Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraq’s new parliametary speaker Salim Al-Jabouri faces a tough task heading the country’s top legislative body at a time when political blocs are jockeying for position behind the Haider Al-Abadi government to confront the advancing Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Iraq’s parliament, particularly during the administration of former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki, was known for its political rifts and division. However this is something that Iraq can no longer afford, Jabouri says, stressing that he will do everything in his power to fulfil the “legitimate” role of the Iraqi legislature.
In a broad-ranging interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Iraq’s senior-most Sunni official spoke about the challenges facing Iraq’s new parliament and government, particularly ISIS, as well as the role played by the Iraqi media in politics and Baghdad’s new foreign policy.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You assumed your post as Speaker of Parliament in an atmosphere rife with domestic and regional crises. What is your priority?
Salim Al-Jabouri: When you meet a challenge characterized by interrelated political and security crises and the absence of state infrastructure, our most prominent and significant priority is to build the features and institutions of the state through political action. In light of the security disorder, the challenges that have reached the walls of Baghdad and the collapse of security in some governorates and its near-collapse in others, we first have to work to prove the existence of the state and move towards building its civil institutions.
Q: You served as a lawmaker in the previous parliament, which failed to achieve concrete results due to disputes between political blocs. What are you going to offer the new parliament as speaker?
One cause of our suffering in the past was that parliament had little value in people’s hearts. The media primarily helped to create this image; it distorted the image of the parliament and [led to] the heated conflict between the parliament and the executive branch of power. The behavior of some lawmakers—due to the absence of parliamentary norms—also contributed to this image. This is something that ultimately damaged the prestige of the legislature in the eyes of the people. Therefore, we want to resuscitate the parliament and prove to Iraqis that we have a ruling legislative power that has clear and constitutional duties and thus bring back constitutional norms. This is what I have embarked on since I took up the post of Parliamentary Speaker.
Q: What legislation do you intend to pursue during your tenure as speaker?
I intend to pursue federation council legislation, federal court legislation, party legislation and freedom of expression legislation. We have [also] found a new constitutional way to position the National Communications and Media Commission under parliamentary supervision.
Q: According to the Iraqi constitution, the legislature is the highest power in the country, but we have noticed in the last period that the executive branch of power has more authority. Would you agree with this?
The parliament is supposed to be the supreme and most influential power in the country—this is how things should be. But unfortunately, in the past there has not been any respect for the parliament or its prestige, and as a result there has been a sense of the government being the most influential and capable of imposing its will, robbing parliament of its constitutional role. For example, the previous parliament failed to summon any of the security or military leaders to appear before it. This indicates a lack of recognition regarding parliament’s legitimate role to question officials and conduct investigations. I believe this is one of the issues that require people’s trust that those who represent them are capable of achieving what they want without anyone being above the law.
Q: How have things changed since you assumed the speakership? For example, you managed to summon Minister of Defense Saadoun Al-Dulaimi and other military leaders following the Camp Speicher massacre committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). How were you able to achieve this?
We conveyed to the Ministry of Defense and military leaders that we are not hostile to them, nor do we aim—by summoning them to appear before parliament—to topple them or the military establishment that we respect. We also told them that the concept of separation between powers means cooperation among these powers in order to achieve the interests of the state and its people.
An undeclared understanding was reached between the three most senior leaders (president, prime minister and speaker of parliament) to settle the strategic issues away from the media in order to strengthen the legislative establishment while preserving the balance and prestige of the executive establishment and the presidency of the republic. Even President Fuad Masoum was largely in favor of this agreement. Therefore, I believe if the executive power wants to maintain its existence it must respect and give greater recognition and attention to the decisions of the parliament.
Q: So far you have mentioned the “media” twice. First, you accused the media of distorting the image of the parliament; second, you said that agreements between the legislative and executive powers have been reached away from the media. Do you really believe that the media played a major role in bringing Iraq to this dire situation?
The media plays a major role, whether negatively or positively, in shaping people’s views towards state institutions and figures. This is something that cannot be overlooked. The media in Iraq has turned into a decision-making institution. Many of the political or governmental leaders have been trying to promote their decisions in a manner that appears acceptable to the media. Although many of these decisions were correct—the way in which the media machine promoted or distorted them was wrong.
Q: But spreading news and reporting facts is one of the main missions of the media, wouldn’t you agree?
Yes, the media is extremely significant. For our part, we have tried to be more open with the media, not because we fear them or are trying to avoid attacks on the parliament, but in order to give the facts and be transparent in conveying information. So far, I believe we have succeeded in this regard.
Q: The previous parliament spent long periods of time dealing with bickering political rivals, to the point that some lawmakers objected on principle to any legislation proposed by their rivals. This intransigent approach deprived the Iraqi people of potentially beneficial legislation. How do you plan to prevent a repeat of this scenario?
We are working on a project to assemble some lawmakers to form what resembles a mini-parliament. They will be joined by a number of intellectuals known for their clear, patriotic visions. We may also seek the help of influential government figures, on the condition that this body’s decisions and ideas have a practical impact on the ground. This body will be tasked with discussing the strategic issues that relate to state-building. State-building is the most important issue in terms of political reform. We have to embark on the process to build civil institutions in all fields, whether judicial, cultural, economic, the media and beyond.
Q: Throughout its four-year term, the previous parliament failed to produce legislation that served the Iraqi people’s interests. Some observers go so far as to say that most of the legislation passed by the previous parliament solely served the interests of the parliamentarians themselves. Do you agree?
I think there has been legislation that served the interests of Iraqis, such as the social security law and some of the core issues achieved by other competent committees. Ultimately, it was the executive branch of power that hampered the process.
Let me announce to you for the first time that parliament is going to evaluate its achievements, and be held accountable for these, on the basis of reports and research conducted by non-parliamentary bodies—that is to say civil organizations. Parliament will also hold a session next week to discuss a report that has been issued regarding the work of the previous parliament, exploring its positive and negative attributes. This report will tackle the previous parliament’s failures and successes, look at the proportion of attendance, as well as the number of holidays taken by lawmakers. No names will be mentioned so that we do not invade personal privacy. We will determine our future strategy in the light of past mistakes. The report has been prepared and distributed to the MPs and will be discussed next Thursday.
Q: You hosted families of the victims of the Camp Speicher massacre after they stormed parliament. You also summoned military leaders to discuss how ISIS was able to carry out this terrible act. Can you tell us the latest regarding this incident?
This massacre took place last June at a time of parliamentary vacuum. We are now dealing with the vestiges of a massacre whose features have been lost. The crime scene is still a battleground, evidence is lost and witnesses contradict each other. Multiple parties were involved and the investigation is intertwined and confused. Soldiers’ accounts vary. Tribes played a role, and the statements of security leaders are contradictory.
As for the new parliament, we hosted the families of the victims and summoned military leaders, including the minister of defense, to answer questions about this incident. We sent official and unofficial dispatches to Camp Speicher to conduct investigations. We have collected evidence and referred it to a committee tasked with investigating this crime. That committee is still working and we are waiting for its report.
Q: Although the minister of defense appeared before parliament, a number of MPs expressed objections against former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki for failing to turn up at the hearing. Others even say that Maliki must be held accountable for this massacre, given that it took place under his purview, at a time when he was commander-in-chief. What is your view?
If the reports and outcome of the investigation prove that the former prime minister is responsible, we will announce that in order for [legal] measures to take their course. We hold senior military leaders, including the defense minister, responsible for what happened and inquired about the absence of the former Commander of the Armed Forces. The process of summoning military leaders took place at night before the parliamentary session. Usually, [parliament] should take into account the circumstances of the ones it summons . . .I can say 10 military and security leaders responded to our call.
Q: Who is responsible for the collapse and retreat of the Iraqi army in the face of ISIS’s advance on Mosul and the ensuing Camp Speicher massacre?
Definitely, there are those who are responsible for what happened, but we are in a state of war, so to speak; this is a war of extermination against our people. Our military leaders are responsible for some form of negligence and the collapse [of the army] was obvious. Many sides are responsible, but the degree of responsibility varies according to the role, status and position of each side. It is difficult for me to determine who shoulders the most responsibility for what happened. Mismanagement of the legislative power prevented [state] institutions from playing their roles. The political situation was confused&##8212;this is something that also impacted people’s reactions. The biggest problem is when people sympathize with terrorists in the belief that they represent salvation from tragedy.
Q: In your opinion, who is responsible for the army’s retreat from Mosul?
On the military level, it is well known and clear that the [former] commander-in-chief of the armed forces [Maliki] is the one who bears this responsibility. Also the defense minister, military leaders and government are responsible.
Q: Are there any signs of the crisis between Erbil and Baghdad being resolved?
Yes, there are efforts to resolve the crisis between the federal government and the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. Nobody’s interests are served by the crisis between Baghdad and Erbil continuing. Problems relating to the gas and oil law must be solved, as well as the issue of disputed territory. The participation of Kurds in the decision-making process is necessary, and the presence of Kurdish ministers in the federal government will give it greater significance. Thus far, Kurdish ministers have not taken the constitutional oath of office.
Q: How important is the Paris conference, where international forces agreed to work together against ISIS, for Iraq and its future?
It is the beginning of a new international interest in what Iraq is going through. The conference is seeking to tackle Iraq’s security problems by means of combating ISIS, other terrorist groups and eradicating militias. This major international response and support for Iraq to end its security crises is unprecedented. What came out of the conference was a confirmation of what the superpowers have decided with regards to the fight against ISIS. This is a beginning in which Iraq will have a major and significant role.
Q: What is your vision in terms of repairing Iraq’s ties with its Arab neighbors?
Yes, there are many ways to address this important issue. Let me reveal to you that Iraq’s parliament has begun to form delegations to visit Arab countries following invitations from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Jordan, and Egypt. The delegations will include a number of MPs from different blocs in order to develop Iraq’s ties with Arab countries. We feel we will not be able to achieve anything without deep ties with our Arab environs
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.