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Former Iraq VP: Terrorism, political conflict behind Anbar crisis

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, former Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi speaks about the Anbar crisis, Iranian influence in Iraq and his expectations for the upcoming elections.
Iraq's Vice-President Adil Abdul-Mahdi speaks to reporters at the King Hussein Convention Centre during the World Economic Forum on the Middle East at the Dead Sea May 16, 2009. Hundreds of the world's businessmen gathered on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea to discuss social and political reforms in the world. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji (JORDAN POLITICS) - RTXHOKM

BAGHDAD — In an interview with Al-Monitor, former Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who is a leader in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), spoke about thorny and sensitive issues while describing the Iraqi political situation. Abdul-Mahdi — who resigned his vice presidential post in 2011 — said that he does not wish to see Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki run for a third term. He also said that it would be "very difficult" for Maliki to be re-elected. Abdul-Mahdi posed a number of open questions about Iraq's foreign policy, and said that, historically, Iraq has not been subjected to Iranian politics more than it was subjected to the authority of the Ottoman Empire. He also noted that terrorism and political conflict stand behind the Anbar crisis, and the problems are not easily solvable.

The interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Let's start with the events developing today. How do you assess what is happening in Anbar? What are the causes and what are the results?

Abdul-Mahdi:  The causes go back to two things. First, the growing terrorist activity, whether due to internal Iraqi factors or because of the regional situation, in particular [the conflict in] Syria. And all of the [government's] forces are needed to challenge this. The strategies for [fighting terrorism] are well known, and include security, political and logistical strategies, as well as achieving national unity and [working] with neighboring countries. Unfortunately, these strategies were not respected, which led to a spread in terrorism. The second reason is political bickering, where political leaders were concerned with gaining a reputation among the masses, and not with winning the battle against terrorism.

[Former British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill fought for Britain to win [World] War [II], and did not make his priority winning the elections. Thus, Britain won the war, but Churchill lost the elections [of 1945]. Unfortunately, not many of our statesmen think in this way. … What is important to them is calculating the impact of their positions or battles on the political future of the leader himself, and not on the success of strategies that the country needs, including the fight against terrorism.

Al-Monitor:  And where is the country heading?

Abdul-Mahdi:  The country is most likely heading toward one of two possible outcomes. The first is that the leaders will face their responsibilities regarding the risks the country could face — whether in terms of increased terrorist activity and the accompanying [rise] of armed groups, which increase killings and chaos. This could motivate them to sit at the negotiating table to work with one another according to constitutional principles to lead the country to the shores of safety. [The second outcome] is that the chaos will continue, and the current spheres of influence and divisions will remain — even if this is not laid out in the Constitution, this will become the reality. … Kurdistan [Region of Iraq] will remain under self-rule. Meanwhile, tribes and armed groups will continue to rule the western regions, and the government will have a presence only in form. Baghdad will maintain its influence in some of the central and southern regions, amid ongoing conflicts, and pending the development of the regional situation. Things will either calm down or escalate, and there is a potential for the regional maps to change.

Al-Monitor:  You served as vice president of Iraq for a number of years and then resigned from the post this term. Do you think that the presidency carried out its role on the constitutional level, and how do you view the presidency in the absence of President Jalal Talabani?

Abdul-Mahdi:  First, I hope that President Talabani regains his health and well-being, so that he can regain his role as a balanced figure whom everyone turns to in times of crisis. But to answer your question, I would say: No, it did not play a role on the political and constitutional levels. The presidency is not, as they say, an honorary institution. Rather, according to the Constitution, it is a supervisory institution, and its task is to monitor the correct implementation of the Constitution. It has a lot of tools to do this. But it failed to carry out this role and in turn contributed to negative developments. However, it cannot be denied that, in some way, they [presidency officials] served as a safety valve, as political leaders at least gathered to ensure calm in periods of crisis.

Al-Monitor:  Iraq has accused regional countries of standing behind terrorism and has called on the UN Security Council to intervene to condemn these countries. Do you think that Iraq's foreign policy is going in the right direction, whether in terms of its friends or enemies?

Abdul-Mahdi:  There is no doubt that Iraq's regional and international relations are better than they were before 2003, when Iraq was under sanctions and an embargo and was expelled from most regional and international institutions. And there is no doubt that Iraq has developed its relations with a number of countries that were bad or nonexistent previously. But if we judge the success of [Iraq's] foreign policy based on the standards of today, not those of the past, and look at the extent of Iraq's ability to invest its energies an abilities — via its foreign policy — in broadening its friendships, relationships and shared interests, and in reducing animosities and disputes.

We signed the Strategic Framework Agreement with the United States, which was approved by parliament, but we were slow to implement its articles, which included many benefits for the country. But we have an important project we worked on for a long time — the International Agreement — in conjunction with the UN and a lot of friendly countries. But we have put all of these efforts to the side, and progressed forward to improve our relations with neighboring countries. While these relations improved with Kuwait and Iran, relations with Turkey and other Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, are still tense. We mix between our interests as states and peoples living in a single area with many participants on the one hand, and between political disputes or disputes between regimes, convictions and perceptions on the other. Thus, internal political crises quickly transformed into crises with regional states, and vice versa. It is true that some states that compete with Iraq, in particular some neighboring states, want Iraq to remain weak. Because our share of oil has increased at the expense of their shares. Their markets have lost, preventing their economies from taking off. And some [neighboring states] have lost their regional hegemony as Iraq regained its political position. And [Iraq's] intellectual, sectarian and nationalistic inclinations could affect their internal and foreign approaches, and so on. But I think that these factors are present among all neighboring countries, and the only way to compensate for them is through forming partnerships and inclusive [projects] that make the joint benefits much higher than the losses from competition. All countries in the region have an interest in fighting terrorism, because terrorism is not beneficial to anyone. It is an enemy that affects everyone.  

At one time, Syria was encouraging armed groups in Iraq under the pretext of the fight against the US presence. But it, in turn, was affected [by these groups], and so on. With regard to the Security Council, we believe that its latest statement includes the correct foundations and principles, both in terms of supporting Iraq and fighting terrorism. [It also] mentions the duties of Iraq and the government to find internal and foreign partners. It is only through [working with these partners] that Iraq can cut off and weaken terrorism.

Al-Monitor:  But there is a heated regional conflict, and Iraq is at the heart of this conflict, despite the fact that the government has announced its neutrality toward the Syrian crisis. In your view, is Iraq truly neutral toward this very complex issue — the Syrian crisis?

Abdul-Mahdi:  I do not think that Iraq — both as a government and as a people — is neutral. They should not be neutral, except when it come to the Syrian people. They should not support one Syrian faction against another. But they should not be neutral when we are talking about terrorism and terrorist organizations. Likewise, they should not be neutral when we talk about the rights of the Syrian people to democracy, general freedom, national unity and stability.

Al-Monitor:  Some say that Iraq is sliding completely into the shadow of Iranian politics.

Abdul-Mahdi:  Iraq has lived next to Iran for thousands of years, and it has only been under the shadow of Iranian politics for short periods of time, much less than the periods in which it was under the shadow of Turkish (Ottoman) politics. We should not project our political loyalties on the geopolitical facts and the interests of neighboring states. When Iraq was aligned with the West in the confrontation with "Nasserism" in the 1950s, it was still not the strongest party in the Baghdad Pact (CENTO). The regional and international parties that are today saying Iraq has fallen under Iranian domination, did not say that Iraq had fallen under Iranian or Turkish domination [during the period of CENTO]. There is no doubt that Iran has achieved regional gains in the past few decades. And there is no doubt that these gains have had an impact on Iraq, due to the shared border that stretches for more than 1,200 kilometers [746 miles], as well as overlapping historical ties and religious and sectarian similarities. Iraq has many shared interests with Iran. Today, Iran is a very strong state. It emerged from past wars stronger and more widespread. Meanwhile, Iraq emerged from its war with Iran and Kuwait, and from the 2003 invasion and all of the internal wars, destroyed, indebted, constricted and divided. We are certainly paying the price for these mistakes and adventures. There is no doubt that the position of other states toward Iraq reinforced this view [of Iranian hegemony in Iraq]. Furthermore, the regional and international conflicts, and their position on Iran — or Iran's position on them — will subject Iraq to dual pressure, which is not in the interest of Iraqis, their neighbors or others. Iraq must cooperate with everyone, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, but it is not ready.

Al-Monitor:  What about Saudi Arabia? What mistakes were made, whether by Baghdad or Riyadh, that led to this complex situation in terms of the relationship between the two?

Abdul-Mahdi:  When Mr. Maliki was chosen as prime minister, his first visit was to Saudi Arabia. Iraq had shown good intentions toward improving ties with Saudi Arabia, given that Iraq sensed its importance and its role. And, following Maliki's visit, I personally visited Saudi Arabia and met with King Abdullah [bin Abdulaziz Al Saud], and he defended Maliki and was optimistic. I think that things turned in the wrong direction for two reasons. The first is related to internal relations in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, while the second is related to regional ties, particularly the position on Iran. It's likely that Riyadh believed that Iraq would take the same position as other states close to it, ignoring the interconnections that link it to Iran.

Al-Monitor:  How do you see the political map after the next election? Will you personally participate [in the elections]? Do you have any fears that the elections may not take place on schedule?

Abdul-Mahdi:  I will definitely take part in these elections, but I will not run for parliament. This is because I believe that the election itself requires action within the framework of a national campaign, instead of a campaign in a single province. As you know, the elections in Iraq are carried out in each province, where each province is an electoral district. As for concerns about the elections themselves, I think it would be difficult for the political regime to preserve its legitimacy without elections. Despite many legal and constitutional violations, the elections remain the only path to correct the challenges facing legitimacy, partnership and good government performance.

Al-Monitor:  But Iraq is described as a place where “religious warlords have won, or will win.” Do you think that it has become impossible to form trans-sectarian blocs? Who bears responsibility for this reality?

Abdul-Mahdi:  Everyone is responsible. The main culprit might be Iraq itself, and its need for articles of association that address this situation. We have tried to constitutionally remedy this issue, but it would seem that the continuity of central system rule, distrust between the various constituents and the effects of the period of despotic rule were stronger than the consciousness of political leaders. They tend to feed the emotions of their constituents more than they strive to build a present and a future for them; and these are the results. But, I would not say that the prospects are nil. … Nations today are gravitating toward a better understanding of things … and I think that we will all realize that it is to our benefit and in our interest to unite … even if the road toward that end necessitates that we take a step back in safeguarding private interests, so that we may advance two steps on the road toward agreement and harmony.

Al-Monitor:  How does Iraq understand its relations with the United States? Is there really a shared outlook between them? Is there a strategy and plan in place for the management of this relationship, or is it mainly driven by reactions and after-effects?

Abdul-Mahdi:  The Americans’ role in Iraq changed after their withdrawal pursuant to the Status of Forces Agreement. … The Strategic Framework Agreement should have been the governing framework [of that relationship]. The momentum of the withdrawal, the disengagement policy and the economic crisis may have led to negligence on the part of the US administration toward its interests in Iraq. The Iraqi administration, influenced by regional factors, perhaps felt that it no longer needed the United States’ friendship. Both their stances, in my opinion, do not adequately guarantee the interests of either country, and they both need to redefine those interests. Something of the sort perhaps occurred during the visit of Iraq’s prime minister to the United States recently. But developing a strategy and plans to manage this relationship requires more than reactionary policies on both their parts.

Al-Monitor:  What is your assessment concerning the Islamic Supreme Council? And what is your opinion of Mr. Ammar al-Hakim?

Abdul-Mahdi:  The Supreme Council is the largest political organization in Iraq, in terms of the number of members, or the events, activities and relations it enjoys, whether on a national, regional or international levels. Mr. Hakim’s youthful leadership succeeded in reinvigorating the Supreme Council and restoring the leadership role that it played during the opposition period or the beginning of the period of change. But, the Supreme Council still has a lot to do and many shortcomings to overcome; most important among them is to fully transition from the mindset of an opposition party to one of a state. … And from the mind-set of the quota system and its unilateral representation of the South and its inhabitants, to the mind-set of nationalism, a multi-confessional and multi-factional society. This requires persistent effort. Not running for parliament was perhaps another reason for me to concentrate further on these matters.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think that Prime Minister Maliki’s chances for re-election to a third term are good? And what is your opinion about a third term, from a constitutional, political and personal point of view?

Abdul-Mahdi:  I think that it will be very difficult. … The reason being that many decision-making centers see no benefit in a third term. ... The same holds true for most political powers in the country, regardless of their affiliations. Furthermore, Mr. Maliki has lost much of his electoral support, and his actions in Anbar, and decisions in other matters, might improve his standing for a few days or weeks, but will come back to haunt him in months or years. In this sense, his gains are tactical but his losses are strategic. What he failed to achieve in eight years, he will not accomplish in the remaining 15 weeks until the elections. … Despite my respect for Mr. Maliki, my assessment of a third term — constitutionally, politically and personally — is that I wish that he would refrain from running for a third term, so that the principle of power rotation and the importance of change be maintained. For he should have known that the vast majority stood against a third term when parliament voted against allowing it. The next lineup in parliament will not differ much from its current membership, and may even be less amenable to him. The Constitution, even if it does not limit candidacy to two terms, must not be abused by any official who truly believes in democracy, the rotation of powers, change and the rule of law. The said official must not preclude all avenues but his own, even if his rule offered the country certain things, but caused it to lose more things … and led the country into complicated crises that put us today in circumstances much more difficult than those prevalent when he took office. For example, the US Constitution, since it was ratified ... [in 1788], never limited presidential terms to only two. … Yet, presidents committed themselves to two [elected] terms out of tradition [until President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944]. The 22nd Amendment was only ratified in 1951, and limited the terms in office to two. [Former US President Thomas] Jefferson famously said in 1807 [in a letter to Isaac Weaver] that presidential terms in office, if not limited by the Constitution or through practical measures, might be transformed from four-year terms to lifetime posts.

Al-Monitor:  What is a decision taken by Maliki that you wished he had not taken or thought it wiser that he postponed taking?

Abdul-Mahdi:  His candidacy for a second term. I hoped that the principles of power rotation be better promoted, particularly considering that Mr. Maliki and the State of Law Coalition failed to receive the preponderance of votes and never had a parliamentary majority, even after they formed an alliance with the Supreme Council, the Sadrist movement and the remaining National Coalition forces that formed the National Alliance. He did not garner the majority of votes until after the Kurdistan Alliance and the Iraqiya bloc endorsed him following long months of complications and secret deals that were detrimental to him and the state during his second term, causing it to become more complex than it was during the first term. For, to rule during his second term, he had to disrupt the legislative and oversight role played by parliament. … And he reneged on the Erbil Agreement, leading to a period of complex conflicts that even reached the ranks of the National Alliance. The country then entered a period when it was ruled through a cult of personality, militarization, a system of quotas and the manufacture of new crises without solving older ones first. … The post and office cannot be of utmost importance. If each of us always claimed that others were wrong and we were always right, and never realized that right and wrong are subjective and not an objective reality, we would disrupt any possibility for change and the opportunity to discover the potential of others. This makes the battle for the premiership a complex one, akin to facing a military coup every time [elections are held]. … But in fact, it is a natural and simple process predicated on the majority that will be formed in parliament. In his capacity as a leader who gained his mandate and legitimacy through free and direct elections, I would have hoped that Mr. Maliki would have become a role model in this regard. Doing so would not have only benefited the country, it would have also been beneficial for his legacy, in accordance with the popular saying that states, “Look at the actions of others and realize how good mine are.” The halo of quarrelsome personalities and leaders would thus fade, to be replaced by agendas and actions, the goodness and usefulness of which could be clearly seen by the people, who would fight to maintain them through democratic means.

Al-Monitor:  You have not been a parliamentarian for long. Yet, from your position, where are the defects of the Iraqi legislative system located?

Abdul-Mahdi:  Iraqis in general, myself included, do not have a lot of experience in parliamentary action. For many, parliament is merely a pulpit for speeches, more than it is an institution tasked with formulating laws and policies. When we blame the prime minister for not respecting the democratic process, it is because political parties and institutions, at some point in time and in some circumstances, did not themselves respect the democratic process and manipulated constitutional constructs to suit their interests instead of subjecting those interests to the basic law by which the country is ruled. For when we say that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, that means everybody must abide by it and understand that their partial or complete interests, be they near or far, can be attained through the respect of the Constitution. Accepting some material, while hindering the implementation of other articles … or accepting that political powers be allowed to deprive parliament of its legislative role through the misinterpretation of constitutional provisions … doing away with its oversight role by failing to attend accountability and questioning sessions, and thus negating any vote of confidence … is tantamount to emptying the political system of its main foundation. … For the government, to this date, has not presented its ministerial program, nor has this program been voted upon. Most ministries and high-level government positions are run by proxy or acting ministers, but it is the prime minister’s duty to submit the names of potential ministers. In this case, when parliament rejected the list of submitted names, he refrained from proposing other names, and the end result was that the same people remained in office for years, appointed as proxies.

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