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Iraqi FM Fuad Hussein during his meeting with NATO officials in Brussels. (NATO)
Paris was the third stop of Iraqi Prime Minister Fuad Hussein’s European tour. In the French capital, he met with his counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian and other officials. His trip was organized less than three weeks after French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Baghdad where he expressed his support for Iraq’s sovereignty and readiness to help it in its reconstruction process.
Hussein sat for an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat during which he discussed the goals of his European tour. He revealed that he had asked the European Parliament to dispatch observers to next year’s parliamentary elections. He also asked the European Union to remove Iraq from the list of countries that fund terrorism. Moreover, the FM revealed that his trip to Paris is paving the way for a visit by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi that may take place in mid-October.
Your European tour has included Berlin, Brussels and Paris. It is your first since becoming foreign minister. What goals are you seeking to achieve?
The main purpose is strengthening relations with Belgium, Germany and France. We are seeking to boost cooperation with the European Union and consultations with NATO. The discussions were helpful and some tackled economic and trade agreements. Of course, Iraq needs help and support from European companies. Discussions also addressed the political and security situation in Iraq and the region.
In Belgium, I met with the foreign minister, as well as the NATO and EU foreign policy chiefs and European Parliament. The parliament was invited to send observers to the June elections.
In Paris, our talks with the foreign minister tackled several issues, including the regional situation, bilateral ties and the outcome of Macron’s visit to Baghdad. I discussed with Le Drian security challenges in Iraq, the situation with ISIS, France’s role in the region and ties with Washington. PM Kadhimi will likely visit Paris in October. We are working on setting a date.
Macron was in Iraq earlier this month to declare an initiative to support its sovereignty. How do you interpret this initiative?
France has a desire to boost relations with Iraq, and Iraq, in turn, is keen on strengthening relations with France. Some economic projects were proposed and have enjoyed preliminary approval. These projects cover infrastructure, services, energy, oil, security and military affairs. France, as part of the international coalition, has played an important role in the war against ISIS. French forces have also helped train Iraqi counter-terrorism units.
What about defense cooperation and French arms deals with Iraq?
Iraq needs significant military force given its military situation and need to continue to fight ISIS. We have expertise in this domain, but the Iraqi military force, weapons and training are lacking. The Defense Ministry and troops need training, equipment and weapons. Diversifying the sources of weapons is a strategic and sensitive issue that needs further discussions, but it is well-known that French weapons had been heavily supplied to the Iraqi armed forces. I would not be surprised if the Defense Ministry sends in a request for arms, but that is their jurisdiction.
The French take issue with the fate of extremists who have the French nationality and are being held by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. Paris wants Iraq to put some of them on trial similar to what took place in the past. Are you ready to accept the French request?
This is a problem we and several countries are facing. People from 52 countries have joined ISIS. This has become a complicated issue because it is tied to laws in Iraq, Syria and countries from where these members hail from. It is common law for a criminal to be tried in the country where he committed his crime.
Are you willing to try them before your courts and to carry out the verdicts?
This issue should be discussed with concerned countries so that we can reach an understanding. Another complicated issue is at hand, that of women and men that had arrived in ISIS-held areas to fight for it. These people have left behind children. What do we do about them? What responsibility does the country from where they came from have, not just legally, but politically, financially and judicially? These issues need intense meetings to reach common understandings. Iraq cannot tolerate this burden alone. Iraq was a victim even though many ISIS members were Iraqis or Syrians. Many other members, however, have come from beyond their borders.
What about Iraqi-Saudi relations. The Saudi foreign minister was recently in Baghdad. Are there plans to visit Riyadh? Are there plans for higher ranking officials?
I would first like to underscore that our foreign policy is based on building good relations with all neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia is a neighbor and it is significant one. It is an oil-producing country and a member of OPEC. Besides sharing a border, Saudi Arabia and Iraq have a long religious and linguistic history.
Relations with Saudi Arabia are important to Iraq. We need good relations and are in the process of building them. I have thanked my Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah for visiting Baghdad and of course, we are determined to visit Riyadh. But relations are not just based on visits. They are built on trade and economic relations and mutual interests. When these interests intersect, the relations begin to take their right course. We are in the process of building them. We are aware that Saudi Arabia can help us in various fields. Saudi companies, especially petrochemical ones, can assist us. Saudi capital can invest directly in Iraq, whether in agriculture in the South or other fertile regions.
And on the political level?
We are seeking the best of relations. I want to hail in this regard the pivotal role Saudi Arabia is playing in the energy sector seeing as it is the world’s top oil producer. The second oil producer is Iraq and we therefore, need complete and comprehensive coordination with Saudi Arabia in the energy sector, as well as security and border issues. We need these good ties with Saudi Arabia and we are in the process of building them.
You clearly have problems with Turkey. This was demonstrated by your summoning of the Turkish ambassador to Baghdad three times to the foreign ministry to complain against Turkey’s actions. What is at the heart of the problem with Turkey? How are you seeking to resolve them? What is demanded of Turkey? Why isn’t it respecting Iraq’s sovereignty?
Turkey is justifying its meddling by citing the activities of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). We do not support these acts. The party first arrived to the Iraqi mountains in 1991. The Turkish military has since then and to this day been fighting this party. We understand Turkey’s security concerns, but it is difficult to understand the Turkish military operations that enter Iraqi territories and occasionally attack civilian villages and kill two senior Iraqi border officers.
Despite this, we are seeking dialogue with Turkey because we cannot become embroiled in a conflict with it. We need dialogue that is based on understanding the other and that would yield tangible results. The main points are respecting each other’s sovereignty and refraining from intervening in Iraqi affairs. The issue of the PKK should be resolved through other means. At any rate, we are ready for dialogue with Turkey.
Kadhimi has been invited to visit Ankara?
Yes, the invitation has been made. We are preparing for the visit and I will invite the Turkish foreign minister to Baghdad to hold consultations over all issues.
You recently told the media that neighboring countries must respect Iraqi sovereignty and refrain from intervening in its affairs. Is this possible amid the American-Iranian conflict?
Many people wonder how Iraq can protect its sovereignty amid foreign military intervention on its territories. How is it possible as the American-Iranian conflict is holding Iraq hostage? This is true, but we are searching for a principle upon which we can work. Meddling by neighbors in Iraqi internal affairs will lead to a disaster in the region. There will be an action and a reaction. The reaction will not come from us, but from others. Iraq cannot be transformed into an open ground for other countries – both near and far - to settle their scores and resolve their problems.
You spoke of a principle. Are developments moving in that direction?
We do not have military forces that can confront such issues. We do not believe that they can be resolved through the military. We resort to soft force in international relations. We rely on diplomacy and appeal to the public through the media. We are trying to build relations and explain our situation to our friends, who are many throughout the world. We therefore, have other ways to defend ourselves through non-military ways and we are forging ahead on this path. Many parties are sympathetic of and understand Iraq’s situation. I believe that this sympathy can transform into political decisions and pressure.
What about the fate of American troops deployed in Iraq, knowing that the US president wants to pull them out?
The deployment depends on Iraq’s security and military needs. We are also taking into account the situation in Iraq and the parliament’s decision that American troops pull out of the country. I believe the joint committee will first determine Iraq’s military and security needs and then take it from there. Military and security relations with American forces will take on a different shape once the operations against ISIS, which is still a threat, are over.
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