Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari says he is pleased by the recent regional and international “shift” towards assisting Iraq to deal with the threat represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Two high-level international meetings on Iraq—the first in Jeddah, the other in Paris—have seen regional and international states pledge to form an alliance to confront the Islamist group, providing Baghdad with much needed military and logiestical assistance, including air cover.
Jaafari, who previously served as prime minister and vice president, is pursuing a new foreign policy—under the banner of the Haider Al-Abadi governmetn—to secure greater regional and internatioanl support for Iraq. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Iraq’s foreign minister about the fight against ISIS and the prospective international alliance to combat this terrorist group.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Earlier this week, international states agreed to confront the threat represented by ISIS during the Paris conference. What practical steps do you expect now following this meeting?
Ibrahim Al-Jaafari: We consider the Paris conference to be the sequel to the Jeddah conference.
Whether in Jeddah, Paris or New York, we want to convey the message that the crisis that has hit Iraq does not begin and end there. It is true that the problem is taking place in Iraq. It is also true that Iraq is at the frontline of this [battle]; but we are not the last trench [in the war on terror]. If this passes Iraq, the forthcoming confrontation will be in regional countries or even Europe.
For our part, we have introduced fundamental changes: [Iraqi] political parties have agreed on a political code of honour and confirmed their determination to begin a new phase that accommodates everybody. We took the first step in this process by forming a unity government that includes all parties without exception.
Q: What about Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s inability to appoint an interior minister or defense minister? His candidates for these two important ministries were rejected, doesn’t this represent a blow to Iraqi “unity?”
Even in the the world’s most advanced countries the legislative and executive powers sometimes agree and sometimes disagree. Anyway, all cabinet posts will be filled shortly.
The most important thing that we need from our friends—lwhether neighboring states or beyond—is not for their sons to come to our coutnry to fight . . but aerial cover, weapons and logistical support that is commensurate with the magnitude of the challenge that we are facing.
Q: Do you think the Jeddah Conference marked a critical turning point in the international response to the Iraqi crisis?
Definitely. What I heard from Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal and the other foreign ministers attending the meeting—including US Secretary of State John Kerry—was extremely encouraging. I met with Prince Saud Al-Faisal in person and we talked for about half an hour, while the statement he issued during this meeting was also very important.
Q: Is it possible to say that a shift has taken place in the way that Arab Gulf states are approaching the crisis in Iraq?
Yes, there has been a significant shift . . . marked by an unconditional push towards “supporting” us. I would like, in particular, to highlight what Prince Saud Al-Faisal personally told me in Jeddah, namely that Riyadh has decided to open a Saudi Arabian embassy in Baghdad.
Q: The Paris communique agreed on what the principle issues are and what must be done to address these, but did not include any practical steps on how this is going to happen. Do you think this was due to differences among those attending?
No one can expect a conference like the one that took place in Paris—with its [limited] number [of attendees] and short period of preparation—to be able to go into all the details. The practical logistical details regarding what is going to happen on the ground are usually left for specialists to discuss. The Paris conference was not expected to go beyond confirming the provision of military assistance on the level of [military] supplies and aerial cover.
Q: Who will be in charge of coordinating this military assistance, taking decisions and giving orders on the ground?
Iraq is our land and we are the victims [of ISIS]. We want to be the spearhead. Therefore, the situation requires coordination with those on the ground. We are familiar with our own land.
The Iraqi side cannot be excluded from managing this military coordination. As for details regarding the [military] formations and the number of Iraqi officers and who represent what and all these things, this will be handled by military leaders from both sides: Iraq and allied forces.
Q: Will Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces be able to liberate territory held by ISIS, including Mosul, on their own, without any ground support from other allied states?
Iraq’s armed forces include the [Iraqi] army, Peshmerga, and the National Guard. All of these forces fall under the banner of Iraq’s armed forces, taking orders from the Iraqi military hierarchy. Despite their multiple factions, they all share the same objective. We are also building and training armed forces [to serve] in their own provinces. It has been shown, particularly during the fight with ISIS, that it is necessary for provincial forces—under the banner of national forces—to be present to lead the fight.
Q: Moqtada Al-Sadr has said that he opposes foreign interference in Iraqi affairs, the establishment of an international alliance and the return of US forces to Iraq. Could this position weaken the Iraqi consensus regarding the fight against ISIS?
He does not oppose [the anti-ISIS alliance] but said he does not accept the return of foreign intervention and foreign [military] bases to Iraq. We share his patriotic stance of opposing foreign forces arriving onto Iraqi territory. If you ask me: ‘Do you accept the presence of foreign forces In Iraq?’ My answer is: ‘No.’
Q: But there are foreign fighter jets operating in Iraqi airspace and carrying out airstrikes on ISIS positions. Doesn’t this count as foreign troops in Iraq?
This is a different issue. We may allow them into our airspace today but we may prevent them tomorrow. But if “ground” forces enter [Iraq,] set up bases and position themselves in specific places, it will not be easy for them to end their presence.
What we are asking for is aerial cover because the nature of the battle [with ISIS] is uneven. Iraqi armed forces have not recovered yet and the enemy enjoys international support. ISIS is globalized; it is not just an Iraqi, Arab or regional phenomenon. Rather, it is an international multi-national phenomenon.
Q: In light of what is happening in Iraq, how does Baghdad view the future of the situation in Syria?
ISIS is present in both Iraq and Syria. Therefore, we cannot reject ISIS in Iraq and accept it in Syria. The issue is with the regional and international stance towards the Syrian regime. For our part, we do not want to politicize the battle in Syria or in Iraq. There is a criminal side and it is ISIS. Just as we called on the regional and international powers to confront the threat of ISIS and shoulder their responsibilities in fighting this group . . . ISIS must be confronted in Syria as well.
The disagreements with the Syrian government must be addressed within different contexts Yes, there is a problem in coordinating with a government that some parties do not recognize, such as the Syrian government. This problem should be resolved by separating between the political axis on the one hand and the humanitarian and security axis on the other. [Foreign forces] are not going to enter and set up bases [in Syria] but rather simply target ISIS militants there. Only at this point will you be fighting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.