RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Protesters in Iraq are demanding changes to the political system, and they are dying because of it. More than 250 protesters have been killed since early October. NPR's Jane Arraf has reported that some of those protesters were shot in the head or the chest by Iraqi security forces. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is out with a statement this morning. It reads - for the Iraqi government to, quote, "engage seriously and urgently" with Iraqi citizens who are demanding these political changes, Iraq's president has said the prime minister intends to step down and that there would be changes to the electoral system.
I'm joined now by Rend Al-Rahim. She is the former Iraqi ambassador to the United States. Ambassador, thanks for being with us.
REND AL-RAHIM: Thank you very much for having me.
MARTIN: How has this spiraled out of control? Why are Iraqi security forces killing unarmed civilians?
AL-RAHIM: Because the state simply cannot respond to the demands of the citizens, and if they do respond, it means dismantling the existing power structure in Iraq. And that is something that the political class simply cannot countenance. And therefore, the only remedy they have or the only response they can have is through violence, in order to quell the protests. But I don't think they'll be able to do that.
The proper response would have been to engage with the protesters, to put a timeline, a time horizon to real reforms that the protesters are demanding and to declare that they will be a caretaker government and a caretaker government - Parliament until such reforms are implemented within, say, a timeframe of six months. That, I think, is the only remedy that can actually comfort the protesters and persuade them to reduce the level of protest. But I don't think the state, the government or Parliament or the political parties are willing to do so.
MARTIN: We spoke with the former head of Iraq's electoral commission, Adil al-Lami (ph), and this is what he had to say.
ADIL AL-LAMI: They want to change the system from the parliamentary system to presidential system, like U.S., like France, like many countries.
MARTIN: It's a rough line. But he's saying there that the protesters want a complete overhaul, want the system to be presidential like the U.S. or France. Do you think that's what should happen?
AL-RAHIM: Well, first of all, I think he's quite wrong. There are demands or there are some people who are requesting a presidential system instead of parliamentary, but I don't think this is a universal demand. I think this - only parts of the protesters - some of the protesters. I don't think this is a good idea. We have had presidential systems for decades, and we know that in Iraq, in a nascent democracy - really, not even a democracy; we're not there yet - but in a nation like Iraq, this will lead to dictatorship. It will lead to one-man rule. And we have already had a lot of that, and we know what it leads to.
A parliamentary system is the best system. The problem is not whether it's presidential or parliamentary; it is that it's venal. It is corrupt. It's unresponsive to the needs of the nation. The country is supposedly rich, but we have a level of poverty that is 23%. The political class simply neglects the population. There have been - has been no infrastructure, no schools, no hospitals, no jobs.
MARTIN: I'm sorry to interrupt you, but what is the ruling party's incentive to change if the protests aren't working?
AL-RAHIM: The ruling parties have no incentive to change, and this is why their only response is violence. And I believe that there will be an increase in violence. And we're - even today there is talk about declaring martial law and suspending articles in the constitution in order to legitimize greater violence to squash the protests. And this is where I see it going, and this will require a move by the international community to stop it. This is a sort of burial of the nascent democracy we're supposed to have in Iraq.
MARTIN: Former Iraqi ambassador to the United States Rend Al-Rahim, thank you so much for your time this morning. We appreciate it.
AL-RAHIM: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.