Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki sat down with McClatchy Newspapers Baghdad Bureau Chief Leila Fadel on Tuesday afternoon for a 50-minute interview — his first since a U.S. intelligence community assessment predicted that his government would grow weaker over the next 12 months. This is a full transcript of the interview, which was translated by McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa.
FADEL: The Sadrists have compared your government to Saddam Hussein's government. Two American Democrats have called for your resignation, and behind the scenes, some say you act as an opposition leader rather than a leader of Iraq. The Kurds have told Western officials that if you don't deliver on promises at the summit they would try to get your resignation. How do you react to this as a leader of Iraq? Would you consider resigning?
MALIKI: In truth I did not come to this position from being a king or a prince but have reached here through a political process, democracy and national will. I did not come here by hereditary right, neither is there a hierarchy in Iraq today. This is the first part.
Secondly, Iraq has ascended from a dark period of dictatorship. Iraqis were deprived of correct thinking for long years during the former regime. Then the regime was brought down at the hands of international forces, so the people passed to a new phase and took with them some incorrect ideas and behaviors.
Along with the mistakes that accompanied the downfall of the former regime, the mistakes that the Coalition forces made — this is a matter that they admit to — also there were some mistakes during the building of the state and the building of the army and police forces during Bremer's time. These caused a difficult state of affairs in the country, because at the time that we aim to abolish ideas and ethics of dictatorship we want to instill and uphold ideals and ethics of democracy. But what happened after the former regime fell was unfortunately a push in the direction of armed force.
We see this in the Sadrist movement and in other movements, that they impose themselves with the force of arms. There are some political forces that wish to impose their interests upon our reality in great haste using means outside the constitutional limits.
The Kurds have fears and ambitions, the Shiites also have fears and ambitions, as do the Sunnis. Each of them want to realize some form of guarantee in this new system to protect their future and heal their past experiences. I don't want to go into details — there are many.
I never wished to be put in a position of responsibility, neither did I seek for one minute to be here. My grandfather was minister of education — it never meant anything to me. If the issues of my homeland, Iraq, could be solved by stepping down, I would be the first to do so. But if the goal of pushing me out of my position and collapsing the government is to empower ideas with a residue of Baathist ideals and sectarianism and racism, I will be as tough as I am today in dealing with them.
I wish to give reassurance — those who speak about pushing out the present regime, whether Carl Levin or Mrs. Hillary Clinton or the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, who apologized for his remarks — none of these pose a real threat to the continuance of this government and the continuance of the political process.
As for the Iraqi politicians, our partners in the Iraqi government, they pose no threat even if they called for our resignation, for they have no authority within the democratic frame to depose us. The political phase the government is going through at this time is stronger than can be brought down by any one wing within the current government. And each and every one of those with positions of responsibility know that any change brought about by breaching the democratic process will open the gates of Hell upon all Iraq and Iraqis.
The Sadrists you referred to compared [the present government] to the government of Saddam Hussein. The Sadrist movement, as I previously said, includes many whose behaviors are like the gangs and Saddamists, but many of its leaders, such as the one who was sitting with me before you entered, support me and staunchly support the government. They are in opposition to the Sadrist movement's actions and the militias who took to killing the people. They are about to implement a plan, they said, to stand up to them and to rid the movement of them. As I said before, the movement has men with patriotic and nationalistic mentalities. But also includes infiltrating gangs that the movement has to get rid of.
FADEL: So you have no intention, now, of resigning?
MALIKI: None at all. I will not abandon my legal and legitimate responsibility in serving Iraq. Neither do I see any legitimate patriotic reason to resign. If there is some stagnation in the political process, I have taken the necessary steps to move forward by initiating the "Quintuple" and "Quadruple" agreements. And we will see during the coming days, a quickening in the political process upon the ruins of the hopes of some local politicians or some politicians from outside the country that the political process would come to a halt. We have moved forward and have exceeded this phase.
FADEL: Talk to us about the relationship between the U.S. and the Iraqi government right now. What will their role be in Iraq in the next year?
MALIKI: My opinion was included in the statements made by the "Quintuple" agreement. It is our wish to have a long-term agreement with the United States government that includes political, economic, security and cultural common interests. This should include U.S. support for Iraq to be relieved of Item 7 of the UN resolution and that Iraq, should be reinstated in its previous position, before 1990 and resolution 661.
FADEL: So do you believe it is helpful or harmful for the U.S. to remain as they work with some Sunni groups, that you criticized?
MALIKI: Everything is ruled by necessity. Now there is a need for them to stay on. When the security situation becomes stable the need will no longer be there. And this was included in Resolution 1723 1546 of the U.N. Security Council. We are moving within a legal cover from the United Nations that also gives us the right to dispense with their presence.
The support for the Sunnis is something we do not accept — because we do not agree to support either Sunnis or Shiites. I have made a pledge to deal with matters according to state law and citizens regardless of their affiliations. Our responsibility is to break down the barriers that have been erected recently between Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds in the interest of national unity. I do not support these practices of sectarianism; therefore we have commissioned a committee to deal with all those who wish for national reconciliation, a central committee that is to regulate dealings with them — not on a sectarian basis — but on a national basis. Its mission is to refuse entry to the security forces of anyone who has Iraqi or coalition blood on their hands. Neither will it accept any who have become mercenaries to powers within or outside the country. To those who were involved in other practices — not killing — I may issue amnesty and they may then participate in the mechanism of government. Indeed, the response was good and national reconciliation has succeeded to a high degree. This was witnessed in Diyala, Anbar, North Babil and Baghdad.
I confirm that the positive development in the security situation is owed to national reconciliation much more than to our security forces or coalition troops. Some would want to hide this fact, but it is a fact not to be hidden.
FADEL: That is the opposite of what the U.S. ambassador said to reporters last week. It is the opposite of what a lot of Sunni politicians are saying right now.
MALIKI: Why is Anbar in the shape it is in today if it weren't for the reconciliation and the bonds between myself and the Anbar tribes, before the relationship formed between Anbar tribes and Coalition forces? Daily people visit me from the tribes in response to the call to national reconciliation and unity — and from all governorates. Even though national reconciliation needs more time, as the United Kingdom Prime Minister said, in order to reconcile the hearts. It's taking leaps and a shorter path in Iraq, but still it needs more effort.
FADEL: Do you think the U.S. is putting too much pressure, pressuring you to accomplish too much in too short a time to meet their deadlines?
MALIKI: They have the right to think about their own interests. We have a real partnership with the U.S. on the ground. We are partners in our success and failure. They demand and wish, as do we, but what takes place is what is realistically possible. The real pressure upon us is the popular need to realize the hopes of the Iraqi citizens who elected the government to see progress in the political process and in the services. The Americans want to see accomplishments in order to face those who say the Coalition has failed in Iraq. I confirm that they have succeeded because they have brought down a hideous dictatorship and have replaced it with a democratic system, although it needs more time.
FADEL: You talked about not asking for this responsibility. In times like this do you regret having taken on such a responsibility?
MALIKI: I will never regret a moment in the legitimate service of my country and my people. I will feel regret only if I feel I have not done enough or if I abandon my responsibility. As for results, this is a job for generations. I will accomplish something, my successor will accomplish something, and his successor will accomplish something until the process is complete.
FADEL: Can you tell me what you envision for the future of Iraq and how it may differ from what the U.S. envisions?
MALIKI: They speak of a stable Iraq that espouses democracy and human rights; that has good relations with its regional neighbors. It denounces dictatorship and has common interests with the U.S. We also want that Iraq should be democratic, constitutional, federal, that it should be built upon principles of justice and equality between its sons; a country peacefully coexisting in its regional environment and will work toward the goal that Iraq's wealth is for its sons and will be used to gain their interests and a good life. I know these objectives are difficult to attain, but we have laid down the foundations for this vision of the future of Iraq. The swiftness of the Iraqi people's acceptance of the principles of democracy gives us an indication that we will reach the end of our path.
FADEL: Iran and Syria. How do you feel about charges from the U.S. that Iran is funding and arming militias in Iraq, that they are meddling in Iraqi affairs? That Syria is allowing foreign fighters to come into Iraq, for being a gateway? Do you agree with these charges? Is the relationship hurtful or helpful?
MALIKI: My second visit to Iran, my second visit to Turkey, my first visit to Syria, and the efforts to bring about bilateral and trilateral Iraqi-Iranian-American dialogue — all these steps were taken upon the assumption that regional interference is, indeed, present and must be dealt with, and solutions found. Some interference is caused by the regional-U.S. conflict. Some is in support of reinstating the former regime.
The important thing is that these neighboring countries have reached the conclusion that terrorism is reaching out and is about to infiltrate their own countries, whether Iran, Syria, Turkey or Jordan, and that if Iraq were to be torn apart, God forbid, the shrapnel would afflict their own countries. And because of this realization they are moving toward a preference to refrain from interfering in Iraqi internal affairs. We encouraged this preference with a statement that we reject any interference, any support for any militia or armed group inside Iraq.
Our latest efforts were not to form a regional axis but to open the path for regional cooperation between these countries, from a position of responsibility, to dry up the sources of these militias and to close the way to any meddling in our internal affairs.
FADEL: What about the Mahdi Army?
MALIKI: Any armed force, starting with Mahdi Army and concluding with the Islamic Army and Omar Army and 1920 Revolution Brigade, all these are outside the law. Any who carries unlicensed weapons are militias operating outside the law and will be dealt with as outlaws to be hunted down.
FADEL: How does that affect your relationship with the Sadrist Party? They are part of the reason you became prime minister.
MALIKI: I owe no one for reaching this position of authority. Not the Sadrists or any others, not the Arabs, nor the Turkmen, nor Christians. It is a political equation that came to this conclusion.
Yes, they supported me — and I thank them for that — all of them, the Kurds, the Arabs, the Sadrists; but there is no pact between me and any of them that I should present them with anything on the account of the constitution and national interests. Therefore, I am free to act upon my vision as to national interest within the frame of the constitution.
FADEL: Is this isolating you?
MALIKI: First, I would like to confirm that the real leadership of the Sadrist Movement supports me, and are not against me. But the gangs that have infiltrated the movement are the ones who have raised their voice against the authority, against me. Some of these tried to win me over but they were stopped short and found out that I am strong in my resolve to be an Iraqi in support of all Iraqis. They threatened and vowed that this government is a "summer government" for only three months. I responded that if it be for only a day I shall not be bullied into concessions. So, when I was able to prove that I was not sectarian, and not racist nor an adherent to the agenda of a ruling party, and when they saw I was standing up fiercely to any outlaws, whether Shiite, as I am, or Sunni or a party that I am affiliated with, they came to the conclusion that this is the national leadership as it should be. They said sectarian, the answer came of itself: Why is he then hitting at the Shiite in Najaf and hitting them in Karbala?
They said "politically biased to his party." But they found that Dawa is the last party benefiting from this government. They said "Arab nationalist, and from such a background." but the Kurds proved that I do not favor Arabs over Kurds or Turkmen.
There remain only those who wish to attain personal ambition and gains to criticize me. And I oppose them because they wish to rise to power at the cost of the country's interests, and I will continue to do so.
There is a saying, my motto, the words of one of the Imams: "If you can dispense with whomsoever, you are then a prince; if you are in need of whomsoever, then you are his prisoner." I myself need all Iraqis for the rebuilding process but will dispense with anyone who wishes to bully me into any position.
FADEL: Do you ever feel that the system itself is flawed? A Sunni tribal sheik described you as a nationalist, but a pen that couldn't write because you were caught between two fists and every finger is a party.
MALIKI: The picture you draw is indeed close to reality. Truly the political process is a novel experience for Iraqis. The political parties want to pressure me into concessions and I want the interest of Iraq to dominate all. I admit there is a flaw, it is the immaturity of our people regarding the political project and it's principles.
The other mistake that helped support this phenomenon was that initially the government was based upon sectarian quota for which the civil governor that held office at that time (Bremer) is to blame. The idea existed and he can't be blamed for suggesting it, but he should have rejected it altogether. Instead he accepted and encouraged the principle as a basis for our political system. We have then a malfunction in the political process and we are working to correct it through political methods. If we succeed in ridding the political process of the quotas — sectarian, parties or otherwise — we will have achieved national worthiness. Even the constitution, and I was one of the members of the committee who wrote the constitution, has errors. And all these errors whether in the political process or in the constitution must be corrected in time but within the democratic process itself and through democratic means and not by violence.
FADEL: Do you worry about a coup? There are rumor of an overthrow of your government from Iraqis outside Iraq now.
MALIKI: This is a sick mentality, a hangover, from the Baathist era. The era of coups has departed. Rule was through security and military agencies, but now the people rule. Coups were the distinguishing character of rule in the country and the people were excluded from the process. Now no one has the capability or the power to pull off an overthrow in this country and those who travel to the capitals of the world begging for support are delusional. This country will see no more such overthrows. The only possible overthrow is from within the constitutional democratic establishment. And if it were to be achieved through the parliament and the democratic political establishment then I am happy and it is welcome. Indeed I would cheer it on because for the first time we would have effected change through political means and not by weapons and tanks.
FADEL: But can the parliament really agree on anything?
MALIKI: So, then the government is safe. (laughter)
FADEL: What is your relationship with Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani?
MALIKI: Samahat al Sayid (an honorary title) accomplished his objective in seeing that the constitution is written and that democracy is established. Primarily he used to state that he wanted no part of running the state. I visited him repeatedly before I came to office and after that, and I had his approval and support. He supports the political process, democracy and the law and rejects any outlaw activities like the militias, the violence and sectarianism. This is my program, the same program adopted by al Sayed al Sistani and therefore he is my greatest support in Iraq.
FADEL: What about Muqtada al Sadr? Do you visit him?
MALIKI: I visited him once before I became prime minister and once after. The visits were positive. In the second visit I spoke to him about the ministries held by Sadrist ministers and that their administration should be on correct lines away from sectarian favoritism. I mentioned some violations and, to tell the truth for history's sake, his attitude was very positive. He expressed his wish to withdraw from the partnership and that I was to be the one to choose their replacements. After that there were no more visits or meetings.
FADEL: Why not, at this time, when there are troubled relations, and the Mahdi Army is being accused of killing governors and running astray?
MALIKI: I have no problem with meeting him. But he withdrew from the challenges to a large degree and he has big problems within the movement. That is why I have meetings with leaders from the movement but not with Muqtada and I have many efforts for reform and to bridge the mistakes through bilateral or more dialogue. Perhaps what is holding back our talks is my firm rejection of the policies adopted by the movement. And I believe some leaders have begun to understand my position and accept it as the correct position in spite of my firmness. Indeed now is the time for meetings but I believe that meeting the leaders who actually represent the movement is more to the point and more effective in quelling the situation and in isolating the gangs from the good elements and cadres in the movement.
Thank you very much, thank you.
FADEL: Thank you for making the time for us.
MALIKI: Thank you very much.
A glossary of terms used in this interview is found here.