RFE/RL: What can you tell us with regard to Allawi's proposal to form a national-salvation front?
Salih al-Mutlaq: As you know, the political situation in Iraq is very complicated now, and anyone who has a personal interest or shows a personal interest cannot lead at the moment. The only ones who can lead are those who put their self-interests aside and advance the country's interests.
Unfortunately, most of these political leaders nowadays look out for their own interests before the country's interests. Therefore, the blocs they are trying to make, they [rush] in order to [see] who will speak first, who will speak second. They made the situation in Iraq more complicated. We, as you know, asked for the formation of a national-salvation front, and it includes those who are in the political process and those [opposition] who are outside the political process, who believe in specific aims.
"One of the problems we faced in announcing this front is the place -- where? The best place is Iraq, but in fact most of the leaders of these groups cannot come back to Iraq because they are threatened, either by the government or by the militias or by the Americans."
These are the formation of a liberal government, nonsectarian, nonethnic front that could lead Iraq to be free from the occupation. In other words, it ends the occupation, and it ends sectarianism and ethnic attitudes in Iraq.
There were about 32 political groups in it. At that time, Al-Tawafuq [the Iraqi Accordance Front] was part of it; Allawi's group was part of it, Al-Fadilah; some of the Sadrists; the Ba'athists; the old army leadership; the Arab tribe organizations; some influential political groups from the south; especially [Ayatollah Mahmud al-Hasani] al-Sarkhi's group; the [Iraqi] Turkoman Front; the Kurdish movement, apart from the two Kurdish parties. So we only excluded the two Kurdish parties -- to be negotiated with them later because they have their own project, which is a non-Iraqi project nowadays.... And we excluded SCIRI [the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, headed by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim] because it's looking for sectarianism in Iraq and its aim is to divide Iraq.
So all those who believe in the unity of Iraq, the freedom of Iraq, and the unity of the country, could be [included] in this front.
RFE/RL: What makes this the right time for this national-salvation front to be formed?
Al-Mutlaq: Actually, for this front to be formed, it actually needs some political support from the region, especially from Arab countries. And we were negotiating with them [for the past] six months. And it looks [as if] these Arab countries are waiting for the Americans to give them the green light to support this movement, because the Americans are changing from time to time and they are gambling between [Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki's plan and the other plans. They are trying to take their last chances to prove that they were right in occupying Iraq. And every time they fail, they look for another attempt, another security plan, another strategy. So we know eventually they will have to come back to this front, because we believe this is the only alternative that is left for the Iraqis.
RFE/RL: Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was in Damascus on March 6, and at a press conference he said one of the key requirements will be an end to de-Ba'athification. There are so many people who are in the "opposition" who are outside of Iraq. If a national-salvation government is formed, those people must return to Iraq to take part -- but will they?
Al-Mutlaq: You are very correct. One of the problems we faced in announcing this front is the place -- where? The best place is Iraq, but in fact most of the leaders of these groups cannot come back to Iraq because they are threatened, either by the government or by the militias or by the Americans. So we wanted a place [from where] to announce this front, but we could not find it.
So if you are asking me if there will be a chance for a national-salvation front to be formed and there will be an agreement with the Arab regions and with the Americans to let this front work in Iraq without taking action against them, of course they will come back.
Salih al-Mutlaq speaking to reports after talks with other political leaders in Baghdad in February (epa)
Nobody likes to stay outside Iraq. It is a bad thing for all of us who stayed outside Iraq for longer than we should. This is why I have decided to come back to Iraq and to take all the risks. And I know it's very risky, but we cannot wait [any longer].
And I think this is the feeling of most of the political leaders. They want to come back, including the Ba'athists, the old army leadership. All of them want to come back to Iraq and participate. But in such a situation, it is really very hard for the leaders to come back because maybe they will lose their lives. And we don't want them to lose their lives at this moment, because their presence is important for the projects we are working on.
RFE/RL: Why is it important for you to have the support of the Arab states?
Al-Mutlaq: Well, simply because the others have Iranian support. And, after they dissolved the army and they dissolved all the foundations in Iraq, Iraq now is really not a country that can stand on its own. It needs help from its brothers, from its neighbors, especially the Arab states and Turkey, in order to strengthen [its] position and stand against Iranian influence.
But we have no army now. And the leaders of the [Iraqi] Army now and the leaders of the government now are pro-Iranian. So if they leave us like that, we cannot stand against the existing government, and the existing political groups that are connected to Iran, and against the Iranians. We cannot do it alone.
RFE/RL: But there are Sunnis taking part in this government. So is it really a pro-Iranian government?
Al-Mutlaq: What are they doing?
RFE/RL: So you're not happy with Vice President al-Hashimi's performance, for example?
Al-Mutlaq: Tariq al-Hashimi is doing nothing actually. He's only visiting countries and speaking and pretending that he's a vice president. But he knows that [even the] president himself does not have any authority. So what can [al-Hashimi] do? What can [the Sunni Arab Deputy Prime Minister] Salam al-Zawba'i do? What can the others…they have no role in this government.
RFE/RL: Would you support a withdrawal of multinational forces, and in such a case what happens -- as if you say there's no army or no side to support the Sunnis?
Al-Mutlaq: Well, what I am asking for is a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops in parallel with a timetable to correct the mistakes they have [made] in Iraq. They should bring back the previous army. They should end de-Ba'athification, and they should end sectarianism in Iraq and the militias, in parallel with their timetable to withdraw from Iraq. And these are mistakes about which they confessed -- [former Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul] Bremer himself confessed that these are the major mistakes that the Americans [made] in Iraq. They should put a timetable to correct these mistakes, in parallel with a withdrawal of their troops from Iraq. Then Iraq will be a safe country.
But if they withdraw directly, and they leave us with a pro-Iranian government, I don't think that it's good for [America] and [I don't think] it's good for us.
RFE/RL: The Iraqi government sponsored a reconciliation conference for former officers of the Iraqi Army in Baghdad on March 4. If former officers are given the opportunity to return to the army, would they?
Al-Mutlaq: [It's like] asking a former professor to come and be a student for his student. Those army leaders, they have their dignity and they are proud. They defended the country for so long. They cannot come back and be under some people who even do not have the qualification of being an officer.
Iraqi Army officers watching the trial of deposed President Saddam Hussein in June 2006 (epa)
You know they way they brought or they established this army? They [came] with the services of the Badr Brigades [the former armed wing of SCIRI, which has reportedly been dissolved] in Iran, and they gave them promotions according to [the length of] their service in Iran. No self-respecting leader from the previous army will accept to come and work under this leadership.
The way they should do it is to bring back the previous army as an establishment. They would say "Brigade number so-and-so will be established in the area of so-and-so," and they [choose] the leaders for these brigades and they will establish the army. But to come back and be in an army that is built in sectarianism or ethnic divisions. I don't think that any previous army officer would come back.
RFE/RL: But the government said at the officers' conference that more than 85 percent of the current officers are from the former army (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007).
Al-Mutlaq: Well, even if they were, they were not the leaders. The influential ones are those who are [now] part of the militias.
RFE/RL: Regarding the Iraq neighbors' meeting slated for March 10, do you think anything will come out of this meeting?
Al-Mutlaq: I think when they realize this conference is not going to do anything, it will be helpful [toward] forming the national-salvation front. I don't think, at least reading the title of this conference [which] says this conference is coming to support the Iraqi government. If they are coming to support the Iraqi government, they are coming to support the failure of the Iraqi government. It will only prolong a losing fight for the Americans and the British and the Iraqis.
But if they accept the agenda of the Arab League…I think serious changes can be [made] in the country, and maybe they will come back to the national-salvation front or something near to it. You know, we are not [saying] this is the only solution. If we find another solution that will change the trend of this political process to bring the country together and to end the political violence in Iraq, to have an uncorrupted government, a technocrat government, we don't mind it -- we will be part of it.
RFE/RL: So what is the end goal for you beyond forming this national-salvation front?
Al-Mutlaq: This national-salvation front will form the [basis] for a successful government that can control the country. The mechanism -- how this national-salvation front will change the current government -- we have different scenarios. The best scenario we are looking for is to do it through the parliament -- drawing up the government by the parliament. The second one is to have a referendum in the country supervised by the international [community] to see what is the percentage of the people supporting this government. We know that this [current] government will not have more than 10 percent of the support of the Iraqis. Then we will have all the excuses to change the government either [through] national elections or [through] an international conference which takes the action to establish a new Iraqi government, a transitional one to bring security to the country and stability, and arrange for new elections.