Astana, Asharq Al-Awsat- Hoshyar Zebari, 57, is the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was born in the Kurdish town of Aqrah, and went on to become a leading figure in the Kurdish Democratic Party. Having obtained a masters degree in sociology from the University of Essex in 1980, Zebari went on to serve as foreign spokesman for the KDP, representing the party in negotiations with U.S. and Western delegations throughout the 1990s. In this role he became a prominent opponent of Saddam Hussein’s regime, both internally and internationally. He has served as Minister of Foreign Affairs in every Iraqi government since 2003.
Asharq al-Awsat recently met with Hoshyar Zebari in Astana, Kazakhstan. The foreign minister provided details of his country’s intentions to host the forthcoming Organization of the Islamic Conference, whilst shedding light on the current security situation in Baghdad. Furthermore, he explained the causes behind the ongoing delays in Iraq’s ministerial appointments. Finally, Zebari offered his opinions on the events in neighboring Syria, urging the Syrian government to enact reforms before it is too late. The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us start by talking about the request that Iraq has made to host the forthcoming Organization of the Islamic Conference [OIC] Council of Foreign Ministers. Do you think Iraq is capable of hosting two important summits at the same time, namely the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers and the Arab League Summit that is scheduled for March 2012?
[Zebari] This request [to host the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers] was made a long time ago, and was based upon a proposal made by the OIC Secretariat, because no other country offered to host this Council. After securing the agreement of the Iraqi government, we submitted our official request, and this request reached the Secretariat of the OIC in March or April. We undertook talks with all the official delegations, and we informed them that we wanted to come up with an agreement on this issue, and that there is a precedent for Iraq hosting such a summit. I do not think that Baghdad – which was the capital of an Islamic caliphate – will be incapable of organizing such a summit. As for this Conference being held in Baghdad, this will represent the Islamic community’s support for Iraqi stability, especially as we are also committed to hosting the [forthcoming] Arab Summit here. From this viewpoint, we need to address this issue by reaching a consensus, and without creating problems or embarrassing anybody, otherwise we will commit to our position and demand a public discussion [of where the forthcoming OIC Council of Foreign Ministers should be held]…but we would prefer to reach a consensus on this issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However, given the timing, and the security situation in Baghdad, will you be able to host two important international summits such as this?
[Zebari] Certainly…the Arab League and the OIC have previously sent technical delegations to visit Baghdad and review our large-scale preparations [to host these summits], particularly our security preparations, which represent a priority. Therefore, there is no doubt that we have the capability and capacity for this
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the recent spate of violence and bombings in Iraq? How has this affected the security situation in the country?
[Zebari] There are acts of violence taking place in Iraq, we do not deny this, but these are sporadic and not centered in Baghdad. What I would like to confirm is that the security of the Arab Summit and the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers is our prime responsibility, and we have the full capability and capacity to guarantee the security and safety of the [diplomatic] delegations…as well as the facilities where these summits will be head.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us look at the situation in the region, how do you view what has happened in Syria over the past few months?
[Zebari] During the [previous] OIC ministerial meeting, I met with Deputy Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Makdad, and we discussed the situation in Syria. We both expressed concern about what is happening, particularly as Iraq and Syria are an extension of one another, nationally, socially, culturally, and geographically. Therefore the situation in Syria is unlike the situation in Libya and Yemen; Syria is a central and pivotal state in the region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can I understand from your comments that you are downplaying what is happening in Syria?
[Zebari] No, certainly not, but the role that Syria is playing in our region is a unique one. All the countries in the region have their role and sovereignty, and are respected…however the role that Damascus plays in the region is different [than others]. We have previously confirmed that no regime is capable of ruling using outdated methods, the time of the single-party state and the ruling party is over…this era is at an end. We are now in a different era, and we have confirmed the absolute need for genuine reform, and this is something that requires time, it is not something that can be carried out automatically. We are in contact with the Syrians…and there is national, regional, and Arab concern [with regards to the situation in Syria].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you fear the protests in Syria spreading to Iraq?
[Zebari] There can be no doubt that what is happening in Syria will affect the situation in Iraq, for any disorder in Syria will affect us in one way or another, as well as affecting the region, but we believe that there is still time for the Syrian regime to carry out genuine reform that will touch the people [of Syria].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can I take this as a call to the Syrian regime to carry out genuine reform?
[Zebari] Certainly, for there is still time, it is not too late. A lot of pressure is being exerted on Syria, from the international community, the US and Europe, however [in spite of this] the Syrian leadership is capable of putting forward a real initiative [of reform] to tackle the situation. This is a position that we do not hesitate to announce.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the issue of Iraqi refugees in Syria?
[Zebari] The Iraqi refugees in Syria have begun to return to their country, after it became clear that Iraq is now safer than Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us look at the internal situation in Iraq. Can you tell us why there is this huge delay in appointing ministers to run key security ministries, particularly as the Iraqi government was formed months ago?
[Zebari] There are comprehensive and inter-dependent agreements [on ministerial appointments]. Many such agreements have been implemented; allowing the formation of an operational government…this is a national partnership government, which means that all parties and blocs are participating in it. The issue of the appointment of security ministers has unfortunately fallen prey to narrow partisan interest and outbidding. This matter should transcend such concerns, for the issue of security is one that affects the lives of all [Iraqi] citizens.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Which parties do you mean when you talk about narrow partisan interests?
[Zebari] Everybody, [including] the major parties, such as the “National Alliance”, and the Iraqiya bloc. Some of the nominations were not accepted or successful. This should be a technical issue, by which I mean that the Security Minister should one hundred percent not be politicized, or affiliated to any party, or receive orders from any party; this is a dangerous issue for both parties, and until now we have not been able to find any acceptable nominee, and that is the problem.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this the only reason in the delay in naming the security minister?
[Zebari] This is the only reason; there is no other reason [for this delay].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about those who have accused the Kurds and the State of Law coalition of going back on some of the agreements made prior to the formation of the new government?
[Zebari] On the contrary, it was the Kurds who initiated and contributed to the formation of the government, which means that the prevailing view of the Kurdistan Alliance – as isolationists and separatists – is not true and quite the opposite, as they went to Baghdad and called for an agreement [to form a government].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When do you think the crisis over appointing the security ministers will be resolved?
[Zebari] This issue is solvable, but I do not have any specific timeframe for when this issue will be resolved.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What if this issue remains unresolved? Is there a possibility for Saudi Arabia to contribute to a solution, such as returning to the initiative put forward by King Abdullah regarding the crisis over forming a government?
[Zebari] The Saudi call [for the formation of an Iraqi government] was commendable. It came at a time that helped to pressure all members of the Iraqi leadership, and so it was extremely useful, and did not have any negative connotations. However this specific issue [surrounding the appointment of the security ministers] must be resolved by the Iraqi leadership.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Finally, we have heard some say that the “Arab Spring” began with the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime. What is your opinion of this?
[Zebari] Of course this was the beginning of the “Arab Spring”, and you can quote me on that!