Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari
By Michel Abu Najm
Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Iraqi foreign minister has stated that iraq is going ahead with its effort to make the UN Security Council [UNSC] establish an international investigation commission or a fact-finding one to examine the terrorist actions that hit Iraq.
Hoshyar Zebari said in an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that the "process has started" but its achievement needs time, patience, and effort. He disclosed that the French president promised Iraq his country's help to remove it from under Chapter 7 and restore its full sovereignty. But he said the issue has to go through a settlement of the pending problems with Kuwait, foremost of them those of the borders and missing persons. He also disclosed that President Talabani considered France capable of playing a role in clearing the relations with Saudi Arabia and improving them with Damascus by benefiting from its good contacts and relations with the countries of the region. He also stressed that Iraq is "keen" about the Arab security order.
Following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your assessment of the outcome of the state visit to France?
[Zebari] You know how relations with France were tense following the Iraqi regime change process by the United States and Britain and the stand of Paris and Berlin which was opposed to the US military intervention in Iraq. Paris had no desire to deal with our efforts to strengthen our relations with it even though France had voted in favor of the UNSC resolutions on Iraq. But there was practically no change or cooperation. The change began with Sarkozy's election as president, especially his visit to Baghdad in February last year. In my opinion, the visit was tantamount to a turning point in our relations with France. The French president believes that Iraq is an important Arab country and one of the pillars of the Middle East and that its stability helps stability in the region. The conclusion Paris reached was that Iraq should be a pillar of stability in the region and for France whose officials believe it has real interests in Iraq. France wants to revive the glories of the old relations that linked it to us. We opened with the French side a new chapter in dealings and trust and the French weaved relations with all the responsible quarters in the state and invited all the leaders to visit Paris. This state visit was the culmination. I would like to praise the French dealings with us and point to the symbolism of raising the Iraqi flag over official buildings and the Champs-Elysees. In my view, the visit was tantamount to a message to the Arab and regional countries and to the rest of the world saying that France is returning to Iraq and wants real and full partnership. There is moreover a change in the purport of relations and not just in protocols. The process of giving practical purport to this partnership began with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon to Baghdad and then to Al-Sulaymaniyah. He came with a delegation of businessmen.
President Sarkozy was in Saudi Arabia and we raised with him the issue of our relations with neighboring countries and said Iraq is seeking to normalize its relations with its Arab environment and all its neighbors, including Syria and Saudi Arabia. We pointed out that France, which is the friend of Iraq and these countries, can play a conciliatory role in this issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you saying that you asked for French mediation?
[Zebari] We did not ask for mediation as such but consider France capable of using its good relations with some of the countries around us. I would like to make it clear here that -- contrary to what they imagine -- Iraq does not have predetermined stands toward these countries. We support having Iraq part of the regional Arab security order in the region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But where has your relationship with Syria reached? Are there signs of improvement?
[Zebari] You know that relations became strained because of the terrible bombings in Iraq and Baghdad and due to the presence of many hostile elements in Syria. I would like to make it clear that we did not accuse Syria of being directly responsible for the terrorist actions. We are saying: There are Iraqi Baathists in Syrian territories enjoying Syrian protection and a safe haven in it and these are planning and implementing the terrorist operations and not the regime or government in Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But there are several voices in Iraq and accusations leveled in every direction?
[Zebari] At the last bombings in Baghdad, those of 25 October, we unified the Iraqi political discourse and a committee was formed whose chairman I was appointed and it includes the interior, defense, justice ministries, the intelligence services, and representatives of the prime minister for the purpose of having the same political discourse.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sometimes levels direct accusations?
[Zebari] No. In the recent incidents, no one deviated from the government's official policy. We are saying: There are investigations and we have strong suspicions that the groups which carried out the 19 August attacks are the same ones which carried out the 25 October ones. We have no doubts about this at all. When the UN envoy came to Baghdad, we presented him with all the information, statements, details, photos, and evidence all of which confirm that these operations were high-level by specialists which no marginal jihadist or foreign groups are capable of implementing. They were complicated operations that needed strategic thinking and the evidence points to the Baath Party elements present in Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Syrians are saying: We asked for evidence and did not get it.
[Zebari] We gave them all the evidence and indications but they are content with denial and denial only. It is a custom which we have known for a long time.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But can the new US "tone" with Syria be explained since Washington has stopped making any accusations against Damascus in the matter of the Iraqi dossier?
[Zebari] The US stand was neutral and did not side with Iraq or against Syria. We dealt with it patiently and rationally until Washington became convinced of our stand and arguments and was persuaded that this issue was very serious because all the various groups and elements from the resistance, jihad, liberation, Baath, terrorism, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State of Iraq come to Iraq from Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it the intention to say that Syria is turning a blind eye to them?
[Zebari] Exactly. We had lived with Syria and know how the Syrian regime operates. One of our disagreements with the Americans is that because of their mentality and thinking, they do not understand how the Baath Party organizations, the former Republican Guards, or Special Guards, and the military industrialization leaders trained to handle chemical and nuclear materials and with explosive expertise can deal with hard-line Islamic organizations like Al-Qaeda since the Baath Party is secular and nationalist and therefore cannot cooperate with jihadists. For the American thinking, this is difficult to accept and we disagree with them over this issue in terms of intelligence, politics, and security.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where is the way out from this situation?
[Zebari] The Syrians contacted us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean direct contacts?
[Zebari] Through mediators and they sent messages to the effect that they were willing to look into the Iraqi complaints and help resolve this issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Was this offer in exchange for Iraq giving up its effort to have an international investigation commission or a fact-finding one established?
[Zebari] No, never. We said from the first day that we would resort to the international law's protection. We had before us the option of the Turkish-Arab dialogue. All the countries supported us and we responded to the Arab-Turkish initiative and held five rounds of dialogues but without a result. I informed those concerned from the first day that there would be no deviation from the course of resorting to the United Nations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you are continuing with your international efforts?
[Zebari] We went to the UNSC and achieved results. A UN envoy came to Baghdad as the first step and we laid down the basis for the process. We might demand a fact-finding commission and we might probably demand an international tribunal later on. We informed the Syrian side and the parties that mediated that one does not negate the other. When [Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid al-Muallem told me in New York that Iraq had two choices: Either the Arab and regional solution or the international one and you must choose, I answered him: We have chosen both solutions. We went along with you at four or five sessions without an international solution but did not find any response from your side and therefore the door to the international solution is open.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When will we see the start of this process? Are there any agendas?
[Zebari] These matters in international politics need time to ripen and patience when dealing with them. It took three years to form the Lebanon tribunal despite the international support. We succeeded in having the UN secretary general and the UNSC send an envoy to Baghdad within two months and despite American opposition.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] He came, met, and investigated. What next?
[Zebari] He will prepare a report and submit it to the secretary general.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When?
[Zebari] Probably within days. The UN envoy did not come for the purpose of investigating but came to listen to Iraq's viewpoint. We presented him with all the details, information, and statements and the submission of his report is the main thing. It is the starting point. The report will be submitted to the UN secretary general and taking it to another stage depends onus and on our friends and allies at the UN and UNSC. We have taken the first step on the route of resorting to the international law for punishing those involved in these crimes.
This was the first step and the easiest one for us. Pressing ahead with establishing an investigation commission or an international tribunal requires international agreement and this was not available. There were different views about establishing a fact-finding commission and we therefore agreed to have the UN secretary general send a high-level envoy to prepare a report on whose basis the next steps would be decided.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did President Sarkozy promise to back your demand to establish an international investigation commission?
[Zebari] Yes, and he was frank and clear in his backing.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] French sources said President Sarkozy promised you French support for removing Iraq from under Chapter 7?
[Zebari] This is true. We have reached an advanced stage for freeing Iraq from the Chapter 7 restrictions and rules which have been imposed on us since the invasion of Kuwait. We are governed by more than 70 UNSC resolutions under Chapter 7. Some of them deal with disarmament, armament, import and export, oil for food and others deal with the diplomatic and economic sanctions and reparations to and relations with Kuwait, the borders, and missing persons. We succeeded in repealing many of these resolutions through agreements, settlements, and negotiations during the past period. What really remains are the resolutions about the situation between Iraq and Kuwait: The borders, missing persons, possessions, and reparations. Relations with Kuwait are the way for resolving this issue. Around 80 contracts were concluded in the oil for food program and the funds are in the French "BNP" Bank but releasing them needs settlements with France and Russia. There are other restrictions linked to the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, and missiles. Their solution is with the international agency. The resolutions dealing with relations between Iraq and Kuwait, and specifically Resolution 833that deals with the demarcation of borders with Kuwait, are the opening for solving all these issues.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But Iraq did recognize the demarcation of the borders, did it not?
[Zebari] This is true. Saddam recognized them. What is required now is for this government to recognize these borders.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where is the problem then?
[Zebari] We as a state and government do not have a problem with the land borders. But there is a general Iraqi opinion that Iraq needs an outlet to the sea.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But Iraq has an outlet to the sea.
[Zebari] Yes. But there are restrictions in this. Let me be clear. This does not mean that we do not recognize the land, maritime, and river borders. Iraq needs an outlet to the sea. There are specifics. There are the Gulf outlets: Shatt al-Arab, Khawr Abdullah, Khawr al-Zubayr.... These were operations theaters during the Iraqi-Iranian war, the first Gulf war, and the last one. There are the sunken [ships] and many obstacles, problems, and restrictions and massive efforts are needed for clearing these outlets. Our maritime borders in 1991 went to Kuwait. This does not mean that Iraq does not have an outlet to the sea anymore but the physiography of Iraq's outlet on the Gulf has limitations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean you want a new demarcation of maritime borders with Kuwait?
[Zebari] No. For the sake of clarity, I say that it is not a re-demarcation of borders that is needed. We need an Iraqi-Kuwaiti understanding. But the understanding does not happen overnight. At present and according to international law, all ships coming to Iraq have to raise the Kuwaiti flag when they pass through the Kuwaiti outlets while these were in the past Iraqi waters. There is moreover the issue of sunken ships (which impede navigation) and which needs massive technical efforts and Iraqi-Kuwaiti organization and cooperation. If there is no trust between the two sides, then this or that side can disrupt the issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So what is required is the building of trust and for Iraq and Kuwait to get used to coexistence and cooperation.
[Zebari] Yes. I would like to say something and bear responsibility for what I am saying: Iraq respects all the international legitimacy resolutions concerning Kuwait: The borders, sovereignty, and independence. But we have problems that accumulated since Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. We must deal with these issues if we want to get out from under Chapter 7 and this needs good intentions, understanding, and trust. But this does mean that we refuse to implement these resolutions. There is for example the issue of missing Kuwaitis and we are required to find their remains. The case is that it is difficult or impossible for us to find the remains of Iraqis. We have no reservations about cooperating with the Kuwaitis and are also ready to return back any Kuwaiti possessions that are in Iraq. In 2003,the Iraqi archive was lost and the National Museum was looted. So what do you think happened to Kuwait possessions? Despite this, we are committed to returning everything we find to Kuwait.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But these issues could impede normalization with Kuwait?
[Zebari] This issue can be solved but the key lies with the international resolutions that concern Iraq and Kuwait for getting out from under Chapter 7.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We can understand from this that getting out from under Chapter 7 will not happen soon.
[Zebari] It is an issue that is near and far at the same time because it depends on the internal domestic situation. There are hardliners on the Kuwaiti side inside parliament and there are on the other side Iraqis eager to talk to the media and make accusations which at times strain the situation. I reiterate that trust and understanding are capable of finding solutions for the pending problems between us and Kuwait.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The situation between Iran and Western countries is apparently heading toward a crisis. How can this affect the Iraqi situation because of the geographical position, the US presence in your country, and other issues?
[Zebari] The situation is not dangerous or critical as we read in the media or the leaks we see. In my opinion, the US options with Iran are limited and it is my assessment that there is not a military or radical solution. President Obama's administration is leaning toward dialogue, reconciliation, avoidance of escalation, and dealing with the problems with good intentions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But this peaceful course does not suit some parties and they might resort to embroiling the United States or provoking Iran.
[Zebari] In my opinion, the Obama administration and the European approach are pushing for finding a reasonable settlement. The US administration decided to speed up the withdrawal from Iraq and we heard statements about their desire to withdraw from Afghanistan. Can this administration seek a confrontation with Iran? Of course, Israel has an interest in tension or leaning toward this. But I do not believe that we are going to have war. The available information and facts do not point to a real conflict in the region, contrary to the speculations about a war by the end of this year. Iran has at present around 12 American prisoners and is negotiating about them. There might be a settlement on the horizon and I therefore do not believe that Washington wants to escalate.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are the preparations for the US withdrawal afoot?
[Zebari] The withdrawal will be carried out quickly. The administration decided to withdraw whatever the circumstances and even if the security situations deteriorated. There is a principal decision on a responsible withdrawal but the Americans want to complete it at any price. When the August bombings happened, the Americans saw them as the same as the ones that Iraq had seen before but we drew their attention to the fact that they were different because the previous ones targeted sectarian gatherings, mosques, and so on. The August bombings targeted the state's symbols and sought to paralyze the government's ability to function. At first, the Americans did not pay attention despite our arguments, moves, and efforts with them and with the UNSC and major countries. But the US reaction to the 25 October bombings was different. The US administration was shocked and saw in them a factor affecting the responsible withdrawal and therefore took a number of measures and the visits of their civilians and military to us increased.