AP Interview: Iraq's increasingly visible former premier denies he is seeking a comeback



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BAGHDAD — Iraq's former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday denied he is seeking a political comeback, despite frequent appearances in local media and a recent visit to the country's influential neighbor Iran.

Al-Maliki, who stepped aside last year after being widely blamed for the Islamic State group's takeover of a third of Iraq, told The Associated Press he has no intention of returning to the office he held for eight years unless the people desire it. "If the Iraqi people decide to elect me...I won't decline," he said.

"I was not willing to be (prime minister) but when the job was imposed upon me — I stepped up to the call," added al-Maliki, who now holds the largely ceremonial post of vice president along with two other officials. "But if asked personally whether I am aiming to (become prime minister) — no. I am not."

His decision to step down as prime minister in August raised hopes for a new government that could roll back the Sunni insurgents and prevent the country from splitting apart. Al-Maliki, a Shiite, was widely accused of pursuing a sectarian agenda that alienated the Sunni Muslim and Kurdish minorities.

He was also blamed for the corruption and incompetence that seeped into Iraq's U.S.-trained and equipped armed forces, after he replaced top Sunni commanders with his own loyalists. The rot was brutally exposed when entire units collapsed in the face of last year's militant advance, with commanders abandoning their posts and soldiers stripping off their uniforms as they fled.

The current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, recently purged a number of senior officials appointed by his predecessor from the military and interior ministry.

But in a string of recent TV appearances al-Maliki has instead blamed the country's turmoil on the current government, saying it has failed to bring about reconciliation. Al-Maliki told the AP that the army was weakened by the same sectarian divisions playing out across the country.

"There is corruption in Iraq, in the region, even in America it exists," al-Maliki said. "The real problem in the Iraqi military is that the soldiers are instigated and divided along sectarian lines."

"Corruption — no," he continued, "It's an issue but it's definitely not the issue that is preventing the Iraqi military from succeeding in its fight against Daesh," he said, using an Arabic acronym for the group.

Al-Maliki became prime minister in 2006 after emerging as a compromise candidate atop a shaky coalition. He stepped aside in favor of al-Abadi after struggling for weeks to stay in power following the fall of Iraq's second largest city Mosul. The two men both hail from the Shiite Islamist Dawa party.

The 65-year-old al-Maliki shepherded the country through its worst sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007. But his heavy-handed rule later contributed to its slide back into chaos. He had grown increasingly isolated as he was deserted not only by his Shiite allies but also Iran and the United States.

Shiite powerhouse Iran wields enormous influence in Iraq, and al-Maliki's visit to Tehran in November -- in which he met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- fueled further speculation about his political future.

Iran and the United States share a common enemy in the Islamic State but have refused to coordinate their operations against it. U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have helped Kurdish forces push back the militants in parts of the north. But Iran's support for Shiite militias is widely seen as the driving force in the Baghdad government's modest victories.

If Iran and the United States "want stability in Iraq and the region, they should not fight for influence in Iraq and should not fight each other on Iraqi soil," al-Maliki said.

Al-Maliki was the first to summon volunteers to protect the country when the militants took Mosul and swept across northern Iraq. The Shiite militias — officially known as Popular Mobilization Forces — answered the call, deploying to the region around the capital, known as the Baghdad Belt, and Shiite holy sites, including a revered shrine in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.

The mobilization brought a new wave of sectarian violence. Al-Abadi is now working to incorporate the militias into the military, but it's not an easy task, with different militiamen answering to different leaders, or none at all.

"The government has got to control it more," al-Maliki said. "The more it is able to control the actions of the Popular Mobilization Forces, the more it will transform into a proper National Guard and serve the future of this country."

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