Iraqi PM talks Iran, IS and Saudi Arabia

Al-Hayat conducted an interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who addressed Iraqi-Iranian relations and their fluctuations in light of Islamic State attacks, and the Saudi Arabia issue, among other regional files.

al-monitor Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (L) and Iraq's Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi attend a ceremony marking Iraqi Army Day in Baghdad, Jan. 6, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Ahmed Saad.

Topics covered

war, united states, mosul, islamic state, iraq, iran, haider al-abadi

Jan 21, 2015

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stressed that Baghdad is no longer in the danger zone of the Islamic State (IS), which had plans to expand southward but withdrew toward Kurdistan after it met fierce resistance. He warned that no army would be able to confront IS should this organization continue to attract and involve thousands of young people in its project. He pointed out that Iraq's Sunnis are the first affected by the IS emergence and wars.

Abadi said that the threat posed by IS has led to a change in the priorities of several countries, and noted that the fight against terrorism has been prioritized over the removal of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, as the insistence on his removal has receded or been postponed.

Abadi disclosed that the Iraqi authorities have “urged” the United States and Iran to spare Iraq from being the arena of the differences between them, and expressed his belief that the two parties are moving toward an agreement on the nuclear issue despite the continuing difficulties.

Abadi expressed his satisfaction regarding the improvement of Iraq's relations with regional and international parties. He criticized those who view Iraq as an Iran affiliate and Shiite country. He said that the drop in oil prices has left disastrous effects on several countries, including Iraq. But he pointed out that Iraq is not a bankrupt country and it has potential.

Al-Hayat interviewed Abadi in Baghdad, and Mushreq Abbas, head of Al-Hayat's office in Iraq, took part in the interview.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Hayat:  How would you summarize the security situation in Iraq today?

Abadi:  It is hard to describe the situation in Iraq in limited words, but there were some real challenges, and we have overcome some, while we are still facing others. The biggest challenge we faced at the security level was in Baghdad.

Al-Hayat:  Was Baghdad indeed threatened with falling in the hands of IS?

Abadi:  No. But a war could have started in the streets of Baghdad. This risk has been entirely removed there, and this is the first challenge. The other challenge is that we managed to stop IS from progressing toward the south, and the group is currently retreating. For example, IS was not planning on heading toward Erbil, Kurdistan, but when it found the road closed to the south, it headed east. The IS challenge still exists, but the organization’s ability to expand has eroded. IS has two main aspects. The first is the terrorist groups, which carry out terrorist operations like a non-formal army, and the second is the statelet or semi-state that owns institutions, money and the regions under its control. This is serious, and we have a good plan to confront it.

We are certainly facing other challenges, most notably the limited potential, as it is known that a large part of the strength of our army collapsed with the IS occupation of Mosul. This led us to lose a lot of weapons and equipment. Moreover, the psychological collapse is the largest and most important [aspect]. Any state where such a collapse happens could suffer from serious social repercussions. Even in southern Iraq, where IS does not exist, we have seen that the military leadership was suffering from the people's view of it, and some leaders have been subjected to insults and accusations of not defending the country. But we have overcome this issue by changing some of the leaders, restructuring some army units and involving new military commanders in the fight alongside the soldiers. We have offered martyrs from the military leaders.

Al-Hayat:  Were you personally surprised by the collapse of the military?

Abadi:  Who wasn’t? The surprise was enormous, especially as IS did not face any confrontation. IS managed to take control through a major psychological war that lasted for months with the help of other groups within the military and security institutions. I personally believe that this was caused by an enormous intelligence defect, not only in Iraq, but even in Western countries, such as Europe and the US. These countries possess large intelligence agencies. Yet still, they did not feel the size of the danger.

Al-Hayat:  Did these forces receive an order not to fight?

Abadi:  An investigation is ongoing, but the issue is sensitive. We are in a state of war, and the fighting with IS is ongoing. In such an atmosphere, no investigation would be fair or impartial because the politicians will use it for recriminations. Once we are done with the Ninevah liberation issue, the truth will emerge. We have some information about what happened, some of which is not a secret since we all know that the political conflict is partly responsible for the events.

Al-Hayat:  Is the political conflict responsible for the collapses?

Abadi:  Certainly, when military forces are deployed in Mosul to defend it, and when these forces are accused, due to instigation by some Mosul politicians, of being foreign troops that should leave the city or be attacked, then the military gets demotivated to continue fighting, as the military finds no motive to continue fighting in a country that lacks political consensus on the defense of its cities.

Al-Hayat:  Was repelling IS impossible without the participation of US troops?

Abadi:   No, it was not impossible, and the evidence is that IS was repelled even before the US military intervention, which was delayed for months. I think the main factor that contributed in their repelling was the Iraqi citizens’ rush to defend their country. Moreover, the fatwa issued by Sayyed Ali al-Sistani played a big role, as the number of volunteers fighting was enormous, and some of the volunteers brought their weapons from their homes. Some of them went to fight with simple equipment. It must be clearly pointed out that some Iraqi brigades and regiments have resisted despite the collapse of other units, which inspired the rest of the troops and the citizens.

Al-Hayat:  Was it the US or Iran that took the initiative to help Iraq first?

Abadi:  Iran was the first. Since the first week, it established an air bridge for the transfer of weapons to Iraq, Kurdistan and Baghdad, and this was not a secret. Iran and Iraq have common interests in the war against IS. I have no doubt that Iranians are honestly defending Iraq as the IS threat goes beyond Iraq, which is a real danger to Iran. If this organization managed to reach the Iranian border, either through Kurdistan or across Diyala, huge areas of Iran would have been shaken. This quick Iranian intervention to help Iraq was a strategic issue, and it happened so quick that there was no understanding on the payment modality for the Iranian weapons given the seriousness of the situation.

Al-Hayat:  Did the Iranian air force participate in the bombing operations over Iraq?

Abadi:  According to my knowledge, no. There were three violations of the Iraqi airspace by the Iranian air force, one in August 2014 and two in November, by reconnaissance planes.

Al-Hayat:  But was there no Iranian shelling operations?

Abadi:  We did not register such operations. Following the media hype about an Iranian shelling, I requested the Iraqi air defense to conduct a survey, and no shelling was registered. The last violation by the Iranian air force was on Nov. 23, 2014, and we submitted a formal objection to Iran in this regard. We did not ask the Iranians for an air force intervention to hit Iraqi sites.

Al-Hayat:  Some say Iraq faces US planes in the air and Gen. Qasem Soleimani on the ground?

Abadi:  It is no secret that there are US, British, French, Australian and German advisers and trainers along with Iranian advisers. For example, nowadays, we are cooperating with the United Arab Emirates to a great extent, as well as with Jordan. The Jordanians have offered Iraq all of their intelligence, security and military capabilities and proposed to participate in the war through direct aerial bombardment of IS, but until this moment we did not ask for any help from neighboring countries in terms of aerial strikes, and we certainly did not ask any state to make a ground attack.

Al-Hayat:  Is there a presence of the Iranian ground forces in Iraq, given that Iran announced the death of officers who were killed in Iraq?

Abadi:  They are not fighters. There are no foreign fighters in Iraq. There are Iranian advisers, some of whom fell as a result of mortar shells, especially in Samarra.

Al-Hayat:  We read in some newspapers that Soleimani was wounded in the fighting in Samarra?

Abadi:  I heard such rumors in the media, but I think this was denied by Iran. Moreover, there are no current military operations in Samarra and the last military operation happened two weeks ago. I do not deny that the man [Soleimani] goes back and forth to Iraq. Everyone knows this. Iran is providing services in the field of security cooperation with Iraq, and we welcome this initiative.

Al-Hayat:  So, the news is not true according to your information?

Abadi:  If it were true, I would have been notified by our security forces and through our data, but this did not happen.

Al-Hayat:  Iraqi regional relations are witnessing a clear improvement, and there is an impression that your visit to Egypt was successful. What do you have to say about that?

Abadi:  Our visits to all states were successful. We were welcomed and there were interactions. The visit to the UAE was very successful. This was also the case for the visits to Kuwait, Jordan, Iran and Turkey. Yet I have an observation regarding Turkey on the strategic level. Turkey is the only country that feels it is facing two threats, of equal importance, the first by the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] and the second by IS. And this is a problem for Iraq.

PKK militants are based in northern Iraq and in Syria, and they are fighting IS alongside the Kurdish peshmerga forces. The forces that fought and survived in the Sinjar area are mainly affiliated with the PKK.

We told the Turks that the PKK helped Iraq in several ways and they had a distinguished participation on the human level. When Yazidis in Sinjar faced the massacre, the PKK forces helped move many of them through a gap across the Syrian border and into Dohuk. They are fighting alongside the peshmerga forces in Sinjar.

The Turkish side believes that the PKK is a real threat to the security of Turkey, and sometimes it thinks it is greater than the risk of IS. This may explain the lack of enthusiasm by the Turks to join the international coalition against IS. However, they expressed to us their support for this war, and offered to train our troops and provide us with weapons. Negotiations are underway in this regard.

Our visits to all regional countries opened up many possibilities. We say clearly that we have already announced our strategy regarding our relations with regional countries. I did not go to these countries to solve problems with them, but rather to start positive relationships. Some accumulated problems need time to be definitively resolved. Yes, we are planning steps toward solutions, but we will not wait until all problems are solved to have positive relations with the region and the world. We can start with creating positive relationships and setting a time mechanism for the resolution of pending issues. Today, we do not have any problem with Kuwait, for example, with the exception of the compensation issue. This matter was supposed to be resolved, but we asked our brothers in Kuwait to postpone reimbursement for a year given the financial situation of Iraq, and Kuwait agreed immediately.

With respect to Iran, we still have some pending issues ensuing from the Iraq-Iran war. The borders are not definitely set. We have not yet completely finished the demarcation of the Altaluk line in the Shatt al-Arab. Yet the positive sign is that the Iranians have made us a generous offer and told us that the borders will be demarcated in light of the Iraqi data and not the Iranian data, including the borders of Shatt al-Arab.

Al-Hayat:  Is there actually a problem called "Iran's management of the Iraqi matter"?

Abadi:  I will be candid on this point. Our relationship with Iran is strong for several reasons. The first is geographical, as we share the longest border, and another is demographic, as the Iraqi population density is concentrated in the east adjacent to the Iranian border. This has created over the years a cultural intertwining. Moreover, Iraqi security is correlated with Iranian national security. Iran fought with Iraq a war that lasted for years and that was devastating to both sides. The Iranians still fear the Iraqi situation will head once again in the same direction that led to this war. … It is well known that Saddam Hussein would not have been able to continue the war if it weren’t for Arab and Western support. Iran still feels apprehension and fear of a repetition of this previous situation. Thus, the Iranians will probably take further steps, such as disagreeing with Iraq on the position of the international coalition against IS.

Al-Hayat:  Do you disagree with Iran on this point?

Abadi:  Certainly, we have strong relations with the US and Western countries and we have a high level planning in terms of airstrikes and training. This is seen by Iranians as a threat. This is why we told our brothers in Iran that this is not their right, but it is rather our natural right and an Iraqi internal affair. We cannot allow the use of Iraqi territory against Iran, as the international coalition stands beside Iraq against IS and not against any neighboring country. This is known and the coalition is not against Syria despite the disagreements between the international coalition and the regime there.

However, I believe that despite our strong relations with Iran, we will not allow it to interfere in our internal affairs. Iranians have their interests and we have our own. There is a difference between having common interests and between having the Iranians interfere in internal Iraqi affairs. We aim at having common interests with our neighboring countries and all regional countries.

Al-Hayat:  Are you planning to visit Saudi Arabia?

Abadi:   I did not receive an invitation to visit Saudi Arabia. The president of the republic was invited and he did, and so did the foreign minister, who visited Saudi Arabia in the first month of the formation of the government. During the first meeting of the Iraqi government on Sept. 10, two issues were put on the agenda: the first was the governmental program, which the parliament voted on, and the second was our visits to regional countries. The foreign minister will begin by visiting Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with all due respect to other countries. We are keen on strengthening our relations with Saudi Arabia, and the visit of President Fouad Massoum was excellent, where he met with His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, and the Saudis expressed a desire to cooperate with Iraq in all fields.

A few days earlier, a Saudi diplomatic delegation came for the opening of the embassy. There was a time issue in the construction of the embassy, so the delegation asked to find a location and we did. The Saudi foreign minister had already asked me this during my meeting with him in Brussels.

Al-Hayat:  How was the meeting with Prince Saud al-Faisal?

Abadi:  It was very positive. He said, “Provide a location for the embassy and we will come to Iraq.” Indeed, we found a new location for the Saudi Embassy within a week and a delegation came and approved the embassy’s location.

Al-Hayat:  And the plan to visit?

Abadi:  I believe a higher-ranking delegation should first arrive to open the Saudi Embassy and invitations should then be sent out. After that, we will visit Saudi Arabia.

Al-Hayat:  What about the phone call you had with the crown prince?

Abadi:  It was also positive. It was regarding the attack on the border crossing, which resulted in about four martyrs and four wounded Iraqi border guards. There were several narratives about this incident; the Iraqi one confirms that the attack was from both the Saudi and Iraqi sides, and that the attacking force came from al-Ratba, across the desert, and we believe that IS was trying to control the border of the two sides. It was an attempt to prove the group’s ability to threaten the border between the two countries. This is part of IS’ tactic to prove that it poses a threat to the region, and it tried to do the same with the border points with Jordan but it did not succeed. This emphasizes the importance of cooperation between Iraq and Saudi Arabia to combat terrorism, and I agreed on this with the crown prince during our call.

Al-Hayat:  Is Syria an obstacle to Iraqi-Saudi relations?

Abadi:  We did not feel that way during the meetings between the two countries. The Syrian crisis might be an obstacle for Iraq’s relations with Turkey, but not with Saudi Arabia.

What we witnessed today was a setback in the positions of all parties regarding the Syrian issue. Syria was supposed to be part of the Arab Spring, but we reached the Arab Destruction, and this is a complete disaster. There is more than one angle to look at the situation in Syria, and there is talk of a repressive, totalitarian and non-democratic regime in this country, and others are talking about a national opposition wanting to liberate Syria from the regime's repression. A third side believes that the Syrian regime is a secular system, and that it is fighting an extremist opposition. The current general trend is that IS is the most dangerous group in Syria, not the regime.

Al-Hayat:  Do you mean that there is a decline in the demand of ousting the Syrian regime?

Abadi:  This is clear. The Western position is clear in terms of the existence of a fundamental change. In the past, the theory was to contain this crisis inside the Syrian border; it may slightly cross the border but it cannot expand and turn into a threat to the entire region’s security.

It has become clear today that the real danger of IS has not been fully absorbed by others. IS’ ability to brainwash the young minds within a short period, as happened in Iraq, is a horrible criminal ability. IS re-programmed the minds of a significant number of young men and women. The youth love life and look forward to it by nature, but IS tried to make it look forward to murder and destruction. It starts with destroying families, tribes and then entire cities, which is a scary ability. Frankly, I believe if IS was able to recruit enough people, no organized army could ever stand in its way.

Al-Hayat:  Are you waiting for a US-Iranian understanding? Personally, do you think the US and Iran are on their way to reaching an agreement?

Abadi:  This issue is probably out of Iraq’s control. However, we care about the two countries working on supporting Iraq in its war against IS, and both these countries do not want to clash with Iraq.

Al-Hayat:  So you encourage a “tango” between the US and Iran in Iraq?

Abadi:  This comes within our best interests. I spoke with President Barack Obama and Iranian officials, and our position was clear. We have interests with both sides. We “pleaded” with them both not to clash in Iraq if they were serious in supporting it.

Al-Hayat:   And they did not clash?

Abadi:  No, they have not so far. We told both of them that we can fight IS alone, even if this would take us more time and cost us more victims. We welcome their help, but we do not want to face new problems, which would turn Iraq into another battlefield.

Al-Hayat:  What did you feel when you saw the American and Iranian foreign ministers walk side by side as friends?

Abadi:  [Laughing] I did not believe animosity could turn into friendship all of a sudden. However, there are undoubtedly many common points between the two. We can also say that IS' presence has changed the equation a lot.

Al-Hayat:  Do you feel that Obama would choose to compromise with Iran?

Abadi:  I have information, not only a mere feeling.

Al-Hayat:  Did he talk with you about it?

Abadi:  Of course, Obama is keen to settle things with Iran completely. Americans have many concerns regarding many issues in Iran, aside from Iraq, including the regional and nuclear matters. However, I believe that the US is seriously considering to settle matters with Iran, and the strange thing is that I sensed that the Iranian side is on the same page.

Al-Hayat:  Do Iranians want to have a final compromise with the US?

Abadi:  Yes. This was not optional three to four months ago. Both parties were cautious, and they still are. But today Iran is well aware that the US is serious in reaching an agreement, which can be achieved if there is trust. In my opinion, such agreement would not be easy to achieve as there will be a lot of complications.

Al-Hayat:  What is the impact of the falling oil prices in Iraq?

Abadi:  The decline of oil prices has adversely affected all oil-producing countries, especially Iraq. Iraq, unlike the Gulf countries, does not have oil reserves or infrastructure, as it has been preoccupied with wars and economic blockade for decades. Now after the Baath Party has left power, Iraq is now fighting against terrorists and thus we need the oil money to rebuild what has been destroyed. We depend on oil in our budget by 85% to 90%, as we have yet to build an economy in parallel to the oil fields as other countries have managed to do. Thus, we have been doubly affected by the decline of oil. This is a “catastrophe” that may affect the lives of people. Nevertheless, Iraq is not a bankrupt state, but is going through a financial crisis this year and partly in the next year. Eventually Iraq has potential.

Al-Hayat:  When you read or hear something about the Shiite crescent, what do you feel? Is Syria no longer a part of this crescent?

Abadi:  This is part of the sectarian buildup in the region. There is a regional conflict. The conflict in Syria is essentially a regional conflict that has taken the form of an internal, regional and international struggle, during which all kinds of weapons are being used. Sometimes, Iran is blamed for all this, which is very dangerous, as it reflects some sort of a “phobia” of dealing with Iran. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Iraq is “Shiite” and therefore it is affiliated with Iran, as people fail to see Iraq’s “Sunni side.”

Al-Hayat:  Do you truly believe that some people believe Arab Shiites are automatically affiliated with Iran?

Abadi:  This is the result of the sectarian tension in the region. Perhaps there is a project to send the region down a deeper pit of national, religious and sectarian conflicts. Thus, our duty is to tone down the sectarian rhetoric as much as possible. Iraq has a unique position. We are bordering two major Muslim non-Arab countries, namely Iran and Turkey, in the north and east, as well as Arab Muslim countries in the west and south. It is our destiny to have a Turkish Muslim extension, a Muslim Iranian extension and an Arab extension.

Al-Hayat:  Do you have any information about Izzat al-Duri’s whereabouts? Is he a ghost wandering around in Iraq?

Abadi:  I do not think he is in Iraq. Had he been in Iraq, he would have been arrested long time ago. I think he is in another country.

Al-Hayat:  After 2003, suicide bombers have escaped from prison.

Abadi:  True. It is a real problem. I want to add something else regarding the US prisons. The Boca prison in Basra turned into the largest college graduating terrorists. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a graduate of Boca prison, and the Americans have released him.

Al-Hayat:  Is there any information about him?

Abadi:  Baghdadi was wounded in al-Qaim town [northwest of Anbar] in an Iraqi airstrike, which he miraculously survived. He was there and then he moved to another location. He sometimes stays in Mosul. Yet, he is mostly in Syria, not in Iraq.

Al-Hayat:  Do you think that the West has forgotten the issue of overthrowing Assad?

Abadi:  It was certainly postponed. The project to train the opposition has not even started yet, and it seems that it was developed to persuade the others to keep the status quo. The case is similar to what happened in Iraq. Following the war of Kuwait, the Americans claimed that they support the Iraqi opposition. This lasted for 12 years, and nothing happened on the ground, until the regime was ousted.

Al-Hayat:  How are the ties with the Kurdistan region today?

Abadi:  Ties are good at present, and there is coordination in the security, military and economic fields, after we reached an agreement on the budget. We hope for a full commitment on the ground and the delivery of oil to the Iraqi government. This was the foundation of the agreement.

Al-Hayat:  The delivery of oil?

Abadi:  Yes. The budget must include figures, as is the case of the Basra oil. The agreement stipulates that there will be 300,000 barrels per day from Kirkuk, and 250,000 barrels per day from the Kurdistan region.

Al-Hayat:  Is there a chemistry between you and Massoud Barzani?

Abadi:  There is mutual trust. My talks with the Kurdish brothers are very honest, and I told them that if they want to continue as before, in the sense of taking everything they can from Iraq until they reach secession, they need to be clear about it. And if they want to stay in Iraq, we will agree on sharing everything. I'm ready to reach an agreement, provided that it is equitable, and I will not allow myself, as prime minister, to sign an agreement that is not fair for both sides. I think that the agreement we signed is fair and I am defending it. For the first time, the agreement links the delivery of oil to the Kurdistan region's share of the budget. In the past, the region took its share of the budget and did not deliver oil. We reached a deadlock. The previous government was forced to stop paying dues to the region. The new agreement is based on the foundation that oil is the property of the Iraqi people, and the region has a share in the budget.

Al-Hayat:  Have you met with Barzani after you took office as prime minister?

Abadi:  No, I have not met him yet, but we spoke on the phone. We [live] in one Iraq and one country, and I have no problem visiting the Kurdistan region. I visited President Jalal Talabani in the city of Sulaimaniyah, as an act of loyalty, and when there is a chance I will not hesitate to visit Erbil.

Al-Hayat:  Do you feel that Iraq is being emptied of its minorities today?

Abadi:  Minorities have suffered from great pressure, but the fact is that Sunni areas were harmed the most as a result of the killing and destruction after IS attacks. Most of the displaced today are Sunnis, although IS raises the slogan of defending the Sunnis.

Al-Hayat:  Do you fear for your personal security?

Abadi:  I am not afraid, but I'm not reckless either. I do travel around Baghdad. In 2005, I was the coordinator for Tal Afar, and many people warned me to not go, but I did. Those who work in public affairs should assume the risks [that come with it].

Al-Hayat:  Were you subject to an assassination attempt?

Abadi:  The intelligence services told me that there was an assassination attempt, but it did not happen as my itinerary changed. It is part of my duty to assume the responsibility of commander in chief of the armed forces.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Ghassan Charbel