The American Legion Magazine | 3.1.05 
by Alan W. Dowd

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Feisal Istrabadi was destined to play a leading role in re-establishing the rule of law in Iraq. After all, his grandfather sat on the body that drafted Iraq’s very first constitution in 1925; and his grandmother was killed in a heroic effort to save the prime minister during a coup in the late 1950s.

Almost eight decades after his grandfather laid the groundwork for constitutional government in Iraq, the younger Istrabadi returned to his ancestral home to serve as the principal drafter of the interim constitution that set the ground rules for a free Iraq. Later, he helped plan the National Convention, which selected 100 Iraqi leaders to serve on the interim National Assembly. Both the constitution and the assembly have paved the way to a fully free and sovereign Iraq.

While conceding that the interim constitution—or “transitional administrative law,” as it is officially known—is imperfect, Istrabadi proudly points out that the new constitution includes a Bill of Rights for Iraqi citizens and promotes human rights for all. Indeed, thanks in no small measure to his efforts, the document strengthens the role and power of Iraqi women, provides safeguards against corruption, and balances parliamentary and presidential powers.[1]

Plus, as Istrabadi explained on PBS “NewsHour” last year, the interim constitution is the product of consensus among Iraq’s many ethnic, political and religious factions. The previous regime suppressed their dissent, exploited their divisions and trampled their most basic rights, making this consensus-based document a truly remarkable achievement. Much of that hard-won consensus came courtesy of Istrabadi’s handiwork

These are just some of the reasons that Istrabadi has been called one of the “founding fathers” of the new Iraq. However, the Iraqi-American lawyer is quick to reject such lofty comparisons: As he told the Chicago Tribune in 2004, “I’m no James Madison.”

Today, with more than a year of navigating the political and sometimes all-too-real  minefields of postwar Iraq behind him, Istrabadi’s legal acumen is being put to use in a far different—but perhaps equally difficult—environment: the United Nations. After months of hammering out agreements and smoothing out disagreements inside Iraq, Istrabadi now has the challenge of doing the same inside the United Nations, as Iraq’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN.

The interview occurred just weeks after Ambassador Istrabadi took his new post at UN headquarters in New York.

Alan W. Dowd: Your family has deep roots in Iraq—and specifically in Iraq’s long march to constitutional government. Could you share some of this fascinating story with our readers?

Feisal Istrabadi: My ancestors emigrated to Iraq about seven centuries ago. The family is originally from northwest Iran, from the Caspian Sea area. My grandfather was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1923. That assembly drafted Iraq’s first constitution in 1925, the only permanent constitution Iraq has ever had. The other constitutions were drafted not by elected bodies, but by military officers. My mother’s father was a military officer who actually fought on the Turkish-Ottoman side during the First World War. He was the first commandant of the military academy in Iraq and a member of the Chamber of Deputies. My parents first came to the United States in the 1950s as graduate students. They met and were married in Ann Arbor, Mich.

They returned to Iraq, but my father was actually in the United States the day the monarchy was overthrown in 1958. His mother was killed trying to protect the life of the prime minister; my uncles and grandfather were all arrested; and my mother and sister were still in Iraq. So my father went back to get them out.

When the people who overthrew the monarchy were themselves overthrown, my parents went back to Iraq, by which time I had been born in the United States. And then in 1970, about a year-and-a-half after the Baath Party came to power, my family again fled. I lived in Iraq for about seven or eight years.

AWD: Did you always have in mind the goal or hope of returning to Iraq to complete what your grandfather began?  

FI: I wish I could say, “Yes, I knew it would all work out.” But it never occurred to me as a child when we left Iraq that I would spend 33 years in exile. I never imagined that the Baathists would last as long as they did. The idea that we would have a chance of rebuilding the state—I can’t say that I ever imagined that would happen. Nor can I say that I think my grandfather would be particularly pleased that we had to start from scratch, 80 years after his work. I certainly hope that my grandchildren will not have to start from scratch again.

AWD: Could you discuss your feelings and sentiments upon first entering postwar Iraq?

FI: Very hopeful. When you’re in Iraq, it’s very easy to be quite optimistic about the future. It’s when you leave Iraq and all you know about what’s happening is what you read in the press that you become pessimistic. This is not intended as a criticism of the press. It’s understandable. The story is that five churches are targeted, not that 27 million people showed up to work and are involved in trying to rebuild a country. But it’s easier to be optimistic about Iraq when you’re in Iraq.

AWD: There is much discussion in the United States about the Iraqi reaction to the return of Iraqi exiles. As an American citizen with Iraqi roots, how have you and your peers with similar backgrounds been received in Iraq?

FI: In general, most people that I have encountered understand that living in exile is itself not easy. Although we did not suffer directly, as they did, most understand that exile is itself a form of oppression. If you went back to Iraq with the notion that you were somehow the salvation for those who stayed—or that you were going to show them how they should live—you would engender a very negative reaction.

But it’s far different if you say, “Look, we understand you have suffered directly. We’ve lived overseas. We have learned something about democracy, about how to live in a democracy. We’re here to help you—to help us—rebuild our country. We want to be of service, to work with you.” Having that attitude has been particularly productive. Approach is everything. I have not returned with the idea of ruling Iraq; I have returned with the idea of serving Iraq.

AWD: As you know, there are many issues being debated in the United States about the U.S.-led invasion and U.S.-led reconstruction effort—whether the new Iraq needs more or less American involvement, more or less American security and economic assistance, more or less American guidance. What is your view on this?

FI: The overwhelming mass of Iraqis—now and in the future—will be and are grateful for the intervention of the United States and the Coalition in the removal of the previous regime. Iraqis will tell you universally that they could not possibly have removed the old regime.

The postwar planning has been adequately covered, and as an ambassador I don’t want to comment on it. My concern now is the future and where we go from here. It’s very important that Iraq not fall in the valley between the coalition of the willing and the coalition of the unwilling. A failed state in Iraq is a disaster for all concerned. Regardless of how we got here, it’s important for the countries of the world to come together and see to it that Iraq is rebuilt. That’s in everyone’s interest.

AWD: What is the single most important factor to the success of democracy in the new Iraq? Is it the constitution? The rule of law?

FI: I think the single most important factor to building democracy in Iraq is the absolute determination of the Iraqis not to be ruled without their consent.

I can imagine a wide spectrum of constitutional possibilities for Iraq. As a drafter of the interim constitution, I have my views, but the job of drafting the constitution falls to the National Assembly, which will be elected in January. Specifically, we need to be concerned with human rights, with the rights of minorities—not only of ethnic and confessional minorities, but political minorities as well.

What gives me optimism about Iraq’s future is the fact that Iraqis are grimly determined to rebuild their own country, grimly determined never again to be ruled against their will. Whatever details the future constitution may take, so long as that’s true, one can be optimistic about the future.

AWD: How would you rate Iraq’s progress on the road from Baathist dictatorship through postwar instability to democratic rule?

FI: In the space of a year-and-a-half, a hundred political parties have emerged, along with a couple hundred newspapers. You have people speaking their minds, protesting this and that. The people are ready for elections. Yes, Iraq has a lot to learn about democracy, but in fact we’re on the way. I am very optimistic.

AWD: You have argued that democracy is “our greatest weapon and our first line of defense in the war against international terrorism.” What will a stable and prosperous democracy in Iraq achieve in this war and for the region at large?

FI: For the region, it’s easy to see. For instance, the interim constitution of Iraq recognized the Kurdish language as an official language of the entire country for the first time in Iraq’s history. So, Iraq’s laws will be translated into Kurdish; Iraq’s currency will be printed with the Kurdish language—in addition to Arabic and English. And because of this, the Kurds in Syria are starting to demand their linguistic rights as well. So you can already see that the progress that Iraqis are making in recognizing the rights of ethnic minorities is having a salutary effect throughout the region.

Treaties signed by a dictator are no more stable than the price of a bullet. But with democracies—when governments act with the consent of the governed, when you have stable institutions—agreements are truly national, not personal. When you sign an agreement, it’s truly with the people of Iraq, not merely with the next dictator, who may be overthrown, again at the cost of a bullet.

The Iraqis—and Arabs and Muslims generally—yearn to be free as much as any other group. They simply have not had the opportunity to exercise that freedom. When they do so fully, you will see true stability in the region. Democracies attempt to have pacific relations with one another—and that will increase stability in the region.

It’s been tried the other way, with petty dictatorships and some not-so-petty dictatorships, and that seems not to have engendered stability in the Middle East.

[1]Evan Osnos, “Founding Father,” Chicago Tribune/Indiana Alumni Magazine, May 2004.