Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- In the wake of the Iraqi government’s latest national reconciliation plan, aimed at stemming sectarian tensions and violence, Asharq Al Awsat met with Barham Saleh, the Deputy Prime Minister, in his offices in Baghdad on Sunday.
He spoke with candour and insight about the country’s ongoing security problems and the difficulties facing Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s government. On Sunday, al Maliki unveiled a 24-point initiative calling on insurgents to lay down their weapons and join the political process, promising an amnesty for opponents who have not been involved in acts of terrorism.
“This is a bold initiative. It takes into consideration a host of problems that Iraq is currently suffering from. We have to be brave and admit mistakes have occurred in the political process, since the fall of [Saddam Hussein’s] regime until the latest elections. They marked a turning point in Iraq, with all sections of society and groups taking part and the result led to the formation of a national unity government.”
However, Saleh was quick to admit, “I do not claim that this cabinet is exemplary. Everyone admits that it reflects the political situation in the country. Its diversity is its strength and weakness. Decisions and national consensus won’t be easily attainable but this gives us the power to deal with the country’s problems.”
The official in President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said one of the biggest impediments to a safe and secure Iraq was the reliance on “private security to protect individuals and facilities. Armed groups under the command of one political party or another [have emerged]. There needs to be an Iraqi decision to implement the constitution and the law.”
“One of the reasons these armed groups have come into being is the lack of security. Every group wants its own armed wing to protect itself and threaten others. In most cases, it is [only] for intimidating [others].”
While recognizing that Iraqi governments in the last three years lacked legitimacy and weren’t recognized by all Iraqis, Saleh emphasized that the current situation was markedly different. Prime Minister al Maliki’s cabinet, he said, “represents the vast majority of Iraqis if not all Iraqis. The government is serious in wanting to bring weapons under its control, through the ministerial committee for national security and the national reconciliation initiative, and the political council for national security, which held its first meeting on Monday.”
“I’m not saying that the security plan is sufficient to solve the security problem, but it will be one of the methods available to us to bring about a stable security atmosphere in Iraq. There are also political means at our disposable. We have to work hard to prove ourselves to Iraqi citizens who have grown weary of repeated political promises on security, services and the economy.”
Assessing the challenges ahead, the Deputy PM said, “I have to be honest with Iraqi citizens. The challenges that lie ahead are numerous and the security problem will not be resolved overnight. Al Qaeda wants to prove that it remains strong following [Abu Musab] al Zarqawi’s death. We believe Al Qaeda, as a terrorist network, remains a danger to this country.”
In recent weeks, the government has sought to transfer the control of several Iraqi provinces to the newly trained Iraqi forces. “Iraqis have to deal with security breaches in their own country. If there are no effective Iraqi forces, security will not reign across Iraq. The Prime Minister wants to develop our forces and create new units and equip our army with modern weapons that enable it to play its role effectively,” Saleh said. He also revealed that the multinational forces would hand over the control of several provinces to the Iraqi army according to a pre-arranged plan. “This will solve the security situation,” he said.
On the subject of Baghdad and the ongoing violence in the capital, where a third of the Iraqi population resides, the Deputy PM said, “We are discussing several ideas on whether to establish a special force, called the Baghdad security force. The city requires special treatment because of the lack of coordination between the current security services. There is even a sort of division between neighborhoods; one neighborhood is controlled by a certain group, and another is under the control of a different group or ministry. This does not correspond with the concept of national security. National security means that everyone takes part, Sunni and Shia Muslims and others, Arabs, Turks, Assyrians and Turkmen. Refusing to point fingers at any particular group, Saleh said, “I don’t want to hold others responsible. We are all responsible.”
As for the economic situation in Iraq, Saleh said, “Iraq is going through a disgraceful period, with regards to the government’s administrative performance. In the end, citizens expect concrete results from the government. Corruption remains a huge problem and is increasing.”
Oil production in Iraq has hit its highest level since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Production has risen to 2.5 million barrels per day from 2 million during the US-led invasion, Hussain al Shahristani, Iraq’s oil minister said on Monday. He expected production to rise to 2.7 million barrels per day by the end of the year.
“According to the constitution, oil is the property of the Iraqi people and the law regulating oil production and export will be formulated to guarantee that Iraqis benefit from their natural resources. There is only one national oil policy which represents all Iraqi regions.”
“In the next few days, we will present to the cabinet an investment law. This will act as a strong indicator of the government’s intention to encourage the private sector to invest in Iraq. Despite everything the country is going through, it remains a good investment opportunity and is the biggest investment market in the region and the world.”
Saleh stressed the need to separate religion from politics in Iraq, “Because of the recent political circumstances, there are many religious platforms that are used for political aims and this hurts the standing of religion in society.”