BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- In an exclusive interview, CNN Correspondent Nic Robertson talked with Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad Sunday.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki talked exclusively with CNN Correspondent Nic Robertson Sunday in Baghdad.
Below is a transcript of the interview:
ROBERTSON: Mr. Prime Minister, you surprised a lot of U.S. officials when you went on the offensive in Basra. Why didn't you tell the Americans what you were doing?
AL-MALIKI: I think this is not correct. Initially the desire was for those operations to be an Iraqi responsibility and undertaking. and we did ask the coalition forces -- both the U.S. and British forces -- not to participate or get involved directly because that would give an excuse to some militant groups to say that this is a foreign force attacking us. But as far as General [David] Petraeus is concerned he was informed and he was in the picture about what we were going to do, and we told him this is an Iraqi operation that will target gangs -- some outlaws who were controlling the ports or are involved in smuggling or killing, and we made it very clear to them that we want it to be an Iraqi operation and when there is a need for assistance from Multi-National Forces we will make a request. So they were informed, and there was agreement with both the Americans and British sides that this should be an Iraqi operation. Legally we also had to make the operation an Iraqi one, because we were handed over the security portfolio in Basra and so it legally became an Iraqi responsibility, and during our discussions with coalition officials they told us they could not go into Basra because the security portfolio had been handed over and Iraqis are in charge of Basra.
ROBERTSON: Some American politicians have been surprised. The U.S. has supported the Iraqi army, put a lot of money into the Iraqi army, but they say they really weren't aware -- that they were caught off guard.
AL-MALIKI: As I have clarified, the commander of Multi-National Forces was aware and he asked a specific question. He asked if the decision has been made to launch the operation and the answer was yes, the decision has been made. He [Petraeus] said we will be ready to provide you with whatever you may require during the operation; therefore, I believe it's accurate to say the operation happened with their knowledge, but not participation.
ROBERTSON: There was no quick victory over the forces you went against. Some people are saying that you miscalculated did you?
AL-MALIKI: No, what happened was that we were in a confrontation against the entire infrastructure of these militias in Basra. Based on the planning we did ahead of the operation we did not go there to confront this entire outlaw force, but despite the surprise they [security forces] had with the counterattack by the Mehdi Army, we found that we were able with our capabilities and improved readiness to achieve this major victory, and by end of the operation the entire infrastructure of these militias was broken down, and we believe what happened created a record for our forces in terms of their readiness and achievements. I believe, as some senior Iraqi officers in the Iraqi Army said, that what happened in Basra was a lesson and an example for how forces can confront militias and gangs. It is a lesson worth being taught in military academies.
ROBERTSON: As a result of the offensive in Basra fighting broke out in Sadr City. I was in Sadr City yesterday. The militias are still in very firm control of parts of Sadr City. The Iraqi Army needs the support of American Army to go on the offensive against ... this battle against the militias are far from won?
AL-MALIKI: Yes, confronting the militias does still needs more effort, in Baghdad the situation is different, the security portfolio [responsibilities] has not been handed over to the Iraqis, so our readiness is not at full level yet, but what's happening in Sadr City is still less than what some people expected the militias to do. Many expected the militias to have a decisive victory over Iraqi security forces, but this did not happen. Today, also, Iraqi forces went into Sadr City and are pursuing the criminals and militiamen who are on the run now.
ROBERTSON: What is the long-term solution to bring security in Sadr City? It's an area U.S. troops can't go into. It's become a haven for militias, even special groups who are getting weapons from Iran, training from Iran to attack here in the Green Zone. What is the long term solution?
AL-MALIKI: With regards to Sadr City and another city, Shula, we have opened the door for confrontation, a real confrontation with these gangs, and we will not stop until we are in full control of these areas. Politically, we have managed to gather a wide national front to politically confront this issue. Yesterday the Political Council for National Security had a meeting and issued a resolution with a number of points and action necessary to end the existence of this gang. The operation has started and will not stop until a decisive victory is achieved, a victory that will not enable these people to attack the Green Zone or other areas, now [that] they are suffering from a breakdown in their operations. Operations will not stop until the problem is finished and we are able to start reconstruction and begin to establish stability. Reconstruction and stability can not be established without putting an end to those criminal gangs who receive funding from beyond the borders. Another measure that is part of the mechanism of confronting those gangs is to rely on the tribes that stood side by side with the state in confronting these gangs, and they can provide a strong fist, a striking arm that can help get rid of those criminals.
ROBERTSON: Why did Iran help you convince Muqtada al-Sadr end the fighting?
AL-MALIKI: I am not aware of such an attempt. What happened on the ground and the breakdown in the structure of this militia is what made Muqtada al-Sadr issue his statement to withdraw his militants from the streets and condemn these operations, and he denied having any heavy weapons [artillery], which gave the government the right to search for these weapons, confiscate them if found, in addition to arresting anyone in possession [of heavy weapons]. What happened was something to save Muqtada not to help us.
ROBERTSON: Many people say that this has actually weakened you because it set back security in Basra, it set back security in Sadr City, that you've been obligated to the Iranian government for resolving this. This makes you weaker the critics say.
AL-MALIKI: [Laughing] This is one of the issues that media outlets should look into thoroughly. Before we launched the operation in Basra, the ports were completely under the control of these militias, smuggling was a routine, burglary and looting were also ongoing. Now Basra is back as a city under the control of the state, and its inhabitants are optimistic now about what the state can do for them. Now and for the first time Iraqis stand strong by their state after they saw the state take a decisive stand against this gang that is on cornered and on the run. These facts? The state came out with the maximum power, nationalism, popular and national support that expressed itself, and for the first time, the one who is cornered and defeated is this gang. A decision was taken yesterday that they no longer have a right to participate in the political process or take part in the upcoming elections unless they end the Mehdi Army and the unanimous decision agreed on by the political powers today. And this is the first time political powers dare say this -- the solution comes from dissolution, which means solving the problem comes in no other way other than dissolving the Mehdi Army. This is a very important point, this government, previous governments or coalition forces were not able to achieve any decisive victory the way it was achieved here, and the way it came out of the battle with full support from all different sides.
ROBERTSON: This is a political confrontation with Muqtada al-Sadr now and he supported you to become prime minister?
AL-MALIKI: Actually, I was the one who supported him. It was not him who supported me. I supported him by enabling him to have more members in parliament, this is one of the facts the media gets wrong. He wasn't very much welcomed into the United Iraqi Alliance as a partner in the elections. I made an effort to bring more of his people into the political process in an aim to get them away from the violence and to avoid problems in the elections. I insisted they be part of the elections and gave them five seats out of the share of my party, the Islamic Dawa party, to pull them away from the acts of violence and terror and into political life. So he is indebted to me, not the other way 'round.
ROBERTSON: Why aren't you going after the militias and the political parties such as the Islamic Supreme Council for Iraq, your political allies who have the Badr militia, the Fadhila party, your political allies who have a militia as well, why aren't you targeting them?
AL-MALIKI: If you look at the situation in detail, you would find that I have dealt with all those who have gangs and militias. Those you have mentioned, some of their elements who have committed crimes were arrested, but these parties did not object. The difference between them and Muqtada al-Sadr is that when we arrest some of the gangs who work with him, he objects, but when we detained some elements that committed crimes, the Islamic Council did not object. Second, the operations that happened in Basra targeted entire organizations, and a couple of days ago the secretary general of Thar Allah organization, a dangerous gang, was arrested. In addition, too, some elements from al-Fadhila had to flee the country and go to Kuwait when they realized they were going to be arrested because they are wanted by the justice system. In the past, we have also targeted al-Qaeda, the Islamic Army, the Brigades of 1920s Revolution, Islamic Shiite organizations in Karbala, Basra and Diwaniya. This is the truth that should be understood in the world media. We did not provide any sanctuary or opportunity for any outlaws, whether they were followers of the Mehdi Army or Muqtada al-Sadr or the Islamic Council or even of the Dawa party. This is the truth all Iraqis know and are proud of -- we deal with all outlaws equally.
ROBERTSON: One of the biggest threats for American troops now -- American commanders say one of the biggest threats for their troops are Iranian-backed special militia groups, who have Iranian weapons, who are trained by Iranian forces. These Iranian weapons are made as recently as last year. What are you telling the Iranian government to do about this?
AL-MALIKI: They don't only threaten U.S. troops. They are a threat to Iraqi forces too. Any security incident -- a bombing, assassination or kidnapping -- targeting Iraqis or foreigners on Iraqi soil is a challenge for the government. Therefore we don't want it being said that what special groups carry out only targets the U.S. side. An attack on any organization or individual on Iraqi territory is an attack on the Iraqi government. We understand that this comes because of the background of the deep differences between Iran and the U.S., and we are encouraging them to go back to the negotiating table with Iraqi mediation. Now also there has been agreement, and both sides have indicated willingness to go back to dialogue with Iraqi mediation. We are not only the mediators, we are the side that is on the receiving end of many of the consequences of the differences between Iran and the U.S., so Iraq has got an interest in creating an understanding between Iran and the U.S., at least to make Iraq at least avoid being affected by these differences. We will always reject the idea of any side using Iraq as a launching pad for its attack on others. We reject Iran using Iraq to attack the U.S., and at the same time, we reject the idea of the U.S. using Iraq to attack Iran, because we want to have peaceful positive relations with all sides.
ROBERTSON: The United States government has recently reinstated the security contract for the company Blackwater. What's your opinion about that?
AL-MALIKI: This renewal came from the U.S. State Department, not the Iraqi government. As far as the Iraqi government is involved, this issue is still under consideration, and we are still discussing the principles upon which foreign security companies should operate, especially this company because they committed a massacre against Iraqis, and until now this matter has not been resolved -- no judicial action has been taken and no compensation has been made. Therefore this extension requires the approval of the Iraqi government, and the government would want to resolve the outstanding issues with this company.
ROBERTSON: But how do you feel personally about the renewal of the Blackwater contract? You called it a massacre?
AL-MALIKI: I would say that the U.S. side should not have moved to renew the contract before the outstanding issue with this company is finalized. I feel sorry that this decision was taken without the approval of the Iraqi government.
ROBERTSON: It is widely accepted that the surge has brought increased stability to Iraq, but at the same time politicians, yourself included, don't appear to be making the political compromises necessary to bring long-term stability --the compromises on the economy, the compromises on oil rights, a lot of important issues. Why aren't you moving any more quickly?
AL-MALIKI: I believe that the reality is not like this. The government, despite its heavy involvement in the dealing with security issues, did make many forward steps to improve or complement the political process. One of the problems we are facing in the establishment of the new system in Iraq is that there are some sides that have very high level of demands and hopes, and they were actually banking on political involvement from outside the country to change things inside the country. We made a lot of compromises regarding a lot of issues, like the Political Committee for National Security, the Executive Council, the debaathification, reforming the government, the general amnesty, but we can't continue to give compromises. We can't continue to give compromises forever and continue giving open-ended compromises. These are steps that we have taken within the framework of the political process and the constitution and we can't take further steps that go beyond our authority in the constitution and the framework of the political process here.
ROBERTSON: One of the concerns in the Sunni community is that you are not taking on enough of the Awakening Councils' security members -- the Sons of Iraq -- not taking enough of those in to the Iraqi police, into the Iraqi army, not integrating them properly into the Iraqi security forces. Why is that, and what concerns do you have about these now very big Sunni militias?
AL-MALIKI: The Sunnis have more members in the security forces than the allocation based on their percentage of the population upon which the government of national unity was formed. Their percentage of the population is 20 percent, and they are more than 40 percent of the security institution. I started the Awakening and support councils and by getting them into the security forces, I gave them more than their allocation. In Anbar alone there are 25,000 policemen, a big number in Nineveh, Diyala, Salaheddin, and we decided to integrate 20 percent of Sons of Iraq, or so-called Awakening, into the security forces, and the rest we decided to integrate into other state institutions because we can not accept huge numbers above Iraq's need and capacity in the police and army. So we decided to take a percentage based on specific terms to join the security forces and the remainder goes into the other government institutions. If the demand, as some believe, or unfortunately as some coalition force members who worked in this field believed, that they bring 150-thousand people under the title of Awakening and get incorporated into security forces under a sectarian title, this means taking the country back to sectarian confrontation -- Sunnis and Shiites struggling with each other within the institution. So we rationed, and the allocation for our Sunni brothers in the police and army was weakened by the electoral process. But as part of integrating them and others so that we don't have those with the title of Awakening and others under title of militias -- and this is the policy we want to use to break down barriers. But some of those who have adopted the Awakening and backed by some coalition officers want to integrate them into the police and army with their title as Awakening. This is what negatively affects the stability and security and is rejected by us. We accept them as citizens based on conditions and for them to not infiltrate the security forces, because we found many of them, men of the former regime, or al-Qaeda or terrorist organizations who wanted to infiltrate like militias did into the police. And you saw the results of that recently. Those too wanted to infiltrate through the Awakening, but we became aware of this danger and knowing the background allowed us to interact with them, provide support, absorb them and pick up their payrolls and include them in the security forces based on the allocation and security conditions.
ROBERTSON: This week is an important week in the United States. Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker, General [David] Petraeus giving their reports on the state of the surge -- looking ahead on what U.S. troops should do -- U.S. surge drawdown will end in the summer. They are considering a pause, maybe weeks or months to examine when they should pull all American troops out. What do you want the U.S. to do? Should there be a pause in the drawdown? Do you want it to be weeks? Do you want it to be months?
AL-MALIKI: First of all, I told him that the surge has created positive results -- and created successes. Second, through the partnership between the coalition forces and the Iraqi forces, there has been great development in the Iraqi security forces -- and proof of that is what happened in Basra and Karbala and other areas in Iraq. Iraqi security forces have become highly qualified to take over security responsibilities and these facts on development, equipping and readiness and Iraqi capabilities and the fact that increasing the number has achieved what was wanted. And there is no growing need for this increase [the surge]. I believe the American forces can draw down. I don't believe the decision for a drawdown should be paused as long as Iraqi security forces -- based on the first agreement the more Iraqi forces move forward, the more U.S. forces move back until all security responsibilities are handed over and coalition forces remain in a support role. And in a support role, you don't need such a big number.
ROBERTSON: Presidential candidate Barack Obama has indicated that if he becomes president he might draw down U.S. troops here very quickly. Do you have concerns about that?
AL-MALIKI: No, I am not concerned at all. I believe that our troops are very strong, and God willing, this year we will have the rest of the capability and power with the arrival of weaponry from FMS for military purchases or direct import and purchases by our troops. I am not at all concerned, and this is the decision of the next American president. He assesses the interest of America and the forces on Iraqi soil. I only say what has been achieved through the global war on terror should be considered in the decision to keep or withdraw or increase or draw down the Multi-National Forces in Iraq. Not only for Iraq, but we have entered a global war against terror, as President Bush described it. It [terror] wanted to use Iraq as a launch pad, but it's spreading in the world, even America. The decision to stay or withdraw should take into consideration the nature of the war declared against terrorism in the world.
ROBERTSON: So would you rather have Senator [John] McCain become the president who's wanting to keep more American troops in here for longer?
AL-MALIKI: We welcome the choice of the American people, especially that toppling the regime in Iraq and the supporting the efforts of the Iraqi opposition at the time began at the time of the Democrats and was executed in the Republican period. And again I say if Mr. McCain comes into power he will definitely take into consideration the equation I mentioned, which is the required need and the requirement to face terrorism not only in Iraq, but the world.
ROBERTSON: What achievements have you achieved in the war on terror?
AL-MALIKI: Al-Qaeda and terrorist organizations were planning to turn Iraq into what you used to hear about, the Islamic State, which they wanted to be the base for al-Qaeda because Iraq is a strong and rich country and is geographically significant. So they were planning and came from different parts of the world to Iraq to establish this alleged state, and maybe it was an opportunity when they gathered in Iraq and were targeted decisively. That wrecked their plans and even affected the structure and organization of al-Qaeda in different parts of the world. I believe al-Qaeda tried all its power in Iraq and was defeated, and its defeat in Iraq requires us to pursue it in the other countries to finish this dangerous organization in the world.
ROBERTSON: Mr. Prime Minister, Last year some people were writing you off as a prime minister. They were saying you would be out of a job within months. Are you surprised that you are still prime minister?
AL-MALIKI: I am not surprised and think of it much. I only think of a national duty I was given and tasked with, accomplish it in a way I am convinced of and is based on the constitution and law and do not care if I stay or not. But what I would worry -- if certain measures are taken outside the democratic framework. I would be very easy with any decision that goes through the democratic framework and will be very tough if anything is being tried outside the democratic framework. Thank you. Thank you. E-mail to a friend