Iraqi President Barham Salih stated that American troops had deployed in his country at his government’s request after the ISIS terrorist group swept through Mosul city. The Americans were tasked with empowering Iraqi forces in confronting the extremist threat, he stressed.
The Iraqi ruler sat down with Asharq Al-Awsat for an interview on the sidelines of the weekend’s Arab Summit that was held in Tunisia.
The understanding was for the Americans to arrive in Iraq without setting up permanent military bases or keeping combat units, Salih explained, while saying his country will not be used as platform to harm its neighbors.
Asked about his participation in the Arab Summit as a Kurdish president of Iraq, Salih replied that the Arab League had previously proposed the idea of a national state. Iraq is a multi-ethnic country that includes Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen and Muslims, Christians and many sects.
“There is so much diversity in the region,” he remarked. “The Arab world is not strictly defined by national or ethnic lines. I represent Iraq and it is part of this Arab world. As Iraqis, we have a real interest to be in touch with the Arab world because that also ensures Iraq’s and the region’s interest.”
Commenting on whether he believes that Iraq is the “weakest link” in the Iraq-Turkey-Iran triangle, Salih stressed: “Definitely not. Iraq has endured difficult circumstances.”
“Observers may differ over when the Iraqi crisis began. There are no disputes that the problem started and became worse when Saddam Hussein came to power in 1979. Then the Iraq-Iran war erupted, followed by the invasion of Kuwait, the consequent siege, the 2003 invasion and the emergence of terrorism,” he noted.
“Iraq has not known stability for four decades,” he lamented. “It was used as an open arena for others to settle scores on its territory. These developments destroyed Iraq, its economy and state.”
He described the victory against ISIS as a “major turning point” that would allow Iraq to “make a comeback” in the region.
“We are a part of this region and we enjoy Islamic neighbors, like Iran and Turkey, and also boast the Arab depth that we spoke about,” Salih explained.
“Our vision stipulates that our interest lies in our relations. We need good ties with Iran. We share 1,400 kilometers with it. We also enjoy historic, social and cultural roots with it. The same goes to Turkey,” he continued. “It is in our favor to have good ties based on good neighborliness and joint interests.”
Furthermore, he remarked that the “absence of the Arab role in Iraq in recent years has left an impact on the country. We hope that the Arab role would be effective and serious in Iraq. It will help Iraqis and allow them overcome the challenges.”
“I am optimistic that Iraq will attain its success. I have sensed during my visits to neighboring countries that there is a regional interest to see Iraq prosper and for Iraqis to enjoy stability. These countries may have different direct agendas over various issues, but I believe that Iraq’s success is an issue they can all agree upon,” Salih told Asharq Al-Awsat.
On how realistic his assertions that Iraq will not become part of any regional axis, he stressed that this issue was “necessary”.
“Iraq cannot be a platform to harm any of our neighbors. We absolutely cannot be a part of any plot to target any of our neighbors. It is not in our interest…. This is a conclusion reached after four decades. We are a part of the region. If we want to meet the demands of reconstruction, providing jobs for our youths and providing services, then we must be in complete peace with our neighbors,” he declared.
Relations with Saudi Arabia
Turning to Saudi Arabia, he remarked that ties with the Kingdom are “growing.”
He had paid a visit to the Kingdom in November where he met with Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, and several Saudi officials.
“I sensed from King Salman his complete keenness on Iraq,” stated Salih. He also asserted the need to develop relations with Baghdad, while revealing that a Saudi ministerial delegation will soon visit the Iraqi capital to activate the joint Saudi-Iraqi committee.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Madhi is set to visit Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries in mid-April.
“Bolstering relations with the Kingdom is an integral part of our vision for what Iraq’s ties should be like,” Salih said.
Moreover, he described his talks with Crown Prince Mohammed as “good, frank and direct.”
“He was understanding of the situation in Iraq and the need to allow the Iraqis to overcome the challenges and avoid having the country shoulder issues it can do without.”
Constant contact with Damascus
Addressing Syria’s return to the Arab League, he hoped that it would take place.
“Syria has endured dangerous catastrophes and tragedies. What is taking place there is a horrific humanitarian crime that poses a real danger to regional and international security,” he noted. “After all of these years of violence, it is time to help Syria and its people reach political solutions without foreign dictates.”
“It is the Arabs’ duty to embrace Syria and its people and help them overcome hurdles that are preventing them from reaching political solutions. Iraq has called for Syria’s return to the Arab League, but we have not been able to do so during this summit.”
“The situation in Syria is dangerous. Some believe that the risks have been limited now with ISIS’ defeat. I do not share this view. We must not underestimate the remaining terrorist threat in Syria or the severe humanitarian challenge posed by the displaced and refugees. We have a humanitarian, religious and moral duty to work seriously on pushing matters in the right direction,” Salih emphasized.
Asked if he was in contact with Syrian President Bashar Assad, he replied: “There is constant communication between the Iraqi and Syrian governments. We believe it is necessary.”
He also revealed that Iraq’s national security advisor makes frequent visits to Syria to meet with Assad, underscoring the security cooperation between Baghdad and Damascus to control the border and confront terrorist threats.
Corruption in Iraq
The recent ferry disaster in Mosul has once again shed light on the rampant corruption in Iraq. Salih acknowledged the situation, saying: “Corruption and terrorism were two sides of the same coin. If we do not defeat and seriously confront corruption, then it will destroy us. It is a major problem that has been mounting for four decades due to poor management, wars, violence, foreign meddling and other factors.”
“We are now required to carry out serious measures. This is the national and political challenge that we are confronted with,” Salih remarked, noting that the premier was chairing a higher anti-corruption committee. “The solution won’t be easy, but we have no choice but to confront this problem.”
Asked about the “lost billions” in Iraq, Salih revealed that it was very difficult to make an exact estimate, “but massive funds are definitely being squandered and deprived from the people. Often, these funds end up being employed to prolong the cycle of violence and chaos.”
“I am confident, however, that the government and parliament are serious in confronting this problem,” he said.
Asked about Iraq’s ability to contain militias, Salih said that this issue is being “unjustifiably exaggerated.”
“Let us set things straight. When ISIS seized Mosul in 2014, Baghdad came under threat. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa for jihad at the time and several youths consequently clamored to defend their country. Were it not for the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which was formed at the time, we would have been in imminent danger.”
“It has made great sacrifices and was spearheading the battles to destroy ISIS. The PMF is now fortified by law as part of the state security apparatus. I am not saying that there are no undisciplined elements. Yes, there are as is the case in the army, police, and even the Peshmerga. Dealing with these cases must take place through legal means. We should not generalize and claim that Iraq’s only problem lies in so-called militias,” Salih explained.
Soleimani and Iraq’s voice
On reports that Iraq’s decision-making power effectively lies in the hands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, he stated: “During the age of social media, anyone can turn into an analyst and political expert.”
“I say that Iran is an important neighbor to us and it has helped us against oppression and ISIS. It is true that Iran has influence as does Iraq in Iran. The influence is mutual, but the decision-making power ultimately lies in Iraq and its constitutional institutions, meaning the government, parliament and judiciary.”
“No decision can be taken without taking into consideration the current reality. For example, can France take a purely French decision without taking into consideration Europe, the United States and others? We are a part of this region and our decisions must take into consideration the Arabs, Iran, Turkey and Gulf.”
“Iraq is part of this region and it is in our interest to enjoy good relations with Iran based on common interests,” he added. “We have interests to enjoy good ties with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.”
He noted that Abdul Mahdi had paid visits to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II and Egypt to meet President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, saying that Baghdad has economic interests that benefit the region.
“Indeed, Iraq is turning into a weighty player in the region. If we look back to the past four decades, we realize that it had fragmented the region’s security, political and economic system, which allowed terrorism and foreign meddling to take root in Iraq. In other words, Iraq’s absence from the regional order was a factor in the eruption of chaos.”
“Now, given its geographic and historic position, it can play a central role in restoring the region and opening channels of contacts between countries. The regional order cannot ignore Iran and Turkey and no one can deny Iraq’s Arab roots. The region is therefore, required to review and form a new regional structure for its security and economy and deal with with the dangers of extremism and unemployment.”