Q&A:: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi faces big obstacles on road to rebuild war-torn nation

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi during his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, in Baghdad, Iraq.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

At first glance, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi appears to be a strange fit to lead a country that has seen almost 40 years of continuous war. Unlike his predecessor Nouri Maliki, a Shiite whose sectarian excesses fueled the rise of Islamic State, Abadi is a man who would prefer to avoid confrontation.

Though he presided over the battlefield defeat of Islamic State (Iraqi troops are preparing for an assault on their remaining enclaves), he has stuck to a neutral course, steered the country away from involvement in regional conflicts even while working with the U.S. and Iran — who are archenemies — to prevent Iraq’s breakup.

But with Baghdad’s coffers almost empty, he now faces the difficult task of rebuilding Iraq, while trying to convince the country’s explosive mix of ethnic groups and sects to remain together.

He sat down on Tuesday for a question-and-answer session with three U.S. news organizations.

How many U.S. troops are here? How long do you expect them to stay now that the fight against Islamic State is winding down and under what conditions? Also, what functions do you see them performing in the future?

We reached the peak number of U.S. troops during the battle to liberate Mosul, Nineveh — 5,200 soldiers, I believe — and they have started a drawdown of forces.

Their role at present is training, logistical support and providing air cover for our forces. We are going to conclude this last task with the liberation of western Anbar and securing the Iraqi-Syrian border. With that job done then there will not be any need for any air cover in the future, but the three key areas are logistical support, training, and intelligence cooperation.

But it’s very important to follow up after the defeat of Daesh [Islamic State] militarily. We have a fear that some of their fighters have moved to other countries… because we know they’re spreading, they’re going to cause problems somewhere else, it’s not in our interest, nor in the interest of other countries in the region for terrorists to regroup again.

The unfortunate thing is some countries thought they can separate their security from others… We should work together with our friends in the U.S. and others… to finish off this terror. We can do it.

Last week, Iraqi troops advanced into northern Iraq in a bid to reassert control over areas claimed by both Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The move came after Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani held a controversial independence referendum in September. At what point do you see [Iraqi troops] stopping? Is this operation militarily over, or is it ongoing?

We’ve said it publicly since this call for the referendum in the Kurdistan areas, and we told them we are citizens of one country, you can’t just draw a line and say, “I’m going to protect it with blood.” This is not your right.

There is a lot of enmity in the country… we have to mend the relationship between communities, and the timing [for a referendum] is wrong. And it is fundamentally wrong to decide unilaterally they want to separate and impose their borders by force.

I’m not a fan of these borders, to be honest with you, which were drawn up 100 years ago and were imposed on the whole region. I remember in school we’re always taught this was an imperialist plot.

Having said that, 100 years have passed, and people’s lives have been reorganized along these borders. If you’re going to change them by force, you are calling for blood, and this can lead to the disintegration of the whole region.

At the moment we’re very eager not to enter into confrontation. Our demand is clear. Disputed areas, under the Iraqi constitution, must be under the control of the federal state.

We’ve seen moves to open relations with Saudi Arabia, like the creation of the Saudi-Iraqi Cooperation Council, etc.… How is this playing out with your other friend, Iran? Has Iraq emerged as a go-between? How are you able to balance those two forces together?

We’re having good relationships with all, but our role is not to be a go-between.

Iraq is in dire need of investment. Unfortunately, Iraq in the last 50 years has relied on oil, constituting some 90% of our income, so we have to build a parallel economy that relies on something else. The only way we can build it is by cooperating with other countries.

We have to build strong relationships with our nations rather than just governments. If it’s just governments the unfortunate thing is that leaders disagree sometimes for personal reasons, and this can sabotage the whole relationship.

But if it is strengthened by having a level of cooperation which touches the interests of people in both countries, then it will be very difficult to sabotage the relationship.

On Sunday, you corrected U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in his assertion that Iranian militias in Iraq need to “go home.” [The reference was to Iraqi Shiite-dominated paramilitary groups, supported by Iran and collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).]

I wanted to know your vision for the PMF. Do you see some kind of demobilization of these forces, or more integration into the police and army?

Let me state first that there is a misunderstanding between the U.S. and Iran since the 1979 revolution. This is not our own creation.

But what we are telling everyone, including our Iranian neighbors and the U.S., who have become our friends by supporting us in our fight against Daesh, that we welcome your support, we would like to work with you, both of you, but please don’t bring your trouble inside Iraq.

We should not pay the price of misunderstandings somewhere else.

Regarding the PMF, it must become a professional force under the command of the Iraqi government, loyal only to Iraqi official institutions, rather than to political parties or any other force outside Iraq.

Will the country be ready for the elections [scheduled for April]?

Elections were held in 2005-2006 under more severe conditions than this. Many parts of the country were controlled by terrorists at the time, and still, elections were held.

So I think now we are in a much better place than before: Before the end of this year, we’ll have all of the country under control of the Iraqi government and elections can take place.

What is the status of Iraqi democracy? How true is the democracy here?

This a big question. The “Arab Spring” was supposed to be a democratic movement. They ended with chaos in the Arab region. Somebody is at work trying to send the wrong message to the region that democracy is bad for them.

I think we have to work together to give more say for the people. I know democracy is under threat, not only in Iraq, but also everywhere else in the world. This may sound philosophical, but I’m very alarmed by this, especially after witnessing what terrorism can do.

You have to share with other people your decision-making. That’s what we’re trying to achieve here.

We now have victory over the terrorists, who wanted to create differences in our community. But the actual victory is to undo whatever they have done by working together.

I’m very proud that Iraqi society is diversified. This is our power. This is our heritage and is what we are. We should protect it and keep it, and I hope others in the region will see this.

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