As most Iraqi observers now know, the last US troops were barely out of Iraqi airspace in late December 2011 when the delicate coalition government in Baghdad was hurtled into a serious political crisis. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament to dismiss one of his three deputy prime ministers and also issued an arrest warrant for one of Iraq’s two vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, on charges of terrorism.
Al-Hashimi was on his way to a meeting in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan at the time and was allowed to continue on his way. And almost a month later, he remains there ostensibly under the protection of Kurdish politicians, who seem to be mediating in the case.
NIQASH met al-Hashimi in Sulaymaniyah and talked to him about the charges against him, under what conditions he would return to Baghdad, how the current political crisis can be resolved and whether that solution involves more federalism.
NIQASH: In terms of the charges of terrorism against you, you have always insisted upon your innocence. But if that is so, then why did you leave Baghdad and why don’t you return there?
Tariq al-Hashimi: I left Baghdad on Dec. 17 so I had left the city before the testimonies of my guards [against me] were broadcast on TV. I came to Sulaymaniyah after an official invitation was extended to me on Dec. 15 by His Excellency, the President of the Republic [Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani]. The invitation was extended to me and my colleague Khodair al-Khozaei [also a vice president] in order for us to attend the presidency’s council meeting.
NIQASH: So you’re saying you were not trying to escape the arrest warrant?
Al-Hashimi: No, I did not run away. I am confident that the judiciary and the Iraqi courts will uphold my name and reputation in due course.
NIQASH: So why don’t you just return to Baghdad?
Al-Hashimi: Because I don’t trust the judiciary in Baghdad. This is why I officially requested that the government transfer my trial to Kirkuk. This is a legitimate request under Article 55, which gives the defendant the right to request a change of location for a trial.
NIQASH: And why Kirkuk? Beforehand you were saying you wanted the trial to take place in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan?
Al-Hashimi: Yes, that’s true. At first I did want to have the trial take place in Iraqi Kurdistan. However Iraqi Kurdistan’s judicial system operates independently of the rest of Iraq, which means there are no administrative links between Baghdad and Erbil. So I chose Kirkuk instead. And I believe I’ll get a fairer trial in Kirkuk than I would in Baghdad.
The other issue is my personal safety. I believe I’ll be safer in Kirkuk - especially after al-Maliki’s decision to disband the security detail responsible for my personal safety, and to confiscate its weapons. I have no protection in Baghdad anymore so I cannot go there. I also have the feeling that al-Maliki’s agents inside the security apparatus will influence the judiciary. In Kirkuk that won’t happen. In Kirkuk, this issue will be handled properly and the matter will be re-investigated, including the testimonies and confessions of my guards.
In Baghdad, the judiciary is very much under the executive branch’s influence. In fact, there are a lot of warrants that are never actioned. And my bodyguard’s confessions made it into the media within two days.
NIQASH: If the Iraqi government promised to provide you with protection, would you go back to Baghdad?
Al-Hashimi: I don’t trust the government so I don’t trust any promises they might make. And by the government, I mean Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki himself. I have a problem with him as a person. He cannot tolerate any opposition, he cannot tolerate people criticising his failed administration and he cannot tolerate me when I talk about human rights violations in Iraq. It’s clear that he doesn’t tolerate any kind of criticism, no matter how legitimate or substantiated. This is why he is targeting me.
NIQASH: You’re saying al-Maliki is a dictator?
Al-Hashimi: I won’t use this term. We need to agree on the terminology before we go any further. I do believe that al-Maliki is ruling the country with an iron fist. He is the commander of the armed forces, the defence minister, the interior minister, head of intelligence and the national security chief. How can one person hold all of these very sensitive positions?
So what I can say is this: if we allow this situation to continue, then the country will see change - from a democratic system into an autocratic system of governance.
NIQASH: You say you’re innocent, but how do you explain what your bodyguards confessed to on television? They accused you of running a death squad that targeted police officers and political rivals.
Al-Hashimi: I’m sure these testimonies were made under pressure and as a result of torture. If it’s true, then why doesn’t the government accede to my request to transfer the case from Baghdad to Kirkuk?
I am a former Iraqi officer. Is it logical that I give orders to my guards to kill traffic police or politicians, or to carry out bombing attacks?
When I left Baghdad, the intelligence services searched my house and my offices. They were surprised because they found nothing but Kalashnikov weapons belonging to the guards. They were expecting to find heavy artillery and labs for making explosives.
These crimes may have happened. But neither I nor members of my security detail were involved. I trust them completely and I am confident they are innocent. In fact, you can read the documents released by Wikileaks [in 2010] to find out who’s committing such acts. Al-Maliki or al-Hashimi? There are many people close to the Prime Minister involved in criminal acts.
NIQASH: In the past you’ve expressed your opposition to the idea of an Iraq made up of federal states. Now you’re seeking the protection of the strongest federal state in Iraq, the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan. Has the situation you find yourself in changed the way you think about federalism in Iraq?
Al-Hashimi: The problem is al-Maliki trying to control everything. As he does this, he is driving Iraq’s provinces to demand their independence, which is something the Iraqi Constitution gives them the right to do.
At the same time, Iraqi provinces are also comparing themselves with Iraqi Kurdistan. They’re comparing their own achievements over the last eight years with those of Iraqi Kurdistan and they see the huge difference. They’re comparing the improvements in Iraqi Kurdistan to the negligence, the lack of services, the human rights violations and the high unemployment rates that exist in their own areas.
We tried to encourage al-Maliki to respect the Constitution and we gave him ample opportunity to prove that respect as well as his respect for a centralized government. However he didn’t do this. So the provinces are left with no other options.
The elections have allowed the Shiite Muslims to win a majority and to monopolize the prime ministerial office. We don’t have any problem with this, provided that the prime minister is just and fair in his administration and that the government represents the interests of all of the Iraqi people and not just one sect.
Personally I am now convinced about federalism. But I don’t believe we should divide the country up because this would be disastrous for all parts of Iraqi society. Federal states shouldn’t be built on a sectarian basis – although obviously the case of Iraqi Kurdistan is a special one.
NIQASH: Do you think the current crisis will lead to a divided Iraq?
It all depends on al-Maliki’s policies. We will not accept the monopolization of power by al-Maliki. The Iraqi government should represent all Iraqis, there needs to be an end mismanagement and corruption and there should be respect for human rights. Otherwise consequences will be severe.
NIQASH: How do you feel about the way the Kurdish politicians have dealt with your case?
Al-Hashimi: I’m not surprised about it at all. My case has nothing to do with my relationships within the Iraqiya list or with the Kurdish leaders. They have all dealt with this in an objective and professional manner and they’re not asking for anything in return for their support.
At the same time, it is important to remember that if the Kurdish leaders allow al-Maliki to continue monopolizing power, including pushing me around, then he will continue to do this and in the future other individuals will be targeted. So the Kurds are not only protecting al-Hashimi, they’re protecting their own future. They might become al-Maliki’s next targets. And in general the Kurdish are protecting the political process in Iraq because it is at risk from al-Maliki.
If the Republic of Iraq’s Vice-President can be accused in this way, then what guarantees do the Kurdish leaders – or other politicians in Baghdad – have that they will not be treated the same way as I am being treated?
NIQASH: Where does your political bloc, the Iraqiya list, currently stand in regard to your case?
Al-Hashimi: Firstly, there is consensus within the Iraqiya list that this lawsuit is a political problem. For me to regain my reputation, this crisis must have a fitting legal resolution. And this should be done in court. The Iraqiya list is unanimous on this – and this is their understanding of the case and how they want to deal with it.
Personally, I agree too. I have been accused by the judiciary so the case should be resolved by the judiciary. I should be pronounced innocent and my reputation restored. I won’t accept any other kind of settlement and I insist upon my day in court.
NIQASH: Today everybody is talking about the upcoming National Conference, proposed so that all parties can get together to discuss their differences. It’s apparently scheduled to be held soon in Baghdad. Do you think this conference could put an end to the current political crisis?
Al-Hashimi: A National Conference is necessary. However I don’t imagine it will put an end to the existing problems which have been evolving over eight years. There are two options for Iraqis now. The first is to work at building a genuinely democratic system. Or to surrender and move toward an autocratic regime. We can either build a democracy or allow al-Maliki to build his own system. The upcoming conference could determine which option Iraq goes for.
NIQASH: Does this mean that you will attend the conference, even if it is held in Baghdad?
Al-Hashimi: That’s what I’d like to do – and it is what Iraqiya would like too. We really want to see an end to this crisis and we want to settle legal disputes.
The computers and files taken from my offices should be returned and I should be able to reopen my offices, my bodyguards should be allowed to get back to work and those who have been detained should be released. If that happens, I will participate in the conference.
As for the conference venue, we have not yet agreed that it should be held in Baghdad. We’ve requested it be held elsewhere. According to the Iraqiya list and to Dr Ayed Allawi [head of the list] it is important that the president of Iraqi Kurdistan attend the conference. But he has said he will not attend if the conference is held in Baghdad.
NIQASH: In previous interviews, you said that the situation in Iraq could only improve after the US troops withdrew. But as soon as they left, you were accused of terrorist acts. Were you wrong about what you said earlier?
Al-Hashimi: I’ve never been protected by the Americans. In fact, what I want is for Iraq to regain full sovereignty. I’ve been demanding this for years. So no, I wasn’t wrong. During my time as a politician I have not been protected by the Americans, I’ve been protected by the Iraqi people. In the end, we are responsible for resolving our own problems and conflicts. Which is no different from any other nation in the world.
NIQASH: Are you in contact with US politicians?
Al-Hashimi: No. The last meeting I had was with the US ambassador in Baghdad before my trip to Kurdistan. Since then there’s been no contact with anyone from the Embassy.
NIQASH: The warrant for your arrest was sent from Baghdad to the highest courts in Iraqi Kurdistan a few days ago. Have you heard anything about this?
Al-Hashimi: Nothing at all, other than what everybody else has also heard via the media. Anyway this won’t change the way I see things because shortly after the warrant was issued, al-Maliki had already said at a press conference that Iraqi Kurdistan should hand me over.
So in general, this doesn’t change anything. The leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan have not changed their positions and they sympathize with me because of this injustice.
NIQASH: There are also rumours that your family have already fled Iraq, via Sulaymaniyah airport. True or not?
Al-Hashimi: This isn’t true. There’s only my wife and she lives in Baghdad. A few days ago she travelled to Jordan. My son studies in London. And other family members are adults and they have their own lives.