 1981. She was then only seven-years-old, a member of a Kurdish family from the city of Kirkuk, and agents of Saddam Hussein had made two attempts against her father’s life.

Growing up in the United States, Gilly-Khailany embraced American culture, but she never lost her identity, her pride in being Kurdish, and her commitment to a new Iraq and hopeful U.S. intervention to accomplish the goals of that commitment. Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, she worked with various Iraqi exile groups opposed to Saddam's regime. She has since worked with – ultimately becoming director of democracy programs at – the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD).

On December 15, 2005, exactly two months after voting on a draft constitution, Iraqis cast ballots for a new National Assembly. Gilly-Khailany, who was on the Kurdish Alliance list, was elected to represent Kirkuk.

“Tanya has long believed that Iraq can be a free, democratic, pluralistic society. … Now she will have the opportunity to help shape Iraq's future from the inside,” said FDD president Clifford D. May in a prepared statement. In a personal conversation, last week, he added, Gilly-Khailany believes “the Middle East can become part of the Free World.”

Two weeks ago, less than six hours before leaving her home in Maryland for her native Iraq, Gilly-Khailany took time to chat with me about her new post, the future of Iraqi democracy, the courage of the Iraqi people, terrorists in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion, and the ongoing insurgency.

WTSjr: Let’s first address the fundamental question on everyone’s mind: Do you believe we can win this war in Iraq?

GILLY-KHAILANY: We’ve already won the first part of the war: Removing Saddam Hussein and giving Iraqis a free voice. That was huge. Now, regarding the war on terror, which Iraq is part of, we will win. It’s just a matter of time. And with the proper resources and support from the outside world, Iraq definitely will rise to become a major democratic force in the region.

WTSjr: Yes, but why do you think the insurgency in Iraq has had the momentum and impact that it has had over the past couple of years?

GILLY-KHAILANY:

Well, the insurgency is not from within Iraq.

WTSjr: It’s a combination of both foreign and domestic fighters.

GILLY-KHAILANY: True, but there is a lot of outside money supporting the insurgency. There is a lot of Iranian, Syrian, and Saudi money coming in; and this money and outside influence has been fueling the insurgency. For example, look at someone like Moqtada al Sadr and his followers who have been a symbol of anti-occupation in Iraq: They allied themselves with a most unlikely group. You have a Shia cleric [al Sadr] and a Muslim Wahhabi [Sunni fundamentalist movement] insurgent force. So we know the outside influences are playing with, bringing together, and funding these different elements so that the insurgency continues in Iraq.

WTSjr: Opponents of our efforts in Iraq argue that when the U.S. and our coalition partners withdraw from Iraq – and I don’t believe we will ever permanently leave, because there will always be a need for a regionally positioned strike force in an enclave somewhere – that Iraq will devolve into civil strife where the Sunnis and the Shias will be at one another’s throats. And of course, we’ve heard the arguments that the Kurds in the north will be looking to gain an independent state. So Iraq might basically fraction into something far different than what we hope it will look like. What do you think?

GILLY-KHAILANY: First of all, I do not agree with having a short – or set – timetable for allied forces to leave Iraq. Now, there has already been a form of civil strife in Iraq, but I believe we are seeing the peak of that strife. This has been going on for the past year-and-a-half, and it’s just going to get better from here on.

WTSjr: I truly want to believe that, but is it perhaps hollow optimism?

GILLY-KHAILANY: I do believe it is going to get better. I am very optimistic, because I’ve recently seen firsthand what has happened Iraq. First of all, Iraqis have just seen too much blood. The people simply don’t want any more blood. They are sick of the blood. Secondly, just looking at the writing in the new constitution: There are so many compromises being made between the different groups. With the last election, there were many compromises made.

WTSjr: Substantive compromises where people are truly giving up things?

GILLY-KHAILANY:

Yes, of course. Look at the Kurds for example: They are one of the strongest forces in Iraq. They are well organized. They have their own region. They have good security. Very seldom do you hear about terrorist attacks in that region – only two in the last year.

The Kurds came to the table from a position of great strength. Yet, they gave up particulars of what they wanted just so the Sunnis and the Shias would both come aboard and everyone would be working for a unified Iraq that is at peace.

WTSjr: I’ve learned in my own reporting around the world that people are people, and no matter the culture, all people have the same basic wants, needs, and desires for themselves and their children. And to me, this flies in the faces of what many of the opponents of our efforts in Iraq say about not all cultures and peoples being suited for democracy.

GILLY-KHAILANY: You are exactly right, and let me tell you one thing: those people, who say Iraq is not ready for democracy, are racists. They are absolute racists!

They are saying that the Iraqi people are neither intelligent enough nor mature enough to be able to experience democracy.

We’ve seen huge showings in the previous elections and the referendum. And this despite the fact that we’ve been oppressed and marginalized for years, and there are lots of outside forces meddling in Iraq’s move toward democracy. They do not want Iraq to succeed, because it is not in their best interest. It is going to take time for us to be able to rebuild a democracy in Iraq. How long did it take the United States? How long did it take Europe to get to the democratic state it is at today?

WTSjr: Let’s look at terrorism and one of the primary reasons for the U.S. and Britain’s invading Iraq in the first place: I know through my own contacts in the special operations community that there were in fact al Qaeda and other affiliate elements operating in Iraq prior to the invasion in 2003 [see The Saddam-Al Qaeda Connection]. Nevertheless, those opposed to our invasion, contend that one of the most permeable regions for terrorist movement was in the north – Kurdistan – where Saddam had no control. But Saddam did have a measure of control in the north. And we could not have invaded the north without it being an invasion of Iraq proper and having to contend with Saddam’s army anyway.

GILLY-KHAILANY: Of course, and where did Ansar al Islam in the north get its money?

[Ansar al Islam is a terrorist organization with direct and indirect pre-2003-invasion connections to both Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Ansar al Islam operated training camps in Northern Iraq prior to 2003. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, “There are indications that the Iraqi regime tolerated and may even have helped Ansar al Islam against the common Kurdish enemy.”]

I’ve actually seen some of the intelligence reports on Ansar al Islam, and they had a fleet of expensive late-model Land Cruisers, all sorts of weapons and ammunition. Saddam Hussein certainly allowed them to operate in that area – and he probably supported them along with others. And we know Saddam supported and provided safe haven for other terrorists. Look at the money he gave to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. So it’s not just about al Qaeda or Ansar al Islam.

Also, between the time of the first Gulf War and the 2003 invasion, people came and went throughout the region. They did this despite the No-fly Zone [set up by the U.S. and Britain]. Lots of Saddam’s agents were operating in the area. His soldiers went in there in 1996, and a lot of people died. [Forces of the Kurdish Democratic Party battling forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan invited Saddam’s forces into the region in the fall of 1996. Though Iraqi tanks and infantry ultimately withdrew, Saddam’s intelligence and security presence was greatly expanded in the region.]

But again, it is not productive to focus on why or how the U.S. went into Iraq. We have to look at what possibly could have happened had the U.S. not gone in, and what the task is now before us. The here-and-now is what is important.

Democracy must flourish and prosper in Iraq. Democracies should be able to defend themselves and defend other democracies against terrorism. This goes to the core of my own belief, and that is: the only way we can win the war on terror is by helping and supporting other democracies.

WTSjr: Many of the naysayers or opponents of our efforts in Iraq – most of whom support women’s issues here in the U.S. and abroad – don’t talk about the fact that women now have a voice and women’s issues are key to real democracy in Iraq. Why do women’s issues so-often take a backseat in the debate over whether or not our efforts and sacrifices in Iraq are worth it?

GILLY-KHAILANY: Well, women’s issues are not number one on the agenda: Issues like security, transportation, electricity, and other infrastructural things take precedence over what women really deserve. Regarding the naysayers, what they have to understand is that it is going to take some time in order for us to rebuild Iraq.

[Prior to Saddam Hussein] Iraq was a very prosperous country, and women worked. They were leaders. They were very active in social life. But under Saddam the country went back centuries.

WTSjr: So, before Saddam, women held leadership positions in business?

GILLY-KHAILANY: Not business, but in academics, medicine, and law. We had prominent doctors, lawyers, even judges who were women. But Saddam took that away from women.

Now, women did hold some positions of power – not in political administration, but in civil administration – under Saddam. But if Saddam encouraged that it was because of the war with Iran where all the men were fighting, so the women had to take the positions the men left behind.

WTSjr: Similar to “Rosie the Riveter” in this country during World War II.

GILLY-KHAILANY: Exactly the same thing. Women were working in factories and held supervisory positions. But after the war with Iran, women lost their jobs and thus their economic freedom.

WTSjr: In the current war, we hear so many of the negative stories about journalists being abducted by terrorists, and soldiers being killed by roadside bombs and snipers. What are some of the good stories about Iraq that are not being told?

GILLY-KHAILANY: No one hears about the great work of the civil society organizations: the young, energetic, democratic activists who are traveling throughout the country, going to rural villages and teaching people about democracy, teaching them what their rights are and what it means to vote. Then we have the environmental activists who are campaigning for national land preserves of the beautiful deserts and wetlands of Iraq. Also, there are all the economic successes. Small businesses are popping up everyday. The entrepreneurial spirit is showing itself throughout the country. Schools are being built everyday. But one of the biggest success stories to me is that Iraqis are no longer afraid.

Not along ago, I was in Baghdad going into a building near the presidential palace, and I saw these Kurdish men wearing the uniform of the new Iraqi police. I asked one of them if he felt safe being a Kurd and being in Baghdad. He said to me, “Why not? All of it is Iraq, isn’t it?”

WTSjr: What would you tell the American people?

GILLY-KHAILANY: I very much want the American people to know that all of the sacrifices you have made are so very much appreciated. We are looking forward to becoming a democratic force in the region and to being good friends with democracies throughout the world.