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A Conversation with Hoshyar Zebari

Speaker: Hoshyar Zebari, Ministor of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Iraq
Presider: Jami Miscik, Council on Foreign Relations
September 25, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations

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MISCIK: Good evening. I'm Jami Miscik. I'm president of Kissinger Associates and a member of the board of the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to all of you for joining us tonight. And good courage and skill you've shown in negotiating your way through the traffic to get to the east side of Manhattan during U.N. week.

Housekeeping has already been taken care of. I just want to begin tonight by explaining what we're going to do here. We'll have a brief opening statement from our guest. We will then have a short conversation on the stage, and then we'll invite the rest of the members to join in.

It's my distinct pleasure to introduce the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. He is -- you have his very impressive bio. He is also the longest-serving minister of the government. So we really look forward to his perspective on the issues of the region and his country.

And with that, Mr. Minister, welcome.

ZEBARI: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

Thank you, Jami. Thank you so much for that introduction. Thanks also to the Council on Foreign Relations for inviting me to speak this evening.

I'm specifically humbled that you would invite me during the U.N. General Assembly, where you have no shortage of other distinguished speakers from which to choose. For that honor, I really thank you so much.

Our region is, of course, very high on the agenda of this General Assembly, both in the news and at the assembly itself. You may have your own impression of the unprecedented events we are witnessing, but tonight I want to describe to you what our neighborhood looks like from Baghdad and give you an honest assessment, not just what I think you want to hear.

The key driver of change in our region is the Arab Spring, and the pent-up desire for freedom is unleashed. Iraq, in fact, was the first country, thanks to the coalition forces, led by the United States, in our region to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy. We -- so we know firsthand how difficult that transition can be.

We have paid an enormous price in blood and treasure, as have our allies, like the United States, and other countries. And we continue to face many challenges to our security, our process of democracy, and the welfare of the Iraqi people. However, 10 years on, the trajectory of Iraq's transition is clear, and these challenges should not cause the American people to regret -- to regret your involvement in our country over the past 10 years.

Politically, we continue to build a multi-ethnic, multi-party democracy with respect for the rule of law and bound by our national constitution. Local elections took place earlier this year. Regional elections in Iraqi Kurdistan have just been held, and legislative and general elections in 2014 next year will determine our national leadership again.

The Iraqi people have rejected the more recent attempts by Al Qaida and other groups to foment sectarian violence, choosing instead to decide their future with voting for power-sharing and peaceful change, not violence. Economically, we have the world's fastest growing economy. Oil production has increased 50 percent since 2005. And also, the projection for Iraq oil production, Iraq is poised to double its oil output by 2030, emerging as the world's second-largest energy exporter.

We have challenges, an economic dependence on oil, unemployment at 11 percent, and poverty at 23 percent, but we have made significant progress towards meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. And we are diversifying our investing in education development projects and infrastructure, while moving towards a market economy friendly to foreign investment.

The United States can provide what our nation needs through investment and trade, not charity and aid, and the strategy framework agreement between Iraq and the U.S. covers the tremendous investment opportunities available. The people of Iraq are better off now than under the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and Iraq has resumed its place as a peaceful and a law-abiding partner in the international community.

The people of Iraq will be forever grateful to America's coalition partner for restoring their freedoms. In fact, this has been my 11th visit to the United Nations to attend the General Assembly. And this time, I have a very, very clear conscience that for the first time I feel my country is free from sanctions, from Chapter 7 resolutions. Over 90 such resolutions were imposed on Iraq because of its invasion of Kuwait, regarding weapons of mass destruction, disarmament, the oil-for-food, and you name it. Now we have really cleared Iraq from all these restrictions.

Back to our neighborhood, having so recently lived under dictatorship ourselves, Iraqis also sympathize with our Arab brothers pursuing freedom, dignity, but we also know that as a dictatorship recedes, opportunities are created not just for democrats, but also for the forces of intolerance and sectarianisms, interference by foreign governments, and for terrorism.

Al Qaida is not just America's enemy. It is also our enemy, one that we are facing every day on the streets of -- of Baghdad and elsewhere, an enemy opposed to the vision of a democratic, pluralistic, inclusive society that my government is building in Iraq.

Figuring out the right balance on the -- on the natures, pluralism, of freedom, without investing -- inviting terrorism and foreign interference is the greatest challenge facing not only Iraq, but the entire Arab world. When we look at the Syria crisis, we see not only a critical humanitarian tragedy, but an immediate and grave threat to the security of our country and the region. It is for these reasons that our top priority in Syria is to end the bloodshed.

We see no hope of a military victory by any side. So we believe that the only way to stop the violence is through a peaceful settlement and through negotiation. Accordingly, we favor all steps that help lay the groundwork of a diplomatic settlement and oppose any actions that will fuel the conflict.

For these reasons, we were very pleased by the diplomatic breakthrough recently achieved by Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov with respect to Syria's chemical weapons. And we wholeheartedly endorse it. We deplore the efforts of anyone to supply more weapons to any party to that ongoing conflict, whether to support the government of Bashar al-Assad or one of the rebel forces. This will only perpetuate the conflict and reduce the prospect of a negotiated settlement.

And the weapons are a pathway for foreign interference in the internal affairs of our neighbors, a problem with which we are all too familiar. Iraq is a sovereign federal democratic country, and we absolutely reject outside interference or influence on our security and policymaking.

Iraq has been very cautious in its position towards the Syrian crisis, specifically out of its own national interest. Any change of the balance in Syria would lead immediately to an impact and spillover into Iraq. Or especially (ph) we see the rise of sectarian tension and in the region and in Iraq itself, and this could fuel even further that conflict.

For these reasons, we are consistent -- sorry, consistent with this policy, we are committed to preventing the territory, airspace, and waters of our country from being utilized by any outside entity or country to fuel the conflict in Syria. There has been repeated concerns about Iranian overflights over -- over Iraqi territory and space to supply weapons and arms to the Syrian regime. In fact, although we don't deny that, but really our ability to prevent that is limited. And up to now, we are trying to build our air defense system, our air force to reinforce any such future decision. And we have given demarches also to the Iranian side that, really, they should respect sovereignty, they should respect the independent policy of the Iraqi government of not taking sides in this conflict.

And also, Iraq's ability, in fact, to enforce this policy, as I said, is limited, but we are doing so to the extent of our ability to prevent any flow of arms or oil or arms into Syria. We have a long border with Syria that is nearly 600 kilometers, with open desert, and I remember even when the U.S. forces were in Iraq, one of the key challenges they faced with their superior technology and counterterrorism was how to manage these borders.

Not only that, but the Assad government was for years complicit in supporting Al Qaida and other terrorist forces fighting to overthrow my government. It is convenient for critics of our current policy to forget that just a few years ago, we sought to hold the Assad government accountable before the U.N. Security Council for its support of terrorism in Iraq. Not even the United States then supported us in that effort. At that time, in fact, the policy saw President Assad as a potential partner in the Middle East peace process, and they didn't want to jeopardize his cooperation in that undertaking over the issue of a few thousand Iraqi murdered by a Syrian-backed terrorist. I was Iraq foreign minister at the time, and I vividly remember our diplomatic isolation in calling for international action against the Syrian government.

We recognize that not all the rebels or the opposition forces in Syria are sympathetic to Al Qaida. To the contrary, some have democratic agendas very compatible with our own, but as long as it is not clear that any rebel-formed government in Damascus will not be controlled by Al Qaida or Al-Nusra, we, in fact, oppose providing military assistance to any rebel group. We can think of no more perilous (ph) development for our security than the emergence of an Al Qaida-dominated government on our border.

We also -- I want also to brief you, really, on our view on Iran's nuclear program. We emphatically supported the right of Iran and all other countries in our region to pursue a peaceful nuclear power program, but if there would be a country that would fear an Iranian nuclear program, military program, it will be Iraq. It would pose an existential threat to the country, mainly because of the history of the background that we have with our eastern neighbor.

And this right is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and can be a key driver for economic development. At the same time, we adamantly oppose the introduction of nuclear weapons in our region. This is forbidden first by the NPT and would seriously degrade the security of all countries in the region. Instead, we supported the establishment of a Middle East weapons of mass destruction-free zone to reinforce the prohibitions of the NPT and increased mutual security and confidence among all the countries of our region.

We would also view any evidence of nuclear weapons -- of military nuclear weapons with grave alarm, because, as Iran's neighbor, we could not help but -- but consider such a weapon as a threat. So at the moment, we are not allowed (ph), but even in the absence of any serious evidence, we recognize that Iran hasn't always pursued its nuclear program in ways that minimize suspicion about its intentions.

We -- as a neighbor, in fact, Iraq have played a role in inviting the P5 and Iran to nuclear talks in Baghdad. We have been engaged very closely with the main obstacles of this negotiation, and also we have helped to be a bridge, in fact, to facilitate, to encourage, especially the Iranian side to -- to be more serious, and even with this current visit of the Iranian delegations, in fact, we have as Iraqi government passed messages to the effect to resolve this issue peacefully.

Our regional relationship also offer opportunity, as well as challenges. Over the past two years, relations between Kuwait and Iraq have improved enormously. In fact, there have been mutual visits between the two countries at the highest level, and all the remaining issues of border, of the missing, of the properties, of the many issues related to Chapter 7 obligations have been resolved completely between Iraq and Kuwait. The only remaining issue is their war compensations that still 5 percent of Iraqi oil production has been paid to war reparations in Kuwait. But this is not a controversial issue. There is mechanisms. And already, we are doing our dues, I think, by 2015, all the compensations will be paid by Iraq, so that file will be closely closed. But now we feel really we are free. We are out of Chapter 7.

Finally, I would say, as we rebuild our country, Iraq and the United States will benefit by building a long-term partnership. And together, we can and must develop what President Obama has described as, quote, "a normal relationship between sovereign nations and equal partnership based on mutual interests and mutual respect." With our political, economic and diplomatic progress, Iraq is taking its place as a partner for the United States, our neighbors, and for the family of nations.

As we speak, in fact, Iraq has now over 90 diplomatic missions based in Baghdad, including nearly 17 Arab embassies. Those countries used to look with great suspicions to the new Iraq and the new democratic Iraq. In fact, now the situation has been normalized a great deal.

We are committed to our partnership with the United States, and we are confident that through the partnership, as well as our cooperation with other friendly countries, we will be able to build the kind of society that redeems the sacrifices made by so many Iraqis and to bring us to where we are today.

Thank you very much for your listening and for your attention. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

MISCIK: Thank you, Mr. Minister. It was a terrific overview and a great place to start our conversation. And you hit on many of the points that I wanted to touch on, so let me repeatedly say -- you mentioned this in your speech, but you mentioned the border in your speech and the spillover effects in -- on the security situation that Syria's having on the inside of Iraq. Tell us about the government's ability to secure that -- or stem the tide of violence inside the country.

ZEBARI: Well, in fact, there is ongoing violence. Here I'm not here to give you unrealistic or a rosy picture about Iraq. In fact, the facts speak for themselves. Still, we haven't succeeded fully to bring the security situation under control. But a great deal, also, is a result of the spillover coming from Syria, and specifically the new terrorist organizations that have been established in Iraq and Syria have an alliance. Now we have one organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Dawlat al-Iraq al-Islamiyya fi wa-l-Sham (ph), is one organization, not to mention Arar Washam (ph), not to mention Jabhat Al-Nusra.

According to foreign intelligence, really, there are nearly 10,000 foreign fighters or jihadists now in Syria. And therefore, really, there are some serious concerns about the lack of any political direction or of any international action to change the balance, let's say, in Syria. And nobody's in control; nobody's in charge. I mean, those forces on the ground could determine the situation in the future.

And this is what worries Iraq most of all. Because of its sectarian demographic composition, in fact, the Sunni provinces of the western Iraq will see themselves as the strategic depth (ph) in Syria. And also, the Shia community will feel that they are threatened by change, let's say, in the region. This is why there is serious concern about heightened sectarian conflict in the region, not to say that Bashar al-Assad regime is a Shia regime or it's an Alawite and so on, but, really, the regional conflict between Iran, between the United States, between the gulf countries, have all led to heightened sectarian tensions.

And we in Iraq feel it. We feel it immediately. The flow of these terrorists groups and actions across the borders has really increased recently. And there are numerous evidence. Now we are trying with the United States to enhance our counterterrorism capabilities and equipment and technology. Only recently there has been some positive response to that, because of the expertise and intelligence-sharing with some technologies, with some border control equipment. In fact, this is happening as we speak, and many because of the concerns of the spillover from Syria into Iraq and into other countries.

MISCIK: And do you think the Iraqi public is confident that the Iraqi government can provide the security that's needed? Or do you fear that they will start to take matters into their own hands and seek to protect themselves?

ZEBARI: The great majority believe that -- they're confident, but whether their security performance is up to the expectation of ordinary Iraqis, no. In fact, they do expect more better performance, more professionalisms in managing the security threat and the terrorist threat. And because of the political divisions in the country that has been ongoing, this has led, really, to deterioration in the security. And this is a fact. Whenever we have more political unity or political consensus, it would have an immediate impact on the level of terrorist attacks or security attacks.

At the same time, most of these security attacks -- terrorist attacks, actually, are not nationwide in Iraq. They are more concentrated in Baghdad in the vicinity of the capital. In other parts of the country, in Kurdistan in the north, in the south, in fact, the situation is more peaceful, is more stable. And business goes on as usual.

MISCIK: Well, let me ask you about the north. You mentioned the number of refugees that are coming across. In recent weeks, large numbers of Kurdish refugees have been arriving in the north. How is that changing the dynamic there? I mean, this is an area you know well.

ZEBARI: Yes, it has, actually. I mean, the number of Syrian refugees, according to UNHCR, has reached over 2 million. And Iraq, especially the Kurdish region, has received nearly 200,000 now. And the total number of Syrian refugees in Iraq is estimated at 207,000. This is the latest figure. But the bulk of them, the majority are in the Dahuk, Irbil provinces in Iraqi Kurdistan.

And there is a great deal of sympathies between Iraqi Kurds and the Syrian Kurds on the other side. But really, there are no plans or intentions for the Kurdish leadership in Iraq to intervene (inaudible) militarily or politically in altering the conditions on the ground. But for humanitarian assistance and accommodations, I think they have been looked after very well or better than other countries.

MISCIK: Let me ask you about the relationship between Iraq and Iran. I'm sure in your meetings with U.S. government officials, you're often questioned or concerns are raised about how close the relationship is. Some may even go so far as to say that on issues like Syria, Iraq doesn't have its own foreign policy, it follows the Iranian lead. You're perfectly positioned to tell us where Iran and Iraq agree and where they disagree on issues that are key to the region.

ZEBARI: Yes. In fact, now the relations between Iraq and Iran has changed strategically from a relation of animosity, of war, of confrontation, to one of good neighborly relations. The majority of Iraqi leaders now have lived in Iran or were refugees or have a great deal of interaction, not to mention also the sectarian affinity between Iran and Iraq. The number of pilgrims, of Shia pilgrims from Iran to the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala really has exceeded 2 million visitors in one year. And also, Iraqi visitors to the Shia shrines in Qom and elsewhere in Iran have increased.

Not to mention that geographically we have the longest border with Iran. It's 1,300. And we have numerous problems and issues, unresolved issue from the Iran-Iraq war, delineations (ph) of the -- of the land borders, of Shatt al-Arab waterway, of the flow of waters or rivers from Iran into Iraq that have been diverted or stopped, and also the clearance of many parts of the countries from mines. These are all technical issues that we deal with, in fact. And there is good cooperation on both sides.

But to answer your question whether Iran has influence over Iraq, yes, it has. Whether the Iraqis have an independent policy of their own, yes, also, we say we have, in fact, now the new Iraqi leaders who've lived in Iran or in exile, now they have become the owners of this very rich, powerful country, so really they will not be automatically subservient to another country. And therefore, we would disagree that Iraq has become an extension of Iran. I will disagree with that idea, in fact, completely.

And the other thing, actually, historically, the Iraqi Shia have been acting more as Iraqi nationalists. Even if you remember during the Iran-Iraq war, the bulk of them fought for their country, irrespective of the religious ideology or sectarian affinity. But, in fact, there is influences. And in today's world, any country can have an influence, but it should be used in a positive way.

We are aware, mindful of Iranian control or domination, let's say, through many means that, although it's not publicized, it's not mentioned on the cultural levels, on properties, on many other things, there has been an ongoing resistance, in fact, by the Iraqis, by the governorates to accept this extending influence over Iraq.

MISCIK: Well, let me take it in a more positive direction. You were talking about the bridge that Iraq could perhaps play between the Iranians and the Americans. You've been in New York. You've heard both presidents, the president of Iran, the president of the United States, speak at the U.N. On your perspective, where do you think we are in that relationship, in that ability to bridge?

ZEBARI: I think there is a new leadership in Iran, and it has launched a charm offensive or a charm assault, really.

(LAUGHTER)

I think they have done it very professionally so far. But everybody expected more from the Iranian president yesterday. And we were at the assembly, meeting people, listening. In fact, we believed they should have capitalized on this sea of goodwill by the international community and positive statement that President Obama made. In fact, he's gone out of his way to reach out to the Iranians on this.

But there are internal pressures, it seems, on the new leadership, on the new president, for the time being. But speaking to them, actually, they have done a number of the right steps so far, in terms of their intentions, their political statement. Yesterday, I didn't hear President Rouhani mention Israel at all, or even not a word. I mean, he talked about the Palestinians, about Palestinians' rights, struggle, but he avoided that. Also, he used a moderate language, not maybe on the -- on the substance, but really it differed completely from previous Iranian messages.

It seems that they are also feeling the pressures of sanctions, of isolations, of the impact, and, in fact, we've been talking to them in a very candid, very direct way, that learn from us, from Iraq, on coming clear, transparent, allow the inspectors, and therefore there is certain procedures that needs to be followed, in fact, to ensure that -- but, really, from firsthand knowledge, I think this talks -- this negotiation will take time. It will not be immediate or resolved in one or two or three meetings between the P5-plus-one or P3-plus-three with Iran, because there are some serious differences between the two sides.

Firstly, I mean, the Iranian would say -- would tell you, well, they don't have any intentions for any nuclear program or military nuclear program. There is a fatwa by the highest religious authority. Khamenei is the supreme leader. And you have imposed sanctions on us to prevent us from developing a nuclear program or militarized -- so we are not doing it. And you need to lift the sanctions before we make the first move.

And the other side now will argue, really, this is your intention, but we need to verify, to see for ourselves whether -- and the IAEA is the watchdog, is the agency that needs to establish this for us before making any move. There has been some concessions to provide them with spare parts for civilian military, with easing some part of the sanctions, but their approach is more general. It's holistic, let's say, than these small concessions.

MISCIK: Let me just ask one last question before opening it up, and that's about another one of your neighbors, Turkey.

ZEBARI: Yes.

MISCIK: There are some who might say that the relationship between Baghdad and Ankara has deteriorated, while the relationship between the Kurdish areas has strengthened and gotten stronger. And there is the pipeline issue that could become operational in the not-too-distant future that could even further tighten those relationships between the Kurdish Regional Government and the Kurdistan in Turkey. Baghdad has said that they might not send money, budget up to the Kurdish areas as a result of that. Just give us your perspective on those different issues.

ZEBARI: Yeah. Turkey is -- is the largest trading partner with Iraq as a country. In fact, the balance of trade between Iraq and Turkey is the largest, is nearly $15 billion U.S. dollar, and it is increasing. So the political tension has not affected the economic and trade cooperation at all.

Yes, there has been serious political tensions between Baghdad and Ankara. And mainly they came from public statements made by both sides. I will not say by one side, but, really, by the Turkish side, they started some of these statements, which we in Iraq felt as if this is some kind of a dictate about how the Iraqi government should act or behave, while at the same time we have an elected government, democratically elected government, and we expect from Turkey, from other countries, to have respect for this government, the same thing from us towards them.

This was the key issue, in fact, for this tension. Before, the Turkish policy was to -- not to deal in any way with the KRG, with the Kurdish Regional Government, or not to recognize it or not to mention the word K, in fact, or -- in many of the meeting and so on. And the irony was now their relations has really developed with Iraqi Kurdistan to unprecedented level.

I mean, who could believe that the prime minister of Turkey one day will visit Irbil under the Kurdistan flag, for instance, or open an international airport jointly with the Kurdish leader? It was unimaginable. My good friend remembers when we used to do some work, and David (ph) -- how to manage this relations. In fact, it has moved.

And there is -- the driving force between Turkey and the KRG's energy, I think there are great potentials of gas and oil in the region, and Turkey needs that, but, really, we have been telling the Turks, improving relations between Baghdad and Ankara will not be at the cost of -- of Ankara and Irbil. And you can benefit from, let's say, both sides.

Recently, we'd mended fences. I mean, both sides, there has been a number of meeting in the ministerial level. Just yesterday, our delegations met with President Abdullah Gul, the president of Turkey, and that delegation here. And we have agreed on improving relations in future mutual visits.

As for the issue of the pipeline, in fact, this dispute between the KRG and Baghdad still unresolved, and mainly because there is no hydrocarbon law agreed between Baghdad and the region. But the -- but things are moving, are working, really. There is a flow of oil, let's say, from Iraq to the international oil market, and that hasn't been a main cause of any friction, neither between Baghdad and the KRG, nor between Baghdad and Ankara, but it is a potential problem, let's say, in the future, unless it is addressed properly. I think it could be divisive issue.

MISCIK: With that, let's open it up to our members. I know there are a lot of people here with lots of questions. If you could wait for a microphone to come around, please stand, state your name, your affiliation. Please try to keep your questions relatively short so that we can get as many members in as possible. And, remember, this is on the record.

So let's start right here.

QUESTION: Trudy Rubin from the Philadelphia Inquirer. A pleasure to see you here.

ZEBARI: Nice seeing you.

QUESTION: You talked about the danger of sectarian war and the problem of terrorist flows across the Iraqi border and also about the problems you had with Assad government before, in letting terrorists cross. Do you believe that the Assad government is deliberately facilitating the presence of jihadist groups in any way in order to create the perfect opposition and to prevent help from the West to the rebels? And given the growth of a belt of jihadis that crosses the Iraqi border on both sides, given the unlikelihood of talks for Geneva II, how do you feel this jihadi belt that affects your country, too, can be addressed, both inside Iraq and internationally?

ZEBARI: Thank you. I remember 2004, Trudy. I was the foreign minister of Iraq, and it was in the early years of the new Iraq. I visited Damascus and had a meeting with President Bashar Assad, with his foreign minister then, Farouk al-Sharaa, and it was at the beginning when we felt that there are some of the terrorists are flowing from Syria into Iraq, with assistance at the airport and border crossing point by the Syrian Mukhabarat.

And I remember telling them at the time, "You are acting like catching the snake from its tail. The day will come when it will bite you." Believe me, I vividly remember this conversation. And now, in fact, these terrorist groups or these networks of Al-Nusra, of Al Qaida, or Aha Hasham (ph) and others definitely are not the creations of Bashar Assad. They have benefited maybe from previous environments or connections or logistics, and they have grown up, but to say that they have been deliberately created, no, they are the one who are doing most of the fighting. In fact, they are the one who are mobilizing, who are recruiting, many, many foreign jihadists, not only from the Arab countries, from European countries, and from Asia, from many, many other Islamic countries.

So they are there. The longer this will go on, I think their influence will increase. And they are intimidating other groups, as well. Nobody has much knowledge about the flow of arms by some of the regional countries where these arms goes to. And this is one of the biggest problem in Europe, in the United States, how we differentiate, recognize the good opposition from the bad opposition or how to ensure that our weapons or sophisticated anti-aircraft, anti-tanks will not fall into the hands -- in the wrong hands. And this has been ongoing debate and discussion.

But I think here we need, really, the support of -- of the United States, of other countries to enhance border security. And it is happening. I was meeting with the -- my colleagues, the Tunisian foreign minister today, and he informed me they're using drones in southern Tunisia against some of these terrorist groups, you see, between Algeria and Tunisia, so this technology is needed. I think the United States started to help us on that, and we think we can do more.

MISCIK: Another question? Here on the aisle?

QUESTION: I'm Carroll Bogert from Human Rights Watch. In your remarks, you deplored the participation, the arms transfers into Iraq as perpetuating the conflict, and you talked about the difficulty of stopping arms overflights over Iraqi territory, but you didn't speak about militias from Iraq entering Syria...

ZEBARI: Yes.

QUESTION: ... and the fact that actually the Iraqi government has been turning a blind eye to Shia militias who enter Syria and cracking down on Sunni volunteers who wish to go into the region. And I believe in June, your own transport minister, after the Deir ez-Zor attack in Syria, said that he would welcome thousands of Iraqi Shia going in to protect Shia shrines in Syria.

MISCIK: Can we just make sure we get a question?

ZEBARI: Yes, OK.

QUESTION: If you deplore the perpetuation of the conflict, what can you do to stop militias from entering Syria from Iraq?

ZEBARI: We deplore that, too. I can assure you. I can speak openly about any participation of any Shia. In fact, it's not sanctions by the government. I mean, any Shia volunteers who go into Syria can tell you there is a declared fatwa by Sistani -- you see, the supreme Shia leader in Najaf -- who forbids any Shia to go and fight in Syria. By other religious leaders, too. And the government does not encourage, in fact, any volunteers to go to fight, let's say.

But to be realistic, when there are calls by Sunni leaders from, like, Qaradawi, like the Mufti of Saudi Arabia, of Egypt then, during Morsi (ph), calling on a mobilization of jihadists to go and fight, let's say, the Alawite or sectarian groups, you would expect that there would be calls from other extremists on the other side to do. That's why we believe that this sectarian confrontation is coming, is happening, because there are interests that promote that.

And who will benefit more of this? Really, everybody can conclude his conclusion, but I think there would be certain parties who will benefit more from an all-out, drawn-out sectarian conflict there. So I can really reassure you that the government does not support or encourage or endorse that. Hadi al-Amiri is a member of the government, but really he doesn't make the policy of the government. He's also a leader of a political party, that's the Badr Brigade, let's say, we has armed people in Iraq, but he doesn't -- he doesn't have the authority, let's say, of allowing volunteers or Shia to go into -- into Syria.

And the numbers we are talking about, really, if -- if there are -- there are -- Hezbollah came to Syria. And the numbers we are talking about, really, if there are -- there are Hezbollah came publicly and openly and fought in Al Qasr (ph) and in other parts of Syria. But the Shia -- the Iraqi Shia numbers are limited. I mean, we're not talking about thousands. Really, we're talking about a smaller number of a few hundreds. And there is a decrease in them, we know, from our own intelligence, because of conflict of interests, of differences. Many of them are abandoning (inaudible) fight.

MISCIK: OK. Here.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Barclays. I'm wondering if you can talk about how secure energy infrastructure is from attacks from extremist groups, because it seems like the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline has been repeatedly attacked, and also there was a bombing attempt of one of your big ports in southern Iraq.

ZEBARI: Yes. The energy security, actually, in Iraq, the government has just established a new force to protect the oil infrastructure and have allocated the finances and the recruitment for this new force to protect the Iraqi pipelines to Turkey and into the south, to the gulf.

There has been repeated attacks on Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, mainly because it goes really through some of the -- of the hot and disputed territories, let's say. And the oil ministry have been successful in repairing these damages, although it has cost us a great deal.

But in the south, the incident on the port really, according to the investigation, was not specifically a terrorist attack. It was more criminal attempts, let's say, conducted by certain interest groups, let's say, in the port. And there hasn't been any other such incidents. Our terminals, let's say, in the south, in the northern tip of the gulf, are safe and working and operating. And the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, I think we will be able to secure it with more security forces on the ground, yes.

MISCIK: OK. How about over here in the back?

QUESTION: Jeff Lorenti (ph). Minister Zebari, as you noted in your remarks, Iraq has now been welcomed back into the Arab world, but it's happened precisely at the moment when the Arab upheavals have knocked out many of what had been significant players, leaving the field open to the Saudis to essentially drive the Arab world agenda, direct the Arab League and such. What do you see as the Saudi agenda, to the extent that there are religious Wahhabist elements or threads to that? How does that impact Iraq's relations with the Saudis and the rest of the Arab world?

They won a big win with the coup in Egypt, and they've swept Bahrain under the rug. Where are they headed? And is there any alternative power source to balance them out that you see in the Arab world in the near term?

ZEBARI: Yes, well, Saudi Arabia is a very important Arab Islamic international power, definitely. And our relations with them have not been very warm or formal. Only recently, actually, they are planning to re-establish diplomatic relations with Baghdad to send an ambassador. They have a non-permanent ambassador to Iraq, but we've asked them recently to make permanent, to open the southern border points of Ar'ar between Iraq and Saudi Arabia for trade. In fact, the balance of trade between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, it's unseen. It's not seen, but it's nearly $5 billion, but it goes through Kuwait and Jordan, I mean, indirectly.

As for the role of Saudi Arabia in the region, in the Arab League, it is important, really, but -- but sometimes there is an overestimations of the Saudi role or even of the Qatari role in many of the events or developments taking place in the region. Yes, they have the money, they have the media, they have the political support, but they don't have the tools to implement the policies on the ground.

We've seen their role in Syria, let's say. Really, speaking to many of them, they are all frustrated. And recently, in the Arab League, in fact, there are new voices rising against this hegemony, let's say, of GCC over Arab League. Now Egypt is speaking up. Iraq is speaking up. Algeria is speaking up. And I think that that balance has changed recently, I mean, because of everybody's frustration on Syria, on other issues, and all the expectations that they had of an imminent military intervention or change has evaporated.

So now, really, there is a more sense of realism going on, but nobody should underestimate the role, the significance of Saudi Arabia, let's say, in the regions and on events, let's say. But at the same time, not to overestimate that role because of their lack of the means and the tools to implement their policies.

MISCIK: One thing that the council prides itself on is starting and finishing on time. I know there are many hands that are still up in the room. We apologize for that. But, Mr. Minister, thank you very much for sharing your comments with us.

(APPLAUSE)

ZEBARI: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. That's very kind.

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