After the fall of
Mosul, the battle for Tal Afar, a town in northwestern Iraq under the control
of the Islamic State (IS) is underway. The road to Raqqa, the de facto
headquarters of the IS, and its last bastion, will be built on the battlefronts
of Iraq and from the rubble of towns like Tal Afar. “Raqqa should go to the
regime of Bashar al-Assad,” says Ibrahim al-Alshaiqer al-Jaafari, foreign
minister of Iraq, in an interview with Fountain Ink in Delhi.
The United States—which provides air cover to Iraqi forces—allies in Syria with
the Sunni rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Iraq’s war against ISIS has unleashed sectarian violence by Shia militias against the Sunni minority in the country, deepening age-old wounds. ISIS in Iraq was partly caused by Sunni resentment towards the Shia in power. Popular Mobilising Units or PMU’s as the disparate collection of Shia militias are called are accused of extrajudicial killings, tortures and abductions. The militias have close ties to Iran and Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Command Quds Force was recently spotted with PMU forces along the Iraq-Syria border west of Mosul.
The US military footprint in Iraq is growing. Though 5,262 US troops are authorised to be in the country, the number is believed to be higher. President Donald Trump, who charged his predecessor Barack Obama with being weak on Syria, has given the military “total authorisation” to decide the nature of the use of force by it.
“All troops will leave and there will be no base in Iraq,” says al-Jaafari.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Syrian rebels are urging the Americans to set up autonomous regions along the Euphrates. Will Western attempts to support Sunni Arab autonomy further undermine peaceful relations between Sunni’s and Shias?
Iraq does not support the regionalisation or internationalisation of the situation. It does not support escalation internally or externally. It is not the business of Iraq to interfere in what is happening in the area, neither Syria, nor Turkey. But to allow international interference or interventions would make this zone an international problem. Iraq supports the sovereignty of states as countries, not as different communities. We do not support the breaking of small ethnicities and empowering them in order to be righteous. Iraq does not support ideologising those small ethnicities and different sects.
Presumably the Shia want power over the Sunnis. They expect the Sunnis to be subordinate.
This is a natural result of democracy. It is natural that the bigger component of people will be reflected in the governance. But the other party should not be marginalised or evicted. The large majority is Shia, however, Parliament has representation from Sunni, Turkmen, Kurds, Christians. That’s not just Parliament. It is everywhere.
There are reports of new checkpoints coming up all over Iraq, such as on the road from Ramadi to Baghdad where Sunni are prevented from entering Baghdad. There are reports of mistreatment, of Sunnis being stuck. Can you tell us about this?
At that particular checkpoint, there is a process of screening. That process is taking a long time but eventually all will be screened and permitted to move. There are a lot of camps but gradually they are being moved inside Baghdad. These are the living camps for those who were evicted by ISIS. If at the point of screening there is substantial evidence that they participated in acts of terrorism they are stopped. This is for military-aged men. Baghdad is the capital for all Iraqis and open to all. But when there is intelligence information that some members of ISIS are trying to blend with the locals we have to make sure.
There are American military bases in Iraq. What is their plan will they stay after ISIS?
We did not ask anyone to build a military base. What we asked for in September 2014 was support, training, air support and for countries to send military consultants and advisors to provide all of the above. We did not ask for bases.
But there are bases in Iraq, the Qayyara military air base near Mosul, among others.
Have you seen them?
The government of Iraq does not agree nor allow military bases of a foreign country on its land. What we do know is that they are military advisors. The military camps in our country are not like those of the US in Korea, Turkey and Japan. They are bases for trainers or military consultants.
So will they leave?
They come to Iraq with visas and request an extension and we extend those visas. The airplanes that enter our airspace to provide cover and support to our troops on the ground have to take permission as well.
To what extent does Iraq want closer relations with Russia?
Iraq’s foreign policy is very vast and expansive. It’s expanded to reach relations with all countries that are members of the UN except for Israel. Turkey and Syria are at conflict with each other in some parts but we maintain good relations with them. Another example is Iran and Saudi Arabia, they have conflicts with each other but we have good relations with both. Our policy is to be open to all countries. We may disagree with them but we respect the differences.
Iraq is closer to Russia now than it has been in the past ten years?
Iraq is moving to close the gaps created during the rule of Saddam Hussein. We have good relations with France, with Europe. Saddam’s regime was creating wars on both levels, internally and regionally. Internally he was at war with the Kurds, Sunnis, Shi’a and in other parts of the country. Regionally it had problems with Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and so on. Now we are open on a regional level and internally to all the political trends and the different sects and ethnicities in Iraq. We are closing the gaps. In the international space we have good relations with Russia, France, the US, and so on.
Iran’s regional strategy has been to build up militias to keep the central government weak, to play one off against the other. We saw this in Syria but the real model can be seen in Lebanon where Hezbollah undermines the authority of the state. If that takes root in Iraq, with the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) it will be hard for Iraq to undo that. What is the road map for greater central authority?
The government protects all components of the Iraqi army through its Constitution. The Constitution will find a solution to all the problems. Parliament has a margin of flexibility to deal with things. In Kurdistan there is an autonomous region and local government. We have no problems dealing with issues and the Constitution has no gaps to deal with local authorities. It says that weapons and weaponry are exclusively with the Iraqi Army. Even the Popular Mobilisation Units in action are a legitimate aspect of Iraqi security forces.
There is a large presence of Iran-backed militias in Iraq that exert control. How does the state protect itself from such actors?
If you say “militia” we don’t have anything that answers that definition precisely. What we have is tribal mobilisation. Different political parties contribute for areas to be liberated through popular mobilisation. There are those who have been mobilised by general call of the fatwa by His Eminence Sayyid Ali al-Sistani (described as the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia Muslims). These are purely Iraqi and do not have an autonomous will. They operate under the directions of the commander in chief, Dr. Haider al-Abadi. They do not take orders from any other country, they take orders from the security forces.
Some of those who contributed in the fight were refugees such as there are in the United States, Europe and in many other countries. They are refugees who were in the Islamic Republic of Iran. They were the opposition in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein and when they returned, came from those countries. That does not mean they are loyal to or take orders from those countries.
But there are definitely members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who are participating with the militias.
No. I used to live in Iran. When we were refugees in Iran, we trained in Iran. We had our own military campaign, we did not take orders from the Iranian government. We do not work or operate under the government of Iran. That does not mean that those who were there are answerable to Iran.
Will Iraq send it military into Syria to defeat ISIS? If America were to help Sunni rebels in Deir Ezzor, Iraq has threatened to send in militias to defeat ISIS. Thus they will help [Bashar] Assad and this could escalate the crisis and set the stage for a potential conflict with America.
It is not the planning of Iraq to send its forces to any of these countries. Iraq has refrained from interfering politically or militarily in the business of any state. When other Arabic states decided to send their troops to Yemen the discourse of Iraq was clear during the conference at Sharm-al-Sheikh, that Iraq does not support, does not agree nor does it want to interfere in Yemen. The foreign policy of Iraq is very obvious; it should not interfere in the business of any state.
Do you think Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the US should take Deir Ezzor and Abu Kamal (near the border with Iraq)? Do Iraqis want this area to be taken by Kurds and Americans? In the past Iraq has mentioned sending in its own militias to counter this and defeat ISIS.
Iraq does not want the crisis to escalate or have regional parties participate in the liberation of the area. Iraq does not want this war to be international. It wants it to be without external interference.
Should the US and SDF forces hand over Raqqa to Assad’s rule once they drive out ISIS or should they remain in control?
Raqqa is a Syrian city. I do not believe in Western intervention in other countries as we are not allowed to interfere in the business of the UK or the US or France. If it is allowed to happen it will turn into wars that will continue for a long time and this is why we believe that each city should adhere to its Constitution and regime.
So Raqqa should go to Assad, his regime?
It is a part of Syria. Geography is a constant and it will remain a fact. The people are the ones who will change their leaders. External players should not be allowed to change any of this.
What was the purpose of all this then? Destroying Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen?
There is a theory, to seal or secure the entire region to serve one regime and that regime is Israel.
In November 2011, Bouthaina Shaaban (political and media adviser to Assad) told me that the aim of the “Arab Spring” is to break the Middle East into many small states so that there is only one super power and that super power is Israel. Do you agree?
This analysis is a bit different from the one I was talking about. There is a theory of reproach that states if you are unable to identify the perpetrator then you should look at the identity of the victim. This will refer finally to the perpetrator or the culprit. Who are the victims?