Al-Kadhimi to Asharq Al-Awsat: Saudi-Iranian Talks Were Frank, Comprehensive, Fruitful

Al-Kadhimi during his interview with the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat
Al-Kadhimi during his interview with the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat

Al-Kadhimi to Asharq Al-Awsat: Saudi-Iranian Talks Were Frank, Comprehensive, Fruitful

Al-Kadhimi during his interview with the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat
Al-Kadhimi during his interview with the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat

Saudi-Iranian talks conducted in Baghdad were frank, comprehensive, and fruitful, former Iraqi prime minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi told Asharq Al-Awsat days before Iran and Saudi Arabia announced an agreement to re-establish diplomatic relations in a deal mediated by China.

Considering progress in Saudi-Iranian talks, Al-Kadhimi said: “The Saudi-Iranian dialogue was frank and fruitful, and that is why I expect a soon return to relations between the two countries.”

The former Iraqi head of government noted that the return of Saudi-Iranian relations is in the region’s interest.

“The success of Saudi-Iranian talks helped calm the region. Saudi Arabia is a significant country in the region, and Iran is an important country in the region. They are two Muslim neighbors with many common interests,” stressed Al-Kadhimi.

In his first interview since ending his tenure as head of the Iraqi government, Al-Kadhimi affirmed that some are trying to “demonize and blame” him and his government for all the defects ailing Iraq’s political system for the past two decades.

Al-Kadhimi traced attempts to “demonize” him and his government to the first few weeks of assuming power in Iraq.

“Groups outside the state stood before any action that serves the people… But we remained committed to our people,” affirmed the former premier, noting that the government was later handed over according to the principle of peaceful transfer of power in a much better condition than it was.

According to Al-Kadhimi, the vilification of his government continued even after its term ended.

“There were what could be considered malicious and retaliatory measures that we hope to keep state institutions away from,” he explained.

“We have openly declared that we accept a transparent international investigation into all fabricated and malicious cases,” affirmed the former head of government.

When asked if he could assert that he didn’t get involved in corruption or provide cover for those who did, Al-Kadhimi said: “I am sure that I was not involved in any corruption case, and I did not provide cover for anyone. On the contrary, when an acquaintance got involved in corruption cases and was sentenced, I did not interfere despite all the pressures I was subjected to.”

Revealing that corruption has consumed more than $600 billion of Iraqi funds, Al-Kadhimi said that the money was funneled “to benefit individuals, party and military entities, and regional roles.”

Defending his government against accusations of corruption, Al-Kadhimi said: “Of the total 28 months of my government’s term, I only had a budget of up to 5 months.”

“Corruption was entrenched in the Iraqi state before I came,” he stressed.

Al-Kadhimi blamed all previous governments for involvement in corruption.

“Yes, between 2003 and mid-2020, corruption devoured 600 billion dollars of Iraqi money,” he affirmed, adding that the funds were siphoned into building a deep state and investing in fraudulent projects.

“I have the accounts of the previous governments, what they spent, and what amounts disappeared. Some of the facts in this regard are terrifying and shocking,” noted Al-Kadhimi.

“Money was going to parties, and these parties invested it in establishing a military situation for armed groups in Iraq and outside Iraq,” he revealed.

“During my government, there was no possibility for any dollar to go to finance groups outside the state.”

“My position was strong on this issue, and they know it and keep silent about it, and for this, they harbor hostility towards me.”

“Unfortunately, there are those who want to clean up their bad history in governance, and for this, they blame Al-Kadhimi’s government, which has no party, militia, or parliamentary bloc,” said the former premier.

Al-Kadhimi accused those parties of obstructing the work of his government.

Iraq reverting to its Arab depth while respecting the interests of its neighbors is normal, said Al-Kadhimi, confirming that the Shiite authority in Iraq supports this approach.

“(Ali) Al-Sistani is a supporter of Iraq’s orientation towards its Arab surroundings and the promotion of national identity and the civil state,” he revealed.

Al-Sistani is Iraq’s top Shiite cleric.

“He calls for the integration of Shiite communities into their countries and respect for the ruling laws in any country,” clarified Al-Kadhimi about al-Sistani’s approach in general.

“Iraq was far and receding in its foreign relations. I worked to return Iraq to its Arab surroundings as it is an Arab country par excellence,” he said, while recognizing other ethnicities in Iraq.

“Kurds and others have the right to preserve their identities, but Iraq is ultimately part of the Arab and Islamic worlds,” he affirmed.

“From state to state,” Iraq under Al-Kadhimi sought to build its relations based on respect for mutual interests.

“I worked to rebuild our relations with the Arab world, with the Gulf countries in particular, and with Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and even the distant Arab countries,” asserted Al-Kadhimi.

Regarding Iraq’s relationship with Tehran and Washington, Al-Kadhimi affirmed that his country is committed to its interests and the interests of others based on state-to-state relations and a balance of interests.

Asserting that Iraq comes first, Al-Kadhimi said: “We defend our interests, respect the interests of others and state-to-state relations without subordination.”

Moreover, Al-Kadhimi indicated that he sensed the interest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in deepening and expanding Saudi-Iraqi relations.

“I was the head of the intelligence service, and I conveyed a message from the Iraqi government stating that we have no problem with a particular sect, but our problem is with the takfiris or the terrorists,” said Al-Kadhimi.

“Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s answer was, in fact, a smart answer,” he added.

“We do not deal with politics on the basis of sects, but rather on the basis of common interests and our cultural affiliations,” said the Crown Prince, according to Al-Kadhimi.

“It was a frank meeting during which I sensed his interest in deepening bilateral relations, and a continuous friendship developed between us,” noted Al-Kadhimi about his meeting with the Crown Prince.

“Indeed, I saw in him (Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) an ambitious young man who is concerned about the renaissance of his country and the region and believes in building a modern state that will be part of the civilized world and has its influence and imprint on economic, social and political development.”

Al-Kadhimi further affirmed that the Crown Prince has long supported Saudi-Iranian talks.

Acknowledging that his government had failed to address arms control problems in Iraq, Al-Kadhimi talked about the killings of political activists.

Targeted assassinations were sometimes carried out by elements who infiltrated security services under previous governments, he said.

“The problem is that some previous governments facilitated the entry of groups into state institutions,” noted Al-Kadhimi, adding that disputes arose between him and armed groups in Iraq after he blocked their access to government institutions.

“Unfortunately, all previous governments contributed to including these groups in the Iraqi state.”

Al-Kadhimi also talked about three assassination attempts that targeted him, including a drone attack against his residence.

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The late Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, excelled at delivering messages subtly. In private meetings, he spoke more freely than in public statements or interviews. His chief advisor, Fakhri Karim, often joined these discussions.

Luncheons were lavish, showing Talabani's respect for different opinions, though he rarely followed doctors’ advice.

Talabani believed that Iranian leaders were smart and hoped they wouldn’t try to control Baghdad from Tehran, citing the failed attempt to manage Beirut from Damascus.

He noted that Iraq’s independent spirit makes it hard for the country to follow the US, Iran, or Türkiye. Talabani also admitted giving refuge to 80 Iraqi officers who had fought against Iran, after they were targeted by certain groups.

Talabani praised Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad for his invaluable support, providing accommodation and passports.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim revealed he had warned President Bashar al-Assad, on behalf of Talabani, that militants allowed into Iraq to fight US forces might later turn against Syria.

This, Karim noted, did happen.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, Karim relocated to Damascus. There, he expanded his Al-Mada organization, focusing on publishing, translation, and organizing book fairs, alongside his political activities.

This allowed him to build relationships with top civilian and military officials.

In 2000, after Bashar al-Assad came to power, he met with Karim.

“I felt Assad was eager to listen, especially given my connections with many intellectuals,” recalled Karim.

“I told him dissenting voices exist but are mostly positive. You talk about modernization and renewal; this is a chance for some openness, even in elections,” Karim said he told Assad.

“Do you think anyone could really compete with you, given your position as the Baath Party's leader with all its resources?” Karim questioned.

Karim then discussed the situation of Syrian Kurds with Assad, noting that many lack identification papers, even basic travel documents. He also mentioned seeing historic Kurdish areas in the Khabur region with their names changed to Arabic, which causes sensitivities.

“I am not satisfied with this situation. Rest assured, this issue is on my agenda, and you will hear positive news about it,” Karim cited Assad as saying at the time.

In a later meeting, after the change in Iraq, Karim met Assad several times.

On one occasion, Karim recalls conveying Talabani’s greetings and concerns about armed fighters moving into Iraq and the dangers this posed to both Iraq and possibly Syria.

“We have deployed large forces to secure the borders, but what can we do? There are tribes and smugglers,” Assad complained about the situation.

“I told President Assad that as Fakhri Karim, I couldn’t share with the Americans what I know. I assured him that terrorists enter Iraq from a specific location I’m familiar with, not from all borders,” Karim recounted to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“I also noted that Syria tightly controls its airspace, shooting down any foreign aircraft,” he added.

Assad then responded to Karim and said: “We’re prepared, let us know what we can do.”

In reality, Damascus was worried because there were reports suggesting that Syria’s Baath regime could be the next target for the US army at its borders. Additionally, Damascus was concerned about the sectarian divisions—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish—in dealing with Iraq and the potential impact on Syria.

Repairing Kurdish Relations

Karim has spent years working on repairing the relationship between Kurdish leaders Talabani and Masoud Barzani.

This history began with the split that gave rise to the ‘Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ from the ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party.’

Despite bloody conflicts and external meddling, Karim believes Kurdish leaders unify in the face of danger to their people and region, a pattern he expects to continue.

Karim believes that the Kurdish leadership, symbolized by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, made a big mistake at the beginning by focusing only on regional issues, ignoring Baghdad’s affairs.

He thinks they should have aimed for a federal democratic system that respects citizenship rights.

Karim pointed out that without a unified Iraq, the region’s rights would be uncertain. He also criticized the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which he sees as odd.

Additionally, he mentioned mistakes in failing to unify regional institutions and increasing corruption, with party interests often trumping competence in appointments.

Asked about the personal bond between Talabani and Barzani, Karim said: “Both have moved past their tough history, but they haven’t done enough for the future.”

“I want to highlight an act by Barzani that shows his character. When Talabani was sick, Barzani made it clear to anyone thinking of harming Talabani or his family that there would be consequences,” he revealed.

“This isn’t hearsay, it’s firsthand,” affirmed Karim.

“Barzani also refused to discuss the presidency or a successor during Talabani’s illness. I personally organized a gathering for Talabani’s family, where Barzani reassured them, ‘I’m here for you, I’m family.’ His words moved everyone, showing a strong emotional connection,” he added.

When asked about Barzani’s character, Karim said: “He's been a long-time friend, and our relationship has been politically aligned and personally warm from the start.”

“I see him as a loyal friend, and he's shown that loyalty on multiple occasions. He’s smart, decisive, and listens carefully, often changing his mind after thorough consideration,” he noted.

“Once Barzani commits to something, he finds it hard to go back on his word. There was a moment during negotiations with Saddam Hussein when he stood firm despite my advice to reconsider,” recalled Karim.

Regarding the aftermath of the independence referendum, Karim believes that the negative turn in the political landscape began during Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.

Al-Maliki’s attempts to shift alliances and his refusal to compromise exacerbated tensions.

The referendum itself wasn’t the problem; rather, it was exploited by some to punish the Kurdistan Region.

However, Karim emphasized that holding referendums is a citizen’s right, and the purpose of the Kurdistan referendum was to affirm this right, not to declare independence.