The following is a transcript of Jane Corbin's interview for BBC Panorama with Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari during her trip in Iraq.
Topics discussed include Iraqi views of the British armed forces, a timetable for withdrawing foreign troops, the current security threat and the political challenges facing the Iraqi government.
Jane Corbin: At the end of February, Iraq was on the brink of civil war. There is a fear that this will be the future for Iraq. What's your view?
Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari: I don't think that Iraq has the tendency to be built on the foundations of civil war. Civil war is a social tendency all over the world.
There is a view that every civil war that took place from 1861 to 1945 in America - in Russia, Spain, Greece and Lebanon, was a means for society to learn. Iraq has great diversity throughout of the country, in every town, every tribe, even diversity amongst families and between married couples from each side. This doesn't mean we shouldn't make an effort to preserve this situation, but it could also lead to civil war and the rejection of unity.
Mr Jaafari says he is full of optimism about Iraq's future
JC: Do you think it taught Iraqis a lesson, they could see the future it was so frightening and dangerous and perhaps people pulled together in the final analysis because they could see that, it they went down that route, what would be the final analysis?
IJ: This is a correct and accurate analysis. It means that people have awareness and the power of self-determination. The power of awareness makes them look at the future horizon and know that it could lead to war, and the power of self-determination helps them to make the best and right decision.
JC: Over the past three years in the south of Iraq, did what some have called the "softly softly approach" of the British allow the militia to become too powerful? Should the British perhaps have handled things differently?
IJ: I don't think so, on the contrary. Taking into account the earlier experience of Britain in Iraq, Britain knows very well how to deal with Iraqis. As a result, from the time when the British came to the south and Basra [¿] we discovered that they knew how to deal with the Iraqis. So, on the contrary, this experience was a success throughout that period. Any provocation by the Multinational Forces of the Iraqi people left an expected and natural effect and gave a chance to those who use force to commit terrorist acts. In my estimation, the success of the British forces in al-Amara and Basra was as a direct result of their level of understanding and of using the right methods. What happened, which later led to tension, was caused by the violence used by some British soldiers.
JC: The Iraqi people living in the south had the most to gain from the end of Saddam Hussein's regime, but why are so many people there so hostile to the presence of foreign troops, the British and others, who say they are there to help the Iraqi people?
IJ: They suffered from Saddam Hussain like no other people in the world suffered from any dictator, not Somoza, nor Hirohito, Mussolini, Nadir Shah, Stalin or any other in this world. No one suffered under these dictators as much as the Iraqi people did. This is why the Multinational Force and the British Troops were welcomed so much, because they took part in toppling the world's biggest dictator. However, the reaction occurred because of an event that took place less than a year ago, due to the killing of Iraqi citizens by a few British soldiers. [¿] It was just the behaviour of a few British soldiers who killed some Iraqi citizens [that] caused outrage in the streets of Iraq. Recently, there was another mistake, in my estimation, when three members of the armed Iraqi Forces Police were arrested by the British Forces. This event caused widespread alienation in the south and reflected on [British relations with] the local governorate. We must distinguish between two issues here; are the Iraqi forces possibly infiltrated by certain persons and should we arrest them from a legal standpoint? Is it right? The answer is yes, it is right. The second question is, who should arrest Iraqi forces wearing Iraqi uniforms? People from the Multinational Forces or the British Forces? In the eyes of the citizen when he looks at these things, will he believe it is correct that the British Forces should arrest the Iraqi Forces? This is what caused outrage in the streets.
JC: So, in that case, if there are problems with infiltration of the police by militias, how can the Iraqi security forces hope to cope after the Multinational Forces go? How can they police this country, how can they police the south successfully if there is infiltration by the militia?
IJ: Let me answer your question in two parts. The first part is, should the Multinational Forces leave Iraq at this time? The answer is 'no'. The Multinational Forces will be asked to leave Iraq on condition that the Iraqi Forces are able to maintain their power, maintain security totally and be able to ensure that our people can live their lives in peace and security. The second question, or the second part of the question is, 'How should the Iraqi Forces and Iraqi justice deal with the elements that infiltrate the Iraqi Forces?' We have more than one instance of this. Various elements have been arrested by the state apparatus, whether in Baghdad or other areas, and a transparent, legal investigation was carried out. Where a crime was established, the law was applied to them as normal and if they were proven innocent, they were released. This is how it should be if the state wants to be a democratic one under the rule of law.
JC: Do you think the British are still doing a valuable and useful job in the south, or is it time for them to pull out?
IJ: On the contrary, the British Forces, as part of the Multinational Force under resolution 1546, are fulfilling their role very well whether in al-Amara or in Basra. The difficulty that has arisen does not originate in the presence of the British Forces, it is from the way that some individuals in the army treat people and the Iraqi police. This is the problem.
JC: You're Prime Minister of the first fully democratic government in Iraq. When will you ask the Multinational Forces to leave Iraq? How long should they stay?
IJ: The time when I will ask the Multinational Forces to leave Iraq is the time when the Iraqi Security Forces reach a level of efficiency that allows them to fill the gap. The period that is required by the Multinational Forces to leave Iraq is the same period the Iraqi Forces require to complete their requisites and equip to be able to do their job. Therefore, the timetable for the withdrawal of the Multinational Forces is the inverse of the timetable for the development of our Security Forces so that they are able to take over the reins at the time of departure and fill the gap.
JC: Do you see that timetable in months or years?
IJ: Answering this type of question in my estimation is not easy because there are fixed elements and variable elements. It's not like building a house, where we can reduce the time needed by increasing the number of labourers because it's fixed and not something that's variable. We are confronting terrorism with internal and regional implications. We were taken by surprise by acts of sabotage like the one that occurred in Samara and that could delay things. Therefore we must strengthen our resolve and work hard to make the security forces ready as soon as possible, but we must take into account the security of the country. If the country's security demands that they stay for a longer period, we will grant this time and not ask the [Multinational] Forces to leave until we can handle the situation.
JC: How confident are you at the moment in the fitness of the Iraqi security forces, both the police and the army, to keep law and order here and to be fair and not to act on sectarian lines?
IJ: My confidence in the performance of the Iraqi Forces is high. However, they need more time to get ready and to get up to strength and to meet training, materials and performance requirements. The culture of the Iraqi Armed Forces is the culture of the worlds' advanced countries. Members of the police and army study human rights and they are thoroughly preparing to deal with a more enlightened state in Iraq. In their courses, they are taught that they are not the police of the sect or religion they personally belong to, but that they come from and that they are Iraq's police, all of Iraq with its diverse religions and sects.
JC: We have spoken to police and army throughout the south. They depend on the training they're receiving from the coalition forces. Is there a danger that they will be fearful of standing alone because of the uncertainty out there?
IJ: That's definitely correct at the moment, it can't be denied. We don't think they can handle all the terror and unrest, however we are seriously and realistically mapping out the road to making the Iraqi Police competent. Unless they attain a high level of competence, we will not ask for any departure from Iraq.
JC: The south is in many ways the economic engine of this country with the oil resources and the skills that they have. Is there a danger that the centre will put their needs as a low priority because the situation up here is more tense and difficult than it is in the south and this will make them feel alienated because of the wealth that they have in their area?
IJ: Iraq is a rich country. There is oil, water, agriculture, minerals and tourism through pilgrimages to the holy shrines. These riches are distributed across all regions of Iraq, so every region of Iraq is distinguished by having been being built on one or more of these riches. In addition there are the treasures of our culture and civilisation all over Iraq, in particular in the marshes and the south. Therefore, there is no area of Iraq, whether it be Kurdistan or western Iraq, the centre or the south of Iraq, or even any town without riches. For example, al-Amara is a town that is swimming on a lake of oil. Likewise the central provinces have the riches of tourism from the millions who come to Iraq to visit the holy sites all year round. So the fear that people of different areas will be incited to think about breaking away from the rest because Iraq varies in the type of its riches is baseless because the country is unified. The importance of unity of territory, unity of leadership and the centralised unity of its riches is enshrined in the constitution so we are not worried about that.
JC: There are voices raised in the south who call for a federal solution to Iraq. They want some independence. Is that likely? Is that a good idea?
IJ: Federalism in Iraq preceded the downfall of Saddam Hussein. It related to the region of Kurdistan in the north of Iraq. Back then it became a constitutional reality and all the various Iraqi leaders agreed on it. This independence is eyed by all Iraqis, and quite rightly so. They are affected by it, but it is a constitutional right with a constitutional precedent along with the preservation of the sovereignty of Iraq. I consider that some elements of the motives for federalism are lawful, proper and will be proven to be so. Some of the reactions however are serious for Iraq. When dealing with people from different areas, they are not in a state of great haste to apply federalism and decentralisation entirely. They find themselves already in positions of responsibility in Iraq. Currently, the President of the Republic of Iraq is Kurdish. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is Kurdish, the Minister of Planning is Kurdish. This means that federalism is not the only space that Kurds can breathe in, nor the only thing that they breathe! On the contrary, they are involved in all of Iraq. The same goes for the southern provinces. No one from the town of al-Amara ever used to even get to the door of a ministry before; we now have four ministers from al-Amara and we have four ministers from Basra. This means that the centralised process has opened up to people from the southern and other areas and the more the centre opens to people from these areas means that whenever they ask for and practice federalism, it will make them practice it in a more balanced way and preserve the sovereignty of Iraq.
JC: People in the south have problems with water and electricity. They hoped that their lives would change when Saddam was ousted. Their lives have not changed in many ways. Is your government prepared to take the hard economic decisions that will be necessary to give them a better life, for example, changing oil prices? Will you do this quickly?
IJ: It isn't only the people in the south and people in Basra who are seeking an improvement in electricity and services. All of Iraq is looking for an improvement in service, electricity and the police in particular. However, the supply of electrical power depends on a number of factors, such as improving the source of energy¿ It also depends on terrorist activities that target electrical power to destroy it, so we are doubling efforts to prevent terrorists mounting attacks. It also depends on co-operation between the provinces with the aim of creating a homogenous situation from one province to another, because power only reaches some provinces for 20 hours and others for 22 hours a day. It also depends on the standard of living of citizens who have recently begun to acquire more durables following the improvement in the standard of living. There are many more electrical goods, like air-conditioners and refrigerators and so on, that consume more. It also depends on the culture of citizens about how to use electricity during the hours that they are supplied with it, using it for things that are necessary without wasting energy. In addition, as far as I am concerned, we made efforts during the temporary government and there is also a plan to attempt to make up for these obstacles by making an increase the energy supply the highest priority.
JC: Are you willing to take those decisions to change the economic factors that will give people a better life?
IJ: God willing!
JC: What will happen when the British forces leave the south? Many people there fear for their future, they fear that there will be violence.
IJ: There's no doubt that if any region experiences contempt from the security forces, there will be more scope for terrorist activities. There's a direct balance. Therefore, it is not appropriate that we lift the security blanket provided by the Multinational Forces from any region unless we can replace it with alternative cover or cover by the Iraqi forces.
JC: When the British go, will there be a legacy that they leave behind in the south? What will it be? How will they be remembered?
IJ: This is in the hands of the Multinational Force. The Multinational Force can leave Iraq with a message of love, peace and security and to do that, they must create a feeling of love and a humane outlook towards their forces in Iraq. When I board a military helicopter belonging to the Multinational Forces to go to various places in Iraq, people don't know who is in the helicopter but they wave at it. I look through American binoculars and see how people in the countryside areas that they are flying over look up at them with friendly faces. Therefore the Multinational Forces are able to create this good sentiment. If they create and foster security and good behaviour with local citizens it will have a good effect.
JC: That's the American view, what about the British?
IJ: [says in English] Same thing, they are not differentiating between the Americans and the British, they are looking to the army helicopter. They don't know who's inside the helicopter, they don't know that this is related to the Multinational Forces so they shake their hands. They don't know I'm inside this helicopter. This means to me that [the Multinational Forces] are accepted and welcome, isn't it?
JC: People in the West now speak of the choices that Iraqis must make. They've had the support, they've had the help of the Multinational Forces but now they're at a crossroads. The choice is theirs to go ahead or to go backwards into chaos and anarchy. Will you accept that choice and what will be your choice?
IJ: No, there's only one choice ahead of us. We have to begin political operations. We made changes in 2005 and those changes were very positive. We changed from being a dictatorship through having elections. On 30 January 2005, the level of participation was 59% and this had increased in the referendum on 15 October to 65%. Then it was exceeded on 15 December 2005 to more than 70% and in my view, the great democracies of the world don't achieve this level of voter participation, irrespective of whether or not you take account of the threat of terrorism. Our people practised democracy on the ground despite all the threats. So, we have no choice but to go down the path of democracy. 2005 witnessed the birth of the constitution. 2005 saw the stage of building parliament which is about to form a government. So the natural choice of this people is to follow the political process and resist war.
JC: Mr Jaafari, is there a prospect of getting Sunni parties back involved in forming the new government?
IJ: Of course. The current government has Sunni Arabs in it despite the fact that they are not present in parliament. The current authority that was formed at the beginning of May 2005 was delayed by three months to get the Sunnis to join in the government. There is the President of the Republic, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chief of Parliament and six ministers in this government, even though they do not have a presence in parliament equivalent to their demographic presence in the Iraqi population. The Sunnis took part in the last elections and they now have many seats in parliament, so it is normal that their presence is getting stronger within the government just as their presence is getting stronger in parliament.
JC: Do you as Prime Minister need the Sunni parties or will you go ahead with forming a Shia only government if you have to?
IJ: I am going to answer you in a way that may surprise you. I do not command Iraq and the vehicles of expression of the Iraqi people through political power, but I order political power according to the interests of the Iraqi people. So, I look at political power, Shia and Sunni, through the interests of the people. I look a the interests of the Sunnis among the Iraqi people. I look at the Kurdish power through the interests of the Kurds among the Iraqi people and in the same way I look at the Shia and the Shia political power through the interest of the Shia in Iraq. I look at the Assyrians and the Sabeans and so on looking through this power. If you thought about my answer, you would find yourself in front of someone who isn't a political player and in front of a political person, a nationalist who wants to serve his people and stretch out his hands to all these powers to co-operate with them in the service of the people. So, my need for political power has, as its source, my need of and respect for Iraqi society and I will get closer to any political power for that or hold back from anything that causes me to be held back from the Iraqi people.
JC: It sounds to me as if you are saying you would not go ahead with the Shia only government in that case?
IJ: It's impossible for me to accept that the government could only be Shia or Sunni or Kurdish or only made up of any other social group. I insist that the government should be broad and include all segments of society. This is what the first government represented in August 2003 and also the second government of May 2005.
JC: Do you think that the recent upsurge in violence has been a determined attempt to undermine your own position?
IJ: The violence doesn't have a person as its target. It has the new political situation as its target. They want to destroy the democratic political process chosen by the Iraqi people. Anyone who positions himself in such a way as to protect this process and who sticks his chest out as a sort of shield is bound to get hit in the chest by arrows. So the issue isn't the response of terrorists against me or the government, but in my presenting myself as a shield to protect my people, so that the arrows hit me as I protect the interests of the people.
JC: And finally, are you optimistic about the future for Iraq, that after three years of having foreign troops in your country you are getting close to the position where you can stand alone and have a future?
IJ: I am not just optimistic, I am filled with optimism! Firstly, I'm an optimist by nature about every aspect of life. Unless I am convinced and optimistic about everything I go into, I don't go into it. When I look at the situation of Iraq, I see many reasons to be optimistic. Economic resources are plentiful; there is a national political will; there is the will of the people and the democratic organisations that are taking over Iraq; the political powers have the experience and eagerness to serve Iraq. All these factors make me optimistic about the building of Iraq.
JC: And will you be glad when it comes time for the Multinational Forces and the British to leave, sad perhaps in one way but glad that you will be on your own? Will the Iraqi people be glad when the troops go?
IJ: Without a doubt, I will feel happy when the Multinational Forces leave Iraq. Firstly because of the achievement of being able to take care of security ourselves; secondly because the manifestations of powers that are not Iraqi will disappear from Iraqi streets. At the same time, if the Multinational Forces leave Iraq, they will never leave the sentiments of Iraqis. The Multinational Forces will withdraw but the good sentiments Iraqis feel towards them will spread to their own regions. At the same time they will leave a good impression on the Iraqis. The Iraqi people are gentle and reciprocate towards people who offer help to them with even more love and respect. I said to one of the American generals when he left Iraq a while ago at a gathering here, "You are leaving Iraq but Iraq will never leave you! You will go to your family but you will feel that you are a prisoner of Iraq". In fact he wrote me a letter later, saying he actually had those feelings! When I want the Multinational Forces to leave Iraq, I don't want them to leave fear and humiliation, rather that they leave love and respect.