An Iraqi Airways cargo plane on the runway. The airline may soon be flying again.
Al-Amiri also talks about how a recent visit to Iraq’s neighbour, Kuwait, could see Iraqi Airways flying again. And he clarifies what really went on when the group he heads, the formerly militant Badr Organization, split from the Islamic Supreme Council last week – the move caused ripples in Iraqi political circles where usually, the sect that votes together, rules together.
NIQASH: This week at the United Nations, officials from the United States and Britain accused Iran of shipping weapons to Syria – weapons that are being used by the Syrian government against their own people. And they say the weapons are travelling through Iraqi airspace to get to Iran. What do you think?
Hadi Al-Amiri: It’s a lie. If weapons were being transported, we would have been informed. Some time ago, weapons heading for the United Arab Emirates went through Iraq; we were informed about that, we gave our permission and the shipment went through. That’s how things should be done.
Now the US claims that Iran is transporting weapons to Syria through the Iraqi air space. This is just another part of the way the US lies and spreads propaganda. Yes, there are flights from Iran to Syria passing over Iraq – but there are also flights heading to Jordan, and to Europe. Thousands of plans use Iraqi air space every month. Some just fly over, others land here. There’s no country in the world that forces all flights passing overhead to land so that their cargo can be inspected!
NIQASH: So you’re saying that Iraqi officials wouldn’t even know if weapons were actually being transported through their airspace?
Al-Amiri: If there is any doubt about this, we won’t give an air craft permission to use our airspace. The Americans told us that there were weapons being transported through our airspace so we asked them to provide us with evidence of this. We also contacted the Iranians and told them that we don’t allow weapons transported through our airspace. We also said that if we get any evidence that indicates that this is happening, we’ll stop Iranian planes flying through our airspace.
Additionally Iran would be shipping US-made weapons – that’s what they have. And the Syrian regime has Russian-made weapons. The only people in Syria using US-made weapons are the Syrian [anti-Assad regime] revolutionaries and they’re getting these from Turkey.
I’d also like to point out that Iran can ship far more weapons to Syria by sea – ten times more, in fact. So why would it be using our air space?
Still, we did talk to the Iranians and we said if we find any evidence that they’re bringing weapons over Iraqi airspace, we’ll ban their use of our airspace. The Iranians said that this information simply wasn’t true. They told us that the al-Assad regime [in Syria] needs economic support more than it needs guns.
NIQASH: While we’re talking about Iraqi airspace, could you tell us what you know about unmanned US surveillance drones using the Iraqi sky to spy on Iran?
Al-Amiri: This is true. The US has sent a number of unmanned planes to monitor activities in Iran. But the Iranians shot one of these down.
NIQASH: Is this still going on: US drones moving over Iraq?
Al-Amiri: They may well be passing through Iraqi airspace. We just don’t have any equipment that’s sophisticated enough to detect them. We’ve told the US we won’t allow this. And it seems that Iran has the capacity to bring these planes down.
NIQASH: OK, let’s move on. You’re also the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Minister of Transport. A few days ago you went to Kuwait to discuss various problems relevant to your neighbours. One of those issues involved Iraqi Airways – the Kuwaitis have been demanding compensation worth billions ever since Saddam Hussein invaded that nation in the 1990s and destroyed or seized most of Kuwait Airlines’ assets.
Al-Amiri: Kuwait filed a lawsuit against Iraqi airways in Britain and the eventual verdict banned Iraqi Airways planes from travelling to Europe, or from purchasing planes. During this recent visit though, we made significant progress toward resolving this.
We agreed to pay them US$300 million in cash as compensation ad we also agreed to invest a further US$200 million in a joint venture between Iraqi Airways and Kuwait Airways.
But there are still a lot of outstanding problems, mostly resulting from Iraq’s previous invasion of Kuwait – problems around borders, oil fields, water sources and so on. During this last visit, we agreed on the establishment of a joint committee to discuss all those things and to try and find some solutions.
NIQASH: Are there any plans for Iraqi Airways to buy planes or to open new routes?
Al-Amiri: Iraqi Airways doesn’t have any planes because of the Kuwaiti lawsuit. However Iraqi Airways does have a contract with the Iraqi Ministry of Finance that gives them permission to purchase 45 Boeing planes. We also have an old contract with Airbus and we’re going to renew that if things are resolved with Kuwait.
Despite those outstanding problems, we’ve been able to open Iraq up to many new airlines. Previously there were only a handful of flights from the United Arab Emirates every week, now there are around 50 a week. Flights coming from Turkey are at around 60 a week and Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon are also increasing numbers of flights.
We also want to start flights into Tehran [Iran] and to other Iranian cities to give Iranians visiting the holy shrines in Iraq better access. We also have flights to India and we’re intending on flying to Pakistan and China too.
We’re also trying to open more airports around Iraq. And I believe that if we can come to an agreement with Kuwait, then Iraqi Airlines will expand hugely because Iraq today is such a promising market for air travel.
NIQASH: And how about that other sticking point with the Kuwaitis: the Mubarak al-Kabir Port, which is located near the border between Kuwait and Iraq. The news agency Associated Press recently wrote that Iraqis thought this was Kuwait’s way of “trying to strangle Iraq\'s shipping channels and scuttle a planned Iraqi port project”.
Al-Amiri: We have already discussed the Mubarak al-Kabir Port with the Kuwaitis and the joint committee will discuss that further after the Arab League Summit [to be held in Baghdad next week].
We believe Kuwait has every right to build a port on its own land and we wouldn’t interfere in such a project. But we firmly believe that building Mubarak al-Kabir Port in the planned location will damage Iraq’s economic interests. We have asked them to relocate the port and then we’d have absolutely no problem with it. This is a port being built by an Arab country and we feel sure it will bring Iraq benefits in the future.
NIQASH: Can you tell us what damage you\'re talking about?
Al-Amiri: The Mubarak al-Kabir Port won’t have an impact on the Grand al-Faw port but it will certainly impact on the ports of Umm Qasr and Khor al-Zubair.
Many countries have more than one port and in fact, Kuwait has five. If they changed the location for the Mubarak al-Kabir Port, we wouldn’t have any problem with it. And I still believe that the Kuwaitis don’t want to do any [economic] damage to Iraq. If we can convince them that we are going to suffer as a result, then I’m sure they would consider changing the location.
NIQASH: How have the Kuwaitis responded to Iraq’s attempts to resolve these disputes?
Al-Amiri: This is the third visit to Kuwait since I became a Minister and the response from the Kuwaitis has been earnest. The government and the Emir [ruler of Kuwait] are all keen to resolve our problems. And to be honest, we don’t have any other option. If we don’t forget the past, then both of our countries will suffer. So I hope we can resolve things to both nations’ satisfaction.
NIQASH: Events in Syria have seen Iraq proposed as an alternative route for the passage of export goods from the Persian Gulf countries into Turkey and Europe, and vice versa. Your thoughts on this?
Al-Amiri: This has been discussed. But there are actually a lot of technical issues we need to solve first. For one thing, we don’t have X-ray scanners for the inspection of exports and imports. And opening everything by hand to check it is difficult and time consuming.
Finally, there’s also the security situation in the country to consider. It still needs to improve. But we’re working on developing the proper environment to get all of this happening.
NIQASH: Let’s talk about your other job, as head of the Badr Organization. Recently the Badr Organization, once the military wing of one of the most important Islamic political parties in Iraq, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, split from its parent body. So tell us, did that split happen because of upcoming elections?
Al-Amiri: It’s not as simple as that. Personally I would describe the relationship between the two organizations as a complimentary one. Right from the day they were created, the Islamic Supreme Council and the Badr Organization were always independent of one another. But due to conditions in the country – such as the US-led occupation of Iraq – the two organizations merged. To overcome the difficulties we faced, together.
Iraq was basically an occupied country and conditions weren’t stable. To build a new Iraq we needed to work together. But now those conditions have obviously changed. There’s no need for a joint leadership.
Rather than having two quite separate organizations under one leadership, we think it’s better to make that separation official. Now the Badr Organization has its leaders and the Islamic Supreme Council has theirs.
Nonetheless the two organizations continue to coordinate their activities, and at the very highest level.
NIQASH: That doesn’t sound particularly convincing. Is there something you are not telling us?
Al-Amiri: No. Really, the major reason behind this is the more stable situation in Iraq. After lengthy discussion, we decided to split. And we have done this in a very civilised way.
NIQASH: So none of this has anything to do with political competition for votes in the upcoming elections?
Al-Amiri: As I said, I think we complement each other rather than compete. We wouldn’t join any other political coalition before we joined the Islamic Supreme Council - it is close to our hearts. We would form one list and we wouldn’t compete against them.
NIQASH: Some analysts have noted that the conflicts between the two organizations are hardly new and that, in fact, they stem from disagreements about whether to support current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in his second term.
Al-Amiri: To be frank, I was personally against supporting al-Maliki for a second term. But we came to realise that if we didn’t support al-Maliki, then the country would face another crisis.
Eventually I said that we should support al-Maliki for a second term but only under certain conditions. However the Supreme Islamic Council remained hesitant and even when I said I was ready to support al-Maliki, they remained neutral.
NIQASH: Others have said this split actually stems back to the election of Ammar al-Hakim as leader of Islamic Supreme Council: he replaced his father who died of cancer at a Tehran hospital in August 2009. They say that the two organizations’ opinions differed on this – and, in particular, that the Badr Organization was against it.
Al-Amiri: We have no interest in this. We were formed to serve the people. The Badr Organization is a project which calls for sacrifice and for resistance – it’s not about personal gain. Today the Badr Organization is a project that aims to help people.
Some journalists have said that in an election, the Islamic Supreme Council would win more votes and others have said that the Badr Organization would. But it’s not even as simple as that [winning or losing]. We’re ready to give all our votes to the Islamic Supreme Council. We’re not at war and we’re not aiming to make personal gains here; we want a political party that will help society and the Iraqi people.
NIQASH: When the split was announced, we heard that some members of the Badr Organization jumped ship, declaring that they wanted to join the Supreme Islamic Council.
Al-Amiri: Again, things are not that simple. Ammar al-Hakim [head of the Supreme Islamic Council] told council members that anyone who wanted to work with the Badr Organization should now go and join the Badr Organization. I also said anyone who wants to work with al-Hakim should join the Supreme Islamic Council.
I believe a strong Council provides us with strength and vice versa. I also said that anyone who does choose to go still has my support. There is no competition between myself and al-Hakim, we work as a team.
I will also point out that those who left the Badr Organization were not in leadership roles, they are individuals. They said they’d join al-Hakim but they also said they might return. And I told them they were welcome back any time.