Iraq’s foreign minister: Iran cannot hit Israel… and attacked a friendly and allied country
Hours before Iraq filed a complaint against Iran to the Security Council, the Iraqi Foreign Minister Fouad Hussein condemned, in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Iran’s attack on Irbil, considering the escalation “an attempt by Iran to export its internal problems.”
Hussein, who was speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum held in Davos, said that “his country has taken political and diplomatic measures to respond to the Iranian bombardment that killed 4 civilians in Irbil on Monday evening,” denying Tehran’s claims about the presence of the Israeli Mossad in Iraq.
He also linked the attack on the Iraqi Kurdistan region to the rising tensions between Tehran and Tel Aviv due to the war in Gaza, considering that “there are likely rules of engagement between the Iranians and the Israelis.”
Regarding Baghdad’s interest in the withdrawal of US forces stationed in Iraqi military bases, Hussein said that his government seeks to reach a “negotiation process” with Washington, highlighting that “the Americans are ready to sit at the negotiation table but under normal circumstances.”
The past few weeks witnessed an escalation against US interests in Iraq. Washington responded by targeting the headquarters of Iraqi factions with close ties to Iran.
As for the Iraqi-Saudi relations, Hussein said that they are excellent, expressing his country’s aspiration “to strengthen economic cooperation and push Saudi investments towards Iraq.”
Below is the full script of the discussion:
Allow me to start with the Revolutionary Guard’s attack that targeted the Iraqi Kurdistan region on Monday evening, along with the official Iraqi condemnation that followed and the summoning of the Chargé d’Affaires of the Iranian Embassy. What additional measures is Iraq considering in response to this escalation?
The measures that Iraq is taking are diplomatic, political and legal. When it comes to diplomatic measures, we have summoned the second-highest-ranking diplomat at the embassy (as the Iranian ambassador is in Tehran) and handed him a note of protest regarding the Iranian aggression against Iraq’s territory in Irbil and the killing of Iraqi citizens.
We have recalled the Iraqi ambassador from Tehran to Baghdad. Based on the directives of the prime minister, the federal and regional governments have formed an investigation committee.
The head of the committee, who is the Iraqi national security adviser, will submit his report on Wednesday to the prime minister. According to what I have heard from the national security adviser, the owner of the house that was bombed, who is a well-known Kurdish-Iraqi businessman, was killed along with his daughter, while his other daughter and wife were injured. His guest, an Iraqi from Mosul, was killed as well. One Filipina worker, who was inside the house at the time of the attack, was also killed, while 3 other Filipina workers were injured and are receiving the necessary treatment at the hospital. As for the house, it was completely destroyed.
In addition to the measures I have mentioned, we have filed a complaint to the United Nations Security Council.
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Iran says that it targeted an Israeli Mossad headquarters in Irbil. Does the Israeli intelligence agency really have a presence in Iraq?
The Iranians blaming others is strange. They are witnessing problems, such as assassinations and terrorist attacks, inside their country due to the failure of the relevant bodies there, but they try to export these problems abroad.
About a year ago, (Iran) bombed a residential house belonging to another Kurdish-Iraqi businessman with 12 rockets. An Iraqi governmental delegation went to Tehran back then with an investigation committee to prove that the house that was targeted was indeed a normal house, where the family of the businessman lived.
(The Iranians) claimed that the house was a Mossad headquarters, but they were fully aware that their claim was false. They were promoting this false media campaign internally (to address) an internal campaign that started due to a terrorist attack that took place near Kermanshah.
They, in fact, cannot confront Israel. So, they attack Irbil. There is no truth (to Iran’s claims in terms of the presence of a Mossad headquarters). This is an internal Iranian issue and they are exporting it abroad. They cannot confront Israel even though they are present in Syria and at the Israeli borders.
If they wanted to attack Israel, they could have done that. They are present in Syria and south Lebanon. They have, as they say, rockets that can reach Israel from their territories.
Why do they attack Irbil? Irbil is part of Iraq and Iraq is a neighboring and friendly country to Iran. They share significant historical, geographical, religious, cultural and economic relations.
We used to defend Iran. We are the ones who repaired the bad relations between Iran and the Arab countries and, sometimes, between Iran and the European countries and the US.
Iran is attacking an allied government. This is a strategic mistake and I think that whoever carried out this operation in Tehran will realize, after some time, that he made a strategic mistake when dealing with Iraq.
Did the Israeli war against Gaza turn Iraq into a field where Iran and the US exchange messages? Is this what led the Iraqi government to announce its interest in the withdrawal of US forces?
When relations become tense between Iran and another country, the tension is in fact between Iran and Washington. These negatively tense relations reflect on the Iraq. So, there would be a conflict, but on the Iraqi scene.
Today, the relations between Israel and Iran are tense or dangerous. However, the Iranians do not take the battle to Israel, as they have their interests. Therefore, for the sake of internal consumption, they transferred the battle to the Iraqi Kurdistan region or the Iraqi scene, which is a big mistake.
What I get from this is that there are agreed-upon rules of engagement between the Israelis and Iranians. I think that the attack on Irbil, in the mind of some people in Tehran, was in response to what happened in Kerman, meaning the terrorist attack for which ISIS Khorasan claimed responsibility.
If this group, which has intellectual, ideological and security conflicts with Iran, was responsible for the terrorist attack that martyred many people in Kerman, why is Iran exporting this problem to the Iraqi Kurdistan region? Or if this operation targeted the Israelis, as claimed by Iran, the Israelis are in their country.
The Iranians claim that they are fighting the Israelis. Therefore, I feel that there are rules of engagement in place between them. However, for the sake of internal consumption, the Iranians bombed the militarily weak link, which is weak now because Iraq is a friend of Iran. They hit their friend and do not confront their enemy.
Did you set a timeline for the US forces’ withdrawal from Iraq?
The Iraqi government confirms that this issue will be solved through negotiations, not by force. This is the main idea. We need negotiations that would lead us to achieve this objective with the agreement of both parties. We are currently still discussing the initiation of these negotiations with the US.
As for the violence and counter-violence (that Iraq has witnessed recently), the Americans say that they will not sit at the negotiation table by force. They are ready to negotiate the US presence on Iraqi territories but under normal circumstances.
We should resort to history here. The Americans came to Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. Therefore, we can very easily ask them to leave. However, this must be done based on a joint agreement.
We need a negotiation process. We are currently in talks with the US to agree on the initiation of the said process and then announce it. We hope to reach an agreement swiftly.
Some Kurdish and Sunni actors don’t seem to support a US withdrawal right now. Is there consensus among Iraqi components about this step?
Some issues are national issues, and this is a reality. The Iraqi government is a coalition government. We have a political leadership represented by the State Administration Coalition, which formed this government and includes representatives of all the components through their parties.
Therefore, when we start negotiations, we should tackle their content during the political leadership meeting. When we reach a consensus about the results, it would be a national decision through legal frameworks, meaning through the approval of the Iraqi government.
We need an approval, but we have a political framework to discuss these issues.
The raison d’être of US troops in Iraq was to assist Iraqi forces in combating terrorism. Are Iraqi forces now able to confront the renewed terrorist threat?
There’s an equation in place. It is true that US troops in Iraq and the International Coalition Forces were established to combat Daesh. They came to Iraq upon the government’s approval back then and without it, they wouldn’t have been able to enter Iraq. Thanks to the efforts of the Iraqi army, the Popular Mobilization Forces and the Peshmerga Forces, and the support of the coalition forces as well as other countries, including Iran, the people of Iraq were able to defeat Daesh and break what is called “the Daesh State.”
Daesh ended and turned into a terrorist gang. War against gangs doesn’t involve armies. It is an intelligence and information war.
We are currently the ones initiating the attack against these gangs here and there and based on the military concept. We do not need additional forces, because the forces on the Iraqi scene, including the army, the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Peshmerga or the security forces in general, are sufficient.
As a state, we need to be fully sovereign in terms of security. As for the friendly states, they can have a presence – if needed – on Iraqi territory for training and advice purposes, and with the approval of the Iraqi government.
We don’t need combat troops. However, in order to reach the stage of these forces’ departure from Iraqi territory, we need negotiations. That’s the difference between the government’s proposal and the proposals made by some of the other groups. We believe in dialogue and negotiations, as, through them, we can reach an agreement for the withdrawal of these forces.
How many US troops are in Iraq today?
I think there are 2,500 US troops, not more.
Between 2003 and 2011, the number of US troops deployed in Iraq at certain stages reached 160,000 US soldiers. Today, we are talking about a small number.
Moreover, if we look at the Americans in Iraqi camps – there are no US camps – we find that their average age is not that of combat soldiers. They are experts, advisers or trainers.
There are multiple investment projects between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and trade between the two countries has risen to about $1 billion annually. How do you evaluate the relations between Riyadh and Baghdad today?
Political relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia today are excellent. By the way, we played a major role in restoring the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran. We are happy with that, as Iran is a neighboring country with which we share our borders. Whenever the relationship between the Arab States surrounding Iraq and Iran is good, it is in Iraq’s interest.
Tensions in the region affect Iraq negatively, and good relations affect Iraq positively. Iraq’s security depends on the region’s security.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iraq is excellent. We started discussing how to cooperate in the fields of trade and economy. Furthermore, we always cooperate with Saudi Arabia to coordinate positions on oil issues within the framework of OPEC, as well as at the international level and within the League of Arab States.
We look forward to developing the relations between both countries, establishing strong economic relations, and to Saudi companies investing in Iraq, since we need foreign investments to build the Iraqi economy.
There is regular communication between Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as between the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and I. We will both meet here in Davos in a few days.
The Iraqi Prime Minister visited Damascus last July. It was the highest-level Arab visit after Damascus returned to the League of Arab States. Tell us about the Iraqi-Syrian relations today.
The Syrian-Iraqi relations have not been interrupted, as have relations between many Arab States and Syria.
During previous meetings of the League of Arab States, we were keen on proposing Syria’s return. Iraq was also among the countries that called for Syria’s return to international forums, so the Syrian government could be an actor in the negotiations and achieve a state of stability on its territories.
Moreover, destabilizing Syria affects Iraq negatively.
We should not forget that “Daesh” established its so-called “Daesh State” on Iraqi and Syrian territories, and at a certain point, controlled around 50 percent of the Syrian territories and one-third of the Iraqi territories.
Stability in Syria positively reflects on the security situation in Iraq. There are multiple terrorist organizations in Syria, while in the Al-Hol camp and Syrian prisons near the Iraqi border, there are thousands of Daesh militants. If these people were released or were able to escape, many of them would definitely try to cross the border into Iraq and undermine Iraq’s security and stability.
From this perspective and the humanitarian perspective, we call for the stability of Syria. We know that the Syrian crisis is a local, national, regional and international crisis that involves different actors. There are not only two teams but several teams in the same arena. Solving this crisis requires cooperation at the Arab, regional and global levels.
As for the humanitarian side of things, there are around eight million Syrians who are either displaced or refugees, while Syria’s economy has been completely destroyed. Syrians are facing a tragedy due to inflation, the “deteriorating” economic situation, the “scarcity” of electricity and the “absence” of services. We stand in solidarity with the Syrian people, hoping they will overcome this tragedy. Therefore, we “strive” to interact with others in order to create a state of stability in Syria.