A Conversation with Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Alhakim
February 8, 2019
Jon B. Alterman: It’s my – it’s my pleasure not only to welcome you, but also to welcome the Iraqi foreign minister, Mohamed Ali Alhakim, who is in town for the counter-Daesh coalition meeting, which is taking place at the State Department.
Jon B. Alterman: Minister Alhakim was appointed to his position just last October after a really remarkable stretch of public service for the government of Iraq. Immediately previous to this position he was the undersecretary-general of the U.N. and executive secretary of ESCWA. But from 2013 to ’17 he served as the ambassador and permanent representative of Iraq to the United Nations in New York, previous to that held the same position in Geneva. He’s managed the European Department at Iraq’s Foreign Ministry, supervising 28 embassies and consulates. He also served as a member of Iraq’s National Assembly and the Foreign Relations Committee, and as a member – and as Iraq’s minister of telecommunications. He has a doctorate in management and engineering from the University of Southern California and a master’s in science and technology from the University of Birmingham.
Jon B. Alterman: The way we’ll do this is the minister will speak for a few minutes, he and I will have a discussion, and then we’ll open up the floor for further discussion.
Jon B. Alterman: So thank you very much for coming, and please join me in welcoming Minister Alhakim.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Good morning, everyone. Thank you, Jon. Thank you for inviting me. I’m delighted to be here.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, again, good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I’m truly delighted to be here at CSIS. And I thank Jon and his team for putting together this morning this presentation, so – and the meeting.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Yesterday, a delegation representing 79 members of the Global Coalition convened to have a meaningful discussion on the ultimate goal of ending Daesh terror and sustaining peace worldwide. Such commitment by the international community indicates the seriousness of the threat that targets the human civilization. This commitment also speaks volumes to how interconnected our objectives are.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Iraq has defeated Daesh, indeed. We have managed to move past our setbacks and claim our land at a great price and sacrifice. Iraqis are at the front of this vicious fight and have endured the most crushing burden on behalf of the world. Our military and intelligence are battle-hardened and -tested, and a reliable partner to have terrorism effectively – to fight terrorism effectively. Our people showed tremendous resilience and patience, thus deserve the utmost attention and dedication by the elected government to ensure the return of normalcy to life in the liberated area and all over the country.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Mosul, for example, is an excellent example of this. Life is returning. Schools are opening. Art fairs and concerts are taking place now and then after getting banned and punished under Daesh tyranny. Therefore, our government goal is to support such positive dynamics. That makes it harder for Daesh to return, as well as its sisters to regroup, recruit, and return.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Our message in the global ministerial meeting yesterday revolves around emphasizing the importance of securing our victory over Daesh in Iraq by keeping the focus on tackling the root causes of the conflicts and collaborate with our global partners to deliver immediate and long-term engagement, as well as solutions along the following areas. So that’s what we discussed, actually, yesterday at length.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: First of all, stability in the liberated areas in Iraq; countering Daesh propaganda and ideology; military pressure; and preventing the movement of foreign fighters. Prevention was a key factor of yesterday’s discussion: how do we go about – preventing foreign fighters and tackle and disable the financing and funding. These are the key – the key issues that was discussed in yesterday meeting.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: The security situation in Iraq is witnessing a marked improvement at the level – as the level of violence in the country fell to its lowest level since 2012 according to the U.N. reports. In this regard, Iraq fully recognizes that the military defeat of Daesh does not mean the end of the organization, and this is really a factor. Everyone has emphasized this point, that military defeat does not mean the end of Daesh, which has returned to its secret activity to the period before 2014. And this is where it’s becoming very dangerous.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Hence, our strategy is to shift to counterinsurgency tactics through intensifying intelligence efforts, streamlining coordination between the relevant security units, and must work with the coalition forces to pursue the remaining terrorist cells. Moreover, nonmilitary institutions must work simultaneously to provide immediate support to liberated areas to provide stability – to the liberated area to provide stability and to ensure the dignified return of the internally displaced persons, the IDPs, which requires the provision of local security and essential services. This is on us. This is where Iraq now has to come in and provide services to these liberated areas, specifically Mosul, Salahuddin, Anbar, Diyala, and others.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: To achieve these strategic objectives, Iraq recognizes the importance of its relationship with the United States. The United States is a big partner of Iraq. It is an important partner of Iraq. Both parties share mutual national interest of defeating Daesh and its affiliates. In this regard, we welcome the continued security and military cooperation with the United States evolving from advise-and-assist and the previous area to train-and-equip. This is what we looking for in the next stage from the United States. So far, the purpose – so, for that purpose, the U.S. forces are in Iraq at the invitation of our government. And this is really – we need to emphasize that point.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Making Iraq an attractive destination for foreign investment drives the new government to make real changes and reforms to diversify our economy, fighting corruption, and revitalize the Iraqi private sector. And this is what we didn’t do well in the past since the change in 2003. We have not revitalized the private sector in Iraq. We actually failed, in essence. So, therefore, the government becomes the biggest employer in Iraq. And Iraq is 38 million people. We increase about a million a year. And so the pressure on trying to, you know, hire and providing jobs, good jobs, for Iraqis is becoming tougher and tougher, specifically those who are well-educated with Ph.D.s and master’s degrees. And then it’s really very, very slim number of jobs available for them, and this is a big dilemma for the Iraqi going forward. Without the creation and emphasizing the private sector, I think this is going to be a big issue for us. And I think this prime minister specifically, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, he is an economist and he’s a centrist, and he understands very well what the effect of the private sector in terms of moving the country forward.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: So these steps also will help reduce the unemployment rate among the youth and direct their energies to engage effectively and productively in their society. Iraqis – 70 percent of Iraqis are under 30. So imagine if you have a society that is extremely young and you don’t have employment. You’ve got issues. And these are the issues are big for us at this point.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Most recently, in mid-December 2018, Iraq hosted a large U.S. businesses delegation led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which includes about a hundred participants representing nearly 50 American companies from various sectors. This is the largest delegation organized by the Chamber in the year 2018. The energy secretary, Mr. Rick Perry, also attended the business conference with a clear message of U.S. commitment in advancing economic ties and U.S. private-sector engagement in Iraq. In return, Iraq must work very hard to keep the momentum by making the investment process in Iraq transparent and streamline the issues.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: So these are the two things we need to do to attract businesses, to attract companies to come and invest. There are truly a lot of – a lot of countries are willing to come in. But we do have an issue with transparency as well. And also an issue of fighting corruption. These are the two things that are stopping our progress and moving forward.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: On the regional side, regionally Iraqi is playing the lead and decisive role through openness by keeping good and balanced relationship with all of its neighbors. And I will talk a little bit on the – what we’ve done since three months since the government – establishment of the new government. How do we reach out to our neighbors? We truly have done a fantastic job in going positively after them. And we need to figure out – and I think the prime minister has a very good saying that Iraq used to be a country of conflict. We need to be transfer Iraq to a country of opportunities. And this is really the true issues that – when we try to move forward with that.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: The improved relationship we have achieved with Arab neighbors – Arab and non-Arab neighbors as well, including Turkey and Iran. Most recently with Jordan. We have signed a big agreement with Jordan on the border. And it’s a testament to that process. Collaboration with our regional partners will bring stability and harmony to our troubled region. And Iraq wants to be the center to this effort. Many countries reached out to us to look at business opportunities, such as Russia, Turkey, Iran, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon, and other countries.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: I believe I should conclude my remark, and I look forward to continuing the discussion with Jon, as well as hopefully answer some of the questions. Thank you very much for listening.
Jon B. Alterman: Thank you very much for those very thoughtful comments. You have been a busy person. You were in Moscow just last week, as we were discussing earlier. And at least the Russian press said that one of the purposes of your trip was to talk about Syria and Iran in Moscow. What does Iraq want from Moscow in Syria and Iran, as you look at your neighbors?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, this is a very good question. This is my first visit to go to Moscow. Actually, most of the talk was business not politics, to be true. We talked about business opportunities. We talked about involvement of companies from Russia in Iraq, especially investment in oil and gas, and other investment. But we did talk about Syria, in particular. Syria is very important neighbor to us. We have 680 kilometers of border with them. There are still contingency of ISIS in the east of Euphrates. And this is where it’s essential that we will have a complete destruction of this terror group, and specifically that’s close to the Iraqi border.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: The triangle that is the southeast of the Syria triangle, where the area of Iraq, Jordan and Syria is a very important commercial triangle for us. And we need to make sure that this triangle should be free so the flow of the trade between Syria, Jordan, Iraq and also, in the future, Lebanon, to come through to Iraq. So there are – it’s a mixed visit. Visit is really about businesses. How do we deal with that? Also reaching out on what are the proper solutions in Syria.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: We’ve talked about the constitutional committee, which is not – it’s in the place. We told them very clearly that 150 people are not going to sit in one conference room and write constitution. It’s going to be very difficult for them. So these are discussion – the future of Syria. We emphasized that Syria should be united and should not be divided. And our goal, which we said, is that all foreign troops should leave Syria, and leave the Syrian government in control of its country.
Jon B. Alterman: Iraq, of course, has a special relationship with the Kurdish provinces in the north. Are there things that you feel Iraq has learned from that experience that might be applicable to the Syrian experience at all? Or is it very, very different, in your mind?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: No, actually, we have spoken. When I was permanent represent in New York, I spoke all the time to Bashar Jaafari about what we did with the Kurds. And we thought it was the Kurdish Regional Government is a good example of how you give, you know, a sizable chunk of the society of Iraqis the right to speak language, the right to teach their kids, name their streets in the name of – you know, celebrate their culture, celebrate their history. And I said, this is not going to be in conflict with the central government. There might be, but these are issues better than just isolate them completely and then ignore them.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: I think this is – this is what happened. This is the difference between Iraq and Syria. The Kurds in Syria, they didn’t really get a lot of rights to exercise their own sort of language, their own culture, their, you know, community rights and so on. And we’ve done a good job at least to allow the Kurds freedom and really airports, and planes. And, you know, they have more freedom sometimes than Baghdad, you know, in terms of, you know, inviting guests and so on.
Jon B. Alterman: And sometimes less.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Sometimes less. (Laughter.)
Jon B. Alterman: So as you talk to Americans, and you talk about the importance of Syria, U.S. policy in Syria has been in a lot of places for the last six months in terms of the permanent presence, the immediately diminishing presence, the slowly diminishing presence. What do you think the U.S. strategy on Syria should be? What end state should the U.S. be looking for? And what are the steps the U.S. has to pursue now to pursue that strategy in Syria?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, I think the – I mean, the U.S. could tell you about the U.S. strategy in Syria more than I could do, but –
Jon B. Alterman: But you know what it should be, because you’re there.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: But I could tell you one thing. I think we do have a collaborative work with the U.S. on at least one goal, which is really to try to sort of get rid of ISIS and make sure to eliminate all the danger of ISIS there. There is one issue that stays really hanging. It’s the issue of Idlib – the foreign terrorist fighters in Idlib. And they are a sizable number. And this is where the international community has to work together, including the U.S., because there are a lot of foreign terrorist fighters have to go back. We don’t know, what is the next step for them in Idlib? And this is really a big – a big thing. What we said very clearly: We don’t want to move those people into Iraq or somewhere else, because they’re going to have a problem. These countries will have a problem.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: So I think the U.S. policies should be: Work with other partners to eliminate Daesh in the eastern of Euphrates, at least. That is very close to our borders. And we need to also work – the U.S. works with partners, like Turkey and others, to make sure – and Russia as well – to make sure that Idlib has a solution.
Jon B. Alterman: Should Iran be a partner of the U.S. in counterterrorism in Iraq?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, Iran was, actually, because we had the partnership with Russia and Iran outside the coalition. And they actually helped us tremendously in the fight against Daesh. But that did not prevent us from work with the coalition, to work with them. At certain point, we were working with both sides. And that was very effective, when we dealt with them.
Jon B. Alterman: Do you think the U.S. should be working more closely with Iran in Syria?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, I’m not sure how to answer this question, to be honest. But I don’t think they want to work, so whether they should work that’s a different question. (Laughter.)
Jon B. Alterman: When Prime Minister Abadi spoke at CSIS a couple of years ago, he was very concerned about the Iranian influence in Iraq, which he was very outspoken about. And said it’s not acceptable, some of the things they do. Is that something that you think has gone to a better level than it was several year ago? Is there still too much Iranian influence? Is there a need to change the relationship between Iran and Iraq, as it pertains to domestic Iraqi concerns?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, I don’t know what – how, you know, Mr. Abadi answered this. But I’ll tell you one thing on Iran. And it’s concerns for a lot of people, but for us it’s a cultural relationship with them. It’s a historic relationship with them. It’s 1,480 kilometers of borders with them, land and sea. It is 6 million visitors we issued visas to the Iranian to come to Iraq. It is 7 million visas the Iranians will issue to Iraqis. It is about $14 billion worth of trades. When you get all of that combined into, you know, a long-term relationship, you up – you know, you got to have, you know, an influence inside, in terms of policy as well.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: This – we work with Turkey as well. Turkish has a lot of interest in Iraq. So – and then, that’s where we say to the Arabs: Well, come and help us as well, because we need you to come in and show that Iraq is part of the Arab world. And therefore, we need your assistance in certain period of time.
Jon B. Alterman: But – and then that creates the potential danger of Iraq becoming a place where different parties fight out their differences in a battle for influence inside your country. And, you know, when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: But, you know, if you look at this – the establishment of this government, and also the two big groups today, it used to be – in the previous elections – most of the grouping was horizontals – geographically horizontal. Today it’s vertical. So you’ll find groups – two groups, two large groups. And they has – you know, they have Sunnis, Kurds, Shiite from all – you know, from top to bottom, if you look at that. That’s where Haider al-Abadi came in as sort of a – you know, an agreeable middle-of-the-road person to lead this government. Haider al-Abadi doesn’t have even a single parliamentarian in parliament of 329 members, not even a single one. Maybe Barham Salih has very few – few of the Kurds. And suddenly, the foreign minister has nothing at all.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: So, you know, so that will – that will tell you that even though maybe there are people who are exercising some influence, but at the end of the day the result shows that Barham Salih, Haider al-Abadi, and Mohamed Ali Alhakim, and others – like Ala Abdessaheb for health, and Thamir Ghadhban, and Louay Al Khateeb, these are – these are all independent ministers that came out because they wanted to run the government different from outside the grouping of the political grouping.
Jon B. Alterman: Where does proliferation – and regional proliferation fit in here, in your level of – in your list of priorities?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, I mean, our – you’re talking about weapons, right, and all of that?
Jon B. Alterman: Nuclear weapons.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Nuclear weapons. It is in our – it’s certainly in our constitution, we are – this is completely forbidden and banned and not to deal with us all. And so for us, we are supporting of prevention. And we are a member of most of the agreements and treaties on that.
Jon B. Alterman: But it’s not – I mean, Egyptians, for example, have made nonproliferation a very important element of their foreign policy.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: It is, actually. We are very active in the conference of disarmament in Geneva, and the first committee in New York. Our ambassador in New York actually was the chairman of the first committee for a year. And he led about 68 resolutions on nonproliferations and other – he was really – did a marvelous job of Iraq leading this committee.
Jon B. Alterman: Let me ask you about the U.S. government. One of the remarkable things, when I was in Baghdad in 2017, was a lot of Iraqi officials felt that when they looked at the Trump administration, it was full of people they had worked with for years – I mean, from Secretary Mattis, to Brett McGurk, to H.R. McMaster, to Derek Harvey, and Mike Bell on the NSC, and Joel Rayburn. It was people who really – they’d spent a decade working with Iraqis. You didn’t have to explain where things were. You didn’t have to explain why Iraq was important, as Iraqis felt they had to do in the Obama administration. But there was a sense that all the people with responsibility for the Middle East had all cut their teeth on Iraq, had spent time, had lost colleagues in Iraq.
Jon B. Alterman: And as I look around, I see, on the one hand, a set of Iraqi leaders – Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Barham Salih – who have remarkable relations with Americans. But I see all the Americans who had remarkable relationships with Iraqis leaving the scene. And it’s almost like in the Exodus story in the Bible, that there came a pharaoh who not Joseph, that the generation of American officials who really got Iraq has left.
Jon B. Alterman: What does that mean for Iraq? How does Iraq compensate for losing centuries of American cooperation and collaboration, and, moving forward, casting a new relationship with the U.S. government?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Of course it’s important for us to have friends, you know, in Washington. But I still think there are still influences. So they could actually influence policies.
Jon B. Alterman: From outside?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: From outside. And we’re still in touch with them and in touch with the administration. So we have communication and communication with them as well. So it is important to keep always. Even in the Obama administration and before that with George Bush, George W., we still have contact with people and influence inside Washington as well.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: And there are – it’s really very ironic that everybody who worked in Iraq loved Iraq. And I don’t know why. They just loved Iraq; love to go back to Iraq. They love to continue to work with Iraq. And this is just a trend we’ve seen; not only the American, as well the British and others, who served in Iraq. And I think it’s the culture inside. Maybe it’s the food. (Laughter.)
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Maybe it’s – you know, it’s a combination of, you know, how culture it is, because I remember I met with Mladenov, who served as the UNAMI. And then when he went and took other position, other post in Jerusalem, we used to meet in the U.N. and we’d have lunch. And I said to him, Nickolay, so how is your work? And he says, I love Iraq; I miss Iraq.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: And it just – it’s just the passion that those people – and even Jan Kubiš, when he left, and he says, you know, it’s very tough for me to leave because it’s nice to work with politicians in Iraq. Their door is always open. They listen. They might not apply what they say, but it’s just – they listen very well. And then I still think the food is good.
Jon B. Alterman: (Laughs.) Sorry we’re not having a catered lunch afterward. I apologize.
Jon B. Alterman: In your judgment, what does the United States need to do more of in Iraq and what does the United States need to do less of?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: That’s a very good question. I think the stage, the next stage, what Iraq needs, is really the businesses, to attract the business from the U.S. It’s to come in, and come in in a good – you know, good numbers, not like one or two. We need a very large number of businesses to come in. And that is also – will be on our part to provide the environment for them to invest and make it worthwhile for them to invest.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: And this is what Adel Abdul-Mahdi, as the prime minister, is trying to do. He’s trying to provide an environment and he’s trying to provide also the banking system that allows, you know, these companies to freely transfer and bring, you know, liquidity to the country so they could establish infrastructure inside Iraq.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: We do have a lot of work to do. But we need less from the U.S. is mostly sometimes the speeches and the press releases, and that will affect us. But other than that, honestly, the positive side of Iraq should be attract to the American businesses. And I think we do have a lot of opportunity for most of the Basra. Basra alone could attract tremendous number of business opportunities for the U.S. to come in.
Jon B. Alterman: Let me ask one more question before we go to the audience. And I understand you’re not the petroleum minister, but certainly the changes in OPEC, the broadening coordination on energy production, provides diplomatic opportunities for Iraq. Certainly the Russians are increasingly interested in coordinating with OPEC member states.
Jon B. Alterman: As a foreign minister, how do you think about what’s happening with energy production, what’s happening with energy markets, as it both strengthens your hand and in some ways weakens your hand?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: I think at a certain point it really – it plays both. It strengthens our hand where we have leverage on negotiation with other countries, with other environments. So this is where you have, you know, strength. Iraq actually produces – well, the production is about 4 ½ million barrels, closely, a day. And then what we export is 3.8 (million barrels), 3.9 (million barrels), which is quite high in terms of that.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: The issues that we have is sometimes the prices are fluctuating. And our budget – and this is one of the issues that the prime minister is trying to struggle with – is the issue is that we became sort of a single-product country, which we depend solely on the production and the sale of oil. And this is very important for us, because if the oil prices are high, we are in good shape because it’s a commodity. If it’s low, then you have to deal with all of the projection of how do we do, you know, on issues with infrastructure, with budgeting and so on.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: The current public sector is very large in Iraq. It’s one of the largest. And therefore, the pressure on putting salaries as well as social security and subsidies is very high in Iraq. Therefore, oil becomes really a commodity that is necessary for us to handle well and to handle with passion as well.
Jon B. Alterman: Thank you.
Jon B. Alterman: I welcome questions from the floor. Please raise your hand. Please identify yourself. And please ask only one question so everybody gets a chance. Please ask your question in the form of a question, which is not to make a long statement, and then say what do you think of my statement.
Jon B. Alterman: The first hand I see is right here on the aisle. Yes, sir.
Q: Thank you, Mr. Minister.
Q. Is the microphone OK?
Jon B. Alterman: Is the microphone on?
Q: Thank you, Mr. Minister. I’m Dan Raviv with i24 News.
Q. What would you say to Americans who still think of Iraq as a war, an invasion, that we regret 16 years ago, like it wasn’t worth overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and Iraq is nothing but trouble, and therefore Americans would rather not be involved?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, this is really – it’s becoming a very cliché type of thing, because Iraq has already past that stage and Iraq is on its way out. It’s already recovered. The government has changed – for president has changed hands.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: I think the democracy or the – at least the practice of the democracy has actually worked in Iraq. Yes, we had problems in between. But so far I think the process is that Iraq will become a valuable player and regional power in the coming years. This is how we look at Iraq. In terms of geographic location, geopolitics, in terms of population, human resources, natural resources, we believe Iraq will become one of the important players in the area.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: So, you know, I can’t really go back to the decision that’s been made, right or wrong. I will have the analysts and all of the historians to deal with that. But for me, looking forward specifically in this particular government, what we look for when we meet at the cabinet level is how do we move Iraq forward. And I think that is the important things.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: And the first thing we did is to work with our neighbors to ensure that Iraq becomes the land of opportunity. And I keep repeating that because it is truly a land of opportunity rather than a land of conflict. That’s why we want to stay away from the conflict in the area.
Jon B. Alterman: The record will reflect that when he talked about analysts and historians, he said it with love. (Laughter.)
Jon B. Alterman: Next question. Yes, right here.
Q: Hi. My name is Basma Alloush. I’m with the Norwegian Refugee Council. And I just want to say, working on multiple countries in the region, I think Iraq is the one that gives us a lot of hope.
Q. So I just wanted to go back to a point that you mentioned about ensuring dignified returns and providing basic services. So as NGOs, we’re based in Iraq. We face a lot of challenges, whether it’s with access or resources, in accessing a lot of these populations.
Q. So I was wondering, you know, given the recent budget announcements and how the funds are going to be allocated, I was curious if you could talk a bit about how the government was going to go about ensuring that basic services were going to be met, if budget allocations, you know, weren’t as significant to areas most in need, like you outlined, in Anbar, Ninawa, Mosul, et cetera?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: I think that is a very good question. And I think this is something that we struggle with. I know there is really no straight answer to that.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: However, what we – if we talk – if we look at what we’ve done in the past – not this government, the previous government, Abadi’s government, and the criticism goes to Abadi’s government for this – they went from close to 5 million IDPs, and now it’s about 1.4 (million IDPs), 1.2 (million) IDPs in camps. That means their returns – there are a lot of people returned to their home.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: I have spoken to a committee that is actually work on returns, on the returns of refugees. They said they are trying to deal with housing or houses that are under – their definition is called partially damaged. Partially damaged – there are houses with roofs. They could take 25K and they‘ll build them very quickly so the families could go back to their community.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: What is on the government responsibility is how do you bring these communities back to normality? You know, it’s not building a house. It’s not returning, you know, the families to their homes. It’s how to get these families back together where their kids play in the same park. They have the same teachers at school. They sit down and celebrate birthdays together.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: How do you bring community back together? I think that is – that’s where we need experts like yours and other NGOs to bring and work on the community rebuilding. Bringing back refugees and the IDPs back to their homes is probably the easiest part for the government. I think the hardest part is the community rebuilding.
Jon B. Alterman: Thank you.
Jon B. Alterman: Yes, sir.
Q: Hi. My name is Joshua Geller. I’m from AJC.
Q. I would like to know, with global movement towards new energy, how does Iraq plan on revitalizing their energy sector post-ISIS?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: I think that is very good things. We start thinking at the cabinet level is how well can we invest above ground rather than underground? And this is the point is that we are very late in entering the renewable energy. We know that the climate change is a fact and it is there. Therefore, we need to invest in renewable energy. Iraq has 250 days at least of sun. In the summer the sun is so strong. You could actually, you know, work on these issues and bring new technologies to invest above the ground, which I think this is very important for us as well.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: In terms of investing underground, we continue to invest. We continue to bring oil and gas companies to invest. We think Iraq still have the potential to reach 6 million barrel a day in terms of production. But with the OPEC, with the new OPEC, as you said, with the new agreement, even with countries outside the OPEC, like Russia and others, we need to make sure that we are within the range of what we could put in the markets.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: But our investment underground continues. Our investment in the over ground is that what we’re trying to push for; make sure that we have a clean energy as well as use our geographic as well as what God has given us from sunny days and hot weather. So we could use it for – you know, using the renewable energy.
Jon B. Alterman: Right on the aisle, right next to you, Amber. Nope, right in front. I’m sorry. Eric, right there.
Q: Eric Pelofsky, former State Department, NSC.
Q. I wondered if you might comment on how realistic the expectations are for Iraq to achieve energy independence from Iran, whether they’re reasonable or whether the timetable – how the sanction waivers are functioning.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, I think this is really very important to Iraqis, before even the sanction has been announced. It is very important for us to develop our gas and oil development. And we’re having a plan. It’s just it’s been delayed because – from 2014 to 2016. But we will continue to invest in this area. And it is important for us to have fully independent, specifically in the area of oil and gas.
Jon B. Alterman: And then right where you were, right there.
Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, thank you so much. My name is Trita Parsi. My current affiliation is with Georgetown.
Q. Very positive developments in Iraq. In one area, obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of danger for Iraq and that is the tensions between the United States and Iraq. President Trump’s comments in regards to keeping troops in Iraq in order to keep an eye on Iran did not go down too well with your prime minister. But what kind of policy from the United States vis-à-vis Iran would be most helpful to you in Iraq as you are trying to develop and become a successful democracy?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, I think it is – for us, it’s important not to have – Iran is – Iran is a very large country in our area and it’s a very important country. Therefore, we try to sort of figure out if there is a way of not getting back into the area of conflict again. And this is really important for us. It will cause us a lot of issues specifically in terms of business development, as well attracting companies to come.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: If the area is dangerous, nobody is going to come in. This is very true for businesses. And if the area is settled and the area is peaceful, then businesses will come and invest. And this is very important, not only for Iraq, but also for the Gulf countries as well. And this will affect economically. It has a lot of impact, direct impact on the economic side in the Gulf area as well as in Iraq.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: So therefore, I think, for us, trying to avoid as much conflict as possible in the area, trying to build on the positives – and there are a lot of positives to build on – and then we could just move forward with that.
Jon B. Alterman: OK. I see a hand right here and then we’ll go to the back. Yeah, right there.
Q: Minister, Alexander Kravitz from Insight. Thank you very much for your remarks.
Q. I wanted to pick up on the attraction of foreign investment. And I wonder if you could comment how the government plans to improve terms for international oil companies in order to make Iraq more attractive. Thank you.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Oil companies?
Q: Yes, international oil companies, the oil regime, if you will.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Yes. I think this is – this is where you need – I mean, Thamir Ghadhban is an expert in the oil, has been in the oil industry for more than 30 years, and he’s working on developing schemes to attract oil companies. And that’s why we have, believe it or not, Koreans coming in, the Japanese coming in, the Chinese coming in, as well as the Russian side, the Americans and others coming in, because there is really a big investment in Iraq.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: I think we need to work on the issues of the internal laws and make sure that we have a clear idea what are we asking from these companies to come in and then also what the future is going to be.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: We did a few things in the past that did not work out well for us, especially in terms of managing contracts, managing the futures. It didn’t work out for both, for the country as well as for companies. So we need to sort of work backward and figure out what we did wrong and then what may be built in on the future in terms of contracts and, you know, bids. The bids process has to change. The bids process that we used in the early 2010, 2011, 2012, it has changed because the environment has changed. And maybe now we go to maybe a direct investment, maybe we go by looking at certain ideas, new ideas for bids on these areas.
Jon B. Alterman: And then in the back right there.
Q: Thank you. Radwan Ziadeh, Arab Center Washington.
Q. My question about justice and accountability, does the Iraqi government is willing to investigate and prosecute the Iraqi fighters who, under international law, are considered as missionaries who fought in Syria and committed war crimes, like the case in Aleppo? And this is Human Rights Watch and other organizations consider war crimes because – and there is a lot of evidence of doing that. Thank you.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: So you are asking – let me understand – you are asking about Iraqis who participated –
Q: Does the Iraqi –
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: – with Daesh in Syria or in Iraq?
Q: No, in Syria.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: In Syria.
Q: Because those are actually foreign fighters –
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Right.
Q: – who fought in Syria on behalf – it’s under the umbrella of the Iraqi Shi’ite militias. Does the Iraqi government is willing to investigate and open to do that under the Iraqi jurisdiction?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, I mean, Iraq does not recognize anyone that actually fights outside the Iraqi government troops. This is – this is well known and we have advertised and we have said that. We are not allowing or at least recognizing the fighters that they fight on behalf of ideology inside other countries.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: This is one of the – our goal is not to be sort of providing, you know, fighters in areas that is really in our neighbors specifically. So therefore, those people, we don’t capture them, bring them in and try to prosecute them. OK? If they are Iraqis actually there and they are – they fought and they committed a crime anywhere, it belongs in that country and they could actually prosecute them there.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: When they come to Iraq, if there are – if there are cases against them, specifically criminal cases, then that will be a different story for the Iraqi law to treat with – you know, to work with these people. But in essence, this is our goal. The prime minister always says that Iraq will not be used, OK, to provide fighters or to threat neighboring countries.
Jon B. Alterman: All the way in the back, back corner.
Q: Good morning. Thank you so much, Mr. Minister, for coming and speaking to us. My name is Andy Snow. I’m formerly with the State Department.
Q. I’m picking up on two statistics that if I heard you correctly you mentioned, which I think are very significant. One was that you’re 38 million people in Iraq and there’s an extra million a year. And the other is that 70 percent of the population is under 30. So I hesitate to bring up a long-term issue when Iraq has so many challenging short-term issues. But what is the government’s policy to try to provide – make reproductive health services available and emphasize the education of girls so that future Iraqi governments don’t have to deal with this demographic explosion – if you’ll forgive the term – that puts so much stress on service provision and everything else, which is already challenging, as you mentioned? Thank you.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: That is an excellent question. And I think we are still struggling with policies on this, to be honest, because it’s a combination of religious issues, it’s a combination of cultural and tribal, it’s a – it’s a big society issue.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: It is very tough for government. Our health minister is working on this issue carefully – carefully I say – and I – because it is actually very sensitive. And what we’re trying to do is trying to educate – Islam actually allows control of birth. There is – there is room for that. And I think we’re trying to sort of fuse that particular rules and regulations. And I think our minister of health is smartly trying to work these issues. Otherwise, we do have a problem going forward.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: As we increase a million a year, we will have a problem because we have to provide services, provide education. In Iraq, education is free up to the – to the Ph.D. level. Everybody goes to school for free unless it’s a private school. And then when you are at the master degree level or a Ph.D. level, Iraq government will give you a stipend to study, on top of the free education. You are getting more money to stay at school. So there is a cost associated with people going to school, whether it’s a primary school up to the Ph.D. level, the graduate school.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: In terms of health, our health insurance is completely free. And that puts tremendous burden on Iraq as well. And we do have food subsidies. And then we do have social security for about a million families in Iraq. So you can see the tremendous heavy lifting on the budget of Iraq as we go forward.
Q: Mr. Minister, I’m Hani Findakly, Clinton Group.
Q. A follow up to the different dimensions to the question that was just asked before. You’ve got an Iraqi population of 38 million, doubling in about 25 years and doubling then again in another 25 years.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Can you speak up? I’m not hearing very well.
Q: So Iraq’s population of 38 million is expected to double in 25 years and double again in another 25 years. And my question is, what is the strategy that the government has to reduce its dependence on the vagaries of oil prices and dependence on oil and provide for growth for this large growth in population?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: I think this is a very good question. This is really a question of planning ahead and planning forward. And I think this is where it comes on the government programs. And this is what Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is trying to do is to develop the private sector really. Your goal is to have development of private sector and this private sector will then allow the employment of people as we go forward.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Otherwise, the government will not carry the burden of this increase as we go forward, unemployment will become very high and then also the budget. And it depends on the prices of oil. And this will become really a very fluctuating, you know, issues.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: And you might have saw some of the demonstration in Basra for the kids because, you know, young people want jobs. And so I think the prime minister has tried to sort of figure out, how do we drive the economy in terms of driving some of the projects? Maybe large size, labor-intensive projects like highways and building some others so we could attract a lot of people.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: During the Saddam regime, he used to put everybody in the military service. So if you are not working, if you are not studying, if you are not doing anything, you know, they’ll take you and put you in the military service. We don’t have any more compulsory military service in Iraq, so young people, where do they go if they don’t have jobs? That’s a big issue for the government. And we deal with it on a daily basis at the cabinet level.
Jon B. Alterman: Yes, in the – Marina? Yes, Marina, right there.
Q: Thank you very much. Marina Ottaway with the Wilson Center.
Q. In reply to a previous question, you pointed to the strength of the democratic institutions as one of the things that have come out of the invasion and so on. And I wanted to ask you a question related to those elections because it seems to me that if you look at the last elections, which is so good that you moved so far towards them, but it – I did not – it seems to me that those elections did not reflect the changes that took place as a result of ISIS occupation in the north of the country. In other words, if the – particularly for the Sunni community, the elections were fought by the same politicians who had been there since the United States invaded Iraq. And it did not seem to me that there was a real process of trying to integrate a community that was badly affected by what happened. Would you care to comment on that?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, you know what? There are new generations from both the Shi’ite and the Kurds and the Sunnis are coming into the politics. And it’s clearly in the local election, in the provinces, whether it’s in Mosul or Salah ad Din or Anbar, particularly or Diyala or even in the south and the southern provinces. We are seeing a new generation of young, a new generation of people coming in and trying to advance the work in political areas.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: We see change. And I don’t know whether you said that we don’t see change. You will see the few people who are still holding, you know, the top politicians. But in essence, in the local politics, it has changed. There are tremendous changes in the local politics. The new names in Anbar and new names in Salah ad Din, new manes in Mosul, new names in Diyala and new names even in the southern provinces that came out as part of this election.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: We think it’s the right process. We think this process will correct itself as we go forward with continuous emphasis on election of local people. And those local politicians – look at the parliament. There are more – there are more than 200-plus new parliamentarians just elected into parliament out of 329. That tells you that there is new blood coming into the politics and new blood is coming into the parliament.
Jon B. Alterman: Thank you. Why don’t we take one last question right in the back corner?
Q: Hi. I’m Cole Bockenfeld with the International Rescue Committee.
Q. I just wanted to follow up on the IDPs. Of the remaining IDPs in Iraq, most of them don’t live in camps, they live in informal settlements. Right?
Jon B. Alterman: Cole, can you just bring the microphone a little higher?
Q: Yes, sorry. With the remaining IDPs in Iraq, most of them don’t live in camps, right? They live in informal settlements. These are people that have homes, send their kids to school, they have jobs and so on. But what we’re seeing is those that have security clearances, there’s a real push for them to go back to their home areas. And as you said, a lot of those areas aren’t ready either socially or physically to receive them or pushed to go to the camps where they’re stripped of their assets. So my question is, should the government be supporting a third option, right, to allow those people to stay where they are, support them so that they can start their lives in a new part of the country?
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Well, I mean, it is important that communities – rebuilding is very, very crucial. Some of the issues that we face before the IDPs go back home is the number of mines in their homes, and these are really a lot of mines, a lot of different mines as well. I’ve heard numbers like 30 different ones, 40 different ones, and we’re trying to deal with that. We bring in a lot of – we have the help from UNMAS, which is the U.N., you know, expertise. We have help from Germany, from other countries to come in and clear the houses, clear the parks so the kids will be safe when they play. It’s a slow process, but I believe that if they go back home and they build their community it is a lot better than staying somewhere else.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: There are – in the ’90s, 1990-91 after the war, there are a lot of people from the southern provinces moved up into different provinces. Until now they have not adjusted to the life – the new life. After even 20 years they couldn’t adjust, clearly, to the life and the economics of these new places that they reside. So there is the danger of having them stay where they are. But I think – in my opinion, I think the better they go to their old communities and they could build their own business back. And this is what we – the job on our government will be, you know, to establish that comfort zone for them to go back to their community.
Jon B. Alterman: Mr. Minister, clearly your time in ESCWA helped you answer all the questions you’d have to answer as foreign minister.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Not all. (Laughs.)
Jon B. Alterman: Not all, but many of them. I really appreciate your time and your generosity with your wisdom today. You have a big job, but I think –
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Thank you, Jon.
Jon B. Alterman: – you gave everybody in this room a lot of confidence that Iraq is headed in a very positive and constructive direction, that there’s a lot of partnership to be found. And we wish you luck in this visit and in your future endeavors. Hope you will come back.
Min. Mohamed Ali Alhakim: Thank you very much. Thank you, Jon. Thank you. (Applause.)