Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—The recent struggle to form a new Iraqi government has refocused attention on the country’s presidency, and its new occupant, the veteran Kurdish leader Fuad Masoum, elected to the job by the Iraqi parliament at the end of July.
Though largely a ceremonial position according to Iraq’s constitution, the country’s head of state is tasked with selecting its next prime minister, something of a poisoned chalice given the uncertainty and turmoil stemming from outgoing Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s determination to hang onto the job after the inconclusive parliamentary elections at the end of April.
Maliki finally threw in the towel last week, clearing the way for the man nominated by Masoum, Haider Al-Abadi, to take up the herculean task of stopping the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and knitting Iraq’s shredded social, economic, and political fabric back together.
In his first major press interview since taking office, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to President Masoum about his decision to ask Abadi to begin forming a government, Maliki’s legal challenge to his decision, and what he hopes to accomplish as Iraq’s new president.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How did you make the decision to ask Haider Al-Abadi to form a government?
President Fuad Masoum: After taking the oath [of office] in parliament, I felt great responsibility. The nomination of Nuri Al-Maliki was there from the first day, but I felt I should seek the advice of others and extended the circle of discussion taking into account the opinions of religious authorities, as they are very important on such sensitive matters. According to my modest experience, the religious authority always [backs] the principle of agreement and commitment to the constitution, and when the political blocs reached a political agreement, I made the decision to task Haider Al-Abadi to form a new government. I would like to point out here that I remained silent throughout that period until the decision was made.
Q: Why did you remain silent?
I remained silent and did not make any statements to stop the media interfering in the decision.
Q: You were one of the leading members of the group that drafted Iraq’s constitution. What do you think of Maliki’s claim that you had violated the constitution by not asking him to form a government, and that this move was more dangerous than the Mosul crisis?
Mr. Maliki defended his position in an attempt to renew his premiership and that is his right. However, in the end, he accepted the decision we made and supported the nomination of Abadi, and that was a step which preserved harmony, which is the main basis of building the political process in Iraq. I am confident that there was no violation of the constitution.
Q: How confident were you about the legal integrity of your decision as you signed the decree tasking Abadi with forming a government?
Had my decision not been based on the constitution, I would not have made it. There may be some parties who interpret the decision differently, but I believed in the integrity of my decision and made it according to my belief. Also, I was part of the team that drafted the Iraqi constitution and, as you can see, the decision was welcomed nationally, regionally, and internationally, which we did not expect, and many legal and constitutional experts confirmed the integrity of my decision.
Q: But the State of Law coalition of Nuri Al-Maliki had a different opinion . . .
I would like to point out that my circle of consultations included the State of Law coalition too. There were those within the State of Law who were against the nomination of Maliki. The nomination of Abadi for the position of deputy speaker was suggested by the National Alliance, and therefore, it was not possible to form a government without considering the whole situation surrounding it, and if the issue was linked to relationships and personal friendships, I would have nominated Maliki for the post.
Q: Has your personal friendship with Maliki, which you described as “special” in the days when you awarded him his master’s degree (you were a member of his examining board), been affected, especially after he called for you to be referred to the judiciary for violating the constitution and breaking the oath?
My relationship with Maliki goes back to the early 1990s and our friendship has continued. On my part, I will preserve this friendship, and following the speech in which he conceded the premiership and announced his support for the nomination to Abadi, I wrote to him congratulating him on this initiative and his reply was friendly. Personal relationships are one thing and public interests are another, and even if we have differences today, we will have to meet tomorrow, and that is life.
Q: For the first time, the three highest positions (prime minister, president, and speaker of parliament) in Iraq have been chosen through elections within each bloc—Sunni, Shi’te, and Kurdish. How much freedom do you and your colleagues have from these blocs?
I think this is a positive step, because a president who is not accepted by his bloc and relies on the votes of other blocs would appear weak. However, that does not mean they should be part of their bloc and prioritize its interests over public interests. The president of the Republic is the president of all Iraqis, and the parliament speaker is the head of all parliamentary blocs, and the prime minister is the prime minister of the whole of Iraq.
Q: What are your priorities as president? How will you ensure the constitution is respected, given that people disagree about it?
Among my priorities is adherence to the constitution and to protect it from any possible violations by any state institution, and then to work on creating a calm atmosphere between the legislative and executive powers, because Iraqi people voted for the constitution by a huge majority. The interpretation of its articles may be different from one person to another, but the constitution is binding for all and the Constitutional Court is the party which has the right to interpret its [the constitution’s] articles.
Q: The process of forming a new government has started. Do you have a specific vision for a new government that you want to see implemented?
Yes, I have views regarding this issue, which I will present to the political parties to discuss in their consultations to from a government. These views include the formation of a Higher Committee for National Policies, which includes all three sovereign posts and the leaders of the blocs, and this will be part of the agreement of the ruling coalition.
I will also call for the formation of a Higher Defense Council, which again includes the [president, speaker and prime minister] and the leaders of the [political] blocs, in addition to the defense, foreign, and finance ministers, and the military commanders . . . because reforming the army and security services is not just a professional task, but something the political and military leaderships should undertake together.
I also see that it is important to reform the reconstruction council, because most of the major projects were carried out during the monarchical era through a reconstruction council, which was reformed but remained only an idea. Among the priorities which we want the government to carry out is to issue a general amnesty ratified by parliament, and the activation of the [anti-corruption] Commission of Integrity and the amendment of some of its articles, because corruption has spread frighteningly.
Q: As mentioned, there has been across-the-board support for Abadi’s appointment, nationally, regionally, internationally. How can this be translated into the creation of strong state institutions and respect for the idea of the separation of powers?
I feel totally satisfied about the internal consensus because the phase we are going through requires this consensus, as well as regional and international consensus. This means the review of state institutions and the instilling of the principle of separation of powers, and then the work on bolstering relations with neighboring states, Arab states and friendly states around the world on the basis of joint interests.
Q: How do you view the endorsement of Abadi by the Gulf states? Do you have a plan to capitalize on this support, especially given that Iraq’s relations with the Gulf states, particularly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have been difficult in the last few years?
Iraq’s relations with some Gulf countries are generally good, but the support we received, especially from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, will form a good platform for improving the relations because we see a link between Iraq and the Gulf states, and we specifically want to make relations with the Kingdom stronger and lasting, and we will start working towards this in the near future.
Q: What is the first step?
We will make contacts and take initiatives, and we will hold meetings between Saudi and Iraqi officials at all levels during the UN General Assembly next month. I think we are facing a joint danger, which is the danger of terrorism, and the danger ISIS poses to everyone requires coordination at all levels.
Q: You are close to Jalal Talabani, and have now succeeded him as Iraq’s second Kurdish president. Will you follow in his footsteps, or seek to strike out in a different direction?
President Talabani is a distinguished, historic person who commands respect. He held the presidency for two consecutive terms and during his tenure he was a [political] safety valve. He had the wonderful ability to find common points between different political parties and focused on them to find solutions to disputes. I have been at his side since the establishment of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1975, and I hope I can be that safety valve [as well], and be able to work to bring the points of view closer to preserve a united and democratic Iraq.
Q: What do you say to those who think the presidency should have gone to a Sunni Arab?
The sovereign posts are not the monopoly of any specific constituency, but the current custom is the way it is. Maybe one day we will reach a point where the posts are considered according to citizenship, not constituency.
Q: How can the complicated relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdistan region be resolved?
I think that dialogue will be sufficient to resolve the contentious issues between Baghdad and [Erbil], according to the constitution. A delegation from the region will visit Baghdad soon to resume talks to find solutions to the sticking points [in the dispute], and for my part I will work to bring the points of view closer as much as possible.
Q: Do you support the idea of appointing a female vice-president?
I strongly support the idea; but it is in the hands of the political blocs who make the nomination and it is also subject to consensus.
This in an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic