Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's controversial former — and possibly future — prime minister, is the most influential player in Iraq’s political process.
He heads the State of Law Coalition, the major player in the largely Shiite National Alliance, which in turn is the largest bloc in parliament. He also heads the Reform Front, which led a recent campaign that resulted in the firings of Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi and Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Maliki says he helped launch the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) after the Islamic State (IS) occupied Sunni-majority provinces during his terms as prime minister from 2006 to 2014. Observers have not ruled out his return to that position after parliamentary elections in 2018.
Al-Monitor met Maliki at his office in Baghdad for an exclusive interview. The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: How would you describe the current relationship between Baghdad and the United States? Has the deal you reached with Washington been exploited? How do you see the US position on the recent crisis with Turkey?
Maliki: Our relationship with Washington is good, but we think the Strategic Framework Agreement [between the United States and Maliki’s government in 2008] was not correctly implemented. That’s what we said before Mosul fell, when we asked the United States to target the camps of terrorist gangs that were using the desert of Anbar province as a base and a refuge. But the US side refused on unrealistic pretexts, which led to Daesh [IS] taking over large areas of Iraq.
I believe that the relationship with the United States is important for the interests of Iraq and the region, and that it can be examined and developed by implementing the Status of Forces Agreement and dealing with any obstacles that get in the way.
America has rejected the logic of Turkish intervention in Iraq, but Turkish politicians think they can impose facts on the ground and expand in Iraq.
Al-Monitor: When President-elect Donald Trump takes office, do you expect a change in US policy in ways that will affect the ongoing struggle in the region?
Maliki: Washington’s general policy will stay the same, but the means and tools used to implement are different depending on who is in power. It’s true that the Republicans are more concerned with Iraq, as they were the people who toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein and have stayed involved in the political process.
Their policy was good when they agreed to withdraw US troops and when they signed the Status of Forces Agreement. We hope that Mr. Trump when he takes office will implement the Strategic Framework Agreement that we signed, which covers the economy, politics, oil, trade and the military.
I say that Iraq needs this agreement with the United States and it needs US efforts and US expertise in many areas. I hope that President Trump implements the deal, because the Democrats didn’t implement it in the past, despite our requests.
If they had responded to our requests, [IS] would not be here. We asked for weapons to strike [IS] in Jazeera [northwestern Iraq] that was an entry point for the terrorists from Syria. But unfortunately they did not cooperate with us, and later admitted that this was a mistake.
Al-Monitor: Did [IS] exploit long-running conflicts in the region, especially your differences with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and are there ways to solve these differences?
Maliki: In light of ongoing struggles and influential states’ greed for territory in the region, I believe that the crisis will continue and it will stir up new crises. That cannot be prevented except through dialogue, respect, good neighborliness and a commitment not to interfere in the business of others. Crises and conflicts cannot be solved through weapons and controlling other people’s territory. We are determined to solve the crises with Turkey and Saudi Arabia and to achieve the best, most positive ties on many levels, to be good neighbors and build interdependent interests and fates.
Al-Monitor: Will the PMU move into Syria after liberating Mosul from [IS]? If so, will that have major international costs for Iraq, especially for its relations with the United States?
Maliki: Talk of the PMU fighting in Syria is premature. I don’t believe that it will happen now, because the situation in Syria at the moment does not require a PMU intervention. Also, we still need the PMU to finish the job of liberating Mosul and chasing down what remains of [IS] there. If we are able to impose security, get rid of [IS] and cleanse our territory of terrorism, it would be reasonable to respond and help Syria face [IS], because the group will come back to Iraq if we don’t destroy it completely in Syria.
Al-Monitor: It appears that many Sunnis fear the PMU and have doubts about a national or historic compromise. How can the country’s problems be “reset” after [IS] has been defeated? Is there a clear vision or a comprehensive plan for reconciliation? Is there a place in the reconciliation plan for dividing the country’s wealth and drafting laws such as an oil and gas law?
Maliki: I don’t see that Sunnis are afraid of the PMU, given that many of them are fighting alongside it on the front lines. Some of those who are trying to stir up fears are people who conspired to let [IS] in. Today, and after the defeat of [IS], those people will try to stir up new crises and create pretexts to prevent any rapprochement or any successful process of reconciliation or compromise.
The compromise that we are hoping for includes intellectual and organizational elements, the principles we want Iraq to be built on, national unity and a rejection of sectarianism. We want only the state to bear arms, respect the sovereignty of Iraq, an end to interference in the affairs of others and others interfering in our affairs, the country’s wealth to be invested in the best possible way and equality, along with other things that have all been completed and approved, which form the essence of the historic compromise.
Al-Monitor: If Sunni elements decided to turn the western provinces into a [self-governing] region, would you agree to that, given that it is provided for in the constitution? Or would you oppose it, perhaps due to its links to foreign agendas? What is your view on the unity of Iraq?
Maliki: While we support the unity of Iraq, we do not oppose the formation of regions, because it is provided for in the constitution. But given the current state of affairs, those regions cannot be created now because they would be created by force of arms in an atmosphere of political, military and sectarian tension, which is a bad basis for creating such regions.
Al-Monitor: What is the nature of the lists you will support in the coming election, especially given that most members of the State of Law Coalition are also in the Reform Front? Will the Reform Front run as an independent list or under the list of the State of Law Coalition? Will you support electoral lists that represent the PMU?
Maliki: The State of Law Coalition is the bloc that I will support going into the elections; we are currently reviewing and selecting allies who will run. There are many forces and well-known personalities who have asked to join the State of Law Coalition, and we welcome those who wish to join us — but according to regulations and conditions that fit the orientation and aims of the coalition.
As for the PMU, I believe that talk is premature, because the PMU is still busy with its military operations. Once the battle is over, then the PMU can decide whether or not to participate. But that does not mean that the PMU will not have a voice within the political scene, even if the majority of its units choose not to take part, because some units are already represented within the State of Law Coalition, especially the Badr Organization, the Jund al-Imam Brigades and the Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades.
The Reform Front is not an electoral list but rather a grouping of parliamentarians from various blocs focusing on issues of shared concern, such as fighting corruption and supporting administrative reforms.
Al-Monitor: How did the recent pro-reform protests and the Reform Front impact on the work of the Haider al-Abadi government, and how would you describe his performance? Will he be on your electoral lists?
Maliki: First, it is up to the people to judge the work of the government. Regarding the reform movement and its impact on the government, I believe that anyone who wants to correct the path of the government will face challenges, and the prime minister has called for a reform process within the government — what happened in parliament is a result of that.
Al-Monitor: Do you still insist on the idea of a political majority? Is it possible to create a list that goes beyond sects, given that religious parties and sectarian bodies dominate Iraq?
Maliki: Yes, we believe that the best solution to salvage Iraq from its domestic crises is by creating a government of the political majority that is able to heal the situation and rebuild faith in the state, which was damaged by those calling for reform and anti-corruption measures. It is possible to create cross-sectarian blocs and lists, and I don’t believe that religious parties are an obstacle to creating cross-sectarian entities.
Al-Monitor: Will those lists be an alternative to the State of Law Coalition? What will happen to the divisions and conflicts with it, especially between yourself and the Sadrists?
Maliki: The majority government has nothing to do with the National Alliance, because when we proposed forming a majority government that was not in isolation from the other elements of the National Alliance or anyone else. The issue is not limited to a particular party or a specific sect. We hope for a government that includes everyone who wants to build the nation and solve the problems Iraq suffers — through a strong government that is able to live up to its tasks and can tackle the challenges facing Iraq.
The National Alliance is made up entirely or mostly of groups that are able to be part of a political majority. Whoever wants to can take part, and I'm optimistic that all or most elements of the National Alliance will be part of that project.
Al-Monitor: Does that view fit with Muqtada al-Sadr’s moves for reform and the establishment of a technocratic government and getting rid of the quota system? What is your view of Sadr’s position on the PMU law?
Maliki: We stand with everyone who wants reform and to fight corruption, but their claims must be true and honest, not simply slogans and chants, or attacks on government institutions or damaging the prestige of the state.
Whoever wants reform and to fight corruption must respect the law and must not send out armed groups into Baghdad, show off their weapons and threaten those who oppose forming a technocratic government. Everyone must avoid the language of threats and use dialogue as a way to correct what they see as wrong, or not serving the interests of the people.
Concerning the PMU law, I believe that the law approved by parliament meets what is needed, although we hope for more — to do justice for those who have given their blood and their lives for Iraq and responded to the call after the conspiracy against the nation.
The first stage was passing the law, and the second stage will be drafting the orders, which is the responsibility of the commander in chief of the armed forces.
Al-Monitor: Will Sunni and Sadrist opposition to the law affect the future of the political process and the push for a historical compromise?
Maliki: The PMU law was passed by the parliament and it will proceed. I don’t believe anything can happen to it.
As for the political compromise, we are waiting for a Sunni statement expressing views on what the National Alliance presented, and when that is agreed, we will move forward with fixing rules that can be a basis from which everyone can work. As soon as that is agreed, we will proceed together on issues such as rebuilding the cities, returning the displaced and compensating those who have been harmed, as well as reforms to the political and legislative systems.
Al-Monitor: What guarantee is there that the PMU will not become stronger than the state and its security apparatus? How can fighters be separated from their previous units? What is the difference between turning the PMU into an official body and integrating its fighters into the Iraqi armed forces?
Maliki: The PMU has become — by law — subordinate to the state security apparatus. Any force within that structure must support and assist the other organs of the armed forces. I believe that the PMU will be an effective organ — just like the Counter Terrorism Service — and that the leadership of the PMU are part of the political process and are committed to its stability and the rule of law.