Asharq Al-Awsat Interview: Iraqi VP Khodair Al-Khozaei
Iraqi Vice President addresses criticisms that have been laid against Maliki government, denies monopolization of power
Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Dr. Khodair Al-Khozaei is a member of the Islamic Dawa Party Iraq Organization and has served as Iraqi vice president since May 2011. He was born in 1947 and holds a PhD in Koranic studies. In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Khozaei provided an assessment of his country’s economic, security and political situation.
During the interview the Iraqi vice president also took the opportunity to address some of the criticisms that have recently been leveled at his country’s government, such as Al-Maliki’s alleged monopolization of power, Sunni complaints of marginalization, and reports of ill-treatment in Iraqi prisons. Finally, he provided details of President Jalal Talabani’s current health condition, stressing his hope that he will return to Iraq to perform his duties in the future.
The following is the text from the interview:
Q: What do you think of the results of the Arab economic summit, which was held in Riyadh, and at which you represented Iraq?
A: I praise the economic direction. There has been a great deal of political discussion at previous Arab summits, but this time, the discussions touched upon the wounds and sufferings of the Arab citizen. We want to make our people happy through Arab cooperation and integration. I am certain that the reflections on the Arab individual and citizen will be positive if the proposals are implemented. I have seen it in the eyes of those attending that they are serious in establishing Arab integration. All the points that were presented were a source of satisfaction, and we did not find any point of disagreement. Therefore, even if I am always optimistic, this time I am particularly optimistic about finding a common Arab vision for resolving the problems of the Arab citizen.
Q: Has the Iraq’s wealth had an influence on the income of the Iraqi citizen?
A:The income of the Iraqi civil servant has risen, and has become better than that of his counterparts in Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. For instance the monthly salary of an advisor during the era of former president Saddam Hussein was less than USD 3. Now he receives USD 4,000 a month. Today we are witnessing a leap forward that is benefiting the citizen. Take the number of cars on the Iraqi roads; before 2003 we only had Brazilian cars, but today we have the latest global models.
We have a promising future; last year our budget was USD 100 billion but this year it is USD 113 billion, and it will double in the upcoming years. We are prepared to double oil production, as we have the second largest production source and the second largest amount of reserves in the world. We will put an end to unemployment through stability, which has been established recently after breaking the backbone of terrorism. Moreover, large investments will arrive in the country in the light of our encouragements to investors, particularly Arab ones. I believe that there are promising opportunities for anyone who wants to enter into the Iraqi market, and enjoy a slice of the Iraqi cake.
Q: But the borders between Iraq and Jordan, and also Syria remain closed. How can the investors enter with their products?
A: The borders were closed because a group of terrorists infiltrated them and targeted the demonstrators in Al-Anbar. These demonstrators are Iraqi citizens, and even if they are demonstrating against our government, they have the right to do so. Therefore, if anyone comes to cause a rift between the government and the demonstrators, the government will take precautions to protect its citizens. The borders have been put under control and some of the military and security forces protecting them will be replaced. After that they will re-open.
Q: Have these guards been involved in facilitating the entry of the terrorist elements you speak of?
A: We only wanted the change the faces; the guards’ manner of dealing with the people will remain the same. Thus, dynamically speaking, the change is for the better. Moreover, younger elements will now be more efficient. We have not leveled any charges and we have not observed anyone being negligent.
Q: In your opinion, what are the reasons behind the tension in the Iraqi street, and the protests, comprising of the Sunni and Kurdish spectra, complaining of the government’s abuse of power?
A:The huge leaps forward and changes that have taken place in Iraq after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime have created a new equation; from a dictatorial regime to freedom without restrictions. The Iraqi man on the street now wants to express himself in any way he can without paying a price for it, and hence some people now talk to the press and chant in the streets, and some of them fire bullets at the government. Everyone expresses his opinion, and the government is in favor of all peaceful action, but not the use of weapons.
Unlike some countries, we do not have a single political prisoner, a prisoner of conscience, or an imprisoned journalist. The prisoners we have are either being detained for criminal reasons or terrorism. Thus, freedom gives one the ability to express, and sometimes when this freedom is granted and people are not used to it, they begin to tamper with it. What else would you expect from a man who has been suppressed for 30 years, but now horizons have opened for him to freely express himself? Perhaps there are problems, but we are working earnestly to resolve them. Some of the problems are related to the state. A ministerial commission has been formed; it went to the demonstrators and listened in detail to their problems. Now their problems are about to be resolved with proposals awaiting implementation.
As for issues related to the law, there is a legislative authority, which is parliament. Parliament ought to revise these laws in a way that protects security and does not restrain the freedom of the people. We need a complete balance where human rights are preserved but the people are also protected from terrorism. We cannot let things get out of control and face the bloodshed we faced in 2006. There are still explosive minds driving explosive vehicles, and we will not allow the past to be repeated. We will not obstruct any form of peaceful demonstration, be it Kurdish, Sunni, or Shi’ite, but when they cross the red line and carry weapons, the state has the right to deter anyone who is armed against it.
Q: Do these demonstrations constitute a threat to your government?
A: Look at these demonstrations; whatever you might say about them, they are at best in the tens of thousands. In Mosul, a region which consists of 2.5 million people, if 10,000 were to come out in a demonstration, the silent majority are not demonstrating. As for the talk about these demonstrations spread, this is not true, because there are no million-man demonstrations, such as those staged during the Arab spring, through which the opposition can impose their opinion on the government. There have been much larger demonstrations in the other direction, but the media declined to focus on them. There are many people who have demonstrated in defense of the government in the middle and the south of the country.
Q: But the south, which witnessed pro-government demonstrations as you say, is a region with a Shia majority. Does this not reinforce the claim that the Iraqi government is sectarian?
A: The government is one of national partnership, and all politicians are participating in it. Whenever we take decisions according to the opinion of the majority, some people wonder, despite the fact that democracy is based on such an understanding, why is there a majority and a minority? Let me tell you something, the president is Sunni, and I – his vice president, am a Shi’ite, and I have a Sunni religious adviser who is a Sunni along with the chairman of the Association of Muslim Scholars. The number of Sunni ministers is no less than the number of Shi’ite ones. Our budget in Iraq is distributed in accordance with the population of each province, be they Sunnis or Shi’ites, and no one has been wronged a single dollar.
Q: Is it not possible for the presidential institution to put forward an initiative to heal the rift between those protesting and the government?
A: I have good relations with the Kurds and with the Iraqiya bloc, and we have transformed into firemen; wherever there is a fire we put it out through wisdom, good examples, and good relations. My good relations with the speaker of the parliament enabled me to bring him together with the prime minister for a meeting at my house, and the same applies to deputy prime minister Salih Al-Mutlaq. I still wish to close ranks at Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia levels. I look at all these spectra through the same eyes, and I will do my utmost in this respect. We have an Islamic conference in Baghdad during the next two months for Sunni-Shia dialogue, to which we have invited 200 figures from within Iraq, and 100 figures from outside Iraq. The message of the conference is the need for cohesion between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. If we examine carefully every demonstration that has been held in the name of Iraq, we would find that everyone from all spectra loves the country; this is enough for unity. As for the contentious issues and those behind them, these will come to an end.
Q: Some people criticize prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki for monopolizing power, and controlling the defense, interior, and national security institutions. What do you think?
A: In Iraq there are no ministries in these fields, and the prime minister is the commander in chief according to the constitution. There are three ministries over which we have to hold consultations: the ministry of national security has been abolished completely, it does not exist anymore, and now there is simply a director general. We still have two security ministries, the ministry of defense and the ministry of interior; the former allotted to the Sunni constituent and the latter to the Shi’ites. However, there is a condition that the Shia candidate for the ministry of interior must be approved by the Kurds and the Sunnis, because he stands to protect their country and their security. Likewise, the defense minister must be approved by the Shi’ites and the Kurds. When the candidates were nominated, the political blocs, not the prime minister, could not agree on anyone. Then the prime minister said: submit to me three names, he approved two of them, but the blocs also rejected that. Therefore, there is an acting defense minister, Saadoun Al-Dulaimi, and the prime minister is the acting interior minister because he is the commander in chief of the armed forces.
Q: There are news reports coming from Iraqi prisons suggesting that Arabs, including Saudis, are being exposed to ill treatment. What is your opinion of this?
A: Regarding the situation of our detainees, including Saudis, I invite you to visit us in Baghdad at any time and to meet the Saudi prisoners. I hope that a Saudi government delegation will visit us and bring families of the detainees as well. Moreover, there are 130 Iraqis detained in Saudi Arabia, and I hope a deal can be agreed to transfer prisoners between the two countries. I will also say that all the Arab detainees we have are terrorists.
I cannot say that every Iraqi policeman or prison guard is a noble and intelligent man, because some might be mistaken or negligent; however, if anyone was found to be like this we would punish them and hold them to account. I would like anyone who has been wronged to submit a complaint, and to give their name so that we refer the case to the court. We respect human rights, even those of a criminal, and we do not allow anyone to violate them because that individual still is a human who should not be treated badly or humiliated.
Q: Article four of the anti-terrorism law is currently being protested against because the majority detained under it are from the Sunni sect. What do you think of this?
A: 189 Shi’ites have been sentenced to death under article four of the anti-terrorism law. There are more Sunnis because most of those arrested carrying weapons have been Sunnis, and they have confessed to this.
Q: How does Iraq view its relations with its Arab environment?
A: We are in the new Iraq, not the Iraq that fought Iran after it tore up the 1975 agreement, inflicted casualties on both sides that amounted to 1 million, and also invaded Kuwait. I have told the emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad that we declare our innocence to God for every Kuwaiti drop of blood that was shed in the war, as we were not consulted about fighting the Kuwaitis.
After the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, we adopted a resolution not to interfere in the affairs of anyone and not to allow anyone to interfere in our affairs. We have opened our arms to all as friends, including the west and the east without exception, especially the Islamic world, the GCC, and the Arab countries, all of which are our environment, the water in which we swim and the air we breathe. For this reason we do not want to deviate from unity. By participating in Arab conferences this is proof that we want to coexist in this atmosphere. The blood in our veins is Arab blood; I am from Khuza’ah, I came from the Arabian Peninsula and my cousins are in Medina, but my destiny was to go to Iraq, and to be an Iraqi citizen. The tribes of Shumur and Anzah are located from the north of Mosul to the north of Saudi Arabia, and they are the same clans.
As for this exaggerated sectarian difference; all that the Shi’ites say is that we love the Ahl Al-Bait (companions and relatives of the prophet) and I believe that there is not a single Sunni who does not love the Ahl Al-Bait as well. Therefore, the disagreements are political and not sectarian, and hence our mission is to repair the relations that were spoilt by Saddam Hussein.
Q: The picture regarding Iraq still is foggy and unclear, and some people believe that Iran actually controls Iraqi state institutions. Is this true?
A: If you find an Arab Sunni or Shia Muslim who prefers another country to his own, then he is not a Muslim, is not an Arab, and is not a patriot. Yes we have good relations with Iran, and these relations are supposed to be strong because it is a neighboring country. The alternative to good relations, which we do not want, is tension and hysteria. We engaged in battle against Iran for eight years without getting anything other than destruction, death, and oppression; so why should we repeat this mistake, and for whose benefit? However, with regards to whether or not we allow them to interfere in our affairs, the answer is no, because they do not allow us to interfere in their affairs.
I wonder: Would an honorable and proud man open his door for strangers to get in? Iraq is our country and our home. We do not allow anyone to interfere in Iraq’s affairs. We want relations between us, Iran and Saudi Arabia to be good and therefore increase our strength and its reflection on the Arab and Muslim world. I extend my greetings towards Saudi Arabia, and my hope is that it will remain a strong pillar of support for the Arab and Muslim world.
Q: How did the hatred between the Shi’ites and Sunnis in Iraq form?
A: There is no hatred, but there are foolish extremists within the Shia sect, just as there are within the Sunnis. The conflict is between the fools and we are not responsible for their mistakes.
Q: In your opinion, who is responsible for the animosity?
A: The animosity is caused by misunderstanding, political mistakes and acts of foolishness committed by both sides. Perhaps there are evil hands at work in order to weaken the Muslim nation, because when the Muslim nation is pulled apart between Shi’ites and Sunnis, in other words 300 million Shi’ites confronting 1 billion Sunnis, the war knows no boundaries. For this reason, we do not believe in genuine animosity, but rather we think that some people want to fan the fire. They enjoy watching the Muslims fighting; whether it is a Sunni or a Shi’ite that falls, it is Muslim blood that is being shed.
Q: Are you looking to criminalize sectarian slander?
A: I believe that sectarian slander is a crime, because it is a precursor to a wider division between the people of the country, and it can cause devastating destruction. If I were a parliamentarian, I would have demanded this.
Q: Finally; what is the health status of president Jalal Talabani, and will he be removed from his position in accordance with the constitution?
A: The man is approaching 80 years old. If a man suffers a stroke at this age, it devastates him, not that he also suffers from hypertension and diabetes. His health condition has started to improve, but slowly. He has moved out of the critical stage, and is responding to treatment and to those who speak to him. However, his treatment requires time. Frankly, Iraq has lost a balanced man to whom we used to go whenever we disagreed, because he is rational, respected and trusted by all. The verse “In the dark night we miss the full moon” applies to him. We hope that God Almighty will grant him health, and that he will return safely to the country and perform his duties. From my experience with him I have never seen anything other than generosity and a model of patriotism. I have accompanied him on a number of trips, and I found that despite his Kurdish character he defends Iraq in the same manner that he defends Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.
I believe that it would be disloyal to replace this man who has served Iraq. The constitution allows the vice president to undertake presidential powers under such circumstances. I find myself morally and ethically bound to follow the same balanced line, and I do not believe that there is an urgent need to replace Talabani because he has offered Iraq a great deal.