My warning to Turkey: keep your troops out of Iraq, President Fuad Masum tells Arab News

Updated 05 April 2018

My warning to Turkey: keep your troops out of Iraq, President Fuad Masum tells Arab News

  • We have always been interested in working to strengthen our relations with KSA, says Masum
  • If the PKK leave, no foreign troops can come and invade a part of Iraq, says Iraqi president
Fuad Masum, the seventh president of the Republic of Iraq, keeps a relatively simple office set within the grand surroundings of Al-Salam Palace in Baghdad.
A large Iraqi flag hangs on the wood-panelled wall behind his brown chair, while to one side is a modest library of several dozen books and pamphlets. Perhaps the biggest extravagance is the plasma-screen TV, which is playing an Arabic news channel with the volume turned up.
Located near the Tigris, and surrounded by vast green yards decorated with red roses, the palace is one of the most beautiful — yet fortified — government sites in the Iraqi capital.
For a man who was once a Communist Party member, before taking up arms with the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, it is not surprising that his corner of Al-Salam is so modest.
Masum was born in 1938 near Irbil in Iraq’s Kurdish region, the son of a prominent Muslim scholar from a line of clerics. Masum spent two years in the Communist Party, but left in 1964 to join the Kurdish Democratic Party. He worked as a university professor, teaching philosophy, until 1975 when he decided to quit. A year later he helped to found the Patriotic Union 
of Kurdistan.
He was appointed prime minister of the first Kurdish regional government in 1992 when the international community forced Saddam Hussein to give the Kurds more autonomy.
After the 2003 US-led invasion, which toppled Saddam, he was appointed as a member of the National Assembly, and joined the committee tasked with drafting the constitution of Iraq.
He was elected as a member of the Federal Iraqi Parliament for two terms in 2005-2009 and in 2010-2014, when he was the head of the Kurdistan Alliance parliamentary bloc.
Masum became president of Iraq in July 2014 as Daesh overran large parts of the north of the country. 
Wearing a blue suit, white shirt and blue tie and appearing serious but not tense, Masum spoke to Arab News about the many challenges faced by his country as it emerges from the ruinous war with Daesh. 

What is your assessment of the internal situation in Iraq, especially given it has just emerged from a long war against Daesh and elections are to be held in the coming weeks?
The difference of views is natural in any democratic country in the world where there are many parties and coalitions. When there are elections, there are differences of opinion. Each one expresses his point of view and strives to win more votes. Thank God, the situation is normal now and there are no fears… Raising fears (about electoral fraud) now is not in Iraq’s interests. However, when someone finds that there is use of illegal means (aiming to rig the elections), he/she can raise the matter publicly, and file a complaint to the federal court or other courts. Personally, I have no fears in this regard.

And the problems between Baghdad and the Kurdistan region?
With regards to ties between Baghdad and Kurdistan, relations are normal and there is dialogue between the two sides. A calm and unpublicized dialogue. They do not announce it, but there are delegations that go there and delegations come here. The two parties need each other, so the region will not give up on the federal government nor will the federal government give up on the region. 

What is your assessment of the security situation inside Iraq and do you think you are qualified to start the reconstruction process?
There is a difference between the reconstruction of Iraq and the 
stability of Iraq.
Now the priority is to stabilize Iraq. Work is underway to achieve this and there are many countries that have provided assistance to Iraq to restore 
The (internally) displaced people are the big problem. They have to go back to their areas, but reconstruction is another issue that needs huge preparation and huge (financial) possibilities. Iraq is currently unable to rebuild without assistance.
Stabilization is necessary because these displaced people must return to their areas, to their fields ... Many countries have provided assistance (for this purpose), but this aid was too little, not billions, it was $20 million (SR75 million) here and $15 million there. The state also set up assignments for this purpose and assigned many tasks to different ministries.
The Iraq reconstruction conference, which was held in Kuwait in February, was generally good and a good step, but we cannot sit idly by and wait for the rest of the countries to come and rebuild the country ... Iraq must have a key role in the reconstruction of its regions. 
Infrastructure is the hardest hit (by Daesh and the military operation against them). Iraq in its current situation is unable to do this task so it is necessary to look for investors.

How do you view Iraq’s regional and international relations?
Iraq’s relations with the regional countries are good, despite some differences with Turkey recently.
We need to have good relations with all parties, especially those with which we have common borders, and then the farther states … But we have to take into account the sovereignty of Iraq. The sovereignty of Iraq must not be forgotten at any moment ... This sovereignty obliges us not to line up with a party against any other regional party. This is the basis according to which we have worked.

Where do you think Iraqi-Turkish relations are heading?
They came to Bashiqa (without the permission of the Iraqi government). During the days of Saddam Hussein there was an agreement between them (the Baghdad-Ankara agreement allows Turkish forces to operate 150km inside Iraqi territories) 
and this agreement was not 
renewed, but they continue to have a military presence in some areas (in the north). Helicopters land from time to time there. And now this threat to enter Sinjar (to go after the PKK fighters). The group that was there (in Sinjar) and associated with the PKK-opposition to Turkey, decided to exit from Sinjar, but the threats are still ongoing. If the PKK leave, no foreign troops can come and invade a 
part of Iraq. 

What if the Turks insist on their position?
Then we will have our clear and frank positions and hope that we do not get to this point.

Do you worry about this issue, especially as the Turkish government is known for intransigence?
Our fear lies here.

What about Iraq’s relations with Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?
We need to have good relations with Saudi Arabia ... and we have always been interested in working to strengthen our relations with them.
Our relations with Iran are excellent, as well as our relations now with Saudi Arabia and other countries … Our relations are strategic and we must deal with these countries through our common interests.
In every meeting with any country, we focus on our interests. It is not in our interest to engage in a conflict with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran or any other country. We are an independent state. Iraq is not a follower to this party or that, so we have to focus on our interests.  All of these countries have provided us with assistance and support in our war against Daesh and we cannot forget their virtue. They gave us aid and we accepted it with all gratitude and we are asking to get more, but Iraq must remain as Iraq.

‘We have long reached for the stars’: Arab history in space exploration

Updated 20 July 2019

‘We have long reached for the stars’: Arab history in space exploration

  • On June 17, 1985, Saudi Prince Sultan entered the history books when he journeyed into space from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida
  • As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are spearheading a new era of Arab space exploration

Arab astronauts may not have set foot on the moon, but an Arab geographer left his mark on the Earth’s natural satellite as long ago as 1935.

A lunar impact crater 65 km in diameter was named AbulFeda by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in honor of Isma’il Ibn Abu Al-Fida, a prince of the Ayyubid dynasty who lived between 1273 and 1331 in Syria.

The IAU was founded in 1919 to promote the science of astronomy and pay homage to major contributors in the field. AbulFeda is just one of 11 lunar craters named after luminaries from the golden age of Islamic civilization, which lasted from the mid-7th century to the 13th century.

In all, 24 lunar craters have been named after individuals from the region, including Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887), an Andalusian inventor, physician, musician, engineer, humanitarian and poet — and the first man to fly. According to a 9th century poem, the so-called Leonardo da Vinci of the Muslim world “flew faster than the phoenix in his flight.”

Ibn Firnas was 65 when he became the world’s first hang-glider, jumping off the side of a mountain with feathers attached to his body and “touching the sky for a few minutes,” according to historical accounts.

Centuries later, in February, 1976, a meeting between the-then president of the UAE Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan and three US astronauts changed the course of a man’s life and fired the imagination of a young nation. A year earlier, the astronauts had taken part in the historic docking of an Apollo command/service module and a Soviet Soyuz 19 capsule as part of the first joint US–Soviet space flight.

A black-and-white photograph of the meeting, which can be seen at the operational air force squadron in Abu Dhabi, made a great impression on a young Emirati pilot, Hazza Al-Mansouri.

“I would look at the photo and imagine retaking it with three Emirati astronauts sitting with the founding father,” he said later.

Now 31-year-old Al-Mansouri, the UAE’s first astronaut, will also make history when he joins a mission to the International Space Station in September.

“It is a great honor to be represent the UAE in space, and to make my dream and the dream of a nation come true,” he told Arab News.

The astronaut plans to take personal items with him into space, including a seed of his country’s national tree, Al-Ghaf, and his traditional Emirati outfit.

The photograph of Sheikh Zayed and the US astronauts was not the only image that fired Al-Mansouri’s imagination. Inside his fourth-grade school book was a color photo of Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the first Arab and royal to travel into space.

On June 17, 1985, Prince Sultan, a Saudi air force fighter pilot, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on board the space shuttle Discovery. During the seven-day mission, he helped to deploy a satellite for the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat).

Prince Sultan became a hero and an icon across the region. “We have long reached the stars and beyond,” he said.

Two years later, on July 22, 1987, Muhammed Faris, a Syrian military aviator, became the first Syrian and the second Arab in space, carrying a vial soil from Damascus on his journey from Earth.

Faris, who now lives in Turkey as a refugee, struck a responsive chord with many when he later told an interviewer: “When you go up there, you realize there are no borders, no countries, no nationalities. Just Earth. Mother Earth. We should protect this Earth. Who hurts their mother?”

The 1980s was a decade of expansion, exploration and transformation in the Middle East. Now, 30 years later, that energy has returned.

As the third Arab country (after Saudi Arabia and Syria) to send a man into space, the UAE has a special relationship with space and the moon.
In a corner of the Al-Ain national museum is “a piece of the moon” gifted to Sheikh Zayed by the three US astronauts.

“This fragment is a portion of a rock from the Valley of Taurus-Littrow. It is given as a symbol of the unity of human endeavor and carries with it the hope of the American people for a world at peace,” says the plaque describing the object.

Next to it, is a small, well-traveled UAE flag.

“This flag of your nation was carried to the moon aboard spacecraft America during the Apollo XVII mission, Dec. 7 to 19, 1972. Presented to the people of the UAE from the people of the United States of America, Richard Nixon 1973.”

As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the UAE is looking forward to the launch of Al-Amal, or Hope, in 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s foundation. The spacecraft will orbit Mars, which has an area of contrasting brightness and darkness that was named Arabia Terra in 1979 for its resemblance to the Arabian Peninsula.

“The moon landing was a pivotal moment in human history,” Salem Humaid Al-Marri, assistant director general for science and technology at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, told Arab News.

“It was when something we imagined became a reality, and humanity left this planet. It was the result of science, engineering, mathematics and imagination coming together.”

“Space makes people dream the impossible,” said Al-Marri.

The words uttered by Neil Armstrong when he became the first man to step on to the lunar surface, on July 20, 1969 — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — have become part of history.

“It was such a powerful statement that influenced so many who watched the original landing as well as those from the current generation who watched it on the Internet or TV,” said Al-Marri. “There isn’t anyone who hasn’t see the moon landing somewhere.”

The space era began as a “race” between the superpowers that helped to break new ground.

“The race pushed space industry development to new levels. While it was driven by military involvement, the benefits from the technological advances were for all people,” said Al-Marri. “We have better satellites, as well as a better understanding of our planet and the world around it, as a result.”

However, after the 1969 moon landing, strained budgets and depleted resources forced the space industry to abandon competition and embrace cooperation.

“Space today is all about cooperating to reach new heights. If you want to fly into space now, you have to do so on a Russian spacecraft as the Americans retired their shuttles in 2011,” Al-Marri said.

Al-Mansouri will head into space together with a US and a Russian astronaut, symbolizing a new era of Arab participation in space exploration.

“The UAE is working with the Saudi space program, as well as with others such as Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain, to boost the Arab presence in the space industry,” said Al-Marri.

“Space is bringing Arab nations together.”

In the broad sweep of history, these space programs are building on the contributions of the Islamic civilization that shaped the modern world — and honoring the memory of scientists and explorers such as Abu Al-Fida and Ibn Firnas.