Sharm El-Sheikh, Asharq Al-Awsat—As Iraq continues its operations to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and begins preparations for a long-awaited assault on Mosul, which is also under the control of the terrorist group, the Baghdad government finds itself in a tense situation with regional allies regarding its ties to Tehran.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s President Fuad Masoum has been in the Egyptian Red Sea resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh to attend an Arab summit which is seeking to find solutions to the region’s current plethora of ongoing crises. One of the proposed solutions is an Arab-wide unified military force to fight the myriad security threats to the region—one of which is the current crisis in Yemen, where Arab countries have accused Iran of seeking to impose its agenda on the region.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to President Masoum on the sidelines of the summit about his country’s relationship with Tehran, Iraq’s role in the new unified Arab force, and its continuing fight against ISIS.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What does the Arab world need to do to ensure the eradication of ISIS across the region?
Fuad Masoum: ISIS will be out of Iraq soon . . . because the military balance of power is now in Iraq’s favor. However, other non-ISIS groups could emerge and the war against terrorism is an open file that could last for decades. Terrorism is born of intolerance, extremism, division and policies of tyranny and oppression. That is why we can eliminate ISIS and its ilk through unity, by which I mean complete cooperation and coordination in all fields, as well as the unity of our positions. Yes, ISIS and other terrorist groups must be confronted militarily, but that is not enough, this must be a comprehensive confrontation that targets takfirism, terrorist financing, and the misinterpretation of the teachings of Islam [by extremists], which is a religion that values coexistence, dialogue, and the respect of others.
Q: Beyond the war against terrorism, what else does Iraq need?
Iraq needs to rebuild and heal itself. We are seeking to achieve genuine reconciliation [among the Iraqi people] in order to move away from the tragedies of the past and move towards a future where the Iraqi people can live together in peace. This cannot be achieved without the revival of the spirit of citizenship and the rule of law, in addition to eliminating the corruption that has plagued the country in the past. In order to achieve this Iraq needs the support of its brothers and allies. We hope that our Arab brothers will be at the forefront of those working to help Iraq rebuild its cities . . . as well as though Arab companies that specialize in reconstruction.
Q: What about the ongoing questions regarding Baghdad’s relationship with Tehran? What would you say to the Arab world regarding your government’s ties to Iran, particularly in light of Arab fears of regional encroachment?
Iraq’s relations with Iran have their own special set of circumstances. Iran is our neighbor, and we share a more than 1,000-kilometer border. In addition to the historic and cultural ties between us, there are also political ties. Much of the Iraqi political opposition to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime received assistance and support from Iran at a time when many other countries closed their doors to this same opposition. While many states, and particularly many Arab states, supported and backed the Saddam Hussein regime. So it is only natural after the regime [fell] in the country that some political factions will seek to preserve their ties of friendship with Iran. And when ISIS emerged in Iraq and took control of Mosul and other cities, Iran was among the first countries to provide military assistance, both to the federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. So we view our relations with Iran based on this background, and do not look at them from the same viewpoint adopted others. At the same time, we do not view our relations with others from Iran’s viewpoint and thereby allow Tehran to impose this on us. We evaluate our relations with everyone according to our own view and interests.
Q: What about the statements issued by some Iranian officials regarding Iraq being part of an “Iranian Empire?” How do you view this?
Of course, having good relations with Iran does not justify Tehran using arrogant discourse expressing a desire for hegemony [over Iraq]. And the talk about Iraq being part of an Iranian empire is unacceptable and completely rejected. We respect the ties of friendship between our two states, and we have welcomed Iranian assistance . . . but this does not come at the expense of our sovereignty, independence, or patriotism. Anybody who believes that should study history and realize that Iraq has always stood firm and remained impenetrable against any attempts to change its identity.
Q: What can the Arab League do to help Iraq?
As we have said, ISIS’s terrorism is not just a threat to Iraq, but a threat to everybody. Therefore, eliminating ISIS is a joint responsibility and everybody must shoulder this. Confronting ISIS is a major Arab and Muslim responsibility given that they are at the forefront of those who are being harmed by this group. So if Iraq is fighting ISIS militarily, then everybody else—whether through the framework of the international coalition or beyond this—must work to provide all forms of military, political, financial, economic, and even cultural and ideological assistance for this battle.
Q: The Arab League is looking into the idea of establishing a joint Arab military force. Do you support this?
In principle, Iraq is open to all ideas and initiatives that could break the back of terrorism and terrorist groups. As we said, the war on terrorism requires a multi-pronged approach that goes beyond the military side. At the same time, an Arab military force to fight terrorism could be an important resource to help any Arab state that requires military assistance. We in Iraq have fighters that we can contribute to any such force.
Q: How would you characterize political stability in Iraq today? What about Baghdad’s relations with the KRG?
Stability can only be achieved after we have eradicated terrorism in Iraq and the region. Stability in Iraq remains tied to stability in our regional environs. We also need to strengthen electoral practices in the country and ensure the peaceful transfer of power . . . This would also strengthen political stability in Iraq. However, the political situation, as well as the consensus between Iraq’s main political parties and various senior government officials is at its highest level today. This has encouraged ongoing dialogue between Baghdad and the KRG with the objective of resolving the issues between the two sides, and we have resolved the majority of these issues.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.