Iraqi President Barham Salih has confirmed that ISIS fighters who are found guilty of killing Iraqis could face capital punishment.
In an exclusive interview with The National, President Salih said those suspected of terrorism “will be tried in accordance to Iraqi law and may be sentenced to death if found guilty”, clarifying that “Iraqi law allows for capital punishment and we will uphold Iraqi law”. President Salih said Iraq was at the forefront of fighting terrorism on behalf of the world, and now needs the international community’s support in recovering after the fight against ISIS.
Many questions have been raised about the fate of hundreds of ISIS fighters, both Iraqi and foreign, captured on the battlefields. Mr Salih explained: “There are certain cases in which some of these foreign fighters have been implicated in cases of terrorism on Iraqi soil or against Iraqi citizens; here Iraqi law will take precedence. However, to laden Iraq with this issue on behalf of the world, is too much to ask of Iraq.”
He said that dealing with foreign fighters “is an international responsibility and we have to come together to solve it within the right international framework. We have done far too much in the war against terror, the world needs to shoulder some responsibilities and the countries from which these nationals have come from need to shoulder responsibility.”
Asked what type of responsibility that would be, Mr Salih did not elaborate, but said: “It is a matter of legal responsibility, custody and so on ... it is a matter that needs to be negotiated.”
Dealing with foreign fighters is not the only issue Iraq needs support on, Mr Salih said. Reconstruction is a primary concern. Thirteen months have passed since the Kuwait conference was held, where $30 billion (Dh110.1bn) was pledged by international donors to help recover after defeating ISIS.
But there are discrepancies about how much of that money has been allocated. Mr Salih said: “I do not have the specific numbers, but not much yet. I know in my visit to Kuwait, in my conversation with the Emir of Kuwait, he emphasised the need to move on and deliver on these committed funds into projects for various communities. The government is working hard on this and the ministry of planning and other agencies are also focused [on projects].”
Government formation (which took close to six months and is not yet complete) and setting up the right mechanisms to receive the funds (and avoid much of the corruption that plagues Iraq) were part of the delay. Another issue that President Salih raised was about the security situation in parts of Iraq that have been liberated from ISIS. “To be fair, in some of these areas, the security environment has been stabilised, but needs to be much more entrenched before some meaningful action takes place.”
President Salih does not underestimate the challenges that face him, but he is not daunted.
"Iraq by definition is a challenging place, one cannot disassociate the word challenge from Iraq. Governing Iraq is not easy and has never been easy, definitely not now as we are coming out of a war with ISIS and the devastation that has been left.
"Iraq has been destroyed by decades of conflict, sanctions, wars and terrorism. So the task of rebuilding these destroyed communities is daunting and overwhelming and I want to be very realistic. I know the Iraqi government and Iraqi bureaucracy and the way the system is structured now may not be able to do what is needed in the speed that is required given the calamity that these communities have faced. Nevertheless, the government is trying hard, putting together resources and putting together the people needed to do the job."
One part of Iraq that was largely unaffected by ISIS is Basra, yet it is still facing great shortages of services and persistent protests from disaffected Iraqis.
Mr Salih said: “What is happening in Basra is a profound statement about the failure of the governance structures of Iraq and the difficulties we face. This is the richest city in the country, and yet people don’t have the most basic of services. This is not a consequence of this government’s actions, this is an accumulation of years of conflict and mismanagement.
“We genuinely need to have a national dialogue on how to address these structural flaws in the political structure of the country. Iraq has a way to go forward and it can address these issues.”
He believes creating jobs is the paramount challenge that must be met internally and regionally.
“Iraq is emerging from decades of war and, after years of conflict with ISIS, is emerging confident; the neighbours of Iraq and the international community look at the prospects of a strong, revived Iraq as important.
“There is a sense of renewed optimism about Iraq, both internally and internationally,” he said. “And it is incumbent on us as this new team leading Iraq to move and push forward the Iraqi agenda that we consider to be vital for a new regional order based on economic integration and collaboration among the nations of the region, but also internationally in the fight against extremism.”
The regional order President Salih envisions is one “based on respecting the sovereignty of each country and creating the infrastructure needed to serve the economic interests of all in the region. This is not far fetched; Iraq in its strategic location and with its diverse population can bring the region together.”
President Salih often refers to Europe ending centuries of war through economic interests, “Europe went through two world wars in the 20th century and saw for itself a way to get off that path.”
Iraq is having to strike a balance between the United States and Iran, with interests and dependencies on both. Last month, US President Donald Trump caused a stir in Baghdad when he said American troops were in the country to "keep an eye on Iran".
Striking a firm but diplomatic tone, President Salih said: "The United States is an ally and supported us in our war on terrorism. The forces in Iraq are here based on an agreement with the government of Iraq to train and assist in the fight against terrorism, there are no combat troops or US bases here.
“The specific aim is to fight terrorism – any other reason is unacceptable to us. We have spoken to the Americans and they understand that.”
Meanwhile, Arab countries continue to voice concerns about Iran’s activities in the region. Mr Salih responded: “Regional tensions exist, we wish they didn’t but they do. We do not want Iraq to be part of these arguments.
“Whoever helped us to fight terrorism needs to understand that our victory is fragile, we cannot take on the burden of other tensions. We ask everyone to understand Iraq’s specific case. As others have the right to say, our interests come first.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is due to visit Iraq this week, and the two countries are expected to sign new agreements for joint industrial zones. Iraq has signed similar deals with Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
“Iran is an important neighbour, and Iran is also an important player in the neighbourhood on the whole, not just in Iraq, to be realistic.
“We are saying this tension in the Middle East needs to end, we need to reorient the trajectory of developments in this part of the world. Iran cannot be excluded from the regional architecture, as Turkey cannot be, as the Arab world cannot be.
“At the Arab-EU summit, I made clear that there are two major seas, the Gulf and the Mediterranean. Whether we like it or not, the countries that are on the two coasts need to come together economically, politically and from a security point of view. This region cannot continue to be broken like this, otherwise extremism and terrorism will sweep us from time to time and we will continue to be bogged down in these terrible dynamics.”
Iraq is in a unique position when it comes to the war in Syria. A decade ago, it lodged a formal complaint to the United Nations that Syria was allowing terrorists to cross its territory to attack Iraq and its government. For the past five years, both countries suffered from ISIS taking over territory and both countries need to recover from the war to dislodge ISIS. President Salih, like many of Iraq’s ruling class, was a vehement opponent of Saddam Hussein and his dictatorial rule and yet today may have to find accommodations with Bashar Al Assad’s Baathist rule.
“There is no option except a political option to end the war,” he said. “I have told all the leaders of the region who I have met the same thing and they all agree. What happened in Syria was a catastrophe for Syria and its people but also for the region.”
Mr Salih envisions a role for his country in calming tensions. “In the past four decades, we witnessed a collapse of the regional order. Iraq can help bring back the region into a new architecture that is based on mainly common economic interests. We need the integration of the economics of the neighbourhood to focus on what is really most important – namely creating job opportunities for our younger population and really move beyond decades of conflict and rivalry.”
President Salih emphasised that “there is so much we could be doing together, in terms of improving the quality of life of our people. There is no Iraqi solution to it, no Kuwaiti or Iranian solution, there have to be regional solutions”.
Yet the realities on the ground do not point towards economic integration, especially with wars in various countries including Syria and Yemen, disagreements between Iran and most of its Arab neighbours and so on.
President Salih responded: “We are serious about solving our issues and we know our issues will not be solved in their entirety in isolation. We have been at the forefront of the fight against extremism on behalf of the world. The world needs to engage us as well as we reconstruct our country and change the narrative here.”
One part of changing the narrative is related to social cohesion and cultural restoration. One key project is the restoration of the 800-year-old Al Nouri mosque in Mosul, which ISIS blew up. President Salih said that the UAE’s “help with Al Nouri mosque is very significant because this has immense symbolic importance to human heritage, to Iraq, but also in the war against extremism. Extremist terrorists destroyed this important heritage site, this important monument to the tolerance of Islam. Rebuilding it is quite a statement.
“I had the honour of visiting the United Arab Emirates and met with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, whom I know is very concerned and very interested in helping Iraq. I have come to know that of him over the years. The UAE is a friendly nation and wants to see a strong, stable and prosperous Iraq. His Highness and I have talked at length about ways and means in which the UAE can get engaged with some of the issues at stake.”
The National's interview with President Salih took place on the campus of the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani – a brain child of President Salih more than 15 years ago that opened its doors to students in 2008. It is here that he interacted with young people for years. One of his priorities as president will be to meet the demands of a growing young population, particularly for jobs.
He keeps young people in mind as he sets about plans for his terms as president, saying: “I would like to be remembered for bringing about genuine national reconciliation, also bringing about a genuine review of Iraq’s political process that has been beset by shortcomings over 15 years or so that requires major review.
“I would like to be the president who insisted and worked on fixing the violations of the constitution that have happened and could happen in the future as well. This is what can make our country strong. I hope to be part of the effort to really integrate Iraq into the regional community and the international community. The Prime Minister [Adil Abdul Mahdi] and I are very focused on this mission because it is vital to underscore Iraq’s domestic stability and regional stability.”