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Iraqi deputy prime minister: 'I was mistaken' in joining government

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq speaks about the roots of the crisis in Iraq and stresses the need for a political solution.
Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq (L) attends a session at the parliament headquarters in Baghdad July 1, 2014. Newly elected Iraqi lawmakers convene on Tuesday, under pressure to name a unity government to keep the country from splitting apart after an onslaught by Sunni Islamists who have declared a "caliphate" to rule over all the world's Muslims.       REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani  (IRAQ - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3WMDF

BAGHDAD — Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, head of the al-Arabiya Coalition, has said that a political solution is the only way to unite the positions of Shiites and Sunni tribes and isolate armed groups and called the fall of Mosul a natural result of the faulty structure of the Iraqi army.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Mutlaq said it had been a mistake to accept the post of deputy prime minister within the context of partisan and sectarian agreements. He affirmed that the policies of oppression and marginalization from which the Sunnis suffered are what pushed them to call for their own region. He stressed that the United States is responsible for what is happening in Iraq, as it ousted a dictatorship full of flaws yet with functioning state institutions.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  The surprising agreement among Sunni forces to enter parliament in a single coalition drew the attention of observers. How did that happen?

Mutlaq:  We do not believe in any alliances that are built on sectarian, ethnic or doctrinal bases. The primary foundation of our alliance is nationalism and public interest as well as achieving the demands of citizens. We exerted as much effort as possible prior to the elections to find a cross-sectarian national front, yet other forces were — and still are — insistent on dividing the people of a single nation into various groups, sects and races. Our final alliance was based on the importance of consensus and implementing the demands of the provinces that held sit-ins and demanded the preservation of their residents' dignity.

Al-Monitor:  Do you have a vision for a way out of the crisis Iraq is experiencing? You stress a political solution, but can a terrorist group like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham [ISIS, now calling itself the Islamic State] be confronted through politics alone?

Mutlaq:  A political solution can unite the positions of Shiites and Sunni tribes. This will provide a chance to first isolate armed groups and then fight them and expel them easily, as happened in previous years when the authentic Iraqi tribes came together and expelled al-Qaeda overnight. Moreover, a political solution can contribute to lifting the injustice from large segments of Iraqi society and restoring their rights, which they lost as a result of unjust decisions and laws put in place during the days of the occupation. [These decisions and laws] became a sword hanging on the necks of the people, and canceling these laws will necessarily lead to unifying Iraqi society and strengthening national unity again.

Al-Monitor:  In your opinion, how did Mosul fall? You are the deputy prime minister, and you have adequate information on the security situation in Iraq. How could the army collapse in this way?

Mutlaq:  The truth is we did not participate or offer advice for a single day in managing the security file or any issue relating to this file. These issues were confined at all times to the commander in chief of the armed forces and the office of the commander in chief alone. We believe that the fall of Mosul into the hands of terrorist groups was a natural result of the policies of faulty structuring of the Iraqi armed forces, which led to a clear malfunction in the military doctrine and known defense mechanisms. Furthermore, a soldier must arm himself first and foremost out of love for the nation, loyalty to the people and faith in nationalist issues, rather than thinking about joining the ranks of the army as merely a means to provide him material resources. Thus, we stress that the malfunction was clear and we had warned about it many times. We demanded on multiple occasions that the conscription law be reformulated, given the positive effect this would have on keeping the military institution removed from political and sectarian competition. When the former Iraqi army was dissolved, we lost hope that Iraq would remain united because of the absence of a true force to guard the unity of Iraq.

Al-Monitor:  Are you a candidate for an executive position? Have you been nominated for speaker of parliament? How will [political parties] come to an agreement on this position among all of the proposed names?

Mutlaq:  We are not seeking any executive or legislative office, aside from that which is imposed on us. Our national duty toward the Iraqi people makes us not hesitate for a single moment to provide our services in any place where we think we are able to reform and remove harm. We have always announced that we would not participate in a government like the current one, and I note that I was mistaken when I accepted the position of deputy prime minister in a government restricted by partisan agreements. [This government] committed a series of mistakes because of policies of individualization and marginalization, as well as the lack of clarity concerning powers and the lack of an internal system to specify [the work] of the Cabinet.

Al-Monitor:  You served as deputy prime minister for services affairs. Where lies the flaw in the government's performance in providing services?

Mutlaq:  It is known that the services file cannot be isolated from the security file, and any shortcomings in the security file will naturally reflect negatively on services, the economy, investment, unemployment and providing jobs to youth. We have made great efforts in the field of municipal and health services, as well as in the fields of transportation, housing, activating the private sector, developing small and medium enterprises, etc. We undertook many field visits to cities and provinces, and we held many meetings and conferences. We laid true foundations for reconstructing and rehabilitating infrastructure, especially as the country has suffered for many decades — and still is suffering — from a collapse of infrastructure. Work in this regard requires more effort and time, and infrastructure work can only bear its fruit through cumulative and sustainable efforts.

Al-Monitor:  You constantly talk about regional interference in the situation in Iraq. How do you view the methods of interference? And how do you think foreign interference can be stopped or undermined?

Mutlaq:  Regional interference has become a natural feature of our time, even if it is rejected by the customs and laws of the international community. Iraq has been, and still is being, subjected to a lot of interference, ever since the entry of Western forces, the dismantling of the former state's institutions and the improper building of the institutional structure of the current Iraqi state. This opened the door wide for the interference of Iran and some other regional states in Iraqi affairs, and made Iraq a scene for the conflicts of [foreign] intelligence services. The people of Iraq are paying the price for this interference with their blood.

Promoting national unity [and] the existence of a balanced leadership that acts with wisdom and nationalism concerning issues and developments taking place in the country and that adopts balanced relations with regional countries — this could undermine foreign interference.

Al-Monitor:  How do you view the demands for a Sunni region? Do you believe they can be realized? If they were realized, how do you see the future of Iraq? Do you think that Iraq is headed toward division?

Mutlaq:  Sunni forces, including both political and popular forces, do not think that they can impose a demand for establishing a region on a sectarian basis. [The Sunni forces] are an outspoken advocate for the unity of Iraq. Were it not for the policies of oppression, marginalization, displacement, unjustified arrests and the looting of rights — which were an inherent feature of the era of the current government — these voices would not have raised this demand. We always warned, on multiple occasions, that there is a limit to what one can endure that cannot be overstepped. We requested that the international community intervene, [especially] the United States, which is the primary one responsible for what Iraq has become today. [The United States] has moral and international obligations that it should not have abandoned. [It should not have] left the country to flail in a sea of problems and complexities that cannot be solved except through division or sectarian infighting. If the current approach continues, the choice [to establish a Sunni] region will outweigh the choices of division or civil war.

Al-Monitor:  How do you view the US approach to handing the Iraqi crisis? Do you support a large military intervention, or maintaining the current level of intervention?

Mutlaq:  As I said in my answer to the previous question, the United States was the one that should have been most committed to the Iraqi people, given that it was the primary one responsible for the collapse of the institutional state system and the strange structure of the current state. What is happening today in Iraq is all due to the United States. The latter is the one that ousted a dictatorship full of flaws yet with state institutions, and brought about a new regime that is akin to flaws without a state. Moreover, Washington is bound to security agreements with Iraq. Although we are against any large-scale intervention of US forces on the ground, this does not negate the American side's obligations to prevent the spread of chaos in Iraq and prevent the country from falling prey to terrorist forces and militias, as well as autocratic policies and the establishment of a new dictatorship concealed by the guise of elections and imaginary democracy.

Al-Monitor:  There is talk about Sunni extremist organizations, as well as other nonextremist ones and tribal organizations. Do you believe that [talk of the existence of nonextremist Sunni groups], adopted by most Sunni forces, is true? If it is true, how can one make distinctions between ISIS and the rest of the factions on the ground? Do you think this is possible? And how?

Mutlaq:  Extremism exists in Iraq and is not limited to one sect alone. Yet, the faulty policies are what isolated the government from the people in Sunni regions and provinces and allowed armed groups to enter to try and fill the vacuum. As for how to separate ISIS and other terrorist organizations from the tribes and angered people, this lies in fulfilling the demands of the masses in these provinces. I don't think that [achieving these demands] is difficult or impossible, as they are no more than routine demands, such as putting an end to laws of uprooting and exclusion, and releasing the prisoners who are still languishing in prisons after many years without trial or clear charges. This is in addition to the legitimate demands that could be in the interest of all of Iraq; their benefits are not limited to a single province. All of this will push these tribes to take serious action toward these organizations and isolate them and force them to leave their regions.

Al-Monitor:  In your bloc, the al-Arabiya Coalition, contradictory voices have emerged regarding a position on Iraqi Kurdistan. Some voices seem extreme in their stance on the region, while others view it from a different angle. How do you view the policies of the Kurdistan Region, especially regarding Kirkuk and the other disputed territories?

Mutlaq:  This situation regarding the relationship with our Kurdish brothers is like that of any Iraqi problem. No one is working on solving it in a serious manner according to the legal and constitutional framework. This has made it grow more complicated day after day, until it reached the point where some are following strange policies that have not reached the level of responsibility. These include the policies of "stubbornness," shuffling cards or using people's daily livelihoods as a political pressure card. We, for our part, think that any problem can be solved — including the issue of Kirkuk and the disputed areas — if we abandon the personalization of issues, act according to constitutional bases and adopt a spirit of tolerance, stopping bloodshed and not denying the rights of others to live, especially since Kirkuk is an Iraqi city that includes all nationalities and sects. This feature can be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. 

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