Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- In political circles they call him “the godfather of solving the Iraqi crises.” Rafi Al-Issawi is a doctor from Al-Fallujah. He was nominated to represent the Sunni Al-Tawafuq Front at the last parliamentary elections as a minister of state for foreign affairs, and then he assumed the position of the Sunni deputy of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki succeeding Salam al-Zawbai, who resigned his post. The politicians see Al-Issawi conferring with all political blocs to unite their opinions, and to reach joint decisions to resolve the political crises. Sometimes you find him in Mosul to resolve the disputes between the Arab and Kurdish blocs, and at other times you find him in Al-Ramadi to resolve the disputes between the clans and the political parties.
Recently, the name of Al-Issawi has come strongly to the fore on the Iraqi political arena to the extent that some people believe that he will be one of the prominent people in Iraq in the upcoming stage, and that he will be a strong figure in the next political process after the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2010. Al-Issawi will participate in the upcoming elections with the Al-Iraqiyah Bloc, which includes Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and the prominent Sunni politician Salih al-Mutlak. Al-Issawi’s name has been suggested as a possible candidate for the post of prime minister in the next government.
In an interview conducted with him by Asharq Al-Awsat in his office in the Green Zone in Baghdad, Al-Issawi stresses that the national reconciliation dossier is one of the dossiers that represent a challenge for the next government, and that if this dossier does not succeed the political process “will not be stable.” Al-Issawi calls for reconciliation even between the government and parliament, and the government and the Presidency Council, and he talks about “conflict” between these leaderships, and that the essence of the dispute is the powers and the participation in decision making.
Al-Issawi says that “the experience of quotas in the government was very bad,” and that institutions “have been packed with members, militias, and parties according to this principle regardless of the qualifications.” He stresses that one of the causes of security violations is “the presence of influence and authority by the political parties over these security organizations.”
In an implicit reference to Al-Maliki Al-Issawi adds that the success or failure of the current government should not be attributed to a single person, but to all.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Four years have passed since the current government started. Before it packs its bags for a new electoral journey, what is your assessment of its work during this period?
[Al-Issawi] I wish you asked the Iraqi parliament or the citizen, who is in direct contact with the dossier. They can tell you how much change we have been able to achieve. Through the assessment by parliament or by the citizen, the government can correct its direction toward the services. However, the next government will face major challenges, which have claimed most of the time of the current Government, of which I am a member, such as the security dossier. Anyone who wants to assess the performance of the government, whether it is a success or a failure, ought to realize that in the government all its members are partners, and they are jointly responsible for the success or the failure. This is because the Iraqi politicians are used to direct their criticism to a specific side or individual.
As we have agreed to be frank, let us start with the program of the government, or of the government of national unity, which was read in the first day of its formation. The first thorny and complex dossier has been the dossier of national reconciliation, which is a political dossier. When the dossier is mentioned, its items – such as the Debathification, national reconciliation, the Awakening Forces, and the displaced – emerge. We ought to ask how much has been achieved in these interlinked dossiers, as this would be equal to how much has been achieved in national reconciliation. Perhaps early efforts have been exerted in this dossier, but these efforts have not been at all sufficient. Therefore, the national reconciliation dossier still is one of the dossiers that represent a challenge and a duty for the next government. If no success is proven or achieved in this dossier, I believe that the political process will not be stable. The legacy left for the next government will be huge if this dossier is not resolved.
Let us dwell awhile on the issue of the displaced. According to the figures announced by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] there are some 2 million Iraqi refugees. According to unofficial figures there are 4 million displaced at home and abroad. They are people displaced from their homes. This is a huge burden that has not been resolved until now. It is a major challenge to the next government to restore these people to their home areas.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Consequently, the legacy is too much for the next government?
[Al-Issawi] Yes it is huge. Perhaps the legacy left for the next government will be heavier, or bigger than the security legacy inherited by this government when it assumed its duties.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We notice, so do many observers, that whenever a crisis emerges in Iraq, Rafi al-Issawi undertakes the attempt to resolve it. Have you been commissioned the duty of resolving the crises, or are you doing this on your own initiative?
[Al-Issawi] This is part of my duties as a member of the jointly responsible Iraqi Government. I believe that the political process has to be established on the correct bases, and has to be based on participation, national reconciliation, and also on a real sense of representation. We do not want some of the constituents to be wronged, and we do not want a feeling that one side is in control at the expense of another to emerge in Iraq, because this will not lead to the consolidation of the political process. Therefore, we moved on the dossiers of the services and the political dossiers in a number of places and on a number of occasions. Through these moves we have achieved a number of goals. For instance, in Al-Anbar when we moved after the elections of the governorate councils following the occurrence of conflicts and threats, we stressed that it is inadmissible to resort to clannish arbitration and to the strong-and-weak logic, and we ought to adhere to the convention of the institutions, because it is the only solution for Iraq. We proposed that we all should agree to the criterion of the election results, which would be issued by the Independent High Electoral Commission [IHEC], and when the results emerged everybody adhered to the election results. In Ninawa, the problem of the disputed areas and the withdrawal of the Kurdish Ninawa Fraternity List from the Governorate council emerged. We presented the initiative of acting on the dossier, which we called the Arab-Kurdish dossier in Ninawa. The initiative was presented to the National Security Council. A committee was formed under our chairmanship and with the membership of the ministries concerned. Within this committee, four subcommittees were formed: subcommittee for the financial and economic dossier, subcommittee for the security dossier, subcommittee for the legal and justice dossier, and subcommittee for the political dossier in order to open the dialog between the Ninawa Fraternity List and Al-Hadba List.
With regard to the economic dossier, we agreed with the Finance Ministry and financial auditors to release 25 percent of the unspent funds, which were going back to the Finance Ministry as the governorate did not spend them in the years 2006, 2007, and 2008; the sum was 570 million dollars. This led to the employment of manpower that helped in combating terrorism.
With regard to the military and security dossier, we agreed to open the door for enlisting in order to cover the shortage in the forces stationed in the governorate. We submitted the proposal to the Council of Ministers, and it was agreed to open the door for the enlistment of 8,000 at the Interior Ministry, and 6,000 at the Defense Ministry, including 2,000 officers. So far, 13,000 have enlisted at both ministries, which will issue the orders to appoint them very soon in order to utilize them in spreading security within the governorate.
With regard to the rest of the dossiers, the dialog still is continuing about the disputed areas between Arbil and Ninawa; there are some difficulties because of the approaching election season, and everybody feels extremely embarrassed when there are disputed issues. Perhaps after the conclusion of the election season and the enlistment, the efforts between Al-Hadba List (the Arab list) and the Ninawa Fraternity List (the Kurdish list) will be resumed about the pending problems and the disputed areas. After settling these disputes, Ninawa Fraternity List can return to the governorate council. Each of the Al-Hadba List and the Ninawa Fraternity List has conditions, and we have progressed some distance between them, but the approaching elections and the tension on the ground have hindered to some extent our mission; however, we will reach a solution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With regard to the crisis of the electoral law, its repeal by Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, and the problems that took place, it has been noticed that the US and British ambassadors have been with you in a noticeable way to resolve the then crisis. Were they present at the meetings in order to exchange views, or were US and British dictates imposed on you?
[Al-Issawi] Had the law not been ratified, the country would have been exposed to constitutional vacuum and political chaos. Therefore, we were keen, and at our own initiative, together with the Iraqi National Coalition (led by the Islamic Supreme Council) and the Kurdistan Alliance, to form a committee that undertook its work even during the Id holiday. The efforts were exerted between the three sides, in addition to the counsel of the IHEC, and the UN team. There has been no link at all between our committee and the US embassy or the British embassy. Those concerned were the three partners. After more than 10 meetings, we reached the conclusion that we would not be able to present the law again to parliament without having a political consensus. This in itself is a new indication before the end of the term of the current government, and the arrival of a new one. This is because now there is talk about whether the next government will be one of national unity, or one of political majority (depending on the party or the entity that wins the elections). The electoral law has proved at least that in the next parliament the political powers will not be able to form a government unless it is a participation government, because no one will be able to pass the electoral law without convincing all sides. Therefore, I do not think that any side or entity can form a government without going back to all the constituents, and without it being a coalition government or a national unity government.
The second indication is that the dispute over the law was related to the points that facilitated our success, namely Article 1 and Article 2. Article 1 talks about the census of the ration cards of 2005, and Article 2 talks about the figures and statistics of 2009. Both articles were not repealed. The IHEC found that the implementation was impossible, and hence the United Nations and the IHEC were on our side at the political dialog in order to reach a consensus to restore the governorate seats to their previous situation before the repeal, and we succeeded in doing so. The United Nation and IHEC were giving counsel about the way to reconcile the two articles with their different figures. The advice was that the political entities should agree to preserve the governorate seats as they were before the repeal, and then go to parliament to vote on them, and thus the number of seats would become part of the law.
It is inadmissible to tamper with the law. Therefore, the governorates and their seats have been fixed, and we have pursued the preservation of seats so that there would be no negative indication that some seats were taken from some governorates and were given to others. The committee cooperated despite the very difficult birth of the law in the last five minutes of the term of parliament, and the law was passed in the form agreed by all politicians.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With regard to the issue of government according to the principle of quotas, can the next government succeed on the basis of this principle? What have the quotas achieved under the current government?
[Al-Issawi] I would like to distinguish between participation and quotas. According to my opinion, the government cannot be anything other than a participation government. As for how it will be, let us wait and see. Because of these major challenges that face any government that will come, such a government will need the support of all. Any upcoming government must have the support of the largest possible number of political entities otherwise the largest number would be in opposition, and hence would hinder the work of government. This is the participation.
As for the quotas, this is something else. The government can be a participation government, but does not adopt the quota system, and it adopts qualification as a criterion. This is not impossible, especially as we have had a very bad experience with the issue of quotas; ministries are packed with partisan members, not even according to the principle of quotas, but according to the party, or even wing of a party. Therefore, in order to secure the stability of the political process and the participation in decision making, the aims of the participation government ought to include in the selection of the members, the qualified individuals, the executive government employees, the ministries undersecretaries, and the directors general the criterion of qualification, and the issue of quotas should not be opened at all. One of the factors that thwarted the efforts of the current government is the quota system. The quota system was not on the basis of being Shiite, Sunni, or Kurdish, but it was on partisan basis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the government failed because it adopted the principle of quotas?
[Al-Issawi] I believe that the government has succeeded in many dossiers, but it still faces challenges, and the next government will face challenges. The points that have hindered the work of the service institutions, including the ministries and governorates, are not selecting the qualified people, and resorting to either quotas or members of the same party, and hence there was silence by the parties and the politicians about the negligence of these people. I believe that any government that will come cannot accept this criterion, whether it is the quota or partisan selection. If the qualified people are not restored to administer the ministries, the state institutions will not be built.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your government has been accused of limiting the role of the Presidency Council. Has the role of that institution been really limited? Did you submit your decisions to the Presidency Council? Is it possible to say that there is a conflict between the Prime Ministry and the Presidency Council?
[Al-Issawi] Yes, there is a conflict; even if there is no conflict; there is a real need to build the institutions and to stipulate clearly the role of the Presidency and the role of the Prime Ministry. There is a great deal of talk about amending and reforming the powers of the Presidency Council and the Prime Ministry, including the law of electoral behavior, which is proposed now, and which is part of this campaign.
Here, we must stress that the national reconciliation dossier still requires much greater effort than the one already exerted. Part of this reconciliation ought to extend to the government and parliament, and to the government and the Presidency Council. The disputes still exist between the Presidency Council and the Prime Ministry, and even between the government and the parliament in many parts of the day-to-day work. Therefore, the Constitution commissions the executive government to perform its work, but the Constitution also (includes) that the executive authority includes the Presidency Council. If the next government does not prove this point, and does not reach an understanding on how to proceed as a harmonious, understanding, and coordinated team, work will be difficult.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a personal dispute between the prime minister and one of the members of the Presidency Council?
[Al-Issawi] Transforming the dispute into a personal one belittles the story of the dispute. The entire current dispute between the two leaderships is about the powers and the participation in decision making and administration. Perhaps in the beginning not all the institutions were paying attention to what was written in the constitution; hence the talk about amending the constitution and other various proposals, such as forming the executive council that would include the Prime Ministry, the Presidency Council, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the Political Council for National Security. Then when it (the Political Council) was formed, it was said that it did not have the right to decision making because it is not included in the Constitution. All these proposals have one aim; all the participants want to feel that they are partners. If this issue is resolved, the conflict in Iraq will end.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your government has been accused of failure in the security dossier. Because of this failure perhaps some of the candidates of the current government will lose the upcoming elections?
[Al-Issawi] One of the dossier in which the government has succeeded is the security dossier. If we compare the security dossier today to what it was in 2006, and after the Samarra explosions, we will find that there is no comparison. The change has been huge. However, the challenge is also huge, and it is due to the existence of loopholes in the security institution; the repetition of the explosions (the latest explosions in Baghdad) in the same place can only indicate a clear security loophole. The loophole is great at the information level, and at the level of building the intelligence institution. The effort exerted in this field is huge, but part of the failure that took place is due to the presence of militias, and the hasty building of the institution.
This will be a new mission for the next government, as it will have to rebuild the security institution in a professional way; here I stress the expression in a professional way, because in the past period there was influence and some authority by the political parties over the security institution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] One of the most prominent foreign interference operations in Iraq is the Iranian occupation of the Al-Fakkah oil well in Misan Province. There are many circles that are not satisfied with the government solution of the issue. What do you think?
[Al-Issawi] The issue was submitted to the National Security Council (consists of the leaders of the three authorities [Presidency Council, Prime Ministry, and parliament]). We consider that there is a dysfunction in the border forces that control the oil well. First, and before we say anything else, let us ask: why did the Iranians advance and raise the flag? We ought to ask: where were the Iraqi forces so that the Iranians can advance? Can the borders be violated in such a way?
Now, the National Security Council adopted a resolution to deploy the border forces to hold Oil Wells 11 and 13 so that the problem would not be repeated. The Foreign Ministry has been commissioned to communicate with the Iranian Foreign Ministry, because Al-Fakkah oil well is Iraqi, and was originally drilled after Algiers Agreement in 1975. This means that it is indisputable, and hence it is unacceptable in any shape or form for the Iranians either to advance on it, or to raise the flag over it. This has been the stance of the government, but the procedure has been to commission the Foreign Ministry to do so, because the government does not want to drag the country into more security and military problems when the elections are approaching.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that Al-Fakkah oil well will be the weak link for Iraq, to which other blows will be directed through another Iranian occupation?
[Al-Issawi] I do not believe so. The National Security Council has commissioned the border forces to be present and to hold the rest of the oil wells, and the Foreign Ministry is communicating with the Iranian side in order to secure the withdrawal of the forces from the Iraqi Oil Well 4.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have the Iranian forces actually withdrawn from the oil well?
[Al-Issawi] I believe that to start with the Iranian flag has been lowered, but the forces are still there; however, ultimately they will withdraw, because this is Iraqi territory, and we do not allow any violation of our sovereignty.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein Shahristani has explained in a memorandum that the oil wells that are common between Iran and Iraq ought to be united. Is this the opinion of the government?
[Al-Issawi] The government has nothing called uniting the common oil wells. I have never heard of such a thing. The Iraqi wealth is part of the Iraqi sovereignty, and we do not allow any partnership in it with the neighboring countries. This money is purely for the Iraqi people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that there are foreign agendas and interferences that will become clear with the upcoming elections?
[Al-Issawi] The upcoming elections are pivotal for Iraq, and most politicians have friendly relations and interactive relations abroad. Our wish and aspiration is to see Iraqi elections take place without interference, because the interference will damage the legitimacy of the elections. Moreover, if the Iraqis want to make concessions today, let these be mutual concessions among the Iraqis within Iraq, i.e. the Iraqi partners make concessions to each other so that the principle of partnership would become established. The more foreign intervention is prevented the more stable the political process becomes; we do not accept to have proxy fighting or proxy elections within Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your bloc (the National Future Trend) emerged to form with other blocs the Al-Iraqiyah List to fight the upcoming elections; do you think that it will constitute a hard number, and will it be a competitor of the prime minister’s list?
[Al-Issawi] The bloc (Al-Iraqiyah) has been registered at the IHEC; it includes some 20 blocs and parties, and we will announce its electoral program within days. The opinion polls show that it is one of the blocs that will constitute a hard number in the upcoming elections. In politics friends and work colleagues are maintained, but competition in the political process under the umbrella of the constitution and of respecting the rules of the political process is legitimate and acceptable. However, any talk about the results now is hasty, and no one can determine the features of the upcoming political process, the way the government will be formed, or who will be the prime minister. What is clear now is that the principal blocs are: the Iraqi National Coalition (led by the Islamic Supreme Council), the Al-Iraqiyah, the State of Law Coalition (led by Al-Maliki), and the Kurdistan Alliance (includes the two principal Kurdish parties).