‘Iraq is becoming stronger and is now able to deal with neighbouring countries from a position of mutual interest’
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (not pictured) in Baghdad, Iraq October 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alex Brandon/Pool
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Baghdad: In a joint interview with leading western media, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi has said that establishing strong state institutions and dealing with neighbouring countries from a position of mutual interest are the keys to rebuilding the country.
“Iraq is getting stronger, getting unified,” Al Abadi told The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times in an interview which took place inside the city’s fortified Green Zone.
“I think others, or the interference of others in the affairs of Iraq will become less and less. This is a new-built confidence among Iraqis, the Iraqi national feeling, which our aim is to increase — people’s attachment to their own country.”
Speaking on the Kurdish issue, Al Abadi said he warned Kurdish President Masoud Barzani ahead of the referendum that he risked being “on the wrong side of history.”
“In all honesty, I think this aspiration has been pushed back many years now,” Al Abadi said, adding that Kurdish independence would require nationwide consensus.
A nascent vision of Iraqi nationalism has fuelled support for Al Abadi’s tough military response to last month’s Kurdish bid for independence.
His supporters and even some of his critics have praised his decision to reclaim territory claimed by both his government and the Kurds.
But Kurdish and some US officials have questioned the role of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in the Iraqi operation, with accusations that Iran was largely in control of the decision to move in troops.
Powerful Shiite militias, some with strong backing from Iran, are stridently opposed to Kurdish independence and have participated in the military campaign to reclaim disputed territories, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
While the United States has supported Al Abadi’s move on Kirkuk, it has expressed concern about the presence of Shiite militias in disputed areas.
Al Abadi has defended the militias, which operate under the umbrella of a government-sanctioned force known as Popular Mobilisation Forces, but said they must shed their sectarian political identities if they wish to remain as part of the nation’s security forces.
Some members of the most powerful groups, including the Badr Organisation, hold ministerial posts and seats in parliament. Analysts say that a process to decouple the armed and political wings of the groups is far from making headway.
Al Abadi, who legally commands the Popular Mobilisation Forces, has only nominal control over the most influential of the armed groups. Organisations like Badr are closer to Tehran than Baghdad and yet are well-represented in Iraq’s political and security institutions. Abadi said such groups must disarm if wish to participate in politics.
Those who refuse, Al Abadi said, “would become outlaws. It’s very clear.”
The Iraqi premier also pledged not to allow his country to become an arena for the United States, Iran and regional powers to fight out their rivalries.
“We would like to work with you, both of you,” Al Abadi said of the United States and Iran. “But please don’t bring your trouble inside Iraq. You can sort it anywhere else.”
Al Abadi’s comments came in a wide-ranging interview about the Kurdish referendum on independence last month, his decision to send troops into areas disputed by his government and the Kurds and the post-Daesh era.
The prime minister said the United States has begun to draw down its military presence in the country from its peak of 5,200 troops since the battle against Daesh began. He said that US air power won’t be needed after Daesh is defeated in an area in western Iraq along the Syrian border.
The next phase of cooperation between the two nations will be centred on intelligence sharing and training Iraqi forces to ensure that another militant group doesn’t emerge and that a weakened Islamic State does not conduct devastating attacks outside its shrinking pockets in Iraq.
“They’re going to cause problems somewhere else,” Al Abadi said of the militant group. “It’s not in our interest, nor in the interest of other countries in the region for terrorists to regroup again.”
The Trump administration has vowed to take a tougher stance on Iranian expansionism, but has not clearly defined its role in Iraq after Daesh has been evicted.
Al Abadi, who faces elections next spring, said he envisions Iraq becoming an important security and economic partner to its regional allies. The more than three-year struggle to evict Daesh has decimated large cities, displaced millions and contributed to a financial crisis.