Two steps behind

The Bruno Kreisky Forum, a permanent centre for dialogue in Vienna, hosted a conference 'Iraq: The Way Forward', recently. Naturally, the topic attracted a houseful of expectant people wanting to make sense of the tragedy that Iraq is reduced to today.This was a rare opportunity to exchange ideas with Iraqis as well as Judith Yaphe, a seasoned American informer. For two decades, Yaphe worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as senior analyst in the office of near Eastern and South Asian Analysis, and is a former chief political officer for Iraq.From Iraq, there were Safaa A Hussain, deputy national security advisor, Dhia Sallal Mahdi, advisor to the deputy prime minister, and Hunin Mahmood Ahmed, member of the council of representatives.A very optimistic Reider Visser from the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs gave three reasons for being hopeful about Iraq. He believes in Iraqi nationalism and the desire of every Iraqi, Sunni and Shiite alike, for a strong, centralised government based in Baghdad. Despite the violence, public opinion does not support terrorism. Visser suggests that the revised constitution of the country should be less centralised than the one under Saddam, and also less decentralised than the one written in 2005.Visser is against any plan to impose ethno-sectarian federal entities in Iraq and wants the West to understand how vilified sectarianism as a political programme is among Iraqis. Gudrun Harrer, foreign editor of Der Standard, Austria's leading liberal daily and author of Causes for War: A Case Study on Iraq, introduced the panelists. About two years ago, Harrer wrote about the way the US was attempting to liberate Iraq. In her book, she concluded that the issue of weapons of mass destruction was only an excuse for the US to invade Iraq and wondered why the Saddam regime did not cooperate better with the United Nations that kept saying Iraq had destroyed its last weapon of mass destruction in 1995.But few of these known and unknown causes of America's invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq were allowed a discussion by Walter Posch, the moderator from the European Institute for Security Studies, Paris. “We are here to talk about the way forward for Iraq and not the Austrian view of the American occupation of Iraq…” he glared at an audience that included far too many non-Austrians.Encouraged by the support from Posch, Yaphe added that America will not apologise to anyone for having rid Iraq of Saddam. She worried much, instead, for the fate of Iraq once the US army leaves the country.Saafa Hussain said when the American army toppled the Saddam regime it seemed as if god at last had mercy on Iraq. Mahdi added that Iraq needs the coalition forces today and Ahmed reminded the audience that the American army is in Iraq with the consent of the Iraqi government. “The Iraqis don't like being occupied but need America to balance the view of different warring groups in the country,” said Ahmed.What could members of the audience do but leave the Kreisky Forum that day with all their questions unanswered? Later, perhaps, many may have even tried to put their anger in perspective over the occupation of an economically devastated country with no security forces of its own but peopled now by the most powerful army in the world. After all, they had just heard the Iraqis on the podium say that it was all right for the American army to be in Iraq. The Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue was founded in 1991 to keep alive the spirit of the first post-war chancellor of Austria. Throughout his tenure as head of state between 1970 and 1983, the home of Kreisky remained the venue of many international and domestic political encounters. After his death, the house continues to invite concerned citizens to seek possible solutions to complex problems and to take a public stand on political events, particularly on conflicts and armed hostilities, through topical commentary and reflection.That is, if all those invited are allowed to participate in discussions in a fair way.