"I have a bias towards the Assyrian Christians. They are the indigenous people of our country and our most nationalist and good people."
Tokyo -- In a wide ranging, interview, Iraqi President Nouri al Malaki appeared upbeat about the future of his country in contrast to the daily "bad news" coming from Iraq.
"I fully understand why bad news makes the news", Maliki said. "It is the nature of the world we live in. At the same time, I think it is important to let the world know that things in our country are improving dramatically.
Our unemployment rate has gone from nearly 70% to now under 30%. Our most recent growth rate was 3% and we have seen, in particular as a result of the recent Baghdad program a dramatic drop in so called sectarian violence."
Speaking through an interpreter, but often breaking in to confirm a comment, Maliki was in control.
"What is particular encouraging to me is the changes we have seen in our security forces and the trust from our people once again. We are finally seeing individual citizens provide information to our forces which has changed the situation dramatically in rooting out those who are determined to ruin our country."
Maliki stressed three key goals. National Reconciliation, Economic Development and Expanded Security as the way forward.
"In spite of much information to the contrary, we are seeing a return to the Iraq we all once knew when we considered ourselves all Iraqis and not belonging to a particular sect or group.
Recently we have brought back large numbers of former members of the Baath Party who were not involved in any problems in the past and this has significantly helped to bring our people together", he said.
"Economic development is taking place at a good rate. Part of the reason we are here is to encourage even more investment into our country. The monthly income of our people has gone from about $20 a month to now over $200. The dramatic rise in electrical use is one good sign that the economy is taking off. The stores are full."
At the same time, Maliki saw security as the major concern going forward. "We need good and reliable security and we are doing all we can to expand the security forces so they can take charge. The key is the trust between the people and the security forces. This is where we have seen the most progress."
Describing the current military situation as "moving from sectarian to outside interference" Maliki stressed that the so called "Baghdad Plan" was working. "We are seeing a dramatic drop in the sectarian conflicts and see our major challenge as that from the outside including Al Quaida and remainders of the Baathist groups.", he said.
"I think we are the only country in the region with a Human Rights Ministry - we have suffered much in the past, all of us and the Human Rights Ministry is dedicated to rooting out all forms of abuse. It is a positive sign."
Reacting to the question of a timetable, Maliki strongly objected saying, "There is no timetable for the Multinational forces to leave. We are working together with our friends to bring security under control. The only 'timetable' is that of our forces and our nation as a whole being able to assume responsibility for our situation."
Reacting to large numbers of refugees in neighboring countries, Maliki said, "We do not consider them refugees. they are displaced and we are doing all we can to create a situation where they can return. They are our responsibility and we do not need help from others to take them in - they will return home."
Speaking to the minorities, many who in fact are in neighboring countries including an estimated nearly 500,000 Assyrian Christians Maliki said, "I have a bias towards the Assyrian Christians. They are the indigenous people of our country and our most nationalist and good people."
"We want them to be inside the country and active and able to retake their rights. We will do all we can to help them. At the same time, if they feel they need an area, a province of their own as the Constitution provinces I support this fully."
The Assyrian Christians have made a formal request for a Province in their homeland which many see as the only way to persuade the many outside the country to return. The Assyrian Province, under the same legal framework as neighboring Kurdistan is seen as a key to bring the Northern part of Iraq into stability.
Commenting on the death of Saddam Hussein Maliki said, "In the end he was charged only for the deaths of a hundred people. He should have been charged for the deaths of the hundreds of thousands he really killed. We gave him a long and fair trial. It is unfortunate that pictures of his death were shown, but we are not used to doing this and we have learned a lot."
With daily flights from many part of Europe and the Middle East, Iraq is slowly returning to a more normal state. At the same time, the Prime Minister was clear that any discussion of timetables for withdrawal of Multinational Forces would be disastrous.
"In the end we will be able to take care of ourselves. Meanwhile we need the help of our friends to stand against those who want to harm us."
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