Layla Alkhafaji — Iraqi Parliament

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Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA

Veiled women in Iraq.

Alkhafaji, an Iraqi citizen, spent a decade in prison after refusing to join Saddam Hussein's Baath party. She escaped to Toronto in 1993, but returned to Iraq after Hussein's fall to join the newly re-formed government. Alkhafaji actively works to improve the status of women in Iraq and recently attended a UN conference in March for the commission of the status of women.

Life in Iraq
The situation in Baghdad is much, much better than before. I live in Baghdad. I know how it was a year ago after the bomb, after the counterattacks of the sects of the Iraqi community, after al Qaeda and al Saddamists against the Iraqi innocent people in the name of jihad or in the name of other reasons. After the implementation of the security plans, the situation gets much better and especially now in the last three months, in many areas people feel confident and secure enough to go out shopping in some of the areas. Like the area where I lived, in the Karadi district area, the shops in this area are open until 10 o'clock at night. People are back to normal life, go back to schools and universities, hospitals have been opened. Some areas are still challenge. Operations are now going on in Diyala to weaken the al Qaeda [militias] there.

How to succeed
The most important thing as a parliamentarian, the most important thing after securing the area is the service — giving service to people, electricity. Improving the basic services to people. The humanitarian [effort], water supply, making sure to make any effort to bring the people that have been misplaced because of the terror attacks back to their homes because this will help in the reconciliation process. When you have the people back to their area, they will feel back to normal. These issues have to be worked hard on the government side to help improve the situation.

On troop withdrawal
The United States and multinational forces helped in securing and giving support to the Iraqi forces, but they shouldn't stay there. The responsibility and authority should be passed and hand over to the Iraqi authorities — the police, security and military forces. But this has to be done after scheduling a timeline for equipping, training, and supplying the Iraqi forces in order to take over from the United States forces.

Women's rights in Iraq
The situation of women as part of the society in Iraq has been so much affected by the military forces that exist and by al Qaeda attacks. They've been victimized before by the regime. As I said, I was victim of the regime but their situation improved so much after the fall of the regime. I'm talking about the political side because they effectively participated in all of the elections in Iraq. They participated in the drafting process of the Iraqi constitution, in addition to the educational campaign. They achieved many things in the constitution. One of the most important thing they achieved in the representation of women in the Iraqi parliament now is 25 percent, which is more than any area around Iraq. Even with unstable Iraq, this is one of the achievements: prohibiting violence and abuse against women, prohibiting the tribal taboos that violate democratic and human rights and other issues.

On Iraq's future
I think there is no option for Iraq except to continue the political process. This is number one. In parallel with that, the government has to take serious steps to first reform the cabinet because we know many of the ministries of the cabinet are not there and there are empty posts. This is important if you want an optimistic future for Iraq. In order for the withdrawal of American and multinational forces to happen, we have to have a very accelerated plan for equipping and supplying and training the Iraqi forces to take over because you can't just withdraw the forces and leave the chance and opportunity — you offer a gift to the al-Qaeda groups that are already in Iraq, for the Saddamists who don't believe in the political process. They will take the opportunity to come back to have power and have attacks against the innocent people. So yes, it's time, because of the improvement of the situation and security and addition to that, we have many areas where the authority is in the hands of Iraqis — Nasiriyah, Diwaniyah, Basra, in Karbala. Because of this improvement, we have to have a plan to accelerate the capability of Iraqi forces in order to make the withdrawal happen.