London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Assistant US Secretary of State David Welch has stated that Iran “must leave Iraq alone” and stressed that Washington will not tolerate negative Iranian interference in Iraq.
In an exclusive interview with “Asharq al-Awsat” Welch said US military build up in the Gulf “should bother those who must be bothered” but did not elaborate any further. He added that the sending of two US aircraft carriers to the Gulf and the intensification of the military presence there “do not worry our friends in the region but bother some others because they should be bother.”
Welch underlined US rejection of a negative Iranian role in Iraq stating that “the Iranian Government knows very well what concerns us through the channels available to us to send messages to it and from our very clear media statements.” He added: that “Iran must leave Iraq alone. It has enough problems without Iranian interference.”
In reply to a question about last week’s arrest of the five Iranians at the liaison office in Erbil, Welch said that “When we carried out operations with Iraqi forces in the past we discovered certain people with backgrounds that raised questions about what they were exactly doing in Iraq. We have good information, and as we say in the world of diplomacy, they (the detained Iranians) were in Iraq to carry out actions that are incompatible with their diplomatic status. This is something that raises real concerns.” he added.
Welch denied that Saudi Arabia received a message to deliver to Washington from senior Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani and said, “we have not received such a message. It is however remarkable that whenever the Secretary of State goes to a certain country in the region we see an Iranian (official) going before or after us. They are apparently eager to know what we have to say and are worried but if they stop interfering with the other countries’ affairs, stop seeking to acquire a nuclear weapon, and treat their people better, and then there will be no reason for their worries.”
Welch asserted the US administration’s backing for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and saying “We have confidence in the elected government that has constitutional cover and responsibilities. But we believe it is capable of complying with these responsibilities.” He added that “This confidence is not however an unbridled one. The government has responsibilities that it has to shoulder and which can be measured.” He refrained from defining the criteria that the Iraqi Government has to follow but said, “We are committed in Iraq but we have obligations to the American people and there is a standard of accountability.” Welch added that” Any Iraqi would tell you the situation is unacceptable. their patience has been exhausted. The Iraqi Government must face this. We have time but not a lot of it and the people want to see a change.” After pointing out that fighting between Iraqis is unacceptable, Welch told Asharq Al-Awsat that “The American people might understand the insurgents’ targeting of the coalition forces but cannot understand an Iraqi killing an Iraqi on the basis of his religious identity. This is the situation now.”
As to handing over the security authority to the Iraqi Government as Al-Maliki is demanding, Welch said: “the goals are congruent”. Iraq is a sovereign country with an elected government and this is its responsibility. We are not seeking those responsibilities. But we do not want to elevate the risk (of an early handover) just because it is more comfortable for us to pull back. It is not an easy equation to solve and depends on the designated areas and what the government intends to do. But the US administration does not want to do this a day longer then necessary.”
He explained that US President George Bush’s decision to send more troops to Iraq “was taken because of our military commanders’ assessment these additional troops were necessary until the Iraqi forces became fully capable of exercising their authority in Iraq. We are working to accelerate this process.”
In reply to a question about the militias’ issues and the focus on the need to confront them, Welch said “it is a considerable problem” and listed the main points for confronting it saying, “Firstly, it is the Iraqi Government’s responsibility to make sure that there is no distinction from one Iraqi and another. Secondly, the government’s responsibility requires it to deliver security to its citizen and this should not mean security from itself. Thirdly, the militias are a real problem and must be dealt with.”
“I am a realist and understand it is a difficult problem but it has to be accomplished.” He pointed out that “all the parties at the Kuwait meeting agreed on the need to disband the militias.”
Regarding the fears from the increased sectarianism in Iraq and the region, Welch said, “It is a big risk to interpret politics on religious lines. Let’s step back here. What we are witnessing (in the Middle East) is a narrow attack by a narrow minority that has narrow interests on the will of the majority regardless of religion.” He added that
“We are more comfortable calling it the narrow effort of extremists who are causing problems in Iraq and Lebanon and even in Palestine.” But he hastened to say, “We know that many people in the region interpret this as a sectarian issue but these problems existed before the sectarian tensions and after it. He went on to say “if we are to have a consensus to tackle this problem it must be based on good faith and a broader purpose”.
Welch refused to divulge details of the meeting between the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan, and Rice saying, “without going into private dialogue, but I can say that these consultations with our friends in the region are getting more productive. The final statement says that countries must not interfere in the affairs of other countries and this is a reference to the extremists in the region. They also expressed the belief that the Iraqi state should be built on specific principles and that the Iraqi Government must do their best to conform to these principles.” He added that the statement pointed to the need to revive the peace process and respect Lebanon’s sovereignty, stating that “There were no offensive expressions in the statement but ones to help the others. The important thing in the critical region is that the majority of the people want a safe future and this is what we want through a moderate alliance.”
Welch asserted on the other hand that “there is renewed momentum to revive the peace process. But I do not want to over rate it. Nothing has happened for a long time to make the parties feel at ease and there is a loss of confidence of the possibility of reaching peace.” He admitted that there are fears in the region from the American’s failure to adhere to the peace process but answered, “The reasons behind this are usually that we did not do what they wanted. We have sometimes different priorities. Also sometimes we did not feel we had a responsible Palestinian partner with which it was possible to work.” He concluded by saying,” We can promise the effort but we need others to deliver the results.”
In reply to a question about Khalid Mishal’s statements about Israel and whether they can be considered recognition of the State of Israel, the US official said, “I do not consider this statement to be a yes (about recognition the State of Israel). The “Hamas” Government has not been able to accept the international requirements and Khalid Mishal does not want either to accept them or reject them publicly and tries to invent new ways for saying no.”