BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in an exclusive written interview with Al-Monitor, said that Iraq supports a “transitional government that will manage affairs until elections are held and a constitution is adopted” in Syria.
Maliki, who opposed a US strike on Syria and any outside military intervention there, said that he told US Vice President Joe Biden two years ago that Syria “would not be resolved in two years, or even more, and that the social situation, the political and population structure and the sensitive region make it difficult to predict the end of an armed conflict of such cruelty and ferocity.”
The prime minister, whose term ends in 2014, said that the rise in terrorism in Iraq is rooted in the rise of regional sectarianism and “directly related to the developments in the Syrian crisis and its repercussions on the Iraqi arena. We are very worried about the Syrian arena transforming into a field that attracts extremists, terrorists and sectarians from various parts of the world, gathering them in our neighborhood.”
Maliki said, "Our relationship with Turkey was stronger than our relationship with Iran." He added that Turkey “has been inclined to openly intervene in Iraq's affairs. This caused sectarian provocation, when [Ankara] stood with the Sunnis against Shiites. These cases have provoked the Iraqis and resulted in backlash against [Turkey]. We have asked the current Turkish government many times, both directly and indirectly, to go back on this approach. We still hope that Turkish officials will review their positions so that our relations can improve and grow.”
Iraq's Prime Minister said he is "optimistic" about US-Iran ties and serious about preventing the flow of weapons to Syria.
The text of the interview follows.
Al-Monitor: A while ago, you proposed an Iraqi initiative for Syria. What has been the regional and international reaction to this initiative?
Maliki: Yes, we put forward an initiative, and it was based on a previous initiative we had discussed at the  Arab League summit in Baghdad. We presented it to some delegations as well as to the UN envoy to Syria at the time, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. We then incorporated some changes into the most recent initiative, addressing what has happened during the recent period. We discussed it in a meeting between the president, prime minister and speaker of parliament, and with the heads of [parliamentary] blocs. Everyone agreed to adopt the initiative, so it became Iraq's initiative for a solution to the Syrian crisis. The parliamentary delegation took the initiative with them to Turkey and Iran, and confirmed that they had received it positively, knowing that these two countries are influential in the crisis.
The US side then informed us that they wanted to know the details and implementation mechanisms, because they believe that we have come close to a common understanding, and there is a possibility that [the US] will adopt it. Recently, the government's Foreign Policy Committee — which includes a number of ministers — studied the initiative, and a decision was made about the need to adopt it in international forums, in the hope of reaching a political solution to the crisis.
Our position, which rejects intervention in the internal affairs of Syria and does not support either side of the conflict — neither the regime nor the armed opposition — and our support for the rights of the Syrian people to freedom and democracy, removed from international intervention — this is what has enabled us to put forth such a balanced initiative. Furthermore, Iraq's neutral position and the fact that we made early efforts to address this situation earned us more credibility.
We truly hope that a peaceful solution will be reached to save what remains of Syria. And we certainly will be the first to benefit from this. On the other hand, if the conflict and tragedies continue and extremism increases, we will be the first to be affected.
Al-Monitor: But some say that the initiative does not include any reference to the fate of the current authorities in Syria. There is a clear international line that doesn't see a place for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's future. And there are those who accuse Iraq of implicitly supporting Assad remaining in power.
Maliki: We did not reference [the fate of] the regime, but we did reference the mechanisms that would lead to the formation of a democratic system, based on electoral legitimacy, which must be established. In the initiative, we also clarified that this will be carried out under Arab and international supervision. We called for a transitional government that will manage affairs until elections are held and a constitution is adopted. All we want is to support the will of the Syrian people, not the forces [calling for] international intervention, which are not interested in the establishment of a democratic regime in Syria or anywhere else in the world. We cannot consider those who have stood against the current regime in Syria and called for its ouster to be parties that support democracy or freedom, or even elections. You know well that some of these parties believe that the mere existence of a true democratic regime in the region constitutes a direct threat to them. We believe that it is these parties that are responsible for the failure or the uprisings and movements that have taken place in the countries of the Arab Spring, through hijacking them and directing them toward extremism, away from democracy, freedom, pluralism and respect for human rights.
Al-Monitor: Iraq has complained about Syria's policies for a long time. You personally accused Syria of supporting terrorism and lodged international complaints about this issue. Frankly, Your Excellency, do you still think that the Assad regime was involved in terrorism in Iraq in 2009, in particular the attacks against the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a number of state institutions?
Maliki: That's a good question. Yes, we still believe that [terrorists] in Iraq were passing through Syrian territory into Iraq.
I want to draw your attention to the fact that when we lodged complaints against the regime in Syria, everyone stood against us and defended the regime, including some of those who are calling for its fall today. The reasons that made us lodge these complaints against the regime are the same reasons that have led us to object to military and security solutions to solving the crisis. We are not opposed to change in Syria; rather, we are opposed to using destructive military methods in resolving the crisis. This would lead to a spread of violence and extremism, as is happening today. We oppose the alternative, if this is going to be al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra. We do not oppose the choice of the people, national unity and the participation of all components; we announced at the outbreak of the crisis that a military option will lead to a deadlock.
We want change based on dialogue, understanding and safe, controlled political solutions, built on the basis of electoral democracy. If we support violence and armament, it will open the door to chaos, civil war and extremism, making Syria a safe haven for terrorist and extremist organizations. We are afraid Syria will turn into a hotbed for terrorist activity, and it is wrong to believe that armament will solve the problem. In my visit [to the US] around two years ago, I told President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden that the situation in Syria is complicated and that the conflict would not end in a few months, as they expected. I told them that the matter would not be resolved in two years, or even more, and that the social situation, the political and population structure and the sensitive region make it difficult to predict the end of an armed conflict of such cruelty and ferocity. Thus, Iraq is not opposed to change, and has no interest in things staying as they are, but we oppose resorting to the use of force. We believe that this would open the door to strife, violence and extremism in the region.
Al-Monitor: Relations with Iran are still problematic. Do you think that today relations with Iran are balanced? Are relations with Iran different from those with Turkey or the Arab [Gulf] states, for example? What are your suggestions for balanced Iraqi relations with everyone?
Maliki: We want good relations with all countries, especially neighboring countries. But we are doing what we can to form such relations based on shared interests, mutual respect and noninterference in internal affairs. When we find a country that has shared principles, our relationship grows and develops. This is how our relations begin with all countries of the world, including Iran and Turkey. We have a very developed relationship with Turkey, and it was stronger than our relationship with Iran. Until now, our commercial trade with Turkey has far exceeded that with Iran. But in recent years, the current Turkish government has been inclined to openly intervene in Iraq's affairs. [Turkey] intervened in the details of the political and electoral situation, and sometimes put its ties with political, partisan or nationalist parties before its ties with the Iraqi state and its legitimate institutions. This caused sectarian provocation, when [Ankara] stood with the Sunnis against Shiites. These cases have provoked the Iraqis and resulted in a backlash against [Turkey]. We have asked the current Turkish government many times, both directly and indirectly, to go back on this approach. We still hope that Turkish officials will review their positions so that our relations can improve and grow.
Al-Monitor: Iran strongly criticized Iraq for monitoring its planes [flying over Iraqi airspace]. And Iraq is still being criticized for its inability to prevent the flow of weapons into Syria. The Iraqi foreign minister acknowledged Iraq's inability to ensure that weapons do not flow to either Syrian party because of its limited capabilities. How do you explain all of these contradictions, and how can Iraq overcome this crisis?
Maliki: We must make it clear that Iraq is serious about not allowing military activity or arming of either of the sides of the conflict. We have tightened control of our land borders and moved a lot of our troops, despite needing them in other parts of Iraq. This is so that we can apply this policy, which we practice because it conforms to our vision for a solution to the crisis. It agrees with our interests and even with those of Syria. We are not doing this merely because the world has demanded it. We have resorted to randomly inspecting Iranian planes that pass over our airspace toward Syria, despite the negative reactions this has provoked from the Iranian side. But frankly, we believe that there is deliberate exaggeration in portraying this matter, for political reasons. Some are still trying to integrate this into the Syrian conflict for various reasons. Regarding our ability to stop potential cases of our airspace being breached, our capabilities are in fact limited. We do not have the necessary means of air defense that would allow us to stop such cases if they occurred. But we do believe that it is necessary to use force to stop the flow of arms. This is what causes us to work hard to fill this gap in our defense system.
Al-Monitor: There have been positive developments in US-Iranian relations. How do you view the improvement of ties between these two countries? Is it possible to expect a positive shift in these relations?
Maliki: We were one of those advocating opening channels of dialogue between the two countries. We previously hosted two rounds of dialogue [between Iran and the United States] in Baghdad, which represented the first such talks following a break in relations that lasted decades. We are optimistic about the possibility of real progress in relations between these two countries this time, because of the positive atmosphere, ripe conditions and seemingly serious intentions on the part of both countries. We announced that we are ready to help resolve this problem and help make things better. This will achieve our national interests, in addition to what it achieves for the interests of these two nations. It also supports security and stability in this incredibly tense region. We believe that normal relations between the United States and Iran will serve the interests of stability in the region and Iraq.
Al-Monitor: Violence has been continuously increasing in Iraq since the beginning of the year. Does this mean that al-Qaeda has become more powerful than it was in the past? Has al-Qaeda managed to regain its strength?
Maliki: Yes, there has been an increase in terrorist acts that claim the lives of innocent civilians. These are blind acts that have no goal other than inflicting harm and attempting to push the country toward a sectarian war. Our forces are confronting these criminals and are involved in an all-out war with them. We are confident that we can defeat and eliminate them. There are many factors that have contributed to this increase in terrorist acts, the most important of which is the sectarian tension in the region that is directly related to the developments in the Syrian crisis and its repercussions on the Iraqi arena. We are very worried about the Syrian arena transforming into a field that attracts extremists, terrorists and sectarians from various parts of the world, gathering them in our neighborhood. We urge the world to take note of this fact, which no one can deny. No one should view the Syrian crisis as only related to whether the current regime falls. This is only a small part of a deeper problem, which is the increasing growth of extremist groups that are getting support and reinforcement under this cover. We caution against the narrow, revenge-based view that controls some of the region's countries when it comes to dealing with the Syrian crisis. We warned about what is happening today before it happened, more than 2 1/2 years ago. Today, we warn that things could get worse if the reins are left in the hands of those parties controlled by a mentality of revenge and settling scores, instead of thoroughly considering outcomes and the fate of the region.
Al-Monitor: There is an unprecedented return of militias in southern Iraq and the capital, including killings and sectarian displacement, particularly in Basra and Nasiriyah. This has been covered by media outlets and official bodies. How do you respond to those who say that Baghdad is lenient when it comes to militant activity, and that this leniency became clear given the lack of efforts to prevent the flow of militants to fight alongside the Assad regime? And that this leniency, in turn, led to these militias regaining their power?
Maliki: Yes, there have been some terrorist acts committed by militias, and we have taken the necessary measures and orders were issued to our security services regarding the need to address these acts firmly and with strength. A few days ago, I met with some of the residents who were targeted by these criminal acts. I assured them that the government, the security services and the police are on their side and will defend them, and that these militias have no future. There is a clear correlation between these groups and terrorist groups, and they strengthen each other. But the broad popular opposition [to these groups] and the consensus among Iraqis to renounce them — whether militias or terrorists — makes them isolated outcasts without protection.
Al-Monitor: How do you assess the political situation in the country? You constantly accuse your partners in the political process of disturbing the political and security atmosphere. However, you signed the initiative on social peace. How do you evaluate this initiative?
Maliki: This initiative came to further isolate extremists and strip them of any cover they may resort to in order to justify their crimes. We believe that it greatly contributes to reducing the activity of these groups, encircling them and facilitating the process of eliminating them. Furthermore, it raises the morale of the people and the armed forces, which are locked in confrontation with them. I want to tell you that some of the partners [in the political process] resorted to sectarian incitement and threats of force, violence and rebellion against the state. This prevented us from succeeding in developing a line between what is freedom of expression, protest and calling for demands on the one hand, and incitement, infringing on public security and threatening the army, the security services and state institutions on the other. These provocative partners have maliciously benefited from sectarian and ethnic overlap and political tensions to achieve electoral, political or other goals. Some have even resorted to [enlisting] al-Qaeda to help them achieve these goals. I hope that this initiative and the document that was signed will help us to re-establish this line and punish those who try to traverse it, whoever they may be.
Al-Monitor: Is the government a part of the Iraqi crisis? Where did this crisis come from? Is it a parliamentary crisis? A presidential crisis? Or does it involve the entire Iraqi political system?
Maliki: The crisis involves the entire political system, because institutions and authorities overlap with one another. No single authority benefits from the destruction of another.
Al-Monitor: How do you assess the nature of relations with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq today? Some say that practically no change has occurred in this relationship on the ground, and that what happened was a personal reconciliation between [you] and [Kurdistan Region of Iraq President Massoud] Barzani. Do personal considerations affect these crises?
Maliki: We will not allow for issues to be personalized. Mr. Barzani has been a friend of mine for decades, in light of the circumstances of the struggle against the Baath Party. The dispute here was based on the issue of building a new state, the constitution and the underdeveloped institutions. It was not a personal matter. What we have agreed upon is still in place, through committees that were formed for this purpose. Iraqis understand the need for a solution.
The federal government's relations with the [Kurdistan] Region [of Iraq] are good, and we hope that they grow and develop in the framework of the constitution.
Al-Monitor: Is Iraq on the path toward a sound democracy? How do you assess the recent youth protests on Aug. 31 and the position of the security forces toward them?
Maliki: Yes, certainly, Iraq is on the road to democracy. But we are still at the beginning of that road, and there is a need for efforts and practice when it comes to institution-building, the legislation of laws and deepening a culture of respect for the law at the levels of the state and society. But the steps we have taken are considered good when compared to the difficulties and problems that surrounded our experience and blocked our path. We have succeeded in organizing more than five election cycles — including parliamentary elections and others — since the fall of the [Saddam Hussein] regime.
As for the youth demonstrations, this is a natural thing and we consider it a sign of activity, effectiveness and participation, as long as it takes place within the framework of the law. Let me tell you frankly that these demonstrations were dealt with seriously, whether the youth demonstrations that were focused on [revoking] the privileges of members of parliament or the sit-ins that sometimes bordered on sectarian incitement and defying the law, in addition to including legitimate demands. Iraq's method of dealing with these demonstrations serves as a civilized, humanitarian model for dealing [with such events]. Everyone can see how demonstrations, with normal demands, are dealt with in regional countries, and the number of victims. I see no need to provide examples — there are many, and this has been covered in the press. Perhaps there were some problems on the part of security forces or demonstrators here or there, but these things are being followed up on so that they will not happen again. These things occur naturally, but a decision has been made to hold those who were negligent or acted maliciously accountable, whether they be from the security services or demonstrators.
Al-Monitor: How do you assess the demonstrations in Sunni cities, more than nine months since they began? Do you think that the government has met the demands of the demonstrators?
Maliki: As soon as the demonstrations began, we took action to form high-level committees. The first was a governmental committee headed by the deputy prime minister and included seven ministers. It immediately began its work and achieved some of the legitimate demands, which were within the powers of the executive branch. [These included] lifting the hold on some of the funds that belonged to some members of the former regime, increasing salaries [for public-sector employees] from 150,000 dinars [$128] a month to more than 500,000 dinars [$429] and [increasing] pensions, among others.
Furthermore, there was cooperation with the legislative and judicial authorities to meet other demands, such as expediting the release of some prisoners. One thousand prisoners, whose release had been slowed because of the procedures followed by the judiciary, were released, among other measures. We are completely confident that all of the legitimate demands have either been met, or will be met as soon as possible. But what is difficult to implement are the political demands and the illegitimate demands — or rather, sectarian demands — that we reject. Everyone knows that some of the prominent actors in these demonstrations are active members in extremist terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda and others. These people tried to use the legitimate demands and those calling for them as a bridge to achieve things they were unable to achieve through violence and terrorism. We made attempts that lasted for months to try to separate these extremists, terrorists and those with illegitimate demands from other innocent people, who are the overwhelming majority. We hope to close this file as soon as possible. Legitimate demands do not include calling for the overthrow of top figures, stopping work on the constitution, rejecting the de-Baathification law, sectarian demands, the dissolution of the security services and pardoning terrorists on the pretext that they were supporting the resistance, and so on.
Al-Monitor: Services have always been a problem in Iraq. There have been many ongoing promises to improve services — especially electricity — but they have not been achieved. Wherein lies the problem, and how can it be fixed?
Maliki: Yes, we have massive destruction and the heavy legacy of the former regime, which left us with a completely destroyed infrastructure. Everything is destroyed or in ruins. We began the difficult process of reconstruction and rebuilding all that was ruined, and at the same time we were working on imposing security and stability, and building the security services and armed forces.
We have taken great strides when it comes to providing electricity, despite a multifold increase in consumption due to increasing standards of living and displays of affluence that have begun to steadily increase. Some provinces are provided with 24 hours of electricity [per day] or a little less, [and some with] 20 hours, whereas in the past it was only an hour or two. Medical services continue to improve. [We are] building hospitals; salaries are increasing; we have opened a lot of roads and are building universities and schools and reclaiming agricultural land and increasing agricultural production. For the first time, Iraq is nearly self-sufficient when it comes to wheat production. Furthermore, increased oil production and export has made Iraq the second [largest oil-producing country] in OPEC. Even with regard to electric power, we are now about to overcome this crisis. We hope that we will resolve it next year.
Mustafa al-Kadhimi is an editor and columnist for Al-Monitor Iraq Pulse. He is an Iraqi writer specializing in defense of democracy. He has extensive experience in documenting testimony and archiving documentaries associated with repressive practices.
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