Hours ahead of a three-party summit of the heads of state of Iraq, Jordan and Egypt in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi sat down with Al-Ahram for an interview about a number of issues including his country’s relations with the US.
How do you view the tri-partite summit between Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, and what are the main targets as seen by Iraq as far as such an Arab integration is concerned?
The summit, which was postponed in the last few hours due to the unfortunate accident that took place in Egypt, is part of the Iraqi government’s policy, which has been exerting efforts to regain its leading regional role. After years of absence, and great challenges, Iraq has been able to play a pivotal role internally, regionally and internationally. The country has been through difficult and complicated circumstances due to past political shortcomings, which brought about conflict and destruction and an unsettling environment. We are currently working hard to remove the negative impact of these policies to present a glimpse of hope for the Iraqis. The fact is that, since the year 2003, Iraqis have been looking forward to a better life. They have been through a dictatorship that ruled the country with an iron fist. No one will ever be able to forget the tragedies of mass graves or the 'Anfal' extermination operations where 180,000 Iraqis from one area lost their lives, and the thousands of young people who spent their lives in jails and were then exterminated.
Iraqis were expecting a better political system, or rather a system that realizes their hopes, but that long legacy was the major cause of instability starting from the Kurdish war in 1975, then the long and cruel Iraq-Iran war, and then the invasion of Kuwait. In fact, all these wars played a role in destroying the concept of Arab Nationalism, especially with the failed invasion of Kuwait, which had serious consequences on Iraqi society. The unfair sanctions imposed against the Iraqi people were behind a total collapse of the social set-up, and the middle class, which formed the majority of the social make up, collapsed too. Then came the US occupation of Iraq in 2003 and a new system was put in place that had its own consequences.
So, do you believe, like many experts, that Saddam Hussein's era is behind the huge crises that took place in this country?
The American occupation of Iraq was very much like a giant earthquake which led to a complete collapse of not only Saddam Hussein's system, but the state of Iraq. The Iraqi army was held responsible for other people’s mistakes and was thus treated unfairly. The collapse of the state created a complicated political status and a conflict among political blocks aspiring to participate in a newly born democratic experiment. The struggle to build the state was thus turned into a conflict for power and this was echoed in the last elections held in 2018. The results did not create hope or bring about a feeling of security for Iraqis. The popular movement that was ushered in in October 2019 was one of the results of that election process, which ended up with a serious phase on 25 December, with many Iraqis losing their lives simply because they were looking for their right to live in dignity and for aspiring for hope.
Your government came to power as a result of the October popular movement. So, what are the major challenges facing this government today?
True. This government is the result of that movement, or the peoples' search for hope. In a country where youths form the majority of the population and a country that enjoys ample resources, mismanagement was the rule. Iraq was dependent on oil, while the private sector, agriculture, trade and economics were excluded. Therefore, job creation was limited at a time when university graduates are more than 250,000 a year.
This government has to ensure stability, security and protective economic environment. There were many who betted on the government’s failure or tried to create obstacles, but bold decisions and a package of reform were launched, starting with the 'White Paper,' which is an attempt to reform the administrative system. For decades, there has been no attempt to modernize the administrative and economic system in Iraq. The country's budget relied on oil exports by almost 69 percent, whereas sectors like agriculture, trade and tourism were ignored. This practically means the absence of a process to develop these sectors. The reform document, presented by the government, is an attempt to regain the capacity of these sectors, which in turn will make it possible for the government to pay wages. In a big country like Iraq, where the number of government employees and retirees is more than 7.5 million, and a big chunk of the poor rely heavily on government aid, almost 50 percent of the budget goes to meet the financial needs of these people. The reform document is focused not only on offering services to the poor, but on developing the banking system, which is the base for success. Due to the reform steps taken by this government, Iraq was classified in a higher rank.
The government has also managed to add almost $4 billion to the reserves of the Central Bank in a month. There have been serious attempts to regain the trust of the country's armed forces, which fought against ISIS and other terrorists and maintained its national identity despite the past crises and challenges.
Unfortunately, there are many who are doing their best to turn the country’s path to one of sectarianism and factionalism, keeping the concept of citizenship a farfetched approach. Therefore, the government made it clear from day one that Iraq is for all Iraqis and thus the sectarian and factional classifications were denied in all the government institutions and security establishments.
What are the steps taken by this government to regain Iraq's regional and international role?
Iraq opened up to its Arab and Gulf neighbours. We have introduced a plan for the new eastern economic integration and cooperation between Iraq, Jordan and Egypt. Several meetings were held earlier and the summit was meant to declare the details and it will be held as soon as possible. The country has also opened its doors to Gulf investors to bridge the large gap that characterized the ties between Iraq and the Gulf states. The many meetings of ministers and leaders that were held stressed the need for peaceful cooperation, rejecting any attempt to depict Iraq as a venue for regional or international disputes; a phenomenon that was behind the 'fugitive weapons' once used by organized crime, or ISIS and other terror groups. The government is thus planning to launch a nation-wide national dialogue to settle such issues. But, we will never allow this country to fall again into violence, as we should learn from the ongoing calamities in Yemen.
Iraqis have been bleeding for decades. Wherever you go – be it in Baghdad, Kurdistan or the southern cities – you will find the issue of martyrs dominating the public scene. Therefore, I believe that we should be looking for a new Iraqi dream based on equal rights for all citizens. I believe we have a chance to realize that dream because we have our young and well-educated people who have been looking around for better recipes for success.
You said that the project of economic integration adopted by Iraq will include parts of Africa, Asia and Europe in an attempt to assimilate the experience of the European Union. What are the mechanisms obtained by Iraq to realize this dream?
It was a success story when Europe opted for economic integration rather than political integration. Economics brings views closer because it represents the peoples' interests. A project of economic integration is the nucleus of a bigger one that the tri-partite summit will represent. The three states – Iraq, Jordan and Egypt – have what it takes for success. They have the geography and the economic and human resources. From the very beginning, we should be clear that the concept of Arab unity based on political affiliation brought nothing but devastated nations. Today, when economic interests are the major and controlling strategy of cooperation, we will see less and less differences. I am optimistic and sure of success. Egypt, for instance, has been able to get rid of difficult and complicated problems. Today, we can see a new administrative capital and sustainable development. In Jordan, there are industries of international standards.
Do you keep the door open for other parties to join this economic project?
We are currently working on means of putting a solid foundation for this project. However, our doors will always be open for everyone. The future will witness calls for other parties to join us.
Since you took over power and presented the ‘White Paper’, there have been uncontrollable forces working to present a different version of Iraq. How would you strike a balance between the need to open up to the outside world and the presence of such forces internally?
We are sure that any new beginning will be challenged. But, a policy of patience and decisiveness, in addition to re-evaluating the security institutions will put an end to the influence of such forces. We are working hard to regain our country and put in place strong measures, and there will be no room for those flying away from the flock.
Does the “no room” in this context mean that you are using the language of diplomacy, or the facts on the ground that polarize the state’s loyal components?
Loyalty is only for Iraq. We took a chain of measures as echoed in the strong presence of security institutions in Baghdad, securing the state’s prominence. We do recognize the challenges facing the reform process, especially as the ‘White Paper’ calls for fighting corruption, which is one of the major obstacles in this country. Recently, we formed a special committee to fight corruption that has been harshly criticized. In some cases, that criticism reached the level of breaking the human rights codes. But, we understand that the goal behind such criticism is to delegitimize its rulings. The committee managed to put in jail many of the big names labelled with corruption.
The Iraqi-US strategic dialogue is about to start early next month. Some say that the talks will focus on the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Do you think that the country is capable of managing its security situation once these troops leave, especially the Iraqi air force?
Iraq is certainly in need of international support, but it does not need the presence of armed troops in its territory. We have the Iraqi army and all sorts of security institutions, and thus we are more in need of security cooperation or air force intelligence. Yet, we have successfully executed a strong campaign over the southern parts of Kirkuk that lasted for 10 days and carried out 320 sorties that killed dozens of terrorists and ISIS members. These sorties came as part of coordination between Iraq and the international alliance, which will continue without the need of a military presence on the ground. We are looking for a better relationship with the United States that serves the interests of the two peoples in security, intelligence, economy and health.
Iraq is looking forward to the next elections. What kind of arrangements have been taken to ensure early elections before the end of this year?
The elections were due on 6 June, but for several reasons we have to postponed them till 10 October. We have put in place several measure in support of the election commission, major among which is updating the registration of the electioneers. Despite the strict measures imposed because of COVID-19, we have been encouraging Iraqis all over the country to participate in the elections, which will be the most decisive and significant. But, we still need to secure the whole process to ensure that all Iraqis take part in the elections.
For years now, we heard a lot about the cooperation between the three states of Iraq, Egypt and Jordan, but there had been no details about the project. Do you think there is the political will to execute this project on economic integration? And which is the sector that will be at the top of your agenda?
As I said, the economic sectors will have the priority, especially oil, power and transport, in addition to agriculture and housing. There is serious interest shown by the leadership of the three states to take part in the projects being executed in Iraq. Groups of Egyptian investors have been to several cities in Iraq to select from projects according to their area of expertise. The housing projects were stalled some 16 years ago and the Ministry of Housing is playing an active role to bring them back to life.
You have recently received an invitation to visit Saudi Arabia, which coincided with the call for the ‘integration project.’ Do you think that the project will not be accepted easily by some regional powers?
We are all looking for peace because the region has been through unsettling circumstances, and thus everyone should be looking for a chance to settle the ongoing disputes. The future shows an Egyptian-Turkish understanding where Iraq played a pivotal role, as we have supported the Egyptian perspective and helped bring them closer to the others’. I believe that soon parties will be sitting at the negotiating table in a rather calm dialogue to determine the best options for the future. I believe that we will have a different and new ‘East’ with Jordan, Iraq and Egypt at the heart of it. Facts show that the world is changing and we already have leaders who have enough courage, patience and wisdom to work in such a difficult environment. The Egyptian experiment is a good example of what I am saying. Within the past five or six years, and under the wise leadership of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the country extended a strong message to the whole region, which stressed the fact that dialogue and economic integration are the best means for our countries to get out of the ongoing economic crises and civil wars. We ran out of options and the only solution left is peace and dialogue.
The Egyptian experience, as you said, has been inspiring. So, what exactly are you looking for as far as the six-year trip of reform that took place in Egypt?
The environment in Iraq looks very much like the one in Egypt. The latter was able to fight corruption, lessen Egyptians’ dependence on the state, and rely on an active role to be played by the private sector in the economy. Despite all odds, Egypt has had great success in managing different files like education and construction. We can make better use of the Egyptians’ expertise at different fields.
Recently, there have been negotiations to establish an Egyptian-Iraqi technical committee for agriculture to coordinate the efforts in the field of agricultural scientific research. How far has this coordination reached?
There is strong coordination between the Ministry of Agriculture in Iraq and its counterpart in Egypt. A number of Egyptian investors have been to this country to probe the issue of reclamation and development. We needed to have a better understanding of Egypt’s developing plans for the urban areas in the southern and middle parts of Iraq. There is also an international consultancy firm which will help the two parties.
Do you believe that the road between the three countries [Egypt, Jordan and Iraq] will play an important role in the integration process? Has a date for its establishment been fixed?
The road will certainly help the integration process. We already have an Egyptian- Iraqi land transport firm and another one with the Jordanian side. We are working on merging the two firms under the three states’ transport enterprise.