The Iraqi Army is fighting tooth and nail to stop the advance of Islamic State. Following a row of victories, which have brought many hopes of war ending soon, the Iraqi Army suffered a major defeat at Ramadi – letting a strategically important city, a doorstep to Baghdad, into the hands of radical Islamists. How’s that going to affect the war? Who’s on the winning side? And is the international community doing enough to prevent Islamic State from hegemony on the Middle East? We ask these questions to Iraqi Interior Minister. Mohammed Salem Al-Ghabban is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Mohammed Salem Al-Ghabban, the Iraqi interior minister, it’s really great to have you on our show today, welcome.
Mohammed Salem Al-Ghabban: It’s a pleasure.
SS: So let’s start from the latest. The Iraqi army and the Shia militias have almost defeated IS in Tikrit, but the Islamic State has recently claimed victory in Ramadi, an important strategic town, and it’s also still in control of Fallujah and Mosul. Now, with the coalition bombing campaign, with the advisors trying to train the Iraqi army, with the international arms help – how is ISIS still claiming territories? Why is ISIS still winning?
MSAG: Well, first of all I would like to correct the terms: we don’t have the Shia militia. We have popular mobilization, this sort of fighters and their force being formed by the government, with high authority, religious authorities calling the people to come and join the government forces to defend our territories, to defend our sovereignty.
SS: Just to make sure, are you talking about Iraqi government’s call for volunteers to join the fight against ISIS?
MSAG: Correct. We have now a draft legislation called “National Guard” which should be containing all these popular volunteers.
SS: Have a lot of people joined?
MSAG: Of course, we have over 60,000 people that joined, and we can say that the main force now defending Iraq and defending territories and liberating all these cities and areas was the popular mobilization, they fight next to and together with government forces, whether from the army or from Ministry of Interior or the security forces.
SS: Let me ask you something, minister: would you welcome international volunteers as well?
MSAG: Clearly, the Prime Minster, he is the High Commander of all forces, he announced it many times that we don’t need foreign soldiers on the ground, we have enough people to defend our territories, but we welcome any support from the international community and the air force coverage, because, as you know, we have shortage of this sort of defense, so we’re welcoming any support, especially in drying out the financing and recruitment of ISIS fighters. We welcome any help with this or the exchange of information so we can defeat ISIS from their resourcing and recruiting.
SS: So going back to my first question – what do you think is the main problem why you can’t defeat ISIS at this point?
MSAG: Clearly, our army and our forces were not prepared very well, were not constructed to fight such battle – you know, it’s guerilla fighting, city fighting, so, our army was not prepared, was not equipped with correct equipment to fight such wars. But now, with help of volunteers, and our forces have now regained the spirit of fight, we are now liberating many areas, since the fight started, after the collapse of Nineveh, Mosul… Still, it is a war. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. So, we accept that we have problems in Ramadi, in the last battle our forces couldn’t keep the territory and withdrew and now we are reinforcing our troops to liberate and regain the city, we hope.
SS: Have you been on frontlines yourself, minister?
MSAG: I was.
SS: Really? What is IS like to fight? How organized are they, how organized are their militants, how well-equipped are they, can you tell us?
MSAG: Well, the main tactic they are using, is, they use vehicles that are armored and full of explosives – so this is a tactic that they’re using, which was somehow effective on some fronts, but we assure that we can come over this, this is not the winning card, because we have very brave men, soldiers that can overcome such tactics. But as I said, sometimes, it happens that they use this tactics to destroy very big areas and create some chaos and I think, in addition, they try to manipulate things…you know, using locals as well…
SS: We’re going to talk about that in just a little bit, but before we get there, I remember in 2007, in Anbar province, Sunnis, actually, they – you know, Anbar, that’s on a doorstep to Baghdad, and is now under control of Islamic State – Sunnis there, they rose and they kicked out jihadists our of Iraq. Why isn’t that happening now? Do you think those Sunnis are on the side of Islamic State now?
MSAG: Definitely not. Definitely not, I can assure you. I want to say something: in Iraq, we don’t have sectarian conflict between the people. There are politicians that use this sort of… trying to gain power from using this sort of disputes or using this problems, sometimes, in some provinces or some areas. We have problems everywhere in Iraq. We have lack of services… They trying to use these things, put them in a way that there’s a main conflict between sects in Iraq, but I can assure you there is no such things.
SS: So why aren’t they rising up now, the Sunnis? And why aren’t they rising up against the militants of the IS and try to push them out of Iraq.
MSAG: We have many volunteer Sunnis that joined our forces in Al-Anbar and Salah-ad-Din provinces. And in Mosul now, in its liberated area, or the area that it is not under the control of ISIS, there are thousands of Sunni people that joined the popular mobilization as volunteers and other thousands of police forces and army forces which, after the collapse of Mosul, they came back, joined the forces, and they are prepared now to fight ISIS, and there are Sunnis, so I can assure you that ISIS, when they control an area or territory, many people escape that area – for example, even Mosul, after it collapse, half-a-million Sunnis escaped, they couldn’t stay. You know, ISIS even acts against tribes, and Sunni tribes, in many areas they killed hundreds of them. So, I don’t think ISIS is enjoying the support from Sunnis. But they are using sometimes circumstances or situation in their interests.
SS: Do you feel, as a government there’s something more you could do to actually have Sunni tribesmen, who are still not on your side, make them change their mind and join your side?
MSAG: We’re working on reconciliation…
SS: How are you doing that?
MSAG: The battle with ISIS is not only a military fight. We should work on political side to gain the local people, the Sunni tribes, on our side and we find the way to have a sort of cooperation with them…
SS: Are you finding it hard not so much to actually find common language with Sunni tribesmen for them to come fight with you, on your side?
MSAG: The problem is sometimes because of the way of ISIS targeting and fighting, because they’re using very brutal ways, they are spreading fear and scaring people, so sometimes, people are scared, so they cannot defend against ISIS.
SS: Do, you feel like you’re getting enough help from the international community? What is Iraq in most need of right now?
MSAG: As I said, and I repeat it now, we don’t ned any soldiers on the ground, we have enough people to defend our territories and to liberate our area, but the support that we definitely need is air force, air strikes, because we have shortage of air forces, and we need international community and all countries to help us with drying out the resources, the recruitment – because, you know, ISIS now is relying on recruiting from tens of countries from around the world, and the best thing is to come together, cooperation from all over the world, to stop this recruitment, to stop their financing, to stop also the political or media support, sometimes, because, as I said, the main thing in this battle is the psychological thing and the media, which was very effective at using this – they have many measures to do this, so we have to stop this, because the threat of ISIS is a threat not only to Iraq; we are now fighting on behalf of the world, so everyone should help Iraq, because it is fighting on behalf of the world and it is a threat not only to Iraq, but to the region and the whole world.
SS: Iran was actually among the first countries to come to the aid in your fight against the Islamic State: it helped you with weaponry, it helped you with military advisors – who would you say is helping Iraq more at this point? The U.S. or Iran? Who you’re getting more help from?
MSAG: The situation since the collapse of Mosul was very difficult, was very crucial – we were in situation where Baghdad was under threat, and it was a serious threat, actually. So we welcome anybody who help us and as you mentioned, Iran was the first one to give help to Iraq and give hand to Iraq. Even the Kurds, when the threat was very close to Erbil, the first supplies of ammunition that reached Kurds were from Iran, not from other people. So, we’re receiving many claims from other countries that they are supporting Iraq, but on the ground, I say, clearly Iran was the first in everything to support Iraq.
SS: And it probably helped you more than any other country?..
MSAG: Well, the international community, particularly the coalition forces was helpful, and air support and airstrikes – we cannot say that they were not helpful, they were helpful; but the determining point in victories and liberation of areas was the soldiers on the ground and the advisors from Iran, the ammunition, was very helpful.
SS: U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, he actually said that he’s very concerned about Iranian involvement in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State. So, you’d think Islamic State is a common threat to everybody, like you’ve said, so shouldn’t you be getting any help that you could get? Why should America be so agitated about Iran helping you?
MSAG: As I said, it is: ISIS is a threat to everybody, of course, it’s a threat to Iran. We have border for more than 1200 km with Iran, Iran feels the threat is very close, and more than for any other country – so they share this threat and so they helped us. We welcome any help, so we don’t want to get involved in conflict between some countries. As a country we would like to see ourselves out of any polarization in the region, between Iran and other countries, we want to liberate our territory. We want to defend our sovereignty, so we’re welcoming any country to help us. We don’t care about the polarization in the area, we want to have a policy not to interfere into any country’s policy or the conflict between other countries in the region. We want to see ourselves as unified and our territory, sovereignty is kept away from this polarization.
SS: Now, the White House says its’ strategy in Iraq is a success. Is it?
MSAG: Our strategy is to have good relationship….
SS: No, what do you think? Is American strategy in Iraq a success? Because the White House says American strategy in Iraq is a success. What is your take on that?
MSAG: Americans share with us the same feeling about ISIS, the threat of ISIS, which is a threat to whole world, to the international community. They share many views about ISIS…
SS: No. Not the threat, but… it is a threat, we all agree, but it’s strategy to eliminate or help you eliminate ISIS in Iraq, do you think it is a success?
MSAG: I was trying to say this… we’re receiving this views, but on the ground we feel that there’s is not enough support from America to defeat ISIS.
SS: What would you need from Americans? Because you say you don’t want their boots on the ground, because you feel like Iraqis are the only ones who should lead the ISIS out of Iraq – so what else would you need from the Americans?
MSAG: We need the help to eliminate ISIS, not to contain ISIS.
SS: In what sense – could you be more precise? Do you need more air bombing campaigns?
MSAG: The air bombing and airstrikes, they do this, but in a limited way, I think – we need more of targeting the enemy, they have enough equipment to target ISIS, I think. We need more of this. In addition, the international community, the coalition forces and, particularly, the Americans, they can help us to put pressure on some countries that are still giving help to ISIS, you know, the recruitment, foreign fighters, financing and support of Daesh.
SS: Your Prime Minister has recently cruised the new defense spending bill proposed by U.S., that would actually allocate different funds separately to Iraqi Kurds, to Sunni militias, et cetera. I think, you’ve also said that if that happens, that would actually not be too helpful for your fight against ISIS. Why is that?
MSAG: The main reason that we can defeat ISIS is our unity. When we are unified in Iraq, we can win the war, we can defeat ISIS. This legislation, we think, will affect the unity of Iraq in negative way. This will give a wrong message to our enemy – that we are not united – because they consider that some components of Iraq, whether the Sunnis or the Kurds, are not in agreement, so they need the direct supply of ammunition and weapons. So, this is, as I said, a wrong message to our enemies, it will send message that we are not unified, and will break down the domestic and interior frontier in battle against ISIS.
SS: Minister, do you coordinate your assaults on Islamic State with the Kurdish Peshmerga? And would you welcome them in Iraq proper if they came to offer their help?
MSAG: Of course, we have coordination with the Kurds, we have many meetings, practical meetings. Many times our commanders, and myself, our PM, went to the Kurdistan regional government, we have meetings with them. Now, we’ve formed a command center to coordinate our planning to liberate Nineveh and Mosul in the future; the cooperation is on many sides and many aspects to coordinate our fight with ISIS in the region and on frontier, where there are joint forces from Kurds, the Peshmerga, and other forces from the Army of police forces.
SS: Former CIA deputy head Michael Morell said that the U.S. doesn’t understand much about Islam, doesn’t understand much about Middle East. I don’t know if you feel the same, but if that’s the case – because this is someone who knows the American mentality and the job that he was doing – if that’s the case, how can America help you come up with the strategy to fight ISIS? Do they coordinate their strategy to fight ISIS with you and your government?
MSAG: First of all, ISIS has nothing to do with Islam, really. Frankly speaking, of course they put Islam as an idea that they are related to Islam, they announced the caliphate of Islam, but their acts are against all Muslims. They killed everybody from Islam sects. So, I doubt that Americans don’t know how to analyze and understand the ISIS, which came from Al-Qaeda. Americans had very good understanding of Al-Qaeda and I think they know very well their ideology – how they act, how they gain support, so, I think they can understand very well Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
SS: What kind of help are you expecting from Russia?
MSAG: This help could be in cooperation and exchange of information to stop ISIS recruitment, because we know that there are many “tourists” coming from Caucasus and other areas. Russia can help us with targeting these people, exchange information; also, to support Iraq with weapons and ammunition, because we are looking for a variety of weapons, we don’t want to rely on specific weapon or weapons from specific country. Also, the training, the training of police, training of the army – I think we can have cooperation in many areas, and Russia can help very well. And of course, on the international arena, on political positions and relations, Russia can play very good role and very important role.
SS: Mr. Al-Ghabban, thank you very much for this interview. We wish you all the luck in all your future endeavors and fight against the Islamic State, we were glad to help you with anything we can. Thank you.
MSAG: Thank you very much. I assure you that we will defeat ISIS, we will come over this crisis, because ISIS don’t have the support of Iraqi people; Iraqi people are against ISIS, they reject ISIS, even though sometimes IS is controlling some areas, because they are using very brutal tactics to kill everybody, so they are creating this fear, this sort of the psychologival processes I’ve mentioned.