Iraqi president says country now peaceful, life is returning

Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid is interviewedby The Associated Press in Saddam Hussein's former palace in the old Green Zone in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023. Nearly 20 years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid says he wants the world to know that his country now is at peace, free and rebuilding its economy and agriculture. [AP]

Nearly 20 years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by U.S.-led forces, Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid wants the world to know his country now is at peace, democratic and intent on rebuilding economic life while maintaining a government that serves the whole country and the region.

Rashid told The Associated Press on Sunday that after overcoming the hardships of the past two decades, Iraq is ready to focus on improving everyday life for its people. Those hardships included years of resistance to foreign troops, violence between Sunnis and Shiites, and attacks by Islamic State group extremists who once controlled large areas, including Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul.

"Peace and security is all over the country, and I would be very glad if you will report that and emphasize on that, instead of giving a picture of Iraq ... still (as) a war zone, which a lot of media still do," Rashid said.

While Iraq's major fighting has ended, there have been some recent outbreaks of violence - including on the day of Rashid's election, which came after a yearlong stalemate following the October 2021 election. Ahead of the vote, at least nine rockets targeted Iraq's Parliament inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.

After Rashid's election, he nominated Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who formed a government with the backing of a coalition of Iran-backed parties and with promises of improving security and public services.

Despite its oil wealth, Iraq's infrastructure remains weak. Private generators fill in for the hours of daily state electricity cuts. Long-promised public transportation projects, including a Baghdad metro, have not come to fruition.

Rashid said this is due to damage as "a result of conflicts and as a result of terror, as a result of a number of years living at war."

Government critics say the sputtering electricity supply is also a result of endemic corruption, rooted in the country's sectarian power-sharing system that allows political elites to use patronage networks to consolidate power.

Rashid, who spoke at his presidential quarters in Saddam's former palace, also asserted that most Iraqis believe the 2003 invasion of Saddam-ruled Iraq by the United States and its allies was necessary because of the former dictator's brutality.

He said he believes most Iraqis, "including all sections of the society, the Kurds, the Sunni, the Christian, the Shiites, they were all against" Saddam and appreciate that the U.S. and its allies came to "save" Iraq.

"Obviously certain things did not work out as we hoped. Nobody expected Daesh (the Islamic State group) and nobody expected car bombs," he said. "It should have been controlled right from the beginning. It should have been studied and planned out right from the beginning. I think the myth was that once Saddam is removed, Iraq becomes heaven."

The reality proved more difficult, he said, but it hasn't weakened Iraq's commitment to democracy.

"Even if you have conflicts and if we have arguments, it's much better to have a freedom and democracy rather than a dictatorship," he said.

However, mass anti-government demonstrations that kicked off in late 2019 were often put down by force. Hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces and state-backed armed groups.

Rashid acknowledged there are still conflicts, but urged Iraqis, particularly the younger generation, to be patient and have faith in the future. "We don't have much choice but to live together ... and let our democratic election take place to represent our values," said Rashid, a veteran Kurdish politician and former water minister after Saddam's ouster.

Rashid assumed the presidency in October. Under Iraq's unofficial power-sharing arrangement, the country's president is always a Kurd, the prime minister a Shiite and the parliament speaker a Sunni.

Rashid's job entails helping to maintain a delicate balance among Iraq's various centers of political power and even-keel relations with both the U.S. and Iran, the government's two key - and often opposing - international backers.

The balancing act is reflected in a monument near Baghdad airport. It extolls Iran's Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani, who was targeted and killed in a 2020 U.S. airstrike.

Improving relations with neighbors including Iran, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan is a source of strength for Iraq, Rashid said. Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia had for years kept a distance from Iraq, partly because of its ties to Iran.

He noted with pride that Iraq hosted a Mideast meeting of senior Arab lawmakers on Saturday and expressed the country's willingness to continue serving as a mediator in now-stalled talks between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Rashid also promised to take a hard line on corruption.

In October, reports emerged that over $2.5 billion in Iraqi government revenue was embezzled by a network of businesses and officials from the country's tax authority. And in recent months, amid allegations of widespread money laundering used to smuggle dollars to U.S.-sanctioned Iran and Syria, the U.S. has taken measures to tighten Iraq's dollar supply, putting pressure on the currency.

"I admit, we did have and we still have some problems with corruption, but the government is very serious (about fighting it)," Rashid said, adding that the government and the central bank are taking measures to regulate transfers out of the country to deter money laundering.

Economically, he said, Iraq is focusing on rebuilding industry and agriculture damaged by years of conflict, and developing its natural gas reserves so as not to be dependent on buying gas from neighboring countries - notably Iran.

Despite the currency's devaluation and inflation in recent months, Iraq's prospects are good, he said, buoyed by strong oil production and high global oil prices.

"Iraq economically is in a sound position and probably is one of the countries in the world which (does not have) a deficit in our budget," he said.