Iraqi Official Demands Timetable for Withdrawal

The following interview with Iraq’s minister of civil society activities, Ala’a al-Safi, was conducted July 20, 2005, after Iraqi Premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s historic visit to Iran. In the interview, al-Safi explains how the Iraqi government is endeavoring to warm relations with its neighbors and push the Bush administration into setting a timeline for U.S. withdrawal. We started by talking about Prime Minister Jaafari’s visit to Iran.

Al-Safi: "One of the good things that this government did is make good relationships with the neighboring countries. A country like Iran – it is very important to build a good relationship with them, especially since we fought a war with them for eight years. That will be good for our security situation and will be good for our economy. We have a lot in common with Iran. We have water issues. We have issues of the immigration between the two countries. We have an interest on our side to make Iran send us oil products after we give them crude oil. That is one of our priorities. And we send oil to their ports from the south of Iraq to Iran – and then distribute it around the world.

"We are also thinking about building trucking roads, and we are thinking about paving more highways between Iraq and Iran. And one of the important things that we dealt with is that Iran will be the provider of food for the food rations of Iraqi people. We are so happy about this visit to Iran and we have so many hopes that go with it. Especially since we made agreements for military training for the Iraqi military in Iran, which is worth around $2 billion."

What do the Americans think about that? You have this new relationship with Iran. America is describing Iran as a terrorist country.

"The Americans – if they like it or don’t like it – we don’t care. That’s their internal issue. Now we are asking for the Americans to draw a timeline of leaving Iraq, and we will make it a priority too, if they force us to make a bad relationship with our neighbors."

What’s the latest update about this timeline?

"Yes. Most of the terrorist attacks and the security issues we are facing are just because of the American military, especially in Baghdad. And the main reason that Baghdad is cut into security parts – and the Iraqi security can’t even move from one part of Baghdad to another without getting permission from the American military. Sometimes this permission, it takes three days to get it, so it will come to be so late after the incident. For example, if the security forces try to move even 10 kilometers, it takes them three days to reach there. So the terrorists will control the area for all three days until the security forces enter, and it will be more difficult for them to control the situation. The other thing is that all the entrances to Baghdad are controlled by the American military, and they are not doing their job well. All the car bombs are just passing through, and they’re not even checking. Basically, they don’t know the city."

Did the minister’s council meeting have a part of this discussion for a timeline to ask the Americans to leave?

"The National Assembly voted on that [in June], and 190 voted for the occupation forces to stay and 82 refused to allow the occupation forces to stay. Then, a part of the National Assembly held a protest in Paradise Square [where Saddam’s statue was toppled], and so now the picture has been changed. Now if there is a new vote, we have 135 people against the occupation. And so the last news is we are asking the Americans to leave – if they say they will leave in 10 years, we will make our table for 10 years. That’s fine. But we need a date."

Did Prime Minister Jaafari say that himself?

"Yes. That’s what we discussed in the last meeting with the head of the American troops in Iraq. And at least they have to start this withdrawal by leaving the streets of Baghdad and going back to their bases. And we have the big issue that we don’t want to pass a law that gives the Americans the right to detain any Iraqi, and to use Camp Bucca and Abu Ghraib for those prisoners, and we found that [previous] Prime Minister Iyad Allawi imposed a law that gave the Americans the right to detain any Iraqi any time they want. Now we are seriously trying to change this law, so the Americans will not be allowed to detain any Iraqi, and if they want to detain someone, they should ask for permission from the Ministry of Interior or Defense."

Do you want to add anything?

"Violence in Iraq is going to grow very large because there are many, many internal issues and outside issues, but we are trying to tell the Iraqi people and to tell the world through you that we will pass this someday if they allow us to run our own country."

What does your ministry think of the petition by Moqtada al-Sadr? He is trying to gather millions of petitions asking the Americans to leave?

"That is typical democracy. That is a civil activity. Al-Sadr’s people are doing nothing against the law. 100 percent, they are using their rights, and that is the idea of democracy and that will support us to tell the Americans to give us a timeline for the occupation."