A Conversation With President Barham Salih of Iraq

Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Adem Altan/Getty Images

President, Iraq


Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Chief Compliance Officer, and Corporate Secretary, Activision Blizzard; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

President Barham Salih discusses Iraq's role in regional conflicts and its relationship with the United States. 

TOWNSEND: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. I am Frances Fragos Townsend, executive vice president of corporate affairs, chief compliance officer, and corporate secretary for Activision Blizzard Entertainment. I also, I’m pleased to say, I’m a member of the board of directors at the Council on Foreign Relations.

I am pleased and honored to be joined today by President Barham Salih of Iraq.

The audience today consists of Council members across the country who are joining us online, as well as a small number of folks here in New York.

President Salih, welcome.

SALIH: Thank you.

TOWNSEND: So let me take you back, because, as you know, I served in the—as did Richard—in the Bush administration, George W. Bush administration, and it’s almost twenty years since the U.S. went into Iraq. We’ve just observed the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. Now, looking back, if you’d had the opportunity to talk to President Bush about what he was thinking about at the time, what would you have told him?

SALIH: Look, obviously a lot of years to reflect on. Definitely, from my perspective from Iraq, from Baghdad, and I would daresay that reflecting the view of the majority of Iraqis, the decision to take on Saddam Hussein and remove him from power was the right decision; it was the moral decision. The world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. He was a war criminal. He was engaged in crimes against humanity, genocide, you name it. But no doubt: a lot of problems in the transition.

I remember coming to Washington about a week, ten days before the onset of the war. I went to the White House, and others. While we were so excited about the fact that Saddam Hussein’s days were numbered—but it began dawning on us—at the time we were in the Iraqi opposition, at least I was—I was the prime minister of the regional government of Kurdistan in Sulaymaniyah. It dawned on us about the transition plans and while the task of removing Saddam Hussein was the big thing for all of us, we wanted to get rid of him no matter what, but suddenly dawned on us at the time that the transition plan looked great on paper but reality is different.

I have to say, the greatest lesson from that: The transition plans were not good enough to deal with the dynamics. Many of us, to be fair—I just don’t want to blame it on American bureaucracy and American decision makers, which is often easy for Middle Easterners to do.

TOWNSEND: (Laughs.)

SALIH: But we did not pay enough attention to the transition. The bigger decision at the time was the setting up of the occupation authority that denied Iraqi sovereignty and, instead of Iraqis becoming in charge of the transition, America put a face on it that was not good as well.

Twenty years on and reflecting back on what is happening in Afghanistan also, at the end of the day American power matters, American power is important, is important to understand its relevance, its importance, its consequence, but it is also very important to understand its limitations too. You can’t just fake legitimacy. You just can’t by imposing a certain order you can create legitimacy. Legitimacy is driven from being good to your people and being supported by your people and by being able to reflect the wills, at least the—I’m not talking in—legitimacy matters, and the system of government that was put in place in Iraq had a lot of good things to it, undeniably so. And one thing to reflect on in the last twenty years—and we’re talking Iraq, the heartland of the Middle East. We have had five governments changed; no prime minister or president have ended up on death row or in the gallows. I mean, this may sound small to Americans, but nevertheless, for this part of the world it’s important.

Iraq has suffered from corruption in a profound way. I call corruption the political economy of conflict. In the case of Iraq we have oil that generates revenues, and this, instead of being put to better use serving your people and enhancing legitimacy of the political order, unfortunately corruption has eroded that. In the case of Afghanistan, in my view—and it’s probably too early to talk about reasons, many, many reasons, but the political that was in place was put in place with a lot of American support, for which many people should be grateful, but at the end of the day, how much of that ended up with the population and how much of that ended up with legitimacy? So a ragtag militia can take on that well-equipped army of Afghanistan. These are some, on the top of my head, some of the reflections I would pose to you.

TOWNSEND: So you mentioned American legitimacy. What is the message you take and you think the Middle East takes from the withdrawal in Afghanistan?

SALIH: America undeniably remains a global power of consequence, a relevant power, but at the end of the day, it’s about us; it’s about us taking charge of our own destiny. And really, we should not do it for the Americans. The Americans are not there forever. We have to count on ourselves when we have to find solutions emanating from our own societies and from our own region. I have been meeting with a number of regional leaders while in New York. Two weeks ago we had a major conference in Baghdad in which all the neighbors of Iraq except Syria were present, basically talking about, this part of the Middle East cannot continue to be like that. And we have to really look for solutions. We have to take initiative. Yes, America remains important. America is a global power, as I said, a preeminent power, undeniably so, but it is about our own destiny and we have to take charge of it.

TOWNSEND: You mentioned the region and your neighbors. From the United States, from the outside now looking in, there’s great concern in the United States about the Iranian government, the extreme government that’s been elected, and the influence that they can or will assert inside Iraq. Talk to us about your relationship with the Iranians.

SALIH: Look, Iraq and Iran—and in the presence of Martin—it was dual containment—right?—at the time. I remember that. And Martin used to say it is not about double containment and the differences between us.

It’s important to really look at realities of the region itself. Iraq and Iran share a common border of 1,400 kilometers. There are communities that span the border where the Kurds or Arabs in Basra and Kurdish Feylis in Kut and other places, and you have Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. If you look back at history, for millennia these borders were in a way open to influence, cross-current influence between the two nations and the two regions. You simply cannot move away Iraq and Iran apart. We are there. We are bound by these major cultural, religious realities.

A lot of people talk about the influence of Iraq—of Iran in Iraq, and many people forget about the influence of Iraq in Iran as well, with the fact that you have Najaf and Karbala in Iraq. And if you look back at the twentieth century at least, most of the major events that happened in Iran—whether it was the constitutional revolt, whether it was—(inaudible)—turn back the—(inaudible)—rebellion against tobacco companies in the 1920s, I think, even the Islamic revolution of 1979—it all started from Iraq. So there is a two-way street. It’s not a one-way street. And one has to acknowledge it for what it is.

I don’t want to go back to the war, Iraq-Iran war. Iraqis suffered a great deal after that, Iranians suffered, and the region as a whole has suffered. Billions and billions of dollars have been squandered on a devastating war that did not buy stability, to no one in the region.

We cannot but recognize the importance of this relationship, and we should not be shy about or hesitant about acknowledging the importance of Iraq’s relationship with Iran. But this has to be—and this is the big “but” and the important “but”: It has to be a relationship between a sovereign state in Iraq and a sovereign state, of course, in Iran. The nature of Iraq’s geopolitics is that if it is a proxy zone, it’s dominated by any regional actor, others will get involved. And, obviously, Iraq has suffered as a result of that. But the neighbors also suffer, and this has been the consequence. Iraq has to be mindful, as they often remind us or we understand from people who follow these things—about the war that happened that Saddam Hussein waged, and they don’t want to see an Iraq that is hostile to their interests. We don’t want to see an Iraq that is hostile to Iran or, for that matter, any of our neighbors. We want to have stable, peaceful relations with our neighbors, with Iran, sovereign state to a sovereign state. That will also mean for the Turks, that will mean for the Saudis, for the others. Using Iraq as a proxy zone is not going to work for anybody.

What we hear increasingly, and I can say this definitively in terms of reflecting public opinion in Iraq as well: Nobody has time or energy to go back to state of conflict with any of our neighbors. We want to have good relations. We want to build infrastructure with the Iranians. We want to build infrastructure with our Gulf partners, with the Turks, with our Jordanian neighbors and others. Our population is growing very fast. Our resources are not expanding accordingly. We really need to create jobs, and this cannot be done by being stuck in these boxes of conflict. The Iranians need Iraq; Iraqis need Iran, but again, as I said, based on rule-based dynamics of a sovereign state. I daresay a sovereign Iraqi state—a sovereign Iraqi state is one that can be a common theme for the interests of the entire neighborhood. The Kuwaitis would want that. The Saudis want that. The Turks and the Iranians also have an interest in having an Iraq that can be a bridge instead of a conflict zone, a proxy zone.

TOWNSEND: You talk about it being a bridge. Your neighbors—putting Iraq’s relationships aside for a moment—your neighbors don’t get along so well with one another. There are real tensions.

SALIH: They’re getting along better.

TOWNSEND: (Laughs.)

SALIH: Can I tell you something interesting?


SALIH: I wish you were in Baghdad that day when we had that Baghdad conference. All the main actors of the region were on the table. Baghdad—the notion of Baghdad has been a place of conflict where everybody fights over and have a stake in that fight. Now, the coming—and I’m sure from different perspectives; some people mean it more than others; I just don’t want to be too naive—but essentially recognize that Iraq cannot go wrong. If Iraq is undermined, it’s going to harm their interests too, as well. We can talk a lot about these things.

We all need infrastructure that can go through our territory and is good for Iraq and is good for our neighbors. They had been talking like this, and through Iraq in Baghdad, a lot of conversations have taken place between our Gulf neighbors and the Iranians and the Turks, and a lot of conversations between the Saudis and the Iranians have taken place. And it’s quite a paradox in some ways, for them to meet in Iraq in an open secret, I have to say, and really started moving some of these hurdles away, and this also reflects what we talked about in terms of the lessons learned. There has to be—the region has to come together. We need solutions, whether it is on security, whether it is on Syria, whether it is on climate change, which is really impacting our lives and our economies, or the fundamental requirement of any society—jobs for your young people. We need to get together. We may be hating each other’s guts—it’s not a “maybe”—I mean, that’s, unfortunately, among political ruling elites across that part of the world. This not—has been otherwise, but I think things are moving in the right direction. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and I’m much more hopeful than I used to be.

TOWNSEND: That’s terrific. So let me ask you: Given Iraq’s not just proximity but role in pulling people together, you know, the conflict that has plagued geopolitics and sort of now goes off to the side—people don’t pay attention to it, but it’s been a humanitarian tragedy—is Yemen. The U.N. has tried. The U.S. has tried. Do you see an opportunity for Iraq, given your relationships with the Iranians and the Saudis, to play the peacemaker there, to be able to enable a peaceful solution?

SALIH: I don’t want to say the peacemaker. I’m talking about the interests of Iraq. The interests of Iraq, these conflicts, these rivalries are damaging our interests. And I daresay the Saudis are not happy with the present state of affairs. The Iranians are not happy—(inaudible). And what we have witnessed over the past few months, to say the least, our prime minister, Kadhimi, has been active in working some of these issues, is to try to really bring some of the regional actors—I’m not going to go into detail; it’s not just the Saudis and the Iranians, but it included many others who came. And if you look at the map, Iraq geopolitically is the link. And for the past forty years, since Saddam Hussein’s succession to power, Iraq has been a problem for others—most of all, problem for the Iraqi people. And logic would tell me that everybody should want a decent, stable Iraq, an Iraq that is at peace with itself and at peace with its neighbors. And I often say to friends, if the Europeans can overcome two world wars and centuries of sectarian and religious and ethnic wars, with the resources and the cultural affinities that combine that region together, it should not be too difficult. Again, I don’t underestimate the difficulties, the cultural barriers, the—a whole host of factors that impede that. But in the case of Iraq, we have—our population today is almost forty million people. By 2050, we will be eighty million people. Demand for oil is going down; most probably by—beyond 2030, prices will go down because of hydrogen cells and electric vehicles in Europe, et cetera and so on. We have to find ways by which we can find jobs for our kids. The same applies to the Iranians, the same for the Turks, the same for the Jordanians, Egyptians. We have to. We have to. It’s not a matter of being visionary or anything. We don’t have another choice.

Obviously, on that count, I mean, we are developing good relations with the Jordanians and the Egyptians. And we’re doing quite a number of things, both in economic infrastructure work, pipelines, electricity connection to Iraq. The Gulfies—I mean, the GCC are also doing this. And something very significant that happened last week, our foreign minister was in Saudi Arabia joining the meeting of the GCC in a much more active and substantive matter than before. At the end of the day, this is about interests obliging us coming together because the issues, the security challenges remain important, no doubt—very, very important, and we have to be worried about these, especially in light of what happened in Afghanistan, what’s going on in Syria. But the economic and environmental consequences to the present-day dynamics is too dangerous for any of our societies to sustain. We have to come together. And also the reality is the region has to take initiative. We simply cannot wait for outsiders to help us fully and definitively.

TOWNSEND: We haven’t really—we haven’t really mentioned yet—and speaking of security, Syria has often played a destabilizing role for Iraq. What is your—what is your view of the relationship and the state of Syria now?

SALIH: I remember in the early years of the transition a lot of terrorists were coming through Syrian border, and many of our envoys would go to Damascus and tell them that this is—it’s going to plague you and you simply can’t have a snake thrown into your neighbor's yard; it’s going to come back and haunt you. But beyond that episode, I have to say, almost a decade on from the war in Syria, there is a very harsh reality that has to be recognized for what it is. And I’m not going to tell you who but I was in a meeting with two, three leaders recently and each were talking about this issue. One of them asked me what to do about Syria. I said, number one, you have to have the courage—we have to have the courage to admit that the present policy has totally, utterly failed. The humanitarian consequence of this conflict in Syria is no—is unquestionably too high, unacceptable morally, politically. You have a million kids born to refugee camps, millions of Syrians displaced. Moreover, the government is still there and you have thousands and thousands of militants well-armed, al-Qaida, ISIS, you name it, all kind of manifestations and variants of this virus operating in the urban center of the Middle East. This is not the few, handful men in the remote caves of Afghanistan in 2000 planning September 11th. Think about the consequence of this; think about any time. We’re waiting for an accident to happen, not to mention the moral, humanitarian costs. In the case of Iraq, this is a direct security interest. We are in Baghdad calling for bringing back Syria into the Arab League. Basically the present policy’s not working and Syrian people and those who may want to see the reform and change in Syria as well are caught in this difficult line between the government and these bad actors, and this is not good for anyone. And we should be more ingenious about it, and I think the world should have the courage to say basically the present policy has failed, number one; number two, the new normal, by having all these actors operating in Syria, different zones of influence, is not going to help.

TOWNSEND: No, and it’s—we know from the Afghanistan example, turning a blind eye is not an option—right?—because they will use this as a safe haven.

SALIH: Absolutely not.

TOWNSEND: But what is the—if you were advising the U.S. government, you’re here at the time of the U.N. General Assembly, what should the world be doing to sort of reestablish, reconstitute Syria?

SALIH: We in Iraq are opening up to the Syrian government and trying to open channels and encourage help and relief to the Syrian people. Definitely, that is important. And we want to focus on dealing with the extremist issue in some of these areas of Syria which pose a direct security threat to Iraq and to the neighborhood, I have to say.

And we are talking to the Europeans as well about finding ways—and for that matter, with the Americans as well—about finding ways to reinitiate the political track with the Russians and others. At the end of the day, Russians are important in this dynamic and I hear more and more greater collaboration or consultations between the United States and the Russians on this matter. But I’m personally calling for the region to try and embrace this dynamic in Syria and to really push it towards a situation where the Syrian people are really assured a reasonable degree of stability and relief from the present dynamics, which is bad for everybody. The only beneficiaries of this dynamic, the only beneficiary of this dynamic are these terrorist extremist groups who are really in their thousands, well-armed, well-organized, versed in English and technology, and it worries me and should worry the world, as a matter of fact.

TOWNSEND: Absolutely.

Talk to us for a moment, if you would, about the future of the Kurds in the region.

SALIH: That is a dear subject to my heart.

TOWNSEND: (Laughs.)

SALIH: Kurds are one of the major communities, indigenous communities, peoples of the Middle East—Arabs, Turks, Kurds, and Persians. Kurds have been wronged in history. We were denied a homeland, and the twentieth century was a century of genocide and displacement and terrible, terrible abuse. In the case of Iraq, we have had our share—as other Iraqis, to be fair; it is not only the Kurds that have suffered; many other Iraqis have suffered the succession of governments in Iraq. After 2003 we became partners in the Iraqi government. We opted for a constitution. That constitution has given the Kurds certain rights. Many Kurdish actors think that the constitution has not been fully honored. We have a problem, still continues within the Kurdistan region and the federal government. We are in the process of finding solutions, certainly to the economic and budget issues. After the elections, my hope is that there will be a review committee for the constitution, and this is also a very significant matter about Iraq for all the difficulties of Iraq and Iraqi transition. People say the way is to go back to the constitution and think of constitutional amendments. And in my office we put together a committee of lawyers. And Iraqi lawyers, by the way, are not very different from American lawyers as well; they debate all these issues in a very elaborate, deliberate way. They have come up with a list of recommendations. We have not touched the Kurdish issue because of the political sensitivity. My sense, after the elections, we will be revisiting that issue and there will be a lively debate in Iraq about how to reform the constitution so that it will offer Iraqi communities and Iraqi citizens a better system of government.


So you mentioned, both before we walked in and here, about the importance of climate change and the impact in Iraq. Can you talk to us a little bit about the impact you see and what you think the Iraqi government—

SALIH: I have to admit, despite my wife’s protestations over the years, I am a late convert to the imperative of dealing with climate change. But, frankly speaking, it is for real and we—in the case of Iraq, we see it. This year particularly was harsh on drought, so you could see the changes that had been accumulating over the years. According to the United Nations, Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable nation on the planet for the impact of climate change. We have about—nearly 40 percent of our land is turning into desert. Nearly—if the present dynamics are not stemmed, nearly half of our land will be losing agricultural potential because of salinization. Thus, storms are becoming much more common than they used to be, not to mention the rise in temperature. Obviously, this is aggravated by the fact—these dams that are being built in Turkey and also in Iran that is limiting the flow of water. But also our old ways of irrigation have been making life very difficult, both in terms of salinization and also in terms of poor use of water resources. Beyond that, also you have pollution coming from fossil fuel and the population growth is a real, real issue. As I said, 40 million; by 2050, we’ll be 80 million.

And the irony is Iraq—Mesopotamia, the Garden of Eden—this was the breadbasket of the Middle East. This was the forests of Kurdistan, the palm forests of—orchards of the south. Wars, neglect, urbanization have really destroyed large parts of these territories. And this is becoming a national priority.

We recently launched an initiative that the cabinet is now considering with an aim of revitalizing Mesopotamia. And when you look at it, it is also—you can’t deal with it in the context of Iraq alone; it has to be regional, not to mention global as well. But in terms of the region, this is the heartland of the Middle East, Mesopotamia. And the more you look at it, this is what can create sustainable jobs, what can create a sustainable economy, and without it, these societies are going to be totally in really bad shape. It is becoming a major, major requirement for us, and it is not a matter of choice, and it’s not a luxury; it is an absolute must. We need to focus on that.

The government is now thinking of developing that initiative into a national strategy. They want to call it the green paper, but this is going to be important. It’s about the environment and it’s about sustainable jobs. And it is about the planet, that we really need to take care of it for the future generations.

TOWNSEND: So you speak quite passionately about U.S. engagement often fuels a corruption economy, and that we must overcome that for stable and good governance. Can you talk to us a little bit about how do you—to the extent the corruption is endemic in the region and some of the governments, how do we work that out? How do we change that and get back to a better governance for the people of the region?

SALIH: In fact, this is a vital issue, a central issue that we really need to be—confronted head on. Corruption is not only bad because it denies public services and citizens the resources and the public revenues. But it is also bad because it erodes legitimacy. And it’s also very bad and terrible because it is what it finances: terrorism and extremism, and conflict. Without corruption—I mean, I’m not underestimating—ideology and hate, and bigotry, and terrorism.

But terrorism cannot survive, cannot be sustained without money, without finance, and if you look at it in a focused way, you see much of that money comes from corruption: illicit gains—often corrupt elites pay in order to sustain the cycle. It impacts elections, it impacts media, it impacts institutions of states to a point where it compromises, and it becomes a symbiosis.

I, again—it’s probably too early to judge, but no doubt this will be a major issue in Afghanistan for the collapse of the military in Afghanistan. In the case of Iraq we are not shy to say we do have a very, very serious problem, and our public opinion is very much focused on this, and our major public actors emphasize this to be a priority.

Iraq, for example, generated nearly a trillion dollars in the last twenty years from the sale of oil. According to some estimates—and I underline the word estimates—probably 150 billion (dollars) of that were taken out of the country through illicit means and corruption. Could be less, could be more. Again, I’m not talking about—because you can never have an accurate. And when you look at it and you see the symbiosis between the violence, between the extremists, between the terrorist networks and the corruption endemic to the political system, it’s really—it’s inescapable.

And I recently submitted as president a bill to parliament outlining modalities and procedures by which we can go and chase those stolen assets and how to repatriate them. But when you look at it, you can’t do it on your own; it has to be a global effort. It has to be an international effort because where does that money end up? In stock markets, different places, in properties in different countries, and ironically, these countries that send troops to fight terrorism, time and again—

TOWNSEND: Wind up with the assets.

SALIH: —much of that money ends up in their capitals, you know, buying properties, and investment, et cetera and so on. This is, as the Kurds say, is like carrying water in a sieve.

TOWNSEND: (Laughs.)

SALIH: You are trying to kill these terrorists and finish them off while facilitating—willingly or unwillingly; wittingly or unwittingly—this financial transaction that sustains terrorism at the heart of it. That’s why we call for an international coalition to really fight corruption along the lines of the global coalition to fight terrorism. The two are intertwined.

Terrorism, extremism, and corruption are part of the same equation, and they know no sect, or ethnicity, or political divide, genuinely so. And I can—I have a lot of anecdotes about how warring factions, warring tribes, warring sects have managed to find ways by which this can happen—the illicit trade, and the smuggling, and, you know, the financial transactions—in a way, ultimate free trade but for a bad idea, for a bad cost.

TOWNSEND: (Laughs.) So we’re going to open it up to questions from members. I’m going to ask you one more before I do that.

This is—you are here, it’s the U.N. General Assembly. Most of the best work gets done on the margins of that, and you will no doubt have meetings with President Biden and other senior officials. What are your most important asks of the United States in terms of support Iraq now, twenty years after the invasion?

SALIH: We and the United States obviously have a very important relationship, and this relationship is moving now towards focus on economic and cultural dynamics that is enshrined in our strategic framework agreement. The reliance on the security dynamics is a lot less. The combat mission is to be ended by the end of the year. Iraqis have to be self-reliant on this matter, but we will continue to need the help of our international partners. But the focus is on a variety of other areas of cooperation including, as I said, economic, trade, culture, education—these matters which are of consequence to our societies as well.

TOWNSEND: Nice to hear it’s not limited to military and security issues anymore.

SALIH: Yes. Look, at the end of the day, the time will come to ending such, and there is a limit to what you can do. But I hope that definitely Iraqis know Afghanistan, but there are also similarities one has to be mindful not to lose it.

At the end of the day, these elections that will be coming on October 10 will be very important for Iraq. Again, I go back and reflect over the past twenty years, we have had five governments changed, and this time these elections are called on earlier than constitutionally mandated. I hope we will do it well. I hope these elections will be less problematic than previous elections. The United Nations is offering us technical assistance and monitoring team to make sure that it is more integrity and more transparent. It’s important. So we will see.

TOWNSEND: OK. At this time I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this is a hybrid meeting—this hybrid meeting is on the record.

Operator, we will take our first question from the virtual audience.

OPERATOR: We will take our first question from Bhakti Mirchandani.

Q: Hi. Thank you, Your Excellency, for a phenomenal explanation of what’s going on right now in Iraq.

I had a question just about the low carbon transition and the ESG movement, and how that will affect—and the movement towards sustainability, and how that will affect Iraq in the future. You mentioned pollution. One thing that we’re seeing in the markets is an oil supply squeeze, which might help Iraq in the near term, although in the long term there will have to be a transition. But how are you—how are you thinking about all of that and how it’s going to affect the country, and how you can benefit from it?

SALIH: Well, fossil fuel and—at the moment there is a focus by the Iraqi government to move over to gas. We are initiating a major initiative to capture associated gas from our oil fields and use it for the generation of electricity.

Just signed a deal with Total, the French company, and last week there was a—two deals that were signed with also Baker Hughes in Dhi Qar.

We are also very much now focused on renewable energy, particularly solar energy. Again, a number of contracts have been signed with major European—and I think Americans also—in developing solar farms in Iraq. This is becoming a major requirement as part of that initiative on the environment. This is what you want to focus on.

We anticipate—we understand that reliance over fossil fuel, whether for domestic Iraqi use or for international will no longer be what it is today, so these things will change. And therefore we are trying to make the move towards renewable energy and also more focus on gas for electricity generation. This is becoming more of a priority for the government in Iraq.

TOWNSEND: Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Peter Galbraith.

SALIH: Oh, Peter.

TOWNSEND: (Laughs.)

Q: Hi. (Inaudible)—Barham. Good to speak with you.

SALIH: Hello, Peter. How are you?

Q: I’m doing well, thank you. And I can see you are.

SALIH: And you have stopped interfering in domestic affairs of other sovereign nations, haven’t you? (Laughter.)

(Audio break.)

Q: (In progress following audio break)—go to—further on your comment about Syria and Kurds, and I just wondered whether you thought there were lessons from Iraqi Kurdistan’s experience between 1991 and 2003 that are applicable to Northeast Syria or Rojava, and how you might see Rojava playing in some kind of peace settlement in Syria, and also whether it’s possible for them to participate in the peace negotiations from which, as you know, they have been excluded.

SALIH: I am personally—and I’ve said this on the record before as well—for Rojava Kurds to really try and get an arrangement with Damascus because their situation is untenable. And for Syria also, they need to recognize the Kurdish reality within their borders, acknowledge their rights, and the focus will have to be finding measures by which they can push back against extremists and against terrorists.

The Kurds of Syria need to be recognized for their rights—cultural and political rights, and there is a debate, I think, going on. I say this without being too directly involved. This is a matter for them and the Syrian government, and Syrian political parties to acknowledge. They need to have a seat at the table. You cannot have a peace process in Syria without the Kurds of Syria, who have been a major factor in the fight against ISIS and against the extremists and terrorists. And there are some conversations taking place to that effect now.

TOWNSEND: Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Paul Wolfowitz.


TOWNSEND: We were just asking about him.

SALIH: Hello, Paul.


Q: Hi, Barham. Can you hear me?

SALIH: I hear you.

TOWNSEND: Yes, we can.

SALIH: How are you, Paul?

Q: I’m well. I have a question about how to fight corruption. It seems to me there has been a lot of talk and not very much action on the whole subject of stolen asset recovery. One of the few successes, I believe, that has been achieved in the last five or ten years was with this huge scandal in Malaysia where at least some two billion dollars was frozen. But I don’t think much of it has been returned to the Malaysian people.

I wonder how important you think that stolen asset recovery would be for Iraq.

SALIH: It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to work for it, and we have to. And it’s really becoming an imperative for Iraq not just from a moral point of view and a legal point of view, but in terms of really taking on the extremists and eradicating extremism in our territory. Because without drying the swamps all this issue of mutants of terrorists will come revisiting us, because it is an industry and it generates a lot of money for these actors, not to mention the fact that the Iraqi state cannot continue with the erosion of legitimacy caused by corruption. I hope the next government will be really moving very seriously on this matter.

And again, I understand this cannot be done by any one single government; it has to be a global effort. And I look forward to help of the World Bank and other institutions. I spoke today with the U.N. secretary-general about this. Obviously, there are some U.N. instruments, but this needs to be pursued with the same vigor that the military campaign against ISIS was pursued. This is as vital, this is as important, and as relevant, and as consequential.

TOWNSEND: Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR: We have our next question from Whitney Debevoise.

Q: Hello, Mr. President. Thank you. This is Whitney Debevoise from Arnold & Porter.

Following on the repeated questions about the fight against corruption, you were asked earlier about your list of asks to President Biden. Would that include perhaps an executive agreement that would help speed things up? Because the fight against corruption is a pretty slow process if you do it case by case, but if you have the U.S. Justice Department on your side you can do a lot very quickly.

SALIH: Within the context of our strategic framework conversations with the United States—strategic dialogue with the United States, this issue of good governance and fighting corruption and recovery of Iraqi stolen assets is an issue that is on the agenda and has been pursued. But again, my hope is while the focus over the past twenty years have been on security, have been on taking on ISIS and fighting ISIS or other terrorist organization, I hope that we will have the same vigor and the same focus on this priority for Iraq, and for the world I would say.

TOWNSEND: Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Morgan Kaplan.

Q: Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. President. My name is Morgan Kaplan from the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace.

My question is, is we talk frequently about Iranian incursions on Iraqi sovereignty, but less spoken about publicly is Turkish incursions into Iraqi sovereignty in the north. My question is, is what is Iraq’s short-term and long-term policy goals or intentions in terms of dealing with this issue? And also, what role does the United States play, if any at all, in dealing with this? Thank you.

SALIH: I just come from a meeting with President Erdogan as well in which some of these issues have been discussed, no doubt. We have to acknowledge the legitimate security concerns of our neighbors, but we affirm to our neighbors that the way to deal with this is through collaborative arrangements with the government in Iraq, including the Kurdistan regional government, and any unilateral action ends up undermining the sovereignty of Iraq.

And I go back to the basic theme, restoration or consolidation of a sovereign Iraqi state that is able to exercise its authority over the entire Iraqi territory is the way forward. This should be good for our neighbors. This should be good for their security. Again, so any unilateral interventions and actions, military or otherwise, is tantamount to undermining Iraqi sovereignty, and at the end of the day this should not be good for Iraq and is definitely not good for our neighbors.

This is quite a complicated and problematic issue for us and for our neighbors. But we emphasize the need to really—the way to deal with this is to help Iraq restore its full sovereignty and be able to deliver security along its borders, and whatever actions taking place has to be done in collaboration with the government of Iraq instead of unilateral actions.

TOWNSEND: Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Christopher Isham.

SALIH: Oh, Christopher.


SALIH: These are all good friends. He was one of the first people I met in—you used to be at ABC, Chris.

TOWNSEND: Right, then CBS.

SALIH: Indeed.

Q: That’s right. Yes, yes. Great to see you again and hello, friend.

SALIH: Good to see you, my friend.

Q: I have a question on a little bit of history. In 2007, Senator Joe Biden said that an Iraq governed by a central government would never survive and that the country should be divided into three autonomous regions. Has history shown that a central government can survive in Iraq? And what do you think would have happened if that proposal had been implemented?

SALIH: In fact, Iraq from 2003 onward has turned into a federal arrangement. We have a federal government and we have a Kurdistan regional government, and one can argue that this constitutional arrangement was not fully applied for a number of reasons. If you ask the Kurds, they say it’s too much centralized or federal rule. If you ask many Arabs in the rest of Iraq, they would say the Kurds have had too much of that. And this is why I said early on that we will be having a constitutional review.

One thing for sure: Twenty years on from the demise of Saddam Hussein and establishing our new order in Iraq, we all acknowledge the need for a new political covenant between Iraqis. The present system is not functioning well enough to deliver for the Iraqi people, and it’s ironically not about the Kurds not being happy, necessarily, about their situation. But if you ask the people in Basra, Shias of the south do not see that they have benefited from this system. Their school systems, their health-care system, their roads are not up to it, and they demand a better system of government.

So I expect come next elections this will be a major, major issue of debate. We will be—different Iraqi communities and citizens and actors will be really fighting this issue long and hard, what type of Iraq we want. Definitely, the present system has had its shortcomings. It has inherent structural deficiencies and it is needed to be reformed in a fundamental way. Patchwork won’t work.

And good thing about it, almost all the major political actors in the country acknowledge that. Nobody, at least verbally, is not—in denial about the need of fundamental reforms. But what would be the form of these amendments and changes to the constitution remains to be seen.

TOWNSEND: Operator, next question, please.

OPERATOR: The next question will be from Daniel Martin.

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you very much. My name is Daniel Martin and I am with Accion International.

You’ve touched on a couple of these peripherally, but my question is really: To what extent is there among the people a sense of Iraqiness or Iraqihood? During the American involvement there, there was a great deal made about the centrifugal forces of the—of the Kurds in the north and the Sunnis in the middle and the—and the Shia in the south. To what extent has a sense of Iraqiness permeated the people? Thank you.

SALIH: Thank you. Iraq is a modern state. Obviously, it has a long, long history spanning thousands of years. Mesopotamia and the history is, obviously, well-known to all. But the modern Iraqi state was built about a hundred years ago, and this sense of Iraqi identity is a subject of major debate.

Certainly, the Kurds, until the demise of Saddam Hussein, felt little affinity with the central government and with this Iraqi identity because they felt wronged. They felt subjected to genocide and discrimination. And if I were to be bold enough, many people in the south were subject to sectarian discrimination—while proud of their Iraqiness and their identity, did not feel identity with the state per se as such. And I would say Sunnis have had—if one were to talk about communal politics.

But at the end of the day, the realization the communities of Iraq know that this is their homeland. They have to work together. I am Kurdish, proud of my Kurdish identity and heritage. I want to build an Iraqi state which could be a good homeland for the Kurds and for the other communities of Iraq, and this is a work in progress.

The question of identity, it is often very sensitive and it’s about how you answer the question—how you pose the question. Today, the youth of Basra—Arab youth of Basra, the Shia youth of Basra or Samarra, and those of Sulaymaniyah, the Kurds of Sulaymaniyah and Irbil, and those of Anbar each have their regional identities and they can be proud of that and so on, but they all want jobs. They all want a decent quality of life. They all want dignity. And you know, there is a lot to be said about identities that transcend the usual boxes of sectarianism and ethnicity. At the end of the day, people can be what they are but they are also bound by a desire for good governance and rule of law and protection of their dignity.

And we have seen that, by the way, in the protest movement a year and a half, two years ago in October 2019, when essentially Iraqi youth in the south rose against the ruling elite, saying we want our homeland back. Nobody could accuse them of sectarianism because—or ethnic motivation. It was about people basically demanding their rights. And they can be a Shia, they can be a Sunni, they can be a Kurd, but they wanted good governance. And identities will continue to be part of our cultural and political dynamics, but it is not the only defining dynamic. It is not the only defining issue. It is also about jobs. It is about schools. It is about health care. The same as here in the United States genuinely.

So politics is the same, and increasingly so in Iraq. Even with COVID, you have to shake hands and kiss babies. But at the end of the day, how many jobs do you create in your community? How many hours of electricity do you have? Corruption. And these are common themes. He can be a Kurd, she can be an Arab, and people ironically—even Kurds, who have been perennial rebels against the state—want a sovereign Iraqi state that can protect them from other actors and other interventions that causes them harm.

So I think there is a dynamic in Iraq. I hope we can sustain it in the right direction and develop the kind of system—political, democratic constitutional order—that can accommodate these identities, but at the same time deliver on good governance and the rule of law for people.

Q: Thank you, sir.

TOWNSEND: We’re going to be—we’re going to be respectful of your time. Operator, we’ll take one last question.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our last question from Charles Duelfer.

Q: Thank you. I’ll be brief, but—

SALIH: Still looking for the weapons of mass destruction, Charles? (Laughter.)

Q: I’m not going to ask where they are. (Laughter.)

No, but on the elections, they’re very important and you’ve addressed the—you know, the aspirations of the youth. But in people I talk to, you detect a lot of cynicism. How do you encourage these people to participate in the elections, especially when you look at your neighboring country Iran, and that election was distinguished by a low number of participants, and those who oppose the regime take great pride in that? What’s the case that you make to these youth that it’s in their interest to participate?

SALIH: Wallahi, Charles, this is one of the greatest challenges we have. There is antipathy. There is cynicism towards the system and people say my vote does not matter, and for two reasons that is so. Over the past fifteen years, expectations of Iraqis have not been realized. I admit to that. And also, there were fraud in previous elections that have caused people to doubt the electoral system.

This new electoral—we have a new electoral legislation, new districting, and also we have international monitors. We’re doing all we can in order to limit fraud and make sure that people’s vote matter.

And we are trying to encourage. We hope that the largest possible participation will take place. But this is going to be a tough, tough challenge. But if I may say also, when I look at American politics and antipathy towards the electoral system, we should all be, you know, not too judgmental. And I know what it means in terms of election frauds. I have fought in elections and I’ve been—have seen the consequences of fraud. And the corruption that causes fraud and the fraud that sustains corruption, it’s really quite intertwined. I hope this time in Iraq will be different. And my job as president and the government and others is really to make the case to the Iraqi people that this time is going to be different and that their votes matter, and the international community is with us. And we’re going to do the best we can, and we are serious about it.

And all indications and—I think it was yesterday or the day before yesterday the electoral commission had a trial run of the electoral—of the system. It worked well, according to the United Nations. So we will have to prove to people and show people that we are making our best. And we need to get the vote out because the legitimacy of the system depends on that, too.

TOWNSEND: This concludes our meeting. I want to thank our members for joining today’s virtual meeting. And President Salih, it has been a privilege to have you here at the Council. Thank you, Richard. Thank you—

SALIH: Thank you for having me. And hopefully, next time COVID is behind us and it will be different. It was a pleasure. (Applause.)

TOWNSEND: It was great. Thank you so much. This was a good conversation. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR


U.S. Presidents Trump and Biden have both turned to tariffs to support local industries amid economic confrontation with China. Here’s how these taxes work and how they’ve been used historically.



The new defense treaty demonstrates a growing closeness between the two pariah states that is likely to make the rest of the world uneasy.