Iraq once again has a democratically elected government. It took MPs a year to agree on Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as prime minister at the end of October. SZ Middle East correspondent Mirco Keilberth met him with a small group of Iraqi and international journalists at his office in Baghdad.
SZ: Thanks to the drastically increased oil price, your government has a record budget. What are you going to do with the money?
Mohammed Shia al-Sudani: The main goal is to restore trust between citizens and parliament – through less poverty, more health, education and services for poor people. Therefore, as one of my first official acts, I visited a government hospital in Baghdad. Another priority is the continuation of economic reforms. We can’t just rely on the oil crisis and the resulting high prices.
But the most important thing is the fight against corruption. It is Iraq’s greatest threat, destroying the equitable distribution of oil revenues and wealth. We will take action against anyone stealing Iraqi wealth. We will ask the international community to recover the money stolen and taken out of the country.
Corruption is widespread in Iraq. How do you intend to combat them?
Every corrupt government official will be fired in the future. Before my time, corruption happened under the eyes of ministers. That will not happen in my reign. I will open monitoring offices, committees will monitor the flow of funds from the ministries, approved by parliament.
I know the majority of Iraqis have doubts about our will to end corruption because of their experience with other governments. The evasion of three billion dollars from customs and tax authorities that was uncovered this year is the largest case of corruption since the US invasion in 2003 – and the state itself is involved. This is only possible with the political protection of powerful officials in the institutions. These could drain the money through a specific bureau for more than eight months. I have already researched this case as a Member of Parliament. Now I’m making sure everyone involved is held accountable.
Iraq is currently unable to control its borders. Turkey and Iran are now even threatening military intervention in the autonomous Kurdish regions. Can you – as requested by both countries – disarm the armed Kurdish groups?
Despite all diplomatic attempts to defend our sovereignty, we cannot deny that there are Turkish military bases in Iraq. This is not acceptable. It is clearly an occupation of Iraqi territory. But Iraq must also not be used for attacks on neighboring countries. We must secure our borders and prevent armed groups from infiltrating Iraqi territory and from attacking them. The Kurdish provincial government agrees, but cannot disarm the groups.
The solution can only lie within Iraq itself. We need joint action by all Iraqi parties. How is it that some Iraqis justify these actions and others condemn them? An attack is an attack – on a state that is a sovereign member of the United Nations. Incidentally, the cross-border attacks from Iran were also on the agenda of the meeting of our National Security Commission, which we sent to Tehran. We have good relations with Iran and Turkey and we want to solve these problems without creating new enemies and conflicts.
The autonomous region of Kurdistan is becoming the target of interventions from neighboring countries and seems to want more protection from Baghdad. At the same time, you are arguing with the provincial government in Erbil about the income from oil production around the city of Kirkuk. How is the relationship between the capital and the Kurdish leadership?
The distribution of oil revenues is indeed a sensitive issue between Baghdad and Erbil. The issue needs to be resolved before my government can present a budget for this year. We have set aside six months to finalize a new agreement with Erbil based on the Iraqi Constitution. I will send a delegation to Erbil for this. We are willing to organize the sale of the Kirkuk oil to ensure it is sold at international prices. The practical problems can be solved with a federative management. And according to the constitution, which says Iraq’s oil and gas belongs to the Iraqis.
Iraq is one of the countries most affected by climate change. Many Iraqis are leaving their home villages because of the effects of oil production and the drought. What do you intend to do about it?
In addition to the swamps near Basra, almost all agricultural areas in Iraq are affected by climate change. Iraqis also suffer from unacceptable levels of pollution from burning gas in the oil fields. Despite its wealth, Iraq faces existential threats. None of the measures taken to date are adequate. We must now take serious action together with international partners, including solar energy projects and a transformation to a green economy.
The murder of an American citizen two weeks ago sent a shock wave among foreigners living in Baghdad. What is behind the fact?
The timing of the murder was no coincidence. The case is a test of my administration and its effectiveness because our country’s reputation is at risk. We invite international corporations to come to Iraq and invest here. I am personally following the investigation and had a long talk with the Iraqi Army’s international advisers. We’re working with them on a plan to soon have no more weapons outside the army. The existence of illegal weapons and military groups are another major problem in Iraq. By that I also mean the presence of Turkish troops in Iraq.
Iraq continues to import gas from Iran – at a price well above what Saudi Arabia is offering. Aren’t you dependent?
We extract less gas and produce less electricity than we use, so we import both from Iran. The Americans aren’t happy about it, but there is a working network of power lines and pipelines between the two countries. Going forward, we will hold $10 billion in reserve to pay for shipments, as in the past there have been repeated halts in shipments because we have not always been able to pay the bills.
Your previous government tried to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Will you continue this policy?
A stable relationship between the two countries also helps Iraq. We communicate with the Saudis and the Iranians and have been asked by both governments to continue mediation roles.
How do you assess the protests in Iran?
The protests have no direct impact on Iraq. We wish for the stability of the neighboring countries and do not want to interfere in their internal affairs. Just like we don’t want them interfering with us. Iraqi laws contain over 42 articles on human rights. All countries should respect the rights of their citizens.