Iraq's Odious Debts

‘Free Iraqis’ meet in Washington to discuss reconstruction

Kathleen Ridolfo
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, Czech Republic
December 10, 2002

The second meeting of the Economic and Infrastructure Working Group on Iraq took place in Washington, D.C., on 2-3 December. The U.S. State Department sponsored the meeting, which was attended by 16 “free Iraqis.” Tom Warrick, the special adviser to the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, facilitated the meeting. The working group included Iraqis from inside Iraq and the diaspora.

Following the meeting, four members of the working group gave a briefing on the two-day meeting. The first was Nasreen Sideek, an architect by profession, and the current minister for reconstruction and development in the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil. Another was Ahmed al-Haydari, a telecommunications engineer by profession who lives in Ottawa and is the director of strategic alliances for a telecommunications company. He defected from Iraq in 1980 and is a member of Iraqi Forum for Democracy, an apolitical group advocating democracy in Iraq. The third was Rubar Sandi, chairman and CEO of Corporate Bank Business Group, an international finance and investment company based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on developing countries. He left Iraq in 1975 following the Kurdish uprising the year before. The fourth was Hasan al-Khatib, who left Iraq in 1976 to attend graduate school in the United States. Al-Khatib was a professor of computer engineering for 17 years in the United States and is now a U.S. citizen. He is chairman and chief technology officer of IP Dynamics, a high-tech start-up company in Silicon Valley. His background is computer networking and computer engineering. The participants noted that the technical working group included people from inside and outside Iraq, including Iraqis from the United Kingdom and Canada, from all ethnic and religious groups — Sunni, Shia, Christians, Assyrians, and Kurds.

The four members of the working group addressed the achievements of their meeting in terms of developing a reconstruction plan for post-Saddam Iraq. They noted that the working group split into subcommittees following their previous meeting on 21 October. The subcommittees then put forth recommendations, which will be made available to a transition government in Iraq. Likewise, the Economic and Infrastructure Working Group will submit working papers and recommendations to the political meeting of Iraqi opposition parties that is scheduled to take place in London on 13-15 December.

Al-Khatib noted that they devised a three-stage plan to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure. The first stage would cover the first six months following the liberation of Iraq, and focus on essential services, including an emergency infrastructure to distribute food, and establish communication as well as a sense of peace and security. The second stage would last two years and aim to restore the level of services to meet the basic needs of the people. The third stage would focus on aligning Iraq’s infrastructure with nations with a GDP similar to Iraq. Rubar Sandi noted that the most important element would be to restore a feeling of safety and security to the population.

The two-day meeting also addressed ways in which Iraq could convert the military-industrial complex to civilian use, the development of new currency, and the reform of the banking system. One achievement noted was the establishment of the Iraq Development and Reconstruction Council. The council consists of subcommittees to address issues such as food distribution, telecommunications, health, banking, and the “oil-for-food” program. The participants noted that they reached a consensus that the “oil-for-food” program should remain in place for at least the first six months after liberation, since the country relies on it for funding public services at the present time. “Our vision is for the council to fill the administrative vacuum that will be created on the day after [liberation]. It will be composed of experts with a vision of developing the long-term plan for the country,” Sideek said. “The formulation of such a group provides a consistent set of technical initiatives and projects that [seek] to bring Iraq into the modern world,” al-Khatib added.

Asked whether the group will recommend that a new Iraqi government honor existing contracts made by President Saddam Hussein’s regime, al-Khatib said: “We don’t think Iraq should deviate from its commitments and from its obligations, but any agreement is subject to renegotiation if it is in the interests of the Iraqi people. If they were agreements that were done under duress or under the interests of those other parties to profit at the expense of the Iraqi people, then they need to be renegotiated.”

Likewise on the issue of Iraq’s outstanding international debts, the participants were asked if a new Iraqi government would seek debt forgiveness from the international community. Sandi said that the participants agreed that Iraq’s debts are of two types: civilian debts — for food, textiles, etc. — and military debts. He said participants felt strongly that a new Iraqi government should honor civilian debts. However, he said military debts should be renegotiated because they were incurred by a government that was not representative of the population. “We recommend that all debt be frozen right now, and all claims be frozen for the time being until the new government has time to breathe and time to reschedule these debts,” he added. The participants also recommend that all frozen Iraqi assets be released to contribute to the reconstruction of Iraq.

Al-Khatib said he believes the U.S. government is doing the Iraqi people a great favor by facilitating discussions among Iraqis on reconstruction. “I hope it will go a long way in reconciling the differences between the West and the Middle East and [in] establishing a first step that is a positive step where America is contributing to the welfare of the people there,” he said. “This effort to liberate Iraq goes a long way to show that America has a new agenda, a new interest, and [to] make Iraq an example for the rest of the Middle East to mimic.” On the question of whether Iraq is ready for democracy, Sideek added: “People were ready yesterday…[they] are desperate for freedom but they cannot do it for themselves. It cannot happen from within. We need a positive intervention that can generate positive development. People want to be freed, want to be liberated.”

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