Iraqi PM: The biggest challenge we face is gaining people’s trust

The Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani described his biggest challenge since assuming office ten months ago as “Gaining the trust of the people.”

In an interview with The National in New York during his participation in the High-Level Week of the United Nations General Assembly, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani Al Sudani spoke of his “commitment” to improving the lives of Iraqis, with priorities that include “providing basic services, fighting corruption [and] undertaking economic reforms, which can all strengthen the confidence of people in this political system.”

Al-Sudani told The National that trust is only restored “through credibility and fulfilling promises. If we succeed, all other challenges can be met”.

Al Sudani said that his government is strong and able to deliver despite many challenges.

He described his government’s foreign policy as “balanced, independent with sovereign decision-making, far from the desires and interests of others,” stressing, “Disruption in Iraq brings disturbances in the region and the world, as we saw with ISIS,” he said.

His government is seeking to create joint projects in the region to build on possible cooperation, such as the “Iraq development road project,” which he has invited countries in the region to join, strengthening the links between Asia and Europe.

“We will not be part of any sphere of influence.”

Al Sudani’s trip to New York included meetings with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House Coordinator for the Middle East Brett McGurk; he revealed that he told US officials that his country’s relationship “should not be only within a security dimension … while we are open to bilateral security cooperation”, highlighting the importance of “Iraq’s independence and we will not be part of any sphere of influence.”

One issue raised is the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.

He confirmed that Iraq does not require combat troops; “we have military advisers, but even their presence needs regulation in terms of their size, location, and how long they remain,” he said.

“This is part of what is needed for our sovereignty and stability, to take away any excuse from those who demand keeping arms out of the control of the state because of the presence of foreign troops.”

Concerning tensions with Kuwait regarding Khor Abdullah, Al Sudani told The National that “in Iraq, there is a division between the various branches of power,” deflecting the issue as a judicial one.

However, he stressed that his government is “committed to international laws and the decisions of the UN Security Council, in addition to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state of Kuwait.”

He spoke of his meeting with Kuwait’s Prime Minister, saying: “I confirmed to him our government’s position and expressed Iraq’s desire to continue the work of the joint committees and to have ongoing mutual visits between the officials and experts of the two countries, across all fields, in order to strengthen the levels of cooperation and building of trust.”

Al Sudani said, “Iraq after 2003 is completely different from Iraq before [that time]. We are working now at setting up cross-border projects and developing ties with all our neighbors, including Kuwait”.

As for relations with the Gulf more generally, Al Sudani said that the GCC countries are active in Iraq through investment projects and active participation in the Baghdad Conference, which also involves Jordan, Iran, Turkey, France, and others.

The conference will have “a new vision, one based on economic integration which can further regional stability and joint infrastructure, in addition to other measures,” he added.

In the spirit of improved relations in the region, Al Sudani stressed his firm belief that “Syria, with its current political makeup and people, is better than an unknown alternative that could lead the region to enter a new war in the region.”

He added, “Any security disturbances in Syria can lead to ISIS being unleashed. We need to re-engage Syria and meet its people’s needs”.

And yet there are tensions with Iran and Turkey with regular air strikes on Iraqi territories, mainly targeting dissident Kurdish groups.

Mr Al Sudani said, “We are dealing with this matter through diplomacy and our rejection of violence or the threat of violence. Our ability to respond is there, but we prefer diplomacy”.

He added, “We have emptied the camps of [Iranian dissident] armed groups, which is part of our constitutional obligation not to allow the use of Iraqi territory to attack another country.”

Al Sudani explained that Iraqi troops are now monitoring the borders in the Kurdistan Region.

“There is a real war against corruption.”

His primary concern for the moment is domestic affairs.

He added, “this government’s 2023 budget set aside $4 billion for cash support for individuals and families below the poverty line, and 1.7 million individuals and families are included in this program”.

Each gets an average of $200 a month and added financial support for students as “battling poverty is not just about income, it is about education, health, society … we do not want poverty to be inherited”.

Tackling poverty and providing essential services is part of Al Sudani’s effort to “end poverty in Iraq within five years.”

“In February [of that year], Iraq’s revenues from oil were at $1.5 billion, while $4.5 billion was needed to cover [public sector] salaries, meaning we had to borrow $3 billion”.

One of the biggest impediments facing the private sector is corruption, which Al Sudani acknowledges.

“There is a real war against corruption; on a daily basis we are working to recover funds and recover those who took the funds … we follow up on all information, even a statement post on social media”.

Responding to those who question the effectiveness of the fight against corruption, Al Sudani said there is no “political manipulation when it comes to corruption … we are fighting it in reality, not only in media statements”.

Al Sudani spoke at length about illicit trade in Iraq, including the role of those who smuggle US dollars to Iran.

“Our trade with Iran is approximately $11 billion, but Iran is sanctioned, which means a trader cannot send funds to Iran in return for goods as that is prohibited, so the trader goes to the parallel [black] market”.

The Iraqi central bank is working with its Iranian counterpart to address this issue, “an important part of controlling the price of the currency rests on regulating our trade with Iran.”

He added there had also been problems with informal transfers to Turkey for trade, but now the Iraqi government has mandated transfers are to be completed through the banking system.

The prime minister is also attempting to tackle the illicit tobacco trade, which he says must be controlled.

“We get zero tax revenues from tobacco trade, and yet from Mosul to Basra, tobacco products fill the stores … they are coming in from illegal trading routes”, primarily through the Kurdistan region of Iraq, “with whom we are working to close this loophole.”

Concerning the local elections on December 18, Al Sudani told The National, “Over 300 parties have registered to contest the local elections … and this is another healthy indicator that the political regime has stabilized”.

As for the October 2019 protests, known as the Tishreen movement, Al Sudani said, “We look to it with respect; we respect all elements of peaceful protests within a legal framework.”

Looking to the future, Al Sudani is focused on strengthening Iraq’s economy and its ability to tackle climate change by expanding solar energy projects, recycling, and “a comprehensive water policy, including modern irrigation systems.”

He said Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid would be leading Iraq’s delegation to Cop28 and working on major projects to tackle desertification and water scarcity.”

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