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PRIME MINISTER NOURI AL-MALIKI INTERVIEW - 22nd March 2009

Back in 2006 when he came to power, Nouri al-Maliki, the current Prime Minister of Iraq, was very much a compromise candidate. An internationally unknown Shia Muslim, al-Maliki had fled a Saddam death sentence and spent eight years in self-exile in Iran. Since taking the leadership of the war-ravaged nation by a parliamentary vote, rather than a popular one, he's been a reluctant leader - self-confessed - who would prefer someone else in what you'd have to agree is a totally unenviable job. But he's hung on in there playing a role in the reconstruction of his shattered country. He actually signed the papers for Saddam's execution. Of late, he's set himself the mammoth task of reunifying a country that was never really unified anyway. George Negus met with him in Sydney for his only television interview during his recent official visit to this country.

GEORGE NEGUS: Prime Minister, thank you very much for giving us your time. To us, looking at what has been going on in your country for the last six years, it would appear that you have been in a living hell. Over those six years, depending upon whose source it is, somewhere between 91,000 and 600,000 Iraqi civilians have died. More than 4,000 American troops have died, billions of dollars have been spent and even now today, six years down the track, with Saddam gone, there are killings every day. Is that the price you had to pay to get rid of Saddam Hussein or was there another way?

NOURI AL-MALIKI, IRAQ PRIME MINISTER (Translation): I don't want to say that it was the only solution. There were other solutions but this is what occurred. The fact is, that is what happened, and the price was indeed high and expensive. But if the Iraqis compare what happened, despite the ugliness of the killing and bloodshed, with what it was like under Saddam Hussein, and his use of chemical weapons, burying people alive, wars... Despite the ugliness, it is not as bad as it was under that dictator.

GEORGE NEGUS: For those of us in the West, it would appear that the reason the United States and the Coalition of the Willing had all got involved was because of the weapons of mass destruction. You signed the papers for the execution of Saddam Hussein. Do you believe that there were weapons of mass destruction to be found?

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): He used the chemical weapons he possessed in a direct manner. Against the Kurds, against the Shias in the south, and he also used them in his was in Kuwait and Iran. The regime's intentions were to possess prohibited weapons, biological and chemical weapons. But the issue was bigger than the question of weapons. Iraq started to pose a danger to world peace and security, particularly in the region. That is what I believe was the primary justification for ousting the regime in that manner.

GEORGE NEGUS: But was it necessary for those people to suffer? So many Iraqi families to suffer? To get rid of Saddam and whatever weapons he did or didn't have.

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): They'd have been killed sooner or later at the hands of Saddam Hussein if he had continued to rule. To get rid of this regime and the danger it posed to the region, there has to be sacrifices and losses. But what I can say is that when the coalition forces brought down the regime they did not anticipate that a vacuum would be created. The coalition forces did not have a plan for the aftermath of the fall of the regime. That left a gap for al-Qaeda to sneak in and sectarian strife began. What happened has happened - the mistakes that happened - the successes. But we should look now at what has been achieved. Democracy in Iraq, deposing a dictatorial regime, elections, power-sharing, and the ending of discrimination between the Iraqi citizens. When we look at these results, we can lessen the shock of losses that have occurred in Iraq.

GEORGE NEGUS: George Bush described the situation very early in the conflict as "mission accomplished". That turned out to be wrong. Would the right way of describing it now be "mission incomplete"? There is still a long way to go for your government particularly when American troops start withdrawing as Barack Obama have said that they will.

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): No, they have ended. There are no operations going on. The Iraqi army and police are handling security and there are no military operations. What President Bush has said is true. The aim was to topple the regime, Saddam. He was toppled and the operation was completed. But the pursuit of outlaws and al-Qaeda continued.

GEORGE NEGUS: But would you imagine that it would go on for as long as it has? That it would drag on until now - as we're talking, it is still continuing?

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): Terrorism is all over the world, so we shouldn't be surprised that it was in Iraq. You hear daily about terrorist attacks even in European countries. Terrorist acts are occurring in Asia and Africa. Combating terrorism requires an international effort. If any of it is left in Iraq, they are robbers in gangs chased by security agencies.

GEORGE NEGUS: Other leaders in your part of the world are worried that when the Americans start withdrawing, 12,000 troops in the next six months and then most of the troops in the year after that - they are worried that your country will not be in a fit state politically or structurally and economically to handle that.

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): We are not worried about Iraq, neither economically, as it is rich, nor politically, as peaceful and democratic governance has been adopted. Nor are we worried about security, especially if there is a responsible and gradual withdrawal and American forces leave according to set schedules.

GEORGE NEGUS: There has been no suggestion that even the sectarian violence that occurs in your country - and I know you are very committed to reconciling the different factions in your country - the fear is that that sectarian violence and conflict will continue. Some commentators even said that you could find yourself in a civil war after the Americans go.

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): I disagree with you that the sectarian war is going on now. The sectarian war has ended in Iraq.

GEORGE NEGUS: So how are the killings occurring on a daily basis?

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): Political gangs. The majority are remnants of the old regime, Baathists, supported by some neighbouring countries. The sectarian war is over.

GEORGE NEGUS: You have national elections coming up later this year. Do you intend running for Prime Minister? I asked that because if you are quoted correctly - one international news agency said, quoted you, Prime Minister, saying "I wish I could be done with it" - meaning the job you are in now even before the end of this term - "I only agreed because I thought it would serve the national interest and I will not accept it again." Have you changed your mind?

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): I still hope that someone other than me will take over managing the process and serving Iraq. But I said that if I had to, and people chose me for this task, then I would answer the call of duty.

GEORGE NEGUS: I don't think anybody would blame you if you didn't want the job. It would have to be one of the most thankless jobs in the world.

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): That's why I hope the one who takes over from me will find things smoothed out, not like when I took over. But thank God, we were able to achieve a lot by way of construction, but Iraq remains in need of reconstruction from the bottom to the top.

GEORGE NEGUS: Prime Minister, I can't have you here without asking you about the infamous shoe thrower, because you were actually present. You were almost hit by one of the shoes yourself. Does it surprise you to hear, if the polls are correct, that 62% of Iraqis regard the man, Muntazer al-Zeidi, is a national hero for what he did, attempt at least to throw his shoes at George Bush?

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): I don't think so. The Iraqis are a generous people, they have their norms and they respect their guests. Al-Zeidi was not respected by the Iraqi people for what he did. Because even if he disagreed with President Bush, and it is natural to disagree, such an act does not comply with the values and ethics of the Iraqi people.

GEORGE NEGUS: So why do so many Iraqis and people outside of Iraq regard this man, who is now in prison for three years, as a hero?

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): I don't think they respect him. But ignorant people who are driven by emotions react emotionally to this issue. What this man did in an official prime ministerial venue, in the presence of the prime minister and a state visitor, Iraqi law, the Iraqi constitution, even under the old regime, applies sentences from 15 years up to execution. That's if you insult a visiting head of state. We left it to the law and did not interfere and he was sentenced to three years.

GEORGE NEGUS: So, you don't agree with those figures that 62% of Iraqis don't agree with you?

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): No, that is incorrect. Can I ask you then? If you had a guest you disagreed with politically, would you carry out such an act? In the presence of the Prime Minister of Australia?

GEORGE NEGUS: It is a good question. I can't imagine it happening here.

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): Well, then why should it happen in Iraq?

GEORGE NEGUS: But I guess, just to clear this up, you don't believe that that figure of 62% is correct?

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): Definitely not.

GEORGE NEGUS: Prime Minister, finally, would you give Iraq greater chance of finding peace and stability and becoming secure under the US regime of Barack Obama than you ever had under the Bush regime?

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): It is not about the difference between Obama and Bush but about the difference in the situation in Iraq. So when President Obama talks about withdrawing the forces, he means that the situation has settled in Iraq and there's no need to have these forces there for extended periods of time. From that perspective, the situation in Iraq, due to the progress taking place, will surely head in a better direction. Whether today, tomorrow or in a year's time, it is improving.

GEORGE NEGUS: It would appear that Barack Obama's policy is to talk first and maybe shoot later. But George Bush's policy seemed to be to shoot first and maybe not talk at all. Will that be better for Iraq? The Obama approach?

NOURI AL-MALIKI ((Translation): Of course, everything is preceded by talking thinking. Talking means thinking. And I believe no-one acts without thinking first.

GEORGE NEGUS: Prime Minister, thank you very much for talking to us and I know that all Australians wish your country the very best after what you have been through.

NOURI AL-MALIKI (Translation): I thank you very much. And the Australian government and people.