The United States may be leaving Iraq, but we should not be abandoning the Iraqi people. Particularly those who have put their lives on the line to rebuild their country in peace. Particularly someone like Mohammed al-Daini, a member of the Iraqi Parliament and critic of the Maliki government who disappeared recently under suspicious circumstances after being accused of terrorism by that government. I worked with al-Daini in 2006 and 2007; our goal was to reduce and stop the violence in Iraq. This is what I know:
At a news conference Feb. 22, Major Gen. Qassem Atta, spokesman for Baghdad's military, charged al-Daini, a Sunni secular Member of Parliament, with orchestrating the suicide bombing that took place in the Parliament cafeteria on April 12, 2007. He aired video tapes showing al-Daini's nephew, Riad Ibrahim al-Daini, and bodyguard, Alaa Khairallah, confessing to crimes they said he had directed. "The suicide bomber entered with an authorization paper from Mohammed al-Daini and blew himself up at the parliament," the nephew said on the video, adding that he had taken the assailant to the scene.
Al-Daini denied the charges saying his nephew and bodyguard were tortured. Al-Daini appeared on the Dubai-based satellite network al-Sharqiya to rebut accusations linking him to any of the actions, calling the arrests of his nephew and bodyguard a "politically motivated" act by Iraq's Shiite-dominated government. "The goal behind this is to put pressure on me, and it is political blackmailing," he said.
Sixteen members of al-Daini's extended family were arrested. Al-Daini was on a plane flying from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, when it was ordered to return. At the airport, he was reportedly arrested. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) who was recently in Baghdad could not find out if al-Daini was in custody. Al-Daini's wife doesn't know; she hasn't heard from him since last Feb. 23.
Al-Daini was the subject of a BBC Channel 4 television special report that aired in 2006, in which he helped expose secret jails run by the Interior Ministry in Nissoor Square in Baghdad and in the Diyala province east of Baghdad. Reps. McDermott and Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) invited him to come to the United States to speak to members of Congress who were interested in hearing from secular nationalist members of Parliament. Back then, we seemed to only be hearing from Shiite legislators, all supporters of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. After waiting three months for al-Daini's visa and wondering if it would ever be approved, McDermott and I concluded the next best thing would be a live "video conference" between the secular Sunni lawmakers and the U.S. Congress. Nine U.S. representatives spoke via a satellite link to four Iraqi MPs, including al-Daini and Osama al-Nujaifi, who was injured in the cafeteria bombing.
A month later, al-Daini's visa was approved. He brought with him documents that he said showed that Maliki was a de facto pawn of Iran and that the Maliki government was guilty of crimes.
At that point, I didn't know al-Daini very well. So, I had him stay at my house for two weeks in 2007 rather than a hotel because I wanted to get to know him personally. When you spend time with someone hour after hour; eating together, jogging in the morning, living life, you get to know them in a more intimate way. He spoke with a reporter from every major news outlet. The only organization that ran a story was the New York Times on May 14, 2007. It was not a very good article for al-Daini; the article aired unproved accusations against him. It was not surprising that Maliki supporters would strike back.
On June 5, 2007, I flew to Amman, Jordan, and stayed in his apartment with al-Daini, his wife, his new baby daughter, his brother, and nephew, Haidar, who had been kidnapped for ransom twice in Baghdad. I stayed there two weeks. His family, friends and political associates came to the apartment to talk with me. Some of these people were injured in the suicide blast that the Maliki government is accusing al-Daini of orchestrating. The charge seems implausible to me.
Al-Daini and I worked on organizing a cease fire between Iraqi insurgent groups and the Coalition Forces. He would organize what groups he could through third-party representatives. I would get access to the Coalition Forces.
We flew to Baghdad for a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, who because of an emergency could meet with us only briefly in the hallway of the U.S. Embassy. He turned us over to Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb and Major Gen. Paul Newton, both of the British army. Al-Daini had organized eight insurgent groups, 18 tribal leaders and a group of exiled Iraqi intellectuals to support a proposal for a cease fire. Lamb and Newton seemed interested and requested a written proposal. Our efforts, unfortunately, went nowhere.
Al-Daini was in the Parliament cafeteria sitting two tables away from the counter where the suicide bomber detonated the bomb. He was speaking to Nassar Al Rubaie (a Sadrist) just as the explosion took place. Many of his friends and political associates were sitting either at his table or the one next to it where Mohammed Awad, the legislator who died, was sitting. Awad was a member of the National Dialogue Front, the same group Mohammed belonged to.
An alliance of insurgent groups linked to al-Qaeda says it carried out the deadly attack on the Iraqi Parliament. The Islamic State in Iraq said in a statement it had sent a "knight" into Baghdad's highly-fortified Green Zone.
It is extremely unlikely that someone who has organized a suicide bombing of the Parliament cafeteria is going to be sitting there while it happens. I know Mohammed al-Daini. I know his moods, his laugh, and his drive. This is a man who was working to stop violence. He was not someone who perpetrates it.
Al-Daini's defenders believe that whoever instigated the suicide bombing was directing it at him because of his charges about the secret prisons and the message he was trying to deliver to Americans about the Maliki government.
The same day this story about the charges against al-Daini broke out, Feb. 23, President Obama was announcing plans to disengage from Iraq. But we should not abandoned Iraqis' hopes for a free and safe society. Al-Daini deserves a fair trial in a way and a place where his family and friends won't feel threatened. American authorities should put him in protective custody, if they can find him.
UPDATE: One hour after this post was published, Iraqi Major General Qassem Atta announced on Iraqia TV, the government-run station, that the Iraq Government has arrested Mohammed al-Daini. This was reported to me by an associate who is living in Amman and monitoring the news. This same associate just called to tell me that now Major General Atta is denying that they have captured Mohammed al-Daini on Sharkiya TV (which she says presented a feed from Iraqia TV). He said that there is a manhunt for al-Daini and they are searching the airports and borders for him.