Barham Salih: ‘The power of the state is measured by strength of its institutions’

“The sectarian, ethnic and national diversity is Iraq’s advantage and strength," said Iraqi President Barham Salih.
Sunday 07/04/2019
Iraqi President Barham Salih (L) during an interview with Dr Haitham El-Zobaidi at the Movenpick Hotel du Lac in Tunis. (Al Arab)
Optimistic. Iraqi President Barham Salih (L) during an interview with Dr Haitham El-Zobaidi at the Movenpick Hotel du Lac in Tunis. (Al Arab)

TUNIS - There was a long and winding corridor connecting the elevator with the pavilion of Iraqi President Barham Salih at the Movenpick Hotel du Lac in Tunis. The multiple doors along the corridor and the elegant decor make it seem longer than it really is.

At the end of the corridor, we were met by Tunisian and Iraqi guards. The suite doors opened and Barham Salih jumped up to hug and greet his old friend Ibrahim Zobeidi. Soon, the two friends were reminiscing about their time together in Kurdistan and during a joint visit to Japan.

It is difficult to find pictures of Salih in which he’s not smiling. Everyone who knows him describes him as a source of positive energy in a country plagued by endless calamities.

There was a time when observers claimed the end of his political career but Salih became the ideal consensual candidate for president to surpass Iraq’s post-election impasse during a period of extreme political anxiety. What was required then was a silent Kurdish president who would keep to himself and intervene only within predetermined protocol frameworks. Picking Salih imposed a different reality.

Iraq is beset with problems of every kind and authorities bear a large share of the responsibility for creating many of them and for many different reasons. By virtue of his constitutional privileges — and limitations — the president in Iraq is the eyes and conscience of the people and no one can deny him that privilege or prevent him from intervening.

It is a role that is very compatible with Salih’s personality. It matches perfectly what he wants to do: to be the watchful eye, to roam the country and make reasoned assessments without directly intervening in the work of the executive branch of the government.

“To be optimistic about Iraq’s future and its future role does not mean closing our eyes or ignoring the obstacles and challenges we face today and in the near future,” Salih said. “Lack of services, unemployment and financial and political corruption are an undeniable phenomenon but, at the same time, there exists a serious national will to confront these problems and overcome difficulties by focusing on the opportunities and elements of success that Iraq has today.”

The Iraqi president added that he has “the duty to coalesce national efforts.

“In this respect, all three presidencies (president, prime minister and parliament speaker) are coordinating their efforts and I hope that this coordination and determination will continue so as to achieve what we have promised the people in terms of real change for the best and in a manner commensurate with Iraq’s status and its people,” Salih said.

“The president of the republic is required by his national and constitutional duty to seriously monitor and follow up on these efforts to achieve what our people are expecting and, God willing, we will not tolerate any failure that harms the supreme interest of the country.”

Salih acknowledged the challenges that come with Iraq’s geographical location but he sees in that an opportunity, too.

“This is the geographical and historical fate of Iraq and the locus of its interests and those of its people,” he said. “This is what the geopolitical location of Iraq dictates and what historical facts and experiences also dictate.

“Thanks to its Islamic environment, its Arab roots and extensions and its characteristic cultural and social diversity, Iraq is destined to be a place for meeting and achieving bilateral understandings. At the same time, this (very same quality) enables Iraq to play a pivotal role in the region, a role that will restore its leading and vital importance, in order to attain its interests and national security.”

Is this role a point of agreement between Iraqi politicians, some of whom do not hesitate to declare their allegiance to this or that regional force?

“There is real awareness of this by most political leaders in Iraq… Everyone has seen the damage caused by the years of conflict and confrontation in Iraq, the tragedies and the devastation of the infrastructure and of social cohesion, plus the real threat to the security and interests of all,” Salih said.

Iraq’s relations with its neighbours are subjected to the logic of sectarian and ethnic quotas, a system that has become more like Iraq’s unavoidable fate for the foreseeable future. Iraqi politicians, before anyone else, are fully aware of this reality because it has turned into a true governing regime. The Iraqi president, however, said that some people want to see this interpretation only and purposely ignore a different dimension to the issue.

“The sectarian, ethnic and national diversity is Iraq’s advantage and strength,” Salih said. “The quota system does not represent that at all. It is the wrong political translation of that reality that came as a result of certain circumstances, and was unfortunately used for certain narrow interests, it does not represent the authentic reality of Iraqi society. There is now a strong awareness of that problem at the national level. The sectarian or ethnic slogans no longer have any currency with our people. Things have changed and there is greater awareness.”

The Iraqi president added: “But we also have to realise that the distribution of political roles is something that is required in a parliamentary system that has just left the era of dictatorship and one-party system. It is imperative to be fair and provide equal opportunities by taking into account the social and population diversity in Iraq, provided that qualification, integrity and experience are taken into account when appointing people in executive positions. The constitution stipulates that all Iraqis are equal in rights and duties and that there is no sectarian or national distinction. All Iraqis have the right to live and prosper and to assume national responsibilities and positions.”

The distribution of political roles also requires consensus between the different branches of authority. In this regard, one can only notice the obvious rapprochement between Salih and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. In the post-election turmoil, the names of both men were not even considered. Today, however, they are synonymous with Iraqi political reality. The question is what this duo can offer.

Salih explained: “Adel Abdul-Mahdi and I were close friends even before we took our respective appointments. We both engage in close coordination to achieve the success of the post-ISIS stage in Iraq. This stage is no less important than 2003. We are today at the stage of consolidating the foundations of the federal parliamentary system and the consolidation of security and social peace.”

“More important than personal relations, however, is realising the importance of putting in place the institutional foundations of the state,” continued Salih. “The power of the state is measured by the strength of its institutions and their integration according to constitutional definitions. There is a strong determination and a close cooperation between the presidency of the republic, the presidency of the Council of Ministers and the presidency of parliament to strengthen the state institutionally and to support the government in implementing its services and reforms programmes.”

The rise and fall of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, however, produced specific military and political forces that are in control of an important portion of the Iraqi political scene. Now, and with the end of the major military campaigns against ISIS in the country, the Iraqi people want to know if the time is ripe for reconsidering the composition of the armed forces and the other volunteer armed forces within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) and regrouping them in one structure that would be under state control and without exceptions.

To address this point, Salih said: “The PMF is a military formation within the security system of the Iraqi state and is regulated by law. According to this law, the PMF comes under the orders of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. We should highly appreciate the role of the members of the PMF, who had volunteered in the war against ISIS and have performed outstandingly in this confrontation and we cannot forget the great sacrifices they made to achieve victory against ISIS.”

“There is a national consensus on the necessity to follow the principle of limiting the monopoly of bearing arms to the hands of the state and to integrate the whole security system and place it under the command of the prime minister since he is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Any force or group outside the security system of the state shall be dealt with in accordance with the law,” Salih said.

Iraq, however, is not just politics, wars and conflicts. Iraqi civil society and cultural scene have both paid dearly during the years of conflicts. Has life returned to the Iraqi civil society and does the president see the return of Iraq’s leadership in the fields of culture?

“There are good and real indicators of the return of Iraqi civil society and its important role in promoting democracy and civil peace,” Salih said. “I believe that anyone who strolls through Baghdad today will quickly notice this return. Also, the recent cultural events in Baghdad, Basra, Babylon, Sulaymaniyah and other Iraqi provinces are good indicators.”

He added: “Yes, there are still some aspects that threaten the consolidation of this social and cultural role, which makes it a priority in our political and government work. We’re seeking to restore the well-being of Iraqi society and the return of Baghdad and Iraq as a centre for human creativity in art, culture and the sciences.”