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Q&A: 'Perhaps the last chance to save Iraq'

UK defence secretary says Iraq risks disintegration if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refuses to change course.

Last updated: 26 Jun 2014 12:21
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Philip Hammond says the United Kingdom has 'ruled out' direct military action in Iraq [Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera's Barry Malone spoke to UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond in Doha, Qatar.

Al Jazeera: Can you briefly outline for us what the purpose of your trip to the Gulf is?

Philip Hammond: The [UK] prime minister has asked me to come here to talk with our principal Gulf allies, to share intelligence with them about the situation in Iraq, to listen to their analysis, to share with them our analysis. And to get a sense of where everybody thinks we should go and how we can handle this situation, to try to get the best possible outcome for the people of Iraq and for the security of the region.

AJ: There's been a lot of talk about what can be done. And much of it has been about what Western countries can do and what Iran can do. But what about the Gulf countries?

Hammond: Clearly the Gulf countries, at least some of them, have very close links to the Sunni communities in Anbar [Province] in a way that we don't have and in a way that you wouldn't expect Western countries to have - tribal links, historical links, which give them a point of contact and a point of influence.

And what is clear to me is that it is very important that we message the Sunni communities - very hard - that there has to be a better way than supporting extremist groups to make their voices heard. There has to be a better way of building a future for Iraq than joining with an extremist terror-based organisation. So we have to do two things: On the one hand, we have to get that message through to the Sunni community leaders. On the other hand, we have to get the message very clearly to the government of Iraq that it must change course, open up and be genuinely inclusive to all the communities in Iraq - that includes the Sunni and the Kurdish communities.

AJ: A lot of people say that Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has become more authoritarian, that he's become more sectarian and that this has, to a large extent, led to the situation that Iraq is in today. The UK government has, in the past, been very supportive of Maliki's premiership. Is that something the UK government regrets now?

Hammond: The situation is evolving all the time. But what is clear is that Iraq has to change course. The factionalism that the government has been displaying is breaking the country apart. And this is perhaps the last chance to save Iraq as a unified state, to reach out to the other communities, to make a clear commitment to inclusive government. That's what we will be urging on the government of Iraq and urging our allies and partners to pursue the same agenda.

AJ: Maliki seems now to have refused the possible solution of a "national salvation" government. Do you think he's still a credible leader for the country going forward?

Hammond: I don't want to make this about individuals. What's important is that we have an inclusive government that is credible to all the communities in Iraq. What we heard from Maliki is that he's not prepared to step outside the normal constitutional arrangements. I didn't hear anybody, certainly from the West, suggesting that. What I heard Secretary [John] Kerry talking about, what we've been talking about, is the need for the current constitutional process to produce an inclusive government. It's Prime Minister Maliki who has interpreted that as a call to step outside the constitutional arrangements. I didn't hear that.

AJ: What's your estimation of the threat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant poses - not only to Iraq, but also to the region and to the wider world? How potent a force are they?

Hammond: Let me answer that question in two ways. First of all, this is a relatively small group. It has achieved remarkable military gains on the ground. It can only have done that because of the climate in the communities where it is operating. Without the permission of those communities, at the very least the passive acquiescence, it could not have achieved the success it has with the relatively small numbers of people at its command.

Iraq's Maliki rules out emergency government

So the key to undermining its success - its progress - has to be withdrawing that permission by convincing the Sunni communities that they have more to lose by throwing in their lot with terrorists and extremists than by taking up what I hope will be a genuine offer from the government in Baghdad of an inclusive government and a new start for Iraq.  

What is the threat, to us and to our allies in the Gulf? It's twofold. It's the threat of jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria to their home countries and continuing jihad. And it's the threat of international terrorism being trained, nurtured and launched from an ungoverned space in Iraq and Syria. Those are the two challenges we face, and because of those threats, we can never compromise with or accept the ideology of ISIL. We have to push back at it. We have to support the government of Iraq, a proper inclusive government of Iraq, to resist ISIL and assert control over its territory.

AJ: And specifically what can the UK do? The US is sending military advisers - the first batch has already arrived. They're flying drones over and sharing that intelligence. What can you do?

Hammond: At the moment our focus is on supporting a politically inclusive process. In due course, if there is an inclusive government in Iraq, rebuilding Iraq's security forces in order to maintain the integrity of the territory of Iraq, and they ask for technical support and advice, training, we will certainly consider all of those requests if they come from a government which genuinely represents the people of Iraq, where we see a sustainable future for the country as a united nation.

AJ: Direct military action is out?

Hammond: We've ruled out direct military action in the current situation. We don't see it as being a route to a sustainable solution. There must be, first of all, a political solution and then a legitimised inclusive government has to deal with the security challenge. And its friends and its partners, both in the West and the Gulf, will be willing to support it in rising to that challenge.

AJ: In Syria, you were in favour of intervening militarily. You personally said you were disappointed when the British parliament rejected that possibility.

Hammond: I was.

AJ: But you rule out any intervention in Iraq. Can you outline the difference?

Hammond: The proposed intervention in Syria was very specific and very targeted around the illegal use of chemical weapons, which was a threat not just to the Syrian opposition or to the region, but a global challenge. And the threat of military intervention in that case delivered a solution, which has now seen all chemical weapons that have been declared removed from Syria for safe destruction. That is an excellent result that would not have happened without the threat of military action.

AJ: So the use of chemical weapons in Syria was more of a global threat than ISIL is?

Hammond: The threat of chemical weapons is a generic threat. The world long ago took the decision to reject chemical weapons and to isolate and deal with any country that sought to build them, own them or use them. Syria broke that rule and the international community had to deal with that situation. Those weapons could have been proliferated anywhere in the world, they could have posed a threat to any country's citizens. The situation in Iraq is more complex - indeed the situation in Syria is very complex - but the question of military intervention in 2013 was not about the complicated Syrian civil war. It was about the specific issue of chemical weapons.

AJ: A lot of Iraqis say that the current situation in the country is a direct result of the US-led invasion in 2003, an action in which the UK government played a major role. What would you say to those Iraqis who blame the actions of the US and UK governments for where Iraq is today?

Hammond: It is a historical fact that there is a sequence of events and one comes after the other, but the flow from one to another is not inevitable. It's about the way circumstances arise, the way people act or don't act to shape the situation, and I don't think it is correct that the situation in Iraq today has arisen inevitably as a result of the removal of the dictator Saddam Hussein.

AJ: Do you think the Iraqi people are in a better position today than they were before that invasion?

Hammond: I think right now the Iraqi people are facing a very difficult set of challenges. But I see a way forward for Iraq if we can now persuade all the parties to join together to build an inclusive government. I don't think that's an impossible challenge.

And I think over the next few weeks we will see whether the international community has succeeded in persuading people of goodwill across Iraq, in all the communities, to come together to save Iraq - to save the state of Iraq - from fragmentation and disintegration.
 
Follow Barry Malone on Twitter: @malonebarry

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Al Jazeera
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