[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your political vision of the future of Iraq, particularly since we will be holding parliamentary elections at the beginning of next year?
[Al-Samarrai] The current stage is that of evaluation of the political forces and of the changes that have taken place. I can feel two trends in the arena. The first seems to lean toward restoring the old coalitions although under different garb but on the same bases. The second trend is seeking to build national coalitions that transcend sectarianism or regionalism or religious and sectarian state. My personal opinion is that Iraq needs the second type of coalitions. In other words, we should seek to form a big parliamentary bloc in which all the Iraqi components are represented through parties that can come to an understanding among themselves. In this way, such a bloc would put forward a political program and a reform program. At the same time, there would be an opposition that we hope would be a constructive opposition that would act as monitor of this performance. This way we will overcome the negative aspects that have governed the political situation in Iraq specifically during the first two years of formation of the present government that has distinguished itself in remaining silent over mistakes because there is a state of solidarity among some parties at the expense of the sound performance of the political forces. I hope that the formula of national coalitions would succeed so that we would not have to return to the formula of coalitions based on a group of parties within one social framework. Only God knows which project would succeed because this depends on the organizations of the political forces. There is another point that we noticed during the provincial elections. This was a state of mutiny against the large political blocs when small blocs ran in the elections and contributed to dividing and diluting the vote. They thus contributed to strengthening the role of other major parties despite the fact that the votes won by the large parties were not proportionate to the powers that they enjoyed in the provincial councils. I hope that that the small blocs would regroup and form coalitions with the large blocs. The less political blocs run in the elections the stronger would their power be in representing the will of the Iraqi electorate. This way, the democratic process would be in a better shape. States were democracy is deep-rooted are states that contain a limited number of political parties, while countries where democracy is subjected to shakeups and disruptions are countries that have a large number of political parties.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As soon as you became parliament speaker, the oversight role was activated over the executive (government) organs and questions began to be raised on some government institutions. Where was this oversight role in the past? Is this part of political agreements that have not yet been announced?
[Al-Samarrai] In the beginning, the government structure reflected an overwhelming majority that approached unanimity in the parliament. The political blocs did not take each other into account or did not take the officials to account. They tried to work for internal reform through their relations with one another and preferred not to refer to9 parliament when they wished to raise an issue. Naturally, this obstructed the oversight role of parliament. After a while, the parliament members realized that administrative and financial corruption, excessive bureaucracy, and inefficiency were striking roots in the state organs. The deputies began complaining against their own parties and even against the ministers that represented their blocs. Thus, a desire for change and reform, if I may say so, began inside the parliament. I often receive deputies who come to tell me: “I am under tremendous pressure from my bloc not to interrogate this or that minister or not to ask this or that question. I hope that the speaker would support me in this issue”. I consider such a condition as positive and healthy. In other words, we as members of parliament are beginning to sense our national responsibility and to give it precedence over our duties and responsibilities toward our own parties or political blocs. This is a positive state that was missing in the past for several reasons. I also believe that the duty of the parliament speaker is not to moderate the meetings. A parliament speaker should have a vision and should be qualified to steer the deputies in the correct direction regarding how to manage files and how to deal with issues thus ensuring total success for the parliamentary process.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Media and political circles are saying that the office of parliament speaker supports the government of Prime Minister Al-Maliki. Is this true? Is it part of specific agreements to strengthen the government in exposing the sources of corruption so it would emerge with the required democratic face?
[Al-Samarrai] I wish to clarify a point. We do not back Al-Maliki’s government nor are we against this government. We seek to support the role of the Iraqi parliament and the performance of the Chamber of Deputies. In other words, we support the performance of the Chamber of Deputies so that it could be an effective tool. This is sometimes in the interest of the government and sometimes in the interest of the opposition or perhaps it intersects with the role of the government. The monitoring role is not in support of the negative trend but it is sometimes negative, I mean, negative behavior, which means accountability, oversight, and objection. It would be positive when it seeks to highlight the successes achieved by a minister or a ministry or if it seeks to raise the awareness of the masses regarding a certain issue that may not be clear. This is how we dealt with several issues. For instance, on the subject of Kuwait, it was obvious that the Iraqi Foreign Affairs Ministry was not happy with the campaign that erupted inside the parliament as well as in the media because it believes that outstanding issues between us and Kuwait are not resolved through media sensationalism but through quiet diplomacy and communication. On our part, we tried to respond in favor of the efforts exerted by the Iraqi government. We contacted the Kuwaiti Chamber of Deputies out of a desire on our part to exchange delegations and visits between us and start a dialogue that would complement the efforts and negotiations being conducted by the Iraqi government. I go back and say that there are no agreements between us and the government and no deals. At the same time, however, we are determined to have a better government performance so that the prime minister would be enabled to score major successes because the success of the government is in fact a success for all of Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is also talk about deals under the dome of the parliament about remaining silent on parliament members whose immunity might be lifted in return for silence about ministers that are summoned for questioning.
[Al-Samarrai] We responded positively to the two issues. One said that lifting the immunity should not be done automatically. In other words, as soon as the Judicial Council would refer a case, the parliament speaker has no business examining a case and should refer it to the Chamber of Deputies while this Chamber of Deputies does not know about the nature of this case to be able to vote for lifting the immunity or not lifting the immunity. This is a standard that does not reflect understanding of the case as much as it is a political stand. We thought that this is wrong and for this reason I formed a truth committee in the days of (former Parliament Speaker) Mahmud al-Mashhadani. I said that this committee should specify the nature of the measures that should be followed when a request to lift immunity reaches the parliament. It should specify who is studying the request and how do they ascertain that there are genuine claims necessitating lifting the immunity or the nature of the measures that should be taken before lifting the immunity in a way that would help the judiciary in doing its job and helping the deputy as well in performing the task with which he is entrusted. This is our opinion and we expressed it by forming this 14-member committee that represents all the political components within the chamber. This committee continues to meet to debate the issue and to crystallize a number of proposed formulas. As far as the issue of questioning of ministers, we said also that the process should not be an automatic one. In other words, it should not be that a deputy puts in a request for questioning and we rely only on the constitutional text and summon the minister and interrogate him. Such an approach may result in defamation of the minister. The deputy may not be slandering the minister but we know that the media, which we cannot control, will adopt this defamation of the minister or perhaps the deputy that requests the interrogation of the minister. This is also a wrong approach. That is why we said that mechanisms should be found that may not be stipulated in the constitution or in the rules of procedure but maybe compromise mechanisms, such as telling the deputy we advice you to use this or that procedure or approach and that would be better for your case. This is what we try to do. We did not obstruct any questioning or any request to lift immunity but we try to make it proceed along a certain system. We are reassured that we are being fair and just in dealing with issues.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We have heard from your office a report on the activation of the reconciliation committee in parliament and that you have put in a request for a new plan for reconciliation that would complement the plan on government reconciliation by focusing on the political relations. What is this form of reconciliation and how does it complement what the government has called for? Will the reconciliation process include factions and entities that are outside the political process and may perhaps be in the opposition?
[Al-Samarrai] Let us be clear. We have a lot of confusion about the meaning of reconciliation because we did not start off from a specific understanding in this regard. But let us proceed from the starting point, which is the prime minister’s plan that was approved by the parliament. For this project to succeed, it cannot be confined purely on government efforts. Reconciliation does not refer only to the government but also to all those concerned in reconciliation whose effects impact on everyone. A committee for reconciliation was formed inside the council but along with this committee we also have a minister of state for national dialogue and other officials and advisers of the prime minister. When we ask who is in charge of this or that we find that it is not clear who is responsible or in charge. Moreover, diverse sides are working on the issue of reconciliation that include international and Iraqi sides and within the framework of the cabinet as well. The least thing we want to do is the following: First, we want to activate and support the parliamentary reconciliation committee whose voice was not heard in the past. We may also reconstruct it in a better way so it would be more efficient in performing its tasks. Also, after forming and activating this committee we want to coordinate the efforts exerted by the government and the parliament in order to clarify the project. This plan will specify the role of the government, the role of this or that ministry and the role of parliament. Moreover, the roles will be distributed but in a harmonious and homogenous manner.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will Al-Maliki’s call to establish a prime ministerial system of government and to steer away from conciliatory democracy undermine the political process that was established on the system of parliamentary government and the principle of partnership through conciliation or will it strengthen the government but not the political blocs? Are you with or against such calls?
[Al-Samarrai] Let us clarify an important issue again. The constitution and the bylaws that we drafted and in which we all participated, including the prime minister, may be seen today as perhaps it is a limitation of his ability to act based on his own private vision. This limitation is due to the nature of the constitution and the nature of the parliamentary role. Every human being wishes to act totally without any restrictions because that would be easier for him. This call for the prime ministerial system of government may have stemmed from the prime minister’s feeling that he is facing obstacles in the way he performs the role that he should perform. But there is also another opinion that says that our Iraqi society is still young in moving from dictatorship to democracy that has not yet struck roots. Thus we should not be lenient and grant broad powers to the executive authority regardless of who is the head of the executive authority. The head of the executive authority should seek to come to an understanding with the other political forces even if this may lead to some obstructions because the success of democracy is the key to all future successes. I personally prefer to strengthen the parliamentary system of government because a powerful and strong parliament means stronger accountability and ability to build democratic institutions, including the Chamber of Deputies. As long as our political parties are based on a sect or an ethnic group or a religious denomination and as long as affiliation to these parties is based on allegiance rather than on conviction in a program, I believe that we will continue to need conciliatory democracy until our parties begin a process of internal self-change and transform themselves from parties that represent a sect or a province or a tribe or a clan to national parties that treat their followers as Iraqi individuals. The former way is not the right way to build a true democracy.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you expect to have new parliamentary alliances in preparing for the upcoming elections and will individual political names run in the elections?
[Al-Samarrai] The political alliances will be formed based on the realities that we have. These realities show that not one single party is capable alone to sweep the arena. The strongest parties that we have do not have more than 10 percent to 15 percent support. Thus, they are forced to form alliances with others. These alliances will be based on the visions of their leaders and their plans for the future. There is no other way except to form alliances or coalitions until a new structure for political parties is formed. I expect that these coalitions in the future will result in a form of large entities that will absorb the smaller entities in a broad and large coalition. An example is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Everybody views it as a single party but it is a combination of parties that formed a union. They are wings but with time, the central wing gained strength over the smaller blocs that formed the union. I expect that the same thing will happen to our parties in the future.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Questions were recently raised on the issue of privileges that members of the Iraqi Chamber of Deputies enjoy. Would you give us some details about these privileges?
[Al-Samarrai] I suspect that the campaign that is raging on this issue is a campaign against the democratic process. It is a campaign that does not target the privileges enjoyed by the deputies but targets the role of the Chamber of Deputies and seeks to undermine this role. Who is behind this issue, who is financing it, and who is pushing in this direction? The truth is that I do not have the answers but I feel that this issue comes up every now and then. Whenever the chamber wishes to activate its role in a certain field, this issue emerges. It was the people that elected the members of the Chamber of Deputies. Were these chosen and elected to become victims and to be slaughtered on the streets? When a deputy comes from one of the provinces, does he not need an apartment to live in? Is he expected to sleep on the street? Should he not be provided with a means of transport to travel within Baghdad and between Baghdad and his province? Should he not be provided with bodyguards? It was the government that made this decision and it decided that a person in the grade of director general or minister or undersecretary or prime minister or president and so on should be provided protection. This is a decision that was made by the government. Should the deputies be held accountable for a decision made by the government and that pertains to everyone and not just to them? The deputy also needs to cover the expenses of his bodyguards; they need food, drink, and housing. The deputy also needs fuel for the vehicles he uses. We forget all these details and then we come and criticize. Then it is said that the government has provided some members of the Chamber of Deputies with cars and that they are profiting from the protection contracts. Are these not parliamentary privileges? We in the Chamber of Deputies have treated everyone equally regardless of whether he is a senior or a junior member. The leader of a party and an ordinary party member are given the same privileges in their capacity as members of the chamber of deputies but the government has provided additional privileges to political leaders some of whom are members of the Chamber of Deputies. Instead of asking the government why it provided their additional privileges, we try to hold the Chamber of Deputies accountable although it had nothing to do with the decision.