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Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to Iraqi FM Hoshyar Zebari | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Since the change of the Iraqi regime in 2003, four governments have succeeded each other in administering Iraq ranging between the government of Paul Bremer, US civil Administrator, and interim, and permanent governments. The Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari – leading member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP] led by Masud Barzani -has been a foreign minister in all these governments. In fact he was the first foreign minister after the end of the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and he still is while the prime ministers and other ministers have been changed.

On the basis of this, Zebari has shouldered all the burdens, difficulties, and complications of the new construction of one of the most important ministries of the government, the Foreign Ministry, and he has become the most prominent engineer of the Iraqi foreign policy. Perhaps one of the most complex issues is being the first Iraqi foreign minister from the Kurdish nation, which constitutes the second national group in Iraq, and all these years he has had to sit down and confer with his Arab opposite numbers, who, according to his expression, have forged distinguished links with him.

During his private visit to London, Zebari gave Asharq Al-Awsat exclusively an expanded and comprehensive interview about his work experience at the Foreign Ministry in which he explains the difficulties facing the Iraqi foreign policy. Today, Zebari is on the verge of leaving his post as the term of the government ends, and he is a member of the upcoming Iraqi Parliament for the Kurdistan Alliance, and of the committee stemming from the alliance for dialog with the other political blocs about the formation of the new government.

The following is the text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] At the end of the term of the Government, what is your assessment of Iraqi foreign policy?

[Zebari] I am greatly honored to have served in this post in four consecutive governments. This is a record achieved under the most difficult circumstances through which Iraq has gone. I take pride in my service during this period in which we have tried to serve our country. Our record testifies to the achievements and accomplishments we have made. The state was in ruins when we took over in September 2003 during the period of the Government Council; and the Foreign Ministry consisted of some isolated, besieged, burned, and ruined embassies. Thus, praise be to God, we have been able, through collective efforts and not individual ones, to rebuild and restore the ministry. This has been achieved as a result of us working on the basis of the principle of national reconciliation.

We have been the first ministry to apply this principle. When we took over the ministry it included 1,200 employees ranging between diplomats and administrative officials, and supplemented them from among former members of the intelligence and the Baathists. We have dismissed more than 550 employees, because the Foreign Ministry under the previous regime was one of the security ministries, and was a closed shop for the Baath Party. We have kept the professional diplomats and administrators, and in practice they have proved their high level of efficiency and national sense. This is why we have been accused, while our aim was, and still is, to keep the wheel of work turning.

It is true that when we took over the ministry we had the experience of working abroad, and of the foreign relations of the KDP, but the partisan work, or work in the opposition remains different from official work, the ministry, and work in the state. However, we utilized our previous relations for the benefit of our work in the Foreign Ministry.

Moreover, we opened the work in the Foreign Ministry for all, and not only for the elite, the sons of the wealthy or upper-class families, and officials. Two years after we started work, we advertised in the media a training course for diplomatic work, and any Iraqi who satisfied the conditions was able to work in the ministry. We have accepted the highest grade graduates of the Iraqi universities. Also the issue in which I personally take pride is our interest in training and qualifying the cadres of diplomatic work.

Moreover, the number of the employees of our ministry is the lowest among the Iraqi ministries compared to its services and importance, as there are less than 2,000 diplomats and administrators in the Foreign Ministry, which is a very small number. We have sent most of them, more then 1,200 employees, to training courses in diplomatic and language training abroad, which is something that is admired by our Arab counterparts. We also changed the culture of work in the Ministry, which used to be characterized by domination, militarism, and centralization, and the employee used to stand before the official as if he was his servant or slave; we have removed all these barriers. I am entitled to take pride in this issue.

It is well known that Iraq is a big and old country in international politics. It is one of the founders of the United Nations, the Arab League, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Thus, we have decided to make the diplomatic representation extensive, or at least acceptable; now there are more than 83 diplomatic missions around the world, 67 embassies, and 16 consulates. Therefore, I can say that the upcoming Iraqi Government will take over a developed institution. Add to this that we have ratified the Foreign Service law, which is at the level of the international laws in this field.

Despite all the suspicions and distortion that accompanied the work of the ministry, such as claiming that it is a Kurdish ministry and similar things, I do not say that our ministry is an ideal one that is devoid of administrative or financial corruption, but I say that compared to other ministries, the Foreign Ministry is one of the cleanest and most impartial ministries from the point of view of the good reports of the auditing departments and the Commission on Public Integrity.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are accusations leveled at Iraqi foreign policy because of the bad relations between Iraq and some regional countries?

[Zebari] Iraq was isolated, punished, and marginalized in all Arab and international forums. However, with great efforts we have been able to restore it to its important status, and we broke the isolation ring. To be frank and explicit, this has not taken place only as a result of our efforts, but also with the help and support of our allies in the US and UK Administrations, which liberated Iraq from dictatorship.

The work of the Foreign Ministry is a reflection of the domestic policy of the country and its stances; if there is no united stance or a united domestic policy coupled with strong will, there will be no success in the foreign policy however relentless the efforts might be, because the foreign policy will reflect what is taking place domestically. [The same applies] if there is reconstruction, the security situation is solid, the economic situation is good, and the national unity is strong.

I admit that one of the problems in which we failed is that we have not been able to play any role in the Arab forums. We have not been able to fulfill our commitments to the issues of destiny, such as the Palestinian issue, supporting the Palestinian Authority, or supporting the regional or international issues to which Iraq was contributing. We have inherited a huge legacy of international sanctions, effects of siege, fragile relations, and problems of water and borders with nearly all the neighboring countries. This is what we have been focusing on, and that is what any government ought to focus on, try to close all these dossiers, and rectify its relations.

In the midst of this hysterical and difficult political situation, we have been able to progress with our work, and to reflect a positive image of the situation and work of the government. The Foreign Ministry does not make the policy, but it implements it; our policy exists in the Constitution, and in the government decisions and viewpoint, because the government is the one that determines Iraq’s foreign policy. One of the problems which we faced at the level of our foreign operations is the multiplicity of the sources of media statements and stances given by MP’s, advisers, and others. In many cases we receive instructions, but we act according to the interest of the country; thus we have adopted some stances that the others understood.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Was your stance at the last Arab summit in Libya one of these policies?

[Zebari] At the last summit, and other summits, we acted according to our relations, and as representatives of the Iraqi Government. The other sides relied on what we said and not on the statement of this MP, or that adviser or politician.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do the Arab officials receive you as a Kurd in your capacity as foreign minister of Iraq?

[Zebari] In the beginning it was a surprise and a strange and odd thing. I remember that I attended my first meeting of Arab foreign ministers in the Arab League in September 2003. The Arab foreign ministers, in jest, said: Let us have fun at his (broken) Arabic. After I talked and delivered speeches, they said: We were wrong, because your Arabic is better than ours. This is a real experience. We behave as a national Iraqi official, and not as a Kurd, and we defend Iraq and the interests of Iraq. Now they have got used to us. At the Arab summit in Sirte (Libya) they said: We have become used to you. I said: This is politics, and we have a diplomatic system; today I am here, and tomorrow there is someone else. I have had excellent relations with my Arab counterparts, and achieved good relations with the Arab officials and leaders, and with the Arab League.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you explain the delay of some Arab countries in opening their embassies in Baghdad?

[Zebari] The fact is this subject has been exaggerated, and politicized by some Iraqi political sides. They say that Iraq is distant from its Arab and Islamic environment; this is political one-upmanship. When an Iraqi politician meets an Arab leader, does this mean that he is close to that leader and we cannot do the same? For instance, I can meet Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or any other Arab official any day. We tolerate the fact that Iraqi politicians meet Arab leaders outside the government framework; have we had a strong government, it would not have allowed to hold such meetings. This is not supposed to occur. I remember once that the leader of the British Conservative Party met Clinton or Bush in Washington, and there was a commotion that raised Cain in London, because it was considered defiance. Unfortunately, our leaders or politicians are complacent about this issue, and hence they lose their value.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you explain the bad relations between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and some Arab countries, such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, and others?

[Zebari] The prime minister is not responsible for these stances. Perhaps I have many issues related to work over which I disagree with the prime minister, but over this issue we have to be realistic. If there is a country or a side that wants to harm Iraq, we must not kiss their hands; this is inadmissible. Today, for instance, there are public activities by Muhammad Yunus al-Ahmad – leading member of the Iraqi Baath Party – in Damascus. We have asked the Syrians about him, and we told them that he was active against Iraq; they said: We do not know him at all. Now, here he is. What is his program or aims? Are his programs and aims related to participating in government, or developing the political process in Iraq? Definitely not, because he (Al-Ahmad) wants to destroy and blow up everything. There are some issues on which we have to draw the line. For instance, with regard to the relations with Saudi Arabia, the Saudi brethren are the ones who opened the doors, and they opened up to receive various Iraqi leaders, and are the ones who became convinced that there ought to be good relations with Iraq, with which they have the longest common borders; the initiative came from them. The Egyptians, after they realized that they were absent and that the non-Arab neighboring countries were the ones that would fill the vacuum, woke up and came and opened their embassy in Baghdad.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have Iran and Turkey filled in the vacuum resulting from the Arab absence in Iraq?

[Zebari] I have visited Tehran, Ankara, and even Damascus, and I have said to them beware, and do not think that you will fill in the vacuum that will occur due to the withdrawal of the US forces. The Iraqis will not accept anyone other then themselves to fill in the vacuum in their country. We have the legitimate right to do so. Iran, Turkey, and others are waiting for the withdrawal of the US forces, which are in a hurry to leave Iraq in August, to fill in the vacuum; this is a huge disaster.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think of the Kuwaiti claims over the airplane hired by the Iraqi Airways, which they tried to detain in Britain? How will you deal with the problems with Kuwait?

[Zebari] Let me tell you something, several times we have discussed the pending relations with the Kuwaiti brethren. At Sirte summit, we sat with the Amir, deputy prime minister, and foreign minister of Kuwait. There are pending problems between Kuwait and Iraq, and they ought to be resolved. The most prominent of these problems is the issue of the borders that have been demarcated according to UN Security Council Resolution 833, the recognition of which the constitutional Iraqi Government is supposed to reiterate. As for the rest of the issues, they are treatable. These borders have been imposed on Iraq following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does Iraq recognize these borders?

[Zebari] Saddam Hussein agreed to them in 1993. What is required of this government or the upcoming government is to reiterate its recognition of these borders. This is the key to the resolution of all the pending problems between Iraq and Kuwait. I say it frankly, neither the issue of the missing, the prisoners, nor the properties are the obstacles; this issue (the borders) still is pending. We have tried, and we have exerted huge efforts to resolve it; however, we have become convinced that it is a political and not a technical issue. The government has said, now we are on the verge of elections and we will leave this dossier to the upcoming government.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have spoken of the professionalism of the Iraqi ambassadors, but the issue of the ambassadors constitutes a subject for the accusations leveled at the Foreign Ministry, as there are ambassadors who have been appointed at the level of extraordinary ambassador without any diplomatic background. How do you explain this?

[Zebari] The ambassador is supposed to be a professional diplomat who has progressed in his diplomatic career until he reaches the grade of ambassador. However, in many countries there are political appointments, i.e. the government or the head of state chooses a former minister, military officer, or a friend as (former US President) Bush or (US President) Obama did. If you look into the background of some US ambassadors you will discover that they are friends of the president. However this happens within certain percentage such as 10 percent or more, and could be as much as 25 percent. The highest percentage of such appointments, as far as we know, is in Egypt. Also we have fixed a percentage of such appointment in the Foreign Service Law, which has been ratified by Parliament and government. However, we are in an interim stage, and all the political sides want to be represented in the diplomatic corpse.

I would like to explain the mechanism we used. We have accepted 57 ambassadors out of 150 nominated by the various political blocs; and we have said to all the blocs that we would not accept anyone who does not satisfy even the minimum of the conditions set by our ministry. This is what has taken place, and it was my decision. Among those accepted there have been a large percentage of professional diplomats, and also there have been ambassadors nominated by sides not participating in the government, such as the former Al-Iraqiya List, national and religious minorities, and also women. The process has not taken place on the basis of quotas alone, but we also took into consideration the diversity of the Iraqi society in addition to those who have been nominated by sides in the government. Moreover, the deliberations and the discussions of the names between the ministry and the Parliament continued for two years until the list of names was given back to us; during that period we sent the candidates to training courses, and attached them to work within the departments of the ministry. After that came the difficult stage, even the most complex one, namely the organization and distribution of the ambassadors. This is a more complex process than forming the government. We were obliged to meet the political leaders and explain to them that the standard of the ambassador nominated by them is not suitable to be appointed to this-or-that country, but he has to be appointed to another country, and so on.

There have been many opinions saying that we should not send the names to the countries until after the elections, but I insisted on sending them before the elections. I said: I will send them and you will see the confidence of the countries in us. Indeed, we sent the names of the ambassadors to the countries to which they were nominated. This is an achievement that ought to be recorded for the government and for our ministry. Ten days ago, we received 43 approvals out of 52 nominations to Arab and western countries, and to international organizations.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why is the Foreign Ministry accused of being a Kurdish ministry?

[Zebari] This is not true. If you count the number of Kurds among the administrators and diplomats in the Foreign Ministry you will realize that it is very small, and less than the percentage they deserve. The Kurds are Iraqis, and have the right to work in the diplomatic corps. Moreover, I am not promoting the Kurdish interests, but I promote the Iraqi interests, and the Kurds come within this context.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Iraqi embassy in London has been, and still is without an ambassador. What are the reasons behind this?

[Zebari] Indeed this is a problem. However, there is an ambassador who is a candidate for this post, but I cannot divulge his name now.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you remain the foreign minister in the upcoming government?

[Zebari] I belong to the Kurdistan Alliance, and this issue is up to the alliance and not to me. When I served as a foreign minister, I was nominated by the Kurdistan Alliance. I am one of the people who consider themselves soldiers in the service of the leadership; this means that today we serve in this post, and tomorrow in another one that is chosen for us by the leadership. This is the first factor. Secondly, this depends of whether or not the Kurdistan Alliance will participate in the government.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there any doubt that you will participate in the upcoming government?

[Zebari] It is possible to forge coalitions that will be able to form the government with no need for the Kurdistan Alliance, and it is possible to include some Kurds from outside the alliance in the upcoming government.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that such a possibility might take place?

[Zebari] Theoretically, it is possible. The Kurdistan Alliance was strong in the previous elections, and it constituted the second parliamentary bloc. Today, it is the fourth list. However, politically and realistically I do not think that such a possibility might materialize, and all the other blocs agree on the importance of our participation in government. If the negotiations to form the government take place, one of the sovereignty ministries will be in our share. In the past, the choice and agreement was the Foreign Ministry because of the accumulation of expertise and other factors; today, as I said, this is not up to me, but to our leadership.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] If the decision is up to you, will you stay at the Foreign Ministry?

[Zebari] I can serve at this ministry, because we have accumulated developed experiences, and we have established good relations with our Arab and non-Arab counterparts. However, I reiterate that the political decision is not up to me.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] As long as we are talking about the formation of the government, what do you think of the existing dispute on the political arena over this issue, I mean the formation of the new government?

[Zebari] The disputes are very severe, and the situation has become extremely complicated for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is that the results are close between the two major blocs, the Al-Iraqiya (led by Iyad Allawi, former prime minister of the Iraqi Government) and the State of Law (led by Nuri al-Maliki, prime minister of the government whose term has ended). In the previous election there was one bloc that won the majority of the seats and formed the government. As for the current situation, the events will lead to prolonged and complicated negotiations; no serious alliances or dialogs will take place until the ratification of the results of the elections. You know that there are the manual recounting, the looking into the issue of the excluded because of the Debathification commission, and other issues; the longer the period, the more complications will appear.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would you have preferred the results to be ratified without the issuing of the decision to have a manual recount?

[Zebari] The problem lies in the electoral system. The (Independent High Electoral) Commission has done its utmost to make the elections succeed, but there are frightening shortcomings in its work, and it has not taken into consideration many issues. Moreover, there is the absence of the support and help from the United States and Britain that had a clear role in the previous elections; this role has been absent in these elections, which contributed to the increase in the difficulties despite the presence of the United Nations. What I mean exactly is the absence of a side that helps and contributes to gathering the winning blocs in order to agree and form the government.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the US Administration has withdrawn its hand completely from Iraq?

[Zebari] Unfortunately I say that the United States now is not bothered about anything other that withdrawing its forces from Iraq. If the new government is not formed by August, and in the light of these difficult security conditions, the withdrawal of the US forces will be too early, and immature. The US Administration has a problem now, if the government is not formed, the security challenges escalate, and the political problems get complicated, the situation will be extremely complicated, and in my opinion this might affect the timetable of the withdrawal of the US forces.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you explained this viewpoint of yours to the US side?

[Zebari] Yes, we always meet the US ambassador to Baghdad, and there are dialogs with US Vice President Joe Biden, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and also her assistants. However, so far their viewpoint is to leave the Iraqis to solve their problems on their own. Their message to us is: Solve your problems quickly so that we can get out quickly.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the current problem, with regard to the issue of manual recounting and the exclusion of some winners from Parliament, will be internationalized in order to find solutions for it?

[Zebari] When the situation gets complicated, it is inevitable that an acceptable side intervenes to help in finding solutions; the candidate for such a role is the United Nations. The issue is not one of internationalization as much as it is giving help, especially as there is an international authorization to the United Nations from the UN Security Council with the agreement of the Iraqi Government to intervene in the situation in Iraq. This authorization is under Chapter 7. Therefore, the United Nations can play a clear role and to express its views in order to help in bringing the various sides together.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you optimistic about finding solutions and proceeding with the formation of the government?

[Zebari] They call me the eternal optimist; however, after these elections the situation has become difficult.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Difficult?

[Zebari] Yes, difficult.