Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki 'I Am Not Familiar With Fear'
In a SPIEGEL interview, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki discusses accusations he has become another Saddam Hussein, the return of terrorism to his country and his fear that the civil war in Syria will destabilize the entire region.
SPIEGEL: Prime Minister Maliki, you have governed Iraq for almost eight years. How many attacks have you survived?
Maliki: I can't even say how often my enemies have been after my blood. I've been attacked at close range during public appearances, but there have also been attempts to poison me. My plane was supposed to be shot down once, when I was on my way to Mosul in northern Iraq. Although the plane's defense system deflected the missile, the aircraft was severely shaken. I was even targeted during my visit to Berlin in 2008, but the German security services managed to thwart the plans by a group of young Moroccans.
SPIEGEL: Who has been behind the attacks?
Maliki: I have enemies everywhere. Some are from the Baath Party
SPIEGEL: the now-banned unity party of former despot Saddam Hussein
Maliki: while others are religious extremists. Some of the fanatics are members of the Sunni faith, while others are Shiites like me. Al-Qaida has also been responsible for some of the attacks.
SPIEGEL: You could draw a personal consequence from the constant threat by deciding not to run for re-election in late April.
Maliki: The threat is part of holding this office. But a politician can't run away just because his life is in danger, especially in a country that needs to be rebuilt and for which stability is so important.
Maliki: In my entire life, I have never been afraid of something like death, nor have I ever been afraid of an enemy. I am not familiar with fear. In the days of Saddam Hussein, members of the opposition were constantly being executed. It was a danger we had to live with.
SPIEGEL: You are a deeply religious person.
Maliki: Yes, I find comfort in faith. Take, for example, the fate of the rightly guided Caliph Ali. He won many battles and no one could defeat him. But as fate willed, he was attacked during prayers and died of his injuries.
SPIEGEL: We don't quite believe this entirely self-sacrificing position on your part. Aren't you at least a little interested in your own power?
Maliki: Since I was 17, my entire life has consisted of nothing but struggling and fighting: with the Baath Party under Saddam, then in exile and today with Al-Qaida. Now I am 64 years old and wouldn't mind taking a break. Eight tough years as prime minister are actually enough for me. But I can't rest, given the challenges the country and Iraqis face.
SPIEGEL: So you will run for the office of prime minister once again in the parliamentary election in late April?
Maliki: At least I will lead our State of Law Coalition into the election. Both the votes and the majorities in the parliament will determine whether we will see each other again here in the prime minister's office after the election.
SPIEGEL: Many Iraqis are alarmed by your sense of power.
Maliki: I am responsible for this country being properly governed. That's my democratic mandate. And there are forces that want to bring down our government with alliances they are forming against us. I could use force against them, but I don't do it. I don't manipulate democratic institutions, nor do I exert pressure on them. I abide by the political rules of the game.
SPIEGEL: How is it, then, that you are now being compared with Saddam, and that your former ally, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, openly calls you a "tyrant?"
Maliki: The fact that my opponents are allowed to make such accusations, in public speeches and in media reports, proves that any comparison with Saddam is invalid.
SPIEGEL: That's supposed to convince us?
Maliki: Saddam was a tyrant and a dictator. He used poison gas against large parts of his population, against the Kurds and the Shiites. I cannot and do not wish to be compared with that. The background behind these accusations you mention is my decisive action against the Sadr militias, and against all those who are disfiguring Iraq with violence and terror. And then there are still groups that do not forgive me, as prime minister, for having ordered the death sentence carried out against Saddam. Some hold this against me as an unforgivable crime.
SPIEGEL: Was Saddam's execution in late December 2006 a mistake, because it contributed to dividing the nation? Do you regret your decision?
Maliki: On the contrary! First, I only enforced a court ruling. Second, I perceived death for that criminal as nothing short of a judgment by God. And third, the way we handled the situation was important for Iraq, because we didn't simply go into Saddam's cell and shoot him to death, the way he shot his enemies. We gave him a long trial and left the decision up to the court. The fact that Saddam's life was extinguished was the least he deserved.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, you have the reputation for not being very squeamish, and you have built a massive power apparatus, including many intelligence services. There is talk that Iraq is becoming a republic of fear once again.
Maliki: It's true that we need a strong government, including strong intelligence services, given the current challenges from terrorism. Otherwise, how can we oppose groups like Al-Qaida, the "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria," or ISIS, and all of these gangs? It's no different here than it is in the West. We have to strengthen our security forces if we hope to successfully fight terrorism.
SPIEGEL: In Anbar Province, in particular, the unrest stems from the fact that many Sunnis feel marginalized by the Shiite-dominated government.
Maliki: Because of earlier political decisions, there were in fact a few misunderstandings between Sunnis and Shiites. But there were no religious reasons for these differences of opinion. They were purely for political reasons.
SPIEGEL: We are talking about the fact that many Sunnis do not feel recognized as citizens, to quote your Sunni deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq. And former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite like you, says that the Sunnis are being marginalized.
Maliki: We are dealing with a perfectly normal political process here. Each party has received the share it earned based on its election performance. This also applies to Mutlaq and Allawi. I don't accept the notion that someone should get more than that person is entitled to.
SPIEGEL: How about a little self-criticism? Haven't you, as a Shiite, made far too few compromises with the Sunnis?
Maliki: By God, I swear to you that no one was neglected. I believe in our institutions, in the parliament, the government and the judiciary. However, I don't believe that certain individuals should only exert influence on politics because they happen to lead a large movement. Some people would like to have 10 prime ministers, but there is only one.
SPIEGEL: It wasn't without reason that US President Barack Obama urged you to promote reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites during your visit to Washington in November.
Maliki: I already advocated national reconciliation before Obama even became president. It's precisely because of that reconciliation that we regained control over the security situation in 2006.
SPIEGEL: The US Army drove the terrorists out of the provinces, but the price for that was a high death toll. Did so many people die for no reason at all?
Maliki: As long as people cooperate with Al-Qaida in cities like Fallujah, they run the risk of becoming victims. The city is now divided into two camps, with some taking the side of the terrorists while others are fighting them alongside our government troops. Since Al-Qaida and ISIS declared the city as part of an Islamic state, we have tried to eradicate that cancer, while minimizing casualties. But as the government, we cannot accept the idea that an Islamic state was declared there.
SPIEGEL: But what went wrong that would enable terrorism to enjoy such a comeback?
Maliki: There are two main axes here in the Middle East: Sunni and Shiite. A few Persian Gulf countries and Turkey are behind the first one, while the second one is the Iranian-Arab axis, which extends across Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon. Four or five years ago, we told the United States that Turkey and a few Gulf countries were trying to destroy the Shiite axis.
- Part 1: 'I Am Not Familiar With Fear'
- Part 2: 'A Military Solution Will Not Topple Assad'