London, Asharq Al-Awsat – On his recent state visit to Britain, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about his aspirations for Iraq, its domestic affairs and foreign relations, and the importance of breaking Iraq’s isolation. His visit to the UK to attend a major conference on investment coincided with the end of the British military mission in Iraq.
Q) Your visit to the UK coincides with the end of the British military mission in Iraq. What is the significance of the timing of your visit?
A) We were in partnership with Britain, and all of the allied forces, and they have completed their mission and contributed to stabilising the security situation in Iraq. We have now reached the stage of complete withdrawal of British troops; only a small number remains for training purposes, particularly with regards to the navy corps, together with some experts of the military academy. However, these successes and the end of the military presence is the prelude to long and profound relations in the economic, political and scientific fields. Britain has a history in Iraq; [there were British] companies, academic students, and specialists in all walks of life. It definitely assumes a role. There is the desire amongst both parties [the Iraqis and the British] and our desire to develop ties does not stop at Britain; it extends to all countries. We want Iraq to open up to the world; we want to overcome the isolation from which Iraq has been suffering. We found that Britain wanted to support the Iraqi economy and to hold an investment conference in London and to encourage British companies regarding Iraq; this was a true response to what we called for. So when we were invited to attend this conference, we were more than happy to accept and we felt that we had taken another step on the journey to rebuild Iraq. We do not measure our success in Iraq by the accomplishments we have made in the field of security; the real measure of success lies in the welfare of the citizens, the progress of the economy, the stability of the country and the political process. All of this requires progress in the economy. So it might be a positive coincidence that the British troops are ending their mission in Basra whilst the investment conference is being held in London. This is a clear sign that the military mission is over and that the practical, trade and economic bilateral cooperation has begun.
Q) There are fears following the recent bombings that we witnessed in Baghdad and other cities. What are the reasons for this security situation?
A) I think there are a number of factors. Of course, forces of the opposition and terrorist groups linked to foreign agendas want to remain at the forefront so they carry out a series of operations every now and then to show that they are still around. Such acts are in fact political acts whether they were supported by local political currents or an international political power. Those operations were motivated by the success that we have been achieving. Today Iraq has become a country with a high level of stability and is working towards rebuilding itself and improving its economy. With regards to Iraq’s foreign relations, it has opened up considerably to the world. Iraq is starting to regain regional and global respect; diplomatic relations are being restored. This, in fact, enrages those who dislike Iraq, whether they are inside or outside of the country. They cannot stand to see Iraq having such a level of stability.
One of the things that incite them to carry out acts of terror, apart from wanting to make their presence known, is [that they want] to send a message to the world that Iraq is not a safe place. They are telling companies not to come to Iraq and it was deliberate that they chose to carry out these operations [when they did]. But I can say confidently that we do not need weapons, armoured vehicles, tanks and planes anymore. Al Qaeda or any other militia are no longer able to take over a single street anywhere in Iraq. The only thing that remains is the practice of attaching bombs to ordinary vehicles and setting off car bombs in certain areas. This is the method of thieves. So we are no longer in need of international troops; we don’t even need our Iraqi military forces to remain in the cities. What we really need now is an intelligence body and we are exerting efforts [in this regard]. The arrests are continuing and terrorist cells are being dismantled through our intelligence efforts and the cooperation of the people. These are temporary cells; we will uproot them through intelligence efforts.
Q) What can you tell us about the reports regarding the possible extension of US troops remaining in Iraqi cities after June 30, 2009?
A) Firstly, the agreed upon date is decisive and cannot be changed. Secondly, realistically speaking, if there was a need to extend their stay, we would have done so but neither Iraq nor the US see any need for extending the stay of US troops. Thirdly, we do not want to postpone any set date so as not to deliver the wrong message to the masses or the observers.
Q) But there has talk on keeping security forces in Mosul because of the continuous unrest there?
A) The crisis in Mosul is of a political nature and the Iraqi military troops and security forces present in that city are sufficient. The situation does not require more troops. As I said before, it is an intelligence operation where suspects are being arrested and cells are being dismantled. This is achieved purely by intelligence efforts.
Q) What is the importance of the arrest of Abu Omar al Baghdadi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq?
A) This sends out numerous messages. Firstly, it is evidence of the power of the Iraqi government and security forces, which managed to infiltrate Al Qaeda. We reached al Baghdadi through one of his friends. This is an indication that the Al Qaeda organisation has begun to collapse from within. Secondly, this is a sign that Al Qaeda no longer has a basis in Iraq because those who worked with Al Qaeda have turned against it after discovering how evil its ideas and methods are. This also conveys a message to the world that Iraq now has the capability to achieve such a major goal. It was no easy task. It required great effort, accuracy, infiltration and organization. Iraq can now safely say that it can rely on security efforts and internal efficiency.
Q) What is the significance of national reconciliation efforts in consolidating the security and stability of Iraq?
A) I have always reiterated that national reconciliation is an ongoing process in Iraq that we cannot do without. We would never be able to achieve what we hope to achieve unless the reconciliation process continues. But I would like to clarify that reconciliation is not about reconciling two opposing sides; my understanding of reconciliation is calling upon all Iraqis to rally around a joint political approach, and this requires an ongoing informative and interactive process. In other words, it is a call for the unity of Iraq, the power of Iraq, democracy in Iraq, and the upholding of the constitution and the constitutional amendments. It is a call upon all Iraqis to sit together and come to an agreement on all matters because that is the only solution for any crisis the country might face.
In my opinion, reconciliation is a strategic component that we cannot do without; it is always a necessity. I think the country needs a firm domestic front and to raise the domestic level of awareness. There are still remnants of the previous regime; cultures of violence, separatism, extremism, marginalization and sectarianism and these can be eliminated through a culture of reconciliation. We ought to come to terms with the fact that we are citizens of Iraq; let the Shia be Shia, let the Sunni be Sunni, let the Kurds be Kurdish, let the Arabs, Christians, Shabaks and Sabaees be what they are but let us all come to terms with the fact that we are all citizens of Iraq, and in this country we are all equal.
Q) What is your position towards the Baath Party and the return of the Baathists?
A) I would like to point out two things. The Baath Party inflicted a great deal of suffering on Iraq and I hold it responsible for everything that happened: the invasion of Iraq, the presence of foreign troops, the emergence of sectarianism, all the tragedies that Iraq experienced, the mass graves, the displacement and the chemical weapons. The Baath party must be held accountable for all of this. It was the ruling party in Iraq and the only party.
Secondly, we have a constitutional issue here. The constitution is very clear. It forbids dealing with the Baath Party in its capacity as a party and prohibits the return of the Baath Party to the political arena. The constitution considers it a racialist and chauvinistic party. There is no room for talk on the return of the Baath Party yet those who engage in political one-upmanship want to live off this crisis [regardless of] whether the results are positive or negative. We classify the Baath Party as a party, in which case there is no room for it constitutionally or historically to return and this is neither my right nor the right of anybody else; this is what the constitution says. The second classification includes the elements of the Baath party whose hands are stained with blood; they have killed, tortured and robbed [others] and stole money and violated honour and sanctity; there is no reconciliation with those people. Those people will stand in trials and the court will hold them to account and pass judgement on them. The third classification – this is merely discussion – are the ones who were forced to join the Baath Party. They did not believe in this party but they could not become officers unless they were party members. They did not allow a teacher, professor, trader or even a taxi driver to cross between Iraq, Syria and Jordan unless he was a Baathist. We know who they are. They were part of the Baath Party without really believing [in it] and they were tested; they are returning to normal and are not going back to the Baath Party. The Justice and Accountability Law is very fair towards these people who were forced to be part of the party. They are invited merely for the sake of reconciliation, but the criminals are not.
Q) What about the former Iraqi army officers who now live in other countries? Has there been any contact with them?
A) There are officers who had been accused [of various charges] and were requested to attend trial and went to another country. Some of them cooperated with some countries, which we must look at, and some countries treated them merely as guests and did not allow them to work against the Iraqi regime. But they are present in other countries and we have not stopped their entitlements and salaries although this goes to their families and not them specifically. We have invited them all to return; every officer is invited to return as long as they do not come on behalf of the Baath Party and they are not wanted for their past acts.
Q) You gained real successes in the local elections at the end of 2008, how are you preparing for the parliamentary elections that will take place at the end of the year. Will you run for the position of Prime Minister again?
A) Before the premiership, [there is the] nomination for the upcoming elections. We will stand in the elections and I will stand. The programme that we presented is truthful and clear and we did not want to focus on trying to convince the citizen; this is what we do on the ground and what we say in the media. There is a large endeavour to agree on a national list not a sectarian list. We will seek to include [in the process] Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Sunnis, Shia, and Christians until we rebuild Iraq based on the idea of belonging to one Iraq, not on various sectarian, ethnic or other affiliations. The issue of whether I will stand for Prime Minister is premature as it depends on the results we’re able to achieve. The premiership depends on the parliamentary system and the majority bloc. If we form the largest bloc and the largest bloc honours me with such a duty then I will accept it.
Q) Let us discuss Iraq’s ties with its neighbouring states. How do you evaluate Iraq’s ties with other Arab states especially following the visits of Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, and the Syrian Prime Minister [Naji al Otari] to Baghdad?
A) I would like to reassure those observing [Iraq] that Iraqi-Arab ties have developed significantly and the last Arab Summit was just one of the decisive moments that demonstrated opening up to Iraq. It was a moment of joy for the person they say is most responsible – and at the same time most accused – for everything that happens in Iraq. If it is negative, I am responsible, and if it is positive, I am responsible. I say accused because those who oppose the political process spread rumours amongst Arab leaderships that this person has links to Iran, that person is an adherent of sectarianism, etc…there are many accusations that are cast upon people. But, praise be to God, I have found that the Arab leaderships are knowledgeable and the image that the political oppositionists seek to portray is too extreme for these leaders. They all promised that they would reinstall their ambassadors to Iraq and we have a good number of ambassadors who have returned and others who will return soon.
Secondly, we have removed all the concerns that these Arab leaders had, whether they were related to Iraq and its history, its scope, its identity and its surroundings and the Arab League. We reassured them of the future of Iraq, as they feared division and federalism and they were reassured by the last elections. Moreover, they want to participate in the economy and services of Iraq. We welcomed them and told them they have a commitment and are given precedence over other companies. These were all factors of development in the relations between us and our brotherly Arab states. Ties with Syria in particular improved significantly especially after the visit of the Syrian Prime Minister [Naji al Otari] and the agreements that we signed and the hopes that we had. Syria was one of the countries that had concerns over the situation in Iraq but the agreements for the withdrawal of forces and the stability of the Iraqi government and the fact that it clung to its national right and restored the sovereignty of the country sent a message to Syria and other countries stating that Iraq must preserve its unity and sovereignty. We state clearly that the successes and achievements and principles that we established in Iraq have sent a message to our brotherly Arab states that none of them have the right to remain distant from Iraq. I state clearly they do not have the right to distance themselves from Iraq because Iraq wants to establish ties with them. There must be Arab ambassadors and Arab companies side by side with foreign ambassadors and companies.
Q) What about Iraq’s ties with Iran? There have been accusations of Iranian interference and negative influence in Iraq, is this still the case?
A) As I said, the messages that we sent about the successes and principles that we have established – that we stand by our independence and our sovereignty; that we reject interference in our internal affairs and that Iraq is heading towards stability – are messages that were also sent to other countries whether Iran or Turkey [stating] that Iraq is standing by its sovereignty and independence and that it must be dealt with and understood as a state. Therefore, our ties with Iran are developing in a positive manner and with deep understanding.
As I have always said, a country that respects its people, sovereignty, security and independence will be respected by others. If we want to be respected more, there shouldn’t be amongst us people who believe that it is not necessary to preserve and protect sovereignty and national unity.
Q) What is your position on the Iranian opposition movement Mujahideen-e-Khalq?
A) Our position is that this organisation is not allowed to remain in Iraq in any form. Why? In spite of what others say about it being an Iranian or non-Iranian demand, frankly, if Iran requested they stay in Iraq, we would not let them stay in Iraq.
Firstly, Mujahideen-e-Khalq is a terrorist organisation and is included on the terror list. This issue might be related to Iran and the United Nations and other countries but not to us. In addition, [we must consider] the role that this organisation played in the security field during the former regime and the crimes that it committed against Iraqis, Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Arab Shias. Today, it interferes in Iraqi internal affairs and in disputes and it supports this or that entity – in fact now it claims responsibility for some terrorist operations in Iraq. For these reasons, its presence is prohibited, moreover, the Iraqi constitution stipulates that – as a result of the suffering, and the desire to get rid of traces of the past – Iraq will not be a base for any terrorist organisation and it will not be a place where any party can harm the interests and security of neighbouring countries because one party interferes in the other’s affairs, and takes in the opposition then the other party will take in the opposition and the endless cycle begins. We do not allow anyone in our country to harm others and do not allow others to take in those who work towards harming our interests. However, we say to this organisation: we will not harm you or hand you over to Iran or persecute you; we will treat you in a humane way regardless of your history and the crimes that you committed in the past. But do not think that Iraq is a base for you. We approached all countries, particular those that purged themselves of links to terrorism to take them in especially as some of them hold the nationalities of these countries or have residency in these countries. Then the Iranians approached them and said they are prepared to pardon them so why wouldn’t they return or these countries take them.
Q) You mentioned that there are parties that do not want stability in Iraq, can you name these parties?
Q) Which parties fear stability in Iraq?
A) Frankly, I will not name names. Not all politicians believe in a unified, democratic Iraq. Some still have the image in their minds of intellectual, military or political coups. Some still think about using force and extremist nationalism or extremist sectarianism. In Iraq they find unified, democratic Iraqis who believe in justice and equality. They, on the other hand, would rather experience crises.
Q) Finally, what is your comment on the new US administration and President Barack Obama’s approach?
A) The US President’s approach is reassuring because he stated repeatedly – even on his recent visit – that he is committed to the agreement on withdrawing troops, in fact he might be prepared to speed up the withdrawal in accordance with the stability of security. Secondly, I am optimistic regarding his supportive approaches to dialogue and opening dialogue to end the crises from which the world is suffering whether with regards to Cuba, Korea, Iran, Palestine or elsewhere.
This call for dialogue and the commitment of President Obama and the current government in truth tells us that the US administration wants to maintain good ties with Iraq but not based on its military presence [in Iraq]. Just as Britain’s military mission in parts of Iraq ended, so too will America’s military mission. However, the alternative will be strategic relations in the fields of economics, trade, education, environments and others.