Iraqi Iconoclast Being Considered for Defense Minister

Times Staff Writer

Politicians like to fill their offices with tokens meant to inspire and prod them to greatness. A baseball signed by a sports hero. An inspirational slogan in a golden frame. Pictures of themselves with world rulers and shapers.

Mithal Alusi’s office is adorned with two paintings of his slain sons. Assassins targeting Alusi, an iconoclastic Iraqi politician who is under consideration to take over Iraq’s nascent army, killed them last year.

“They were stupid to think that by killing my sons they would make me soft,” said Alusi, his words wrapped in serpentine cigarette smoke. “They were totally wrong. I will stay on this course, because I believe in it.”

Alusi’s course has been an unusual one, taking him into exile, and opposition against Saddam Hussein’s regime, in Cairo, Beirut, Berlin and Damascus, Syria. At the time of the U.S.-led invasion, Alusi was serving a yearlong sentence in a prison in Germany for his role in taking over Iraq’s embassy there. (“We were looking for documents to use against the regime,” he said.) He arrived in Baghdad two months after his September 2003 release.


Another exile leader, Ahmad Chalabi, then a member of the interim Iraqi Governing Council, appointed Alusi to head the De-Baathification Committee charged with investigating and rooting out elements of the former regime.

Alusi, whose desk faces an Iraqi flag scrawled with the words “Death to Saddam,” went about his job with gusto. He collected files on regime figures who remained after the invasion and tracked down money they had squirreled away in real estate and in hidden accounts in Baghdad and other capitals.

Like Hussein, Alusi is a Sunni Arab by birth. But he is a skeptical secularist by nature.

“Somebody wrote something 1,000 years ago -- and I have to work and to think and to do what he believes?” he said.

Alusi was relatively unknown until 2004, when he visited Israel to attend a counterterrorism conference. Chalabi quickly cast him out of his government post and, although he was never prosecuted, Iraq’s high court indicted him on treason charges over his visit to the Jewish state.

“It is a brand of shame,” said Nasir Ani, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni political organization that has frequently clashed with Alusi.

Alusi’s government-issued security detail was also stripped away, even as assassination attempts mounted. Alusi said that in the weeks after the trip, snipers took potshots at his convoy, a grenade was thrown in his living room and a mortar round hit his garage. In the week before his sons’ murders, there were three attempts on Alusi’s life.

“I am here because I believe we have to break the taboos,” Alusi said. “But in breaking taboos you will pay a price, because you are playing with the deeply held feelings of people.”

But Alusi doesn’t regret his actions and thinks that a partnership with Israel is as valid as a partnership with the U.S.

“It is impossible to build Iraq without opening all the doors,” he said. “Israel is a reality. It is stupid to say that we should not recognize them. We have the same enemies -- it is the same terrorist element. So why is it necessary to stay isolated in Baghdad? We’re not going to play by Saddam’s rules.”

Amid surging sectarian violence between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Alusi’s defiant style and dogged ecumenicalism were on display during a series of nationally televised debates in the run-up to the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. Among the hundreds of candidates, most of them from much larger and better-financed parties, Alusi’s candor stood out.

He won a National Assembly seat -- something that Chalabi failed to do.

In recent weeks, U.S. officials and Sunni Arab leaders have pressured the leading Shiite-controlled United Iraqi Alliance to choose nonsectarian ministers with broad support in an effort to quell sectarian tensions. The most important posts in this regard are the ministers of Defense and Interior, who control the army and the police. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who has ties to a large Shiite paramilitary organization called the Badr Brigade, has been accused of allowing his police forces to conduct death squad operations in Sunni Arab communities.

Adnan Ibaidi, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shiite political party, ruled out handing over the Interior Ministry to a non-Shiite. But he said the Shiites might consider Alusi for the Defense Ministry, and expressed surprising acceptance of Alusi’s overture to Israel.

“The Israel visit? Whoever has anything against this, let them also object to the Palestine Liberation Organization, which sits down with the Israelis all the time,” Ibaidi said. “Also Jordan -- let the objectors go and complain to them. And Egypt, which is considered the elder brother of Arabs, has had relations with Israel since 1978.”

Alusi has no significant military experience, but he said that with the American- and Britishinspired changes in Iraq’s military structure, he could be as effective as any Iraqi general who spent his career in Hussein’s defunct Baathist system.

“We should keep the Ministry of Defense in the hands of civilian ministers and advisors,” he said. “This is not just a job for military expertise -- it is a job that takes character, experience.”

Alusi said he would move the army out of Iraq’s cities and focus instead on threats outside its borders.

He predicted that the army would need 10 to 20 years of peace to create a sufficient fighting force to protect Iraq’s borders and provide a deterrent force against neighbors such as Iran, which he calls “a nation playing with fire.”

Alusi said he was also concerned about the explosion of paramilitary forces such as the Badr Brigade and the Al Mahdi army, two powerful Shiite militias that have members in the police forces in Baghdad and southern Iraq, and the Kurdish-controlled peshmerga militia in the north. Sunni Arab sheiks claimed this month that they were forming their own armed groups to fight foreign Al Qaeda fighters and to stave off Shiite paramilitary groups.

“This is very dangerous. We can’t have 10 armies,” said Alusi, who said the military could help balance the sectarian militias and Interior Ministry. “We need to have one army, under one country, one flag and one constitutional system.”

Alusi said he would also work toward Iraqi independence, “from America, from Iran -- though we could be equal allies with them and many other countries.”

But Alusi said he wasn’t counting on being a minister or anything but a struggling politician. He insisted that he was committed to a democratizing process that may take decades.

But then in the next smoke-filled breath, Alusi said he didn’t expect to live to see his vision completed.

“I will be killed,” he said. “I know that.”