NEW YORK — Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's minister of foreign affairs, says most of Iraq’s neighbors “have not been helpful at all” in controlling their borders to prevent insurgents from entering Iraq. With regard to American demands that Iraq meet certain political benchmarks, he says “to set certain timelines is difficult” but believed that an oil law and reversal of the de-Baathification laws were close.
Zebari, an ethnic Kurd, told a small gathering at the Council on Foreign Relations that national reconciliation in Iraq will take time. “You have to be patient,” he said. “It’s not a quick-fix.”
He described the problem as two-fold: internally between Iraq’s warring ethnic communities, principally its Shiites and Sunnis, and externally between these communities and what he called the “resistance.”
“We are focusing on identifying those groups that are willing to partake in the political process and abandon violence,” he said. “Those who are blowing up bridges do not want to share power with the government.”
Carla Anne Robbins, deputy editorial page editor of the New York Times and the meeting’s moderator, pressed the foreign minister on the issue of timelines for Iraqis to meet certain benchmarks.
“Just to correct the record,” he interrupted her, “when we talk about benchmarks, these are not U.S. benchmarks. These are Iraqi benchmarks.”
“We are mindful,” he continued, “we’ve been put under pressure to move faster but these are critical times for us. Nobody was expecting that al-Qaeda would revisit Samarra.” Zebari was referring to the attack of a sacred shrine north of Baghdad, whose bombing in February 2006 sparked the latest bout of sectarian bloodshed.
He argued that significant progress had been made in passing an oil law agreeable to all of Iraq’s ethnic groups and that rules on de-Baathification may be reversed.
He said Iraq’s neighbors, with the exception of Kuwait, had not been helpful. He singled out Syria for hosting a number of “wanted people,” while adding that there’s “been surge in Baath Party activity there.”
“Many of these states have very professional security agencies that would know what’s going on [in their borders],” he said.
Zebari has undergone a diplomatic offensive with Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran, to stress that the problems facing his country—civil war, terrorism, drug trafficking, etc.—are region-wide issues. He also criticized these countries’ media for being overly “agitating” against Iraq.
An area of improvement cited by Zebari was the security situation in Baghdad, which he said accounted for around 80 percent of Iraq’s sectarian violence prior to the U.S. “surge.” Five months later, he said, “many parts of the city that were off-limits are now under control.” Businesses and markets have reopened, he said, while other signs of life, such as more vehicular traffic, slowly return. He added that “[Iraqis] are cooperating more in terms of providing intelligence, like car-bomb factories or pointing out suspicious-looking foreigners.”
Still, he argued that a pullout of U.S. forces in the near future would undermine progress already made.
“A premature withdrawal would make Iraq an open farm for our neighbors,” he said. The trouble is the lack of progress in standing up Iraqi security forces, noting that “after four years, the insurgents have more powerful weapons than the Iraqi army.”
Midway through the meeting, Zebari dropped a line that raised eyebrows in the audience, noting that Iraq and the United States were “thinking of long-term arrangements” and “security partnerships.” When pressed on the issue, Zebari replied Iraq is not opposed to the idea of a "status of forces agreement" -- a term which is used to describe the conditions governing American forces currently based in Europe and Asia. He refused to speculate whether—or for how long—a more permanent American military presence would remain in Iraq.