WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraq’s top Sunni Muslim politician said on Wednesday he would back Shi‘ite Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi for a new term as long as conditions such as bringing Shi‘ite militias under state control and balancing relations with other countries are fulfilled.
Osama al-Nujaifi, Baghdad’s Sunni Vice President, was in Washington for talks with senior State Department and congressional officials to discuss issues facing Iraq as the battle against Islamic State winds down.
Iraq will hold parliamentary elections on May 15. Abadi, who has not yet said whether he would seek a second term, took over the premiership in 2014 from Nuri al-Maliki, a close ally of Iran. Abadi is credited with quickly rebuilding the army and defeating Islamic State in its main Iraqi stronghold, Mosul, last July, with strong assistance from a U.S.-led coalition.
Asked whether he would ally with Abadi, Nujaifi told Reuters in an interview:
“This is very possible ... We may be able to ally with him but that hasn’t happened yet ... We need talks, but his (politics) are the closest to us in the next elections.”
Nujaifi said Abadi had to “determine his position,” given that he belonged to the Dawa party, a Shi‘ite group with close ties to Iran.
“He has to leave this umbrella and embrace the national umbrella and he can get lots of support,” Nujaifi said.
“We support him but not without conditions. There must be political agreement based on mutual interests of Iraqis, an exit from sectarian politics ... controlling the weapons, and the balance in relationship with countries ... If we agree on these things, we can be together.”
Nujaifi singled out the Iran-backed Shi‘ite militia forces known as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs) as one of the biggest challenges in post-Islamic State Iraq, and said it would be impossible to hold elections if their weaponry was not brought under government control.
Iranian-backed militia groups were formed after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on Iraqis to defend their country days after Islamic State seized control of the northern city of Mosul. They played a major role in protecting Baghdad and pushing back Islamic State. But the militias have also created headaches for the government. Many of them have ties to Iran and have amassed vast military and political influence.
Abadi has promised to rein in the militias but it is a daunting task and Iraqi and Western officials say he is too weak to take on the militias directly.
Parliament approved a law late last year that will transform PMFs into a legal and separate military corps.
“This of course shapes a threat to stability in Iraq if these weapons are not controlled and melded with the armed forces. If there’s any political disagreement, it could turn into armed confrontations ... The only correct way is to meld these forces with the armed forces and to control them.”
“It is unreasonable to run the elections under the shadow of the spread of all these weapons or with the displacement of millions of people ... This will distort these elections.”
Asked whether the Baghdad government had the will to remove them from Iraqi cities, he said:
“I think that is natural, but they (PMFs) have influence in Baghdad .... Their role and their influence on the state is very big. It’s not easy for the prime minister to force them to do something outside their attitudes,” Nujaifi said.
Abadi declared victory over Islamic State in Mosul in the summer after a months-long battle, three years after the militants seized the city and made it the stronghold of a “caliphate” they said would take over the world.
Nujaifi said Mosul would need at least $30 billion to rebuild the city and its infrastructure.
“Estimates indicate that 70 percent of the city was destroyed or largely destroyed. The infrastructure, all aspects of life, water, energy, the hospitals are all destroyed.”
Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by James Dalgleish