BY IAN PHILLIPS AND QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says Islamic State group fighters lack the courage to put up long-term resistance in Mosul, despite unleashing hundreds of car bombs that have killed and maimed Iraqi soldiers and civilians as the fight for Iraq’s second-largest city appears set to extend well into next year.
“We have seen the whole organization collapsing in terms of standing in the face of our own armed forces,” al-Abadi said. “The success of liberating a huge area indicates that Daesh does not have the gut now or the motivation to fight as they were doing before,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for the extremist group.
In an interview Monday with The Associated Press, al-Abadi said Mosul was now completely encircled and that the speed with which the area was secured surpassed his expectations. He declined to say how many Iraqi troops have been killed since the operation began six weeks ago but said the rate of battlefield losses was “sustainable.”
The prime minister said he expects the incoming Trump administration to grant Iraq a greater degree of logistical support in its war on terror, and dismissed suggestions by Donald Trump in the election campaign that he would seize some of Iraq’s oil production as a kind of “reimbursement” for U.S. efforts in Iraq.
Trump said in September that he would “take the oil” from Iraq, claiming that the Iranians would step in otherwise.
“I am not going to judge the man by his election statements,” al-Abadi said with a smile. “I am going to judge him by what he does later.”
He called Trump, who he spoke with by phone soon after his election victory, a “pragmatic man” who would reassess the situation once in office. But Iraqi oil, he said, belongs to Iraqis. “The Iraqi people will not allow any country to take possession of their own resources,” he said in the interview held at one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces inside the heavily-fortified Green Zone in the Iraqi capital.
Al-Abadi stood by previous pledges that Mosul would be retaken this year, despite increasingly slow progress on the ground. Iraqi forces control roughly a tenth of the city proper.
Iraqi commanders in eastern Mosul say IS resistance there has been fiercer than anything they have seen previously in the fight against the militants, who have targeted Iraqi troops with hundreds of car bombs.
Heavily armored and often packed with enough explosives to disable tanks, car bombs have long been the deadliest weapon the militants use against Iraqi forces. In past operations, U.S.-led coalition airstrikes were often called in to take out the bombs, but in the cramped fighting conditions in Mosul’s residential neighborhoods, the explosive-laden vehicles often appear with little warning and the presence of civilians thwarts the use of airstrikes.
Since al-Abadi took office two years ago, Iraqi forces have retaken more than half of the territory IS held at the height of its power, when the militants’ controlled a third of the country.
Pressing north from Baghdad, mostly Shiite militia fighters first pushed IS out of large parts of Diyala and Salaeddin provinces, including Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.
In the north, Kurdish and Iraqi forces recaptured the strategic mountain town of Sinjar, blocking a road that was once a common transit point for militants and weapons. To the west, Iraqi forces under cover of coalition airstrikes retook the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar province.
Today Mosul is the last urban stronghold IS holds in Iraq and liberating it will lead to the extremist group’s eventual demise as its ability to recruit foreign fighters and attract financing dries up, al-Abadi said.
“This is like a snake, if you hit it in the middle or the tail, it’s no use. I have to hit it on the head,” he said. “And the head of this terrorist organization is Mosul. If I remove Mosul from them, this is a huge blow … to its efforts to recruit young people from different countries of the world.”
Unlike past operations, in the Mosul fight al-Abadi’s government has called on residents to stay inside their homes – a strategy that has slowed the military’s advance. But he said it was necessary to avoid creating a humanitarian disaster by fleeing residents overwhelming camps as winter approaches.
“This is the first time where we are liberating a city or a place where civilians are staying at home,” he said. “It’s tough, it’s difficult because the security forces tell me they are being fired at from places where there are civilians and they cannot reply in kind. So, this is a very tough thing.”
Al-Abadi said he expects to see even greater U.S. support for Iraq under a Trump administration.
“I think it is in the interest of the United States and Iraq to keep this relationship,” he said. “In my telephone call with President-elect Trump, he assured me that the U.S. support will not only continue, but it is going to be increased. So, I think I am going to be looking forward to more U.S. support.”
While the presence of U.S. troops has at times been controversial in the eyes of al-Abadi’s political opponents, U.S. involvement in Iraq has steadily increased on his watch. There are now some 6,000 U.S. troops in the country, including 100 special operations forces embedded with Iraqi troops for the Mosul operation, according to the Pentagon. Iraqi commanders have said U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have been essential in retaking territory.
But while Iraq has witnessed an impressive string of territorial victories against IS under al-Abadi, the country is in many ways more divided politically than ever. Iraq’s Kurds are laying claim to additional territory inside Nineveh province on the sidelines of the Mosul offensive and the country’s parliament continues to be dominated by powerful political blocs capable of gridlocking government.
“We have moved quite far in terms of reaching out to our own population,” al-Abadi said of progress toward greater reconciliation between the country’s religious and ethnic groups.
He said there had been “a huge reversal” in terms of communities now welcoming the Iraqi military in a way that would once have been inconceivable.
In the wake of the fall of Mosul to IS more than two years ago, Shiite militia forces have grown increasingly powerful under al-Abadi, a Shiite. The groups have proven to be some of the most capable ground forces against IS, but have also been accused of abuses against civilians. In the Mosul fight, Human Rights Watch accused the militia groups of beating and detaining villagers southeast of the city where they are operating.
Al-Abadi acknowledged that some militia fighters have been found guilty of committing abuses against civilians. He said many had been sentenced to death for crimes they have committed and that he would investigate any further reports of misconduct.
“Any time I hear there is a violation or abuse, I immediately start an investigation into it. My role is not to cover up for the crimes of others,” the Iraqi leader said. The Shiite militiamen “are mainly volunteers, Iraqi nationalists who rise up to defend their own country. They are prepared to sacrifice their own lives, their own families for the defense of Iraq.”
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE AP’S INTERVIEW WITH IRAQ’S PM
Following is a full transcript of The Associated Press interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad:
Q – The Mosul campaign is more than six weeks in and just a fraction of the city has been retaken. Are you still confident that the city will be back in government hands by the end of the year, or will this extend into 2017?
A – This is a battle for the whole of Nineveh governorate, which is much bigger than the city of Mosul. The whole or most of the governorate that we have liberated so far was under the hands of Daesh (Arabic acronym for the Islamic State) ISIL (another acronym for IS), for the last 2 ½ years. Now we have liberated probably twice the size of the city of Mosul since the start of the operation. We have liberated many villages, many cities (towns) around Mosul and we are closing in on Mosul. So, Mosul is the last stage of this operation. Liberating the rest of the area was stage number one, which we have accomplished very quickly and very successfully.
Now, Mosul is completely encircled by our own armed forces and it is under our control. So, I think the plan is going according to what we have planned before. In actual fact, in our opinion, it was quicker than we thought it is going to be. Yes, ISIL or Daesh, is a terrorist organization, ideologically motivated, but we have seen the whole organization collapsing in terms of standing in the face of our own armed forces. The success of liberating a huge area indicates that Daesh does not have the gut now or the motivation to fight as they were doing before. So, yes, I think the operation is on track and I am hopeful that we liberate the city before the end of the year.
Q – Iraqi commanders on the ground have said the resistance in Mosul is unlike anything they have ever seen. Are you reassessing how this battle will be fought, especially your strategy of encouraging civilians to remain in their homes?
A – This is only true in the eastern side of the city where our armed forces are fighting and where the population is at their homes. This is the first time, I agree, this is the first time where we are liberating a city or a place where civilians are staying at home. It’s tough. It’s difficult because the security forces tell me they are being fired at from places where there are civilians and they cannot reply in kind. So, this is a very tough thing. Daesh is using the civilians to instigate attacks against our own security forces. They are using car bombs in civilian areas, which is very tough. You cannot just fire at everyone and everybody in the city. You have to be very careful not to do mistakes, because our aim here is to win the hearts and minds of the people and we have been doing this. People were very welcoming to our security forces in these areas. So, yes, this time it’s tough, it’s new. This did not happen in Fallujah, did not happen in Tikrit, it did not happen in Ramadi where civilians fled and it was an empty city and it was easy for security forces to fight in an empty city. Now, the tough thing is that civilians are in the city and we have to fight all our way in that city, A) to protect the civilians and B) to fight Daesh.
Q – If you had allowed Civilians, if they were not there, that would give more firepower … etc?
A – Correct, but this is a huge challenge. They are in Mosul in particular, there are millions of civilians inside Mosul itself and other villages. We have to be careful about these civilians and we have to protect them. Imagine, half a million or a three quarter of a million of people move out of their houses in a very short period of time, who is going to care for them? This is a very tough challenge for us. We have asked for international help. International organizations said this is beyond any state or any capability to provide for this number of people in a very short time in a war zone. So, my decision was ‘let us keep the civilians in their homes. We will protect them, we will take care of them and we will liberate our areas.’ This was a logical decision taken by us in Mosul in particular. And here is the challenge.
Q – On the personal front, how do you feel when you see the ruins, the complete devastation of Iraqi cities? What does victory feel or taste like for you when it comes at such high cost? Will you be able to liberate Mosul by the end of the first half of 2017?
A – I don’t put a timeline on it, but I hope that a major part of the city will be in the hands of the Iraqi security forces this year. It is a cost in terms of buildings, but it is very rewarding when I see displaced people who are living in tents coming back to their homes and living in their homes. What we have done is we have introduced what you call stabilization, which is a very quick reconstruction by providing basic services to populations: Electricity, water, schools and medical care. Of course, before that we have to remove any explosive devises from the area and then the population goes back. This is very rewarding for us. For people to see their homes, to live in their homes, to live in their vicinity and their locals. People prefer to live in their houses even if they are partially damaged than living in a tent in nowhere. So, this is very rewarding for us.
Q – How many Iraqi troops have died and how many injured in Mosul, and can you tell us if it is sustainable?
A – Yes, it is sustainable and the reason it is sustainable, or the indication that it is sustainable, is that we have many thousands Iraqis who want to volunteer to fight. Still, we have a large number of people who are just volunteers. We cannot accept all of them now. We are returning (turning away) many of them. We have enough (we tell them) ‘if we need you, we will call upon you to join us.’ So, this is an indication people are willing to give. The number of casualties is still within our own … any casualty for me is a heart break. Any incident causes us a lot of trouble and we are trying to minimize the number of casualties. To be honest with you, at the start of the campaign, that is two years ago, the number of casualties was mounting. We have reversed that. I made a priority: yes, we want to liberate the areas, but priority is to keep the number of casualties down. And that is why have used many things to protect our own fighting force and I think we have been successful in minimizing the number of casualties. The number of casualties is still manageable within anticipated numbers and that’s why we are achieving victory.
Q – Can you tell us the number of dead and injured so far in the Mosul campaign?
A – I cannot publish (disclose) numbers. It is there. I see the numbers every month, but it is manageable.
Q – The US has a new President. How do you expect the administration of President-elect Donald Trump to differ from President Obama’s in Iraq and the wider Middle East?
A – Iraq deals with the United States regardless of who is in the White House. In our belief, we are fighting terrorism. We are here in this area, in the region, there is infighting in this region, there is also competition between regional powers. Iraq is on the fault line of this quarrel or this infighting. Look at Syria: Syria is very much polarized, 10 million people, some of them are internal refugees, another half is outside Syria. There is a whole devastation of Syria. We try to keep away from that, we try to unify our own country. We are defending our own population. We have moved quite far in terms of reaching out to our own population. Our own armed forces which were rejected three years ago by some sectors of our society, or some areas, they called on our military to be withdrawn. Now, they are welcoming our military. They are calling for us to send our military to liberate them. They are very much welcomed in these areas. There is a huge reversal there. So, I think we are winning there. The united States and European partners, they see a danger in this terrorist organization. This is an ideologically motivated organization, a very dangerous organization. I think they have developed their means of recruiting young people. They are trying to recruit young people very quickly by inflicting terrorist ideas into them, converting them from being very peaceful with their societies or with their families to being very aggressive over a very short time.
So I think this is a danger here and it is in our interest to combat this. Over the last two years, we have seen ups and downs in the support of the U.S. to Iraq. At the beginning I was frustrated and I was in the media saying that we were expecting support but that the support was very slow, very painful, not adequate and later on I think it was developed. I think there was progressive support for our campaign. All that we wanted was a quicker delivery of weapons, a quicker program to training our own forces and adequate air support for our forces. We never asked for boots on the ground.
We never asked for U.S. troops or other countries’ troops to fight with our forces. We never asked for that. We have enough combatants on the ground. All we wanted was logistical support and at the moment this logistical support we have managed to work with it. It’s very good for us and I think it is in the interest of the United States and Iraq to keep this relationship. I am eager to keep this relationship because it’s good for us and it’s good for everyone else. It is good for the United States, so I hope this relationship will continue. And, in my telephone call with President-elect Trump, he assured me that U.S. support will not only continue, but it is going to be increased. So, I think am going to be looking forward to more U.S. support at this time.
Q – Did President-elect Trump elaborate on what support for Iraq will be like goring forward?
A – Well, I have explained the areas we are looking into, which are mainly to train our armed forces, to arm our own forces and to restructure. And, of course, there are other logistics in terms of fighting terrorism. This is an international terrorist organization that has recruits from 100 countries around the world and that is why we need the cooperation of all the countries in the world. Of course, the United States is a leading power on this planet, so I think cooperation between Iraq and the United States is very helpful for us and is very helpful for the united States.
Q – A few of Trump’s advisers have taken very bullish position on fighting IS. Are you confident they can do so without violating Iraqi sovereignty? Would you ever accept or ask for more US ground troops in Iraq?
A – Well, I think that is a must. Iraqi sovereignty is number one for us and this is a huge departure from before when Iraq was under occupation. No, we are not bringing U.S. or any other combat troops on the ground in Iraq. All we are doing is this is a fight for the whole region, for the whole world and Iraq should not be on its own. The Iraqi public must see the world siding with them and that is why we have been successful in this. If you look at this story where the Iraqi people saw the world is with them in this fight they were able to fight and to keep Daesh from other areas. When I started, we were fighting Daesh in the south of Baghdad, west and north of Baghdad. We were trying to protect Baghdad itself and now we are taking all this fight about 400 kilometers from Baghdad to Mosul. All this fight from south of Baghdad, western Baghdad, Anbar, northern Baghdad, now in Mosul. This is a very short time. The same military which has collapsed before, many divisions of the military collapsed and the federal police and other local police.
We have restructured very quickly and motivated these fighters and these … to protect their own country, fight for their own land and move up north. So, I think we are moving in the right direction and we are successful in this and I hope that the whole region will be a better place.
Q – Donald Trump said in September that he would “take the oil” from Iraq. He spoke of “reimbursing ourselves” and that he would thus prevent Iran from getting the oil.” What do you think he means by “reimbursement” and did this come up in your discussion?
A – No, it did not. In actual fact, I don’t judge people by their election statements. People say whatever they want in election statements. When they come to power, to office, I think they will be pragmatic. I think Mr. Trump is a pragmatic man, he is a businessman. He will look at the situation as is. Iraqi oil is sold by Iraq. It is not being taken over by Iran or anybody else and the Iraqi people will not allow any country to take possession of their own resources. These are the resources of the Iraqi people. Nobody should touch it. They should be for the Iraqi people. And I think we will protect it. I think these are only election statements and I am not going to judge the man by his election statements. I am going to judge him by what he does later. It is not my role to judge any U.S. president, to be honest with you. All we are going to do is to judge our relationship with the United states. This is a decision being taken by Iraqis to cooperate or to work with the United States to combat terrorism in Iraq. This is not being enforced by us. This is being asked by the Iraqi government for the U.S. to give support to Iraqis to fight terrorism. And I think we should continue. It is a very sad day for Iraq, for the whole region and for the United States if we give up fighting terrorism. This terrorism is a disease. It is ideological. A very dangerous ideology. We have to combat it together. We are able to combat it. We have done it on the ground, with a cost, with Iraqi blood, with Iraqi casualties, with Iraqi sacrifices and we can do it in other areas together. It is doable. We can do it, but we should work together.
Q – Can you confirm that Iraq will agree to a cut in production in this week’s OPEC meeting?
A – Yes, we have agreed to cut production. Iraq will stick to this because the current level of oil prices is inadequate. It is not sustainable for us or for other countries. So, we are prepared to take our own share in this and cut our own production. For others, they should commit themselves as well. So, I understand that the production level will be lowered by between 900,000 to 1.2 million bdp, which is enough to push prices up. Yes, we will take our share and we agreed to this.
Q – What impact will that have on Iraq’s economy?
A – According to our own calculations, I think that the rise in oil prices, every one dollar for a barrel of oil will add one billion dollars to our budget. So, I think we will have more by cutting the production and increasing the price.
Q – Under your rule, Shiite militia and tribal fighters have grown in power as they have fought IS, but they also continue to be accused of committing abuses against Iraqi civilians. Moving forward, how do you plan to bring these groups under control to ensure the security of the Iraqi people?
A – We are doing this. If you look carefully at the Mosul operation, I have not received a single claim or complaint against the PMF. I have received some reports in Fallujah and I have started a full investigation into that. I am waiting for the final report on this. Everyone, including the local security forces in Anbar, is taking part in this. I am not revealing a secret if I tell you that many of the PMF members have been sentenced in Iraq for crimes during the war, including some in our own security forces. I give zero tolerance for any excess against human rights or against human rights abuses. I don’t allow it. Any time I hear there is a violation or abuses, I immediately start an investigation. My role is not to cover up for the crimes of others. These PMF members are mainly volunteers, Iraqi nationalists who rise up to defend their own country. They are prepared to sacrifice their own lives, their own families for the defense of Iraq. I was overtaken by a statement by these injured people, and I have been visiting injured people in hospitals, and all that they are telling me is to look after the combatants on the ground. They don’t want anything for themselves. And I have seen families who lost their loved ones and they are ready to sacrifice others of their loved ones to defend the country. So, I think these are very important people for us. We have to look (after) them. But for somebody else, who will enroll themselves in these forces and then taint the reputation of these forces, I am not going to allow this. These people who make human rights abuses must be held accountable and we must cleanse this organization and other security forces. That is why I have a list, I have asked for that list, of people who have been sentenced to death, although probably some countries reject the whole idea of sentencing people to death, but the death sentence in Iraq is still there. So, there are tens of thousands of people from the PMF who have been sentenced to death for crimes they have committed during their work in the PMF (The prime minister’s office later clarified that al-Abadi meant scores sentenced to death, not tens of thousands) and there are many hundreds who have been sentenced to 15, 20 years in jail because of the abuses. So, I think we are not allowing any abuse of this kind. And the whole performance of the PMF has become better.
Q – You’ve legalized the PMF and they’re part of the armed forces now. Will you still allow Iranian and Hezbollah advisers to train and guide them on the battlefield? Or will they now fall under Iraqi command?)
A – In actual fact, we have welcomed all the countries who were willing to help Iraq in our war against Daesh. The Iranians have been forthcoming at the start of the campaign for a simple reason. In this war, Daesh took the war near the Iranian border in Diyala. The Iranians were very much alarmed. Don’t forget this ideology is calling for the slaughter of others who are not like Daesh, including Iranian Shiites and others. So, I think the Iranians were alarmed by this. The Iranians had to come to the forefront of supporting and helping Iraq fight Daesh with advisers, with other help, logistical support for our armed forces and we very much welcomed that. Of course, there were the Americans, the Europeans, the Australians and many other countries who came to our help, including the Jordanians as well. We have very good relations now with Jordan because we have a common enemy, which is ISIL, that is threatening Jordan and Iraq at the same time. So, I hope this will continue. Iraq has the longest border with Iran. If you look at a map of Iraq, the major population centers of Iraq are toward the eastern border which borders Iran, we have a common relationship and a common interest. Iraq is not prepared to become a proxy to settle grievances between countries or competitions between countries. Iraq has suffered enough in the eight years (of war) between Iraq and Iran. Iraq acted as a proxy in that war on behalf of others. We have ruined our country and ruined our economy. Hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers and others injured. We are still suffering from that war. We are not prepared to become a proxy. We want to live in peace with our neighbors, including Iran and that is exactly what we are doing. So, the PMF has become a legal force by the Prime Minister’s decree and now this has been legislated in parliament this week, which I very much welcomed. This will bring the whole force under the control of the Iraqi security forces, under the legal authority of Iraq and anyone who is outside this force will be treated as a militia which is forbidden by the Iraqi constitution.
Q – Symbols mean a lot. Why is the Iraqi army going into battle in Mosul with Shiite flags waving from their tanks? Can you not order them to have a lower profile if reconciliation is the ultimate goal?
Well, yes, I think we are very careful about this. It is very clear direction that Iraqi security forces should only carry Iraqi flags. The majority of the times they do that. The majority of our armed forces, they do that. But what happened is the start of this operation of Mosul coincided with the 10th of Muharram, which is the day of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. So, I think for some of these combatants, they consider this … because they were not visiting the shrine, they were not performing their religious rituals, they exchanged this for having their own little flag with them when this operation started. So, I think this was a coincidence that was reflected in the media, otherwise you will find that Iraqi security forces in general they carry Iraqi flags.
Q – Would you have liked to see the U.S. and Iran work more closely together in the battle against IS? Do you think this impacted Iraq’s overall ability to fight the Islamic State?
A – Yes, exactly, but I think we will manage to minimize their differences in Iraq. I told both sides: look, you have your own differences. That was before the Iran nuclear agreement. Then, differences between Iran and the United States were much, much greater than this. I told both sides ‘look, if you are serious, and I know that you are serious in combating terrorism and to help Iraq in this, I don’t want any disagreements in Iraq. I want you both to work together to help the Iraqi government and to keep from causing trouble to each side.’ I think both have been performing well in Iraq. I have not seen much problem in that sense. We have received a good support from the US to Iraq in terms of supporting Iraq from the air, logistically and by training and the same for Iranian advisers and trainers who helped us as well in fighting Daesh. I think I am happy with this cooperation and I hope it will continue.
Q -You came to office over two years ago promising to unite Iraq. You have won a string of military victories, but have passed very little legislation to make Iraq a more inclusive country. Do you feel like you have lived up to the promises you made when you first became Prime Minister?
A – Well, legislations, we have sent legislation to parliament but parliament staled some of them. It is not a matter of legislation, it’s a matter of practice. What you do on the ground. The main message to the Iraqi population, is this government working for the whole of Iraq, is it working toward providing services and security to the whole population regardless of their sect, their religion, their ethnic origin? This is the main question. I think in this sense, we are successful. We are much more successful than before. It is a huge departure from before, where now many Sunnis in these areas are welcoming the Iraqi government. They want to be with the Iraqi government, they want to support Iraqi security forces. They now consider the Iraqi army as a national hero. They want the Iraqi army to be in their areas. They want the Iraqi federal forces to be in their areas. Even some, they don’t want locals. They are asking me to send, including Basra and Missan in the south, Diyala in the northeast of the country, including Mosul. They tell me they want Iraqi federal forces to come to our aid because they trust them. They can now see the Iraqi federal government working toward Iraq and support Iraq. I think we have even now moved away from that conflict between Iraqi federal forces and Peshmerga. The first time in the history of Iraq, where the Kurdish Peshmerga are fighting alongside Iraqi federal security forces and they have a common aim. They are working together at a very high level without any friction, without any sensitivity. I think this is a new Iraq. In my opinion we have succeeded and have gone a long way but we still have a long way to go. I am talking about community cooperation. I think we have to work toward this. Daesh has committed a lot of atrocities. You have seen it in terms of their training of their children to cut the throat of their own neighbors. We have seen these videos. We have seen these videos of how they burn people alive, drown people, terrorize people, torture people. So, they have started to divide the communities, they have set one tribe against the other, they have set one community to commit crimes against another community. So, this has been very challenging for us. We have been much afraid, I don’t hide this. I was very much afraid when I liberated Ramadi and other areas that one tribe will be acting outside the law to have revenge against another tribe, some members of which happened to side with Daesh at the time and probably committed some atrocities against another tribe. So far, there have been single incidents, but it is not widespread. It is the same in Mosul. Our fear was there is going to be huge vendetta from one community against another, but so far this did not happen. Yes, there are some isolated incidents when locals have taken the law into their own hands before even the Iraqi security forces (arrived) because what we do is that the Iraqi security forces go around the city, they don’t enter the city immediately but Daesh will collapse and then they will enter the city. Before that some civilians would take the law into their own hands to have revenge on other civilians whom they consider to have sided with Daesh and committed crimes against their own families, by killing their families, demolish their houses. So, I think this is the challenge which we have to face. In my opinion, if we were successful in making society, communities working together we would have won this war. If we don’t, I think military victory will not be enough and I hope we will win at the end.
Q – Half of the Sunni population is displaced, according to the U.N. Many are sidelined. You recently lost your highest-ranking Sunni minister. Is there any substance to your talk of reconciliation when facts on the ground speak of another reality?
A – The good thing about this, although I don’t like it to be honest with you. Parliament sacking my own ministers. No prime minister would like that. But the good thing about this is that it became political rather than sectarian. The defense minister was sacked by his own Sunni bloc, not by the others. So, It was not sectarian. As a matter of fact he received more support from the Shiite side than the Sunni side. So, things are moving toward more political differences rather than sectarian or ethnic differences. You can see now a bloc in parliament, they cross these barriers, which are sectarian or ethnic barriers. It is a good thing and I think we have to move more to encourage it. Yes, I agree, most of the displaced people are Sunnis because Daesh has occupied Sunni areas. The slogan of Daesh is that they have come to these areas to defend Sunnis. They ended up damaging their own cities, their own infrastructure, making Sunnis displaced from their own homes and country. We are rectifying this right now. Yes, it takes time for refuges or the displaced to come back to their own homes, but we are doing it and we are reversing the whole thing in Nineveh. I don’t want to create more displaced people from Nineveh or from Mosul, In actual fact, we have about 1.5 million people from Nineveh who are displaced at the time when Daesh took control of Nineveh. They are now displaced in Kurdistan or other parts of Iraq. I want to return these people back to their homes, I want minorities to go back to their homes, including Azidis, Christians, Shabak and Turkmen whom Daesh forced to leave their own homes in Nineveh. We are very eager to return these people to their own homes and I hope the Sunni population will no longer be displaced.
Q – Are you concerned that after retaking Mosul the province will be divided between Iraqi forces and Kurds?
A – According to the agreement between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdish regional government, the Peshmerga should withdraw from areas which they have advanced after the start of the operation of liberating Mosul. This is an agreement and I think Mr. Massoud Barzani has said in public he will abide by this. There is no reason for me to believe they don’t. They said to my face, they said that in the agreement, they said that in public. I can see some Kurdish politicians are saying otherwise. But they are not responsible people and they are not controlling events on the ground. I think this is some of the political competition between different parties in Kurdistan. Kurdistan is now split between different political parties and I think there are a lot of problems in that region. It is not my job to take advantage of these differences. My job is to unify all Iraqis toward one Iraq. If you look carefully at the map of Iraq, Iraq has been or is at the moment much more united than any time since 2003 or in 1990 when Saddam attacked and occupied Kuwait. Iraqis are now more united than before. They see Iraq as one. They have more faith now in one Iraq, a unified Iraq. I hope this will continue, especially after the liberation of Mosul.
Q – Might it be better to have a federal or confederal structure? Why must you preserve national borders created in colonial times that at times feel fictitious and clearly generate conflict?
A – Federalism is not a problem. It is in the Iraqi constitution. I don’t have anything against it. If, within the legal frame of the Iraqi state, people want to create another federal entity, I am not against it. But it should be created in the correct way according to the constitution, the legal framework of Iraq. But from my own judgment, if you look carefully three or four years ago, areas like Mosul, Anbar or Salaheddin were more inclined toward federalism. The population is much less inclined now toward federalism than before, which means Iraq is more united than before. As to the border, yes, I agree. I mean, we were all taught at school that the Sykes-Picot drawing of borders between countries was a western plot against our region, that it is one region and for a 100 years it was partitioned according to imaginary borders. But we are pragmatists, we live in this world. This is a state of Iraq that was created 100 years ago, including the state of Turkey, Syria, Jordan. If you want to go back in history, which history should we go back to? I mean, probably, the Turks are talking about a history which was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Or do we go back to the Abbasid era, where the whole region was controlled by Baghdad? I think we are the sons of today. These are the borders there. If we change the border now, this is a new quarrel, a new fight a new war. I think we have had enough of these wars. We should instead, as I said to the whole region, we should work together. I am pro-removing trade embargo, opening the borders for trade, for movement of people, for more cooperation. This will give more incentive to the people to cross borders and find work somewhere else. I mean, probably similar to the European thing. If we are successful in this, the borders will become meaningless for us in terms of the movement of people. We have to remove the mindset of the borders of people. This is more important than removing borders themselves. You can keep the borders for organizational purpose, but it is important to move the border in the mindset of people, so people can cooperate instead of fighting each other.
Q – Is removing the borders realistic?
A – You will be surprised how quick some of this can move. Remember the Berlin Wall? Nobody thought that it will happen so quickly. That Germany will be united into one state without many of the negative consequences that everybody has thought about at the time. Things can happen very quickly. I can see now in Iraq here a new national movement, a new national mindset that we have to utilize to unify the country. I think we can do it. In Iraq and other areas, including Syria, including Turkey. That is why my call on Turkey is let us work together rather than fighting each other. I mean the Turks were probably polarized or antagonized by events in Iraq, which I really don’t understand. I think this antagonism started with our start of liberating Mosul. Mosul was and still is part of Daesh, which is a very dangerous organization, a terrorist organization. No one should be alarmed by us moving to liberate these areas, liberate the people of these areas so people can live together. I think there is a misunderstanding somewhere and that’s why we are using diplomatic channels to relay the message: Look we are only trying to liberate the people, we want peace in our own country. I don’t have an interest in waging war with neighbors. In actual fact, I am against it and I am trying to avoid any conflict with our neighbors or in the region and that I what we are working on.
Q – What about the Turkish presence in Iraq? How will you respond if Turkish troops do not withdraw?
A – They must withdraw, we told them they must withdraw. They are telling us now ‘yes, ok, we will withdraw once Mosul is liberated and Daesh is crushed.’ Now, of course, their force is in Bashiqa. They have become useless because we moved away. They were training some Iraqis and we have taken all these Iraqis they have been training. They are with us now. So, there is no role for the Turkish military presence in Bashiqa. They are there without the invitation of the Iraqi government. We told them that. This is probably a thorn in the relationship between the two countries. There is no reason for it. I think somebody has probably told them otherwise or told them that this is for the good of the relationship between Iraq and Turkey. It isn’t. I hope the Turkish leadership will see this and the will withdraw.
Q- And what about Canadian or German support for the Kurds? Do you fear that training and technology they are receiving – they’ve also asked for more military hardware – could one day be used against Iraq if no satisfactory settlement is reached?
A – Well, of course, if there is no satisfactory settlement. That is why we are moving toward a satisfactory settlement between the Kurdish regional government and the federal government. That is why we are working together. Al this support has been done by the consent of the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government accepted this. All this training that is provided by the Canadians, the Germans and the Americans and by the British to the Kurdish region is done by the acceptance of the Iraqi government. But in actual fact, I consider the support of the Peshmerga as the same support for the Iraqi security forces because the Peshmerga has become part of the federal Iraqi security arrangement. In supporting the Peshmerga, they will be more capable of securing their own areas, of combating terrorism in the area. Yes, I agree, we should work together otherwise this will probably be used or misused. The Kurds at one time were afraid that arming the Iraqi army will be used against the Kurds. And vis versa, probably some Iraqis will feel arming the Peshmerga will be used against the Iraqi army. If we work together, I think we will be strengthening each other and that’s why we agreed for the Peshmerga … this was quite a challenge, nobody thought it would happen. Even the Turks were taken by surprise that the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army are fighting together and they are cooperating together. This has used a lot of our energy, a lot of our own cooperation to make this possible and happening on the ground. We are moving in the right direction. I know that some others are used to differences and are trying to push us apart. I hope they will not be successful. We have to stay on track.
Q – What is your current view of the war in Syria – and Bashar Assad’s position? Do you expect – and want – him to stay in power?
A – This is not a question for me. It’s a question for the Syrian people. I think Syria cannot continue as is. It should not. It has become a civil war. It is not right. The Syrian people are now suffering. There are many terrorist organizations that have erupted in Syria. I mean, look, this is like an enemy which has been created in Syria: Daesh, ISIL. It has received financial support and military support at the beginning of the war in Syria. All of the sudden, we have seen this huge animal that attacked civilians in Syria , cross the border with Iraq and occupy many cities in Iraq, killed many civilians and damaged many cities. If the situation in Syria continues, Lebanon will not be in peace, Jordan will not be, the whole area will not, not even Turkey. I know the Turkish leadership may not be aware about this. But I very much warned them at the time. This is dangerous to Turkey as well, because Turkey … there are communities in Turkey as well. Turkey is not one. There are Turks, there are Kurds, Alawites, and there are other minorities in Turkey. Daesh, or ISIS, is trying to play on the differences within communities. Every country they have their own differences within them and the terror plays on these differences. Look what Daesh did in Europe now by instigating this humanitarian issue, this refugees issue, which is a creation of this terrorist organization. What they are trying to do, this is very much calculated, by committing terrorist acts in Europe, by instigating this movement of refugees, by pushing the political spectrum in Europe toward the far right and this will help terrorism by pushing the minorities and the Muslim community inside Europe more toward extremism. It is very much planned. Someone asked me of these leaders, do you think Daesh is planning this, I said yes. This is a very dangerous ideological movement which is planning this. Whether they will be successful or not depends on us. If we allow them or not allow them. If we work together we will not allow them to do this. So, I think Syria, if we don’t end the war in Syria, there will still be problems in Syria. We are now on the brink of crushing Daesh in Iraq and the whole idea behind this is this: Some people within Iraq were against me when I moved to Mosul. They said you move very hastily in Mosul. I said, ‘well look we have liberated Fallujah, liberated other areas. This is a very dangerous terrorist organization I have to hit it on the head. This is like a snake, if you hit it in the middle or the tail, it’s no use, I have to hit it on the head. And the head of this terrorist organization is Mosul.’ If I remove Mosul from them, this is a huge blow to this terrorist organization, to its efforts to recruit young people from different countries of the world. Now the number of recruits has been declining, I can tell you that. The support to this terrorist organization has been declining, in terms of financial support because people who have been supporting this organization are not seeing that it is not expanding any more. It is shrinking. Some young people unfortunately long for the people who are successful, they think of this as a success story, we had better join it. If they see it otherwise, they don’t join it. This is a major aim of our own operation. To complete it, we must do something in Syria. We must hit the other head of Daesh in Syria, which is Raqqa and other areas. As the Iraqi prime minister, I want to see government troops on my border on the other side in Syria, I don’t want to see militias or armed groups I don’t know who they are and what they represent. Governments cannot deal with armed groups. It has to deal on our border with a government on the other side. Yes, I would like to see a government on the other side in Syria, but for the type of leadership and the type of government this will be decided by the Syrian people, not by us.
Q – What intelligence are you receiving about IS fighters returning to Europe or Asia? Do you have estimates? And what countries in particular do you believe are threatened? Do you think that a borderless Europe is in fact playing into their hands and that the continent should rethink policy?
A – We are working very closely with the German, French and the British and with other European countries, including the United States, of course. The Australians are very alarmed by the number of Australian terrorists who travel to this area. We are working very closely with them because we have a massive data base of information about these terrorists, what they are doing, how they are recruiting people. They started with a lower level of internet. Unfortunately, governments and intelligence services did not notice that they were reaching out to young recruits. But I think everyone is now aware about this, is aware of what is happening. I think we have been successful even in Iraq, we have been successful in targeting them within the internet. We have developed our own means in doing this. Yes, we are very eager to cooperate with the rest of the world in combating terrorism. We have a lot of experience. We have to continue. The residual of this organization is going to be very lethal, very dangerous. Once we crush it, they will try and do something, a big terrorist attack somewhere. They tried to do that in Baghdad in the last few months. They tried also to do it in the rest of the country. They will try to do it. The unfortunate thing is that we have to be very successful every time. They only have to be successful one time to introduce havoc somewhere in the world. So, I think we have to be on the watch out, we have to be very careful and I am prepared to cooperate with these countries in terms of intelligence and other means to combat them.
Q – The idea of no borders is a romantic notion, do you think it is realistic?
A – I hope terror will not cause us to live in isolation. Look how much is done to the trade in the world, movement of people. It made the world a better place when people communicate and when people work together. I hope terrorism will not push us to isolate each of us from the other. This will cause more wars and will introduce more problems.
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