He controversially decided to resume his post at the end of last month, in a move that some feel has divided the Iraqiya bloc to which his party belongs. Some have even speculated that his reinstatement was engineered by Maliki to divide the Sunni parties in advance of the provinicial council elections scheduled for April 20.
In his first interview since returning to government, Mutlaq met with Asharq Al-Awsat to tell his side of the story of his decision to return to parliament and his role in addressing the demands of demonstrators who took to Iraq’s streets late last year. In addition, he discussed the upcoming and highly contested elections from his perspective as a leader of Al-Iraqiya and head of the National Dialogue Front.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat:You recently decided to return to cabinet meetings despite the fact that your coalition, Iraqiya, has withdrawn from the government. Does this mean that you are running counter to your coalition or that you have left the fold?
Saleh Al-Mutlaq: Iraqiya boycotted the cabinet sessions because of the government’s actions against Mr. Rafie Al-Issawi, the former minister of finance who recently resigned. Security forces raided his offices and his home, and we viewed this as a violation of the principles of a peaceful state. The way in which Mr. Issawi’s offices were ransacked was brash and illegal in our eyes. Following that, our boycott was fueled by the demonstrators in the western and northern governorates, and we announced that we would not return to cabinet meetings until the demonstrators’ demands were realized.
After the boycott had stretched on for some time, we received invitations to return to cabinet meetings. We replied that we would not return unless the government convened a special session that would exclusively discuss the demands of the demonstrators, and the government responded that it would convene such a session. The General Secretariat of the cabinet issued a statement that called for an emergency session in order to discuss the demands of the demonstrators, and when we attended the session we found that the agenda did not include discussing the demonstrators’ demands. We opposed this, but it just so happened that the only thing that we ended up discussing was the demonstrators’ demands. The session was devoted entirely to this topic, and we discussed a set of laws that would address the priorities of the demonstrators.
For instance, an issue that had particularly vexed the Iraqi people was that of the women detainees who had allegedly been exposed to torture in Iraqi prisons. We in the cabinet adopted a resolution that granted amnesty to imprisoned women, as well as to those who have been sentenced. There are 963 women in detention in Iraqi jails, some of whom will be released in accordance with the amnesty resolution. Those convicted of graft will be released once they have paid back the money they stole from the state, and those convicted of terrorism will have their status discussed on a case-by-case basis. There is a push to remove all women from prison, and there is also an amnesty agreement in the works for male prisoners.
Q: What about the anonymous informant law? [the law in question allows police to launch investigations and make arrest based on anonymous denunciations, which can also be used as evidence in court]
Iraqis have suffered much under the anonymous informant law, and a decree has been issued that limits the admissibility of evidence provided by an anonymous informant in issuing warrants or sentencing. The punishment for anonymous and overt informants has been intensified, [and now the law states that an informant who gives false information] will be given the same sentence as that normally imposed for crime of which he accused someone else. For instance, if the informant accused someone of terrorism and it was proved that the accuser had lied, the accuser would be sentenced to 15 years in prison, the minimum sentence for terrorism charges. These measures will deter anonymous informants from making haphazard accusations, and this was one of the demonstrators’ primary grievances.
Q: What about the demonstrators’ other demands?
There is still an issue with [whether or not] the money of former officials and displaced citizens who were affiliated with the Ba’ath Party [was obtained legally]. Governing Council resolutions 76 and 88, which seized the money of the aforementioned people and expropriated 120,000 plots of land, have been annulled. A new law has been passed that allows citizens to reclaim their rights freely. Moreover, the ministerial committee granted the prime minister the power to pardon those who the committee believes have earned their money in a legal manner.
As for the budgets of the various ministries and state institutions, the prime minister has formed a committee composed of parliamentary representatives to resolve this issue. As for rules and procedures of the cabinet, the ministers were asked to read over a draft resolution that is to be submitted to the cabinet. How is this leaving the Iraqiya fold? We said that we would return to cabinet meetings once a special meeting was held to discuss the demands of the demonstrators, and this has happened. Some of the demonstrators’ demands have been met—but not all.
Q: Was it the Iraqiya leaders who decided that the ministers would not return to government unless that special session to address the demonstrators’ demands was held?
No, it was the decision of the National Dialogue Front, which is allied with Iraqiya, and of the National Movement for Development and Reform led by Jamal Al-Karboli. [The leadership of] Iraqiya had decided that it would not return to the government until the demonstrators’ demands were met.
The cabinet offered to talk about these demands, so we supposed to tell them that we would not return and leave the demonstrators in a lurch for nearly three months while we continue to refuse to discuss their demands with the government? Does this make sense? To us, it is unreasonable and unacceptable that anyone from Iraqiya would object to our attempts to meet the demands of the demonstrators.
There is also another factor at play here: those condemning our actions are from a group that has split from Iraqiya, and thus has no right to speak on behalf of Iraqiya. They split and formed an independent bloc, and now they are leveling false accusations against Iraqiya leaders.
Q: What is this bloc?
The United Bloc, led by Usama Al-Nujaifi and Rafi Al-Issawi. They have the right to talk about their competitors, but they do not have the right to accuse a person who everyone knows has never compromised the national interest throughout his entire time in politics. They split from Iraqiya and are attacking its leadership. They are trying to exploit the demands of the demonstrators for electoral gains: this is unacceptable.
I say to my brothers who are censuring me, ‘I pledged myself to the Iraqi people and the unity of Iraq.’ We may differ in our politics, but some of my brothers in Iraqiya, or who were previously in Iraqiya, are heading towards dividing Iraq along sectarian lines. I could not possibly tread that path. [I say to them,] ‘We have sacrificed a lot for your sake and for the sake of others, and it is not fair to level unsubstantiated accusations against your colleague, your brother and your friend.’ I accept criticism and I understand it, but charges that sully the national reputation of anyone are unacceptable, especially when they know that these charges are fabricated. If they decide to leave Iraqiya, then congratulations to them, but they should not go around blaming others.
Q: Do you feel that you defected from Iraqiya?
We did not split from Iraqiya. Those who split are those who formed an independent bloc for electoral purposes. Those who left and fragmented the coalition are the ones who abandoned the true national agenda that works to benefit all Iraqis. By forsaking Iraqiya’s vision, they have unfortunately betrayed both it and the coalition.
Q: There are leaders in Iraqiya who have accused you of reviving and reinforcing the Maliki’s government when it was at its weakest. Do you have any comment on this?
At the emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the demands of the demonstrators, there would have been a full quorum regardless of whether Iraqiya ministers attended. The Sadrist minister was present, but the Kurds did not attend because they opposed the budget and made their return conditional upon the allocation of an extra USD 4 billion to foreign oil companies. Their cause is different from our cause: their concerns are financial, whereas we represent a persecuted people and we want to free them of this injustice.
We do not want to be proxies for the demonstrators, for they are our people and our brothers and we are proud of them. If not for them, there would not have been this political reshuffling by other political blocs, and if not for their steadfastness there would not have been a breakthrough with regard to several issues that have been weighing heavily on the Iraqi people. We are not the demonstrators’ negotiators; they have negotiators. We support them, help them and stand with them. For ten years, we have been working on a project to reform the political process, and today we are [still] working to reform this process. We cannot reach a breakthrough without demonstrators or without Iraqis taking to the streets and raising their voices.
Q: Are you going to form an alliance with Prime Minister Maliki’s State of Law coalition?
Absolutely not. We want others to ally themselves with us; we want to work with those who believe, as we do, in the national project. We do not need an alliance with one party or another. All of these rumors are just attempts to link Mutlaq to Maliki. Maliki is prime minister and I am deputy prime minister, so it is natural that the relationship between us would be a good one. However, know that the prime minister’s key allies are the ones saying that I will join him, as they have done in the past.
Q: In addition to your many public statements, we in the press have constantly been asking the leaders of Iraqiya about the coalition’s strength, unity and cohesion. All of you have often replied that it is cohesive and united in its decisions. However, recent events have shown the opposite—that this is the weakest of all coalitions. Can you comment on this?
Yes, now it is weak and divided, but when I [and other leaders] previously answered you regarding the strong cohesion of Iraqiya, we were telling the truth. It was truly cohesive and strong. We in the National Dialogue Front sacrificed a lot in order to keep Iraqiya cohesive and united: the Waqf presidency [senior government position allocated on the basis of religious affiliation] was a Sunni position and was set to be given to us, the Dialogue Front, but United came to an agreement with the prime minister that they would take that position. The same thing happened with positions in the Ministry of Agriculture. There are three MPs in the House of Representatives from the Dialogue Front; however, they waited for me to travel abroad to bring replacement nominees for parliament to take these three seats. This angered a lot of my brothers in the Dialogue Front and some left because of that.
Q: How is your relationship with the Iraqiya leadership?
It was good until they split and formed the United Bloc.
Q: What was the leadership of Iraqiya’s opinion regarding the formation of this bloc?
I did not agree with it. [Iraqiya leader] Brother Allawi went and formed the National Iraqiya Bloc, and I think he is upset with them.
Q: Do you think Iraqiya will expel you from the bloc?
Who would expel us? Along with the National Movement for Development and Reform Party we have 50 seats in parliament, and with that we are the largest bloc within Iraqiya.
Q: Last year, you told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Maliki is a dictator and a half.” The prime minister marginalized you and prevented you and the staff of your office from accessing your offices in the Green Zone. However, you returned to your offices without having gained anything for Iraqiya, for the Iraqi people or for yourself. Why did you return?
I returned because there were some who wished to fragment the country and, intentionally or unintentionally, drag it into a sectarian war. When I toured Baghdad and saw the panic in the eyes of people who feared the return of sectarian fighting, I was spurred to reconsider a lot of things. I do not accept Iraqis fighting amongst themselves, just as I do not accept a divided country. I gave the issue of Iraq precedence over the issue of Saleh Al-Mutlaq; I placed the dignity of the country and the dignity of the Iraqi people before my personal dignity. We did not break any promises or go against our word. Are you blaming me for returning to cabinet meetings in order to realize the demands of protesters?
Q: No I am not blaming you, I am just asking. Does the Iraqiya leadership blame you?
The ones who harmed Iraqiya are those who split from it. I am prepared to reconcile with them even if that requires that I make more sacrifices. They are the ones who split from Iraqiya when they went and formed the United Bloc. They told me that if I did not join the United Bloc I should retire from politics, because I would become a rival to them and weaken their bloc because they are a Sunni bloc and it is upon me to reinforce them. I will not be a part of a sectarian bloc, whether it be Sunni or Shi’ite: not today, not ever.
Q: Do you think that your return to cabinet meetings will weaken your position vis-à-vis your constituents?
The campaign against me is strong, and it seems that they have invested a lot of funds. I do not care how many seats it will get them. I would rather see Iraq united and happy. I am concerned about preventing the outbreak of civil or sectarian war and with creating the stability necessary for the country to grow. My eyes are not looking towards the elections; they are focused on the unity of Iraq and stability for the Iraqis. As for how many seats we will obtain, it is irrelevant to me. Unfortunately, many politicians make maximizing seats their priority and overlook safeguarding the country.
Q: Do you think that the decision you made will strengthen Maliki?
The government has not become stronger with our return. The Sadrists will return and the Kurds as well. Iraqiya will remain will gain the least, as it has done since the formation of the government. Iraqiya sacrifices and others reap the benefits. Enough of this! Enough compromising at the expense of Iraqiya’s constituents and at the expense of the country.
Q: How do you propose to solve the country’s worsening crisis?
The government is nearly finished. It will not be long before elections are held—and they could possibly be held early. It is not true that we are miring the country in additional problems; we know that it would not help anything. In truth, when the idea was proposed to have a vote of no confidence against Maliki I was in support of it. However, no one asked me for my opinion, and despite that I supported Brother Allawi and Brother Nujaifi in their initiative.
Q: If they had asked you for your opinion what would you have said?
Maybe I would have voted with them if I had been certain that it would have passed. However, it became evident that we had miscalculated.
Q: Do you believe that the government has truly marginalized and wronged the Sunni Arabs?
The government has wronged all Iraqis, but it is possible to say that the Sunni Arabs have been wronged more than the other groups.
Q: The government remains strong despite being at an impasse with the Kurds, the Sadrists, and the Sunni Arabs. How is this possible?
There is a lot of hypocrisy among some politicians who do not care about the interests of the country. The government was ill-conceived at the outset and those negotiating on behalf of Iraqiya were the wrong people. I said from the beginning that we should not participate in this government, and the Iraqiya leadership disagreed. I told them that the leadership should not take part and they disagreed with that also.
Q: Do you think that there is a disconnect between the demonstrators and the politicians of Iraqiya?
In all honesty, the demonstrators have been disappointed with the performance of the Iraqiya leadership. Some of the leaders wanted to ride the momentum created by the demonstrations and exploit it for electoral gains. The demonstrators sensed this and rejected this approach. They also rejected the politicians who tried to steer the demonstrations towards sectarian ends. The politicians were frustrated by this, and decided to postpone the elections in Anbar and Nineveh.
Q: What is your opinion regarding the postponement of elections?
We did not want to postpone the elections. However, the threats received by some of the candidates, the assassination of others, and the threats the electoral commission offices received made us worry that they would not be democratic and that the extremists would prevail by force.
Q: Finally, who was behind the incident that occurred on stage at the demonstration in Ramadi, in which you were attacked in what you said was an assassination attempt?
Those attacking me today were the ones behind it. They are the ones who wanted to assassinate me physically and today they want to assassinate me politically.
Q: Who are they exactly?
Some from the United Bloc and the Islamists.
Finally, news reports suggested that you met recently with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, in Beirut regarding returning to the government as part of a larger deal. What is your comment?
What does Hassan Nasrallah have to do with this subject? Rest assured that this is a lie from beginning to end. If someone has any evidence of this I’d ask them to show it to me. I assure you, on my honor, that this meeting never took place.