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Masoum: Iraq must open a new page with the Arab world - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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New Iraqi President Fouad Massoum meets with Nickolay Mladenov, United Nations envoy to Iraq, at the Presidential Office in Baghdad, Sunday, July 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

New Iraqi President Fuad Masoum meets with Nickolay Mladenov, United Nations envoy to Iraq, at the Presidential Office in Baghdad, Sunday, July 27, 2014. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraqi President Fuad Masoum now finds himself preoccupied with a dozen different issues where previously he had been engrossed with just one; the formation of the next government.

Asharq Al-Awsat caught up with Iraq’s president just days after parliament voted to approve Haider Al-Abadi’s government, including the appointment of outgoing prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki as one of Masoum’s three vice presidents. Iyad Allawi and former speaker of parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi have also been tapped for VP.

In a wide-ranging interview, Asharq Al-Awsat talked to the veteran Kurdish lawmaker about the Abadi government, the threat that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to have on the country and his hopes for the future.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Iraq’s parliament has now approved Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s government. Did Abadi face a tough task forming this government?

Fuad Masoum: In a country like Iraq and under such circumstances the government must have a broad base; forming such a government is fraught with problems. Every side would like to see the government biased in their favor, considering their proposals to be a top priority. Everyone wants to make additional points here and there as if the program of government was meant to represent one specific party. Any government that is formed must bear in mind a number of basic points. In Iraq there are priorities which we must agree on, namely, fighting terrorism, uniting stances against this phenomenon, providing services to citizens and reorganizing the military and security services. All of these things are interrelated.

Among the obstacles facing the formation of the government was the fact that each side wanted to be represented in the cabinet line-up. Therefore, there are always many difficulties with every new government formation, leading to some problems like what happened on the eve of the confidence vote when verbal altercations and disputes ensued within parliament itself. But in the end the government was formed and that is the most important thing.

It is true that some ministries remain vacant, and this may be for the public interest; but this does not mean that they must be assigned to the prime minister. It must be agreed and ensured that whoever is assigned the security portfolios [Interior and Defense ministries] are competent. Leading these two ministries represents a difficult task and ministers will be named within the coming week or two.

Q: Like the majority of Iraqi politicians, you say this government marks a change from previous governments in Baghdad. But isn’t it also true to say that we have seen the return of many familiar faces?

Change does lie in names or faces. This government insists that its policy is in line with Iraq’s reality. The prime minister and the majority of ministers I met and talked with were optimistic about the success of this government. We have to try to support it in order for it to succeed.

Q: Rumor has it that you were on the verge of asking Nuri Al-Maliki to form a government, opening the door for a controversial third term in office. Are these rumors true?

Had I wanted to ask Maliki to form the government I would have done so on my first day in office. Maliki is a friend and we have a good relationship but of course personal relationships are one thing and consulting with others and serving the public interest is something else.

Q: What is your view of the Kurdish position and the absence of Kurdish ministers during the vote of confidence?

Kurds in general have suffered at the hands of the former government. For example, when Baghdad cut Erbil’s finances and deprived civil servants there from their salaries, I was an MP and I told the officials in Baghdad that they could not expect this to result in a “Kurdish Spring” in Kurdistan, with protesters attacking the headquarters of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). On the contrary, Kurds would immediately remember their history of maltreatment at the hands of Iraqi governments and say that this [Maliki’s] government is no different than the ones that preceded it. Therefore, Kurdish sides needed—and this is their right—some extra time for discussion before they could agree to participate in this new government. As a result, the Kurds decided to participate in and support this government while putting forward some of the points they had agreed on among themselves.

Q: Is their participation in the Abadi government subject to conditions and guarantees?

Yes, political and ethical guarantees are necessary. Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds and everyone participating in the government has the right to demand guarantees . . .What we mean by guarantees is reaching an agreement on the government platform and the mechanisms for its implementation. Some issues require a time-frame to be implemented; some need six months, other only weeks. When there is a sense that there is seriousness regarding implementing this platform, the situation will witness a breakthrough and the different sides will begin to exhibit trust. This is necessary; trust does not come through promises, only through practical steps. Everyone needs everyone and if one component refuses to participate then the government will be lacking. Therefore, it is the duty of any government to listen to the suffering of any component and work to alleviate it and I believe this government will succeed in doing that.

Q: Do you find it necessary for the president to have three vice presidents?

This is a legislation that was drawn up by parliament in 2011. The president of the republic does not need three vice presidents. He may need one. But since the government in Iraq is formed on the basis of components and consensus, the law must seek the representation of political blocs, although in reality there is no need for three vice presidents.

Q: According to Iraq’s constitution, the powers of the president are limited and mostly ceremonial. In this case, what is the role of the three vice presidents?

The powers of the president are both limited and unlimited. The constitution clarifies that it is not in his power to do so and so but his most important task is to protect the constitution which includes almost everything: protecting it against breaches, neglect and misinterpretations. This is a major task and I am committed to the preservation of the constitution.

Q: Now that the government has been formed, what are your priorities as president?

My priorities are to follow up on the work of the government, provide council to its members and assign tasks to them. There is also a host of proposals we intend to put forward, most prominently regarding national reconciliation. We need to achieve national reconciliation among the components of the Iraqi people on the one side and the political sides on the other. This is an extremely significant issue and we must move forward with it immediately. I am going to propose monthly meetings between the country’s three most-senior leaders (president, prime minister and speaker of parliament) and their deputies, also including the leaders of political blocs and coalitions, to discuss the course of events in the country and how to address urgent problems. There are also plans aimed at paying more attention to culture, the media, society and higher education.

Q: In a previous interview with Asharq Al-Awsat you spoke of the formation of a supreme policy council. What is the latest regarding this initiative?

This is what I meant by the monthly meeting between Iraq’s senior leaders. However it does not necessarily mean the establishment of a formal council with its own rules and regulations.

Q: What can you tell us about the Paris conference on Iraq?

The date for the conference has been set for next week. The conference is based on a call from French President François Hollande to fight ISIS and support Iraq to confront terrorism. The European Union and US will participate and regional countries, particularly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Kuwait, Turkey and Iran will also be invited. ISIS is not a threat to Iraq alone but to all the countries of the region. It has yet to be decided whether the representation would be on the level of presidents or prime ministers.

Q: Do you think Iraq can patch up its ties with the Arab world?

This is necessary. Our ties with our Arab neighbors, all Arab states and the Arab League are important. Iraq must turn over a new page and eliminate the problems in terms of its relations with the Arab world.

Q: Your predecessor Jalal Talabani famously refused to ratify death sentences, tasking his vice presidents to do so instead. Do you intend to continue this policy?

Iraqi constitution stipulates the death penalty. Condemning someone to death is a very hard thing for me but the current circumstances in Iraq does not allow suspending the death penalty. How can one tolerate a murderer who deliberately killed innocent citizens or children? They must be punished and I will be extremely precise and careful while looking into the files of those condemned to death. I will not approve any death sentence until I ascertain that the case meets all the legal and judicial requirements. I may [also] resort to the same method adopted by President Talabani.

This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.