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Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to Iraqi FM Hoshyar Zebari | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has underlined that his country insists on holding the Arab summit in Baghdad on time, and that it rejects the calls for canceling or postponing it because of the revolutions that a number of Arab countries are witnessing. In an exclusive, lengthy interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he revealed details of the Iraqi-Gulf differences, saying that the differences began after a fatwa was issued by the Shiite religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, condemning the incidents in Bahrain. He pointed out that the situation was clarified at the time with [Gulf] officials, stressing that the Shiites of Bahrain harbor amity for Iraq.

Zebari said that he will not hesitate to visit the Gulf States, primarily Saudi Arabia, to dispel any apprehensions and settle differences over holding the Arab summit in view of Saudi Arabia’s importance in safeguarding Arab national security and maintaining the rotation of holding Arab summits. He also spoke of the future steps toward unity of Arab ranks and the new developments in the Iraqi arena, particularly those relating to demands for reform, services, and combating corruption. He also discussed the security agreement with the United States, the withdrawal of the US troops from Iraq toward the end of 2011, and the appointment of defense and interior ministers.

The text of the interview follows:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the truth about Iraq’s support for the opposition in Bahrain? Can a new page be turned over between Iraq and the Gulf States, and are these differences a reason for canceling the Arab summit?

[Zebari] New Iraq will never back opposition against any regime. We emphasized that we are open to our entire Arab world as a priority in our foreign policy. We also called for Iraq’s return to its Arab fold. So how could we possibly disturb relations with any Arab country? Regarding the issue of Bahrain, what happened was a result of certain statements to the media by some Iraqi government officials and parliament members after the dispatch of Peninsula Shield forces to Bahrain. The Iraqi government came under pressure from the Iraqi people and even from the Shiite religious authority, Ali al-Sistani, because of the situation in Bahrain. A fatwa was issued for the first time on a foreign issue concerning Shiites. Developments in Bahrain raised some fears and, as I said, some Iraqi officials made those statements on the situation in Bahrain.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What exactly were the statements that reflected tension in relations with Bahrain and prompted accusations that Iraq supported the opposition?

[Zebari] Condemnation of the suppression [in Bahrain] and calls for protecting the Shiites from the Peninsula Shield forces that entered Bahrain.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] But they are Bahraini, not Iranian Shiites?

[Zebari] Certainly. We respect the right of everyone. In reality, we have special official, popular, and social relations with Bahrain, and the Shiites of Bahrain harbor amity for Iraq and follow the holy Al-Najaf Shiite religious authority, not any other. We are not about justifying what happened. We held contacts with our Arab brethren in Bahrain at the time and clarified matters in an attempt to contain the situation out of our desire to maintain good relations with the fraternal Kingdom of Bahrain. As for canceling the Arab summit, we have not received any official request to that effect. We were very disturbed and surprised by proposals for canceling the summit, because this is different from calls for postponing it. Canceling the summit would mean that Iraq will not host the Arab summit, or that no Arab summit will be held. This would have grave consequences to Iraq’s future relations with these countries, something we do not want.

[Zebari continues] We hope that the Gulf States will support new Iraq and deal with it positively, as has been the case of late through mutual visits by Iraqi and Gulf officials. Our ties with the Gulf States are good despite certain apprehensions on their part. I recently visited Kuwait and later the UAE. We are keen on coordinating our stances with the Gulf States at international conferences, notably those held on Libya and on other issues. We have constant contacts and meetings with all Gulf States. We have not heard any state say it will not participate in the Arab summit in Baghdad. But there were reports and leaks in some media outlets about calls to cancel the summit. These calls prompted us to propose to the Arab League Secretary General, Amr Musa, to hold a meeting of the Arab foreign ministers to discuss the apprehensions and misgivings of the Gulf states because we are under intense pressure due to the security and technical preparations we have made and the contracts we signed to cater for the summit. Therefore we cannot remain in this state of suspense indefinitely. Previously, and in response to the desire of our brethren in the GCC states, we postponed holding the summit from March to 11 May. We are prepared and ready to visit our brethren in the Gulf States to dispel their apprehensions and misgivings. But the notion of canceling the Arab summit is rejected by Iraq. This runs counter to the Arab League Charter and would lead to a rift in intra-Arab relations.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think of the leaks that the Arab summit will be held in Iraq or at the Arab League headquarters next year?

[Zebari] In fact, I discussed with the Arab League secretary general a number of proposals, but we emphasized Iraq’s right to host the Arab summit in Baghdad on time. At the same time, we stressed that we want all Arab countries to participate in the summit, though we will not opt for pressure. We are of the view that holding the summit as an end in itself and with only those who will attend it would lead to sharp divisions in Arab ranks, something we do not want. We do not want this issue to be a cause for a rift in Arab ranks as this would not be in the interest of any party. I think the fraternal Arab states understand the Iraqi need for holding the summit in Baghdad, because it will serve as a proof that Iraq has recovered, has joined its Arab fold, and has good relations with the Arab countries. We do not believe the Arab summit will have a magic wand and solve all problems of the Arab world. But the political significance of holding it will be very great. The Iraqi people may differ over many issues, but holding the summit in Baghdad is a goal around which all Iraq parties rally and want to render it successful. All Iraqi parties have been anticipating the summit in Baghdad. Any attempt to rob Iraq of this right will have very negative reactions.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it possible to hold the summit even if not all Arab leaders will attend in view of the revolutions sweeping the Arab world?

[Zebari] This is true. When we accepted the challenge of hosting the Arab summit in Baghdad those revolutions did not exist. We are realistic and fully understand the position of some countries that stressed they would participate in the summit, notwithstanding the revolutions that broke out in their countries. They promised us to participate in the summit, but because of the domestic situation in these countries and of the daily protests and developments their leaders may not be able to participate.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then this is the problem regarding holding the summit, not the differences with the Gulf States, which can be contained?

[Zebari] Yes, this is the problem, but failure to hold the summit will pose a great danger, affect joint Arab action, and end the Arab League’s role and, consequently, Arab national security will jeopardized at a time when we need greater Arab cohesion than any time before.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] If the Arab summit does convene, what do you think will be the level and proportion of participation?

[Zebari] The means of inviting the Arab kings and presidents are ready, and even the names of the Iraqi ministers who will visit the Arab capitals to deliver the invitations have been decided. But the fact is that we want to prepare an appropriate atmosphere for the summit because we do not want to hold it at any price as this is not our goal. We want to make appropriate preparations for a good summit to discuss all developments in the current Arab situation.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Setting the final date for holding the summit will be decided at the prospective Arab foreign ministers meeting?

[Zebari] Yes, the date will be set at the consultative meeting of the Arab foreign ministers. The Arab League agreed to the proposal of holding a consultative meeting of the Arab foreign ministers to face them with their responsibilities. There is also the issue of the Arab League secretary general who is in a difficult position. Under the Arab League Charter, the Arab summit elects the new Arab League secretary general. The incumbent secretary general will hand over the trust to devote his time to other missions. So the meeting will deal with other issues relating to the future of the Arab League and the selection of a new secretary general from several candidates. We need to reach accord on this issue.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us discuss the crisis between Iraq and the Gulf states; have you agreed with the Arab League secretary general on holding contacts and paying visits to the Gulf States to contain the crisis before holding the summit at the same venue and on the same date?

[Zebari] We are prepared to visit all the Gulf States to explain and clarify the Iraqi government’s position as we have no sensitivities or reservations about any issue. The Arab League General Secretariat and the secretary general will hold contacts in the days ahead to agree on a date that is appropriate for all parties to hold the summit. This provides another opportunity to organize our priorities and rescue the Arab League and joint Arab action. The rotation of holding the summit must be maintained.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You said in a statement that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is one of “amity from one side,” what is required so that amity will be reciprocal between Iraq and Saudi Arabia?

[Zebari] This requires building confidence and maintaining communication between the two countries. For our part, we left no stone unturned toward that goal. Before the Iraqi government was formed, Saudi Arabia was open to the Iraqi leaders. Riyadh and the custodian of the two holy mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, received a number of Iraqi leaders with friendship and amity. Communications between the two countries have never been severed, and relations were expected to develop and move on to more advanced stage. But revolutions erupted in the region and everyone has been busy following them.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you intend to visit Saudi Arabia to restore communications?

[Zebari] I have no hesitation whatsoever to visit Saudi Arabia. We cherish our feelings of amity, respect, and friendship of Saudi Arabia, as well as appreciation for the Arab, Islamic, and international role Saudi Arabia, led by the custodian of the two holy mosques, is playing. Saudi Arabia is an important country in the region and for Iraq too.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] If the Gulf States’ position calling for canceling the Arab summit is contained, who in your view will attend the Arab summit amid the continuing Arab revolutions?

[Zebari] The situation has now changed. I have received a clear and candid commitment from the Egyptian government that it will attend the Arab summit in Baghdad. We also have firm promises from the state of Kuwait, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas. And a few weeks ago, we received a positive response from Syrian President Basher al-Assad, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Sudanese President Omar Hasan al-Bashir, and the new Tunisian government.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In the case of Yemen and Syria, the vice presidents of these countries may attend the summit?

[Zebari] It is up to the states to determine who will participate. We have promises from Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, the Comoro Islands, and Somalia to attend the summit. As for the Gulf States, the UAE notified us that a high-level delegation will participate in the summit.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What stand does the Arab League secretary general take? Does he think there is a need to contain the differences and hold the summit or postpone it for some time?

[Zebari] We agreed with Musa to work together and to continue to hold close consultations to end any tension between Iraq and the Gulf states and hold the summit. It is better to contain the differences than to leave them unsolved because this situation poses dangers to the Arab region and to everyone. The meeting of the Arab foreign ministers is intended for dialogue and consultations.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you agreed on a proposed date for the Arab foreign ministers meeting?

[Zebari] We have underlined that the meeting should be held within days not weeks.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What of reports on differences over the stay of the US forces until after 2011?

[Zebari] At this stage, Iraq has a host of obligations relating to protecting Iraqi funds, obligations that Iraq must fulfill. The international cover on these Iraqi funds will be lifted in June. Iraq also has obligations relating to the agreement on new mechanisms for settling lawsuits and legal demands from companies and individuals who were previously affected. We also need a decision by US President Barack Obama to protect the Iraqi funds deposited in the United States. There is also an agreement on settling demands by US civilian citizens, demands that go back to the era of the former Iraqi regime. We agreed to pay approximately $400 million as a last obligation for protecting billions of Iraqi dollars.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Protecting Iraq’s billions of dollars from whom?

[Zebari] There are strong lawsuits that Iraq must settle, and according to the mechanism on which we agreed in 2003, all sales of Iraqi oil will go to the UN Iraqi Development Fund after a deduction of 5 percent for the Kuwait Compensation Fund. These funds have been protected by the United Nations under Chapter Seven. Now all these funds will be at the disposal of the Iraqi government, and we must agree to pay compensation to Kuwait after the cover on these funds has been lifted.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How long will Iraq continue to pay compensations to Kuwait?

[Zebari] Until we reach a settlement with Kuwait to cancel or reduce the amount of the compensation. This depends on addressing other issues that we recently discussed with Kuwait.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Such as?

[Zebari] Freedom from legal pursuits and agreement with Kuwait on how long Iraq will continue to pay compensation.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What of the issue of the common border with Kuwait?

[Zebari] We have discussed this issue, including fixation of the border marks, freedom of navigation in maritime routes, in Khawr Abdullah, and in the gulf. We reached good understanding on these issues during my visit to Kuwait, which produced good and positive result. That was the first time those issues were discussed frankly and professionally between the two countries.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Back to the issue of the US military presence in Iraq, will it be decisively settled?

[Zebari] The US presence was decided under the agreement on the withdrawal of forces by the end of 2011. The US forces will have left Iraq by then. As for the US diplomatic presence — embassy and consulates– this needs arrangements between the competent parties in the sense that if there is a need for US military advisers and trainers to help Iraq personnel in the use of weapons and rehabilitation, these will be addressed through bilateral understandings. The issue of the US consulates will be discussed between the Iraqi Foreign Ministry and the US Department of State. As for participation in reconstruction and development, these issues will be decided by the competent parties. There is no need for a new agreement with the United States to settle these issues , which can be addressed through bilateral relations, and each issue will be addressed separately. This is the course of action we are following.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you explain the statement of Iyad Allawi, head of the Iraqi List, that some US forces will stay in Iraq until after 2011, and that the security agreement is vague?

[Zebari] The security agreement is clear, but it will not be renewed, and no new security agreement will be signed. Frankly speaking, there will be no US codified [muqannan] military presence in Iraq. Yet the US Embassy in Iraq, which is one of the world’s largest, needs protection by a security company. This issue will be arranged in a different way. The US forces will have no right to carry out operations or make movements in Iraq. There will be a specific way for protecting the US Embassy by security, not military, forces.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there anything new about the appointment of the ministers of interior, defense, and national security?

[Zebari] Discussion of these issues is under way and names have been proposed to the parliament to decide. The Iraqi List submitted the names of candidates for the ministries of defense, interior, and national security.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What of the security situation in Iraq?

[Zebari] It is now better than any time before. The Iraqi government has 100 days, not to solve the Iraqi problems, but to assess the performance of the various ministries. Yet we have no fear of revolutions or demands by some people for freedom, rights, and Constitution. We are in a comfortable situation. We are meeting demands for reform, providing services, and combating corruption, and we are taking quick steps toward meeting those demands.