Iraqi Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi believes that the Iraqi government's position on the revolution in Syria will make it an enemy of the Syrian people, and that it should reconsider its support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as soon as possible.
Regarding Iraq's internal affairs, Nujaifi calls for early elections, but not according to the government's terms. He calls on the government to disband, to be replaced by a reduced government that will oversee fair elections.
Nujaifi also expressed his surprise that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was able to gain the support of Iran and the US for his government, and said that there is most likely a confidential strategic agreement on this matter.
Regarding the demonstrations taking place in Sunni provinces, Nujaifi said they will continue until justice is achieved in the country. He said the government would likely resort to suppressing these protests militarily, and may liquidate the movements' leaders through arrests and assassinations.
The text of the interview Al-Monitor conducted with Nujaifi in Baghdad:
Al-Monitor: What is your reading of the situation in neighboring Syria? And to what extent is Iraq affected by what happens there?
Nujaifi: The situation in Syria is very complex. The battle there is both international and regional, and all parties are using the Syrian people in the war. However, I think there are two clear camps. The first is the Assad regime, along with Iran and Russia. In many ways Iraq is aligned with this camp, and in particular Baghdad agrees with the Iranian viewpoint regarding the revolution. This does not mean that this position represents all of Iraq, but rather it merely expresses the view of a section of Iraqi officials. The second camp is represented by most other nations, both in the Arab world and the West.
Al-Monitor: What about extremism and the rise of radical currents in Syria? Is this the precise thing that Maliki's government is worried about?
Nujaifi: Unfortunately this situation in unprecedented. Usually, popular revolutions take on a nationalist nature, the ruler steps down from power under opposition pressure and then there is international interference by means of decisions and procedures that result in bloodshed. Syria is now witnessing the presence of various factors that may cause the world to panic and worry about the future of peace in the region. Extremism has begun to spread, and I believe that one of the most important negative consequences of this is a delay in a military resolution. Let's not forget that the obstruction of steps to provide humanitarian aid has harmed the Syrian people. At this time — while the regime continues to use its powerful military machine — it seems that more than ever the Syrian people need the international community to intervene and come to an agreement regarding the future composition of Syria — i.e., what will the country be like and how can we reassure the world of the country's situation following the fall of Assad? This requires the serious cooperation of Syrians in their struggle against oppression.
Al-Monitor: So the fear of extremists is justified?
Nujaifi: The thing is … dictatorships produce extremism and their policies lead to the emergence of extremist movements. Torture in prisons, murder, denying one's right to freedom of belief and repressing the free will of the people will only result in more extremist opposition. The climate produced by the Assad regime has allowed for underground work to form secret organizations. This is what is going on, for anyone who wants to talk about extremism. The revolution, however, began peacefully, and this too was suppressed by arms. Afterward, the revolutionaries were forced to respond with arms, at least to protect themselves. And in this transformation outside interference occurred here and there. I am convinced that talk about extremism in Syria is exaggerated. Perhaps this exaggeration and these scare tactics are aimed at stalling a solution in Syria. The so-called Jabhat al-Nusra and Farouq Brigades only constitute a small part of the armed revolution there. According to the information I have, these fighters only represent 5% of rebels.
Al-Monitor: But US Ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford told me in a press meeting that Jabhat al-Nusra makes up a third of the fighters in Syria?
Nujaifi: This is his opinion. But I'm telling you that my information indicates that they represent a smaller proportion than what you were told. Moreover, [these groups] only operate in specific regions, and the bulk of the revolution comprises the Syrian people and the masses demanding freedom. The latter group does not espouse extremist beliefs, nor do they support taking revenge against other sects in the country. This does not exist in Syria. But today, unfortunately, there are those who want to turn Syria into a sectarian battleground ending in division and chaos. In light of a delayed solution, increased armed support, and the parties insisting on their positions, the solution must first focus on relieving the suffering of the Syrian people, which has reached untold limits.
Al-Monitor: The Syrian revolution has had societal repercussions in Iraq. There are non-Syrian Shiite fighters defending Shiite shrines in Damascus, and on the other hand, there are Sunnis [in Iraq] who support their counterparts against Assad. How do you see this overlap and what are the dangers?
Nujaifi: No … We are with the Syrian people and support replacing the current regime with a nationalist, democratic regime. However, this will not be achieved unless the international community takes the fastest way to reach this goal.
Al-Monitor: Do you mean the military option?
Nujaifi: Intervention is needed, it will allow the Syrian people to choose their leadership and their government through fair elections. This is the right path, but the equation is now unbalanced. The regime in Damascus is supported by aircraft, tanks, cluster bombs and chemical weapons, while the rebels are fighting with machine guns, pistols, and any light weaponry they can get their hands on. There is no real, substantial support for the Syrian people and the Free Syrian Army. The most powerful weapons they have are those they have captured during military operations; They do not have high-quality weapons or weapons from abroad. [Any foreign weapons] that are in Syria are light weapons. So I say, we must do everything we can to support the Syrian people against the regime, which has proven that it lacks legitimacy.
Al-Monitor: There are some who say that those who oppose the Iraqi government's position on Syria are supporting extremists ...
Nujaifi: Not at all … When we say that we support the revolution, this does not in any way mean that we support extremists. There is something that we must keep in mind: Extremists groups cannot rule Syria after the fall of Assad. These groups will not get any international support and do not have the necessary components to be at the helm of power. These groups are now fighting, and you can't make judgments based on a group that represents the extremes of the revolution and not its essence.
Al-Monitor: What about terrorism that is being transferred to Iraq from Syria?
Nujaifi: I do not agree with this assertion. It's very simple, supporting the Syrian revolution will make the Syrian people and the [future] democratic regime a friend of Iraq. I think that talk of terrorism being imported to Iraq is being used as a pretext by the Iraqi government to move its military forces inside Iraq, suppress [protests] in some provinces, and cancel local elections.
Al-Monitor: Do you mean that the Syrian revolution is now hostile to the government in Baghdad?
Nujaifi: The government's official position is rejected by the rebels in Syria. There are concerns that Iraq is allowing for the transport of weapons [to the Syrian regime] via Iranian aircraft, or that Baghdad is allowing fighters in support of Assad to enter through land. There are many statements on this subject, and the international community has evidence to prove it.
Al-Monitor: The issue of Iranian aircraft was at the center of US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit; he spoke with Maliki about the need to inspect these planes.
Nujaifi: Yes …The government promised to do this. But I doubt Washington's seriousness in putting pressure on Baghdad to prevent the movement of weapons. [Washington] is neglecting this issue, and I don't know if this neglect is deliberate.
Al-Monitor: But on the other hand there are parties that provide support to the opposition by way of arms?
Nujaifi: I told you earlier that all [Iraqi political] parties reject supporting one party over another. But what matters is Iraq's position, which is giving a negative image via its dealings with the Syrian people. The relationship between the two will certainly be negative if this policy continues. I hope that the Iraqi government will reexamine its position as soon as possible.
Al-Monitor: Do the repercussions of the Syrian revolution feed the sectarian divide in Iraq?
Nujaifi: There are internal factors in Iraq that have fed division, even before the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. These factors discriminate against and marginalize certain components of Iraqi society, and the structure of rule in Iraq favors certain sects over others. I think that Baghdad's position on the demonstrations that have occurred in several provinces has led to an increase in disputes in Iraq.
Al-Monitor: Regarding Iraq's internal affairs, it seems that the political crisis that erupted following Sunni protests against Maliki's government have not yet seen a solution. What is your reading of the future of these demonstrations?
Nujaifi: These protests erupted after long suffering and great frustration as a result of the failure to achieve desired justice. Over the past few years, Iraqi politicians have tried to achieve things through constitutional mechanisms, but their partners in power have not heeded their demands. These partners continue on their path of exclusion, try to limit the nature and identity of the regime, and force other parties into submission. The demonstrators have no confidence in the government and will continue to protest against the government's approach, especially given that they have found support with a number of political forces whose leaders are present today at the scene of protests.
Al-Monitor: Yet protesters are not united to such a degree. There are reports that al-Qaeda and the Baath Party have infiltrated these protests, and thus the government is afraid of the risk such factions pose.
Nujaifi: These are popular demonstrations, meaning they were not propelled, planned or organized by political parties. The public is angry, and is open to any party that wants to express its anger at the government. It's only natural that we see banners or slogans coming from this or that party. But I can assure you that the overwhelming majority of demonstrations are non-politicized; protesters believe in these legitimate demands and are calling for a state based on citizenship. Every Friday they agreed upon their chants. They have formed coordination committees to hold debates and unify the demonstrators' demands. Regarding the extremists and radicals, they are few and comprise only a small part of the demonstration forces.
Al-Monitor: Where are demonstrations in Anbar and Mosul heading?
Nujaifi: They will continue until the government comes down from its ivory tower and agrees to negotiate with the protesters.
Al-Monitor: What if the government refuses? Will they demand the fall of the regime?
Nujaifi: No one wants to demolish everything that has been built. Repealing the constitution or toppling the regime are complicated matters and unrealistic — we do not support this. But if the government insists on its position, then overthrowing it is a constitutional matter.
Al-Monitor: But the government says it is working to meet the demands of the protesters?
Nujaifi: No … To this day, the government has not made any concessions to the protesters. It has formed committees to study the demands of the angry public, but it only did this to give the impression that it is doing something. While the committees that the prime minister formed have said that they intend to amend laws and announced the release of prisoners, they have revealed more facts than they have carried out work. They revealed the extent of injustice, repression and exclusion that exists in Iraq, when information emerged regarding what was happening in prisons. For example, it was announced that a prisoner had remained in his cell without legal papers or an investigation. Protesters do not want partial solutions. They are demanding that all sects and components have an equal share in power.
Al-Monitor: This means that the parties to conflict in Iraq do not have a common ground for dialogue. On this basis, what are your views on the future of the crisis?
Nujaifi: The government is not working toward a solution; it is working on complicating matters. It could be preparing for military action against the protesters, or could cancel elections and eliminate political leaders. Today, there are signs that this is happening, for a number of opposition figures have been arrested or assassinated. In fact, I'm not optimistic … the situation is unstable.
Al-Monitor: It seems that Iraqi political parties agree that the partnership launched by the Erbil Agreement in 2011 is almost dead. In light of increasing tensions and dangerous prospects, everyone is asking: What is the solution?
Nujaifi: A constitutional solution is preferable, in order to avoid these dangerous prospects. The US secretary of state asked me the same question, he said, "What is the solution?" I told him the solution is early elections, but according to certain conditions and regulations.
Al-Monitor: But Maliki is calling for the same thing. Why has this option not been carried out?
Nujaifi: No. First and foremost, Maliki called for the dissolution of Parliament. This would cause Iraq to lose one of its fundamental pillars, allowing the government to do as it pleases without censorship. During this period, [Maliki's] partners in power would be targeted with various accusations, and the judiciary — which Maliki controls — would be brought into this game. Thus, the prime minister could choose new partners based on his own desires. A majority government would be formed, with a Shiite majority and few Sunnis and Kurds. As for us, we want the government itself to be dissolved before the elections, and a reduced government to be formed in which members do not nominate themselves. Their only mission would be ensuring and overseeing fair elections. After that we would dissolve parliament and go to the ballot boxes.
Al-Monitor: Yet the opposition has failed to withdraw confidence from Maliki. Do you think it would be easy to task a reduced government with overseeing the elections?
Nujaifi: Maliki's policies are destroying Iraq in the long run. The failed attempts to withdraw confidence in him do not mean that Iraqis are satisfied with their ruler, but that they respect him and support the principle of justice. I think that Maliki is supported internationally; it is clear that he is supported by Iran and the United States.
Al-Monitor: How so? Is this not a paradox?
Nujaifi: That's what I said to Mr. Kerry. How did adversaries come together to support the Iraqi prime minister? Maybe there is a strategic agreement we don't know about. But this much is clear, while this is happening, Maliki is ruling the country by himself, using the army and the police. He alone is in charge of security, he controls the judiciary and it is he who decides who is guilty and who is innocent. This is not the change that we wanted. The situation is bad, and I heard from Kerry that the Iraqi experience is collapsing before our eyes.
Ali Abel Sadah is a writer and journalist from Baghdad working in both Iraqi and Arab media. He was managing editor for local newspapers, as well as a political and cultural reporter for over 10 years.