Baghdad is preparing to welcome on Friday Pope Francis I, who will be embarking on a historic visit that underlines “coexistence and tolerance” and highlights Iraq’s efforts to restore the authority of its state institutions and its role in the region and world. Iraq is bracing for a number of developments, starting with how the relations between Iran and the new American administration will unfold. Many believe that the “heated” state of affairs in Iraq can be blamed on the strained relations between Washington and Tehran. How these ties develop or deteriorate will naturally have an impact on the upcoming early elections in Iraq that will reflect the influence enjoyed by parties, factions and the state alike.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi sat down for an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat to address these issues and more. The interview was supposed to be held in Baghdad, but the coronavirus pandemic forced it to be held virtually:
You are preparing for Pope Francis’ first ever visit. How do you view it?
The visit for us and all of our people, without exception, reflects the pope’s understanding and support for the approach of tolerance and national partnership among all Iraqis, regardless of their religious and sectarian affiliations. The visit is a gesture by the pope aimed at highlighting Iraq’s standing, which has been consolidated throughout history as a cradle of civilizations, human heritage, monotheistic religions, cultures and discoveries.
The pope is expected to meet with top Shiite authority Ali al-Sistani. Is this a message that underlines coexistence? Will a certain document be released to underscore this?
One aspect of the visit as a whole is aimed at stressing coexistence between Christians and Muslims, and religions and sects, in spite of the unfortunate developments that had impacted everyone. The visit aims to highlight the positives. An official source from Sistani’s office had previously said that the pope will not sign any document during his meeting with the high authority.
Will the visit pose a security challenge given ISIS attacks and the practices of armed groups? Do all major political blocs welcome the visit?
The government is not facing any fundamental challenges on the security level. The government and security agencies have taken the necessary measures that should secure the Pontiff’s movement and safety. Moreover, he will be protected by the Iraqis wherever he is because the people of Iraq highly appreciate his humanitarian positions. The preparations to welcome him reflect the high standing and regard in which everyone perceives the pope.
You were credited with helping Iraq avoid an Iranian-American military confrontation during Trump’s tenure. Can you reveal some details?
I did nothing more in this regard than what my duty in protecting Iraq and the Iraqis demand. We have repeatedly firmly stressed our rejection of turning our country into an arena for a proxy war or for Iraq to be used as a platform to launch attacks. This is a constant policy that we have sought to consolidate and we have worked on applying it on the ground.
At the same time, we have invested our positive and balanced ties with all sides towards easing tensions and escalation in the region. The fate of Iraq lies in the hands of the Iraqis alone. There is a regional and international understanding of Iraq’s role and standing and its people’s desire that no one meddle in their country’s internal affairs. We have told everyone: We are not an open arena. A strong and united Iraq will act as a positive factor in cementing security, peace and cooperation in the region and world.
I would like to add that the attempt to weaken Iraq or take it out of international and regional equations has had dire consequences on all sides. Even though the world viewed ISIS as a dangerous international threat, the Iraqis on the ground confronted and defeated it through the help of their neighbors and friends.
Our intelligence agencies and security forces all came together recently, uncovering ISIS’ movements, cells, leaderships and hideouts, which they surrounded and defeated. This confirms that the stability of Iraq is necessary for the region and world. This is something we seek to underscore and consolidate.
Do you believe the rocket attacks against the the Green Zone and American bases are part of the vengeance for the killing of [Iranian Quds Force commander] Qassem Soleimani or part of pressure on Washington to lift sanctions against Iran and resume negotiations?
From our end and based on our mutual interests, we believe that the best way to restore normal relations in the region lies in diplomatic consultations and negotiations that can reach balanced solutions that meet everyone’s demands. Those resorting to threats and the use of force will eventually find themselves on the losing end, sooner or later. Such an approach does not benefit anyone, rather it goes against the interests of the peoples of the region and only fuels instability and tensions.
Our security agencies are monitoring outlawed groups that are trying to reshuffle cards through their rocket attacks. Suspects have been detained and they will appear before the judiciary. Our one and only choice is the Iraqi state and respect for its laws, agreements and decisions. Decisions of war and peace are taken by the state alone, not individuals or groups. Any violation of the state will be confronted by the rule of law and the judiciary.
Some sides believe that they can usurp the state’s voice and decision-making power. Those sides are nothing more than outlawed criminals. We will pursue them and uncover their malign goals. In fact, some of those bullying the state, its system, laws and sovereignty now believe their illusions, which were shaped during past circumstances. These circumstances have now changed. We will not allow violations to be committed at the expense of the Iraqi people. Our people’s aspirations dictate our actions and choices. Any other option that contradicts the will of the people will be defeated.
The use of Iraqi territories to deliver political messages is only permissible when they are sent through diplomatic channels and political methods. We are doing this out of the sense of responsibility towards our people and based on our drive to cement calm in the region. We will not allow rocket or terrorist messages. No country has the right to deliver messages to others at the expense of the security and stability of our people. The Iraqi government, people and political forces reject any meddling in their internal affairs.
Where are the relations between Baghdad and Washington headed? Is Iran insisting on the United States’ complete military withdrawal from Iraq? Will NATO replace American forces? Is the American military necessary for you in confronting a possible resurgence of ISIS?
Our ties with Washington are bound by agreements that have been ratified by the legislative authority. These agreements underscore our commitment to our national sovereignty and interests. The presence of American and international coalition forces does not go beyond these agreements. We have reiterated this whenever Iraqi-American ties are discussed.
Iraq needed international help in the war against ISIS. This pushed us to launch the strategic dialogue with the US in order to set the arrangements for the post-war phase. The arrangements are mainly tied to training, logistic support and joint efforts to combat ISIS and terrorism.
Iraq and its government alone decide the fate of foreign forces deployed in their country, regardless of their identity. This decision, which is ultimately about national sovereignty, is not connected to other goals.
How do you assess the improvement in relations with Saudi Arabia on various levels? Will you visit Riyadh soon?
We are keen on establishing the best relations with Arab countries, our neighbors and the world. With Saudi Arabia, we are bound with ties of fraternity, joint history, culture and constant interests. We are satisfied with the development of relations between our countries and the growing tangible business cooperation. Visits are constantly being made by officials from both countries. I also held a successful virtual meeting with my brother Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of the Iraqi-Saudi coordination council. We are in constant contact and nothing but the coronavirus pandemic is impeding mutual visits.
Some sides have spoken of the possible formation of an axis that includes Iraq, Egypt and Jordan. Is this currently on the table? Is this the new “Mashreq” (Orient) that you spoke about?
We are not inclined to join axes or groupings that imply alignment or isolation. We only seek agreements that help promote joint efforts that benefit the interests of our people and countries. It may be beneficial to lay the foundation for model relations with an Arab or regional country without it having to devolve into a negative grouping. We are bolstering our ties with Egypt and Jordan based on this approach.
The concept of the new Mashreq is based on prioritizing the common interests of regional countries and dispelling doubts and illusions. Our region boasts all the factors that allow not only the establishment of joint security, but a system of deep cooperation that would allow us all to translate our human, cultural and natural potential into a productive global cooperation system. This would replace the cycle of crises and conflicts. The cooperation can start by building on common factors and modernizing our way of thinking. Terrorism is the region’s main enemy. Doubts, lack of communication and the neglect of common factors are part of the problems of our region that need to be addressed.
Turning to the future requires the use of the tools of the future, not the past. In spite all of its crises, the region is ready to make this choice.
Do you think that the goal to restore the authority of the state is moving forward despite the assassination of activists, rocket attacks and spread of illegal arms? Do you expect actual results from the early elections?
From the moment this government came to power, it acknowledged that Iraq is suffering from the severe tensions between the state - with all of its elements, values, laws, defenders and supporters - and the forces of the “non-state” - with all of their hurdles and deliberate attempts to marginalize and undermine the state or weaken its ability to protect the people and achieve stability and security.
It is no secret that since the ouster of the authoritarian Saddam Hussein regime, Iraq has endured difficult and complicated circumstances. It was not prepared to meet the aspirations of our people that were calling for completing the process of rebuilding the state and its institutions. Takfiri terrorism, remnants of the Baath regime, the unfortunate sectarian conflict, security chaos, corruption, reluctance to introduce reform and positive change and achieve national unity all prevented the rebuilding of a national state system along constitutional lines.
It is also obvious that some of these factors are still present and still obstructing state work. Financial and administrative corruption are other factors at play. The project to restore state authority primarily requires continued political efforts that connect with all economic, social and military elements. It also needs to establish an environment of social reconciliation and a political desire that can restore the state for all Iraqis. Here, we must stress that the project of building a state is an accumulative process that does not come to a halt over a minor detail.
Early elections are a popular demand that has been expressed clearly by all members of society and has been backed by the top Shiite authority and all political forces – whether out of their own conviction or just to humor the people. Transparent and fair elections are at the heart of our duty in this government. Holding them will help rebuild the trust that has unfortunately grown between the people and state institutions.
The Iraqi government appears caught in a tight spot between Tehran, Washington, the Iranian supreme leader and Sistani. Can Iraq become a normal independent state away from foreign hegemony?
Iraq is destined to become an independent state away from foreign hegemony and the fate of peoples has always been the rejection of foreign dictates. We cannot say that Iraq today is living under international or foreign hegemony. Rather, political circumstances and grave errors that have been committed against the people for decades have helped transform the country into an open ground for ambitions and adventures and excessive extremist violence. The state today is trying to regain its balance and seeking success by imposing this balance against opponents. It is seeking to consolidate positive relations with neighbors and the international community and the spirit of dialogue and national responsibility, which are key to reclaiming the state and rejecting its transformation once again into an open arena for others.
Are the armed factions preventing serious efforts to capture those behind the assassination of activists and thwarting efforts to combat major corrupt figures?
We have made strides in cracking down on and arresting those behind the assassinations. We have also recently captured one of the largest death squads in Basra. Dozens of suspects and fugitives have been arrested for their involvement in assassinations. As we have previously said, the state chooses the right time to wage its battle - which has not stopped - against the assassination, kidnapping, extortion and drug gangs.
We started the battle against corruption with boldness despite the objections and threats that we received. We formed a committee to combat corruption and succeeded in uncovering several acts of fraud. Verdicts and sentences have been issued against corrupt figures who were previously thought to be untouchable.
Our way of achieving the government agenda relies on constitutional mechanisms and the law, away from the politicization of the fight against corruption, criminal gangs and illegal weapons. An unbiased reading of the government’s achievements in a short period of time will clearly demonstrate what has been achieved away from the media spotlight or political debates.
Are you seeking a second term as prime minister? Why haven’t you stepped down as head of intelligence? Have the agencies discovered attempts against your life?
I was chosen to lead Iraq through a very specific transitional phase. I hope that I would succeed in this national mission during this critical time. I will in no way allow the results of the elections to impact this mission. My position allows me to oversee the armed forces. This does not contradict with my continued responsibility towards an important apparatus in its security agencies. What I am concerned about is motivating our agencies to be constantly vigilant in uncovering terrorist cells and forces that want to target the security of Iraq and its people.
Today, I am focused on leading the country towards safety and preventing it from sliding towards a dangerous position that would impact the security, unity and future of our people. My duty before our people and history is focused on protecting the state - today and in the future - against attempts to again put it at risk.
Do you think ties between Baghdad and Erbil are as they should be?
If you want me to compare between the current state of relations and our common aspirations for the ties to develop into national partnership based on the constitution and meeting the demands of our people in Kurdistan, then the answer would be no. The ongoing dialogue between Kurdish Region delegations and the federal government aims to achieve the partnership that we aspire for with our brothers in Kurdistan. We want to achieve the goals of the Kurds as we do the goals of Iraqis throughout the country. The government has helped eliminate differences with the Kurdistan Region. Everything ultimately hinges on what the parliament decides on the budget and other issues.
We believe that meeting commitments in line with the constitution and resolving any dispute with Kurdistan is a primary factor in the recovery of political life, consolidating stability and defeating terrorism and all other forces that want to harm Iraq.
How do you assess the situation in Syria and its impact on Iraq’s stability?
Anything that harms Syria and its people will harm us and the interests of our people. We believe that whatever happens in Syria will impact its surroundings, especially Iraq, whether we like it or not. ISIS still has footholds along our border with Syria. This poses a danger to both our countries and people. This is the primary concern in our bilateral relations.
How do you describe current relations between Baghdad and Beirut?
Our relations with our brothers in Lebanon are good and promising. We are in communication with and sympathize with them in all the efforts they are taking to ease their crisis. We are ready to extend a brotherly helping hand as much as our circumstances allow us.
How much are you concerned with the ongoing Turkish operations inside Iraqi territories?
We are concerned with anything that harms our sovereignty and interests. The positive bonds we enjoy with our Turkish neighbor help ease our concerns. The recent statements by the Turkish president that he wanted to dispel our concern over our relations are reassuring.