[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have stated that 2008 will be the year of political progress in Iraq. How will you achieve that?
[Saleh] Our greatest challenge in the coming period is to entrench the improvement in security that we have achieved. So far what has been achieved resembles a cease-fire more than a real peace. Attaining firm and lasting peace requires true closing of the national ranks and proper handling of political tensions. We should admit that the political situation suffers from a structural flaw that has produced the repeated political crises that trouble the country and the government. Iraq is living through exceptional circumstances and cannot continue to tolerate such a whirlpool of political tugs-of-war. Iraq should have an all-encompassing and cohesive government that does not exclude any party, a government that promotes agreement among its various factions over the basic visions and principles in order to solve the various problems from which we suffer, notably extremism and terrorism, which should be eradicated from the country’s social and political scenes. The government should also focus on carrying out the required economic reforms to uplift the country economically and improve public services.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What practical steps should be taken to achieve all this, specifically in connection with the Kurdistan Alliance and the reports of the message they sent to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki?
[Saleh] A real dialogue is taking place between the brother prime minister and the various political blocs. Actually the government’s political base has collapsed or at least has largely shrunk as a result of the repeated withdrawals of different blocs beginning with Al-Sadr’s movement, Al-Fadilah [Virtue] Party, the Iraqi National List, and Al-Tawafuq Front. Yes, the Kurdistan Alliance sent a message to the prime minister regarding the national crisis from which Iraq suffers and underlining the need to rectify the political course and reform the government situation. I expect these dialogues to become more intensive in the coming period.
All parties admit that there is a need to correct the course and all of them, at least publicly, say that it is necessary to remedy the defects from which the political process suffers. It is time to work seriously in order to carry out radical reforms. What I am saying is that almost five years after the overthrow of the former regime and the repeated political crises that we have experienced, we should be frank with ourselves and our people. We should admit that there is a flaw and that there are real problems that need serious and radical remedies. The security improvement we have seen is significant and should not be disparaged. It is a very important achievement. The Iraqi people are now breathing more easily in Al-Anbar, some Baghdad neighborhoods, and other areas that previously witnessed major acts of violence. This lays a heavy responsibility on us, the politicians, to protect, entrench, and expand these security achievements and transform them into a real national peace. We should close national ranks against extremism and terrorism.
Iraq is living through exceptional circumstances and by any standard is facing extraordinary challenges. It cannot be governed effectively through the current political perspectives. Iraq really needs, and the Iraqi people deserve, an exceptional, competent, and effective government that can draw on the reserves of Iraq’s national resources and terminate the dilemma of violence.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] what about this letter that was sent to Prime Minister Al-Maliki? Did it deal with the current differences over the oil issue between the central government and the government of the Kurdistan region?
[Saleh] The Kurdistan Alliance’s letter did not refer to the Kurdistan region’s disagreements with several national ministries. It focused on the general situation and the need to find a national solution to the problems from which the country suffers. As to the Kurdistan region’s problems and the disagreements over this or that issue, these can be solved in the context of a national formula that achieves what is required, namely, adherence to the constitution. The Kurdistan Alliance has remained supportive of Al-Maliki’s government. The political problems that this government faced did not come from the Kurdistan Alliance but from other important political factions, including Al-Sadr’s movement, Al-Tawafuq Front, and the Iraqi National List. The Kurdistan Alliance is aware of the importance of a comprehensive national solution. It is not possible to remedy the Kurdistan region’s problems in isolation from the general national situation. Even if we deal with them today, these problems will recur because they are the outcome of a structural defect in making decisions.
The question is this: Are we in a government that reflects the pluralistic situation in Iraq and participation in decision-making and in shouldering responsibility or does it reflect a majority that governs but leaves the other factions to follow? This is an essential question. Perhaps the Kurdistan Alliance is the least affected party by this situation because of the Kurdish situation’s political weight, its cohesiveness, and the difficulty of ignoring it. However, we are part of the Iraqi national equation and the Kurdish leadership has made the strategic decision that this region should be part of the political project to establish a federal democratic state in Iraq.
It is true that some Kurds call for focusing attention exclusively on the Kurdish region and its current needs. However, the vast majority of Kurdish leaders believe that Kurdistan’s situation will not be stable and Kurdish demands will not be met unless the general situation in Iraq improves and there is general stability. Kurdistan’s security is stable today but it will not last unless there is also stability in Ninawa, Baghdad, Al-Anbar, and Basra because the interests of all these regions are connected. The Kurdish leadership has adopted a stance that backs a national solution to the homeland’s problems and believes that we should not show concern only for the problems pertaining to our own region. This is an earnest stance. I hope that we can work with our various political partners in the homeland to remedy the defect that has affected the political process and the country’s governing institutions. We are advocates of reform and correcting the course. We call for solidarity among the influential political blocs that can agree on a common vision to solve the country’s problems.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you receive a response from the Prime Minister regarding your written message?
[Saleh] There was a response from the prime minister which I have not yet seen because I am now abroad. However, I hope that everyone will understand that the Kurdistan Alliance is serious about promoting reform in the country. We believe that there is a national consensus that the situation requires reform and that we cannot continue to administer the country by the current policies and methods. Extremely important things need to be done in2008 and we cannot attribute all our problems to the security situation. The ball now is the politicians’ court and if the cease-fire is not transformed into a solid peace, this will be viewed as a historic failure by the country’s leaders. This subject should not be viewed through the perspective of sectarian or personal inclinations. The homeland’s interest requires a radical political solution that entrenches a united stance that opposes extremism and terrorism, solidifies true partnership in making decisions and shouldering responsibility, and produces an effective government that is able to perform adequately and rise above the suffocating sectarian and factional disagreements from which we have suffered.
Our priority in the Kurdistan Alliance is to reform brother Al-Maliki’s government, not to change it. We assert that reform and correcting the government’s course has become a necessary requirement that we cannot disregard. We need an effective and united government that produces a real partnership in making decisions among the basic political forces. Unless these necessary reforms are carried out, there will be terrible consequences for everyone.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are some unresolved political issues, chiefly the oil bill, which the cabinet approved last February. When do you expect this bill to be passed into law?
[Saleh] Without doubt we cannot avoid admitting failure in this connection. The fact that the oil law has not been passed represents a large obstacle to the development of the petroleum sector, which would enable us to exploit this national resource.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But what are the causes of the disagreements and the delay in passing the law?
[Saleh] There are unresolved issues pertaining to the way the contracts will be concluded. I expect that the disputed points over the oil law will be debated in the near future. I hope that these problems will be solved in a friendly manner and create a favorable administrative and investment atmosphere for the oil sector’s development. The disagreements revolve around the methods of management but there is no dispute over the partnership of all Iraqis over the oil wealth and the necessity of fair and indiscriminate distribution of oil revenues to all Iraqis.
As it stands today Iraqi oil is still well below the desired levels of production and exports. We had hoped that production would reach three million barrels per day. Unfortunately, it has remained below that. This is a big defect and a significant failure particularly in view of the high oil prices and the requirements of reconstruction in Iraq. This failure resulted from administrative problems and political tugs-of-war that influenced the oil sector and from the fact that many experts in this vital sector have left the country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The investment climate in Iraq is currently discouraging. Conflicting announcements emerge from the Kurdistan region and Baghdad over the fate of the companies that have started work in the region. How do you think this issue will be solved?
[Saleh] There is a point of disagreement between the government of the Kurdistan region and the Oil Ministry. The decision to blacklist the oil companies was not made by the cabinet. There is no definite, approved government policy over the issue. I wish to talk about this issue objectively from my position as deputy prime minister. If we succeed in solving this issue soon, then all is well and good but if we do not succeed in doing this and the Oil Ministry and the Kurdistan region each clings to its position, the issue will go to the Federal Court, which should settle the issue according to the constitution. A unilateral decision by a particular minister or ministry without recourse to the constitution is absolutely unacceptable. This issue could have been settled without all this escalation. We should adhere to the constitution in solving disagreements. In all countries it is normal to have conflicting views over the implementation of a constitutional provision. It is absolutely unacceptable for one party to monopolize a decision and try to impose it as a fait accompli. In my opinion there will be a political debate over a decision and hopefully we will reach the conclusion that we should adhere to the constitution and the law.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Another obstacle to adherence to the constitution and the law is the question of corruption. How will you handle this issue especially in the wake of the anticorruption conference that was held in Baghdad a few weeks ago?
[Saleh] Corruption is a serious problem that threatens the Iraqi state and its political project. Corruption and terrorism feed on each other. Violence in Iraq has its own economic structure. Fighting corruption cannot be done through slogans and conferences. The conference was a good beginning by agreeing on recommended legislation, strengthening oversight bodies, reviving Iraq’s membership in the UN anticorruption agreement, and revising the way contracts are made. The cabinet approved these recommendations and we will implement them according to a clear timetable. Fighting corruption requires effort and time but we are betting on Iraq’s good people. This subject will be handled from an institutional and legal perspective.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This is an important issue to the surge of the Iraqi economy in 2008. You have declared your intention of making the economy and public services priorities in 2008. What are your plans?
[Saleh] 2008 will be full of challenges. The political issue looms large and is very important but the economy is also important. Economic progress in 2007 was not bad. The security situation was an obstacle to some degree in addition to the administrative legacy from which we suffer and the old directives that impeded economic growth. Still we can be proud of the relative economic progress we have made. Even the IMF praised our economic progress. In view of the security improvement we have achieved, the economic progress we made in 2007, the revision of numerous old directives, and the revision of the method of making contracts with the Iraqi state, I hope that we will do better in 2008. The direction in which things are moving is very important. The levels at which the investment budget was implemented in 2007 rose several times over the levels of 2006. I hope there will be a leap forwarding 2008. The 2008 budget includes $14 billion for investments in addition to $4billion carried over from the 2007 budget, providing a total of $18 billion for the investment budget in 2008. This is an unprecedented figure for Iraq.
At first there were delays and procrastination in executing the investment law. Now that the cabinet has nominated a new chairman of the investment authority, we hope to pursue an open market policy and enable the private sector to play an effective role in Iraq’s reconstruction. According to indications, there will be a growth rate exceeding 7% in 2008 according to the IMF. I am confident that if we work well together, remedy our political problems, and the security situation continues to improve, we will achieve the required economic surge, God willing. The economy will be a unifying factor for the Iraqis. It will be an important factor in improving public services and living standards, confronting the terrorists and extremists, and creating real job opportunities in various parts of Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the unemployment rate in Iraq?
[Saleh] There are no specific statistics but according to economic indicators gathered by Iraqi and international institutions, unemployment in Iraq is going down. Last year we were speaking about an unemployment rate of 19 percent. This is a great improvement over past years. In the provinces that now enjoy relatively better security an extensive reconstruction process is underway. There are job opportunities in the building sector. This is not enough, however. This year there will be significant growth in jobs for Iraqis. The investment budget will allow for a growth in the job market, not only government jobs but real profitable jobs in the investment sphere.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about inflation?
[Salih] The high rate of inflation has been restrained but is still high. If we compare inflation today with the 2006 levels, current levels are significantly lower. The efforts that the government and the Central Bank have made to lower inflation are producing concrete results. Setting aside transport and fuel costs, the basic inflation rate in 2006 was 32 percent. In 2007 it dropped to 14 percent. We expect it to fall to 12 percent soon and 7 percent in 2009.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In addition to the domestic dialogue, Iraq is moving ahead with plans for an extensive dialogue with the United States over along-term strategic agreement on the US presence in Iraq. How will you guarantee national consensus over this agreement?
[Saleh] This is a very important issue that affects the country’s future. All the political factions are interested in it. We will not agree to let one political faction or factions of a single political color to carryout the negotiations over this agreement. All the major political parties should take part in the talks, either through the Presidency Council, the prime minister, or the Political Council on National Security. This is an important national issue and there is consensus that we should pursue it and reach an agreement that will guarantee Iraq’s basic interests and sovereignty and promote our ties with the world’s superpower. The United States is our partner in confronting terrorism.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When will the negotiations begin?
[Saleh] They will begin soon. We need to deal with the agreement in an institutional manner. The Presidency Council, since it embodies the basic social and political forces in the country, will be concerned with this matter alongside the prime minister. We insist that the country’s basic issues should be decided by the country’s collective leadership after reaching understanding on them with the people’s representatives in parliament.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] During your participation in the World Economic Forum you met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan. Did you achieve any results during this meeting especially with regard to Turkey’s bombardment of Kurdistan?
[Saleh] The two countries constantly assert the need to pay attention to and strengthen their relations. In our view Turkey is an important neighbor and we are interested in developing our economic and political ties with it. We admit that there is a problem on the Iraqi-Turkish border. The problem of the presence of the Kurdistan Workers Party in those remote mountainous areas should be handled through cooperation between the two countries rather than by unilateral military action that encroaches on Iraq’s sovereignty and does not benefit Iraqi-Turkish relations at all.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Turkish foreign minister said that the United States is providing Turkey with information that helps it in its political activities. Is Iraq aware of the nature of this information?
[Saleh] Regarding our dealings with the United States, we emphasize that it should play its role in preventing encroachment on Iraq’s sovereignty. We have informed US officials of our position. However, in our capacity as the Iraqi Government and in cooperation with the government of the Kurdistan region, we assert the importance of pursuing a policy of cooperation with Turkey and the coalition forces and, through this tripartite framework, pursue ways of real cooperation in the field to handle the question of border security. Turkey cannot remedy the situation by resorting to a unilateral use of force. The solution lies in Iraq’s and Turkey’s cooperation with the United States. There are specific proposals in this regard. We have suggested to Turkey to resume tripartite communications to produce policies that will radically solve the problem.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] During your meeting with Babacan, did Turkey respond positively?
[Saleh] We discussed the issue. I emphasized our position that military action constitutes an unacceptable violation of Iraqi sovereignty. It is well known that Turkey believes otherwise. Yet it is important to communicate and try to find common ground on this matter. Our Turkish neighbors should realize that military action will only spoil the atmosphere and preclude the desired outcome with regard to securing the border. The issue is about a common Iraqi and Turkish interest.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Tell us about your meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
[Saleh] Our relationship with Iran is both diverse and important. The two countries are linked by 1,400 km of border. My meeting with Mottaki was an opportunity to speak frankly about the situation in Iraq and our bilateral relations. I stressed Iraqi sovereignty and the importance of nonintervention in Iraq’s domestic affairs. I pointed out, as I had done several times previously, that Iran benefited from the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which used to be a factor of regional instability. I stressed that the region as a whole should invest in a federal, democratic Iraq based on the Iraqi people’s free choices and said that any guardianship or interference in Iraqi affairs and encroachment on Iraq’s sovereignty will complicate matters further and perpetuate regional instability, which serves neither Iraq nor the region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Iran has spoken more than once about its opposition to the presence of US troops in Iraq. Did you talk about this issue with Mottaki?
[Saleh] This issue was raised two or three times. I assured brother Mottaki that this issue is within Iraq’s sovereign jurisdiction and that the multinational forces were present in Iraq on the strength of a request by the elected and sovereign Iraqi Government and that their presence is based on a UN Security Council resolution. Calling the situation an occupation or making demands is unacceptable and the Iraqis consider it meddling in its domestic affairs. Iraq, based on its national interests, will decide the fate of these forces’ presence. We assured our neighbors that they have the right to request guarantees that Iraq will not be used as a springboard for attacks on their interests. We wish to assert that our partnership with the multinational forces, particularly the US forces, is directed against terrorism and to protect Iraq’s stability. It is not directed against anyone else. The Iraqi Government and parliament will decide this issue. No other country has the right to exercise guardianship over us in this matter or any other matter.