Arabs Must Take Obama Seriously

The Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri Al-Maliki, speaks of his “good relations” with Iran.

Reporter*: Iraqis denounce the interference of Iran in your domestic affairs. Will the electoral victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have any consequences?

Al-Maliki: Our relations are good. They must remain marked by mutual respect and non-interference. A large political vacuum was created in Iraq after the intervention of the foreign army in 2003. It is true that has produced much interference from various countries of the region in our affairs. Always under the pretext of protecting their own interests, of course. But since the restoration of our sovereignty and civil order in the country, we have put an end to it.

Reporter: Like all your predecessors since 2003, you will regularly meet with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani who is the “guide” of many religious Iraqi Shiites. He has lived in Iraq for half a century, but he is also Iranian. How are things proceeding with him?

Al-Maliki: I am going to see him today, as a matter of fact. He is a grand marja (spiritual leader worthy of being “emulated” in the Shiite tradition) and a sage. This man possess a vision which is truly insightful. He does not involve himself at all in the affairs of our State. Moreover, he does not believe in the “government of the clergy” (the velayat al-faqih, the doctrine of Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Islamic revolution of 1979, who died in 1989). He has never told me, “do this” or “do that.” On the contrary, he tells me: “The State, that is your business.” He is contented to merely give his opinion and in most cases, it is fair and justified.

Reporter: Tehran continues to ask you to expel 3,500 Iranians, activists of the People’s Mujahideen, which have taken refuge in Iraq for a long time?

Al-Maliki: Iran asserts that at least 12,000 of its citizens have been killed by the actions of these individuals. Here, they have helped Saddam Hussein to suppress the Kurds and Shiites. They have committed crimes. The organization is classified (by the Americans) as a terrorist one. We refuse to let them remain with us. Let another country take them! They must leave. Some of them are responsible. Iran has offered them an amnesty. But their leaders forbid them to accept it. We are not going to hand them over to Tehran, but they have no place here.

Reporter: The overtures of the president of the United States, Barack Obama, with respect to Iran and the Muslim world in general, can they succeed?

Al-Maliki: It has reduced the suspicion between the West and Islam. In his speech in Cairo, he showed a great understanding of the issues. Compared with the previous U.S. administration, a page has turned. I think he really wants to ease tensions and begin a true dialogue of civilizations. He has begun to give concrete proof, notably with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. His public commitment to withdraw all U.S. forces from my country by the end of 2011 is also to his credit. Positive concrete signals have been sent. The Western world should follow him on this issue and the Arab-Muslim world must take him seriously.

Reporter: But Mr. Obama also promises not to intervene in the internal affairs of countries. Had he been president in 2003, Iraq would not have been invaded and Saddam Hussein might still be in power…

Al-Maliki: We, ourselves, despite our sufferings, did not support this war. I am personally opposed to the principle of armed intervention. When it is unavoidable, it must be legal, internationally validated by the United Nations.

Reporter: U.S. troops will withdraw to bases outside of Iraqi cities by the end of the month. Will you call them to help if, as some argue, Iraqi armed groups will take advantage of it to increase the violence?

Al-Maliki: Only for logistical needs. We do ask them to intervene any more in combat operations or the maintaining of order. It’s over. It is primarily to transport our troops that we will call them because we have more no more planes. That’s why we bought helicopters from France and the United States.

I do not believe in an explosion of violence after June 30. In any case, American reports themselves say that our forces are able to take over. There will be no going back, there is no question of revising the U.S. Withdrawal Agreement (signed in December 2008 and plans the final departure of all Americans in Iraq on December 31, 2011).

Reporter: Some say that Iraq can only be governed by “a strong man.” You, yourself have called for the abolition of the parliamentary system in force since 2004 in favor of a presidential system…

Al-Maliki: Nobody here wants to go backwards. That said, yes, I think the system is more representative when the head of state is elected directly by universal suffrage. In Iraq, an elected president would be able to end the denominational and minority quota system. This is only an idea, a proposal. We must discuss it, and then convince and find a majority to make it a reality.

Reporter: Yet you yourself were elected in 2005 on the so-called “Shiite coalition.” Will you again run in the general elections of January 2010?

Al-Maliki: It will not be a “Shiite coalition” but a “national coalition of state law.” It will have a national program and will be open to all national components: Sunni, Kurdish, Shiite and others.

Reporter: The Americans are worried about the fate of “committees of resurgence,” the former Sunni rebels who joined the fight against Al Qaeda in 2007 and to whom you promised integration into the police force. They fear that those who are not integrated will turn into an “enemy”?

Al-Maliki: We know better the reality of these “committees” than the Americans. When the Americans themselves opposed it, I was the first to encourage them, to support them. And the movement was broken up. When I asked the Americans, at the end of last year, how many men they had recruited, they told me 53,000. I said “Okay, we will integrate them. Give us your lists.” Six weeks later, there had 107,000 names! Some officers of the Coalition have not been very selective. As with the creation of the police in 2003-2004, where thousands of people without training and even suspected of collusion with the militias or Al Qaeda were recruited. We had to dismiss 30,000 in recent years!

With “Sons of Iraq” as we have called these “insurgency committees” was a denominational Sunni army that was in the making if we had not been more careful. They were very helpful to the nation. They have greatly contributed to the failure of Al-Qaeda. We will keep our commitments. But they are not above the law. Those who have committed crimes will be tried. We will integrate approximately twenty per cent of them into the police force. We will continue to pay salaries to the others until they find a job. But we cannot integrate everyone.

Reporter: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has refused to welcome you. Would the Sunni strict regime he heads only accept leaders from a Shiite Arab country?

Al-Maliki: I have no personal problem with the king. My first visit as prime minister was at his home in 2006. You must ask him if he has a problem with me. Generally, I have good relations with all those who love my country.

*Reporter is stationed in Baghdad.

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