Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari talks to Asharq Al Awsat about the meeting of Arab foreign ministers that discussed Lebanon, Palestine, and the region. The foreign minister told Asharq Al Awsat that what is happening at present is a war by proxy and is the beginning of a wider regional confrontation. He warned of countries that seek to control the Arab region and discussed the situation in Iraq, where Arabs should play a significant role in limiting Iranian influence according to him. Zebari further talks about the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki’s planned visit to Washington at the end of July as well as the possibility of a meeting to be held in Mecca between religious leaders to deal with Sunni and Shiaa conflict in Iraq.
(Q) How would you describe the atmosphere at the meeting of Arab foreign ministers?
(A) Dialogues concerning the dangers that threaten Lebanon, Palestine, and the region were frank. There was agreement that what is happening now is the beginning of more danger and confrontation in the regional situation and the nuclear dossier.
(Q) Do you mean that war will spread?
(A) I mean [there will be] war by proxy to widen the circle of confrontation and involve other parties.
(Q) Who is fighting by proxy?
(A) I do not want to name anyone because this operation was planned and was not the result of a vacuum. The operation was planned and took place on time. Accordingly, some ministers who expressed their joy at the resistance were asked whether they were happy now that their country was destroyed and what would happen next. We believe that what is happening is that forces have appeared on the scene trying to make decisions for the countries in the region and pull these countries towards their own aims and purposes. For example, there is Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and the Mahdi Army in Iraq. Therefore, if this situation is not examined and dealt with accordingly, the countries and regimes will face more problems and violence.
(Q) What results were achieved by the meeting?
(A) The foreign ministers agreed on clear bases, such as the conclusion for what is happening is due to the absence of the peace process and that the crisis should not be dealt with by confrontation or by mobilizing armies. The approach focused on searching for a political solution and the return to the Security Council, and all resolutions were adopted.
(Q) The Arabs have been negotiating with Israel since 1973 while Israel continues its aggression against the Palestinian people. Can the situation remain the same?
(A) The weapon of oil is a sovereign decision and the decision of war is unlikely. What can be done is to contain the situation and end escalation. What (Arab League Secretary General) Amr Musa said at his press conference at the end of the foreign ministers’ meeting uncovered the danger in the regional situation, the results of escalation, and the return of the Arab-Israeli file to the United Nations. As for those who want to go back to the 1967 situation, they must bear responsibility for such a decision.
(Q) Why do you not call it the pre-1973 situation that would signify victory rather than defeat?
(A) Because the call for mobilization, slogans, and uproar are stronger and we believe that subjecting one country, namely Lebanon, to war is callous.
(Q) If Israel carries out its threats of a military strike on Syria, would Iran intervene?
(A) Iran is not a confrontational country and it has its own problems and is preoccupied by other issues. Its support will be limited.
(Q) Will this war have an impact on Iraq?
(A) Certainly, because we are in the way of artillery.
(Q) Is Israel trying to push the entire region towards conflict?
(A) If we put things into perspective, it becomes apparent that the Palestinian-Israeli crisis took place just as the Palestinian Authority and Hamas were on the verge of agreement. It is the same with the Hezbollah operation. It came before the G8 meeting and its discussion of the Iranian nuclear dossier. Therefore, there are new alliances in the region and the problem is that the Arab countries are no longer in control of the region’s fateful issues.
(Q) What are the reasons behind Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s planned visit to Washington at the end of this month?
(A) The US President invited the Iraqi prime minister [to Washington] during his recent visit to Baghdad. In Congress at present, there are discussions on the situation in Iraq and the future of the relationship. There will be an opportunity to draw up a roadmap for strategic relations on all issues.
(Q) Does Nouri al Maliki’s national accord initiative require Washington to end its military operations?
(A) We are trying to transfer more responsibilities from the foreign and multinational forces to the Iraqi forces. This happened in the governorate of Al Muthanna and will also take place in Al Amarah in the south and gradually in all governorates because at the end of the year, there will be a review at the Security Council of the mandate of these forces in Iraq and their future.
(Q) Have you demanded an end to military operations so that the reconciliation initiative can succeed?
(A) We cannot stop the operations because the new system in government is targeted and it must defend itself.
(Q) How can there be an initiative for accord whilst weapons are circulating in Baghdad’s streets and citizens are being killed? This is a difficult equation.
(A) On the contrary, it is an easy equation because the aim of al Maliki’s initiative is reconciliation; however, there are groups outside the political equation, which are carrying arms. Al Maliki therefore set some conditions for these groups, to abandon violence and identify themselves, are they foreigners or Iraqis?
(Q) What contact has there been between the prime minister and insurgents?
(A) There has been contact and even meetings, but the picture remains unclear.
(Q) Do some of these groups seek to enter the political process to infiltrate rather than for reconciliation?
(A) Yes. There are criminal and non-political groups that aim to confuse and disrupt the political process and undermine the initiative, which we consider very important and will help ensure the success of the Iraqi accord conference. This conference will be held in Baghdad under auspices of the Arab League following the preparations at the League’s headquarters on 25 July, when the final date would be set for the Baghdad meeting.
(Q) What will be discussed in the planned conference of interior ministers of Iraq’s neighboring countries to be held in Riyadh?
(A) The issues of security, infiltration, and the demands for the lists of wanted persons involved in terrorism [will be discussed]. We also do not want words of solidarity but rather, we want action and a response to the needs of Iraq’s security.
(Q) You are accused of calling for the US forces to remain in Iraq and of other charges related to the protection of the government. How do you respond to such claims?
(A) Before we made the demand for an extension, which can be done every six months, we met all leaders of the political blocs and asked them whether they wanted these forces to stay longer, to which they replied yes.
(Q) Has the security situation reached a level by which ministers have to work from their homes?
(A) Not all the ministers.
(Q) Have there been any opportunities to deal with the civil war between the Sunnis and Shiites?
(A) This is the biggest problem that we are facing at present. The increase in violence and sectarian frustration is threatening the entire Iraqi state and subjecting it to great danger. However, we believe that this is still in its beginning stages and can be treated. There has been a proposal to hold a conference for the Iraqi religious leaders in Mecca at the international Islamic Jurisprudence Association, which might be beneficial and play a critical role.
(Q) What about the conditions set by the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) to take part in the reconciliation conference?
(A) We also have conditions such as no incitement of violence and compliance to the antiterrorism law.
(Q) Who will protect the AMS from violence?
(A) The government will defend the AMS.
(Q) Can the government protect itself let alone the AMS?
(A) The problem is that the AMS does not recognize the government.