Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- So far, it seems that the Iraqi political blocs that have won in the last legislative elections at last have agreed on a single issue, namely to support the nomination by the Kurdistan Alliance of President Jalal Talabani for a second presidential term.
President Talabani has given Asharq Al-Awsat an exclusive, lengthy, and comprehensive interview, which is his first interview with an Arab publication after the elections, and in which he talks about the role of Saudi Arabia and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in helping Iraq and the Iraqis without interfering in its internal affairs.
The following is the text of the interview:
Q) How do you explain the unanimity of the political blocs on choosing you for a second term as president of Iraq?
A) The answer to this question is difficult, because I have learned a lesson from Jawahrl al Nehru, who said: “When they praise me in my presence, I feel embarrassed.” I do not want to be forced to praise myself; however, the fact is that I consider that their great trust in me is due to my lengthy relations with them, to the friendship relations that bind me with the brother leaders of the political blocs, and their satisfaction with my work during the past period. I believe that they are satisfied with the role I played in the past, and with my performance of my duties, and that they want a continuation of this course and method. I thank them for honoring me. They are showing me kindness, and so far all the principal blocs have announced their support for Jalal Talabani to remain as president.
Q) Do you consider that the upcoming stage will be more difficult than the past one?
A) The difficulty or ease depends on the active powers in society. If these powers agree and cooperate among themselves, then everything will be easy, and obstacles, hindrances, and problems could be overcome. On the other hand, if disputes and problems emerge among the active powers, then difficulties will emerge.
Q) On the basis of your political expertise and experience, how do you see the political scene today?
A) Quite frankly, I am optimistic. I believe that there will be agreement between the political powers over the program of the upcoming government, which will be a real national partnership government. I also believe that there will be a new method in the work of the upcoming government that will impose itself on all, a method of partnership, harmony, and cooperation among the participating powers, a method that relies on the presence of strong and qualified ministers who are nominated by the powers participating in the government. The conditions of qualification and ability to take decisions will help the upcoming government in performing its duties.
Q) What about the selection of the upcoming prime minister?
A) Yes, this is a problem we have now. Unfortunately, so far there is no unanimity on the name of the prime minister, even within the allied blocs (the alliance of the State of Law Coalition, led by Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister of the government whose term ended, and the Iraqi National Alliance, led by Ammar al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council). The Al-Iraqiya Bloc insists on nominating Mr. Iyad Allawi, the State of Law Bloc insists on nominating Mr. Al-Maliki, while the National Alliance has not yet agreed a specific name.
Q) What do you think is the way out of this dilemma?
A) I believe that ultimately they will agree a specific name. They either will nominate one individual and present him, or they will propose a number of names, commission each of them unofficially to form a government, then they check with the parliamentary blocs if any of these names can gather enough votes to form the government. I believe that this is the scenario of the last resort for the way out of this problem.
Q) Do you not think that there is a possibility that the compromise candidate can be neither Shiite nor Sunni, but a Kurd; for instance, he could be Jalal Talabani or Barham Saleh?
A) No, I do not think that there is such a possibility. I cannot see on the horizon such a candidate as the one you propose, because the Iraqi situation today requires everyone to insist on what he calls his right. The Shiites say that they are the majority, and indeed they are, as there are 159 Shiite Representatives from the two lists (the National Alliance and the State of Law), in addition to a group of Shiite Representatives from the Al-Iraqiya List, and a group from the Kurds. Therefore, the Shiites in the upcoming Council of Representatives constitute the sufficient majority to form the government. Also there is the total number of votes obtained by the Shiites; the State of Law obtained 2,794,038 votes, and the National Alliance obtained 2,092,682 votes, which means that the two groups together obtained 5 million votes, while Al-Iraqiya obtained 2,443,905 votes. This reflects the nature of the majority of voters.
Q) Have you tried to confront Allawi and Al-Maliki with the need to reach a solution for the problem of the prime minister nomination?
A) In my previous experience, I started with a luncheon banquet hoping that it will be turned into a political table. This is the same experience we went through in the past session. I consider that the luncheon invitation of last Thursday was a step forward toward melting the ice. At least I gathered the political leaders and members of the Iraqi electoral blocs; I believe it was the first time in many years that such a large number of Iraqi political leaders representing the various tendencies and blocs gathered together, exchanged and expressed their opinions. The opinions were close to each other, and agreed on the need to form a national partnership, and not to marginalize any side. This meeting, God willing, will be a good beginning, and we will continue with such meetings. I will do my utmost to mediate whenever there is a need for this. I believe that in the end we will reach good results.
Q) Do you think that the absence of Iyad Allawi, leader of the Al-Iraqiya List, has affected the result of the political banquet you offered?
A) The absence of Allawi was due to his preoccupations and meetings outside Iraq. He sent us a message in which he explained the reason for his absence. He is sincere in what he wrote, and had he been in Baghdad, he would have attended.
Q) Do you think that the choice of the venue of the meeting between Allawi and Al-Maliki (the house of former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari) is the reason that that meeting did not take place? Can they not meet, for instance, here at the Presidency?
A) Yes, the Presidency is a suitable venue for the meeting between Allawi and Al-Maliki. However, at the same time, I believe that the issue of the venue is not the reason that that meeting did not take place. I consider the issue of the venue to be an excuse or pretext. Had the two parties wanted to meet, they could have done so anywhere; this is not a problem.
Q) In your opinion, what is the reason for their meeting not to have taken place?
A) The problem is related to the lack of agreement between them on programs and stances. We should not restrict ourselves to the dispute over the post of prime minister, which is the dispute that has risen to the surface. There is a dispute over the details; if we agree on the government and the prime minister, there is also the program of the upcoming government. There are many disputes over this program, including in what direction Iraq will move. After the agreement on the program, the problem of distributing the ministerial portfolios begins, especially the sovereignty ministries. Then there is the issue of the mechanism of managing the state in the future. These are fundamental issues, despite the fact that the dispute over the post of prime minister is the one that overwhelmed the rest of the dossier.
Q) You are well known for your efforts to put out the major political fires. I wonder what is the extent of your intervention to resolve the current problems?
A) I will do my utmost to justify the good opinion of all, to be an honest guardian of the Constitution and its implementation, to be a sponsor of national unity, and to fulfill my duty as stipulated by the Constitution.
Q) In the upcoming session there will be no two vice presidents, of what was known as the Presidency Council. Will this issue be subjected to political compromises and agreements?
A) Yes, there will be no two vice presidents according to the stipulation of the Iraqi Constitution. However, personally I prefer the existence of vice presidents, at least two vice presidents.
Q) Is this with the same form, one Sunni and one Shiite?
A) It is not a condition that the two vice presidents ought to be from the Sunnis or the Shiites. Why should we not think of a qualified vice president from the Turkoman, the brother Christians, the Sabians, or the Yazidis? Why should we restrict the issue to the Sunnis and the Shiites, what about the other Iraqis? Let me be frank with you; if I am elected to be president, my choice of the two vice presidents will be according to the political agreements. It is true that the president has the right to choose his vice presidents, but their appointment is within the power of parliament; therefore, it is inevitable to have consultations among the parliamentary blocs in order to appoint the one or two vice presidents.
Q) Do you think that the issue of forming the upcoming government will take long?
A) No, I do not believe this, because within days I will start consultations with the parliamentary blocs, and I will understand from them what they want.
Q) Will you meet Iyad Allawi?
A) Of course, Allawi is my friend, and I describe him as the old friend, and comrade of the long march of struggle. As a person I respect and like him.
Q) Will your personal relations with the leaders of the blocs play a part in bringing their viewpoints closer?
A) My personal relations with the leaders have helped me in playing the role you see now, namely the role of the mediator, the coordinator, and the unifier of all. I take pride in these relations, and I have never, and will never squander these relations. For instance, my relations with brother Allawi are good, and when he was prime minister at his own request he included brother Barham Saleh in his government (as deputy prime minister), and we helped him all along the past periods. Moreover, I stood by him when they wanted to put a red circle around his name, and I said that we in the name of the Kurdistan Alliance would not accept putting a red circle around his name, and that we were in solidarity with Mr. Iyad Allawi. Our relations still are very strong. I will let you know that many meetings have taken place between me and Allawi about the new government, the prime minister post, the presidency, whether in Kurdistan or here in the residency, in my house, or in his house. I visited him and he visited me, and our personal relations are excellent.
Q) Do you see Allawi as a prime minister in the near future?
A) Yes, if he gets 163 votes I will not object to this. However, it is neither my role nor my duty to engage in such kind of conflict, and I ought to keep at an equal distance from every side. Let me tell you something, my personal preference of the working mechanism is that the parliament should meet, and if the situation remains as it is now, the parliamentary bloc with the largest number, namely Al-Iraqiya Bloc, should be authorized to form the government, and if its candidate for the prime minister post succeeds in forming the government, so be it, and if he does not succeed, then he concedes and another bloc should be authorized to form the government.
According to the Constitution, the parliamentary bloc is the bloc that is formed in parliament. The parliamentary bloc is different from the electoral bloc; why is this? Because those who win the elections will not be called representatives, deputies, or members of parliament until the Federal Court ratifies them, and they are sworn in in parliament; only then they become representatives with full powers, and then the various parliamentary blocs can be formed.
Personally, I do not see any reasons for inflaming the situation so that it can be said that is a Shiite bloc, that is a Sunni bloc, and the other is a Kurdish one. Had the situation run its normal course, Mr. Allawi was commissioned but did not succeed in forming the government, I believe that brother Allawi, as I know him personally, would have gone to the president and said: Brother, choose another person for this mission. I believe this is clear in the Constitution, which is written in pure Arabic.
Personally, I favor national accord, even before the meeting of the Council of Representatives. This is because Iraq cannot be governed except by national accord, at least at this stage until the formation of comprehensive major parties, as the case was during the monarchy when there were parties that covered the entire Iraq from Zakho to Basra. Until such parties that cover are formed the current situation will remain. This is the situation that makes coalition and accord inevitable. Moreover, there are facts that are not man-made and some people when they write they disregard the existence of such facts. For instance, the existence of the Shiite Arab constituent, the Sunni Arab constituent, and the Kurdish constituent, is not an assumption, illusion, or product of some imagination, but it is a clear fact on the land of Iraq for hundreds of years. The Shiites consist of various schools of thinking, and so are the Sunnis. The sect is a historical fact; however sectarianism is different from sect. The sect exists in the same way the nationality exists. Nationalities come after the sects. The existence of the Turkish nationality and the Turkoman nationality is a fact; the existence of the Chaldean-Assyrian nationality in addition to the Arab nationality is firm facts. This is the structure of Iraq, and I believe that this structure makes it imperative to have accord and coalition for a long time. Therefore, we ought to rely on facts and reality, and not on suspicions or wishful thinking.
Q) How do you see Iraq’s relations with Saudi Arabia today after your recent visit to Riyadh and meeting with Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz?
A) Personally, I take pride in the fact that I have extensive, deep, and good relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I am grateful to the brother Saudis for their good stances toward us even when the Saudi relations were good with Iraq during the era of (Iraqi former President) Saddam Hussein, as they supported the work of the Iraqi opposition. After my election as president of Iraq, our relations with Saudi Arabia have remained good; at the Arab summits, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bestowed upon us his kindness and amicability. Thus, I have done, and still do my utmost to develop the relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. I believe that these relations are very important for the independence and stability of Iraq, important for the Arab role of Iraq as a founding member of the Arab League, important for the benefit of both the Iraqi and Saudi peoples, and important for the benefit of the Arab and Muslim nations. Moreover, these relations are important so that there would be no Arab vacuum in Iraq, as sometimes it happens. This time, I found a great deal of kindness and generosity from the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques toward all the Iraqis, which encourages us to continue to develop our relations with the Kingdom, and to persevere with this policy. I found the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques saying explicitly: All the Iraqis are my brothers, and the Kingdom stands at equal distance from all the Iraqi blocs. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques expressed his complete readiness to help Iraq in resolving its problems with its neighbors, also to help Iraq in forming the new government, and to stand by the new Iraq and support its stances. Starting from this, I find that the climate and the groundwork today are suitable to establish the best relations between Iraq and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Q) Have you noticed any intention by the Saudi Government to interfere in the Iraqi affairs?
A) No, not at all, on the contrary I noticed the commitment of the Saudi brethren to the independence and stability of Iraq, to the preservation of its sovereignty, and not to interfere in our internal affairs. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques has said that the Kingdom does not interfere in internal affairs, and does not accept that the brethren should interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq; on the contrary, the Kingdom practices a policy of fraternity, good neighborliness, consultation, and exchange of fraternal opinions with all the Iraqis.
Q) There has been criticism coming from the Iraqi Government of the visits by some Iraqi political leaders to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. You also have visited both countries. How do you see this criticism?
A) I do not support any criticism of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, because it has not done anything that contradicts the interests of Iraq; on the contrary, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques has been amicable with everybody, and advised everybody to pursue national unity. With regard to some Iraqi brother politicians visiting Egypt, I welcome this; moreover, we feel that we have neglected our relations with Egypt, as we should have visited Egypt more, and we should have given Egypt more attention. Egypt is not little, not only Egypt is the mother of the world [Egyptian proverb] as they say, but it is also the big sister, and the sponsor of the Arab League. Egypt has done a great deal of good for the entire Arab nation since the establishment and the independence of the Arab countries. Egypt has done a great deal of good for us the Iraqis, Arabs and Kurds; in fact Egypt has done the Kurds more good than the Arabs, because the first Kurdish newspaper was issued in Egypt, also it embraced the Kurds and the first Kurdish radio station, it stood against the war on the Kurds, and has supported the autonomy of the Iraqi Kurds since the days of the immortal President Jamal Abdul-Nasser. In this respect Egypt has the right to reproach the Iraqis. For this reason I encourage the visits by the Iraqi brother politicians to Egypt, and I have asked the Egyptian brethren to have political presence in Iraq in addition to the diplomatic presence. As for if there has been criticism, and whether or not it has been accurate about internationalization and similar issues, I tend to favor this criticism.
Q) Is there major Iranian interference in the Iraqi internal affairs?
A) I believe that all the neighboring countries interfere in the Iraqi internal affairs. Personally I have noticed during the recent period that there was no major Iranian interference, as you describe it; on the contrary, the Iranians today are observing from a distance what is happening in Iraq.
Q) What is your opinion of the circulating talk about Iranian pressure that led to the alliance of the two blocs, the State of Law and the National Alliance?
A) The only pressure to close the Shiite ranks comes from the religious authorities, whether those in Al-Najaf or those in Iran. This is because the religious authorities in Iraq are committed to the unity of the Iraqi people, the unity of the Shiites, and then to closing the Shiite ranks with the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs. This is a realistic and truthful outlook, because without closing the Shiite ranks, the dealings will remain difficult for everyone. Therefore, I believe that the rational religious authorities are practicing a patriotic role when they pursue the unity of the Iraqi ranks as a whole, and not only the Shiite ranks. I am 100 percent sure that Sayyid Ali al-Sistani has played a major role in calming down the situation in Iraq and sparing it the suffering of civil war out of the commitment to the unity of the Iraqi ranks, including its Kurds and the Sunni and Shiite Arabs.
Q) Are you optimistic about what will take place during the upcoming stage?
A) Yes, I am optimistic. We have faced greater difficulties than these. When we started our discussions about the Constitution, there were those who were saying that it would be impossible to achieve it; however, we achieved it and presented a draft. When we presented the Constitution for referendum, they said that we would not find anyone to accept it, but the referendum succeeded, and the Iraqis voted for it with overwhelming majority, as 12.5 million Iraqis voted for it. Also the electoral law, which many people believed that it would not be passed, it was accepted and passed. The same applies to SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement], which was signed with the US Agreement, and the legislative elections, which they said that they would not take place or succeed, but they took place in an exemplary way, and were successful. I believe that we will vanquish the existing disputes, and we will form the national partnership government.