Fickle friends

Iraq is working with the West to rebuild itself, but foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari tells Massoud A. Derhally there has been a conspicuous lack of support from Arab nations.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  May 29, 2005

Fickle friends|~|UNHAPPY-200.jpg|~|UNHAPPY: Zebari says Arab nations have not provided any support to Iraq since the war.|~|BEING a foreign minister of Iraq is no easy job. Being Kurdish and the leading foreign diplomat of the war-torn country is perhaps an even more challenging role for Hoshyar Zebari. In an interview with Arabian Business, Zebari pulls no punches about the difficulties that lie before his country and speaks candidly about Iraq’s relations hips with its neighbours. Zebari talks of his acute disappointment about a lack of support from Arab states in helping Iraq get back on its feet after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in 2003. “No they haven’t [helped],” says the 53-year-old when asked if Arab states had been forthcoming in assisting Iraq. But he adds: “We have not given up hope. I have continuously engaged my colleagues individually or collectively at the Arab League to come and help and assist [and] to deal with the new reality in Iraq in good faith.” Zebari says he has continually requested a stronger Arab presence in Iraq, but is dismayed that none of the region's countries have been receptive so far. “I have now over 50 foreign ambassadors from Japan to the US. I don’t have a single Arab ambassador in Baghdad. The Arab League — of which we are a founding member — have not bothered even to send a representative or to establish a presence ... to facilitate, to help, to monitor the situation. This is an unhelpful attitude,” a frustrated Zebari says. “The excuse before was that there wasn’t a government [and] that the government was imposed by the Americans — now we have an elected government and this is the will of the Iraqi people and they should respect that,” adds the guerrilla-turned-statesman. Nonetheless, Zebari says there is still room for Arab countries to increase their support for the country, and to help stop what he says is “agitation coming out from the media and from the mosque” — a clear reference to some countries that have allowed an atmosphere of animosity towards the US to brew. Indeed, Zebari, who holds a masters degree in sociology from the University of Essex in England, as well as other degrees from a university in Jordan, says a strong Iraq is paramount to the stability of the region as a whole. “A stable, peaceful responsible Iraq [would be] the best news for the Arab world … the deterioration of security there is not helpful and it could spill over to many countries. I have warned repeatedly [about] the Afghan Arabs who went to Afghanistan and then came back to their countries — the likes of Osama Bin Laden — [and then] created tremendous difficulties for [their] own societies. We don’t want to see Iraqi Arabs going back to [their] countries [and causing problems] along the same lines,” he adds. Clearly, what has been particularly worrying and problematic for the newly elected government in Iraq, and the American and British forces, has been the endless flow of suicide bombings all over the country. There are continuous reports of an insurgency, largely made up of a zealous youth making their way to Iraq from neighbouring countries in the hope of carrying out a jihadi agenda. The blame has fallen squarely on Syria and Iran, but Zebari says the two states have different agendas. “I have said repeatedly that we are not satisfied [and] not happy about the level cooperation we are getting from Syria or Iran. We have requested security cooperation [and] we have requested a joint security commission [and] intelligence sharing on infiltration coming from Iran,” he explains. “With Syria, also, we have made our position clear many times that are our brothers in Syria are not helping us enough [and] are not doing enough to prevent [and] neutralise the flow of foreign fighters. [And] that the terrorists are using Syrian territory to infiltrate Iraq,” he adds. The foreign minister says the security situation could improve markedly with better cooperation, better intelligence sharing and an improved ability to intercept militant groups — the bulk of which, he says, are coming across the border from Syria. Zebari also concurs with the findings of a recent article in the New York Times, which claims that of the 154 Arabs killed over the previous six months in Iraq, 61% came from Saudi Arabia. “I think that article is very close to reality. Many of them in fact are of Saudi origin or [are] Saudi nationals — young jihadis who are using that route to infiltrate [Iraq],” explains Zebari. “We have raised this issue with the Saudi authorities. We are engaged with them in very positive dialogue to help and assist and to share with them whatever information and intelligence [they need], because they could be a danger [to] their own security. We are not accusing the Saudis of lending any direct support to those groups, or endorsing what they are doing. But there is room for some cooperation to prevent or neutralise those youngsters that are killing Iraqis.” The foreign minister cites the fact that more than 400 people died in Iraq during May as evidence that the security situation is not getting better. But he says that at least there are signs that relations with some countries in the region are improving. A recent visit by Iran foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi seems to have played an important role in improving relations between the two countries, which fought an eight-year war in the 1980s. “We discussed many issues, but the key issue was the political message he was bringing — that Iran supports, recognises [and] respects the new Iraqi government,” says Zebari. “To his credit, he was the first Islamic foreign minister to visit Iraq [and] despite all you hear … we welcomed him very warmly. Iran is a very important regional neighbour. It has influence and we understand that. At the same time we have our own national interest,” he adds. Despite the meeting, Zebari points out that Iraq still has many unsettled issues with Iran — including lingering after-effects the Iran-Iraq war and border disputes. “All these issues really were on our mind, but we agreed to reactivate the joint ministerial commission between Iran and Iraq to address those issues at length and in more detail … we wanted to open a new page in our relationship and it was a very timely and important visit,” explains Zebari. Another important breakthrough in Iraqi-Iranian relations may come with increasing economic co-operation. An already decaying oil infrastructure hit by numerous sabotage operations by insurgents has severely hindered Iraq’s oil export capacity. But this has also formed a potential basis for Iran and Iraq to perform joint work. “Because of the limited access that we have on the Gulf for the terminals … there was an idea for Iraq to pump oil into Abadan refinery and we would be compensated from Kharg Island [by] the same amount to increase the level of production,” explains Zebari. The idea has not been ruled out and the Iraqi government is expected to make a decision on it shortly, he adds. The foreign minister also acknowledges that the new Iraqi government has already discussed the issue of Ahmad Chalabi with King Abdullah of Jordan. Chalabi is a convicted felon in Jordan as a result of the Petra Bank scandal that witnessed the disappearance of more than US$300 million. “Our request was very clear. We recognise the problem of Ahmed Chalabi with the Jordanian government over the Petra Bank, over the ruling of the military court against him,” explains Zebari. “Now Chalabi is a member of the newly elected Iraqi government ... this issue needs to be resolved in an amicable way and through the legal system. We want the King to intervene, to use his influence, to assist this process,” Zebari adds. Asked how he feels the aspirations of his people could be integrated into the upcoming draft of the Iraqi constitution, he adds: “It is a well-known fact that the Kurdish request has been consistent from the beginning. They want to see the constitution enshrine a bill of rights for all Iraqis. They want to see democratic governance in Iraq." ||**||

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