Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat—Saleh Al-Mutlaq, one of Iraq’s most prominent Sunni politicians, is a controversial figure. The deputy prime minister described outgoing prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki as a “dictator” and “worse than Saddam Hussein” while serving in his government. He took the decision to boycott Maliki’s government in 2013 over Baghdad’s failure to address the demands of Iraq’s Sunni Anbar protesters, only to seek to resume his post just months later.
A former senior member of the Iraqiya List, led by Iyad Allawi, Mutlaq heads the breakaway Iraqiya Al-Arabiya coalition. As Iraq passes through a historic transitional phase, with Prime Minister-designate Haider Al-Abadi seeking to form a national unity government, Mutlaq spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the political and security situation in Iraq, the encroaching Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and his hopes for the future.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Are you optimistic about what is happening today?
Saleh Al-Mutlaq: Optimism is the only thing left to us. Given the terrible circumstances the country is going through, one can only say that Iraq is now going through hell. Despite this, I am still betting on the Iraqis to overcome this tragedy and unite their efforts to get rid of ISIS and the militias. Without belief in a real national project that will end sectarianism in the country, Iraq will never recover.
Q: And is there such a real national project in the country today?
This real national project witnessed a setback during the last legislative elections. Ultimately, the Iraqi people will understand that without such a national project to put an end to sectarianism, the country will never recover. Without a national project, Iraq will move towards division.
Q: What about those who say that division is now the only solution to the crises that Iraq is facing?
Division under the current circumstances would mean hell, while this would be undesirable even under normal circumstances. It would be a political disgrace if Iraq, which we inherited from our forefathers and which has existed for more than 6,000 years, were to be divided.
Q: Outgoing prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki accused Iraq’s politicians, including yourself, of conspiring against him to secure Abadi’s nomination as prime minister-designate. Is this true?
We did not conspire against him. It was those closest to him [Maliki] that conspired against him, if you can call this a conspiracy at all. I personally do not consider this “conspiring,” but rather acting on the basis that the approach Maliki was taking . . . would have meant the end of Iraq. Our viewpoint was clear and explicit from the beginning; namely, that we rejected a third Maliki term in office, because eight years is enough for any politician to have achievements. However, Iraq has witnessed one setback after another over the past eight years.
Q: What is your view of his presumptive successor Haider Al-Abadi? How is the prime minister-designate handling the government formation negotiations?
If the prime minister-designate wants to form his government on the basis of the number of seats won by each party, then we must bear in mind and acknowledge that these elections were rigged from the beginning, and what is built on falsehood is false. We hope that Abadi demonstrates wisdom and says that he will choose ministers based on competencies and away from political wrangling. If he tries to form a government based on outdated approaches, as Maliki did, then he will fail.
Q: How many MPs does your party have in parliament? And will you seek to support Abadi’s mission?
We have 70 MPs. On principle, we do not have any objection towards Abadi, but we are waiting to see what program he puts forward. Will he follow an approach that differs from the previous [Maliki] approach? At this point, we will decide whether we will participate in his government or not.
Q: Will you ask for guarantees?
Unfortunately, I think this is required today, because it is difficult for any patriotic politician to rely on guarantees from a third party. At the same time, our past experience indicates that without international guarantees, no promises would be met. Therefore, I am calling for the US and UN to have a role today in providing commitments and guarantees for the agreements that will be reached and put down in writing.
Q: What about an Arab role? Don’t you think there should be a regional Arab role in this process?
The Arab role appeared dead in the previous period, but today we are finding strong Arab support for President Fuad Massoum, Prime Minister-designate Haider Al-Abadi and Speaker of Parliament Salim Al-Jabouri, especially from the Arab Gulf States and particularly Saudi Arabia. This support serves the future political process. I also say that the Arab states should strongly intervene now to support Iraq and make up the differences from the past period.
Q: Returning to the government formation talks, have you put forward any programs or demands to Abadi?
We want all Iraqis to feel as if they are equal before the law.
Q: This is a general statement; what about details?
We want balance within the Iraqi state which gives guarantees to the Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and Sabians that they exist [in Iraq]. We want change to the federal court and judiciary in general, as well as the security apparatus and the army. State media is also biased and this must be changed. In short, we want active participation in Iraq’s security and judiciary files, as well as all other state dossiers.
Q: Concerning the security situation, then, regarding what is happening in Iraq today: Is this a popular, tribal or Sunni revolution, or simply a terrorist attack by ISIS?
I call this a people’s uprising. It would be wrong to describe this as a tribal or Sunni revolution, or even an ISIS [attack]. It is an uprising by a people who have suffered injustice for a long time and expressed themselves through peaceful protests and sit-ins for more than one year without any response. In fact, the only response was an attempt to crush them, so they had no choice but to do this [rising up].
Q: What about ISIS in Mosul and other areas of Iraq—are they part of this “uprising” or revolution?
I never said that ISIS were revolutionaries; ISIS belongs to the Dark Ages.
Q: Are Iraq’s Sunnis supporting ISIS, or receiving support from them?
In the beginning, some Sunnis put their heads in the sand to allow ISIS to attack those who they attacked. However today, the situation has changed, and ISIS has begun to do things that are unacceptable for all Iraqis. What ISIS has done against the Yazidis, Christians and even Sunnis is unacceptable.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.