Interview: Iraqi VP Adel Abdul Mahdi

Dr. Mahdi talked to Monitor correspondent Jane Arraf about upcoming national elections, Iraq's security and economic issues, and relations with Iraq's neighbors.

Monitor correspondent Jane Arraf sat down with Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi to discuss his efforts to build a broad political coalition for upcoming national elections, Iraq's security and economic issues, and relations with its neighbors. What follows is a transcript of their interview. (Related story: Iraq's vice president says Iraq should call on US for security help.)

Regarding the coalition you've formed, I understand there are discussions going on to widen it. Can you tell us about that?

There are still discussions with [Ayad] Allawi, with [Nouri] al-Maliki, with other smaller groups. And the fact that such discussions are taking place, especially the formation of a front later on after the coalition - the next step will be to negotiate, to create a ....united national front that will discuss the platform of the coming government, [the composition of] the government itself and try to be well prepared this time. If those people win, then everything will be ready, rather than discussing things later on, which you know last time caused Iraq four months of delaying, forming the government and agreeing on the platform and the program of the government.

It looks as if Prime Minister Maliki is not going to join your coalition, is he?

No, we don't know yet. Some people confirmed that he will, others say that he wouldn't.

If his demand is 51 percent of the representation, is that something you would consider?

No. This is not acceptable. It would be like joining his coalition and asking 51 percent of his coalition - no one would accept to follow others, but on the other hand all of the coalition should be open with no vetoes. As we say in the national coalition that there will be no refusal, no forced agreements - Maliki will have his chance, others will have his chances [to lead the coalition], so joining the coalition with the balanced rates will be the acceptable equation - otherwise what is the need of having a coalition?

Is your coalition wide enough, broad enough to include people like Ayad Allawi?

Yes of course. There are negotiations with Ayad Allawi and practically there are no obstacles. We have some technical obstacles. On the orientation, on the real lines and the wide policies, we [are all in agreement], but there are some technical organizational complications.

If those could be solved that would be good. If not, we'll meet at the front.

How will this election be different from the last election, and how will it be different for the parties in your coalition?

It's different from many points of view. First we witnessed some splits [along political lines].... This took place in Kurdistan - this took place in the south, in the western parts, in the north.... It's a positive split, especially when it is related to negotiating with other parties from other communities, which we did not see in the last elections. In the last elections, each of us was concentrating on his own power and his own constituency, rather than going to other constituencies to gain power from them. So we are approaching a more national policy rather than a self-aspiration policy ... because [that would mean] the Kurds would be framed by their geography, the Shiites would be within their community, and the Sunnis would be only in their community. It is a step forward. It is not a final one, but it shows that things are going forward and people are understanding the lessons, and acting accordingly.

Is one of those lessons what was widely perceived to be voters rejecting religious-based parties in the provincial elections?

I don't think they rejected it. They rejected all of us - secular, religious. The rate of participation was low and if religious parties lost some votes, other parties also lost votes, and maybe more than the religious parties. Allawi, for example, had [in the] last elections 900,000; [this time] he [received] only 250,000. [Sunni leader Saleh al-] Mutlaq lost two-thirds of his forces. Tuwafaq [the main Sunni alliance] went from 1 million-and-a-half to 400,000, so there was no real progress on the numbers - neither the secular nor the religious parties. Take the Communist party, for example. They lost more votes, so there was a very important message coming from the people of a high rate of abstaining - which shows that people are not satisfied with our policies, neither the local policies nor the federal policies nor the central policies.

Was it the policies themselves or more basic things, such as lack of services?

They are the same thing....

How will you change that then? How can you promise to improve that?

I think most of our energy was given to security issues - maybe to political issues. The [composition] of the cabinet was full of contradictions, which blocked real action. We need this time a government - a government united in its views. You can't have a very centralized view within a cabinet with a very de-centralized view. You can't have socialist ideas on how to see the economy, and a market economy. This time we have to be united on a real program that can take the country forward, especially in services and economic issues. I think in the coming four years, two major issues should and economic issues. We still have other problems - disputed areas, constitution, reconciliation, but this should be built on achievement of security and economics. Without achieving real progress on security and economics, we will always have problems.... That's why we have to concentrate on good governance in economy, in [fighting] corruption in such issues that people can see the difference between the new Iraq and the old Iraq.

How popular do you think Prime Minister Maliki is these days?

Well, it is not for me to answer this question - it's for the polls.

But that must be part of the political calculation in inviting him into your coalition?

Well if I say he's popular, I'll make publicity for him. If I say he doesn't have popularity, I would be unjust.

Do you think he was hurt politically by the bombings in Baghdad?

Yes, I think so, but he is still a very good candidate and he still has popularity.

How much of a setback were the suicide truck bombings of Aug. 19?

For those of us on the outside, it seemed to indicate there are serious problems with security and serious problems with ministries fighting.

We were always arguing that we still have a security problem, while others were saying that we were finished with that. We thought, we have to see the security issue as attack and counterattack - they [insurgents] had the initiative, they had the control the first three or four years the government took the control, and the initiative starting from the end of 2007, but we should not minimize their action or their power. We should still see that they will find our weaknesses here and there, and that they will hit once again, more attacks. So minimizing their importance was a big mistake, and advocating that everything is now well, that was a false message given to the people. We should have kept institutions on alert, in the security ministries especially, and within the people.

So there were differences on how to deal with the security issue and I think Wednesday [Aug 19] was a setback, as we said, was a blow to the concept, the vision of how some people were seeing security in this country. And...there was a campaign to lift the barricades and the cement blocks, etc., [and] ease the police, the checkpoints - a lot of checkpoints. I can't see why we have checkpoints every 2 kilometers. If the first one is not adequate, there is no point of a second one. Either we have a good checkpoint or it cannot be replaced by many checkpoints. This will be a very weak security policy.

Do you think security has suffered at all from the Americans withdrawing their combat troops from the cities?

This should be reassessed once again, whether it was too early, whether it was adequate. This should be assessed and asking three hours after the bombing for Americans to come to the scene is something that should be studied. Why [did we] ask them to go out and then ask them to return back?

By ‘reassess,’ is it possible a reassessment would find you would want more troops in the cities again?

No this is not the point, but [rather] how to use the troops already there. [Not] to neglect them, to make them functional, the way they should assist Iraq, help Iraq. There was a policy to put them completely aside. Whether that was mature or premature one should reassess and study, and I think if it is reassessed we will find many weak points there.

And what would be the solution, the remedy for that, if you find those weak points?

Well, let’s first reassess the whole situation there so we can find solutions.

Are you envisioning then, if it were reassessed, it could potentially involve bringing more troops in?

No, I think [the issue is] how to use better those troops who are still there.

(Are you referring to a reassessment) within the existing framework of the security agreement and working within that framework?

Yes, first it should be reassessed and then the experts shall put the remedy and the solution for that.

It seems to have been very much a political decision to say, 'June 30 there are no American troops. We’re not going to ask for help' – is that what it was based on? That reluctance to ask for help?

Well in Iraq, everything is political.

What’s your view on what’s happening with Syria? How serious is that?

We have a problem with the Syrians. It is not a recent problem – it is a problem since 2003. There [is] opposition in Syria, and they are using the Syrian territory to send those opposition, to send people [attacking] Iraq. We were negotiating with the Syrians all these years on how to control these opposition groups, especially Baathists, and there had been some progress. We signed a strategic agreement with Syria Tuesday, so we have to separate how to deal with the presence of the opposition, especially those who use the Syrian territory to [attack] Iraq – any other opposition should be accepted, any peaceful opposition, we should expect that.

No country should live without an opposition – opposition is very normal. But what is not normal is the armed opposition and the opposition cooperating with terrorists. There was cooperation [between Iraq] with the neighboring countries, with Syria itself, and the rate of infiltration decreased according to all reports, so we think this should continue. Now, dealing with Syria on another basis and a more aggressive basis, in our view, is not useful. Cooperation, negotiation is the way to deal with those people trying to use the Syrian territories, and we should get the cooperation of the Syrian government. This is very important. Now cutting off or rupturing our relationship with Syria would be harmful. There is no end to that…. We can’t see [how to achieve] a mechanism of controlling those people without having real negotiations and contacts. Now, after the bombings – going directly to put it on Syria or those living in Syria was a [hasty] movement that should have been studied much more carefully with the presidency, with the parliament, before taking strategic decisions such as going to the international court as in any of the other decisions that we have, and the presidency issued a statement on that.

Do you believe the people they caught, one of whom confessed on television, were actually the people behind the bombing?

This I will leave to the security authorities.

And Iran? Is Iranian interference in Iraq a problem?

Well, Iran, other neighboring countries … all came from a certain history of wars, interferences and ways of dealing with a weak Iraq. All this should be stopped. Of course. Iranians are interested in the situation in Iraq as much as Americans and neighboring countries, and Iraq is a victim of regional and international disputes that use Iraq for agendas and all interferences coming from Iran, from Saudi Arabia, from any other neighboring country, from Syria should be stopped by dialogue and diplomatic channels.

Are weapons and fighters coming from Iran a significant problem?

Now it’s less than before. Now we can see less action coming from Iran than before. Now we have a problem from Al Qaeda in Iraq, from former Baathists much more than JAM (Jaish al-Mahdi) or any other group that was working before.

Regarding the Baathists … there’s a sense on the part of Shiite leaders that there is a persistent, ever-present threat by Baathists to return things the way they were and that seems to alienate not just Baathists or former Baathists but the entire Sunni population. Is that a worry to you that the population itself on the political level isn’t reconciled?

Well, the majority of Baathists are Shiite. It is true, maybe not the leadership, but the Baathists themselves. Because Iraq has a majority of Shiites … accordingly any national party working in Iraq should have a majority of Shiites. That was the case of the Communist party, that was the case even up to 1963, even in the leadership of the Baath party, they were mostly Shiites, and Saddam Hussein in his interview with the FBI published by the Middle East Arab newspapers said that, and we know that from studies.

But those presumably are not the Baathists you’re worried about now?

Of course we worry about Shiite Baathists and Sunni Baathists and Kurdish Baathists. There were thousands of Kurdish Baathists. Of course, that was a party that dominated Iraq, all its parts, all its institutions - it had Kurds, Shiite, Sunnis, so it’s not against Sunnis. It will be a big mistake if we have policies against Sunnis. More than that we will commit a big mistake if we consider any Baathists an enemy. That’s why in the constitution we specify ‘Saddam loyalists’ and in the constitution there is an article that having been a Baathist is not a crime. … So maybe people can go to extremes but as leadership we should continue the good line, the correct line and not to go and fight any Baathist or Sunni or Shiite or Kurds. We should fight criminals where they are Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Islamists, secularists, Baathists, whatever they are.

Do you think talks between Iran and the United States will change anything in Iraq?

Yes, of course, you know very well we were working on that. That is why I said in my former answer we have to deal correctly with our neighbors – the threats, the worst policies should finish. Iraq is now a democratic country internally and when you have a democratic country internally you should look for friendly relationships externally – if you have a despotic regime internally you go to aggression externally – this is the equation I think. That’s why I think having good relations or better relations – a dialogue between the United States and Iran will be very useful to Iraq – otherwise we will see interferences from all sides.

Could it lessen military interference such as the smuggling of weapons and fighters if there were better relations with the US?

Of course. Of course, I think the whole environment will be better. The same attitude with Syria with other countries. The environment will be better. No one wants to go to war if he has the channels to achieve his ambitions otherwise.

Do you think there’s a prospect of real progress in these (US-Iranian) talks?

Of course I am sure of that. At the end they will come to negotiate with each other and they will dialogue. I think they are already sending better messages than last year.

It’s a tricky time with the US withdrawal and the focus on Afghanistan. What do you think should be the proper relationship between Iraq and the United States?

We have a strategic agreement – this is a good base to work things together politically, economically, even assistance on the security issue. Once we finish with the….presence of the multinational forces…what will be left will be the strategic agreement, which is a good framework for both sides.

How much does the US need to or should they get involved in issues such as Kirkuk or the disputed territories?

We always need (friendly advice) in such issues from the United States from the United Nations and others….

What do you expect from Vice President Biden’s upcoming visit? What do you hope will be achieved?

Well to continue our discussion that we started years ago – when he was senator he used to come to Iraq much more than others – maybe he visited Iraq five or six times. He already Iraq two times [in the new administration] so he knows very well the situation in Iraq, all the complications, etc., so we will concentrate on the big issues all the ones I said in your former question how to continue, how to work together, how to have more and more better relations.

How much of a tension is tension between the Kurdish regional government and the central government and particularly the personality conflict between Barzani and Malaki?

You think there’s a personality conflict? … We have problems there. We have real problems. No one can deny it. It comes from history, things that developed, accumulated during history, and we need patience and we need wisdom and good intentions and knowing the just and the unjust. The Kurds have some just issues – this should not be a cover to act unjustly in other issues. And the federal government, the central government has obligations, according to the constitution to solve certainly the just issues. And the two governments, the local governments and the federal governments, should have only one channel to work that and that’s the political channel. That’s why I said in your first question asking about the coalition that we have to concentrate on economics and security. If we continue working on the disputed areas, on Kirkuk, without improving the whole situation, we will only create more problems and more missed confidence and bad intentions, etc., but if we can see Iraq developing in health, education and standard of living, its agriculture, industry, less unemployed people, then those issues will be much easier to solve because the people will see and the governments would see their interests [being addressed] while when you have electricity problems, water problems, the unemployed, etc., then such historical issues will be aggravated much more than we have today.

In terms of the coming elections do you believe [religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-] Sistani will back your coalition the way he did in the previous election?

Sistani is a strategic person, he is not a tactical one. He will act as he did always.

In 2005 he threw his support behind the coalition. Will he do that again?

Well I don’t know if in 2005 he threw his support behind the coalition. He helped to form the coalition, that’s true, but he helped other people from all sides to organize themselves and all people – Sunnis, Christians, Kurds go and ask advice from Ayatollah Sistani. Ayatollah Sistani, although he is a Shiite cleric, gives national guidance, giving help to all parties – no one who asked for help from him did not get it.

There was a very wide perception, though, in asking voters in 2005 who they voted for and why, a lot of them would say, ‘Well I voted because the Ayatollah Sistani is behind this party.’ So even if he precisely didn’t come out and back it, the perception was there.

I can’t put assumptions like that. I would be unjust to him and the truth. That is not his way of conducting things. He never said ‘vote for the alliance,’ etc.. You have no fatwa on that, his office never issued instructions. People would read whether he is sympathetic to a certain situation, whether he is negative with other situations, not only with elections [but] with all issues, and I think he does it in a delicate way – no one can say, ‘Sistani asked me to vote for this person and that party’ - he can only presume things. I think he will continue taking a certain distance but encouraging to vote for the best, for the non-corrupt, he will put some principles maybe and ask people and people will try to see who are not corrupted or people who really have the qualifications to get elected.

And it will be an open list this time?

I think they have to solve it in the parliament. It is still closed according to the old law. But before the Eid [the Moslem feast at the end of Ramadan], maybe directly after the Eid, the parliament has to vote on that.

The cabinet has recommended that it be an open list. Does that mean it will have a good chance in parliament?

We are in favor of the open list, although closed lists are more beneficial to the big parties, but we are in very much in favor of the open list because it opens more chances [so that] individuals and electors can choose better the people they know….

Among the distractions has been the robbery with your guards. To many people, that was shocking. I’m sure it was shocking to you as well. How should we view that?

The robbery is a robbery – it is a crime committed – we lost eight police in that - the money is returned but you can’t return back the lives of those people, so it is a huge crime. We were the ones who discovered everything. We never received information from any other institution in the country. We were the ones who discovered the criminal in our brigade – this captain, which led to de-masking the whole gang of the robbery. We detained some of them, the ministry of interior detained others, and some others fled and we are after them. It was politicized – it should have been treated as a crime and our role should have been appreciated but some people wanted to use this for political reasons – so we did the job. There are always infiltrations in any institution in the world – even much higher than a captain…we did our job correctly and we have been appraised by the judicial system, by the ministry of interior, ministry of defense all the officials there were appraising our role but some people used this for political reasons.

The Americans see these elections as perhaps the test of whether Iraq holds together or falls apart. Is it that?

Well I think Iraq holds together. Iraq holds together and there is a huge big momentum in Iraq – without which those obstacles, especially in the security issue, political issue, economic issue, wouldn’t go forward. So we have to see the real momentum in Iraq, which is really tremendous. It’s like a genie imprisoned in his small bottle – Iraq is really like a volcano of momentum here, and more and more people are joining the political process with all the difficulties that we have, and this is amazing. Look at all the offers of the oil enterprises in the first round, in the first bidding round – what they offered is [to produce] eight million barrels a day within six years. This is tremendous. This will bring Iraq close to Saudi Arabia.

Except at a price that Iraq wouldn’t accept?

Even with price of the enterprises I am taking this as an example of the potential of the situation. … The capacity of producing eight million barrels a day from six fields only without considering the other fields will be eight million barrels - not according to Iraqi estimations but to enterprises who know exactly what they are doing and they are being cautious about that so by that Iraq would be near Saudi Arabia. Of course the price could be negotiated, etc., but I am taking this as an example of the potential of Iraq, and if this is true on the oil sector, it is true also in other sectors.

We see even in Gulf states they do not have the resources of Iraq. Now we are importing [bottled] water from Saudi Arabia, which doesn’t have any rivers. So Iraq has a lot of potential. Everyone understands that, and politically Iraq is very energetic. People are coming out from decades of dictatorship, and although we have now somehow the liberties that we have, we don’t always use it correctly. But it’s freedom, it’s liberty, and … it’s much better than despotism, than any kind of oppression.

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