WASHINGTON — A principal architect of Iraq’s interim constitution, who resigned in August as one of the country’s top diplomats, has laid out a devastating critique of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the U.S. occupation, telling NBC News that, functionally, “there is no Iraqi government.”
The diplomat, Feisal Amin Istrabadi, said in his first interview since stepping down as Iraq’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations that “this government has got to go.”
When he resigned, Istrabadi, a U.S.-born lawyer who lobbied for the U.S. invasion and was the principal legal drafter of Iraq’s interim constitution, said he was leaving because it was time for fresh ideas after having served three years at the United Nations.
But Istrabadi made it clear in an exclusive interview with NBC News that he was dismayed by al-Maliki’s government and the U.S. occupation, saying the government was stocked with incompetent administrators who had helped bring about “chaos and instability.”
The Iraqi government is an illusion, said Istrabadi, who is now a visiting professor at the Indiana University Law School. “You’ve got patently incompetent men appointed to important positions.”
Many government departments were apportioned to religious parties for political reasons, Istrabadi said, citing the Health Ministry, which he said was dominated by the Mahdi Army militia loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical anti-U.S. cleric.
“You cannot have this sectarian doling out of the Cabinet ministries,” Istrabadi said. “You’ve got to bring in competent technocrats to try to run those ministries, the service ministries.”
U.S. political imperatives to blame
Istrabadi traced what he called the country’s “chaos and instability” in part to the U.S. insistence on holding elections in 2005, before Iraq had developed robust democratic institutions to buffer the influence of religious leaders.
“Both the Shia and the Sunnis were told if they didn’t vote for their respective parties, that would be a violation of their religious duties,” Istrabadi said.
The result was a government dominated by Shiite Islamist parties and a constitution rejected by Sunni ethnic groups. Shiite Islamist parties have blamed the Sunnis for refusing to engage in the political process.
“I think the question was: ‘Should elections have been held?’ And I think that there is only one answer to that question, and that’s absolutely not,” Istrabadi said.
Istrabadi blamed the Bush administration for pushing for the elections at least two years before Iraq was ready for them.
“What did we accomplish, exactly, [with] this push towards an appearance of institutions ... merely an appearance?” he asked.
“Except that an American politician can stand up and say, ‘Look what we accomplished in Iraq.’ When, in fact, what we accomplished in Iraq over the last three years has been chaos and instability.”
Free to speak out
Istrabadi acknowledged that he harbored those doubts at the time but was powerless to speak out because he represented the government. “I publicly defended them because that was the government’s policy,” he said.
Free of that burden now, Istrabadi was eager to speak out.
Istrabadi said there were probably are few politicians in Iraq who could still build enough support to replace al-Maliki, whose government has been marked by instability and frequent discussions about a possible Cabinet reshuffling. But he lamented that the situation was so chaotic that they probably would not want the job.
“Fundamentally, you have the Iraq state falling apart and an inability on the part of the political class to put it back together,” he said.
He also had harsh words for the United States’ protection of private contracting firms. A U.S.-Iraqi panel is reviewing the use of private security companies after 17 people were killed when guards employed by Blackwater USA opened fire on civilians Sept. 16 in Baghdad.
Contractors are immune from Iraqi prosecution under a decree issued in June 2004 by Paul Bremer, then the U.S. administrator of Iraq.
Istrabadi said the Iraqi government had pushed for three years for a “Status of Forces Agreement,” which would outline U.S. and Iraqi rights with regard to armed combatants, to no avail.
“What right does Paul Bremer have to exempt entities from the application of Iraqi law?” Istrabadi asked. “He created a lawless class in Iraq.”
A man of two countries
Istrabadi, 45, a stocky man with the persuasive style of an accomplished lawyer, was born in the United States to Iraqi parents — his father was a Shiite and his mother a Sunni — in exile. As a young child, initially he returned with his parents to Iraq, and he holds both U.S. and Iraq citizenship.
He witnessed Saddam Hussein’s rise to power, watching on television as 13 people were hanged.
When Saddam’s Baath Party consolidated control in 1970, his family fled to the United States again, and he would spend the next 33 of his life as an exile in America.
Istrabadi became active in Iraqi opposition circles beginning in 1996, and he pushed eagerly for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Even now, he is unwilling to call the invasion a mistake.
But he is glum over the prospects for his native country, and he is frustrated by what he found there.
“If I could say that the government, U.S. policy, was headed in a positive way in Iraq — so that I could see a light at the end of the tunnel — it would have been harder to walk away,” he said.
Alex Johnson of msnbc.com contributed to this report.