BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq plans to ask the United Nations Security Council to extend the mandate governing the presence of U.S.-led forces in Iraq for another year, Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Monday.
“The presence of the multinational force is indispensable for the security and stability of Iraq and of the region at the moment,” Zebari told Reuters in an interview.
“At the same time, the Iraqi government is … willing to take more security responsibilities from these forces to do its part.” The existing U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31 and Zebari said Iraq would request its extension in the next month or so. He denied any real breach with Washington despite a public spat over the past week over when Iraq could take control of its own security and the focus of efforts to end the bloodshed.
“We have a shared objective to defeat terrorism, to stabilise the situation, to build a democratic, federal, united, strong Iraq,” Zebari said. “There is no rift whatsoever between Baghdad and Washington on these issues.”
Zebari also said Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem had agreed to visit Baghdad, possibly in November. It would be the first ministerial visit from Iraq’s neighbour and long-time rival in the region since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Iraq and the United States accuse both Syria and Iran of undermining the Iraqi government, a Shi’ite-led unity coalition with Sunnis and Kurds, through support for insurgents, al Qaeda operatives and Shi’ite militias.
“We need to engage our neighbours positively and this would be an acid test in my view for their attitude,” Zebari said. “Having a direct, formal channel of communication would be helpful. I am optimistic that the visit will happen.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Reuters last week that Iraq could take over its own security in about six months if its police and soldiers had more training, better weapons and a greater say over their own movements and operations.
That is half the time U.S. generals have estimated the 140,000 American troops can start leaving.
Maliki and President George W. Bush, who faces growing public dismay over his Iraq policy ahead of congressional elections next week, announced agreement on Saturday to speed up the training of Iraqi forces.
Zebari said the transfer of responsibility would depend on conditions on the ground but noted that U.N. Resolution 1637, which provides the foreign troop mandate, allowed for a mid-year review.
“With each six months there is a review to reconsider this presence, based on the opinion of the Iraqi government. So there is an embedded timeline if the situation is conducive,” he said.
The word “timeline” was at the heart of last week’s tensions between Baghdad and Washington, with Maliki insisting that a series of political and security steps to restore stability to Iraq could not be imposed from outside.
U.S. officials have pressed Maliki to disarm Shi’ite militias blamed for a surge in sectarian killings since February, but whose political leaders underpin his majority.
Zebari, a Kurd, said the militias were a problem and a “nuisance” and would have to be disbanded but echoed Maliki, a Shi’ite, in saying the threat lay elsewhere.
The death rate among U.S. forces, which has hit 100 in October alone, showed the main danger came from terrorism and Sunni insurgents loyal to ousted leader Saddam Hussein, he said.
Those forces wanted to “bring down this government (and) kill as many Iraqis, as many Americans and British as they can”.
Iraq and Syria broke ties in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war when Damascus sided with Tehran. Saddam and the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad ran rival factions of the Baath Party.
Zebari said neither Syria nor Iran had lived up to regional commitments to support stability in Iraq but there had been “candid, open, frank” discussions with Syrian officials during the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
That led to a telephone call from Moualem on Sunday to accept an invitation to visit Baghdad.
Zebari said he hoped the visit would lead ultimately to formal diplomatic ties but cautioned that Iraq could take other unspecified steps if relations did not improve.