Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- The new chief of the Arab League office in Baghdad, Ambassador Hani Khallaf, sits down with Asharq Al-Awsat to highlight the league priorities in Iraq; including national reconciliation, security, economic development and delivery of Arab and international aid to all Iraqis.
The Following is the full test of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think you can do in your capacity as the Arab League representative in Baghdad?
[Khallaf] My appointment as Arab League representative was announced a few hours ago [1 August], and there is a number of communications to be made before expressing any views. I am not going to speculate on what the situation would be like in Iraq. Let us build on accurate data and information. Until September 2007, I was assistant foreign minister. After that, I worked in an entirely different field. While I was with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, the Iraqi file was always in my mind with all its details. At present, however, I need to reactivate my mind and study the situation as it stands. I have some preliminary ideas about which I would like to consult with Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa, the political team in the Arab League, and a number of permanent Arab ambassadors at the Arab League, before beginning work in Iraq. Generally speaking, the most important of my preliminary ideas, if the security and political situations in Iraq are currently being developed, then we need to concentrate on the developmental and economic dimensions. The question is how to deliver Arab and international aid to all Iraqis in a more practical manner, regardless of political, sectarian or ethnic considerations. This might be one of the ideas I would choose to begin with, but there might be other priorities. I would like to make some personal speculations, but there might be political considerations which Arab states regard as urgent. I need therefore, to first acquaint myself with the work done by the permanent representatives at the Arab League and the Arab foreign ministers, before making a comprehensive overview.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Could you tell us, from your point of view, what your comprehensive overview for solving Iraq’s problems would be?
[Khallaf] I am not in a position to give you a comprehensive overview, maps or ideas. I am only speculating.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Very well, as an Arab citizen, how do you envisage the map of Iraq? How do you see this Arab country in the context of the regional situation and what is being said of attempts to expand Iranian and Shiaa influence against the backdrop of foreign occupation and the unhealthy internal situation? What do you hope you would do there?
[Khallaf] The aim on which we all agreed, whether before or after 2007, and whether at the Riyadh summit in Saudi Arabia or after that, is to stress the need to get rid of sectarian and ethnic considerations in dealing with Iraq and the Iraqis and to rid the Iraqis themselves of such considerations. We should have secure communication channels to reach and approach all groups and all political, religious, sectarian and ethnic strata. We should have secure and fertile channels of communication; channels prepared to espouse a realistic and new language of communication. There is no need for reiterating clichés, jingoistic phrases and so forth.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How in your view, would it be possible to arrive at that “realistic and new language of communication” you are hoping for?
[Khallaf] For a start, we need a realistic beginning. I mean that the Iraqis should acknowledge the de facto situation and see things as they are in real life, and at the same time try to develop this situation in a way that helps find a solution. They should be part of this developmental process and not have it imposed on them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would it be easy to achieve this, especially as some Iraqis still see it as a remote possibility, despite all the recent reports about tangible improvement in the security situation in Iraq?
[Khallaf] If, as the Arab League, we have the opportunity to explore the various approaches made by the Gulf group members for instance, when they met recently with the Iranian President Ahmadinejad and when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited them; and when we take a new step of a ‘field nature’ – which the opening of an Arab League Office in Baghdad is, then I believe, there must be new material, and not only the decisions previously made by the Arab League. The Arab League has adopted ideal fully integrated decisions, but we need a way to communicate the content of these decisions or approaches or expectations which express the Arab League’s hopes for the Iraqis, in order to give them the opportunity to participate in implementing these decisions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the priorities that could top the list of Arab League efforts in Iraq in the forthcoming stage?
[Khallaf] One of our priorities is to resurrect the comprehensive Iraqi national reconciliation, with major and effective participation on the part of the Arab League. There is also an attempt to achieve an agreement of understanding on areas of common interest to be agreed upon with Iran, Turkey, the United States, Britain and Syria. I mean all regional and international parties; and we have to agree with each other on a mechanism for neighboring and other countries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your appointment as head of the Arab League Office in Baghdad comes almost a year after the departure of your predecessor, Morocco’s Mukhtar Lamani. Do you agree that was a long absence from Iraq on the part of the Arab League, during which many changes and developments have taken place?
[Khallaf] I am replacing Mr. Lamani after a long period of interruption and absence of a head of office that lasted almost a year. In the meantime, many things have happened. There is the Iranian and American role, the security agreement between the US and Iraq, the readiness of many Arab states to deal positively with the new security situation in Iraq and consequently send Arab ambassadors to Baghdad. There is also the agreement, concluded last year between Iraq and the United Nations in Sharm al-Sheikh, for reform in Iraq that was not well followed up by the Arabs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What could be done to activate that document?
[Khallaf] It is a huge document and deals with political and developmental reforms in Iraq. We will have a role in this regard, activating it and providing it with the capabilities we have.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In a previous conversation with Lamani, he complained of shortages in the Baghdad Arab League office capabilities to the extent that he could not send a fax to the head office in Cairo. Would this difficult experience in which the Arab League achieved very little worth mentioning, be repeated in your case, or is yours going to be a different experience?
[Khallaf] God willing, I think there is every intention to give particular support to the Arab presence in Baghdad. The opportunity for this came at the Arab summit in Damascus where the budget of the Baghdad office of the Arab League was increased. Secretary General Amr Musa himself, told me frankly at our last week’s meeting, prior to announcing my appointment, that there is readiness to respond to any logistical demands or any demands of personnel, office equipment, or movement in neighboring countries. He said to me: “just let us know of any field work in Iraq or neighboring countries; and it will be approved in advance.” The secretary general is ready to move things faster than ever before. He recently met with some unofficial Iraqi leaders, and it was encouraging to hear one Shiite leader say they welcome the role of the Arab League as long as it recognizes the different ‘weights’ of the various parties.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When will you be leaving for Baghdad to start your new mission?
[Khallaf] For the time being, until the end of September, I am staying in Egypt to work with the Egyptian Minister of Labor and Immigration. We have many commitments which require my presence. Consequently, I cannot leave before the end of September. Roughly speaking, two to two and a half months, but in the meantime, I might make a few short visits to Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your late father, Abdal Munim Khallaf, worked for a long time in Iraq. Did that help you gain some early perspectives of Iraq and the Iraqis?
[Khallaf] My father was in fact a teacher of Arabic literature in Iraq in the 1940s and 1950s and many of his students have become leading figures in literature, poetry and politics. No doubt this background will be beneficial for me in my new mission in Iraq. In his writings, my father used to say many positive things about Iraq and Iraqis. But if I had some idea about the details of the beautiful Iraqi life through my father’s experience, the difficulties of present Iraqi life are entirely different from those of the past.
Hani Khallaf – a brief biography: Born in Cairo on 24 September 1947, he graduated from the College of Economics and Political Sciences of Cairo University in 1969. His writings in politics and economics were published by Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies and Dar al-Hilal. He was assistant foreign minister for Arab and Middle Eastern Affairs; Egypt’s representative to the Arab League (2004-2007), Egypt’s ambassador to Libya (2000-2004), and Egypt’s ambassador to Yugoslavia (1997-1999). He is married to Dr. Safa al-Baz, assistant to the Egyptian Minister of Health and Population, and has a son and a daughter, both working in the diplomatic field at the United Nations.