Ramadi, Asharq Al-Awsat—On the road from Baghdad to Anbar Province’s capital city of Ramadi on our way to meet with Rafi Al-Issawi, the recently resigned finance minister of Iraq and leading member of the Iraqiya Coalition headed by Iyad Allawi, it was inevitable that we would pass the protesters’ tents which have stood for four months in Al-Azz wal-Karama Square.
The tents stretch on for a considerable distance and are crowded with protesters demanding what they say are their “legitimate” rights. Above the tents fly Iraqi flags, with flags of the former regime nowhere in sight. All cars are forced to take a detour route along a road that runs adjacent to the tents.
Asharq Al-Awsat met with Mr. Issawi in Shamiya Palace as guests of Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha. Tribal leaders from Anbar and a number of citizens supporting Mr. Issawi were in attendance. Mr. Issawi announced his resignation from the government in support of the demonstrators’ demands “pursuant with Iraqiya’s decision to withdraw from the government.” During the interview, which Mr. Issawi confirmed was the first he had given to an Arab newspaper following his resignation, he said that “the Iraqi government will not last long,” adding that “Maliki has exploited democracy to build a dictatorship.”
Asharq Al-Awsat: What motivated you to tender your resignation?
Rafie Al-Issawi: I suspect that all who know me and my positions in the Council of Ministers and in the government were not surprised when I tendered my resignation.
In more than one session of the Council of Ministers, I had expressed my disapproval of the accumulating crises, which include: unfair representation of Iraq’s diverse groups in ministries, government institutions and state security, the issue of security, detention policies, issues surrounding the status of Erbil, the failure to implement laws, the failure to appoint ministers of defense and of the interior, the fact that the most sensitive state institutions are today administered by proxy, the monopolization of all state security agencies (which are becoming more and more sectarian in nature), and the blatant persecution of the Sunni Arab community in the security sectors and elsewhere, such as in higher education.
Recent sessions of the Council of Ministers have witnessed several altercations because of these issues, but the minutes of these sessions do not convey to the public the true contentiousness of these meetings. The true records are confined to the archives.
Then came the most recent crisis [the raiding of Mr. Issawi’s offices while he was finance minister and accusations that his security detail was involved in terrorist acts]. From my point of view it was just another government-created crisis conjured up in an attempt to duck taking responsibility for its failures regarding the security situation, the absence of state-provided services, and the rampant financial and administrative corruption.
Provincial elections are approaching and then the legislative elections will be held soon after. The government is not going to solve any crises, it can only create them. The accumulation of all of these issues and grievances has forced the western and northern provinces, parts of Baghdad, and Diyala to resort to demonstrating and holding sit-ins in staggering numbers. Then came the incident involving the assault on the guards of the ministry of finance, in which had I previously served. This was just one of many violations which have coincided with the demonstrations. By staying in touch with those demonstrating in the streets of Iraq, I found that government functions and the representatives in government, including the Sunni Arabs, were defunct.
A new notion started to gain momentum amongst the protesters that if the government was unable to meet their legitimate demands, then the ministers who were carried to parliament by the votes of Sunni Arabs, should at the very least air their disapproval of the status quo. The demonstrators thought that the best way to express this disapproval was for their ministers to tender their resignations.
Q: Is your decision in keeping with your coalition’s (Iraqiya) platform? Did you consult with the leadership, for instance?
My resignation came as a result of the accumulation of government failures to fulfill its basic duties. It was based on Iraqiya’s decision that all ministers should leave government or else be partner to the defunct practices. Some hesitated, and others dragged their feet. Some of them, with noble intentions, believed that their presence in government could help advance the demonstrators’ demands. Another group remained for their own personal gain.
As for me, I could not feasibly remain with the indecisive ones or continue on with those seeking to advance their own personal interests. Thus I chose to stand with the protesters and I announced my resignation in al-Azz wal-Karama Square in Ramadi, which Abdul Karim al-Samarrai then followed by announcing his resignation in amongst the protesters in Samarra.
Q: Were you the only representative for whom resignation was a duty?
No, quite the contrary. When Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq visited the protestors of Ramadi the crowd demanded that he resign, and repeatedly chanted “Resign! Resign!” Letters from protestors across the western and northern provinces demanded that most of the ministers tender their resignations because the government had failed to uphold its pledges.
Q: Did the Iraqiya leadership issue a decision that its ministers should resign from the government?
Yes, Iraqiya’s formal stance was that its ministers collectively resign from the government. There was talk surrounding the timing but there originally wasn’t any controversy or objections to the decision.
The timing of carrying out the decision was debated because we were in talks with the Sadrist Movement and the Kurdistan Alliance regarding the possible withdrawal of their ministers in coordination with our withdrawal. This would have been very similar to a vote of no confidence in the government, especially if all three coalitions had withdrawn together.
Q: Who in Iraqiya impeded the decision to resign from being carried out?
Some of my brothers in Iraqiya asked how we could possibly enter into a dialogue with the government regarding meeting the demonstrators’ demands, we said: This is possible, however we are convinced that the government’s committees, both the seven-member and five-member committees, did not get to the bottom of the problem, to the root of the problem. They only focused on superficial solutions such as the courts releasing some detainees before ever proving their innocence, and the security forces refused to implement these releases, and this is misconduct.
Q: And what about those who justify returning to the government saying they intend to advance the demands of the protesters?
From my point of view, anyone hesitating to leave the government does so to advance his own personal interests.
Q: Does that include Saleh al-Mutlaq and Jamal Karbouli?
Saleh al-Mutlaq could certainly be counted among them. Today, I feel that I can blame Mutlaq for his decision to remain in the government. He had described Maliki as a dictator and worse than Saddam Hussein. So I ask him: what’s changed? I can only say that it was definitely a personal choice, but it will not be greeted kindly in the Iraqi street.
Q: Is Iraqiya thinking of ousting Mutlaq?
Iraqiya has mechanisms for including and expelling those allied with it. This issue will be for the leadership to decide, and I do not want to make any predictions. I advised Dr. Mutlaq on several occasions not to risk his reputation and return to the government.
Obviously he did not take this advice. He has the right to make whatever decision he sees fit, however it is our duty to tell him that this decision would not please general opinion or be accepted in the provinces which Mutlaq represents. Thus returning to government has cost him dearly.
Q: Do you think that Mutlaq will lose the support of the Sunni street?
Quite the contrary, he’ll lose the Iraqi street, Sunni and Shiite alike. I think it is difficult for Mutlaq to talk with any authority about the Shiite street, even if he was talking about the national project. The representatives still present in government today unfortunately only increase Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish sectarian polarization.
Q: Do you suppose that this step of yours could have come too late? And by that I don’t mean the resigning, I mean Iraqiya’s withdrawal from the government?
No I don’t think it came too late, because it was preceded a few months earlier by measures to withdraw confidence, as I mentioned before. Moreover there was a contingent from Iraqiya that caused the withdrawal of confidence to fail and that same contingent looks primed to return to government.
Today there are three main blocs opposing the government, and then there is this group from Iraqiya that has returned to it [the government]. I do not want to be harsh. All I’m saying is that this is was their personal decision.
Q: We used to constantly ask you and your colleagues in Iraqiya about the extent of your cohesion and unity as a bloc. Coalition leader Iyad Allawi, and others among you, would reply that the bloc is strong, cohesive, and unified. Are the events transpiring today evidence of this cohesion? Or instead are they an indication of the coalition’s weakness?
Ever since Iraqiya won 91 seats in the Council of Ministers and became the biggest bloc in the Iraqi parliament, we have been discussing our right to form a government. This has been met with a torrent of bribery attempts and threats, which has included arrest warrants and politicizing the judiciary. Such methods are effective all over the world, and I think you would have difficulty finding any cohesive coalitions today in Iraq.
Q: The Rule of Law Coalition is highly cohesive.
Coming to power was what made Rule of Law cohesive. If it loses power then only three members of Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party will remain. I have respect for many members of Rule of Law, for there are honest tribal and civil society leaders among them. What keeps them together today is the fact that they are with the ruling party. However if their fortunes are reversed in the upcoming provincial and parliamentary elections, then a different picture will emerge.
Q: How would you describe the measures that have been taken against the leaders of Iraqiya that include Sunni Arabs such as Tariq al-Hashimi, yourself, and even Mutlaq for a time? How do you perceive Parliamentary Speaker Usama al-Nujayfi’s threat to withdrawal confidence from the government? And what are your views on the assassination attempt on Allawi, given that it was not sectarian in nature?
I’ll respond with two points. First, it has been said that Sunni Arabs did not participate in the political process, and when they did decide to take part, they suffered from blatant and crushing persecution. There are those in Baghdad who do not want anyone to take part in governance unless he conforms to their predetermined designs. This will inevitably falter for no one the world over is capable of selecting his opponents and his allies to his liking. Thus those who participated were persecuted, and this is a very bad message for a government that calls itself a national partnership government to be sending. It’s farcical to claim that all Sunni Arab members of government are terrorists. If this were true, then why did the head of government accept them in the first place since he must have all of the files detailing the history of their alleged terrorist activities? A decision was made to remove all these members of government. I do not know who from the Sunni Arabs he will convince, and that goes for Iyad Allawi too, who is a staunch Iraqi patriot and believes in inclusion and not in sectarianism.
As for the second point, it has been said before and was written in the Erbil Agreement that this government is a national partnership government which would include others when critical decisions were being made. Not only has this been ignored, many actions undertaken by the government have directly contradicted it: A decree from the prime minister postponed elections; power has not been handed over peacefully; the judiciary has been politicized; former chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Council Medhat Al-Mahmoud was acquitted by the Accountability and Justice Commission 48 hours after having been deposed; de-Baathification is being carried out with double standards; the military has been politicized and has become subservient to a particular party; and army personnel have fired on demonstrators.
All of these factors indicate that a coup is in the works or has already taken place against democracy. There was no democratic process in the first place; instead a dictatorship was quietly built behind the cover of attempting to establish a democratic process. When the truth finally emerged the people were blindsided.
Q: The Kurds, the Sadrist Movement, and Iraqiya are all at loggerheads with Prime Minister Maliki, yet the government still seems to be strong. How do you explain this?
Maliki does have ongoing crises with the Kurds, with Iraqiya, and with the Sadrist Movement. Maliki uses his official capacity as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces to fulfill his duties as secretary-general of the Dawa Party. Those around him in a Dawa Party meeting are the same individuals who are with him at a Council of Ministers meeting, as if the two overlap with each other.
Politicizing the military and judiciary does not make the government strong, rather it is a sign of weakness and of vulnerability. The government cannot carry out the basic functions of a democratic system, it does not believe in the peaceful transfer of power, and instead it resorts to military force. Involving the army will either provoke a reaction that will in turn drag the country into the abyss, which no sane person can support, or it will give others the impression that this regime will not last much longer; major countries have collapsed because the leadership took refuge in the military establishment.
They would appear strong if they built solid democratic institutions that could absorb the repercussions of Maliki leaving power and another person replacing him. This has yet to happen in Iraq. The army is in the streets and the militias are by its side.
The state adopts the tagline “Rule of Law” yet Kamal Saadi, a leader in Maliki’s coalition, attended a parade put on by the League of the Righteous militia in which it displayed its vast armory. Where is the law and where is the democracy? This is not power, but merely deceptive attempts to appear powerful.
Q: How do think events will unfold in Iraq now that the sit-ins have entered their fourth month?
I foresee that in the event that the demonstrators’ legitimate grievances continue to be ignored and Mr. Maliki fails to promptly offer real, substantive solutions, especially in light of his worsening standing vis-à-vis the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites, then the government will surely collapse.
Q: There are those who feel that the status quo will persist up until the upcoming parliamentary elections.
If the crises continue unresolved, the government will not make it to the upcoming elections. The government could offer some solutions and sit with its partners to discuss the issues and in doing so bridge the lack of trust between them. I do not think anyone will believe the government unless it first undertakes swift actions to resolve the issues. The government promotes proposals and red herring solutions and meanwhile the country is being run by proxy. He [Maliki] failed to appoint a Division Commander, everything is being done on an ad-hoc basis. He has also failed to appoint defense and interior ministers at a time when security is at its most dire and terrorist attacks claim the lives of the Iraqi people.
He has not even considered stepping down as commander in chief of the Armed Forces, but instead takes shelter behind sectarian theatrics, insisting that any kind of inquiry into his actions as commander in chief would be conducted in a sectarian manner. This is an attempt to deceive the public. Sectarianism has nothing to do with it; when Sunnis complain that he has wronged them they are not trying to drag the country into sectarian conflict, they are just calling a spade a spade. When the Kurds or Shiites are wronged and they make this known and we agree; nothing about that is sectarian. We must ask Maliki what he calls detaining Sunni Arabs, the anonymous informant law, excluding Sunni Arabs from security posts: Are these not these sectarian practices?
Q: If you label the government’s approach towards you as sectarian, then how would you characterize its approach towards Kurds or Sadrists?
I said that this is part of the problem, but not the entire problem. Maliki wants to steep himself in sectarianism so that he can rally the Shiite street behind him. The Sunni Arabs have not suffered these abuses at the hands of the Shiite community, but at the hands of the authorities, which have also wronged the Shiites. Every injustice differs somewhat from the last, and this caused Mr. Muqtada Al-Sadr and Mr. Ammar Al-Hakim to let their objections to government practices be known.
Q: There are rumors that foreign, terrorist, and Ba’athist agendas are the driving force behind these demonstrations, and there is evidence that the demonstrators have even flown the flags of the former regime.
I require evidence regardless of the issue, whether it was suicide terrorist attack, a government shortcoming, or an assassination attempt of a political figure. The government has not come out with any statement implicating Al-Qaeda or the Baath Party.
These allegations always surface immediately following any incident and before any proper investigation is carried out that can uncover who is responsible for which incident. This has happened time and again since the demonstrations of February 25 2011, and was happening before then too.
The government is not satisfied with ignoring the demonstrators’ legitimate demands, but has the added audacity to accuse them of being terrorists, Ba’athists, and agents of foreign agendas. Why not sit down with the protesters and implement their demands. Demonstrating is a right. The people are not happy camping out in public squares far away from their families and livelihoods.
As for a banner or flag being raised, you must understand that the crowds of demonstrators are numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and some groups tried to infiltrate the demonstrators’ ranks but failed. It is our belief in Anbar that those who raise banners that run counter to the spirit of the legitimate demands are infiltrators and are not to be counted among the demonstrations’ organizers.
Q: Are there any Ba’athists in these demonstrations?
I cannot say if there are Ba’athists, but there are people who have been harmed by de-Ba’athification statutes. A Sunni officer gets discharged from the army, while his Shi’ite counterpart gets restored while another Sunni is rejected from conscribing. The same goes for university professors and normal employees.
The only option left for these people is to take to the streets and demonstrate to demand their rights and address the injustices which they have suffered, and not to advance some partisan or ideological agenda.
Q: Has an arrest warrant been issued in your name?
I’ve only heard this by way of the media. Though I would not be surprised if a warrant was issued, especially considering how Tareq Al-Hashemi was sentenced to death in absentia while he was still vice president of Iraq, and how Adnan Al-Dulaimi was arrested and was only recently released after a judicial decree acquitted him of terrorism charges.
In 2008, a communiqué from the Americans to Maliki said that they had no evidence indicating that I was in anyway involved in terrorist activities. This is in a communiqué which we have posted on the Internet. The question for Maliki is this: If he had known of my ties to terrorism since 2008, as he claims, how could he have put me in charge of the ministry of finance in 2010?
The same logic applies to Hashemi’s case. I am an orthopedist and got involved in politics to serve my country and I will never become subservient to Maliki.
Q: Did you. among others, let Hashimi down by not standing by his side?
On the contrary. Hashimi is still a leader of Iraqiya, and we all stand by his side. The only thing that has changed is that he can’t attend meetings because of his current status, but he is in touch with us.
Q: You’ve also had accusations of graft leveled against you.
I was the one who brought the case of the missing $7 billion to Maliki’s attention which had been lost as a result of misappropriation of a person . . . who had opened two accounts in two banks, Al-Rashid and Al-Rafidiin, and the largest account balance of the two was $500.
We have pictures of him in the corridors of the ministry of finance, but he managed to escape. We handed the file over to the prime minister and asked the security services to pursue the perpetrator. A full year has passed and I have yet to receive any reply. What’s more the ministry was burnt after I discovered this illicit activity. I thought I would get a letter of commendation from the Council of Ministers, but instead they accused me of administrative corruption.
Q: You accuse the judiciary of being politicized.
Let me be frank, a large part of the Iraqi judiciary is working with the government. There are a number of honest lawyers and judges also. With all due respect to the legal profession, there are some who have ties to the government who were admitted in hasty sessions, appointed judges, and were then handed important judicial cases. They began liberally issuing arrest warrants in a manner that serves the interests of the prime minister’s office.
Everything that Maliki’s coalition desires is carried out by the Federal Court. What’s more, the paperwork for cases being administered in court can be seen in the hands of Rule of Law members at TV press conferences. How do they get hold of these confidential documents?
Q: Finally, do you think that the costs of occupation were worth what has been achieved?
The Iraqi people pain an exorbitant price and have gotten nothing in return. None of their aspirations have been realized.