Asharq Al-Awsat found him to be more pessimistic in its recent interview with him in his Baghdad office. In a wide-ranging interview, he admitted that he feared the return to widespread violence, but struck a defiant tone on his endorsement of the demands of the protesters that have filled the squares of Sunni towns and cities in Iraq, insisting that they were merely attempting to uphold their constitutional rights, and that he has a duty to help them.
The following interview has been edited for length:
Asharq Al-Awsat: It was said that you sided with your list, Al-Iraqiya and with a certain group, namely the Sunni Arabs, when you addressed the demonstrators in Mosul and adopted their demands. What is your comment?
Osama Al-Nujaifi : I believe in national unity and in defending the oppressed whoever they are. I did not side with anyone but I now see that the injustice has centered on certain governorates and a certain group, the Sunni Arabs, as a result of policies, convictions, and actions—and not just words—by government and political parties.
Because of all this, I had to intervene and defend these people. If any injustice befalls anyone in Iraq, whether they are Shi’ites, Sunnis, Kurds, or Turkoman, I will defend them from the premise that I am first an Iraqi and that as the speaker of the Council of Representatives, I should speak on behalf of the Iraqi people, and am responsible for the application of the constitution. I have taken up the banner of defending Iraqis. The injustice centered on the western and northern governorates and I saw it as my duty to stand with the Iraqis there, work to restore their rights in full, restore the balance to the country, and have a single benchmark for dealing with Iraqis on the basis of citizenship.
If some parties want to discriminate between Iraqis and deal with them on the basis of their religion, doctrine or nationality, then they are wrong. We must respond to this injustice and reckless behavior and take a personal stand on behalf of those I represent, with those people who are victims of injustice.
Q: Do you believe that Sunni Arabs are marginalized or oppressed at present?
I said this more than two years ago, and the fact is that this is not just my conviction as a politician who knows this issue inside and out but also that of the man in the street. This marginalization, injustice, and targeting of the Sunni Arabs have become a phenomenon. Even Muqtada Al-Sadr, one of the known Shi’ite leaders, mentioned this several times, as did the Shi’ite religious leadership in Najaf which has raised this issue and has spoken about it many times.
Even Shi’ite leaders who do not say this publicly say it to us in secret. They are not happy with what is happening in the country. There is one reason for this targeting of the Sunni Arabs, and it is the weakness of the one behind it, who has lost popular support and wants to incite sectarianism to win the people’s votes and scare them that there is a threat to the regime, and an attempt to return to the former regime and things like that.
We are saying that these actions are tantamount to a systematic policy pursued by some parties in government to humiliate the people and treat them as inferiors, and have been employed against certain provinces for a long period of time.
I therefore believe that hiding these facts is not right and a breach of official responsibility … As I have said, I stood with these people to defend them against the injustice befalling them and against those who have oppressed them.
Q: Do you view the demands of the demonstrators in the western and northern governorates as legitimate?
Their demands are clear and do not need explanation. They can be summed up as achieving justice, creating a balance in the state, repealing some legislation that has been used badly against their community, making government more transparent, and reforming the judiciary. All these are clear and unambiguous matters. They demand the rights enshrined in the constitution, but which have been upheld in a selective way. Some laws are all right but are implemented in a selective way, such as the Accountability and Justice Law that was applied in some governorates while others were exempted from it. There are even people in breach of this law who have been given posts and are today quite prominent, while some parts of the constitution are being ignored.
Q: But there are some demands in these demonstrations calling for bringing down the government and repealing the constitution. Do you consider this legitimate?
Some voices appeared among the demonstrators demanding the repeal of the constitution and the regime’s downfall. These are totally rejected by us and the demonstrators. Some slogans that were alien to the spirit of the demonstrators’ demands were voiced in Al-‘Izzah and Al-Karamah Square in Ramadi, and these were expelled forcibly by the demonstrators from the square. Muqtada Al-Sadr praised the latter’s actions.
Q: How do you explain the raising of the flag of the former regime by some demonstrators?
That was a misguided action by a very small number of people and provides justification for some accusations. Raising the flag does not actually change anything and this represents only the person raising it. In one demonstration, some raised Al-Qaeda’s flag, and the demonstrators totally rejected it.
We are saying that there should be compliance with the constitution and the overwhelming majority of those leading and directing the demonstrators are demanding their legal constitutional rights. But when there are half a million demonstrators and then one person raises a flag here and another one there, then this represents this single person and not the demonstration or demonstrators [as a whole].
Q: Are you supporting these demonstrations for electoral reasons?
No, never. I have said before, I defend the people’s rights before and after the elections and have been doing it for a long time. The demonstrations coincided with the election date and started after the residence of Dr. Rafie Al-Isawi [a leading Al-Iraqiya member and former finance minister] was targeted.
The one who planned the persecution of Isawi was the one who ignited the latent anger at the injustice imposed on the people. These demonstrations began, spread everywhere in Iraq, and have made the demonstrators’ demand very clear. There is absolutely no connection with the elections and no one is electioneering in these demonstrations. Those stepping up to the platforms are clerics, tribal sheikhs and nationalist figures and youths, and there is not an elections poster or slogan on display.
Q: Most of you in the Al-Iraqiya List are Sunni Arab leaders, but Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi was sentenced to death on terrorism charges and is now outside Iraq. Salih Al-Mutlak was marginalized because of a statement in which he described Prime Minister Maliki as “a dictator.” Al-Isawi’s residence was raided and he was accused of protecting terrorism. Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition demanded withdrawal of confidence from you as speaker of the Council of Representatives. All these names are of Sunni Arabs. What kind of national participation is being talked about?
This is the persecution that we are talking about—the sectarian way the law is applied and the obvious targeting of the symbols of the Sunni Arab community. The aim is to break the will of the Sunnis in Iraq. The one who has followed this road has made a mistake because the demonstrations are the best evidence that this was a mistake because he has circumvented the people’s feelings, weakened the country and government, disrupted the political process, and dealt selectively in a disrespectful way with ministers and leaders. When [Al-Iraqiya] ministers did not attend the cabinet meetings, he [Maliki] gave them compulsory vacations, banned them from entering their ministries, and withdrew their protection teams.
Q: Does the prime minister believe you pose a danger to him?
The danger comes from the attempt by him [Maliki] to impose a sectarian system on the country. More dangerous than this is the imposition of narrow partisan and personal agendas. The majority of the Shi’ites in Iraq are not happy with these actions and are resisting them with the means available to them. The religious leadership in Al-Najaf and Al-Sadr and the Higher Islamic Council chairman, Ammar Al-Hakim, reject these agendas.
But these actions are tantamount to a partisan and personal stand that hides behind the [Shi’ite] community and doctrine, and its aim is to consolidate the regime and liquidate its political adversaries and partners, renege on agreements, and ignore the demands for balance and justice in applying the law.
Q: You demanded the withdrawal of Iraqiya ministers in one of your speeches at the Mosul demonstrations. Why did you not discuss this issue while part of the coalition?
We discussed it as Iraqiya leaders and agreed that there must be resignation from the government. Implementation was postponed until the proper time … Dr. Rafie Al-Isawi asked the Iraqiya leadership to approve his resignation, but we proposed that he postpone this step until the resignation was collective. But there was a special circumstance in Anbar’s demonstrations, and he announced his resignation. It was the same with Agriculture Minister Dr. Izaddin Al-Dawlah, who announced his resignation after the demonstrators in Mosul were targeted with live fire, killing one of them and wounding others. Dr. Abdelkarim Al-Samarra’i tendered his resignation to the demonstrators in Samarra.
Some ministers and Iraqiya leaders returned to the cabinet and rebelled against the decision. We expect the remaining ministers to comply with Iraqiya’s decision. We are convinced that it is futile to remain in this government, and that there is a collective responsibility for what the government is doing to the Iraqi people. Any minister who remains in the cabinet carries a share of the responsibility for this misguided policy that has started to threaten the Iraqi people’s unity and cohesiveness.
Q: The government is saying that it has fulfilled a large part of the demonstrators’ demands, but the demonstrators have remained in the squares for almost four months….
It is a big lie when the Iraqi government says it has fulfilled the demonstrators’ demands. The committees it formed did not offer or achieve anything important. The demonstrators know this and are continuing their sit-ins until their legitimate demands are met. They are in their fourth month now, and I say they will not retreat even if years pass because they have broken the fear barrier and rebelled. They will not accept humiliation any more, nor the torture, the sectarian killing or oppression. Never. They are struggling for the rights of all Iraqis and not those of a particular community or sect. There must be an awakening and the return of conscience to the Iraqi political parties to force the prime minister to change his policy or replace him with another one from the National Alliance.
Q: Do you not think that your decision to withdraw from the government was late?
There was a conviction after the Erbil agreement that there should be a commitment to implementing it, that there would be coordination and cooperation, and that there would be the enactment of some important laws.
But the Erbil agreements were not implemented, and the problems started from the first day of forming the government. Since that day, we have been in a dispute with the prime minister, and have been trying to use legal and constitutional ways to change this situation. But we have not seen any response and believe that Maliki pursued deliberately this policy of total control of the security portfolio and does not accept power sharing. He did not accept partnership. He did not accept the national balance. He did not accept the internal bylaws of the premiership and left the state to proceed in a loose and haphazard way.
After securing his own position and after and the American forces’ withdrawal, he clearly targeted his adversaries and is now continuing to do so. Actually, there are not any of the partners who do not have a problem with Maliki. The Kurds are angry, and the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga are facing each other in the disputed areas. The Iraqiya coalition withdrew from the government and the Al-Sadr movement did the same. Two thirds of the ministers are outside the government today. Are all the parties and partners wrong and Maliki right? The truth is that [Maliki’s] individual policies serve the interest of one person and a small group from the Al-Da’wa Party and are against the interests and aspirations of the Iraqi people, Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Kurds alike. This is obvious to us and to the ordinary citizen.
Q: If that is the situation, and there are all these disagreements and problems, then how do you explain the prime minister’s position remaining strong and his government surviving?
There are, of course, several circumstances that have enabled him to control the country, such as his interference in the judiciary, the extensive hegemony over and taming of the judicial authority, and his harassment of the Council of Representatives and not allowing it to function properly, in cooperation with the judicial authority that started to reject everything the council legislated.
He prevented the deputies from carrying out their duty and banned the Human Rights Commission’s members from visiting jails. He closed the roads to prevent parliamentarians visiting certain areas. He has even started to say that deputies do not have immunity outside the parliament and that the immunity is inside it only, and a member of parliament can be arrested if he comes out to the media center to make a statement. He sent us an official memorandum about this.
Q: Is this conceivable?
Yes. We received an official letter from one of Maliki’s peerless advisers saying Council of Representatives members do not have immunity outside parliament. We of course answered this. But there is interference by the prime minister in the independent bodies’ work.
Q: What has been the response of parliament?
We have been arguing with him from day one, preventing him from carrying out these actions and summoning him to parliament to question him about the security situation, but he refuses to come. He has come to parliament only once in two years to answer the deputies’ questions.
The other, more important, issue is his total control of the security portfolio, the security services, and the defense, interior and national security ministries and the intelligence service. He is the prosecutor and the judge. He arrests whomever he wants, pardons whomever he wants, accuses whomever he wants, and releases whomever he wants while the judiciary is silent or collaborating with him.
It reached the point where he issued a warrant for the arrest of Rafie Al-Isawi and the warrant was circulated to the checkpoints. When the deputies cross the checkpoints, they are asked about his whereabouts. When we established the “United” coalition in which Isawi is a leading member, the army started to tear up the posters for the local elections because Isawi was on them.
Regrettably, the army and security forces commanders have joined the politics game and are getting orders directly from Maliki to target his political adversaries. More than that, the army and police are the ones putting up the elections posters for the prime minister’s list in the streets and tearing up the posters of the other lists. This is happening while the state’s institutions remain incomplete, legislation is not debated or passed, and there are no bylaws for the cabinet that specifies the nature and limits of its authority.
Q: Do you believe there is international support for the prime minister?
Certainly. The Americans and Iranians support Maliki. During his recent visit to Baghdad I met the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and he said, “We see the democratic experience in Iraq collapsing.”
I answered him: “You are the reason. You prevented his questioning in parliament last year and this year. You and the Iranians are backing Maliki in everything.”
I told him that this was interference in the affairs of Iraq, and was preventing Iraq from taking the route of democracy. He asked me about the solution for this situation and we presented proposals to him, among them the government’s resignation and the formation of a provisional one or holding early elections on the condition that they were beyond Maliki’s control, because he cannot be trusted in this matter. Maliki decided to postpone the Anbar and Ninawa elections illegally and in a sectarian way and did not consult the Council of Representatives. I say he does not wish the elections to be held in these two provinces so as to incite chaos and encourage the extremists in these areas so he can then tell the Iraqi people that the political process is futile.
What do we tell the people if the elections need to be held and they are prevented from voting? This pushes the people into taking other options far removed from the constitutional ones and this is a dangerous road that disrupts the political process and threatens Iraq’s stability.
Q: Did you not discuss this, the decision to postpone the elections in Ninawa and Anbar, in the Council of Representatives?
No. It was not referred to us. We are ready to discuss it, but what is the use of doing so? Maliki will not accept parliament’s opinion and will not implement it in the same way he did not with past decisions by the council, decisions that had the power of law. We enacted laws and he did not implement them. Some of them were revoked by the Federal Court and others were shelved. These are not the action of a constitutional state where there is a separation of powers.
Q: Members of parliament anywhere in the world are called “legislators,” but Iraq’s Federal Court has said that legislation is not one of the Council of Representatives’s tasks. What is your comment?
This is an attempt to tame parliament. Legislation, supervision, and upholding the constitution are the basic tasks of the council. It is obvious that ten of its members or one of its committees propose the laws, the draft laws come from the government or the presidency but go through the legislative process and are changed according to the deputies’ proposal or decision. Even if a draft law came from the government, it could still be changed completely. The majority votes and the laws are ratified.
But to prevent the council from carrying out its legislative tasks by a fatwa from the Federal Court means breaking the people’s power and will and taming and weakening parliament and is an attempt to tighten control over the security, political, and legislative power of the state, and impose this hegemony on the Iraqi people.
Q: What are your thought on solutions to address the current situation?
Iraq is really facing a real threat under the current policy. We fear the supremacy of violence. Demonstrators were killed in Fallujah, and not a single attacker was brought before the courts even though parliamentary committees investigated the incident and proved that the army opened fire on unarmed and peaceful demonstrators for no reason at all.
This constant friction between the army and security forces on one side and the demonstrators on the other could detonate clashes at any time. We are warning of this and saying the demonstrators’ demands must be met and those involved in shedding Iraqi blood should be brought before the judiciary, not only those who killed the demonstrators in broad daylight, but also those who tortured the detainees and yet remained in their posts and were defended.
Q: How do you view Al-Iraqiya’s coalition today? Is it strong?
It started strong and went through periods of weakness, and we can say now that it is strong. There are arguments between two groups [inside the coalition]. The first calls for making peace with Maliki at the expense of the people’s interests and says it is useless to confront him and we must remain silent until his remaining stay in power ends. The other trend, which is the majority, stresses the withdrawal from the government, standing with the demonstrators and the people’s rights, and coordinating with the other forces that are unhappy with the government’s performance. This difference in the arguments might cause a split in the List if some brothers insist on implementing their approach. Yet the majority is cohesive.
Q: Tariq Al-Hashemi, a leading member in your coalition and the vice president, reproached Iraqiya for not supporting him when he was accused and considers what happened to Isawi another example of what happened to him.
On the issue of being persecuted, this is true. Several Iraqiya leaders are on the government’s list of targets. The assassinations are in full swing. Five Iraqiya candidates in the provincial council elections were recently assassinated. But we certainly are not lax in defending brother Tariq Al-Hashemi. The list stood with and defended him from the first day. We are certain that he was subjected to an injustice and the falsification of facts. His case is one of political persecution and it reached the point of torturing his guards and the death of some of them because of the torture. Some of them were sentenced to death like he was in absentia. We could not stop this but opposed it and continue to oppose it.
We are demanding a review of the case and a re-investigation because there are parties in the government that want to punish Hashemi for his national stand and also Dr. Isawi for the same reason. Other Iraqiya leaders might face the same charge. Dr. Iyad Allawi or Osama Al-Nujaifi might be the target. The police force protecting the house of Dr. Iyad, Iraqiya’s leader and former prime minister, was withdrawn yesterday. I say that we respect Hashemi and his national history and his reproach is acceptable. For us, he remains one of Iraqiya’s leaders and are proud of him as a patriotic figure.