Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Interview with Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al Rubaie | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

Asharq Al-Awsat – Despite his security commitments and obligations, Iraqi National Security Adviser Dr. Mowaffak al Rubaie sat with Asharq Al-Awsat in an extended interview during his short stay in London. Characterized by a direct frankness, the interview ranged over a number of pertinent topics, including the distinctive relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia in terms of combating terrorism, Iran and Syria’s role in “exporting death to Iraq,” and the government’s final stance with regards to obliterating the Mehdi army.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: What is happening in Iraq today?

A: It is an excruciating state of labor; we are confronted by challenges. When the change happened in Iraq, we did not anticipate what would take place; the advent of Al-Qaeda and that some would bear arms and call themselves the resistance, and that neighboring states would intervene. We were expecting the old regime to fall and be replaced by a new one upon which we could build a democracy and pluralism and a society with ideals and values unlike the society during the former regime. But what happened completely defied our expectations; I believe we have worked miracles.

Is there a state in contemporary history that was able to build an army in less than four years? An army, police force, five intelligence agencies and a national security system, border patrol, guards for facilities and installations, coastguards, the nucleus to a naval and air force, and a 13-divison army. By the end of this year, we will have approximately 700,000 elements in the army and police and 20 brigadier generals. All this was achieved in less than four years and was established under extraordinary circumstances. We are under fire; we are under fire from all parties.

Q: What other parties are you referring to?

A: Those that threaten Iraqi national security are obvious: first and foremost is Al-Qaeda; it is made up of misguided takfiri [Muslims holding fellow Muslims unbelievers] groups who want us to regress back to the Stone Age. These groups are affiliated to Al-Qaeda and they are the so-called resistance; they are a group of people who have been struck and their interests were threatened, or they imagined that this new regime would threaten their interests and not guarantee them on a certain level – and thus have resorted to arms.

Q: In your view, is there an Iraqi resistance?

A: Certainly, there is a legitimate resistance, both conventionally and legally speaking, and all the local and international laws and conventions consider the resistance legitimate. But which resistance; is it the resistance in which the policeman or the Iraqi soldier is killed or is it the resistance that is responsible for bombing markets, Hussainiyat [Shia gatherings] and mosques to kill innocent Iraqis?

What resistance is this? I believe that the best type of resistance is a peaceful political resistance that would quickly drive the foreign forces out of Iraq. That would be the optimal resistance and any other type of resistance can only prolong the presence of the foreign forces in Iraq. These forces are deemed legitimate by the UN and have the Iraqi government’s authorization – as long as the Iraqi people have elected this government on a constitutional basis and held a referendum on the constitution.

Sure, there are problems with the constitution that require amendments but we are amending it internally, especially its mechanisms. This government is striving to drive the foreign forces out in the same way that our people want [to expel the forces]. We act with all our strength and in accordance with the public’s confidence in us to get rid of the foreign forces – not through using arms which would only result in justifications for them to stay.

Q: How many militias or armies exist in Iraq today?

A: There is only one army, which is the brave Iraqi army and no other army will be allowed to exist.

Q: I am not referring to an organized army but rather to armed militias, whether Sunni or Shia…

A: There is no militia as such at the present time – with the exception of the Mehdi army. I do not imagine that there are armed militias on the Iraqi street aside from that. I am not one of those who uphold that al Sahwa forces are militias – I find that [notion] unacceptable. Those [al Sahwa forces] were in a different trench and then they decided to stand by the people in the same trench.

The Arab Sunni community in Iraq is aware and thus questioned what it could achieve by supporting Al-Qaeda, which is foreign to Iraq and the Iraqi people. Moreover, its activists and leaders are foreigners as are their affiliations; in fact, ideologically speaking, they are foreign as well. There is no place for takfiri ideology in Iraq; it is completely alien to our society. The Iraqi society is well-educated, urbanized, civilized, open and has a cultural history that dates back to over 6,000 years. The mode of thought that characterizes Iraqis as opposed to Al-Qaeda members is vastly different. Such ideology might work in Afghanistan, with all due respect to Afghanistan, but it has no place here in Iraq; it is unsuitable and very alien to Iraqi thought. The Sunni Arab community was aware of this and it revolted, awakened and decided to confront Al-Qaeda – and this [awareness] is the chief factor required to vanquish Al-Qaeda.

Indeed, there are a number of other factors; it is noteworthy that 80 percent of violence in Iraq has decreased over the last 10 months. In accordance with all criteria, terrorist operations and violence have decreased, whether car bombs, suicide operations or explosive devices, as have the number of warehouses storing weapons and explosives, in addition to the number of terrorists that we arrest or kill. But what is the reason behind that? What happened during the year that led to the decrease of violence? The indisputable answer is the Sunni Sahwa [movement]; the sons of our nation called upon the government to assist and support them and indeed, the government helped them confront Al-Qaeda and its schemes. And not only did the public refuse to become an incubator for Al-Qaeda, the people also fought against it and inflicted severe losses upon the organization’s activists.

The second factor that contributed to the improvement of the security situation goes back to the fact that the Iraqi army has reached a sophisticated stage of training and armament so as to confront terrorism. Another factor is the increase of the US-led multinational forces; however, the most important factor is that these forces have changed their tactics – instead of staying at their bases and camps they took to the streets. Add to that the interaction and cooperation of the Iraqi government with the neighboring states.

Q: Which neighboring states do you mean specifically?

A: Let us speak in detail: Iran, for example, is the main arms supplier on a very large scale, arming, training, preparing and providing experience. Presently, Iran’s armament has decreased and I am saying that Iran is capable of doing more to maintain the stabilization of security in Iraq and I believe that Iran can prevent arms smuggling through its border into Iraq.

We believe that Iran’s interest lies in its intention; its ultimate goal is for a pro-Iran Shia sectarian government to rule over Iraq. This is impossible because Iraq’s Shia, who constitute the majority of the population and those who will remain in power, are Arab Shia who take pride in their affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nation and their Arabism and their relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. I say this with full conviction: [Iraq] is an important part of the Arab nation from which it cannot separate – no way. I feel that I am part of this nation and there is no way that this sentiment will change.

Q: On a previous occasion you told Asharq Al-Awsat that Iran is the main support behind Muqtada al Sadr, do you still believe that?

A: Iran is supporting all parties.

Q: Even Al-Qaeda?

A: Iran has a complicated policy towards Al-Qaeda. By the way, the mode of Iranian thought and its policies are complicated. Today, for example, Iran has approximately 100 Al-Qaeda leaders from Afghanistan in detention, including Saudis, Moroccans, Yemenis and Algerians. A number of them are held under house arrest and are allowed to use phones, among other things. We asked the Iranians to participate in obtaining information from these leadership figures because we believe that they can give us information that could help us track down Al-Qaeda members but they (Iranians) rejected that and did not assist us in that matter. There are elements [who follow] this misguided ideology who are affiliated to the Kurdish takfiris who are members of the Ansar al Islam and Ansar al Sunnah groups who have crossed through the Iraqi Kurdistan region through the Iranian Kurdish areas. We believe that Iran must act to prevent them [from crossing].

We believe that the only way to eliminate terrorism in the region is to establish a regional alliance to combat terrorism in a serious and dedicated manner. The alliance would consist of neighboring states; Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Iraq, in addition to declaring a regional war on terrorism like the international war the US waged against terrorism.

Sunni and Shia terrorists cannot be vanquished except through competent regional efforts. If any of the region’s states procrastinate in this war and allow any terrorist organization to operate then all the efforts exerted by the rest of the region will go to waste and there can be no benefits for the region.

It is in Turkey’s interest to defeat the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which is present in the mountains of Kurdistan in Iraq and Iran. It is in the interest of Iran to defeat Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) and the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) that is still based in Iraq, while it is in Iraq’s interest to vanquish Al-Qaeda and the takfiris. Meanwhile, it is in Saudi’s interest to defeat Al-Qaeda, which is responsible for bombing operations in the kingdom. We in Iraq are calling for an agreement or alliance or a memorandum of understanding to combat terrorism.

Let me give you an example; in Iraq when we arrest terrorists coming from northern Africa or Saudi, or if we want to obtain information [about them] it remains incomplete because it is one-dimensional. We do not know who they are affiliated to or who trained, dispatched and logistically supported them or who provided them with information and issued fatwas telling them to blow themselves up.

This is not a simple issue; imagine if a small village in eastern Libya called Derna dispatched more than 40 terrorists into Iraq. Who is behind this and why are they all from one village? This means that there is someone backing them, issuing fatwas, recruiting and financing them to get into Iraq. We believe that there needs to be regional and international cooperation to obtain the required information to fight terrorism.

Q: Are there any neighboring states collaborating with you in this endeavor?

A: Yes, certainly. There is exemplary cooperation between us and Saudi Arabia in this field, and when I say exemplary I mean it. Let me give you an example: I handed over six Saudis who were detained in Iraq and we repatriated 13 Saudi nationals. The US forces in Iraq wanted to release the six Saudi detainees who were arrested three years ago because they could not find any incriminating evidence against them. We told the American forces that we would repatriate them [the detained Saudi nationals], why would we release them in Iraq? It is better to deliver them to their authorities, which is what happened.

But when we reached the kingdom to hand over the detainees to the Saudi authorities, we were surprised to learn from a security official that one of the six was “so-and-so for whom we had been searching for three years. He is one of the most wanted people on our list.” Imagine, three years in which he was giving us false information – even his name was different and all the information we had was false until we found out the truth after we handed him over. This means that there is critical information on the other side.

This is why I say our collaboration with the Saudis in terms of the mobility of individuals and transferring money is exemplary. We have a hotline and we exchange prisoners and information analyses. We will have liaison officers in Saudi and there are Saudi liaison officers in Iraq, which is the result of our confidence in our Saudi brothers and vice versa and because we are on the same side against terrorism.

Although we may have our political differences with them, perhaps they may not approve of someone in power or our regime may be different to theirs; however we divorce political context from the security dimension because our security interests are one. If our enemy coordinates then why don’t we coordinate on a governmental level? We have closely cooperated and overcome many differences.

As for Syria, nearly 110 suicide bombers per month used to cross through it but now that figure has decreased. We believe if the Syrian security bodies worked seriously in this direction, they could stop the access of those suicide bombers to Iraq.

Suicide bombers reach Iraq via Syria, whether they come from the Maghreb region (North Africa), Sudan, Yemen or the Gulf. They all go through Syria to get to Damascus and then cross into Iraq, most of them are infiltrators.

Q: Do you think that Syria or its security agencies are unaware of these infiltrators?

A: The Syrians know everything; such a thing cannot take place without their knowledge. It is common knowledge that the Syrian regime is based on intelligence; not even a fly can buzz around the Levant without them knowing where it is flying to and from. Do you want to tell me that a young Arab man carrying a one-way ticket can enter into Damascus and cross through the Syrian-Iraqi border without the knowledge of the Syrians? Impossible.

Q: How is that in the interest of Syrian officials?

A: Stability in Iraq is considered a victory for democracy and public freedoms. They regard it as a victory for the Americans and the American experience in the region – and they fear it. We have repeatedly told them that our democracy does not target them and that it is not for exporting; rather it belongs to the Iraqis. Our experience is distinctive and unique and is only suitable to Iraqis; we have no intention to export it. Moreover, we cannot allow Iraq to become a launching pad or crossing to attack our neighbors.

Q: Where is Izzat al Douri [head of the Iraqi Baath Party] in your opinion?

A: It is not an opinion; we have accurate and precise information. We know that Izzat al Douri is in Syria and that he financially backs many terrorist bodies and leads a group of Baathists [in an attempt] to restore the false glories of Saddam Hussein’s days.

Q: Have you broached the topic with Syria?

A: We have brought up the subject a number of times with Syrian officials but they deny his presence despite the evidence we have. I remember with Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, for example, the Syrians continued to deny his presence in Syria until the Turkish army moved towards the Syrian border, then Syria handed over Ocalan to the Turkish authorities in Uganda.

We are familiar with the language of violence; we have learnt it and it does not require much knowledge. We know how to harm those who want to harm us; however we do not want to resort to this path and we will not utilize it. We believe that political dialogue is the road to resolving matters with our brothers. There are strategic interests between all Arabs.

The Syrian government does not want to prevent Iraqis from loving their brethren but this is what is happening because death arrives via Syria. However; the Iraqis have begun to change. As a result of their shortsighted vision, some Syrian officials believe that they are doing harm to the Americans on Iraqi territory, which they take to be a victory… This is a shortsighted policy; Arab national strategic interests are the most important thing. This policy is futile and usually it backfires on to its source.

Q: Is there an Iraqi or regional decision to crush Muqtada al Sadr and the Mehdi Army?

A: A state with two armies can never be stable. There is only one army; the courageous Iraqi army. We are striving to drive out the US Army because it is problematic to have two armies in one battlefield. Would it be reasonable to add yet another army? No political organization can bear arms.

The Sadrist trend as a political organization is extensive, respected, and has parliamentary representation. It has taken part in the government, elections and participated in the creation of the constitution and the referendum. It is welcome to run in the next elections and the municipality elections and to form the government if it succeeds in obtaining the majority of votes. However, these elections must be free and fair and not held under the threat of weapons. But what is taking place revolves around threats, abductions and killings – and this cannot prevail.

Everyone should know that it is not possible for two armies to exist in Iraq; either the Iraqi army or the Mehdi army. The Iraqi army was born of the military institution and it has constitutional legitimacy. There is a glaring contradiction between what is said about the Mehdi army and what exists on the streets. If, as it upholds, the Mehdi army is peaceful and ideologically-based and if it does not bear arms against the state and uses peaceful means to expel the foreign forces – then we would stand by it. We are for driving out the foreign forces through political means.

Q: So there’s a decision to obliterate the Mehdi army?

A: Any armed militia is unacceptable. We have suffered a lot. There is a law [stipulating upon] integrating militias into the security agencies. Some militias have caused us problems due to this integration. The youth who disband from the Mehdi army can be recruited to help in the rebuilding of Iraq or in the security services as individuals rather than groups.

Q: What is your view of Muqtada’s call to wage a war with the government until liberation is achieved?

A: If what he meant was a political, ideological, electoral or parliamentary war to overthrow the government, then this is constitutionally valid and [a] guaranteed [right] for all. As for achieving this through bearing arms against the legitimate authority that is backed by the constitution, parliament and supported by the top clergy and religious institution – that will not be tolerated. The government will carry out its duty, which is to enforce order and security on our people and to dispel the nightmare that is imposed on us. Our people cannot breathe due to the presence of these militias.

Moreover, we believe that a small corrupt group has succeeded in dragging the Mehdi army into a showdown with the authority. They have succeeded in dragging the Sadrists into a confrontation with the government in Basra and Sadr City. This is a small group with interests that lie outside the borders and that is controlled by foreign hands.

Q: Who are you referring to outside the borders?

A: Those who are working against the victory of the Republican candidate in the US presidential elections.

Q: Do you mean the Democrats?

A: No, they are amongst the main players in the region.

Q: Iran?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you regard the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to be an army or a militia?

A: The structure of Peshmerga is a regular military one that has a clear and organized leadership like the Iraqi army. As a military institution, these forces are similar to the Iraqi army in which there is firm discipline and control. They have neither fought against the government nor the American forces, the outcome of which is stability in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are closer to organized forces than militias and therefore, we look at them as regular forces.

Q: Are the rumors about the existing sectarianism within the Iraqi forces true, that the Ministry of Defense is Sunni while the Interior Ministry is Shia-dominated?

A: There is a grave error in this conception; there is a so-called national balance, namely, that institutions should depend on competence and loyalty first, followed by national balance; an entire ministry or institution must not be Shia, Kurdish or Sunni. The Ministry of Defense, for example is comprised of 50 percent Shia. How do we form the army and the police? There is nothing but the people.

Two years ago, Sheikh Harith al Dari, the head of the Iraqi Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), issued a fatwa against Sunnis who affiliate themselves to armed forces and encouraged them to join the resistance. At present, the image is reversed whereby tens of thousands of Sunnis are volunteering to join the armed forces. It is a common mistake [to say] that the Defense Ministry is Sunni [dominated] and the Interior Ministry is Shia. There is national balance in the Ministry of Interior, including a considerable percentage of Sunnis. Over 14,000 personnel were dismissed from the Interior Ministry by virtue of their implication in militias, death squads and administrative corruption.

Q: How many intelligence services are there in Iraq today?

A: There are two intelligence services in the Ministry of Defense: Security and defense agencies that specialize in civil matters, in addition to the military intelligence directorate. The Interior Ministry contains the information and intelligence agency, headed by an undersecretary, and then there is the national intelligence agency, which is legitimately established for foreign intelligence. There is also the Ministry of State for National Security Affairs and its task is to gather information, analyze and utilize it.

Q: Are there any points of intersection between these bodies?

A: Yes, they do intersect and that constitutes a problem. However, we diagnosed this problem during [ex-Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim] Jaafari’s term and set up an agency, combining these agencies called the National Intelligence Coordination Committee, which is headed by a national security adviser. This committee’s task is to gather, analyze and submit information to the head of government.

Q: Much has been said about your experience during Saddam Hussein’s last moments alive, particularly during his execution; would you speak to us about the details of these moments?

A: Unfortunately, a lot of unintentional mistakes were committed during the execution of Saddam Hussein. Let me tell you something that you understand which is that we do not know how to execute but we know how to be executed. Saddam executed hundreds of Iraqis over the decades. We know how to climb the gallows and die but we have never executed anyone, therefore we had no experience during the execution of Saddam Hussein. I accompanied him to the gallows; at first we went directly to the execution chamber but were told that the court verdict must be read in a different room so we went to another room in which the verdict was declared. Then we led him to the execution chamber, wearing a white shirt, trousers and a jacket. He continued to look at me for three minutes, because I was standing to his right and then he said, “Don’t be afraid,” which I thought was strange. Why would I be afraid when he was the one about to be executed, not me?

When his hands were tied back, I asked the guard to be gentle with him. So no insult was leveled against Saddam until the execution happened. One of the mistakes was that his feet had to be tied up but we found that he had to mount a few steps to get to the gallows and then his feet would have been tied there. I reminded the executioner to ask him to recite the ‘Shahadah’ (Muslim declaration of faith), since he is Muslim. What happened afterwards is not our responsibility because the guards and executioners were from the Ministry of Justice and not from the cabinet. Following the execution, things happened that I would be ashamed to recount.

Q: Why did you speed up the execution?

A: We were under an incredible amount of pressure. There were a number of Arab and even non-Arab states who put a lot of pressure [on us] to not carry out the execution and preferred to move him to a remote prison. The Americans were divided; some were for it and others were against it. The important thing is that Saddam Hussein’s execution did not coincide with the day of the Eid [ul-Adha] festival but took place before it.

Q: Was President Bush enthusiastic about Saddam Hussein’s execution?

A: Yes, certainly.