Interview by Sawsan Abu-Husain in Cairo
Q) What is the progress of the efforts to contain the crisis between Iraq and Syria, from the Iraqi presidency's viewpoint?
A) We held an open and frank four-way meeting in the presence of [Arab League Secretary General] Amr Musa and the foreign ministers of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey at the Arab League headquarters. It was a frank and constructive meeting at which the two sides (the Iraqi and Syrian) presented their stands on this tension that hit the relations between us.
It was the first meeting of its kind since the bloody and terrorist bombings that took place in Baghdad. The aim behind the meeting was to contain this tension and prevent the escalation of the crisis between two fraternal neighbor states. During this meeting, understanding was reached on a series of confidence-building measures or what is termed as restoration of confidence.
These measures include the holding of technical-security and political meetings in the coming period to verify the root causes of this crisis. If we sense progress and receptiveness, we may think of other normalization measures at a later stage, such as returning the ambassadors and stepping up bilateral cooperation.
Nevertheless, these measures depend on what the upcoming meetings will achieve. This was the basis of the understanding that was reached at the quadripartite meeting and the general outcome of that meeting, in addition to asserting the need to reduce the media campaigns and statements and to ensure that the media will calm, rather than poison the atmosphere.
Q) What will happen if Syria does not hand over the wanted Iraqis who are accused of involvement in the 19 August bombings in Baghdad?
A) A request was made to hand over the persons wanted by the Iraqi judiciary to Interpol, not the Iraqi Government. We insist on this Iraqi request and believe that this measure is one of the keys to resolving the crisis. The Iraqi Government is ready to produce all the required and available evidences.
As we asserted at the meeting and in our statements, we say again that we do not accuse Syria of involvement in the terrorist bombings that took place. Rather, we accuse wanted Iraqi Baathist leaders who reside or operate in Syria. There is a difference between the two stands. We believe that the importance of the Iraqi-Syrian relations requires us to engage in security cooperation to prevent these persons from harming the security of Iraq and Iraqi citizens.
Q) Did the memorandum, which Iraq presented to the UN Security Council, specifically accuse Syria?
A) This letter, which was addressed to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, was explicit and clear. It did not mention Syria at all. We said that these bombings threaten world security and peace and their aim was to overthrow the Iraq Government and institutions of the state.
Therefore, we hold the view that there is a need for the UN Security Council to dispatch a fact-finding committee and to set up an international tribunal to serve as a deterrent against all foreign interventions in Iraq's internal affairs and against undermining the Iraqi people's security.
Q) This Iraqi move gave observers an impression that Iraq is following in the footsteps of Lebanon regarding the issue of the international tribunal. Does this move not harm joint Arab action?
A) This is a sovereign Iraqi Government decision to go to the UN Security Council. Just as we came to the Arab League, we also have the right to go to the United Nations in our capacity as members of the United Nations. The international community has obligations toward Iraqi security and stability.
In addition, there are resolutions that have been passed by the United Nations, the Arab League, and the states neighboring Iraq. That is why we went to the international organization. In fact, the aim is not to politicize this tribunal against any state. However, the efforts that were exerted with the neighboring states in the past proved that they failed to achieve the required measure of security and stability in Iraq.
Q) What happened to the security committees that were set up by the states neighboring Iraq?
A) There were security committees in place, but they did not achieve what was required of them and became inoperative. In addition, political meetings were held. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki paid an official visit to Syria along with a large ministerial delegation days before the bombings, and they reached agreement on strategic cooperation.
However, investigations showed that wanted criminal persons who reside in Syria do not believe in political action and political opposition. Rather, they believe in killing, car bombings, and destruction. They operate in the territories of another state, and this is absolutely unacceptable under the international, Arab, and Islamic norms.
Q) Do you believe that many states or persons carried out the bombings that took place in Baghdad on the 19th of the past month?
A) The nature and magnitude of the operations against the institutions of the Iraqi state indicate that these operations enjoy support, funding, and intelligence assistance and that they are planned in advance. This fact confirms that the bombings of 19 August were not the work of amateurs. Rather, they were the work of professionals who receive backing that is larger than the size of their organizations.
Q) If a fact-finding committee proves that Syria and Iran were involved, do you believe that an international tribunal will take measures against them?
A) This depends on the outcome of the investigations, and I do not want to anticipate events. This tribunal will not be set up overnight. It will require numerous legal and technical measures, in addition to international support and coordination.
It took years for other tribunals that were established in many parts of the world to complete their tasks.
Q) If the Arab League and Turkish mediation succeeds in resolving the Iraqi-Syrian crisis, will Iraq withdraw its memorandum from the UN Security Council?
A) As far as we are concerned, all parties are required to support Iraqi security and stability, refrain from interfering in its affairs, and comply with what we had agreed upon.
Let us see to what extent the neighboring states will comply with this principle. The UN Security Council began its move after distributing the Iraqi letter to all member states of the council. Moreover, talks and meetings will be held in the near future on how to organize these ideas. Accordingly, this process will take some time, but it began with the sending of that letter.
Q) In this respect, it is said that Iraq is implementing a US agenda by escalating and internationalizing the crisis with Syria.
A) Truly, this is inaccurate. If we closely examine the US stand, we will find out that it tends to address this issue and not escalate the situation between the two countries. All the messages that come from the US side carry this theme. In fact, the United States does not support Iraq against Syria. As the situation now stands, this process must take its legal and diplomatic course.
Q) Did Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki invent this crisis with Syria in order to cover up domestic conflicts ahead of elections, as is reported?
A) This is a wrong view and unfair analysis. We ask what Al-Maliki stands to gain by inventing a crisis at a time when he has elections and problems. He was in Syria at the head of a very large delegation before these incidents.
Therefore, he has no interest in inventing any crisis with Syria at a time when Iraq needs support from the neighboring states. Iraq also needs to open up to the Arab states and open embassies, in addition to other measures. So, what does Al-Maliki stand to gain by inventing a crisis? We were the first to say that there were security infiltrations and security failures. Why would we accuse others after we accused ourselves? These analyses are inaccurate at all?
Q) How do you explain your charge that the Iraqi security agencies were slack? What do you mean?
A) Indeed, there is slackness by the security agencies. With regard to these trucks that exploded in the vicinity of the ministries and the trucks that were seized, there were clear and explicit instructions by the command of the Baghdad forces not to allow trucks to pass through the center of the capital before 4 pm.
Under these instructions, if trucks must pass through, they have to be searched, and this did not happen even though police patrols were present and two trucks were seized before the bombing on the same day and in the same place.
Q) What about the conflicting official Iraqi stands on the crisis? I mean the stands taken by the presidency and the prime minister.
A) Under the Iraqi political system and constitution, the council of ministers, not the prime minister, is the executive body in the country. It is the council of ministers that takes decisions.
Surely, other leaders of the presidency and other bodies have to be consulted. Anyway, this stand was taken collectively. The council of ministers includes representatives of all forces and groups that participate in the government. Thus, no one objected to the government's decision.
Q) Will direct bilateral meetings be held between Iraq and Syria?
A) We now met in Cairo and might meet afterward in Istanbul and then in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings. In the end, however, since we seek to normalize the relations and restore them to their normal status, meetings will have to be held in Baghdad and Damascus at a later stage.