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Q & A with Iraqi Deputy Premier Rafi Al-Issawi - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Q) What is the goal of your visit to Washington? Did you achieve this goal?

A) The purpose of the visit is to activate the Strategic Framework Agreement that was signed by Iraq and the United States. This agreement is one of two agreements and the first part of the comprehensive agreement, the agreement on the withdrawal of forces [Status of Forces Agreement-SOFA]. The second part is the Strategic Framework Agreement that represents the relations between the non-military Iraqi ministries and their counterparts in the United States. The Strategic Framework Agreement includes five principal committees. One of these is called the Services and Information Technology Committee. This committee is chaired by me and comprises seven ministries as members, led by the Health Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry, and the Transport Ministry. The committee began to operate shortly after the signing of the agreement in Baghdad by the former US Administration at the end of last year. It began to communicate with the representatives of the Iraqi ministries and their counterparts in the US Embassy in Baghdad in order to spotlight the programs from which Iraq may benefit to build its capabilities and upgrade the work of the ministries in the transfer of model expertise. The committee has made good progress in Baghdad. One of the articles in this agreement is the exchange of senior level visits to highlight the agreement on higher levels in the two governments. The timing of the visit is important because it sheds light on the parallel and simultaneous agreement regarding the approaching withdrawal of the US forces from the cities at the end of June. The Iraqi and US governments are both committed to this agreement. Therefore, the timing of the withdrawal still stands. Both sides are committed to the announced dates of withdrawal. Focusing on the non-military aspects in Iraqi-US relations serves the interests of both countries. We do not want the US relationship with Iraq to be restricted only to the military aspect that suffered from many problems. After entrenching the date of the withdrawal, we now have a period of time to change the package of dealings or solutions that Iraq needs from the United States. My visit comes on this basis. Meetings were held in the US Chamber of Commerce, the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Transportation and Trade, and in the Senate. We also focused on the Ministry of Agriculture because one member of the delegation was the ministerial consultant in the prime minister’s office and because agriculture has suffered and the US services extended in the field of agriculture. So far, the visit has resulted in an agreement to hold a conference for Iraqi and US businessmen in Washington in October or November. The second point is that we are in the process of drawing up a Memorandum of Understanding between the Iraqi and US ministries of transport that will focus on cooperation in the field of airports, harbors, and the railroad. In all our meetings, we also focused on the need to raise the number of Fulbright fellowships and other scholarships to Iraqi students as well as to activate cooperation in the field of investment. This would give more stability to the strategic relationship and the strategic partnership.

Q) Have you sensed that the new US Administration wishes to develop relations with Iraq? How does the Barack Obama Administration differ from the previous Administration?

A) It is a different stage. Perhaps the former Administration was part of a certain period in the region or the presence of the US forces. The relationship focused only on the military relationship that ended with the signing of the security agreement. The situation is different now. The focus now is on building the capabilities and regulations of the ministries and benefiting from the tremendous scientific and technological progress that took place in the United States. In all the meetings with the Department of State and the Department of Transport and Trade the climate leaned mainly toward commitment to the military withdrawal from the cities as well as commitment to cooperation in the strategic framework agreement. We believe that this represents a true strategic partnership when the focus is on the Strategic Framework Agreement as opposed to the US withdrawal.

Q) Statements have recently been made by US military officials that the US troops may remain in Iraq for a period of about10 years. Is this possible?

A) General Petraeus was visiting me just two hours before this meeting. During the meeting, he pointed out that they are committed to the dates of the withdrawal and that they are preparing for this withdrawal.

Q) What about the referendum on the security agreement? Have the Americans asked not to hold the referendum or at least to delay it after it had been scheduled for this summer?

A) The referendum is one of the articles of the agreement and part of the commitment to the agreement is commitment to the referendum. Thus, there is no problem about accepting the referendum. The Americans signed the agreement that includes the referendum. The question is when to hold the referendum. Last week, the Council of Ministers approved the financial allocations needed to hold the referendum. This was sent to Parliament with the recommendation to merge the voting on the agreement with the parliamentary elections to be held simultaneously. The two processes would proceed together for purely logistic reasons so that the Higher Electoral Commission would not be supervising two files at two different times with all the difficulties that entails. This year witnessed several elections processes, the provincial elections and then the referendum and then the parliamentary elections. This takes a lot of time. The approach is now to merge the two processes and hold them in January 2010.

Q) Let us move to problems within Iraq. We feel some Arab-Kurdish tension on several issues. How can trust be built between the two sides?

A) The primary element in the success of the political process in Iraq and stability in Iraq is building trust and extending bridges among the partners. Trust should be built in the Arab-Kurdish relationship due to old problems pertaining to the conditions of the Kurds under former regimes and the harm that the Kurds suffered like all the Iraqi people. Now, regarding the disputed regions – if I may use this term – and the problem that arose in Mosul following the recent elections, what delayed the solutions were the fears. Thus, if trust is built among the partners the solutions will be easier. The issue is not as simple as this but the solution begins with building trust. When trust is built among the Iraqis, the fears would disappear among all the partners. Then, everyone can sit at one table and debate all the issues. Everyone will live in one democratic and pluralistic Iraq where liberties are respected and where all citizens are treated equally and as first-class citizens. No more than one class of citizens should be allowed. When the fears disappear, it would make no difference if a Kurd lives in Kurdistan or in Baghdad.

Q) Let us move to the issue of Mosul where you have exerted efforts to solve the outstanding problems there, especially the security problem. How can the situation be calmed down in Mosul?

A) I was part of a plan for a solution and rapprochement between the Kurdish brothers and Nineveh Governor Athil al-Nujayfi. I went to Irbil and Mosul and was clear in opening participation to all in order not to convey a wrong signal of hegemony on one side and marginalization on the other. All the sons of Nineveh Province would be partners in this plan. After that we held a meeting that was attended by General Odierno (the commander of the US forces in Iraq) and brother Osama al-Nujayfi, the brother of the Nineveh Province governor. The discussion revolved on security and services in Mosul. The traditional question was put forward: Will the withdrawal of the US forces improve security in the city or will it lead to turmoil? The answer of the representatives of the inhabitants of Mosul was that a withdrawal on schedule may give a positive message and the city may tilt toward stability instead of violence. This was their message. They insisted on the withdrawal and they insisted that the withdrawal would lead to stability, not turmoil. We say that the brothers in Nineveh should benefit from the relationship of neighborliness and the fact that they are all Iraqis and build bridges of trust. This way the Nineveh governorate would be formed with the former configuration if we count only the number of votes. However, if we are talking about preferences, I personally went there with this message: I hope the brother Kurds would also participate in the Nineveh provincial council.

Q) What is your assessment of the report of Stefande Mistora, the representative of the United Nations secretary general?

A) The study by De Mistora is being presented to the people in these regions. Six copies have been prepared and one was given to our office. We formed a committee of parliament members from the disputed regions, like Mosul, Diyali, and Kirkuk. After two weeks of detailed study – the report is almost 502 pages – the recommendation was that the opinion of the parliament members – I am only conveying their opinion because that is why I formed this committee – is that the report is not convincing and unsuitable for negotiations. The committee had a number of objections. This may be the opinion of the Kurds but the opinion of the Arabs was negative at the least.

Q) What is the next step regarding the file of these regions?

A) Once again, many problems in Iraq can be solved only through national reconciliation. There is a need for mutual trust and this takes time and many measures. The first measure is building trust. This is the assumption with which all reconciliation plans start.

Q) Is it possible to determine the form of the Iraqi state and the nature of the federation prior to the upcoming parliamentary elections?

A) It is very difficult to determine the form of the state prior to the elections. I mean when the Iraqis were talking a lot about the federation, the provincial elections revealed that the general political mood was not in the direction of the federation although the Iraqis respect the constitution that stipulated that Iraq is a federal union. Perhaps this was due to the experiment in Kurdistan, which was a special experiment. Apart from that, I do not see the climate tending toward more federations. The Iraqis lean more toward the power of the central state.

Q) Have you set a program for the upcoming elections?

A) It is too early; God willing, when the electoral campaign starts, we will talk about this.

Q) You withdrew from the Islamic Party a while ago and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi also resigned from the party’s general secretariat. What is going on within the Islamic Party? Is this a withdrawal away from the political climate that is divided along sectarian lines or is this related to the special situation of the parties that supposedly represent the Sunnis?

A) I will talk about my withdrawal from the party; the issue of elections within the party and another secretary general is another story. When we participated in the political process and when I came to parliament before joining the government, there were only Sunni groups in the field, such as Al-Tawafuq and others, the main Shi’ite coalition, namely, the coalition, and the Kurdish groups. During that period, if anyone suggested to any member of these groups to withdraw and believe that he has no chance in political action because only these projects were available then. When we joined the political process and when we were part of the government, we realized the dangers inherent in leaving the projects divided along sectarian or denominational lines. The Iraqis today need to see a single united political project that comprises everyone. It was for this reason that I decided to leave the Islamic Party. Of course, we are being asked is this a genuine withdrawal or not. Time and my actions will answer these questions, the project and the program will answer. I left the Islamic Party because I want a group that represents a ray of hope. That is why I left for the Iraqi National Future Grouping that includes Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds.

Q) Will it be possible for the future Iraqi government to be formed outside these divisions?

A) The political scene in Iraq is changing rapidly based on convictions. In the coming seven months, the convictions of the Iraqis will determine the form of the political situation in the next four years. Thus, the scene may go through major change. But I continue to say that the guarantee is the presence of a project that brings together all the Iraqis. Otherwise, our adherence to any other forms of projects is akin to acceptance of the principle of partition, even if it is a political division. The guarantee for Iraq’s unity is based on plans that bring Iraqis together not those that separate them from one another.

Q) You are a son of Al-Fallujah and you were the director of the Al-Fallujah Hospital. Let us talk about the situation in Al-Fallujah in particular and in Al-Anbar in general. These areas suffered from turbulent security conditions and are today considered models for Iraq’s stability.

A) If we want to talk about services, this has been a real problem for the government due to its past preoccupation in the security situation. All the efforts were devoted to security and when the government began to look into the issue of services, it came across the problem of the inadequate budget due to problems related to the production and exportation of oil and the drop in its prices. Al-Anbar is part of this scene. At the end of the day, it will be the local government that will provide services. The ministries will participate in the investment projects but the main work will be at the level of the province. When a budget is lowered, the ability to spend drops. But in Al-Fallujah in particular, the first hospital built in Iraq after the arrival of the Americans (in 2003) will be inaugurated next week. This hospital has a capacity of 200 beds and was built in cooperation between the Health Ministry and the Industry Ministry. It is a very modern hospital and is fully equipped. This is a ray of hope for the Iraqis that they can work in all the regions. Al-Fallujah’s difficult conditions were immense but it is possible to have projects of this magnitude. But, in general, services continue to put pressure on the central government and the local governments.

Q) Let us move to the issue of corruption. Many Iraqi officials say that corruption is a problem. But where does the collective responsibility lie in this regard? The developments with the Minister of Trade have drawn attention. Will other files be opened but without political motives?

A) The administrative and financial corruption is a major challenge. I am not saying this by way of a disclaimer because leaving corruption to spread will feed violence and outlaw groups. There is not much difference between those that carry arms against the state or those that violate the topics of integrity and corruption. The Integrity Committee in the parliament, the Integrity Commission, and the efforts of inspectors general in every ministry and the accountability office are supposed to be safety valves for the government in its efforts to deal with the issue of corruption. Countries that are subjected to wars and security turbulence are always exposed to corruption. Corruption is not a local phenomenon in Iraq; it is a world phenomenon. However, it may have been deeper in Iraq due to several circumstances one of which is the wars. We now have a parliament that is operating and we have to know how to read the performance of the parliament. I say that we should interpret the activation of the role of the parliament positively. We must thank the parliament and the Integrity Committee for monitoring the activities of the government because that will increase the successes of the government.

Q) You have recently visited several Arab countries, but there is still a distance between Iraq and several of its Arab neighbors. What are the obstacles?

A) Iraq no longer poses a threat to regional security or international security. We understand very well the apprehensions of Iraq’s neighbors due to the practices of former governments that ultimately reflected on stands regarding the current situation. We respect the needs of our brothers in Kuwait and their fears regarding previous governments. But at the end of the day, we are two fraternal countries and neighbors. Solving our problems together serves the interests of the two countries. Unfortunately, the media in the past two weeks dragged the issue to an uncalculated point. The media and some parliament members proclaimed political stands that embarrassed the government. However, if we leave these problems to Iraqi diplomacy we will definitely see positive results. For the Arab countries to come to Iraq they have to be reassured. We are in the process of building trust and reassuring the Arab countries. I am certain that the Arab countries will come. We respect the decision-making processes in the Arab countries although we would love to see their embassies in Iraq today. But these matters are up to every state. We respect their opinions and we wait for their coming.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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