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The 2009 elections will decide the future of Iraq with its cultural options and political system. Despite the importance of the past elections, it is the upcoming ones that will determine the road to the future as they change alliances and result in new courses for the people and government of Iraq.

The future of Iraq depends on one single question: Is Iraq a secular civilian state or is it a potential sectarian Islamic state? The answer to this question by all the sects of Iraq will decide the future of this big and important country in the Middle East region.

The above are the words with which Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari started his interview with me as we spoke for more than one hour on the sidelines of the annual conference of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Geneva that is known as “an annual review of world policies” and that coincided with 50th anniversary of its establishment. Zebari was the keynote speaker at this conference along with World Bank President Robert Zoellek who talked about the global financial crisis. The discussion with Hoshyar (meaning smart and intelligent in Kurdish) dealt with the issues of Iraqi affairs with their complexities and ramifications on the whole region. The good-humored man was optimistic about the future of Iraq and deserving of the epithet of “always optimistic” that his friends gave him.

Naturally, any talk with Zebari is bound to touch prominently on the Kurdish issue with its special features and sensitivity. The way an Iraqi minister – who in his youth was a ferocious Peshmerga fighter and member of underground Kurdish action cells – saw the role of the Kurds in a new Iraq brought good tidings. He said: “The more the Kurds raise their issues in the context of a broader national Iraq, the more gains they make. The Kurds should not remain the hostages of the mountains of Kurdistan. We are an ancient people and the sons of a larger homeland, namely, Iraq. The Kurds should not ask for specific borders for the district of Kurdistan. Their demands should be set higher, for all of Iraq, an Iraq that belongs to the Iraqi citizens and that is built on citizenship not on the basis of a sect or an ethnicity”. Iraq not “Irq”[Arabic for ethnicity, with the writer punning on the pronunciation of the two words in Arabic] he said. This is what the minister wanted to say about his vision of the status of the Kurds in the future State of Iraq.

In any society or state, minorities are always the safety valve that makes the majority think long and hard before committing any stupidity. The Kurds are an ethnic minority and part of the ethnic, religious, and sectarian mosaic of Iraq. The region of the Kurds in northern Iraq is a liberal area compared with its milieu. Although Kurds form a Muslim society, it is an Islam that is open to the world. The culture and education in the Kurdish region is a liberal one. All the Iraqis should cling to the stand taken by this Kurdish minority of adhering to the Iraqi federal formula. Even Zebari – who has been the foreign minister of Iraq for five years – told me that he is proud that the Iraqis do not view him as a Kurd but as an Iraqi representing all of Iraq although he is a minister in cabinets that were formed based on partisan, sectarian, and ethnic compromises. The presence of a minority protects the majority from itself and from extremism. Perhaps the same applies to the [Christian] Copts in Egypt as well. They are a minority that is protecting the majority from its extremist and primitive instincts.

In the Iraqi arena these days, there are voices that wish to take Iraq to the totalitarian level regardless of whether it is a sectarian or ethnic totalitarianism. If Iraq enters this tunnel, it will lead to a new Saddam because Saddam did not descend on the Iraqis from the sky but as a result of the culture and society of this community. “The problem of Iraq is primarily a cultural one. If the new Iraq is built on the basis of equal citizenship and distant from partisanship, ethnicity, and sectarian origins, the people will accept democracy and we will then see,” as the Iraqi Foreign Minister told me, “a thousand Hoshyars and these will not be made-up cases.” The Iraqis will then not be surprised to find a Kurdish minister or an Assyrian minister in their governments or from any sect or ethnic group no matter how large or small because that will be the natural outcome of the feeling of equality.

The Kurdish case is the real test not only for Iraq but also for many countries in the neighborhood. It will be a test that will measure the ability of these states and their societies to move toward co-existence that is based on equality and justice. This will naturally lead to democratic societies and states. For Turkey – that is doing everything in its power to become part of Europe – the Kurdish file has been the principal thorn in its human rights file. The question of minorities is one of the basic questions of values in the region. All the international systems have become systems based on values such as the values of justice, equality, human rights, and other basic freedoms.

I do not conceal the fact that as soon as I heard the name “Hoshyar” for an Iraqi foreign minister – I did not know the meaning of the name then – I was elated that the foreign minister of an Arab country has a different-sounding name. I wished that the names of our ministers – not only foreign ministers – reflect the diversity of our societies. With his tolerance and flexibility and with the successful international relations of the Kurdish minority, Hoshyar Zebari has been able to promote the interests of a beleaguered country under occupation.

The Iraqi minister told me that at his first meeting with former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, the latter referred to him as “my counterpart”. Hoshyar Zebari said this while laughing loudly. He said: “Here we are under occupation and the secretary of state of the superpower is addressing me as his counterpart. Our people laughed when they heard this.” Zebari went on: “From his experience as a Secretary of State, Colin Powell advised me to use any opportunity for rest and sleep. I told him do not worry. When I was a Peshmerga fighter, I used to ride on the back of a mule loaded with weapons and descending from the highest mountain to the lowest valley. I had no difficulty sleeping as the mule was taking me down.”

Zebari’s experience is a personal one. He was never a diplomat but a member of the Kurdish underground action. That is why when he talks to the neighboring countries that say that no one should interfere in Iraqi affairs, his work with the underground has taught him how weapons and funds are smuggled across the borders. Thus, he cannot be deceived with the language of diplomacy. Nevertheless, a gentle smile continues to hover on his face while he is extremely firm and serious. The gist of my talk with the Iraqi minister revolved around his vision of a future role for Iraq and the future of the various Iraqi alliances and leaderships. The man was careful with his words and he said a lot that we agreed was not for publications. The focal point is that equality in citizenship is the sole savior not only of Iraq but of the region as well.