VOA Persian service reporter Ali Javanmardi sat down this week to speak with Iraqi President Fuad Masum in Baghdad. A veteran Iraqi Kurdish politician, Masum was elected by Iraqi lawmakers in 2014, in a nation where a majority Shi’ite government is fighting the majority Sunni extremist group, Islamic State.
In this wide-ranging interview, Masum talks about the state of the Iraqi army; the war against Islamic State extremists, known locally as “Daesh;” sectarian divisions in the country; and the role of both the United States and Iran in Iraq.
His comments came after the Sunni city of Ramadi fell to the Islamic State group and Iraqi forces, backed by Iranian-supported militias, were gearing up to retake the provincial capital.
What follows are excerpts of the interview, which was conducted in Kurdish.
Q: How do you see the security situation in Iraq?
Masum: There is a big vacuum in the security situation because to date we do not have an army. The army that we have has not been rebuilt in an organized way since it was dissolved [by the U.S. in 2003] and that is why we need volunteers. It is clear that the type of war we have today is a new type of fight – this is not classic warfare, and this is not guerrilla warfare. This is a new war, one that relies on roadside bombs, booby-trapped houses, and explosive-filled bulldozers to attack. Iraq needs time to be able to fight this type of war.
Q: How much time would this take?
Masum: The first thing we need is reconciliation. Whether we like it or not, divisions have emerged in Iraqi society between Shi’ites, Sunnis, Kurds and Arabs. This kind of thinking has permeated into Iraqi society and this needs to be addressed. There need to be new ways that Iraqi people interact with each other. There must be a consensus between everyone on how to confront Daesh. There needs to be political and social consensus. For example, some tribe members have joined Daesh, while others are fighting Daesh. We need a nationwide general reconciliation.
Q: Why have Sunnis joined Daesh (Islamic State)? Are the dissatisfied with the Iraqi government?
Masum: Sunnis still hold high-level government positions, for example, the deputy speaker of parliament, vice president, deputy prime minister. However, it is possible that the Sunni population at large feels politically or religiously excluded. Perhaps the Sunnis felt that with Daesh they could redress that condition, but it became clear that would not happen when Daesh started killing Sunnis. This was a political mistake. Fortunately, most Sunni politicians do not support Daesh, nor do they agree with them Now they are trying to unite to confront Daesh.
Q: What role does Iran have?
Masum: From the first, Iran sent humanitarian aid, such as water and food, especially for places like Sinjar region. Second, it sent specialists to help people. It also sent weapons. Weapons and ammunition. This was important. For Iran, if Iraq falls to Daesh, Iran would be threatened, too. It is not like Iran is far away from Daesh. The threat that exists in Iraq today, it reaches Iran. It reaches Turkey. It reaches into many neighboring countries. That is why every country, from their own security point of view, helps Iraq in a different way.
Q: What is the role of the U.S.? There are criticisms that the airstrikes [against the Islamic State] are not enough?
Masum: Iraq has not asked – nor has the United States shown any willingness – for U.S. ground forces to fight here, because there is no need for that. The U.S. and its coalition have been conducting airstrikes. Some people do not agree with that. There is talk that they cannot bomb a place where there are civilians. Clearly, these are political opinions. Some do not want the U.S. to have a role in the region. Others don’t want Iran to have a role in Iraq. Everyone has a different opinion, and they criticize those who don’t agree with them. You see this every day, there are those who blast Iran, and those who blast the United States, mostly depending on their political perspective.
Q: How long do you think it will take Iraq to get rid of Daesh (IS)? One, two years?
Masum: No, I don’t think it will take that long for us to be freed from Daesh. It could take much less. But eliminating Daesh will not be easy because they have many types of sleeper cells - not only in Iraq but in other countries, too. That is why one must think about fighting Daesh on many fronts. One war is on the ground. The other fight is draining its financial resources. And to cooperate with other countries in sharing intelligence on those who are with Daesh and work for Daesh. Cooperation between countries on Daesh is very important.
Q: Would you be prepared to negotiate with Daesh (IS)?
Masum: No, because it is not a political group. If it was a political group, you could sit with it and negotiate and would reach a solution. But it's not a political group and doesn’t recognize any political group and doesn’t accept any system of living but its own. With Daesh, we fight until they are killed or we die. That is why we cannot accept negotiation. It is also possible that Daesh are thinking not only about occupying Iraq, but occupying the whole region.