Iraq’s president: Iran must be part of anti-IS coalition

Iraqi President Fouad Massoum said that he supports a conditional amnesty for prisoners, a key Sunni demand, and insists on Iran’s participation in the international alliance against the Islamic State.

al-monitor Fouad Massoum, Iraq's newly elected president, speaks during a news conference in Baghdad, July 24, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Ahmed Saad.

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united states, islamic state, iraq, iran, coalition

Sep 26, 2014

NEW YORK — Iraqi President Fouad Massoum said that the US-Iranian dispute in the region is limited to the nuclear issue “according to what US Secretary of State John Kerry told us. If this issue is dealt with, a lot of things in the region will be addressed.” He emphasized the importance of Iran’s role in the fight against "the organization of the Islamic State [IS],” adding that “it is necessary that Iran participates” in confronting IS.

In an interview with Al-Hayat in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session, Massoum asserted that what is important for Iraq “is to hit IS,” pointing to “a difference in viewpoints between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as other countries. It is natural that there are differences between countries. But trying to hit IS with all internal Iraqi and regional means without Iran will leave a significant gap in this area.”

He said that “Iraq needs everyone, Iran, the Gulf states, Turkey and other countries,” rejecting claims that “Iran has the [last word] in Iraq.” He added that Iraq did not ask the Arab countries to participate in the international military campaign on IS on [Iraq’s] territory.

About the internal situation and the political process in Iraq, Massoum said that the participation of Iraqi Sunnis in the government “is not cosmetic, but they are partners in governance,” adding that any guarantees given to Iraqi Sunnis to engage in political participation “are primarily moral and political.” He said that he is now making efforts to narrow the gap in viewpoints between the political parties in Iraq. He stressed that parliament should pass a general amnesty law that excludes those accused of major crimes, saying that the “prisons are not just for Sunnis. Those who claim this are wrong.”

About the Kurds’ participation in the new government, he said that it is a “good participation,” pointing out that the consultations in Iraq will include a dialogue “within days to increase the number of ministers.”

The interview:

Al-Hayat: Let me ask you about the current government. Is the Sunni participation in this government cosmetic or is it really how you want it in the government?

Massoum: It is not cosmetic. If it were cosmetic then it would have included people other than the people who are now in the government, and it would have searched for figures who can take over the Ministry of Defense. The objective is not only [for show], but that they be [real] participants, and not only that, but also partners in the rule.

Al-Hayat: There isn’t a big difference between the Sunni participation in the previous government and in the current government until now. This is what is being said. Do you reject this claim?

Massoum: We must wait and see.

Al-Hayat: From those currently present?

Massoum: Those who are present are good and there is no need to make a premature decision. They may turn out to be excellent when they begin their work.

Al-Hayat: Why is it taking so long to fill the effective ministries. And what is your role personally? Do you have any role in this matter?

Massoum: First, there aren’t many big parties and thus we have blocs. And every bloc has a group of blocs inside it. So there may be difficulties. My role is to try bring the viewpoints closer.

Al-Hayat: What are you doing? Who are you meeting with? How do you bring the viewpoints closer?

Massoum: I meet with the persons who have differences between them. … I will try with this [person] and with that [person], and so on. I will try to bring the viewpoints closer.

Al-Hayat: The big challenge is also in the [international] alliance being made for Iraq. There is a need to convince the Sunni tribes to revive the Sahwa [forces], for example, so that they are the ones who would play an important role against IS. You are not there yet. Can you offer any guarantees?

Massoum: The issue of the Sahwa [forces] is a clan issue, and the clans have many differences over the leadership and on the clan borders. So the idea is that there should be a national guard, in the sense that they are organized and trained, and feel that their loyalty is to the area for whose security they are responsible. The Sahwa [forces] is a [model] that may be useful in certain stages. But for stability, the situation is different. They must be part of the Iraqi defense system.

Al-Hayat: Iraq’s Sunnis want guarantees. Some say “we do not want to give our blood for free, we want to have an active and real role, and [we want them] to really stop excluding us.” What are these guarantees? Can this government or can you provide these guarantees now in Iraq?

Massoum: The guarantees are primarily moral, and therefore political. It is not a real estate deed or [the like]. It is about moral and political obligations, and any political party, when it feels that there are attempts to marginalize it, must take a position from this government and announce its policy.

Al-Hayat: They are not talking only about these moral commitments or guarantees. They are talking about procedural, actual safeguards, such as a general amnesty.

Massoum: These are other demands. A general amnesty is a necessity, but not in absolute terms. Not all those who have been convicted can be released. All cases must be looked at. For example, a person accused of killing young boys cannot be covered by the amnesty. And the perpetrator of major crimes cannot be covered by the amnesty... and so on. But for political crimes, the mere fact that a judge issued a decision in accordance with a terrorism-related clause, the accused gets convicted.

Al-Hayat: The Sunnis are aware of this, but what are you doing to make it a reality?

Massoum: A bill must be submitted. It will not be through government procedures, but we must pass a law in parliament. A bill is submitted to the parliament and after discussions, that law must be passed.

Al-Hayat: Let me tell you what I heard from a number of Sunnis in Iraq. They say that they are not willing to be a party to fight IS without the picture being clear. They want these safeguards and procedures, in a clear way and beforehand, not after fighting IS.

Massoum: First, as I said, the safeguards are ethical, moral and political. Releasing the [prisoners], but [not all of them], in an objective way is possible. And this is their natural right. But those who are putting conditions to fight IS … I do not think they are right. IS [must be fought] before anything.

Al-Hayat: How can you [defeat] IS without the participation of the Sunnis of Iraq in this war?

Massoum: But this is not the position of all Sunnis.

Al-Hayat: Even if it were a large part?

Massoum: But the Sunnis are demanding a general amnesty, according to the justifications they are giving that many of their sons are in prisons. There must be a general amnesty, and this is natural. We are in Iraq. The Kurdish side has at many times entered into negotiations with the ruling authorities and the first procedure we asked for was a general amnesty for those arrested and detained. Even those who were sentenced to death have been released. This is a natural right to them. There are not only Sunnis in the prisons and detention centers. This is another point we need to take into account. There are Shiites, Kurds, and there are Christians and others. The prisons are not only meant for the Sunnis. Their claims don’t match reality.

Al-Hayat: It is clear that there is reluctance, a lack of confidence or foot-dragging to restore confidence after what happened in Iraq. The Sunnis of Iraq, or many of them, started feeling that they are victims of exclusion. They need to have more than just a general amnesty. They are at the center of any war on IS. Right?

Massoum: How?

Al-Hayat: Meaning, for example, can the coalition or the Iraqi government win the war on IS without the [full] participation of the Sunnis of Iraq and the neighboring governments?

Massoum: The Sunnis are certainly citizens. It is necessary for Iraqi citizens, before any other party, to agree, decide and have a unified position. This is a natural thing. As for the other countries in the region, this is a secondary matter.

Al-Hayat: Let’s separate them. Let me ask you what is your personal assessment? What is the scenario in your mind to get rid of IS?

Massoum: Through a series of initiatives, first militarily, and second to expose IS intellectually, as IS has no intellectual basis. Third, by bringing the viewpoints between different people closer. There are Sunnis in favor and Sunnis [against]. Some of them perhaps support IS to hit the other side. This is the truth. Everyone feels the reality of IS and that IS is not a defender of the Sunnis.

Al-Hayat: Fine, let’s say that. This is not a road map, Mr. President. This is merely an overall picture. What is the road map to get rid of IS?

Massoum: The road map is first and foremost the unity of the Iraqi position, and the unity of the Iraqi position is not built on mere words, but on practical steps as I indicated. It is imperative that there be a sense of participation in governance. After that, the second step is the declaration of a general amnesty, but not in the absolute [sense]. … Third, to work to bring the viewpoints closer and to [reduce] the differences between the political factions and between some tribes and address all of these matters. From here we start … and I think that we will succeed.

Al-Hayat: So, let’s move to the neighboring countries. Do you agree with the opinion of the neighboring Arab states on the need to exclude Iran from the alliance, which is under US leadership?

Massoum: We are not in favor of attempts to exclude Iran. It has helped us in hitting IS with weapons, as well as with humanitarian aid, from the first day. We have a common border with Iran of about 1,000 kilometers [621 miles], and we cannot dispense with it and believe that we can isolate it. It is necessary that [Iran] has an effective presence in the regional attempts to hit IS.

Al-Hayat: So you don’t care about the position of the Gulf states, which are protesting the Iranian role in support of the regime of President [Bashar] al-Assad in Syria and accuse Iran of being a party to this war for the benefit of the regime and at the expense of the Syrian people? You, in Iraq, don’t care about this matter?

Massoum: What is important for us now is to hit IS.

Al-Hayat: At any price?

Massoum: Why [do we want to] hit IS? Because the danger of IS threatens everyone, not just Iraq. IS must be hit. But if we left IS to frolic in Syria and to seize town after town, this means that we haven’t done anything.

Al-Hayat: Mr. President, there is a need for important Iranian political positions toward the Arab states, Iraq and Syria in particular. Don’t you see any logic in the position of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in this matter?

Massoum: There is a difference in viewpoints between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as other countries. It is normal when some countries have differences. But the attempt to hit IS by all internal and regional means without Iran, I think will leave a big gap in this area. Iran must be present. I think that the fundamental difference now between Iran and the United States is only the nuclear file. The US secretary of state told us that they do not want to hit Iran and that they only disagree with Iran on the nuclear file. If the nuclear file is treated, then this means that a lot of things in the region will be addressed.

Al-Hayat: Our information says otherwise. Our information is that the United States is now raising, even in the nuclear talks with Iran, the issue of Iran’s regional ambitions. The question is, if you see that Iran must have a role with you to hit IS, then what if the Gulf Arab states tell you “move without us as long as you insist on Iran’s role?” What will you do then?

Massoum: We are talking about Iraq. Iraq needs everyone. It needs Iran, the Gulf states, Turkey and other countries. But we do not jump over the situation in Iraq and move on to the regional conditions and regional relations. We are interested in Iraq first and then we move on to the regional relations.

Al-Hayat: Even in Iraq, Mr. President, Arab countries and Arab peoples have reservations about intervening in the war against IS for the benefit of the Iranian position, whether in Iraq or in Syria.

Massoum: But why is it in the interest of Iran?

Al-Hayat: Because, for example, if you look at the Syrian situation, if you hit IS without taking any position regarding the government of Assad, then the matter would clearly appear to be a victory for the regime in Damascus at the expense of the opposition. This is contrary to what is at stake in the minds of Saudi Arabia or the United States, according to what Washington is saying.

Massoum: If we accept this matter, this means that IS would remain in Syria, and take over the rule from Assad or anyone else. The Russian and Chinese positions would be supportive of IS [in that case]. I do not agree with this view.

Al-Hayat: Let me try again to [discuss] with you this subject. It is clear that Arab states, which you need in your war on IS, have reservations concerning Iran’s regional role. It seems that you are not upset about Iran’s role or regional ambitions.They are represented by the presence of the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard [Corps], led by Qasem Soleimani, in Iraq or in the need for the presence of Hezbollah in Syria.

Massoum: I said that what I care about is Iraq. I do not want to win one side and lose another that is more powerful and more influential and with longer borders with Iraq. How will we benefit if we entered this subject. We, as Iraq, are moving inside Iraq’s borders. Inside Iraq’s borders, we need everyone. We need Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and we need Turkey and Iran, and everyone.

Al-Hayat: Have you heard anything about the meeting that took place between Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister and Iran’s foreign minister? They agreed that [Mohammad] Javad Zarif would visit Saudi Arabia soon. Do you have any other information on what they agreed on?

Massoum: [I don’t have] accurate information. But I know about this matter and I think it’s an excellent step.

Al-Hayat: Do you have any particular [vision] on what the Arabs want from Iran regarding Iraq specifically?

Massoum: What is being said is that Iran has [the last word] and such and such. … It is not this way.

Al-Hayat: Then in what way is it?

Massoum: Iran, as I said, has this long border with Iraq, and there are historical relations between both countries. I also think that there is a very important point: the Shiites, when they feel that they are marginalized in Iraq, as they were in the past, and don’t find any country in the region that would take care of their matters, will obviously enter in contact with this state. For example, the Shiites in Iraq, [when they were in] the opposition, used to find protection only in Iran, which certainly affects relations.

Al-Hayat: Would you be comfortable, for example, with the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on Iraqi territory?

Massoum: If it was with the consent of the Iraqi government to strike IS, I do not mind. But according to my knowledge, there is no agreement with Iran to date, and its presence in the region may be in its capacity as mujahedeen, and that was discussed in parliament and in political meetings.

Al-Hayat: We have heard that the commander of the Quds Force Qasem Soleimani has returned to Iraq after he left it in the wake of the resignation, or the removal, of [Nouri] al-Maliki. Is this true?

Massoum: “It was said … It was said.” But until now, the fact is that they saw him here or they saw him there. I personally met him only once in Iran.

Al-Hayat: Let me clarify the issue of the Revolutionary Guards. They are now present [in Iraq] without an official agreement with the government.

Massoum: There is no official agreement with them and I do not think that they are present now.

Al-Hayat: You do not think so?

Massoum: I do not think so. There are many [elements] in all areas, whether against Iran or to support Iran against Arab countries or in the interest of Arab countries … and so on.

Al-Hayat: We know that France and the United States are doing aerial bombardment on IS in Iraq. Is there any talk that others will participate in the airstrikes? Will any Arab country participate in these air operations?

Massoum: Until now, no.

Al-Hayat: Which countries are looking to participate? You said “until now.” Which countries are under consideration?

Massoum: We did not find an Arab country that agreed to participate in hitting IS from the air.

Al-Hayat: Did you ask?

Massoum: We didn’t ask, but there is a strategic agreement with the United States and France, whose planes are now participating [in the airstrikes]. Last Thursday [Sept. 18], a meeting of the three presidencies was held — the president of the republic, the prime minister and the head of parliament — and we issued a statement emphasizing that we accept these invitations or the preparations of these countries, provided that they do not affect our political independence and that the matter is not contrary to the constitution.

Al-Hayat: Who will finance the coalition operations in Iraq?

Massoum: The participating countries. They did not ask us for anything.

Al-Hayat: Why is the Iraqi prime minister coming [to New York] when you are present here as the president of the Iraqi Republic? Why was it decided that Haider al-Abadi come to New York to participate in a session of the [UN] Security Council chaired by President [Barack] Obama?

Massoum: As prime minister, he can attend and I can attend. He can attend meetings in his capacity as prime minister and this is his right. But regarding Iraq’s speech and the ceremony at the headquarters of the United Nations, all that will be handled by the president.

Al-Hayat: Turkey’s position is almost a non-position. Where does Turkey stand with regard to the Iraqi events specifically?

Massoum: I think that after those whom IS was holding returned to Turkey, Turkey now has its hands free and is able to have a role in attacking IS and hit it.

Al-Hayat: The arms to the Kurds are coming through Baghdad now. Why don’t they go directly to Erbil?

Massoum: To make sure that these weapons, which are intended for the Kurds, are not secret but are coming with the knowledge of the federal government.

Al-Hayat: Were the Kurds put in the forefront of the war on IS? Is this [an attempt] to drag the Kurds into getting involved?

Massoum: No. The Kurds are defending themselves. Kurds are like Christians, they are a community. The Yazidis are like the ingrained Kurds in the region.

Al-Hayat: How are the Kurds participating in the Iraqi government?

Massoum: A good participation.

Al-Hayat: Are you satisfied with it?

Massoum: But in a matter of days there will be a dialogue to increase the number of ministers only.

Al-Hayat: When will the preparations for this government end? The whole world is waiting for it and is meeting to support it while it does not exist yet?

Massoum: Only the ministries of Interior and Defense are the problem.

Al-Hayat: These are two important ministries.

Massoum: True, but there is a difference …

Al-Hayat: What? Explain to me what is happening.

Massoum: Many people want to take over the post of interior minister. Others want the post of defense minister. Every name that is being proposed to parliament must have a CV for each candidate to find out who this person is and whether he can do the work, and this takes time. Also, there are no large parties in many parts of Iraq, but gatherings, which are groupings of individuals. And some of them are small blocs and they have differences between them; each want to have this ministry and the like by virtue of the elections and so on. These differences are normal.

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