A Conversation with Hoshyar Zebari

Thursday, June 14, 2007
Hoshyar Zebari
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Iraq
Deputy Editorial Page Editor, The New York Times

ROBBINS: Thank you all very much. You know here at the council we don't get invited back unless we start and finish on time, so -- you know, I value this very much, and I make -- I do what Richard wants me to do. And it's 6:00, so it's actually late.

We're very lucky to have with us a minister here today. His bio, I believe, is with you, but I think the most extraordinary thing about his bio that you should all know is that he was first appointed minister of Foreign Affairs in the Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad on September 3rd of 2003, and he's still the minister of Foreign Affairs. (Laughter.)

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: (Laughs.) I'm a survivor. (Laughter.)

ROBBINS: He is a survivor or perhaps -- (off mike). (Pause for technical difficulties.)

Anyway, what we are doing, first of all, is -- this is an on-the- record session, which is an unusual thing for the council, and the format is going to be that I'm going to have a conversation with the minister for about 20 minutes, and then we're going to throw it open to you all. As ever, our request is when you do get up, that you please not make a speech, but actually ask a concise question so other people get an opportunity to do it. And I promise I won't make any speeches, even though I'm an editorial writer and that's what we do for a living.

You know, I wanted to start, actually, with a news story that was in the Times this week of which the headline was something like that Iraq had failed to meet all the benchmarks. And you know, it is really an important thing to consider because I think there's sort of two timelines going on. Even for Americans who enthusiastically supported the effort and who are still rooting for you, there is a sense that the time has basically run out for American patience for the war and certainly a very strong desire to see progress on the political front.

There have been a set of benchmarks that the Americans consider important -- oil laws, de-Ba'athification, reform of the constitution -- and somehow none of it seems to be going forward in Baghdad, which raises this really basic question. One of it is, I suppose, do you guys not think those things are important? And two is, why do you seem to think that you have so much time to sort of meander your way toward it if you do think it's important, because, you know, my impression here is that time has pretty much run out.

ZEBARI: Okay. Thank you.

First, let me say I'm very pleased to be here again at this prestigious place, in fact, which we admire very much. I used to come here during opposition time, and Richard remembers very well. He hosted us many times.

This is a very important question. In fact, there is a great deal of confusion also. This talks about benchmarks; in fact, they are not United States' benchmarks, they are Iraqi benchmarks. When we talk about national reconciliation, the prime minister was the first to announce that this government would seek national reconciliation. When we voted for the constitution in a referendum, we made a commitment on ourselves that we would do a constitutional review.

And also, on de-Ba'athification measures, it was part of a government policy to review those measures, to change those measures from something like a political tool for punishment or a tool for political punishment of Ba'athists, in fact, into a judicial process, to prosecute only those who are responsible for certain atrocities and so on.

And also on the oil law, the sharing of the wealth of the country, to be legislated for a fair and equitable share of the wealth of the country.

So these are -- just to correct the record -- in fact, are all Iraqi government benchmarks, including an end to the rule of militias controlling the streets or the neighborhoods of Baghdad.

But the confusion comes again when these issues are very important. They are -- I'll describe them existential issues for the Iraqis, for the future of our country, for future generations, but I'm not bound by certain timeline to be squeezed and to be resolved very quickly. In fact, there are two reasons why people criticize us there is delay of lack of movement. One, because of the significance of these issues for the future. Secondly, we are not judging this issue or resolving these issues by a majority rule system, 50 plus one.

I mean, the current Iraqi government, which is a legitimate representative body, can make decisions very easily on this issue by a majority rule, by democratic means, and so on. But since we are interested in an inclusive process to satisfy the majority of the Iraqi communities, it has taken some time. But it doesn't mean that these issues are not looked at, there are no actions or measures or movement.

I, myself, am a member of a political commission that looks at developing certain ideas how to present a package of ideas or the tactical steps for national reconciliation. There is two layers of national reconciliation. One is internal between the Shi'a and the Sunni; in fact, maybe between the Kurds and the Arabs, and so on, it could include that. But these are the most obvious, this divide. This has to be done and carried out over a long period of time, in my view. These old, historical differences cannot be resolved by a statement or a statement of intention, and so on, I think need very serious work at the religious, political level.

The other part of national reconciliation is with the opposition, is with the resistance, is with the insurgents. This is another thing, a political move for the government to try to identify that these groups who are opposing the current regime and to differentiate them with whom it can do business, with whom it could be reconcilable, and with whom it is difficult to be reconciled. So these groups in the opposition, if you look at it in the spectrum from al Qaeda, from al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, front organization for the Ba'ath party who adopt Islamic names and Islamic slogans, and so on, so -- and there are Ba'athists who want to come back, shoot their way by force you see to bring down the temple on everybody's head, and so on. Between this and that extreme, I think there is a whole array of groups which could be identified, should be known people, person. You cannot negotiate with people who you don't know who they are, whether they're a ghost or -- you see.

So we are at the moment, in fact, focusing on identifying those groups. Some of them have bases in Syria, in the Gulf. Some of them are inside the country operating. But the key issue that there has to be some responsiveness also that those groups would be willing to take part in a political process, to abandon violence, to embrace the political process, and to seek peaceful means to advance or advocate their goals, also to be included, whether in the government, in the government structure, and so on.

So there is movement, but as you said, really the problem -- we all understand the frustration in Washington and here and in Europe about the lack of progress. And we are frustrated, we as Iraqis or members of this government also feel a great deal of frustration. So it's not all on your side. But to set certain timeline to meet this really is difficult. If you don't achieve them, well, you have failed. If you -- and these are very deep-rooted issues.

But to reassure you and the audience, in fact there is movement, there is work being done on all of the issues. The oil law, in fact, has been approved by the Cabinet.

ROBBINS: Months ago.

ZEBARI: Months ago. Now it's been sent to a body, a legal body, the supreme legal body in Iraq, which is called Mussa Shura Dawla (ph), the Council of State Shura, which will -- Mussa Shura Dawla (ph). So this is to scrutinize this law before it passes to the parliament for legislation or for some further discussion.

ROBBINS: But forgive me. I mean, I understand these are very hard things to do, but to hope for reconciliation before you get these laws passed, because you want to include due process, seems to be sort of impossible, it's far off in the future.

ZEBARI: It's not.

ROBBINS: Wouldn't it make more sense to give people a sense that -- the Sunnis, with the change in the de-Ba'athification rule, a sense that they have less of a punitive, you know, situation, to have an oil law so that people feel that the revenues are going to be equitably divided? The sort of reconciliation you were talking about is going to take a generation or more, so wouldn't it make more sense to use the power that the government has, get these laws through to give people a sense that there is progress, not just in the United States but also in Iraq?

ZEBARI: But I agree with you, the government has to move faster. I mean, we agree on that. But also, I'm trying to explain to you the difficulties; it's not one-sided. In fact, the difficulties -- the violence, the divisions in the society -- were there before we voted for a constitution. When many people say the constitution is imbalanced, that's why all this has happened -- no; or the differences among the Iraqis because of the sharing of the oil well -- in fact, even before we raised this issue of a national oil law, you say that -- make clear that gas and oil is the property of the Iraqi people and they own it. There was division, there was violence, there were terrorist attacks and so on.

But this is a whole package, I think. It will need some movement, I agree with you. I'm not in disagreement with you. But also realistically looking at this, some of the people who are fighting now -- the U.S. or the Iraqi government -- are not bothered about this, about the oil law. That's not of their concern. They are not fighting or killing Iraqis or blowing up bridges and so on because they want to have some partnership together or to share power with the government, and this is difficult to explain it, in fact, to the American public or to other audiences.

So the enemy or the opposition that we face really is not one that, if you produce some political initiative or incentives for them, they will come forward.

ROBBINS: It does -- I mean, that's a certain group of them. There are -- a good part of the population has been sitting on the fence --

ZEBARI: These are the most important groups in fact who are taking up arms and so on. I am not saying that you should give up hope and not try with them, but the nature of this group is different when you apply the same standard to Sinn Fein or the IRA in Northern Ireland. This is Iraq, this is the Middle East; it's completely different.

MODERATOR: So let me be clear here to try to understand this. There is some progress on these laws.


ROBBINS: Would you expect us to see them in some form in the next -- you know, before September, which is the time the president has laid out?

ZEBARI: I believe the oil law is very, very close to a conclusion, and I think there is a high possibility that law would be legislated, because a great deal of progress has been made, I'd say, about ownership issue, about the distribution, a fair share, let's say, of the distribution for different regions. And so I'm hopeful that the hydrocarbon law is the most likely to be passed. Also, I'm hopeful that on de-Ba'athification measures, that you will see some more progress, some movement or motion on that.

Only recently the government has called on ex-officers of Saddam's army to rejoin the army from the rank of captain and so on. That was another attempt, I'd say, by the government to show seriousness on that; also, to exempt many members in the Ba'ath Party who are not responsible for committing certain atrocities or violations, and their record is clean, they are not ideologues or militants or so on, member of certain security agencies; and there is a large number of them. Again, here there is a great deal of confusion. In fact, as we speak, there are hundreds of thousands of Ba'athists who are working in the Iraqi ministries and government and institutions, even in the army. The current army, the new army is really made up of 60 percent or more of members of the old guard. So it's not that every Ba'athist is persecuted, is killed or eliminated and pushed aside; this is a misconception.

I have in my ministry, I would say, really major of -- 70 percent, over 70 percent from the old ministry. (There is the mass ?) of people who love their country, who work and so on. Those -- the bad guys, the member of the intelligence services, those ambassadors who were very close to the regime and -- those were removed. But the rest is still in fact working and functioning.

On the constitutional review, we have a commission that really has looked at nearly 45 laws on -- legislation. It's up -- it's a long process, I'd say, not one or two issues. But they are making progress. They are being assisted by the U.N. experts and legal advisers. So there is movement on that, too.

The September deadline that's talked about too much, that General Petraeus would present his report to the president, to the Congress -- also there could be a political report by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his team -- will come about that time. Here is where many people think it's important to augment or to support this military and security measure with a political move along all these issues.

I'm sure General Petraeus will tell the president in September: Mr. President, I've accomplished my job. I've secured Baghdad, or at least I cannot stop the car bombs or the suicide bombers, but the overall atmosphere is under control. But I can't hold it unless there is the government move on these issues or reconciliations or for decreasing the sectarian tension between the two communities, reaching out to other groups in the resistance and so on. And this is not my job. This is the Iraqi government job.

So we are mindful of that, really, that we are put under some pressure, let's say, to move faster. And what we've read yesterday, the day before, in the Times, you see, was indicative.

But these are critical times for us -- I mean, for the Iraqi, in fact -- to prove that really we can move faster.

But nobody was expecting until yesterday, when it happened, that the terrorists or al Qaeda would revisit Samarra, for instance, you see, to bomb or blew -- two abandoned minarets, you see, to ignite further sectarian fight or convulsion.

So the environment that we work or operate really is very, very delicate.

ROBBINS: I wanted to ask you two more questions, and then we'll throw this out. So I just want to ask: Tell us a little bit the perception of the commitments that you believe that you got from President Bush and this question of pressure itself. I have heard frustrated people, including people inside the government, people who care about Iraq, who say that every time they try to warn the prime minister that time is not unlimited and that he's got to get moving on this, they hear -- he hears from President Bush, "Well, you know, I'm staying there; more troops in; we're going to stay the course," and that this undercuts any pressure there is.

You know, when you hear what the Congress says, when you read what most of the editorial pages in the United States are saying at this point, when you look at the polls, you know, both the polls in their attitude toward the war and there are polls toward -- polling for President Bush and his approval rating and his handling of the war, I mean, what does the ruling group in Iraq say to itself? "Well, the Americans" -- you know, it's -- there's that old line about if you owe the bank, you know, $200 versus, you know, 200 million (dollars), who ends up owning you? I mean, do you guys own us? Is that the assumption, that we're just going to stay there forever, because we're so deeply in that the threats or pressure aren't real?

ZEBARI: No, but you don't ask all sides. (Chuckles.) In the same way, the same arguments could be applied. This is our country, actually; you are there to help us, to assist us. We all made mistakes, definitely. We have a serious challenge.

We are in a dilemma. You are in a dilemma. The whole region is in a dilemma. And the U.S. standing in the region, in the world is in question.

So the stakes are too high. That's why there must be more cooperation between Iraq, between the United States and with our neighbors, also, on the same time, to try to find some acceptable solution. If we abandon the situation as it is, well, the Iraqi cannot get together, and we can get out, which is very, very easy, in fact.

It's one of the easiest options.

But the consequences really would be devastating. This will not remain contained within Iraq or Iraqi border. So that's why we argued yesterday at the Security Council when we sought the extension of the mandate of the multinational forces, that this presence is important for the time being not only for Iraq, but for the entire region.

Now, we are aware of the major change and shift in American policy since the midterm election and the debate in Congress and the various levels. This has its impact definitely on us, and people actually from the region are being affected in different ways by this debate. And in our case, people see the disunity in the administration and the government, it emboldens our opponents and those who are killing your soldiers and our people on a daily basis. They have been doing their best to utilize or monopolize the differences in a very skillful way, and that applies even to stating the country -- in fact, I read a headline yesterday, "Samarra, Beirut and Gaza" -- you see -- "is in flames." It could be the source is one source of this. But anyway, the stakes are too high, in fact, the point I'd like to make, and that's why from now we are thinking of some long-term arrangements between Iraq and the United States beyond, let's say, this regular extension of the mandate, let's say, of troops and how many troops would be there and so on.

I think we are seriously considering that possibility.

ROBBINS: And when you say long-term arrangements, what does that mean?

ZEBARI: Well, long term may be security partnership arrangements because it would be difficult to sustain the current policy -- this is my view -- for a longer time, and that's why it's important to look for some other options.

ROBBINS: But you're talking about pre-positioning weapons or you're talking about permanent basing?

ZEBARI: Well, there are two ways, actually, we in the Iraqi government are looking. We consider the Status of Forces Agreement, but it's difficult. It's very detailed, we're still in a conflict, and you won't be able to do that -- you will be able to do it as one country, but with a coalition of countries even would be far more difficult, especially when your armies are fighting terrorism and, you know, a lethal enemy, really, like al Qaeda and so on. So it's difficult to -- the alternative is some security partnership. That will include whether -- basing rights, the number of troops, the unities, for instance, the sovereignty of the country to be more defined, so a whole range of issues. I think we are looking at it, these are just ideas, but the government is very keen to develop them.

ROBBINS: But you're keen because of a sense that even if there's a drawdown of troops, you want to have a certain number of American troops there for years to come. Is that what you're saying?

ZEBARI: Well, I think it's important for Iraq and for the United States to see that there has to be some arrangement to that effect. This is how we see it, so it's important.

MODERATOR: It's really sort of my final question, which is -- and you had raised this notion, that, you know, Gaza, Beirut and Samarra all in flames, all potentially the same source. I mean, if you talk to Washington, they think the source of all evil is a mixture of Tehran and Damascus.

When you were talking about all the same source, who were you talking about? And what do you say to the Americans when they say that a big part of their problem is coming from Tehran?

ZEBARI: When I spoke a few days ago with President Abu Mazen on a bilateral issue, and we joked over the phone that we anticipate that we will face some difficult times, you are facing some difficult times, and he said, and our Lebanese government's going to face some difficult times before -- (inaudible). So I said, what's the solution? He said, let's establish the front of steadfast of Arab nations, at the time -- (inaudible) -- was the subject, you know, to stand up -- (laughs) -- (inaudible).

But no, in fact, our neighbors have not been helpful. I mean, always Iran and Syria are singled out, but there are others at the same time.

I mean, most of our neighbors, with the exemption of Kuwait, I would say, have not been helpful at all to help our effort to help stabilize the situation or to help our key ally, the United States also, you see, to get out of this difficulty. But the degree of the level of their engagement and involvement there is from one country to the other.

Recently, at the beginnings of this year, I would say, really, we engaged in a diplomatic offensive that tried to assume goodwill from our neighbors, from Iran and from Syria. So with the Syrians, in fact, we normalized relations. We sent delegations, and soon we will have one of -- the committee on security -- to be hosted by the Syrians.

With Iran, we also encouraged some dialogue or some discussions between Iran and the United States, because we felt that these differences are reflecting on our own security and political situation, and Iraq has become some kind of a battleground between the United States and Iran to settle scores. And so that's why it was in our interests to try to help to break this deadlock. And it wasn't an easy process, in fact, when first we organized a meeting in Baghdad for our neighbors and we invited the P-5 ambassadors in Baghdad. That was a major breakthrough. Then it started us for the upcoming Sharm el-Sheikh conference, the regional conference track, with the participation of the P-5 and the G-8. And there also we assisted to make some contact between the U.S. delegation and the Iranians. At the time, people of the media were focused mainly about the lady in the red, you see, but obviously -- (chuckles) -- and something tangible happened. And what happened there was an agreement to meet in Baghdad, not anywhere else, and that meeting that we assisted was very positive. It was the first meeting after 27 years of complete diplomatic breakdown. I believe it will be followed by some further meetings in the near future.

But we've been very open, very direct with all our neighbors -- in fact, through the Arab League, through the OIC, through the neighboring countries conference -- that they're not doing enough, and everybody's pushing his luck to the limit. And if the United States fails in Iraq, don't think you will benefit. Iraq will fail -- at the moment, this is how the situation looks like, paradoxically -- and Iraqi failure will affect you directly. So you won't be immune from sectarian violence or conflict, from the disintegration of Iraq as a unified state, from the civil war, from the threat of terrorism, from drug trafficking, and all these things will affect you.

MODERATOR: Do they believe it?

ZEBARI: I think they do. I think they do. But at the same time, they are trying to continue their work to gain some other things from the United States, and this is part of their policies, unfortunately, now because of the war.

ROBBINS: Thank you.

ZEBARI: All right.

MODERATOR: So at this time, we want to throw it open. I would like to remind you all to please wait for the microphone, and when you come, would you please stand, state your name and your affiliation and please limit yourself to one question and no speeches.

QUESTIONER: Janet Benshoof, Global Justice --

MODERATOR: I just said to wait for the microphone. (Laughs.)

QUESTIONER: Janet Benshoof, Global Justice Center. I work in a nonprofit academic capacity with the Iraqi judges, and I have a question about benchmarks. Because I think who's choosing the benchmarks and that Iraq has reached some benchmarks that haven't been publicized by either Iraq or anyplace like The New York Times -- it's amazing, in the first tribunal trial, for example, that the judges -- who did not, incidentally, you know, pass the death penalty themselves -- used international law for the first time, said that they were going to obey the human rights treaties that Saddam had signed, which is more than the U.S. does. In the Anfal trial, 24 Kurdish women testified about rape openly for the first time in the Mideast --

ROBBINS: I'm sorry. Is there a question in there?

QUESTIONER: Yeah, the question is why haven't these been benchmarks? Why hasn't the fact that progressive international law being used, more than in the United States, a benchmark of progress in Iraq?

ROBBINS: I'm sorry. Is that question to me or is it to the foreign minister?

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

ROBBINS: Thank you.

ZEBARI: Well, the Iraqi government's committed to international law, and it is embedded in the new Iraqi constitution. And even in the incident you referred to, in fact, of Saddam's trial or the Anfal trial which is still ongoing, the Iraqi justice system is committed to international law. If there are any difficulties, you know, problems, in fact, here and there, this is a new experience even for us, so you have to be patient until we get it right.

QUESTIONER: I'm Christopher Isham from ABC. Mr. Minister, I wonder you could elaborate a bit more on what you mean by "unhelpful" when you talk about your neighbors, specifically Syria, their camps, they're facilitating insurgents coming into the country. Just elaborate a bit more, if you could, on what you mean by "unhelpful."

ROBBINS: And don't limit it just to Syria.

ZEBARI: Okay. (Laughs.)

Well, it's unhelpful, really. I'll speak, I'm a foreign minister, I'm engaged with some delicate -- (laughs) -- (off mike).

ROBBINS: Oh, we're friends here. You can tell us.

ZEBARI: (Laughs.) I'm not a commentator, you see. (Laughs.) But no, they have been unhelpful, and I've been very honest and direct with them, in terms of border control, not to allow foreign fighters to cross. There are some wanted people in Syria by the Iraqi government. We believe that they shouldn't be there. There is an increase, a surge in Ba'ath Party activities there, okay, and also, we believe that the media, which is not a free media, in fact, in many of these countries, have been very agitated.

And other countries also -- Iran, for instance, in fact, we have just recently had serious discussions with them that we need more actions than words and public support for the government and to match your words with your deeds. I have raised the issue with them. Instead of you providing support for individual militia, if you care about this government, why don't you channel all this aid and support directly to the government if it's a friendly government to you, instead of dividing it into different groups to challenge the government and so on?

Any evidence that we have with the Iranian impact through our diplomatic channels or through direct contact with them, we've been waiting for that. We have been encouraging them, really, to participate in this security commission that would be at the level of experts, not at the politicians, in order to exchange all the intelligence, all the information about their commitment and obligation to Iraq security.

So there is funding coming to these groups from various parts. There is recruitment. Many of these countries have very capable professional security agencies that would know what's going on, how they move, how they recruit, where they stay. But these are again, are questions of political will. Unless they have the will to do it, really, you cannot hold them with any tactical or commitment. That's why the key issue, I think, we are pushing to encourage dialogue not to give up hope with all our neighbors, is to make sure that a stable, democratic Iraq would not be a threat to them.

This will take time, in my view, to be very honest with you.

QUESTIONER: Improvement?

ZEBARI: We've seen some improvement, some improvement. Since these discussions started, in fact, in Baghdad, in Sharm el- Sheikh, and the bilateral communication between us and Damascus and Tehran we've seen. But it's difficult to judge that really; sometimes it goes up, sometimes it comes down.

But still we are not there to ensure their full support and commitment.

QUESTIONER: Mr. Foreign Minister, welcome back again.

ZEBARI: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: My name is Roland Paul. I'm a lawyer. Could you briefly describe and maybe even quantify what the security situation in the city of Baghdad is as compared to what it was before the surge, and maybe the balance between the situation for the Shi'ite neighborhoods as compared to the Sunnis? Thank you.

ZEBARI: Well, I think it's more than four months since the surge strategy was applied to Baghdad. And we calculated before the surge started really 80 percent of all acts of violence and terrorism were concentrated in Baghdad and Baghdad suburbs. That's why it was very important to establish stability in the capital.

Most of the terrorist and insurgent groups also abandoned the provinces and focused, for obvious reason, their activities in Baghdad.

The surge now in its fifth month, I think, fourth or fifth month, and only now, actually, the level of troops that was needed and required I think has been met. So this coming two, three months are very crucial. So far, in fact, many parts of Baghdad which were off- bounds even for Iraqi security, and so on, have been brought under control. Many neighborhoods have been cleared. And both the Iraqi and the multinational forces, the American forces, are running joint security forces in those neighborhoods.

We have seen people are cooperating more with the forces in terms of passing intelligence, identifying certain bad people, car bomb- making factories, and suspicious people, foreigners who are in their neighborhoods. We've seen a surge in this intelligence and information. We also have seen Iraqi public confidence growing, especially in the military, which are the leading force with the coalition in this operation. We've seen also businesses reopen, markets open again until early hours of the evening in many parts which were not the case before. We've seen more traffic. We've seen more signs of life coming back to many of these neighborhoods. Baghdad is divided by the Tigris into two parts, Rasafa and Karkh. In fact, in Rasafa, the situation has been brought almost to a normal way. Most of the difficulties now are on the western side, Karkh, where most of the surge operations are focusing.

But really still there would be attacks by suiciders, by car bombs, and they focused recently on some spectacular operations which have no military value, but for people it's very important. I mean the blowing up of two minarets in Samarra has no military significance whatsoever, or destroying a historical bridge like Sarafiyah in Baghdad, just to disrupt traffic for instance, doesn't need a (genuine mind ?) to do it, or blowing up some car bombs in the streets of Baghdad for ordinary shoppers, and so on.

Also, the government, in fact, has moved into this neighborhood to fix electricity, to provide services, to fix clinics, water, telephone lines, provide power generators for the neighborhood, and so on. I mean this is also an ongoing process by the government to support this clearing operation with stepping in opening banks and provided services to regain the confidence of the public.

So it is working. But from the beginning we said really we have to be patient until -- this is not a quick fix.

The most important thing we've seen -- I mean this sectarian killing in many of the neighborhoods was reversed. Recently, some of the death squads have been able to come back, but -- (inaudible) -- in fact that sectarian killing has been reduced by the surge.

QUESTIONER: Richard Murphy. Minister, welcome back. I've had a chance to discuss the issue of our military presence with some Iraqis who put it to me that we cannot begin to work out the accommodations between ourselves as long as we believe that America is going to stay in occupation indefinitely.

Do you think that is representative of a significant group in Iraq?

ZEBARI: I personally don't think it's representative. In fact, I'll give you one example.

This time before coming to New York, there was a fuss in the parliament, I mean a row in the parliament, people signing petition that the government should not be allowed to go to the Security Council to ask for another extension of the foreign troops here, unless that decision is taken jointly by the government and the parliament. And those who signed the petitions were basically from the Shi'a, the Sunnis, even some Kurds, in fact, even to that effect, so it was a representative body.

So I went to the Council of Representatives and I explained the situation, and this is our view that we must present our case, even we can tell the Security Council if we don't want these foreign troops to stay here, we can legally. And if they stayed after that against our will, well then that would be a real occupation. So we have choices. We are not going there, you see, without any power or any ability. But we believe that the current situation requires the continued mission of the MNF. And at the end of the year there would be another review; if we want to change, if we want to terminate that, we have another chance.

So when people talk about timelines or a timetable for the withdrawal of these troops, in fact, if we read carefully the Security Council resolution, we have two dates every year, every six months we have this review, and at the end of the year, also we have a second chance to look at the mandate of these forces whether they are needed or not.

Now, some Iraqis yes, I mean definitely who feel that the curse of all Iraqi problem is the presence of foreign troops. And that is -- and the panacea for Iraqi problems if these troops will leave as soon as possible.

Well, I'll put it this way. The presence of foreign troops in Iraq is problematic, let's put it that way. The departure of foreign troops would be more problematic. And that is the dilemma. In fact, any premature withdrawal simply, now with the lack of Iraqi military and security capabilities, will make Iraq a farm, an open farm, really, for our neighbors without any self-defense.

Secondly, I think this force is a deterrence against the breaking out of an all-out sectarian war or even civil war.

And their early departure also would mean that everybody would go back to his community. So a real division then would be a possibility, the disintegration of Iraq would be a real, real possibility. These are not slogans, these are facts. And nobody has worked closer with these forces than myself, you see, so in my own work I know the difficulties, I know the complexities. But that is the harsh reality of Iraq.

So, if you talk to -- in fact, now many of those people, the insurgents so-called, even the Ba'athists, are saying well, we can only talk with the Americans, not to the government, because we trust the Americans more than the government.

So, I mean, you can draw your own conclusions to the kind of people you are talking about. But definitely no Iraqi wants an indefinite presence of foreign troops on their soil. And there has to be the day when they should leave, but at least they left behind to see a functioning state that would be able to stand on its own, you see, to be able to defend itself at least. This is the challenge.

QUESTIONER: Claudia Parsons from Reuters.

You talked about variously other neighbors. Can you talk a bit about Turkey and the threat? Last week there was a lot of rumors that there were troops invading. Do you think that's a real possibility in the future? Are you talking to the Turkish government, the Turkish military, that kind of thing?


No, in fact, Turkey is a very important neighbor for Iraq, and all along we have sought to cultivate good relation with them. Turkey has its own concerns about developments in Iraq. And the key development is the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq, or for the Kurds to go and control Kirkuk and the oilfield to fund a greater Kurdistan. That is the fear that Turkey has. Also Turkey is concerned about PKK bases and activities in Northern Iraq against their interest, which is a legitimate concern. But Turkey in fact has not, like many other countries, interfered directly, let's say.

Although we as Iraqis get very agitated, in fact, when we see Turkish politicians speak about Kirkuk as if Kirkuk is a Turkish city that's not part of another sovereign nation called Iraq. And Turkey has a stated policy of respecting Iraq's unity, sovereignty, territorial integrity. So when my government or I as a foreign minister year that every now and again somebody will make a statement to the effect that the fate of Kirkuk should be this way or that way, definitely you don't feel comfortable.

Now recently we've seen some Turkish anxiety and unease, and that was reflected in a major troops buildup along the border. And it has been there for quite some time and has increased, in fact, recently really. So two days ago there was an extensive shelling and bombardment on the border region, which prompted us to hand the Turkish charge in Baghdad a note of protest. There was a serious concern that this could be a prelude to a major incursion, but nothing of that happened. In fact, we checked that there was no Turkish military incursion into Iraq up to now as we speak, which is a positive, a good thing.

We as Iraqi government have always asked Turkey that this issue of the PKK can only be resolved through dialogue between the United States, which is a major player here in Iraq, between the Iraqi government. And the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government, which is part of this new Iraq, they should be included, because they are the one who will help you most, and you. So it was our proposal, in fact, we -- to form a tripartite commission. That commission from the United States is headed by General Ralston, who's a very respected general, has worked, is familiar with the region, with the issues, and from our side, from the Iraqi government, by ministers, and from the Turkish side by a senior or army retired general; now I hear that they have changed him.

So that commission, in fact, we wanted it to be an operational commission, not a political commission, to discuss ways and means how to help each other, how to prevent the PKK from harming Turkish interest and jointly.

From observing the meeting of this commission, unfortunately, Turkey has not been enthusiastic in participating in this meeting and wanted bilateral discussion, mostly with the Americans.

And we have been very honest with Turkey. Now our hands are full, are tied. We are fighting in the suburbs and neighborhoods of Baghdad, you see. We cannot release or send Iraqi troops to the Kurdish mountains in Kandil and so on.

And really the threat is there, definitely. I mean, we have -- all along have condemned all acts of terrorism against Turkish interests, Turkish civilians, by whoever.

But I believe that there is room for some resolution. We are very encouraged by what the prime minister recently stated: that the PKK problem primarily is inside Turkey. If there are 5,000 PKK fighters inside Turkey, there are 500 in northern Iraq.

So the military should focus on doing its work inside Turkey, as a priority. We believe that is correct.

But we, as the Iraqi government, have always expressed willingness, readiness to work with Turkey, ready towards the -- to address their legitimate concerns on the PKK and on border security.

ROBBINS: Well, we have run out of time, unfortunately, and I'm going to take advantage of this. I'm going to ask you -- I want a short answer to this.

ZEBARI: Please. Okay.

MODERATOR: And it's an unreasonable question on my part.

ZEBARI: (Chuckles.)

ROBBINS: So I will say that.

You talk about how problematic it would be if American troops were to leave prematurely. When you close your eyes as you're falling asleep at night, you --


ROBBINS: -- when is Iraq going to be ready to have American troops leave? I mean, are we talking six months from now? Are we talking six years from now? Are we talking 16 years from now? I mean, give us a year. We've heard so many timelines and so many promises, but -- you know it. How long is a reasonable time?

ZEBARI: I'll be very honest with you. It's very difficult to give you a timeline. This is condition-driven process.

I mean, you can leave tomorrow, or the American troops can leave tomorrow, next week. Okay? But we're talking about the consequences of that, let's say, for American interests, for our interests, the regional interests. Their departure, I think, is bound by the Iraqi military and security capabilities and readiness. And we have started to build a new army from scratch, and building an army is not an easy job.

As we speak, after four years, the insurgents have more powerful weapons than the Iraqi army.

So really that process has been slow, unfortunately, and only recently has been expedited, only recently has been accelerated. Now we have about 10 divisions. We have nearly 350,000 men within the different military and security forces. They are in control of many parts of the country. We have seven provinces that are completely back under Iraqi security responsibilities.

The rest of the country is not as unsafe as in Baghdad. If you travel to the north -- my friend was there within -- a while ago. He felt safe there, I think. In the south, in many provinces also, really, life goes on.

Now there has been a major change and transformation in some of the troubled provinces, like Anbar, Diyala, where the local people -- the Sunni, in fact -- have started to take up arms, stand against al Qaeda. This is a new development.

But to give you a specific time -- I'm telling you, my government has a chance in December, if it is ready, is in control, to say: Well, I want to redefine this relation with the coalition forces or introduce certain changes or to agree on a phased withdrawal. But that depends on the condition on the ground.

ROBBINS: Well, thank you so much.

ZEBARI: Thank you. (Applause.)

















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