Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations
President Barham Salih discusses the challenges facing Iraq, its role in the region, and its relationship with the United States.
O’SULLIVAN: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations and to our meeting with the president of Iraq, Barham Salih. I’m Meghan O’Sullivan. I am a member of the Council and a new board member of the organization.
And it is my pleasure to introduce President Barham Salih to you. Many people in this room, I know, know Barham Salih quite well, and so they can attest to his commitment to Iraq and to his long history of public service. He has served Iraq in many, many different capacities, from being deputy prime minister during the first Iraqi government after Saddam up until being prime minister of Kurdistan, and then subsequently his current job as president of Iraq. You’ll also know President Salih as one of the most articulate voices for the Iraqi people and a very important interlocutor with the international community. And this is largely, I’d say, a reflection of his inherent optimism and his problem-solving nature.
President Salih also is known as one of the people who have been—who has been able to rise above the sectarian and ethnic strife and the identities that have often characterized post-Iraq—or post-Saddam Iraqi politics. And there are many manifestations of this, and I would say the one that I remember most vividly is going to his house in the summer of 2007. This was a moment when Iraq was in the Asian Cup finals for soccer and was playing Saudi Arabia, ultimately winning the Asian Cup finals, and President Salih had a gathering in his house. This was 2007, a period of intense political polarization and violence in Iraq. And when I arrived, I was surprised to find people from all walks of the political spectrum. There were Sadrists. There were Shia Islamists. There were secular Kurds. There were Sunnis. This, of course, is a little bit a reflection of the game of soccer, but I’d say it is a greater testimony to the man who’s now president of Iraq.
So I’d like to welcome His Excellency Barham Salih to the podium. (Applause.)
SALIH: Thank you, Meghan. Thank you for this wonderful introduction, and it’s truly an honor to be back at the Council on Foreign Relations.
I used to visit the Council in the past quite frequently, and I want to pay tribute to Les Gelb, who used to be president before my good friend Richard Haass, and who passed away—a man of great vision and commitment to a better Middle East.
I’m here today, and also having the opportunity of seeing many friends whom I have not been in touch for a while. Things have been quite busy in my part of the world. But nevertheless, it’s wonderful seeing many familiar faces in this crowd today.
I’m here to attend the United Nations General Assembly, leading the Iraqi delegation, and to present to the world a status report about Iraq and about our vision for the future of our country.
Many of you who have been dealing with the Iraqi situation and have been help in the cause of the Iraqi people to overcome the tyranny of Saddam Hussein must have been disappointed, pained, by the difficulties of transition and the many setbacks that we have suffered over the years. Certainly Iraqis were pained, were disappointed, and were hoping for much better and much quicker transition.
To put things in context, Iraq has been in a state of conflict for the past four decades, at least for the past four decades, probably a lot longer. But from the onset of the Iraq-Iran war, the invasion of Kuwait, the sanctions, 2003 upheavals, the onslaught of terrorism, not to mention the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and the war of genocide that he has committed and the mass graves to which many, many Iraqis were condemned across the country are but a few highlights of the difficult years that Iraqis have endured. Probably no other country in the world have gone through such extended and profound conflict. And therefore, we need to assess the status of Iraq, the situation in Iraq, in that context.
Today we are, I believe, at a turning point in Iraq, potentially a historic turning point. The defeat of ISIS is a remarkable achievement. It’s a significant achievement. And I want to remind this august audience that a few years back ISIS was in control of at least one third of Iraqi territory. There were moments of despair that ISIS was about to sweep through Baghdad. And today Iraq is largely free from ISIS.
This has been an epic struggle. Iraqis were in the forefront of that battle against the evil of ISIS and terrorism. We were able to achieve this important victory with the help of the international community and the international coalition, led by the United States, a help and an assistance for which we are very grateful.
But I want to also say the military defeat of ISIS, the territorial defeat of ISIS, is significant, is serious, is tangible, is to be celebrated, is to be recognized, not to be underestimated. But at the same time, I have to emphasize mission is yet to be accomplished. And we have seen this movie before where we fall complacent after the territorial or military defeat of an insurgency or a terrorist onslaught, only to be rudely awakened later on with another manifestation, another mutant of this terrorist and extremist problem that is still around us in the Middle East.
There are remnants of ISIS, probably in excess of ten thousand people, between Syria and Iraq that need to be taken care of and needs to be pursued through security and military operations, which we are doing. But there is also, more dangerously, many places in Syria and elsewhere across the Middle East which harbor terrorists. I call them the Tora Boras of the Middle East, not to be complacent about it. And some of these groups that are being harbored in these Tora Boras are really nothing but variations of al-Qaida and ISIS, and we need to be careful.
There is also the fundamental factors that lead to the rise of extremism and make our young people prey to extremist ideology and the terrorist organizations—unemployment, broken education systems, IDP camps, people who have not gone back to their homes. These are all incubating environments for the kind of terrorist and extremist groups, and we need to be very careful about those. Obviously, Iraq has a long way to go before we can address some of these fundamental problems through economic regeneration and creating job opportunities for our population.
There is another factor, a fundamental factor. The broken region of the Middle East—the rivalries, the regional rivalries between the various actors in the Middle East have often produced cracks in the system. These cracks extremist organizations and terrorist organizations have been able to go through and manipulate to their advantage. This is also a major, major problem.
Iraq is in the heart of the Islamic Middle East. Mesopotamia has often been the place where the regional order is defined, for millennia. So the outcome of the struggle in Iraq is of consequence not only to the Iraqi people, but I daresay to the wider Middle East as well as to the world.
What are we doing about those?
But before I come to that, I want to say perhaps the last few months, the last year or two, Iraq’s stability is real, tangible. Iraq’s self-assurance and self-confidence is real, is getting stronger. Sectarian and ethnic politics is becoming less relevant to our political discourse. These are important indicators of a positive story that is emerging from Iraq. And the very fact that these days we do not have Iraq in the headlines as much as they used to be perhaps is quite a statement that things in Iraq are going in the right direction.
My description of our situation today, that the situation in Iraq is not good, Iraqis deserve far better than what we have today. But in no doubt the situation in Iraq is getting better. There is no denying that the status of Baghdad today is far better than what it was a year ago or two years ago.
I was with a former American ambassador who served in Baghdad for an extensive period and we were talking about the situation of Iraq today, much of Iraq today, and he agreed with me that this would have been celebrated as a major success and the United States would have recognized it as an American success. But somehow, this is lost on people. I know the reasons. Perhaps good stories are not capturing attention as bad news. But also, I know the dynamics of U.S. foreign policy and the priorities, and perhaps the fatigue that people have about Iraq, and now the focus on the Iran dynamics and other issues that is diverting attention from this emerging reality of Iraq.
I say to you, ladies and gentlemen—and this is a very important group of foreign policy experts, friends of Iraq and the Middle East—the success in Iraq is real, tangible, but very, very fragile. And we need to nurture it, to protect it, to make sure it is not squandered.
What should we do about it? The major onus is on us as Iraqi leaders, as the Iraqi state, as the Iraqi government. We have an ambitious plan in order to turn this corner and really push Iraq in a positive trajectory, and really instead of Iraq becoming—being condemned to this cycle of instability and being a place where regional actors fight their wars and through proxies, often with our own money and with our own lives, we want to turn it into a hub, a bridge between the actors of the neighborhood.
This is easier said than done. I do say that the Middle East is a broken region. Like much of Europe, it was in the early part of the twentieth century—East Asia, Latin America, many other parts of the world that were fixed through a number of initiatives and creating interdependencies that overcome political differences. I would say the difficulties of Iraq and the potential of Iraq could be turned around for the sake of the Iraqi people, but also for the wider Middle East.
Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a friend and an economist, a reformist, is keen on helping regenerate Iraq’s economy because I—in my meeting with President Trump two or three days ago I told him, like the United States, we in Iraq also need jobs, jobs, jobs for our kids. We are a rich country. We have huge resources. But we also have huge needs. With good leadership, with good governance, we can combine these two into creating possibly one of the largest emerging markets across the world. To this end, the prime minister and I are co-sponsoring legislation in the Iraqi parliament, hopefully it will be submitted very soon, to set up a construction commission. And I can go on and on talking about this vision. It’s somehow simple. We’re creating a construction fund. Five percent—we’re proposing that 5 percent of Iraqi revenues will be put into this fund every year. And we’ll create a structure led by the government, led by the prime minister, with independent commissioners to implement major infrastructure work.
Imagine, ladies and gentlemen, deport facilities in Basra. Imagine railway systems connecting Basra to the Turkish borders and connecting to Europe. Imagine highway systems and networks, airports that will be partly funded by the Iraqi treasury, but open to investment from equity funds, sovereign funds from across the world, utilizing streamlined operations to enable the implementation of these projects. I understand that Iraqi bureaucracy is problematic. It is painful. And what we have devised in accordance with this legislation, or draft legislation, is to really bypass some of these impediments to enable international investment to come in to work on these mega projects, infrastructure work.
And this can be within Iraq, of course, initially, but ultimately could help bring the region together. We’re working with our neighbors. We’re working with the Jordanians, with the Egyptians, with our Gulf neighbors, with the Saudis, with the Kuwaitis, with Iran, with Turkey to really developing a better interconnectivity and interdependency between the nations of that part of the world. We genuinely want to give our neighbors a stake in the stability of our country instead of everybody fighting their way through some outdated, outmoded notions of conflict and regional rivalry. Let us really work and focus on what is important. Iraq today is home to thirty-eight million people. Almost seventy percent of our population is below the age of thirty. Youth unemployment is a real political, social, and security challenge.
And we simply cannot go on like this. That is applicable to other nations in our neighborhood with the huge resources that we have. With the population that is talented and entrepreneurial that we have, my hope that we can turn the corner and really turn Iraq from an icon of instability, war, repression into something a lot better. I know it’s difficult. I know it is—many of you would think this is pie in the sky. It’s definitely a dream. But we have the determination to pursue it. And I certainly look to our friends in the United States and in this room to be helpful to us as we try to achieve that basic right for our people. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
O’SULLIVAN: Thank you, Mr. President.
I thought we could have a little bit of a conversation before we open it up to our members. I’m sure they have many questions for you as well. I’d like to start with the region, in fact, and reference the piece that you wrote in the Wall Street Journal right before coming here to New York this week. And you talked about the reforms that Iraq needs to undertake. But you also put forward a bigger idea about a new regional alliance that could solve many of the problems plaguing the region, beyond Iraq, a lot of the regional ills. And you mentioned—in a short piece, you mentioned the need to build bridges on more than one occasion. And you didn’t say this explicitly, but I was left with the strong impression that you were perhaps suggesting that Iraq could be one of these bridge builders. You called for these countries to meet in Baghdad to discuss a new framework.
So are you thinking of Iraq as a bridge builder in the region and more specifically, do you see Iraq having a role in bridging perhaps the biggest divide between your two big neighbors of Iran and Saudi Arabia?
SALIH: Yes, in short. And look at Iraq’s geography. And this is the reality of Iraq. We have Turkey, Iran as major neighbors. We have Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and of course Syria as neighbors. And this has—this makes life difficult for us. It’s a complicated story, and at the end of the day also presents an opportunity.
When we talk to our neighbors—and I personally talk to them—yesterday the prime minister was—the day before yesterday I was in Saudi Arabia. I was with President Erdoğan and President Rouhani and with the emir of Kuwait, with the king of Jordan here in New York. Everybody is emphatic the need to supporting Iraqi stability, the need to see the fight against ISIS through and to make sure that ISIS does not come back.
So there is, I believe, a certain area of common interest between the neighbors of Iraq from the fringe angles, emanating from different perspectives, that they need Iraq. They want to see Iraq’s stability in one form or the other.
What we’re suggesting, despite the many differences between some of these actors, they can convene in Baghdad. Let’s start the conversation by talking about Iraq, by talking about Iraq’s stability, by talking about the need to making sure that ISIS does not come back, also to talk about what I just mentioned, about this reconstruction of Iraq and the reconstruction of infrastructure across the neighborhood. These are issues that we can start the conversation on in Baghdad, and we’re working on convening this meeting in Baghdad before long.
And in that context, I want to refer to a meeting that took place about three months ago. All the speakers of parliament, the Turkish speaker, the Iranian speaker—or the deputy speaker came at the time—the Kuwaiti, the Saudi, the Jordanian and the Syrian all met in Baghdad and talked about the need to supporting Iraq’s stability and prosperity.
O'SULLIVAN: So Iraq might be the first step into a—
O'SULLIVAN: —a broader regional conversation.
SALIH: That is what we hope. We need to start the conversation. One of the problems in the Middle East today, in this neighborhood in particular, everybody’s talking across each other, all telling us Iraq is important to us, the stability of Iraq matters to us. If that is the case, please come and convene in Baghdad and let’s have a conversation, starting with Iraq, talking about Iraq as a common subject.
And by the way, this happened in 2007-8 as well. At the time, the Americans were present as well. The neighbors plus, I think it was the P-5 or just the United States and the Europeans at the time, but there was a conversation like that. Obviously the situation is very different now, but I think if we were to do this now it will help defuse some of the tension in the region.
O'SULLIVAN: Great. Well, let me pivot to the United States. So I think one of the quiet takeaways of this week of gathering around the U.N. is that many countries are getting used to the idea of coming to terms with a less active, a less engaged United States. And maybe this is nowhere more obvious than in the Middle East where American policy seems to be very focused on Iran and Saudi Arabia and Israel, to perhaps the exclusion of some of the other challenges in the region.
Luke, how has this affected Iraq? And if I could be—push you on this bridge-builder question, do you see that Iraq could play a role in helping the United States in Iran bridge some of their differences, or is that a conversation you’d rather stay absolutely as far away from as you possibly could? (Laughter.)
SALIH: Well, I wish I could, but I don’t think it is advisable for Iraq to really push itself on the agenda of this conversation per se. I think it’s incumbent upon us, on the Iraqi leadership, to focus on the Iraqi stability and Iraqi interests, and in that context I would say bluntly, and I’ve said it to every world leader that we have met this week, is that the last thing the Middle East needs is another war, especially as the last war against terror is yet to be definitively over. And certainly war would be a disaster for everybody. And we know the implications for Iraq. And we don’t wish any of our neighbors ill, but seriously, we are focused on Iraq as a priority and Iraq’s reconstruction.
And I think I am speaking for the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people. We have had enough—forty years of conflict, and just not on—enough of wars in that neighborhood, especially talking about legions of young people seeking job opportunities. And this is not the time to really push this region into the abyss of another conflict.
O’SULLIVAN: OK. And on the point about the United States and its perceived or, in fact, its real withdrawal from the Middle East in military and other ways, how is that affecting Iraq? How is it affecting—
SALIH: Of course it is.
O’SULLIVAN: —your ability to be successful?
SALIH: I mean, obviously, I don’t interfere in the domestic affairs of the sovereign nation of the United States.
O’SULLIVAN: Of course you don’t.
SALIH: U.S. foreign policy is what it is, and we need to deal with it. We are adamant to build and develop our bilateral relationships. And the United States has been an important partner to Iraq in the war against terror. And in this next phase of what we hope to be the reconstruction of Iraq, we look for economic partnerships that can really benefit our people and benefit stability in the neighborhood. And we’re having an active dialogue with the U.S. policymakers, and we want to pursue that.
I mean, at the end of the day, this relationship has been, as President Trump has said, important but complicated relationships between Iraq and the United States. And I know the word complicated means you and I have gone through much of that relationship in the past and so on.
This needs to be managed well. The United States remains a very relevant and important power for the Middle East and the rest of the world, and we need to deal with the foreign policy as it comes. And we need, by the way, at the end of the day, to think of it from our own perspective.
I have always said that it is important to understand the importance of American power, but also understand its limitations as well for our part of the world. There is a lot that we, the people of that region, need to do and to create opportunities for our people. And I know that we can count on many, many friends here in the United States to be engaging us and helping us go through that.
O’SULLIVAN: And, in fact, your—you mentioned this idea of this reconstruction commission. And if that materializes, as I hope it will, there will be roles that could potentially be played by private-sector—
SALIH: Sure, of course.
O’SULLIVAN: —elements from the United States.
SALIH: Of course. Of course.
O’SULLIVAN: Let me dig down on that reconstruction piece a little bit. I mean, you were very open and very acknowledging of the fact that we’ve seen how extremist groups can take hold and upend things in Iraq in very dramatic ways. You know, I think there’s no one who’s more acutely aware of the mixture of exclusionary politics and core economic opportunities that helped contribute to the rise of al-Qaida, and then again to ISIS. And as you know, many of your close American friends are nervous about the emergence of an ISIS 3.0.
O’SULLIVAN: So could you say a little bit about what your government, what you personally are doing in relationship to Sunni politics in particular?
SALIH: In Sunni politics, I think, I mean, Sunnis have suffered a great deal from extremism and have suffered a great deal from the terrorist onslaught. Good story and bad story. Good story: If you go back to Anbar today, you’ll see a lot of reconstruction. A lot of the IDPs have gone back. And it’s remarkable what is happening in Anbar, the reconstruction, a lot through the initiative of the local government, obviously with the support of the federal government in Baghdad. But really Anbar has been quite a remarkable story.
O’SULLIVAN: And that’s a good-news story that we do not hear.
SALIH: But I want to admit also we have been very slow in the rebuilding of Mosul and the return of the IDPs to Mosul. This is an area where we really need to focus on.
I think anyone who might have thought for one day that this extremist group or that is a statement of opposition to the new political order in Iraq no longer can speak to the population, Sunni areas or any other area. People want to have a living. They want to build new schools. They want to live in peace and security.
But coming back to ISIS 2.0 or 3.0, whatever the term is, I mean, really what we’re talking about, the success, the territorial defeat of ISIS is significant, not to be underestimated. But in no way this is complete. And all the elements, you’re talking large numbers—relatively large numbers of ISIS remnants who are roaming the borders between Syria an Iraq. You’re talking about these areas in which extremist groups who are basic variations of al-Qaida or ISIS that are operating in many, many areas of Syria.
You have also, for example—ladies and gentlemen, this is a mammoth challenge that we have to deal with. You have the ISIS dependents, the women and children of ISIS, maybe seventy thousand people. And, obviously, we have ISIS detainees, and this is Guantanamo Bay multiplied by a thousand. And think of it. You are the United States of America, and the moral, legal, financial, security challenge you had to deal with dealing with that small number of people locked in Guantanamo Bay. Transpose that to Iraq, emerging from decades of conflict and having to deal with this problem—even though Al Hol camp now is in Syrian territory, but nevertheless it’s of consequence to Iraq.
So many people would like to basically kick the ball—the fireball into Iraqi laps, but we are aware of our own responsibilities and we will have to deal with them. But there is no way that this can be done by Iraq alone. This has to be a collective international responsibility. And the motto is we need to stay vigilant, we need to stay alert, and cannot be complacent. This is too precious, this victory, to let be squandered and to be revisited again. Requires sustained security collaboration and operations. Requires real focus on economic regeneration. Requires real focus on dealing with the legacy of ISIS, the ones I have described to you, not to mention the imperative of really fixing the Syria conflict.
This conflict has gone on for far too long. One million Syrian children—one million Syrian children born in refugee camps. Ladies and gentlemen, think of the statistics. Look at the number of extremist groups that are operating across Syria and are taking advantage of this conflict. The humanitarian costs of this conflict, the security implications of this conflict are huge. And one of the messages—and I’m talking from Iraqi perspective, but it’s also from a humanitarian, a human rights perspective—we need to really find a lot of effort in order to fix this thing. There are some good news on the constitutional committee that are being formed, but I hope this is not allowed to continue for much longer. This situation in Syria needs to be resolved.
O’SULLIVAN: Let me throw out a few numbers. So growth forecast for this year, 2.7 percent. Current account surplus, 19.6 percent of GDP. Inflation of 1.8 percent. Stable currency. I think if we weren’t in a meeting of Iraq, most people wouldn’t think I was referring to Iraq in throwing out those economic indicators. So Iraq’s economy is doing—is doing comparatively well.
But here’s my question. It seems that a lot of that economic growth and stability is because of historic levels of oil production in Iraq. Iraq is now producing 25 percent more than its peak previous—
SALIH: Don’t advertise that too much, please. (Laughter.)
O’SULLIVAN: Well, actually, there’s my question.
SALIH: Letting our OPEC—(laughs)—
O’SULLIVAN: There’s my question. You anticipated it. So on the one hand, you’re making all of this effort to improve your relationships with your neighbors. But on the other hand, a lot of your economic success is predicated on Iraq’s continued ability to bring more oil online at a time when the rest of your OPEC neighbors are doing the opposite in an effort to keep prices high. Is this a tension that you’re having to manage, or do you wish I had not asked this question? (Laughter.)
SALIH: Well, I wish you did not had asked the question, but still.
One other thing, as well. There is an effort to review the credit rating and upgrading the credit rating of Iraq, as well, as a reflection of the potential of Iraq and so on.
O’SULLIVAN: The improved economic—yeah.
SALIH: This is also positive.
Our minister of planning is here, who has perhaps a lot better numbers than I have. But it’s not all about oil.
Give you statistics. This year we were blessed with a lot of rain and record rainfall in Iraq this year. And I think the government did a good job in terms of managing the floods and having a good management policy on the excess water that this year we had. We had record levels of wheat production. The government immediately paid for buying back from the farmers. This was quite a stimulus to the economy moving in. As a consequence, I would say we also allowed—the government has allowed for release of water to do rice planting this year. Last year it was, like, 1,200 acres of land was planted with rice. This year, about one hundred and fifty thousand acres. And the reason is people are going to use it, the government is buying back. So there are lots of economic instruments that are being used in order to do this. There is quite an effort to revive the housing sector through mortgages and primary mortgage systems, et cetera and so on.
So, yes, oil production has been helpful, but also there is a lot of economic activity that are taking place. And we are working with our neighbors in setting up joint industrial zones and trade zones with the Jordanians, with the Kuwaitis, with the Saudis, and others for that matter. This—there is a growing sense in Iraq that economy is becoming a priority and people want to move beyond the conflicts of the past and really focus on economic regeneration. And remember what I say, and I’ll say it very simplistically, huge needs. Again, talking needs. Today Iraq needs twelve thousand new school buildings—today, OK? It’s huge. And our population is increasing by one million a year. So you can imagine the kind of needs the society has, this country has. But this is a country endowed with huge resources. Iraq is not a poor country. So resources and needs coming together with good governance, good leadership, it is a catalyst for a good emerging market. And this is what we want the story about Iraq to be.
O’SULLIVAN: Excellent. So I’m going to ask you one more thing before turning it over to our members.
O’SULLIVAN: Often we don’t think about—when we’re looking at successes, we don’t necessarily count the things or the potential catastrophes that didn’t happen. But just two years ago this week there was the Kurdish referendum on independence. And that led to an uproar in Iraq and in the region. But now things seem to have settled down. I wondered if you could give us your perception on that. Is that accurate? Is there meeting of the minds? Have Kurdish ambitions changed? Or are there still fundamental gaps in the interests of Baghdad and Irbil?
SALIH: I think fair to say the ambiance is a lot better with Adil Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister, who has had longstanding relationships with Kurdish leadership. And the new polity of Iraq, and the new—the polity of Kurdistan have really—I would say there is much better understanding than before. We have still issues. I was in Irbil last week and had extensive conversations with all the Kurdish leaders, the prime minister, the president, and Mr. Masoud Barzani, and other Kurdish political leaders. And obviously a major issue how before us is the budget law. We have a conversation going on. Whether we will have yet another interim arrangement for a budget law for 2020, or to really look at a strategic solution for the issue of oil and revenues between Irbil and Baghdad.
I cannot underestimate the challenge. But I think if it can be done, this is the time to do it, because you can never have the constellation of leaders who understand the problem and who have a willingness to solve it. And I very much hope we do that. That is a moment. We need to seize it. That will be good for Iraq. That will be good for Kurdistan. And we hopefully move beyond this yearly battle about what is the budget allocation. And it is not—and he and I have worked on this on so many times, and people are tired of this. We need a solution.
O’SULLIVAN: It would be great to end that conversation.
SALIH: It will be a—end that conversation. And this really, at the end of the day, I hope the narrative changes from how many barrels is mine or how much of the budget is mine, or whoever—which province it is—into one to really being an active participant in the bigger pie, the ever-growing pie of Iraq’s economy, because that is potentially what it could become like.
O’SULLIVAN: Great. Well, thank you.
Let me turn to the membership. And I—just please let me know if you’re interested in asking a question. Please identify yourself, and keep your question short.
Q: Doron Weber, Sloan Foundation. Thank you, first, for your thoughtful remarks.
I’m curious what you feel comfortable telling us about reports that Israel bombed Iranian forces, alleged Iranian forces, in Iraq, which Israel claimed were either planning to transfer arms via Syria or to use as a launching pad for attacks against them.
SALIH: There have been obviously reports to that effect, and there were indications that a couple of incidents along the Syrian border might have been perpetrated by Israeli actions, or in one particular incident at the camp called Amerli. These were Hashd al-Shaabi operations of the People’s Mobilization Forces.
Iraq is looking into those reports, trying to verify and ascertain exactly what happened; how did it happen. If those reports are true, definitely these are violations of our sovereignty. If there are—we do not want our territory to be used against any of our neighbors. We do not want others to get involved in our domestic situation. It is our sovereign responsibility as Iraq to really deal with any excesses that may happen within our territory. But this is destabilizing. This is dangerous. This is unacceptable.
O’SULLIVAN: Yes, please.
Q: Can you hear me?
Q: Good afternoon. My name is Tess Davis. I’m executive director of the Antiquities Coalition. And in this capacity I’ve had the privilege of working closely with the royal government of Cambodia, a country that has also survived war, genocide, and occupation, and today is looking forward to a bright future which has been built on the country’s rich history.
Iraq has perhaps the richest history and culture in the world, which is probably why Daesh also targeted it. And I would welcome your thoughts on what role you see Iraq’s cultural heritage playing in its postwar recovery and reconstruction.
SALIH: (Off mic.) It works?
SALIH: I will admit to the fact that, even though I was intellectually enamored with the idea of antiquities and—but somehow never touched me until I visited Nasiriyah about two years ago; actually, to visit with Adil, Adil Mahdi. My wife and I went there, and we went to the marshes—an amazing, amazing place. One of the most wonderful positive stories about Iraq is the restoration of the marshlands, and truly heaven. This is where the garden of Eden was, supposedly, and is unbelievable.
And then we went to Ur, where the Ziggurat is. And you can tell from that how profound history is in the land of Mesopotamia. And you literally walk across these ruins and you see these artifacts that are coming out of the ground. And I have recently seen also a map of antiquities, an atlas that UNESCO is doing together with, in fact, a group at the American university. And our minister of culture of Iraq is quite a famous archaeologist and quite focused on this.
Iraq is unbelievable in terms of human heritage and what it represents. Recently UNESCO designated Babylon as a world heritage site. And despite the politics, despite the Sunni-Shia-Kurd-Arab-Turkmen, whatever, all the variations that we have, almost, I would say, all Iraqis came together rooting for that designation; the same with the reconstruction of Nuri mosque and others in Mosul, in Irbil citadel.
So really that human heritage is something very valuable, amazing, but also of political consequence today, because it really brings people together. And hopefully—I mean, we’ve invited the pope. I had the honor of meeting the pope a few months back in the Vatican. We have extended an invitation for his holiness to visit, and we very much hope that he’ll be coming before long and to preach in Ur, where Abraham started, you know? It’s so significant. All the major divine religions emanating from that place, and you cannot but feel awed by the significance of that site and what it represents. And hopefully with a visit taking place it will be an opportunity to really emphasize the message of anti-religious bigotry and hatred, and really not in the name of God these conflicts should be pursued.
O’SULLIVAN: Thank you. Yes. The woman in the middle.
Q: Hello. My name is Kendra (sp), and I work in the House of Representatives.
And my question has to do with the youth in your nation. My question is, in understanding the demographics of over 70 percent of your population being under the age of thirty, and then hearing the number as it pertains to schools, what are the opportunities for young people? Where are those opportunities? And also, what is the perspective of youth about your rebuilding process?
SALIH: I think this is the biggest challenge that we are facing as a society, as government, and I cannot tell you that the prospects for the youth are good today. We need more job opportunities. We need to reform our education system. I just described to you that we need twelve thousand new school buildings. Iraq in the 1950s and ’60s used to be in the forefront of the education center across the Middle East. When you go to the Gulf, many of the leaders of the Gulf were educated at Baghdad University. And now, unfortunately, because of war, sanctions, you name it, mismanagement, our education system is quite behind. We need to do and invest a lot more into it, and make sure that it is up to standards and creating the opportunities for our young people to acquire the skills needed for today’s global economy. So the challenges are daunting, are really daunting.
But I’ll tell you something good, though. The youth are adamant about it. If you come to Baghdad there are some incubators, entrepreneurship centers. People are trying to make it, work through the system, push the envelope, and we as government have to do a lot more. And my hope is that, with the prime minister and other political leaders of the country, as we launch these infrastructure works and creating job opportunities, reforming our educational sector, these are the kind of things that matter.
Education really, really matters, and I give you my own take on it. I am passionate about education when I was in Kurdistan as—acting as regional prime minister there, but also in Baghdad this has been a passion.
Look, people are people. We have an American university in my hometown of Sulaymaniyah, of which Meghan has been involved, supportive, as well as Ambassador Hill was here just now and also has been very helpful to us in the past. You know, we’re taking kids from the same Iraqi schools, you know, which are not up to the standards that they should be in today’s world, yet through a good system they come in from that pool and as they graduate they are very different. Almost no one is without a job. They speak good English. Their skills of communication and so on are a lot better.
Obviously, we want this to be a catalyst for other universities and other institutions. Many are doing good and there are some good universities in Iraq that I feel very hopeful and promise—that is promising and hopeful about. But my point is people are people. What you need, to create the empowering environment through education, through job opportunities. And young people, I mean, this to me—today I’m talking about 70 percent of our population below the age of thirty—this is a huge social/political/economic, you name it, challenge for our society. But hopefully we can turn it around to the youth bulge in order to be contributors to our economies and our societies.
Q: President, this is Mark Hannah from the Eurasia Group Foundation. Really appreciate you sharing your time with us today, and congratulations on the many successes.
I wanted to address something that I’ve read a lot of experts write, which is that the rise of Sunni extremism in the region, and of ISIS specifically, if not was sort of ignited, was at least exacerbated by some of the policies of the Coalition Provisional Authority and Paul Bremer, especially the de-Baathification where a lot of people—civil servants, teachers—who had any connection to the Baath Party were purged of the government. First, do you agree with that critique? And, second, do you—what does that teach you about sort of inclusivity within your own government? Thank you.
SALIH: De-Baathification, obviously, was a law. Most of the Iraqi political system supported it. It was intended to touch or affect the top layers of the Baath Party, not to go beyond that.
I have to admit in certain ways and on many occasions this was badly applied. It was—become like—used as a political tool in order to punish opponents and so on, and it was not good. Now we have a legal review, and I think the impact of that has been diminished in many, many ways. The society has moved beyond that.
I don’t want to justify the excesses that have happened, but I just want to put things in context. Baath Party was responsible for a lot of the repression in Iraqi society. And you know, in situations of conflict, this can get out of hand. And, obviously, these were not good, and we have paid a dear price for it. But key is de-Baathification was meant to affect only the top layer of the Baath Party, not to become a tool to commit excesses against others.
What happened in Iraq was a radical change. It was overturning an entire system that has been for a while, and it took a long time for it to stabilize and come back into order. I think all the communities of Iraq understand, genuinely so, despite the differences, despite our narrative of history, today is what matters. And we basically—for example, I’m talking about Anbar. Shias and Kurds have a stake in making sure that Anbar is stable, have a stake in making sure that Mosul is stable, because if it is not stable this is the incubator that allows for the return of these bad actors who can make life difficult for everybody. So I think you will see a different sense, a different context.
And again, I want to put things in context. Perhaps other societies might have been an entirely different scale of violence. And we have violence in Iraq, but given what happened under Saddam Hussein somehow it was restrained, partly because of the American position there but more importantly because of Marjaiya and the Marjaiya Ayatollah Sistani’s role trying to calm down and restrain the violence. These were all important indicators at the time.
O’SULLIVAN: Thank you. OK, in the very last row in the back and I’ll work my way forward.
Q: Good afternoon. My name is Jolena (ph). I’m from the U.S. House of Representatives as a communications director. Thank you so much for your time today.
My question is, can you speak to the ultimate strategy to defeat ISIS resurgence from a digital media standpoint, seeing as how prolific they’ve been on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook and using them as a recruitment tool?
SALIH: Well, ma’am, I am sort of a gadget guy. I always do a lot on my iPhone.
O’SULLIVAN: This is true. I can—yes, that’s very true.
SALIH: You can attest to that.
I can tell you ISIS had a—quite a sophisticated digital operation, and I know Twitter and Facebook and others are now having quite a campaign to close down some of those accounts. But technology is an enabler of a lot of good, and I’m a believer in the power of technology. But please don’t underestimate the ability of the bad guys to use technology. And this is a huge challenge between the freedom of expression, freedom of the use of technology, and to what these bad guys can do in order to promote their message of hatred and create problems in any society.
And in the case of Iraq, we do have a real issue with that because we are really push on the stage of the digital world, and almost every Iraqi has a smartphone. Everybody’s active on Facebook and Twitter. Twitter is becoming more and more. I can claim to have been the first Twitter registered in Iraq. Jack Dorsey came. Really. (Laughter.) That was in 2008. And now more and more, actually, I use the Twitter. But Facebook is definitely the main platform that Iraqis are using. And it’s quite active. But on many occasions, bad people, certainly ISIS and others, are utilizing it to their advantage. And this requires a lot of collaboration with developed democracies to making sure fighting ISIS, fighting terrorism, extremism, religious bigotry does not just—is not the military battle. It is also the battle for the soul and the minds of the heart, and digital domain is really important in that context.
O’SULLIVAN: Great. Yes.
Q: Mr. President, thank you. I’m Raghida Dergham. I’m executive chairman of Beirut Institute.
And Mr. President it’s about Iran that I’m going to ask you, because Iran is accused of violating or use the Iraqi space, airspace, for launching attacks in the Gulf. How true are these accusations from your point of view? What would you do if there is such a violation? And then as far as the Hashd al-Shaabi, the popular mobilization forces which—who report back to Iran, I know that you have had a serious effort, you and the prime minister, in order to absorb these forces in the Iraqi army. And this effort has been stuck by the rejection by the Revolutionary Guards in Iraq. This is a dangerous situation not only for yourself, but also for the American troops in your country. Can you address all these things and tell us where are your efforts and what help do you need on that? Thank you.
SALIH: Well, Raghida, I think, to start with implicit in your question, that these attacks were not launched from Iraqi territory, might have gone through Iraqi airspace. So that is at least an improvement in terms of your accusation. (Laughter.) I think might have gone through Kuwaiti airspace as well, according to the reports. Went through Saudi airspace. So I mean, my point of view is this, we don’t know exactly what happened. The United States and others, and Saudis, are accusing Iran. The Iranians are denying it. This is—obviously what happened in Saudi Arabia is of deep concern to us. We consider this to be a dangerous escalation. And I’ve said this in my speech to the United Nations General Assembly. We don’t want—this is too risky. The security of the Gulf impacts everybody, including Iran, Saudi, definitely Iraq. And we do want to deescalate and bring the situation under control.
Talking about PMF, I want to remind this audience, a few years back when ISIS swept through Iraq it was about to sweep through Baghdad as well. Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa calling for arms, and many young Iraqis came to defend the country. And to be fair, had it not been for them we may have had much more difficulty. So one has to honor their sacrifice. One has to honor their contribution. The war against ISIS, the military phase of the war against ISIS, is over. Now the challenge is to really making sure that all these military entities that fought against ISIS are coming under one command and are controlled by the state. I’m not naïve to think that this can be done overnight. It has not been overnight anywhere in the world, not to mention Iraq with all its complications and difficulties. But definitely the decision is there.
Recently our prime minister issued a decree to put in these under the command of the state. By the way, I have to remind you that this is also regulated by law. There is a law that defines—that goes back to two years ago. This has nothing to do with this government, per se. It happened two, three years ago, the law of the Hashd al-Shaabi in parliament. And the fact that there are resistance, by the way, to the implementation of this decree from certain elements, a few elements, tells you that this is a serious decree. Iraqi polity, major political leaders, whom I convene at the presidential palace every now and then—quite often, actually, once a month, more or less—are adamant we need to support the government to implement this decision, because this is about the state.
If we don’t do this thing right, the notion of state rule in Iraq, rule of law, will be extremely problematic. We have the support of Marjaiya in Najaf, and above all also the population wants state authority to be dominant. State authority in Iraq, like many countries in the Middle East, could be on the margins here and there problematic. In the case of Iraq, you know, coming out of war and the difficulties that we have suffered from. I’m not claiming to you that we are absolutely in control of everything. We’re not. As many countries are not in that neighborhood either. But I can assure the decision is to do so, and we are intent on doing it. And we need all the understanding and the support in order to accomplish this, not because somebody wants to depict these groups as being this way or the other, but this is what Iraq needs. This is what Iraq’s future depends on.
O’SULLIVAN: Mr. President, we are at the witching hour. I want to thank you for joining us, and to let you know that I think we’ve heard your message loud and clear, that Iraq has a new opportunity, but the situation is still fragile. And you need the help and support of friends. And you can count on many people in this room, I can say for certain. We wish you much success and thank you again for joining us today.
SALIH: Thank you. (Applause.)