niqash interview: iraq’s reconciliation minister on negotiating with militias, saddam hussein and libya
Iraq’s National Reconciliation Minister Amir al-Khuzaei talks to NIQASH about why his job may be redundant once the US leaves, how armed militias will join the political process and the Libyan connection with Saddam Hussein’s followers.
Once US troops withdraw there may no longer be any need for the National Reconciliation Committee, argues Amir al-Khuzaei, the government minister responsible for reconciling various ethnic, sectarian and political divisions in Iraq. Because then armed groups inside Iraq who say expelling the US is the reason for their existence, will no longer have any need to resist, he notes.
Al-Khuzaei, who is a member of current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political party, also talked to NIQASH about whether the most recent round of removals of former Baath party officials, who were previously loyal to deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, was due to information from the new leaders of Libya. He explains how well conciliatory dialogue is going with those Iraqis still demonstrating against the current government and discusses whether former followers of Saddam Hussein are plotting a new round of unrest.
NIQASH: There are those who raise doubts about the reconciliation process led by the current government. What exactly are you doing and what are your objectives?
Al-Khuzaei: After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, everyone knows that the majority of Iraqis joined in the political process. They all approved of a permanent Constitution, one that guaranteed freedom, democracy and a peaceful transfer of power. However there were some parts of Iraqi society who had doubts about these changes in the country. The aim of the reconciliation process is to engage with these factions and to try to get their support for the political process.
NIQASH: Which parties or factions are you trying to get involved in the reconciliation process?
Al-Khuzaei: Everyone - with the exception of those who excluded themselves, such as al-Qaeda, or those who were excluded by the new Iraqi Constitution, such as the Baath party [Saddam Hussein’s former political party].
Al-Qaeda has excluded itself from dialogue because its principles are based on the suppression of other parties’ views. Al-Qaeda has refused any offers of reconciliation, not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. And according to Article 7 of the Iraqi Constitution, the Baath party is prohibited from participating in the political process. This law cannot be ignored.
The National Reconciliation Committee was formed in mid-2006, in an attempt to reconcile various conflicted sections of Iraqi society - including the massive sectarian and political rivalries between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, the differences between those who had formerly been members of Saddam Hussein’s political party, the Baath party, as well as those who were opposed to the Iraqi government cooperation with US forces inside Iraq. Part of the committee’s charter was to develop dialogue with armed militias and to extend an amnesty to those who had not killed anyone (including Americans). The committee was also to reform more severe measures taken against former members of the Baath party because those measures had only fuelled further conflict in Iraq. In general the committee was formed to calm the various divides in Iraq that were threatening to fuel an ongoing civil war. Amir al-Khuzaei is the National Reconciliation Minister.
NIQASH: The process of reconciliation has been criticised – some say that it’s avoided putting the blame on certain parties – such as insurgent groups who carry out armed attacks - even though they may have engaged in criminal behaviour.
Al-Khuzaei: In our efforts to reconcile, we want to open up channels of communication with the insurgents and to negotiate with them. The government will pardon those who put down their arms to join in the reconciliation process. But this doesn’t mean that the rights of ordinary Iraqi citizens are compromised. Reconciliation may be able to make compromises in the public interest. But it cannot compromise on individual rights.
NIQASH: Can you tell us more about the kinds of dialogue that you have been having with armed factions?
Al-Khuzaei: We have been engaged in a positive dialogue with some of the factions for whom Harith al-Dhari [head of the conservative and mostly anti-US and anti-Iraqi-government Association of Muslim Scholars, a mainly Sunni Muslim group] is a spokesperson. We have also been fully engaged with the [Sunni Muslim] 1920 Revolution Brigade, the [Sunni Muslim] Mujahideen Army, the [Sunni Muslim] Islamic Jihad Brigades and the [Sunni Muslim] Ansar al-Sunnah group in Diyala. Also [the Sunni Muslim armed group] al-Naqshbandia, [the Sunni Muslim armed group] Hamas Iraq and the [Shiite Muslim] League of the Righteous.
The dialogue and the agreements we have come to differ from group to group. Some of them were made on a collective level, others were on an individual level. In terms of the latter, we’ve had members of armed groups approach us and say that they wanted to quit their armed activities and return to their ordinary lives. We have no objection to this – in fact, we welcome it.
NIQASH: Are you sure that the individuals and groups you have negotiated with so far will respect the agreements you’ve come to?
Al-Khuzaei: Yes. Any armed faction or individual who agrees to join the reconciliation effort signs a pledge not to return to armed conflict. Those who sign the pledge also agree to provide information about militants who refuse reconciliation, who damage public property and who kill Iraqis.
NIQASH: What do you think will happen with Iraq’s various militia groups after the US troop withdrawal is complete?
Al-Khuzaei: All of them say that the reason they exist is because of the presence of foreign forces in Iraq. They say that their activities will end with the withdrawal of those forces. So we have been waiting to see what will happen. We have had an indirect dialogue with the League of the Righteous, via individuals in the organisation. Many of them have expressed their willingness to quit the armed struggle.
NIQASH: All of the armed factions say that in resisting those they see as occupiers, they have patriotic and nationalistic goals. Does the reconciliation process take what the groups describe as ‘patriotism’ into account?
Al-Khuzaei: As everyone knows these groups work in secrecy so it’s difficult to assess exactly what they are doing or have done. We have seen that some of the groups haven’t been involved in crimes against Iraqis or against public property. They were only targeting foreign troops. However there are also individuals who carried out [violent] acts alone, without the consent of the armed faction they're involved in.
NIQASH: When it comes to the militia groups who lay down their arms, in what way does the reconciliation process work and what have you achieved?
Al-Khuzaei: The reconciliation commission provides members of armed groups with rehabilitation and with job opportunities, by integrating them into the Awakening forces. We also buy weapons from these groups so that the government can control armaments. There have been a number of disarming operations and we have collected heavy arms in Basra three times and once, recently, from Anbar.
NIQASH: Rumour has it that Mahmoud Jibril, the head of Libya’s National Transitional Council, and often described as the interim prime minister of Libya during the recent conflict there, gave you a list of Baath party members in Iraq that the ousted Gaddafi regime was supporting. Are the rumours correct: were recent raids on suspected Baathists in Iraq based on information given by Jibril?
Al-Khuzaei: I don’t know anything about this. What we do know though, is that we have information saying that Baath party remnants were preparing for a “zero hour” after US troops left the country. They want to provoke civil disobedience and organize destructive demonstrations and they’re forcing Iraqis to join in, with threats and intimidation. They plan a return to power but really, they’re dreaming because they don’t have any political, public or popular support at all.
NIQASH: Rather than engaging in a struggle with them, the US was pushing for the integration of former Baathists. What are your thoughts on that policy?
Al-Khuzaei: The Americans are not part of this conversation. There is an elected Iraqi government and a clear Constitution. No other party should be interfering in this Iraqi issue.
NIQASH: You mentioned demonstrations. Has the reconciliation process also included the leaders of the weekly demonstrations against the government taking place in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities?
Al-Khuzaei: Yes, we’ve contacted some of the representatives of the demonstrators. But most of these have secret relationships with forces outside Iraq. They are protesting about the lack of electricity, they demand jobs and they want an improvement in living conditions. And they want all this within one or two weeks. But this is impossible and they know it. However the demonstrators are driven on by destructive [external] forces as well as by political parties, who did not win seats in the last  Iraqi election. And those just want to discredit the government and increase their own popularity.
NIQASH: When do you think the reconciliation process can end officially? Is there a date set?
Al-Khuzaei: We expect it to end by the end of this year. After the US troops’ withdrawal, none of the armed groups will have any reason to exist in their current incarnations. Armed groups will be asked to halt their activities or be considered outlaws and risk prosecution. We are waiting to see how things develop.
NIQASH: And finally, some observers have said that the various political blocs in the Iraqi parliament could actually do with some reconciliation themselves – especially given the importance of, and number of, unresolved issues between them all. Your take on this?
Al-Khuzaei: Of course, political differences between parties and between allies can harm the political process. But it can also have a positive impact and keep the idea of [democratic] freedom alive. I believe these differences of opinion are positive as long as they don’t turn into rivalry. Different opinions are the basis of healthy democracy.