CFR: What are Iraq's Benchmarks?

Probably no world leader has to deal with crises more frequently than Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. This weekend, his capital was under emergency curfew in the aftermath of the bombing Wednesday of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, a holy site for Shiite Muslims. An attack on the mosque last year caused a steep escalation in sectarian fighting.

Maliki reacted faster than his predecessor did in the last attack, imposing a days-long curfew in the capital and visiting the site within hours. There have been fewer reprisal attacks than last time, as well, at least under the curfew. With his meeting pace slowing some, Maliki met with NEWSWEEK on Friday in his official residence, one of Saddam Hussein's old guest villas. It's mainly an office building, as Maliki actually lives nearby.

The prime minister, a known workaholic, seemed relaxed despite the formal setting—a non-descript salon with Maliki's aides and official photographer on hand. He talked about the sensitivities of the American push for movement on "Iraqi benchmarks," implied that he hopes America will settle differences with "regional" players like Iran and Syria, and talked about his relationship with President Bush. Below are translated excerpts of the 40-minute visit.

NEWSWEEK: The government response to the attack on the Golden Mosque was faster this year than when the shrine was bombed last year. What did you do?
Nuri al-Maliki:
When such a thing happens, it provokes Iraqis' feelings and a reaction will happen. To confront the reaction there are procedures, first of which is the curfew to control those who have a negative reaction. Second, separate or isolate the different neighboring areas that have Sunnis in one side and Shiites on the other. We also have a reserve checkpoint system that we activated that managed to divide Baghdad and prevent those who wanted to do something.

Politically, we issued a statement calling for calm and self-discipline. We contacted clergy because they are influential and they did issue statements asking for calm. I asked the presidency council and a number of members of parliament and ministers to an urgent meeting. They spoke in the media and called for awareness and calm. These are the things we did in addition to the [televised] statement I gave. We also increased the protection on some Sunni mosques so that they would not be a target for those who want to incite riot. We even think that the same people who attacked Samarra would attack Sunni mosques to incite rioting.

What is your assessment of the past 48 hours?
Some negative incidents took place but I think [overall] it has been good. Any political and media observer who watched the first attack would realize that the worst security actions happened after the Samarra attack last time. Therefore, what happened this time is much less than what could have happened and this is a success for the government, that it managed to have a quick and wise reaction.

You know that Americans watch your government very closely to see if it can reach the benchmarks set by Washington to ease tensions with Sunnis, including an oil revenue-sharing law, a law to allow more ex-Baathists back to their jobs, Constitutional amendments and laws for provincial elections. Why are they are taking so long?
First of all, the things the Americans are talking about are things we talk about. These things are national goals that come in harmony with the nature of the new federal political regime. Success for us and for the American administration is very important. Now, the drafts of the laws of oil, [the DeBaathification revision] and provincial elections are all ready and will be submitted to the parliament next week. Some people in the U.S. administration make statements that are understood by observers as if the administration is dictating to the Iraqi government. This is not true, of course. It is an issue of partnership, there is no dictating.

A parade of American officials has come here and they say they are pressuring you to do these things. Does this help you or hurt you?
Actually, we completely reject the word "pressure." We always tell them that there are two things you should avoid: That word [pressure], because the Iraqi government is a sovereign government, and giving timetables, because timetables are harmful for them and for us. When the U.S. defense secretary said, "We want to stay for 50 years in Iraq," this had unpleasant consequences because this issue is the Iraqi government's business. The timetables given, sometimes I do not find them in President Bush's mind so much as they are in the minds of some [other] people who make [public] statements. The word "pressure" and timetables, they do not help and they are not a good principle for political relations.

What do you think the U.S. government will do if you don't reach these benchmarks?
Before I answer your question, you were asking about the many people who parade through here. Iraq is an Arab country and it is an Arab tradition to welcome guests, so, everyone is welcome to Iraq. Besides, everyone is talking about supporting the Iraqi government and the political process and to protect it, and this a good thing.

Regarding what the U.S. administration would do, this is an American issue that is governed by the political movement and debate within the Congress and U.S. administration. Things are still hard. The hardest thing is the regional interference [in Iraq] on the basis of regional conflicts and regional, American conflicts. The Iraqi government and political process might be the one paying the price for these conflicts. We urge all sides in the conflict to sit at a table and negotiate to solve the problems. [Also] we want to be aware of the decision [America] takes about the military presence on Iraqi lands so that we will not be surprised by their decision.

Some of your allies say that even if you don't do these things, the United States can't afford to leave Iraq.
They helped us by toppling the regime and accomplishing many steps of the political process but they still can leave. If the consequences of staying are bigger than the consequences of leaving, they will leave.

Some Iraqis complain of American soldiers or contractors acting here with immunity from Iraqi law. Do you want to change that?
Some violations happen, and they are in breach of the agreements and they sometimes provoke negative atmospheres in the relationship. For instance, Iraq is sovereign and it is not allowed for the Coalition forces to violate the state's sovereignty by entering ministries or governmental institutions. Arresting or detaining a person should be done with coordination with the Iraqi government.

Now, some field commanders make mistakes since they do not know the facts about people they deal with. They make mistakes by arming tribes sometimes, and this is dangerous because this will create new militias. We want to arm some tribes that want to side with us but on the condition that we should be well aware of the tribe's background and sure that it is not connected with terror. It should be under the control of the state and we should have guarantees that it will not turn into a militia. I believe that the Coalition forces do not know the backgrounds of the tribes. It is a job of the [Iraqi] government.

Do you still worry that some officers in the Iraqi army might not be loyal to you?
In fact, we depend on officers that were officers in the former regime. [In the past] nobody could be an officer unless he was a member of the Baath party; therefore, we cannot say that everyone is still a Baathist and works for the benefit of the former regime. We are on a continuous inspection of the military commanders and it is not a secret that we sometimes find that some of them do not have full loyalty to the country; they do not believe in the new Iraq.

How did your tough background, hiding in the marshes and mountains from Saddam and the killing of more than 60 of your relatives by the old regime, prepare you for things like the pressures of the last two days?
The harsh circumstances that we lived in confronting the former regime, and the sacrifices we made in the prisons and in mass graves, enabled us to be tougher and stronger in countering the current challenges. If the former regime deserves any credit from us, it is for giving us the ability to face challenges by living under its injustice.

Does it also give you the ability to reconcile?
Of course, because we have a humane ideology and because of Islam. I will not deal on the basis of tribal revenge with those who killed my family and people. I will go to courts and respect the state and law. That is exactly what we did with Saddam. We gave him every chance to defend himself after he did not give us a chance to say a word when we used to go to execution chambers. I am the person who most believes in national reconciliation.

Some people would say there are similarities between you and President Bush. You both have problems with your legislatures. You both look to Iraq for success but you're in hard situations that are getting out of control.
Every time I meet President Bush through the videoconference I tell him that I have a hard time dealing with the Parliament or the political blocs [in Iraq]. He says, "I have a worse time dealing with the Congress." And when he says, "I have aggravation in the Congress," I say, "I have bigger aggravation with parliament." But the positive thing that joins us is that, despite all of the hardships that we have, both of us persist in continuing the relationship and continuing to work on the principles that we believe in. These are traits that prepare good ground for success.

Some say both of you need to be more flexible—him in recognizing more of Iraq's realities and you reaching out to your government's opponents.
Destiny wanted to bring together two people who strongly stick to their principles. I think that our belief in our principles does not prevent us from being open to the others. I always emphasize that I will extend my hand to whomever wants to negotiate and I will extend the other hand with the law to protect the state. It's not a fault to abide by principles of law and principles of sovereignty. But when the supreme national interest requires, I am fully ready to reach out to others and make compromises when I feel that they are ready to act.

You are both under a lot of time pressure to show evidence of progress in Iraq.
Others should understand that things are not easy. We are [working] to strengthen the state, a state that was built on the basis of tyranny, dictatorship, repression, neglect for the law and had no sign of democracy. Therefore, it is not easy to restore all these principles and values to the political process without hardships. We show evidence every day but usually such things are related to work we want for the [long-term] future and not for just the time being. It takes more time and effort.

You look very serious and worried on television. Do you relax? Your grandfather was a famous poet (and politician) and we hear you like poetry.
No doubt work takes most of the day. What I do in case I have time is to meet with friends. Secondly, yes, I do like poetry. I wrote poetry. My master's research was about poetry but I have not written poetry in a long time.

I had this [serious] characteristic even in my early days. I might have inherited it from my family. My grandfather was known to be serious as well, during the 1920 revolution and establishing Iraq. It is a seriousness to relieve the people's problems; I feel the people's sufferings.