In April 2006 Nouri al-Maliki became the prime minister of Iraq. The leader of the Shi'ite Dawa Party, he rose to power with the backing of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He has criticized the U.S.-led coalition for taking military action against the militias and has resisted efforts to go after al-Sadr's Shi'ite militia, the Mahdi Army. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Nov. 22, 2006 and is translated from Arabic.
In the last three years Iraqis have achieved a lot: a constitution and free elections. But what can you say to reassure Americans today about the current situation?
In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful, no doubt what will happen is tied to what has already happened. ...
It's true that there are security challenges that have resulted from internal political challenges, and also regional and maybe international ones. But this is all natural for a state making the transition from oppressive rule to the space of freedom, democracy and political pluralism. This is natural, because what has been achieved in Iraq has affected the interests of terrorists, Saddamists and sectarian elements that have used chemical weapons in Halabja and mass graves and executions in the south and the center. That is why they are in the opposition.
What is important is that we look at the future through what has been achieved, and we think that this represents a solid base that can change a lot. We are working to develop the Iraqi economy because Iraq contains natural riches that can make it a very prosperous nation. What we are also working on, and what we believe will happen eventually, is to achieve full sovereignty so the country can move forward. We also want stability and security in Iraq by destroying terrorism and militias and by having a united political vision from different components. We are also redesigning our relations with Islamic and Arab countries. These are the goals we are working on.
In the past you've complained about the American performance in the training of your forces, especially the police. Why?
The objections started at the time the police and army forces were being formed. Iraq has the remnants of an oppressive regime in addition to criminal gangs. Usually the army and police are recruited according to certain regulations so that they do not become a theater for former regime elements and criminal gangs.
[But] when the former army was disbanded and a new army was being formed on national principles, the process was chaotic and random. Therefore, many elements have infiltrated the security force. This is the problem, not just in the training. Yes, there is a shortage of training and armament, and there are not enough forces to maintain security in the country. But what is more dangerous is the infiltration of elements that are not loyal to the new Iraq.
How do you rebuild a force now that the country has become so divided, so sectarian, so partisan?
We are reviewing the police forces and the army, and we have stressed the principle that security forces should be free from any political influence and that their loyalty should be to the state alone. So the former force will be reviewed, and new elements will be recruited according to this principle. We will check their identity, files and history to ensure that those who have committed crimes or have been members of the former regime will be barred from entering the new army.
This process requires political accord and understanding, and this has already been achieved. All political groups now agree that we should purge the security forces from infiltrators.
The recent incident at the Ministry of Higher Education, what does it say about the progress that you're making?
Editor's Note: On Nov. 14, 2006, masked gunmen, reportedly dressed in Iraqi police commando uniforms, abducted dozens of people from the Ministry of Higher Education in Baghdad.
We are definitely making progress. These operations do not indicate any superiority of the gangs that have committed them, because a civilian institution was targeted, not a military one. And this is proof that the terrorists and militias are not powerful enough to confront security forces or to target security institutions, so they resorted to kidnapping innocents from the streets or from civil departments. Even then, the military reaction was swift, and we followed the perpetrators and released the majority of the kidnapped civilians, and only a handful remains missing.
But we still don't know who did this.
We know who did it. Security forces have arrested many of them and are still following the rest.
This is a false accusation made by those who oppose the state. ... Our policy is to reject all militias, whether they are Sunni or Shi'a. But there is also a misconception that militias are from one sect, when in reality we have Sunni and Shi'a militias, and there are many of them, and even the personal bodyguards of some officials are members of militias. Our stand is to reject all militias, whether it is the Mahdi Army, the Omar Brigade or the Islamic Army. ...
There's no secret about the tension between you and U.S. Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad, and there's no secret about the enormous pressure that the American military has pressed on you to get tougher on the militias.
There is no tension; there is no disagreement. But there is a difference in viewpoints on how to restore security and confront challenges.
We think that military action is not a suitable method to confront terrorism, militias and secret organizations. So we could disagree on this part, but we would agree on common points and on the plan. These are not disputes but disagreements about the current military tactics of the MNF [Multi-National Force].
In your first speech when you took the post as prime minister, you called for the merging of militias with armed forces. Khalilzad immediately criticized you for this. There are fundamental differences in the approach you've taken. Khalilzad is going to lose his job as a result of the tensions between you and him.
There is no tension. There is a degree of understanding, cooperation and coordination. I do not find any difficulty in dealing with President Bush's views in regard to security operations or the political process. ...
Currently you have no units that are operating entirely independent of American trainers. When do you predict you will have police or army units that will operate independently?
We do have forces and military units that are prepared and that are under the command of the Iraqi army and police. A higher joint committee is continuously working to speed up the handover of command and control.
I say the first months of next year will witness the transition of the majority [of], if not all, military units to Iraqi command, because we were able to speed up -- even if a higher level is required -- this process, and many units have availability through their daily operations. The MNF have made it clear that they depend on and trust the abilities of Iraqi forces, despite the need for more arms and training.
What percentage of the country do you consider now secure?
I think nine governorates in the country are now safe in the central and southern part and three governorates in the north -- Kurdistan. But we still have four governorates that are unstable. The remaining governorates may still witness terrorist operations, but this is almost considered normal given the situation in the country. Baghdad, Diyala, Anbar are the main governorates that are unstable, in addition to Salah al-Din. The rest are stable but in different degrees.
Iraq has suffered for hundreds, if not thousands, of years from deep sectarian divisions. Why would these problems be solved in a matter of 10 or 15 years?
Even Europe and America have gone through periods of divisions, conflict, bloody wars and reigns of gangs and militias, but when they took the right path they were able to overcome those challenges. Mesopotamia was the first to teach the world reading and writing, and the first law was legislated in Mesopotamia, so Iraq has the basis for civilization and coexistence, and that is what we are building our hopes on.
Do you think the Americans have the necessary patience to stick with you as partners until that happens?
I think that common interests and the desire to implement the results that were promised will give Americans a limited degree of patience. But on the other hand, we think we will not have the need for American troops to remain here for a long time, because we are working for the day when we will not need the presence of MNF and we will take control. ... This will remain an American decision, and they will choose the best way to deal with it.
Moqtada al-Sadr has an influence and a movement that is part of the political process now, and he made some good statements and positions that support the government, when he forbade bloodshed and when he ordered his followers to stay away from militias and violence.
This success can be repeated with other leaders who have militias, and I am working to achieve that with them so that they would forbid their followers from committing any acts of violence, murder and kidnappings.
Also, the government has made a decision supported by all political groups to deal firmly with anyone who acts outside the law. So we stand strongly against those who carry arms and any militia that transgresses on the sovereignty of the state. We do not differentiate between one militia and another. This was the decision that Moqtada al-Sadr has made, and we hope that all partners in the political process make the same.
You met with him not so long ago. Did you ask him specifically to disband the Mahdi Army? What was his response?
What I already said was his response. He issued a statement and a Friday prayers sermon in which he expelled many people considered part of the Mahdi Army because they were acting as criminal gangs. And he announced his preparation to work with the government and to abide by the law of the state.
Is there a role for militias to play of any kind in Iraq today?
We do not allow any militia to play a role. There is no legitimate recognition of any militia besides the state. What I am working on is that the state is number one and has no competition from any militia or paramilitary group.
How do you explain the fact that the Interior Ministry today is full of militia death squads still operating?
This is propaganda by the groups that want to slander [the ministry]. Yes, there is infiltration, as I have told you, because of the methods in which the army and police were formed by the MNF. But we are purging these elements every day.
What is being said about the numbers is an exaggeration by groups that want to undermine the state. Yes, there are militias in the army and police, but we are purging them and are expelling them from the army and police, and the issue is not as they are making it to be.
Who is responsible for this exaggeration?
The groups that oppose the political process and those who don't believe in it, such as the Baath Party and Takfiri and terrorist groups, in addition to militias that do not want to conform to the political process sometimes.
Editor's Note: "Takfiri" refers to fundamentalist Muslims who declare Muslims with other beliefs to be infidels.
... There is so much to talk about Iraq, from the economy, politics and foreign relations, not only militias. Why do you focus only on militias? Is this not a message that conveys that there is no progress in Iraq, no state, no Parliament and no law? ...
How do you explain that there are dozens of bodies on the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere every day?
This is also an exaggeration. It is not thousands of bodies. These are remnants of political groups that are supported by foreign powers, or the gangs and organizations of the Baath Party that kill innocents. If stable countries had the same gangs that we have, then there would also be victims. This takes place in stable areas, like what happened in New York or the subways in [Spain]. It's possible.
True, the wound is deep. We have victims. But this is an open battle between us and the terrorists, the followers of the former regime and the militias that are supported by regional countries. We hope to control this by improving our intelligence and expanding our political process.
You are saying that there are militias controlled by Syria and Iran?
More than that. All regional countries support some militias, one way or another.
You should ask them about this. I only know that I reject any interference in Iraqi affairs, and I reject the arming of any militia. And I am working politically and through the military to prevent the smuggling of weapons over the borders for any group.
And when you ask the leaders of Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia if they are seeing money coming from these countries to support militias in Iraq, do they tell you the truth?
Of course no one says, "Yes." Everyone denies. But there are preparations that they have announced to support Iraq and to control borders, and we take these positions as reaffirmation that there will be no interference in internal affairs.
Good luck and God bless. I don't envy you for the job you've taken.
Building nations deserves that we make sacrifices. It's not easy to make the transition from dictatorship and oppression to freedom. This is the price of freedom. If you read your history and that of Europe, you would find the same thing. This is natural.