NEW YORK — Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's Minister of Foreign Affairs, says the next six months are crucial for the newly formed government to establish itself as representative of all Iraqis and secure a monopoly on the use of force.
Zebari, a Kurd who has served three Iraqi governments since 2003, told a gathering at the Council on Foreign Relations he was generally optimistic, given the formation of a national-unity government and the recent killing of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But he acknowledged serious challenges, from curbing sectarian militia violence, to bringing more Sunnis into the political fold, to amending the constitution.
"I don't want to paint a rosy picture of what's happening in Iraq because really there are many challenges and difficulties," said Zebari. "A great deal will depend on the leadership of this government and its ability to take this opportunity to claim ownership of this country and its security and resources, and lead the people of Iraq."
Zebari cited three reasons for optimism about the new government: it's a constitutionally formed government operating within a legal framework; it's a national-unity government with all of Iraq's key ethnic and religious communities represented; and the government enjoys strong global support, judging from the international visitors who have been to Baghdad recently, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush among them.
The most formidable challenge, Zebari said, is improving security. "The way to do it is to rely more and more on Iraqi forces," he said. "The death of Zarqawi was a good omen for the new government, and its timing was extremely helpful, but his elimination will not immediately end the attacks."
Another good omen, he said, was the intelligence work that led U.S. forces to Zarqawi's safe house, which was a joint effort by Iraqi and multinational forces. "It shows these terror networks are not invincible," he said, "but you cannot defeat them without good intelligence."
However, he stressed the need to bring in disaffected Sunnis and marginalized ex-Baathists into the political process. "These are the people who this government needs to reach out to," Zebari said. One of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's first orders was to release 2,500 detainees from Iraqi prisons, a goodwill gesture aimed at winning the confidence of disenfranchised Sunnis.
Zebari said his government also is organizing a reconciliation conference with the Arab League in August. On the issue of offering amnesty to homegrown insurgents, Zebari said there has been no detailed discussion of the subject.
However, he did promise to revisit the rules of the de-Baathification committee, set up by L. Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003. "Some of these rules were unfair and applied blindly to target innocent people," Zebari said. "There needs to be some differentiation between those hardline Baathists who committed atrocities against people and those members of the Baath Party who just signed up to make a living."
Paramount among Sunni concerns is amending the constitution. Zebari was hopeful the amendment process would go smoothly but reinforced the need for consensus building. "Sunnis have subscribed to these [amendment] procedures so must accept the outcomes as well," he said. Experts say there is little likelihood the Sunnis will be able to make significant alteration—on issues of federalism or revenue sharing—to the constitution.
Another challenge is neutralizing the spread of Shiite-run militias, many of which have infiltrated Iraq's security forces. Zebari said Iraqi opinion was divided on how to respond. "Which are a threat to stability, and which are not?" he asked. He said it is necessary to differentiate between the ragtag militias formed in the wake of the Iraq War and the more well-established ones that were part of the resistance during Saddam Hussein's regime, a reference to the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia, and the Kurdish peshmerga.
Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and the meeting's moderator, pressed the foreign minister about a Washington Post report of prisons run by Shiite militia members who were freeing their own people and executing random Sunni inmates.
Zebari had no information about these claims but spoke about a specific plan, jointly run by U.S. and Iraqi leaders, to disarm, demobilize, and rehabilitate Iraq's militias. "It's not easy to integrate these militia members, not necessarily in the armed forces, but into society," he said. "Finding jobs and opportunities for them is a difficult challenge for this government."
Zebari also said the recent trove of documents found after Zarqawi's death indicate that even members of the Jordanian's terrorist network, al-Qaeda in Iraq, had tried to infiltrate Iraq's security forces. Overall, the foreign minister said Iraq's defense forces were much more professional and better organized than its police forces. He was also upbeat about the role of Moqtada al-Sadr, an anti-U.S. Shiite cleric whose militia, the Mahdi Army, fought two skirmishes against U.S. forces in 2004.
"Moqtada is now part of the political process," Zabari said. "There was this realization [by Iraqi officials] to include him in the process instead of alienating or confronting him."