Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani announced that Iraq and Saudi Arabia are capable of forming a regional axis that can act as a foundation for stability in the region and world. In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he revealed that he agreed with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister, on a roadmap to develop bilateral relations that would begin with ministerial visits and later the convening of the Saudi-Iraqi coordination council with the aim of carrying out projects over three years.
Sudani stressed that Baghdad will continue to play its role in hosting the Saudi-Iranian dialogue, revealing that a new meeting will be held between them soon.
The PM denied that Iran or the United States had interfered in the formation of his government that has now been in office for a hundred days. “The government was completely formed through Iraqi efforts. I was not influenced in any way, shape, or form by foreign meddling,” he assured.
On how Iraq can deal with both its allies – the US and Iran – given the tensions between them, the PM stated: “We don’t want Iraq to be an arena for settling scores. We are not siding with one party against the other. Rather, we are keen on strengthening our relations based on mutual interests and respect and refraining from meddling in internal affairs.” He added, however, that Iraq’s interests will remain the top priority.
Furthermore, Sudani underlined Iraq’s “pioneering role in the region with its Arab brothers, as well as Iran.” He stressed that “Iraq is destined to be Arab. This is Iraq’s natural state.”
The PM spoke at length about the internal situation in Iraq and the measures his government has taken in regards to administrative and security reforms, combating corruption and reclaiming looted funds.
After a hundred days in office, are you optimistic or skeptical? I won’t ask you if you regret taking on this challenging task.
Of course, I have no regrets because I know the extent of the mission and responsibility. I agreed to be designated as prime minister. I am optimistic. After a hundred days in office, the government is clear in carrying out its tasks and priorities on various levels, whether in its foreign relations or on the local level. Locally, the government has prioritized tackling poverty, creating job opportunities, improving services, carrying out economic reform and combating terrorism.
Has your experience so far confirmed what you have previously declared that corruption in Iraq was more dangerous than the COVID-19 pandemic?
That is why I have called it the “corruption pandemic”. This is the threat that is confronting the Iraqi state. It is more dangerous that COVID-19 and ISIS.
How much money has been squandered after the fall of Saddam Hussein?
I used to follow up on corruption regarding the theft of taxes when I was still a lawmaker. I was hoping that this issue would be the first to have been addressed when I became prime minister, but, unfortunately, the majority of the suspects have fled and helped smuggle the funds outside of Iraq.
According to preliminary calculations by audit agencies, some 3 billion dinars (2.5 billion dollars) have been stolen. Seeking greater transparency, our government contracted an international auditing firm to determine the exact amount that was stolen.
The squandering of funds goes back to 2003. There are no official statistics related to this issue. Corruption takes several forms. It could take place in the operational budget or the investment budget. It can take place outside the budgets, taking the shape of financial and administrative corruption.
It has been said that some 600 billion dollars have been squandered in less than two decades.
Why not 700 or 500 billion? These are estimates and figures, but they don’t give us the real picture. Neither we, nor the audit agencies are capable of giving an exact figure given the several budgets and projects related to investment. What sets this government apart, however, is its insistence on restoring the money that has been looted.
Can the government reclaim funds from powerful figures?
By applying the law, we can. We have kicked off the process and some important politicians have been arrested and looted funds have been reclaimed from them. Unfortunately, corruption can be found everywhere. Among minor employees, where surprisingly, the most damage can be made.
However, we can’t accuse everyone of being corrupt. There is an army of honorable people who have preserved public funds and stood against the corrupt. We must stand by those people and encourage them.
How is it possible that a rich country like Iraq can suffer from frequent power cuts? Is corruption to blame?
Yes, corruption and poor management and planning. In 2003, power production did not exceed 3,800 megawatts. Now, we have exceeded 21,000 megawatts, but that was also accompanied by greater expansion and growing needs. In the past, each house used to boast a fan. Now, each house has air conditioners and various appliances.
We have come across various problems, such as corruption and poor management and planning. In late 2013, just as we had resolved the electricity problem, we were confronted with ISIS and consequently, ended up taking several steps back.
Moreover, another glaring problem is the fact that only 10 percent of electricity taxes are collected throughout the country. This is due to the general attitude in that the people believe the state should assume this responsibility. Another reason is that the frequent power cuts weaken the government position. The people simply refuse to pay taxes for services that are not provided.
In addition, Iraq does not have a culture of power-saving. Whenever the power comes on, the people rush to turn on the air conditioners to cool their homes.
Has the rate of taxation increased?
As of yesterday, taxes have only reaped 600 billion dinars (around 400 million dollars) a year. The figure should be in the billions. On gas alone, we are spending 7 billion dollars a year by importing it from Iran. We are buying electricity at around 2.5 billion dollars. The expenses are massive and the taxes are minimal.
Will Iraq witness a deep reform process?
We have no choice but to carry out economic reform and diversify sources of income. We can no longer solely rely on oil revenues to cover budget expenses. We must look into alternatives, such as agriculture, industry and tourism. We must support the private sector so that it can create job opportunities.
Will unpopular decisions be taken next?
This government is destined to take reform decisions, which are often painful, but they will eventually benefit everyone.
I fear for the interest of Iraq and its people. When it comes to these two issues, I don’t care about my popularity and life. The interest of Iraq and its people are my compass.
What about the issue of the smuggling of dollars that we have been reading about?
After 2007, the central bank took the right step in tackling inflation and addressing the state of the dinar. During the 1990s, when Iraq was under the blockade, we would monitor the rise and fall of the dollar. Fluctuations would impact food prices.
What the central bank did was allow the selling of the currency. The trade mechanism was very common and it should have been revised and regulations should have been introduced. That did not happen and traders would go about reaping as much dollars as possible to transfer them abroad. At one point, 300 million dollars were being sold per day.
Are the dollars being smuggled to Türkiye and Iran?
The smuggling is ongoing all over the world. Several regional countries are witnessing a collapse in their local currency. I won’t go into names, but they certainly need dollars. Some of those complicit in the process here are money exchangers and banks. They are making major profits by selling dollars that are being transferred to neighboring and regional countries.
Are you optimistic that this issue can be addressed?
Yes. This process can be tackled through economic, financial and banking reform in Iraq. We have carried out a series of measures to reform the banking and financial systems according to international standards. The government’s primary concern is maintaining the prices of essential goods and providing them at reasonable costs to the people.
You received a telephone call from US President Joe Biden, who underscored his country’s commitment to the strategic partnership with Iraq. An Iraqi delegation is preparing to visit Washington. What will you ask from the US?
We agree with Biden on activating the strategic framework agreement, which elevates relations between Iraq and the US to economic, cultural, social and educational levels. The agreement is clear and was ratified by the Iraqi parliament. It must be activated. Our ties with the US should not be limited to security aspects, no matter how important they are.
The US is a strategic partner to Iraq and we can benefit from its expertise in improving the situation in Iraq on all levels. The US is a major power and Iraq is tied to it through agreements, the most important of which is the strategic framework pact. We are cooperating in combating ISIS. All political forces have stressed that they support relations between Iraq and all nations as long as it is in its interest. We have an interest in maintaining ties with the US and we don’t mind that.
How does Iraq reach common ground between Iran’s influence and the role of the US?
This is a dilemma that is always on the table. We are dealing with it as follows: Iran is a neighboring country with which we share several religious, cultural and social factors. Iran has stood by the political process from the start and stood by us in the war against ISIS. We are therefore, maintaining this relationship.
Of course, several Iraqi political powers enjoy positive ties with Iran and this is the case in several regional countries. These ties should be positive as long as they adhere to non-interference in the affairs of the other.
As for the US, it helped in the process of change that took place after 2003. The US was part of the international alliance that helped Iraq defeat ISIS. Today, we view the US as a partner with whom we want to develop ties.
Yes, relations are strained between the US and Iran, but this will definitely not take place at Iraq’s expense. We don’t want Iraq to be an arena for settling scores. We are not taking sides against another. We are keen on strengthening our relations according to common interests, mutual respect and refraining from meddling in the internal affairs of others.
Do you fear that Iraq will suffer repercussions as a result of the deterioration of ties between Iran and the West after the former’s weapons emerged in Ukraine?
We always seek stability. This stability won’t happen except through easing tensions. The Russian-Ukrainian war is not only having an impact on Europe, but the entire region. We live in a volatile region that needs more understanding, dialogue and an end to interference. We oppose any interference in any other country in times of conflict because that will only deepen this crisis.
The Russian-Ukrainian crisis can be resolved when meddling by all world countries comes to an end and when both parties come together to hold dialogue. Dialogue is the best way to avert tragedies in these countries and the region.
Iraq has been devastated by wars and blockades. It knows their impact. This is where we are coming from. There can be no solution to crises without dialogue. Foreign meddling will only prolong any crisis.
You are the first prime minister since 2003 to head a government that does not have members of the Sadrist movement. Has a truce or deal been reached with the movement? Don’t you worry that the economic crisis may lead to a revolt of some kind or push the Sadrists to take to the streets?
The Sadrist movement is a main and effective player in the political process, whether it is represented at parliament or government. We respect its decision to withdraw from parliament and we want it to remain active in political life.
A revolt by the movement or youths or any other side is a sign of a failure in implementing our government program and in fulfilling our pledges to the people. Of course, such a failure will be rejected by all segments of society, not just one political party or that.
The current situation cannot tolerate such a failure. The current coalition that formed this government is concerned with and responsible for the current stage in Iraq.
Is the Coordination Framework still pleased with the leanings of your government?
Of course, the Framework is the largest Shiite bloc. It nominated the prime minister to his post. It struck a deal with other blocs to form the government coalition. So, the success or failure of the government will be on the Framework, the government itself and the coalition.
Days ago you met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah. How do you describe the current relationship with Saudi Arabia?
The relationship is good. Everyone is keen on maintaining this relationship given Iraq and Saudi Arabia’s weight on the Islamic, Arab, economic and geographic levels. We can easily form a political-economic axis that can act as a foundation for the region and establish a stable regional system and become a cornerstone for global stability.
Iraq and Saudi Arabia are capable of doing so and we are serious about that. I had discussed this with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and found him very receptive, as usual, and eager to achieve this goal. When I took part in the Arab-Chinese summit in Riyadh, we came up with a work schedule that covers mutual visits.
This was followed by a visit by the foreign and trade ministers to Baghdad. Our ministers also visited Saudi Arabia. Meetings are being held to prepare for holding a meeting of the Iraqi-Saudi coordination council either in Baghdad or Riyadh. All of these issues were agreed with the Crown Prince during our meeting in Riyadh.
I have met Crown Prince Mohammed on a number of occasions when I was a minister and once after I became prime minister. It was during the Arab-Chinese summit that we held bilateral talks.
How to do you view the changes taking place in Saudi Arabia?
It is an experience that is worthy of respect and expertise must be exchanged to benefit from it. Saudi Arabia has taken a significant leap in properly investing in its resources. I witnessed this development firsthand when I was industry minister. I visited Ras al-Khair, al-Jubail and Riyadh. I witnessed the essence of Saudi industry and found that it was advanced and helped in securing a sizable amount of global market needs.
On the political level, Saudi Arabia is playing a major role. The Arab-Chinese summit was a step in the right direction. It is important for Arab and regional countries. We must contribute in easing tensions and regional crises to forge ahead with development and growth, which demand stability.
Can we expect a new round of Saudi-Iranian dialogue in Baghdad soon?
It will be held soon, God willing. At the request of our brothers in Saudi Arabia and Iran, we want the continuation of this relationship, which we view as essential because stability is consolidated whenever views align in the region.
Arrangements are underway for the dialogue to be held soon. We are seeking to raise the level of representation from security officials, to diplomatic ties, sponsored by Iraq. I am personally involved in the process.
Have Turkish-Arab dialogue rounds been held in Baghdad?
We believe they have been restricted to security coordination. We are keen on security coordination with all regional countries given our security agencies’ experience in uncovering terrorist plots. We want to share this information with regional countries. This includes Egypt, Jordan, Gulf countries, Iran, Türkiye and even European countries. Our security agencies have the means of infiltrating and dismantling terrorist cells.
Aren’t you worried about ISIS?
No, ISIS is just a terrified gang that has sought refuge in its dens. We are striking them every day and everywhere. They can no longer hold ground, as they are just four or five mobile groups that are targeting citizens and locations. Work is ongoing to crack down on those terrorists.
Have the security agencies uncovered a plot against your life?
No, they have not.
Iraq is suffering from the spread of illegal weapons. How much progress has the state made in combating this phenomenon?
When we were fighting ISIS, we sought out anyone capable of carrying weapons. ISIS was targeting innocent civilians and villages, cities and neighborhoods. The fight produced various armed factions. After the victory against ISIS, previous governments did not carry out the necessary effort in the security reform process.
Our government has. It issued an order to form a committee, headed by me, to carry out reform at security agencies. Among the top priorities is cracking down on the illegal possession of arms. The weapons must be restricted to security agencies that were formed according to the law. There will no longer be any weapons outside these agencies.
Dialogue will be used to resolve these problems. The predicament is that some sides are tying the possession of their weapons to the presence of foreign forces in Iraq that they believe to be illegal and unconstitutional. Several Iraqis support this view. If the foreign presence is regulated within the constitution and law, then they will no longer have the excuse to carry weapons.
Will the Arab summit be held soon?
Yes, but a date has not been set yet. I believe it will be held in Riyadh.
Will Syria attend?
We hope it will. It is about time that we kick off serious efforts in restoring Syria’s membership at the Arab League. An understanding must be reached because Syria’s stability is paramount to the region. Any terrorist threat against Iraq comes from Syria. Any instability in Syria will impact Jordan, Lebanon and other regional countries.
It is very important to hold dialogue with the Syrian government to help ease the suffering of the Syrian people, who are enduring challenging living and economic conditions.
Iran has accused alleged groups in Kurdistan of playing a role in the Isfahan attack. Are you worried that Iran may carry out any major action in Kurdistan?
This was one of the predicaments that the government has faced. It was also confronted with the violations that have taken place on the Iraqi-Turkish border. These issues have been discussed with Iran. Agreements were reached over having the official federal forces control the border, hand over wanted suspects through arrest warrants, and preventing any group from setting up camp or any armed presence.
What about ties with Syria?
They are limited to the official capacity and I have not visited Syria. No one from Syria has officially visited Iraq since I assumed my post.
Did you know [slain Iranian Quds Force commander] Qassem Soleimani or have you met him?
I would see him at general meetings. He would be part of official delegations at ministries and we would meet.
Has Iran supported your government?
Iran has never interfered in the negotiations to form the government.
You were never contacted by [current Quds Force commander] Esmail Qaani?
Not even the American ambassador?
Not even the American ambassador. The government was formed through a purely Iraqi process. I was not influenced by any direct or indirect meddling. Iraqis are proud of their Iraqiness and no true Iraqi would abandon their principles for others.
You have spoken about the “Arab depth”. Doesn’t that bother Iran?
Never. Iran has no problem with this. Iraq is an Arab nation and has played a pioneering role for hundreds of years. This is our natural role. We are proud of its role because it will help in establishing stability in the region, including Arab countries and neighbors, Syria and Iran alike.
What about interests with the Gulf? Did you discuss this with the Iranians?
Yes, and on the highest levels. Iraq is destined to be Arab. This is its normal position. It will not take on a role that is alien to it.