A Sept. 23 Diplomatic Dispatches column about Hachim Hasani, the speaker of Iraq's National Assembly, incorrectly stated his field of study at the University of Nebraska. He received a master's degree in international economics. (Published 9/26/2005)
It is hard to tell whether Hachim Hasani, the intrepid speaker of Iraq's National Assembly, is being droll or earnest. A resigned demeanor suggests fatalism, but it often gives way to a slight but amused grin.
"I thought by now I should be president of Iraq," he responded glumly when asked if he ever imagined that he would be in politics today, after years spent abroad and in exile.
Hasani was in the United States this month for the U.N. General Assembly session in New York and to meet with legislators in Washington. Sitting on a sofa in his hotel suite here Monday and sipping boyishly from a plastic cup, Hasani watched al-Jazeera to keep up with a scandal involving $1 billion missing from government coffers.
"Mine is probably the toughest job in Iraq," said Hasani, 51, who participated in stormy debates about the country's new constitution, which citizens will vote on in a referendum next month. After months of negotiations, he still finds the draft imperfect. To ease his conscience about the historic document, which he said "has too much religion in it," he managed to defer 40 of its articles for debate in the next parliament.
"I personally feel I am doing all I can do. I am doing my part and being as sincere as I can. Normality is not around the corner. But then not too many people have the opportunity to serve their country in the way that I have," he said.
Hasani risked political alliances in parliament when he refused to announce a draft constitution. He stalled and stalled, in an effort to make it acceptable to Sunni Muslims. "In that I was mostly alone. I told myself: This is a historic moment, stand by what you believe in," he said.
Hasani, a Sunni and a former member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, ran as an independent in the January national elections. He now feels isolated and outnumbered in a parliament dominated by political blocs, most favoring the Shiite Muslim majority. He would have preferred the job of defense minister, but the carefully crafted balance among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds put him elsewhere.
"My reluctance was about not wanting to be the status quo or token Sunni. I consider myself Iraqi first," he explained.
Hasani was born to a prominent family in Kirkuk. When the Baath Party came to power in the 1960s, he empathized with forlorn women and children being evicted from their homes with nothing. Playing in an alley near his uncle's house one summer, he was drawn into a crowd viewing the public hangings of 28 Communist Party members. One member was shot dead. Dark bloodstains glistened in the sun.
"I just did not like what I saw. Even at that age, I sensed it was inhumane. The image still haunts me," he recalled. Later in life, he would miss friends who vanished in jails on trumped-up conspiracy charges.
After high school, his father wanted him to become a military officer, but Hasani failed his physical and other tests for eligibility. He tried to become a pilot but did not pass the eye exam. He moped around the house, he said, then settled on studying economics at Mosul University.
Hasani molded his political consciousness by reading contemporary Arab novelists and forward-looking columnists. In 1979, he left for the United States to study English at the University of Nebraska. He later completed a doctorate in industrial management at the University of Connecticut.
After he returned home in 1980 to get married, he and his wife moved to the United States. That same year, his wife decided to visit her family in Iraq, but when she tried to leave again for the United States, her passport was seized. Hasani's criticism of the Iraqi government meant he could not join her in Iraq. After seven years of separation, they divorced.
He and his second wife have four children. The family lives in a country he would not name. He has seen his 10-month-old daughter just twice since she was born. "When you are in the middle of it, you have no time to think about anything except what you are doing," he said about his sporadic family life.
For years, Hasani labored with the opposition in exile as a politburo member and spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, remaining an advocate for change. In 2003, Hasani returned to Iraq after a 23-year absence. He became a member of the interim Governing Council, then minister of industry and now assembly speaker.
He was initially opposed to a war in Iraq but said he now believes the U.S.-led invasion was the only way to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
"The transitional period is full of hardships," he said. "You are trying to change from a total dictatorship to a full democracy."
Hasani has survived several attempts on his life. A bullet pierced the windshield of his car but landed on the seat near him. Pedestrians gesticulating wildly once stopped his motorcade to warn about an ambush that lay ahead.
A mortar shell was lobbed into his driveway two months ago, but it did not go off, lodging itself in the door of his favorite car.
"We asked our American friends for help. They sent an explosives expert. He blew up the Land Cruiser," Hasani said, suppressing a mirthless chuckle. "He told us it was the only safe way to remove it."