Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat-With Syria descending into civil war and sectarian chaos, a resurgent Turkey, and unrest and political division within Iraq itself, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki faces a number of challenges. He met with the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat in his pavilion at the Islamic summit in Cairo to discuss these issues, as well as his political future and the fallout from the Arab Spring.
The following is the full text of the interview:
Q: You joined the Dawa Party at a young age. What reasons prompted you to do so? Was it because it happened to be the party with the largest youth presence within Iraq at the time
A: It was a combination of factors, some natural, some coincidental. A natural one could be the fact that I am from a religiously devout family and my grandfather was a cleric who worked closely with the Shiite religious authorities.
Q: Which religious authorities?
A: He was close to Mohammad Taqi Shirazi during the 1920 Revolt, and then became a representative of the religious authority in the National Council of the 1920 Revolt. He was also a great poet, capable of composing poetry on the spur of the moment. He later became the minister of education in 1926. This was the context in which my family was raised, and some of my uncles and cousins are clerics based in Najaf.
Another factor was the prevalent communist-cum-atheist current in Iraq which disturbed the clerics and religious circles. They feared Iraq would succumb to the red tide, and because of our upbringing, we could not possibly accept atheism or communism. Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who was martyred at the hands of Saddam Hussein, led a campaign against the communist movement in Iraq. His initiative was blessed by God and it grew in size and strength. The writers who documented the history of that campaign consider our approach to confronting communism as one of the best and most comprehensive models in world history.
Q: He had strong connections with Egypt at the time, with the Muslim Brotherhood, correct?
A: He had a long-standing relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as do we now. These were the main reasons which drove us to join the party. It reflects the true Islam, not the Islam of superstition and mysticism. It is a true and conscious Islam, emerging from established sources, and not from distorted or forged documents.
Our Islamic philosophy and heritage is fraught with misleading premises which were implanted by the Israelis and Orientalists. It is highly regrettable that generations of Shiites and Sunnis have been brought up to believe these distorted versions of Islam, which are not Islam at all.
Thus we were searching for a self-aware Islamic movement which offered upright Islamic thought, and this was best represented by the Dawa Party. I personally suffered from the setback of June 1967 [Six Day War], and we were all profoundly affected by it, because it was an appalling setback for both the Arab and Muslim nations. We started searching for a movement which combined a true, self-aware version of Islam with sound political action through which we could address this setback. I found the Islamic Dawa Party, or rather it found me. I became a member when it was still a secret party operating away from the public eye. This all occurred while I was in university, and the Dawa Party chose its members based on their mindset and upbringing. That is my background with the Dawa Party.
Q: Afterwards you decided to leave Iraq to live abroad?
A: I left after the Dawa Party became publicly known. As I mentioned, it had been a secret organisation. At the outset the regime did not know about the Dawa Party. At times it would call us the Muslim Brotherhood, and at other times we were referred to as the Fatimids. The party was formed in 1959 and it declared itself publicly in 1980, and between those two dates it operated in secret. After the public declaration, the Revolutionary Command Council in Iraq announced that anyone who promotes, abets, or affiliates with the Dawa Party would be sentenced to death, and that this would apply retroactively. Thus began the mass killings, clashes, and arrests. Those who had been sentenced to death fled to Jordan and then Syria; I arrived in Syria on October 20, 1979 and stayed there.
Q: Did you stay in Syria for long?
A: I initially stayed in Syria for two years. I then moved to the Ahvaz region of Iran, and returned to Syria in 1989 and stayed there for another stint. Finally I came home to Iraq after more than 16 years abroad.
Q: You certainly have memories of Syria?
A: I have fond memories of Syria. I miss it and yearn to return there.
Q: What are your feelings regarding the ongoing events in Syria?
A: Agony and pain. It could have become the most stable and harmonious of countries, but now all of its institutions and homes face near total destruction, and frankly no one sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
Due to my long stay in Syria, I know the nature of the social structure there. It is well-known that there is long standing sectarian strife between the Alawites and the Sunnis based on past massacres. The Alawites were able to return to power and the defenses which they have dug since then have become difficult to overcome, and those who thought the regime would surrender and withdraw were mistaken.
I said from the beginning that this regime would not surrender or withdraw. Surrender would be tantamount to death due to the sectarian history at play. When a person is certain they will be killed whether or not they resist, the saying that desperation grants courage becomes true; the desperation of the Alawites has granted them courage, and thus their men and women continue to fight for survival.
The recent turn of events did not surprise me, it was crystal clear. I warned Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden, and Mrs. Clinton of this in Washington when they said that President Assad would fall within two months. I told them he would not fall in two years. They claimed they had information supporting their position. I replied that it made no difference. I told them that I know Syria well and that it will fight, and that the secularists, Christians, and others support them. I said that the conflict will snowball and expand in scope and slowly transform into a proxy war. They rebuffed me simply saying that this was not going to happen. Now it has evolved from a civil war into a proxy war, and has expanded from a regional proxy war to an international proxy war as discussions between Russia and America grow more heated. They seem to have agreed on something recently to resolve the crisis. All of our sentiments and thoughts go out to the Syrian people, and we hope that they secure democracy, political freedom, and the freedoms of expression and association for themselves.
The previous status-quo was unacceptable, but addressing it in this manner has led the country to ruin. How it will ever manage to begin the process of building a new Syria is unknown.
We hope when the dust clears that Syrians will have secured their demands and brought stability to their country. The killing must stop, because as long as it persists there can be no stability. Foreign arms suppliers are compounding the conflict; these weapons make each side feel that it is the stronger, and that it can end the battle through force. Perhaps this method works in other countries, but in Syria, weapons will not decide who wins the battle.
Q: There is talk that the Baath Party in Syria does not surrender or disarm for fear of suffering the same fate as their Iraqi counterparts did in the form of purges. Some feel that the Syrian Baathists in both the army and the political party were not given a safe exit option during the first six months of the conflict. What is your take on this line of argument?
A: The regime does not want a safe exit option because this is impossible. The regime is not looking for a way to step down. Its hands are tied because domestic strife requires that it remain in power and fight to the very end.
Many thought the best bet was on international intervention, as happened in Iraq. However it seems that intervention through force as was done in Iraq is not likely to be replicated in other areas, including Syria, because they have grown weary of such operations.
The regime’s awareness of these international factors gave it the confidence needed to remain steadfast in its decisions. They knew that what had happened to Iraq would not be allowed to happen to Syria, and this is what led the Russians and Chinese to consistently veto intervention.
The Syrian regime is wiser than that of Saddam Hussein; it analyzes and responds to changes in the political landscape very efficiently. Saddam would say that God is with us, and that America is the devil, and that the devil could not conceivably defeat God. Whereas the Syrians have a deep and nuanced political understanding, and they read the situation well when they decided to wager everything on Russia.
Q: In light of the Syrian conflict’s many complexities, how do you see the crisis being resolved?
A: We in Iraq took a neutral stance on the issue. We will feel the results of conflict more acutely than any other country, and we are worried that Al-Qaeda will take root in Syria. It is a fact that the Al-Nusra Front is affiliated with Al-Qaeda and is establishing itself in Syria, and this will have direct repercussions on us in Iraq.
Q: Prime Minister, at a certain stage you claimed that Syria had assisted terrorists cross into Iraqi territory.
A: Yes. The fact that we dealt heavy blows to Al-Qaeda in Iraq does not mean that we do not fear that they will return again by way of Syria under a new regime.
Thus, from the beginning we have assumed a stance of neutrality. We are not with the regime, nor are we against it. We do have an idea of how a solution may be found, and we spoke of it to Messrs. Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, in addition to some delegations present at the Arab summit, and it is currently being discussed.
A peaceful solution is the only option, and I believe that an agreement is on the horizon. Moaz Alkhatib, head of the Syrian National Coalition, has been speaking about it recently despite uproar from within the coalition. It will not occur until all are convinced that the international community is committed to this solution. A new government will be formed and Bashar al-Assad will remain. Elections will be held to determine the makeup of the new national unity government in which Assad will not play a part; as far as I know, this is the current approach.
Q: This seems, Prime Minister, tantamount to asking Saddam Hussein to preside until elections are held?
A: This is the reality whether we like it or not, and we must deal with it, even if it means calling for the formation of a new government and then holding elections. This is the solution available, and there is no option but to resolve this peacefully. Russia strongly opposes demanding the ouster of Bashar, and he himself refuses to step down.
Should he remain during the peaceful transition and then be nominated? It seems that the only solution is if he remains, however he will not nominate himself but will remain under a new government which will include a balanced mix of figures from the opposition and the regime. Elections will be held under international supervision and will determine the composition of the constituent assembly that drafts the new constitution or revises the current one. The government would then be elected based on representation in parliament. We believe that this is the only process that can lead to a peaceful solution.
Q: What is your take on the Arab Spring? Do you see it as merely a chaotic mess or as a phase of change?
A: We engaged with the Arab Spring in all its manifestations because it opposed totalitarian dictatorships, some of which had been very harsh to their people for going on forty years. We are still engaged with the spirit of the Arab Spring, but it seems that things are currently in need of leadership and direction, and if it transforms into a leaderless movement, painful outcomes will result.
Q: There are demonstrations in some regions in Iraq.
A: What is happening in Iraq is not an instance of the Arab Spring. They are protesting specific political issues, and are not making demands. This is because the regime in Iraq is an elected body. This government’s term will end in a year, and new elections will bring about a new government. We do not have a dictator who remains in power for forty years like Gaddafi and others.
Q: In the coming elections, will you run for a third term and attempt to continue as the head of government, despite the objections of Iraqi opposition political forces?
A: This is for the people of Iraq to decide, not me. This is why we say that Iraq is neither a heritage system nor a one-party system; rather we are a multi-party system governed by the constitution and the will of the Iraqi people.
Q: Can you foresee a time in which you will retire and write a biography?
A: I would not mind retiring right now, but that will not come for some time.
Q: Prime Minister, you have spoken about your dissatisfaction about the nature of your relationship with the Gulf states. Why is that?
A: Of course we want our relations with neighbouring countries, particularly in sensitive areas from which the majority of the world’s oil is extracted, to become more advantageous, reciprocal, and sound. This is firstly so we can protect the interests of the people of this region and of the Gulf states, and secondly to protect world energy interests. When conflicts erupt here the repercussions are felt throughout the Arab world and beyond. Therefore it is our goal to build better relationships based on openness and cooperation. Through civil dialogue we will be able to overcome the problems sowed by Saddam Hussein and his ilk, such as the occupation of Kuwait.
Praise be to God, we have come a long way in solving this particular problem. It is no small matter, a country occupying another. However through cooperation and mutual trust we have been able to make great strides.
Therefore I strive to establish better relations with these countries because the status quo is not ideal. We are prepared to enhance the level of cooperation as much as will be allowed, because it is in our interests and theirs.
Q: Given President Talabani’s current state of health, and God willing he will recover soon, how would his absence change things if he does not return to politics?
A: We are not currently commenting on this subject, because we are hopeful that he will recover, God willing, and his state of health has improved lately. As of now there is no talk about who would succeed him or be nominated in his place. We do not like to talk about this issue as long he is alive and there is hope he will recover.
Q: Moving to the topic of Egypt-many current and former Dawa Party leaders, both before and during Imam Sadr’s time, had relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After the regime change in Egypt, Iraqi-Egyptian relations do not seem much different than before. Do you aim to broaden this relationship?
A: We are waiting for the political situation in Egypt to stabilize and for the various crises it is experiencing to pass.
We wish the best for Egypt, it being the largest of the Arab countries, and our hearts and thoughts go out to its people. We hope that it will rise again and pass through its current crisis. Its experience has shown the risks involved in the Arab Spring.
However we are confident in the capabilities of the Egyptian leadership, whether they are from the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Salvation Front, or any other group. They have always been logical and prudent in their efforts to protect Egypt and the Arab nation as a whole. If Egypt were to, God forbid, collapse, it would be an enormous tragedy. Egypt is a great country with challenges on its borders. It is a country with history, culture, and heritage.
We expect that stability will return. During our meeting with President Mursi, we agreed on several issues that perhaps signal the beginning of strong bilateral relations between Iraq and Egypt. We have a good relationship with Egypt, and it was so even during the days of Saddam. We do not interfere in the affairs of others or infringe upon their liberties. Regardless of who is in power, we will strive to maintain a solid relationship with Egypt. This is only natural; we consider Iraq to be a strategically pivotal country and Egypt likewise is a strategically pivotal country. Thus relations between the two countries should be special particularly in light of extremism and escalating violence and terrorism in the region. We believe that Egypt, like Iraq, has dealt with these issues with moderation. With them we hope to form a moderate counterweight to these extremist forces, because many places in the region have succumbed to extremist elements.
Q: Prime Minister, regarding the de-Baathification of Iraq and the men and women who were recently released from prison, has the government made any concrete steps towards reconciliation? Has blanket amnesty been issued and many prosecutions dropped?
A: The government cannot grant blanket amnesty, especially regarding cases of terrorism and embezzlement of public funds. The last time the Council of Representatives granted amnesty it only caused more problems, with many individuals reverting back to terrorism.
Secondly there are victims who demand that the perpetrators be punished. We cannot conceivably forget the people who have been affected, especially the widows and orphans, nor can we forget the damage done to the country over the past years. We are wading in a pool of blood.
We cannot simply ignore all of this. It is neither just nor in keeping with Islam to pardon offenders in this way, to let them come back time and again with amnesty. I have ruled out granting amnesty to those wanted for terrorism or corruption.
This is how it is done in all countries. Whoever embezzles public money ought to be held accountable and punished, and the same goes for terrorists. However, proceedings are undergoing reforms, and there are some cases in which pardons may be allowed. For example, after the accused has paid a sum to the victim, the accused may request a pardon. I, as prime Minister, would write to the office of the presidency, which is responsible for issuing pardons. It is a feasible process which requires some refining.
As for abandoning the de-Baathification process, it cannot be done unilaterally because it is written in the constitution. The only avenue would be to amend the constitution, and as of now that is impossible.
Unfortunately, our constitution is being distorted, and there are some articles that could be amended.
In practice many parties have been excluded from the political process, in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Germany. It is a normal occurrence because the community must be reassured that those responsible for past corruption and graft have been removed from the political scene. Concern spreads in the Iraqi street when it sees the same faces that committed mass murders and used chemical weapons sitting in the front rows of parliament.
Q: Some tribal leaders who were your allies during the elections or even during the war against terrorism are openly criticising government policies. What is your reading of this development?
A: They represent a limited group, and are not a large proportion of Sunni Arabs. However their activities have a political nature. Iraq suffers today from foreign agendas and these activities seem to carry the features of foreign actors which unfortunately assume the shape of sectarianism. Their chants, which are charged with sectarianism and accusations, coupled with the pictures of Saddam Hussein and flags of the Syrian Free Army they carry have aroused uncertainty in the Iraqi people and provoked the Sunni Arab community.
Q: Your relationship with Turkey seems strained. Are there any plans on the horizon to ease this tension?
A: We have repeatedly extended an olive branch to Turkey. We were very optimistic and we had high aspirations for Turkey under the Justice and Development Party.
Q: Was it because they were Islamists?
A: Yes, because they were Islamists, and because they were willing to open up to the Arab and Muslim world. However in reality things did not turn out as expected. We did all we could to open doors for economic cooperation with the Turks.
Q: What is the basis of the dispute between the Iraqi and Turkish governments?
A: The dispute stems from the fact that Turkey wants to act freely in neighbouring countries. It wants to run Iraq, Syria, and other countries. It has even begun to act in this manner towards Egypt. The only problem with Turkey is that it wants to re-establish itself as the regional power.
Q: How does it exert pressure on the region and on Iraq?
A: It relies on sectarianism.
Q: Do they provide material support and influence the facts on the ground?
A: They definitely provide material support and influence the facts on the ground. They consistently host dissidents and extremists in Ankara. As I said, our problem in Iraq with the demonstrations is that some of them are innocent people who have rights, and we welcome them. Others however have a foreign agenda, and they speak openly about secession. Even the president of the Council of Representatives spoke about secession and federal restructuring. This is the crisis between Turkey and us; it is an issue of interfering in our internal affairs.
Q: Protesters criticised certain policies and the targeting of specific offices held by Sunni officials and replacing them with different people. On several occasions you have previously spoken of establishing sectarian quotas, and your critics are describing what is happening as sectarian manoeuvring. What do you have to say in this regard?
A: Firstly they are ministers in government and the extent of their representation depends on election results. Some of them are members of the parliament, and include the ministers of finance, agriculture, education, electricity, and defence. However when a group of ministers withdraws from the cabinet, these offices cannot remain empty and the cabinet left in the dark. This is how it works in all countries. They decided to withdraw in order to topple the government, it is a natural occurrence. In accordance with the constitution, it is my duty to fulfil the role of the executive, so I appointed the same ministers and authorised them to take a month-long vacation. They could have chosen to cut short their vacations and return to their ministerial posts and end the crisis, but they did not return. Instead they tried to convince others to withdraw with them in order to topple the government, but they did not manage to accomplish this. The ball is in their court now because they left the ministries but have not completely distanced themselves from their old posts. They were not forced to leave their offices. There is a difference between a minister leaving his post for the political aim of toppling the government, and being forced to resign. This did not happen; we did not dismiss any of them. Moreover, everyone who wished to return has returned.
Q: Many records of what happened in Iraq during the occupation were removed from the country, is there a project underway to collect and document these records?
A: We have countless records and documents. Many people are working on documenting the history of the occupation and retrieving the records taken by the Americans.
Q: Who do you read when you have the time?
A: I do not read much now. I mainly read reports.
Q: Which authors do you read?
A: Egyptian and Iraqi authors. I dabble in works involving modern thought when time allows.
Q: Which Iraqi writers appeal to you?
A: I enjoy Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, who amazes all who read him, in addition to Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, and Mohammad Mehdi Shamseddine for example. We have Sayyid Qutb’s books in the libraries, in addition to those of Muhammad Qutb. I read the political writings and memoirs of Fahmy Howeidy and Mohamed Amara, and the works of Iranian and Lebanese authors.
Q: Do you read any authors from the Gulf?
A: I read Abdallah Al-Nafisi who is a Kuwaiti writer.
Q: Baghdad will be the Arab Capital of Culture this year, what will be on offer for Arab intellectuals?
A: We are making preparations to print much of Iraq’s cultural heritage and put it on display for the occasion. We have ideas and projects on the table in the ministry of culture which is overseeing these activities.
Q: Are you satisfied with Iraq’s relations with Iran? Do those who criticize the government’s management of this relationship have a point, or are they mistaken?
A: Opposition members are always searching for an excuse to criticize the government, but despite their searching they have not found anything of value. We in Iraq act as Iraqis. We are not Turks, Egyptians, Qataris or Iranians; we are Iraqis. In the new Iraq we operate with an open door policy and search for positive relations with everyone. Our relationship with Turkey is good, with trade value reaching approximately $15 billion. We also enjoy good relations with Iran, the United State, Europe, and Arab countries.
Q: What about the relationship with Saudi Arabia?
A: Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is improving and developing. From the outset we identified building a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia as a goal. My first visit abroad was to Saudi Arabia. I know that a good relationship between our two countries will reflect positively on the region and the Arab peoples.
We are still searching for ways to enhance relations with Saudi Arabia. We strive to cooperate with countries we believe represent moderation, and we believe Saudi Arabia to be one such country.
As for those who criticise our policy towards Iran, they should review the recent events in Iraq. Vice President Joe Biden was apparently told by the Turks that Maliki is carrying out Iranian policy. However he told them to put themselves in Iran’s place and see how they must view Maliki when he strikes at Basra, signs strategic agreements with the United States, and buys weapons and receives training from the United States. These are actions which Iran would certainly not permit if it had control over Iraqi policy. These critiques are filled with empty accusations and they are nothing new. We have a Strategic Framework Agreement with the United States.
Q: Are you optimistic about President Obama’s new term?
A: Mr. Obama has certainly proved that he is both circumspect and good to his word. I credit him for his commitment to implementing the Strategic Framework Agreement, which President Bush had originally signed. President Obama honoured this agreement, even when the whole world thought that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was impossible.
Q: Do you maintain relations with former presidents like Mr. Bush?
A: There is ongoing correspondence. President Bush sends us messages for occasions, as we do him. President Obama also sends us messages and we respond in turn. Why break off relations with people? We do not want to live cut-off from the world and estranged.