Iraqi President Fuad Masum believes that the military cooperation between the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi troops in the battle for Mosul was a very important step to improve the situation in Iraq and ties between Erbil and Baghdad. Masum says that the Shiite force of Hashd al-Shaabi was created at the right time and has been vital in the war against ISIS, while reassuring everyone that they will not participate in Iraq’s next elections under Hashd or any other name.
Masum says that Iraq has asked foreign countries for help in the war against terrorism and that it maintains good relations with countries such as Iran and the United States at the same time, but without falling under their influence and maintaining its independence.
The Iraqi president says that on the question of Kurdistan Region’s referendum for independence the stance of the neighboring countries matter.
Rudaw: How has the situation in Iraq evolved since you became president and Haider Abadi became prime minister?
Fuad Masum: I can’t say they have completely improved or worsened. There were some subjects that came up. The situation deteriorated in terms of income. Oil prices dropped and the war stepped up. In addition, there were some political problems between political parties. We assumed power in the face of these unpleasant situations which weren’t easy to solve. We had to confront the war. The first important step was taken after the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi government agreed to cooperate. The attempt to invite other countries to assist us was also helpful. The job was big. The situations improved in some respects. Oil prices have slightly gone up. The thing that gives hope is that ISIS is nearing its demise, and oil prices are gradually going up. In addition, political parties are now convinced that they shouldn’t participate in elections in this way.
Some people think the Hashd al-Shaabi forces will pose a danger after ISIS. Even Muqtada al-Sadr had earlier said there are criminal groups within the Hashd forces and shouldn’t therefore take part in elections. What do you think of this?
The Hashd al-Shaabi was formed at a time of need when many parts in central Iraq were under the threat of ISIS. It appears that all people are asked to carry guns under these situations. The call made by the (Shiite) authority was necessary at the time. But situations are changing nowadays. The number of the Hash al-Shaabi forces is determined by law to be around 40,000. However, there are some of them kidnapping people. This is what people are surely against.
No party will take part in elections under the name Hashd al-Shaabi. Thus far, nearly 60 entities have registered with the (election) commission. No other parties can register now. Some people with the Hashd al-Shaabi have registered as a party not as Hashd. And this is normal.
Some see the Hashd al-Shaabi forces as a threat to the Kurdistan Region, especially on the disputed areas. Will they pose a threat in the future?
The Kurds have been hurt many times. They therefore are entitled to address dangers. However, there has been some kind of agreement right from the beginning. For example, there was an agreement that the Kurds and Hashd al-Shaabi will not enter Mosul in an attempt to avoid national and sectarian sensitivities. The Kurds should protect the Kurdish areas if they can. Other parties shouldn’t interfere in this.
Is Iran dealing with Iraq as a neighbor or as a country it has influence on?
Iran has its own policies, so does Iraq. Relations between the two are deep and broad. But this doesn’t mean we are pursuing their policies and support anything they say. In the past, we met with the Americans many times in New York and in here and said that we don’t see the US or other countries in Iranian eyes or see Iran in American eyes. We have our own relations with Iran. However, we should maintain our independence. We don’t want to be part of the politics of other countries in the region.
Has there been any pressure on you or Haider al-Abadi due to the influence of Iran?
No, there hasn’t been anything. For example, I had to make a decision on the changing of the prime minister. Nobody came up to me saying they want this person and don’t want that person. However, there might be some kind of relations with some parties. And this is another matter.
There have been problems between the Kurdistan Region and Iraq since 2014. Baghdad has cut the Kurdistan Region’s budget. Have you had any initiatives to resolve this matter?
We have tried a lot. The cutting of the budget is a big problem for people relying on their salaries. The government says that according to the constitution the oil income should be for all the people of Iraq. This means the income should be put in the Iraqi treasury and from there to be distributed. That is why this issue was delayed. Many attempts were made in order for them to meet with each other. The Oil Minister Adil Abdulmahdi visited Kurdistan on several occasions. He tried a lot, but no agreement was made.
You said that all Iraq’s income should be put in the general treasury. What do you mean by that? Is the Kurdistan Region to blame in this respect?
The problem lies with the amount of power wanted. The (Kurdistan) Region wants to have many of these powers and Iraq wants to control many of the powers which the Kurdistan Region has.
The National Alliance listens to you. Can they promise you that they will solve this problem?
I have made many efforts with the Kurdish parties. I visited Mr Nawshirwan [Mustafa] and talked to him about these problems and we agreed on certain things. I also visited Mr Masoud and told him that I had met with Mr Nawshirwan. I shared with him Mr Nawshirwan’s opinions. We talked and reached something they both were in agreement on. I left Mr Masoud in the evening and headed home in Erbil. The former US ambassador to Iraq and Brett McGurk were both waiting for the result (of my talks). They were very happy when I told them about the result. I had planned to visit Sulaimani to meet with Mr Nawshirwan and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) politburo. Then the parliament held that session which they had agreed not to hold on the 18th. They held the meeting and the thing they both had agreed upon was destroyed.
It’s claimed that half of the Iraqi cash reserves has now been used to pay salaries. Have you ever spoken to Abadi as to why they aren’t giving some of these reserves to the Kurdistan Region?
This subject is discussed every time. The situations have now reached a point where they both might do their own business. You may notice that Iraq too isn’t saying anything about the Kurdistan Region now. There is cooperation between them which I hope is further developed.
Do you think the Kurdistan Region will declare independence or reach a new agreement with Baghdad?
The question of independence isn’t only about holding a referendum. There are other things which you should take into account. Neighboring countries don’t seem to support it yet.
But Kurdish officials especially from the KDP have said many countries have given them the go-ahead for this.
Maybe, but it is the neighboring countries that matter most.
Do you think you might be the last Kurdish president of Iraq?
This depends on future elections. It might not necessarily be me. Somebody else might be elected. Or there might be switches of positions. The parliament might be headed by the Kurds and the presidency by another party.
Do you think the Kurds will take part in future Iraqi parliamentary elections?
Yes, they will. If they don’t participate in the elections and don’t do something else there, then they will be opening the door for interferences by regional countries.