Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Relations between Iraq and Syria were currently “inconsistent with tradition” but Baghdad was willing to reciprocate any positive signs from Damascus , according to Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al Jaafari.
Speaking to Asharq al Awsat on Monday, following the end of a three-day preparatory meeting of the Iraqi reconciliation conference in Cairo, al Jaafari said, “Traditions govern our relation with Syrian president Bashar Assad, since tradition governs relations between countries. Damascus is acting against these traditions; we do not want our relation with Syria to remain in this manner.”
Improving relations between the two neighbors “depends on two sides, Syrian and Iraqi.” The current Iraqi government was “positive and looking forward to decisive and serious steps [ by the Syrians] in controlling the border and forbidding illegal crossing, as well as stopping Iraqi and Syrians who are planning acts of sabotage.”
“When these causes of tension are eliminated, we are ready to strengthen our relations and become neighborly brotherly nations. But until now, there is no direct dialogue with Damascus only attempts by other parties and we are ready to cooperate with the mediation on condition that the dialogue is supported by facts on the ground.”
Commenting on the importance of Arab diplomatic presence in Iraq, al Jaffari said, at every meeting with Arab officials, “We confirm the importance of this move and the speeding-up of diplomatic representation. From our side, we are working to remove all the obstacles. We are currently discussing [diplomatic representation] with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan and with other presidents and kings.”
Asked about the timetable for a withdrawal of foreign troops, the Iraqi prime minister said, the withdrawal of the multinational troops was “an Iraqi matter that the Iraqi people would decide on. It is connected to the matter of security and being self sufficient in security matters… the elected Iraqi government is responsible for this. We are adopting practical steps to increase the number of soldiers and their ability in order to become sufficient. We have achieved much in this regard.”
He admitted that the presence of foreign troops in Iraq was regarded as a weakness and a sign of two realities: “the first the presence of a lack of security and the inability of government security services” to establish security. “This is why we do not wish for [these troops] to remain in Iraq for very long. We are forced, for the time being, to retain them in Iraq to assist us with security.”
On his government’s preparations for the period after the withdrawal of foreign troops, al Jaafari indicated, “Throughout last year, we increase the number [of troops] and have achieved the 2/3 rd of the necessary numbers.” New recruits would be trained to and would “control over the border and put an end to the security violations with our neighbors. When we achieve the needed numbers, the rate of withdrawal will accelerate until complete.”
Extending a welcome to all armed factions that decided to join the political process and lay down their weapons, the Iraqi prime minister said, “We communicate using the power of the pen and we respect all that speak to us [in this manner], except those that are armed and killing Iraqi civilians.”
Al Jaafari defended his address to the Arab League sponsored conference, which angered some quarters, saying, “I spoke to all Iraqis without exception.”, adding, “I do not differentiate between Sunni, Shiaa and Kurdish because Iraq was for everyone, except the Baath party.”
However, the prime minister and head of the Islamic Dawa Party welcomed former Baath members who had not held senior positions and had not taken part in politics under Saddam Hussein. He added that the national reconciliation conference expected to be held in Iraq in February would be “open to all the citizens of Iraq with the exception of those who targeted innocent civilians”. He warned members of the old guard not to disrupt the gathering.
“We are in need of an Iraqi structure made up of a group of officials representing all sections of Iraqi society that will start, from now, to plan the second step which is the conference to be held next year and, at the same time, to promote national unity and develop the nascent democracy in Iraq and oppose terrorism and plan the upcoming elections and encourage citizens to participate.”
Speaking about relations between Iraq and its Arab neighbors, al Jafaari revealed his government sought to “strengthen relations between Iraq and the League of Arab states”. He expressed hope Arab countries would “respect the sovereignty of Iraq and promote its security. “I believe rich countries in the region should support us in this period, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, until Iraq regains its economic standing, especially as it is a rich country in the reality,” he said.
Asked about his country’s foreign debts, estimated at 21 billion dollars, the prime minister said, “I hope they will be dropped”.