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 stability.
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.