MARY BOIES: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations.
We are very pleased and privileged to have with us this evening the minister of foreign affairs for the Republic of Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari.
Now, before I introduce him, you know the rules: please turn off -- not just put on vibrate -- cellphones, BlackBerrys, all wireless devices. This is also to avoid interference with the sound system; it's not just to get rid of the annoyance.
I'd like to remind members that this meeting is on the record. And council members around the nation and the world are participating in this meeting via password-protected teleconference, and so we may get questions from them as well.
Minister Zebari is the current minister of foreign affairs. Indeed, he has been since 2003. And if you will just think about all the changes in Iraq and all the different governments during that period, you will know right away what an extraordinary man he is.
He is from the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He holds a master's degree from the University of Essex in England, and he studied political science in Jordan. He participated in armed resistance to the regime of Saddam Hussein and was active in the Kurdish Democratic Party.
Welcome, Minister. (Applause.)
FOREIGN MINISTER HOSHYAR ZEBARI: Thank you very much for your kind word, Mary. I want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations and to our friend Richard Haass, who has been a close friend of Iraq for many years. And this is not the -- not the first time, actually, I speak at the council. I have to admit I haven't a prepared statement, so I'll speak to you from the heart to the heart. I will speak our mind to you.
This session, as you know, it's on the record, so forgive me if I should be sometimes diplomatic on some of your questions. (Chuckles.) But I'll try to be as open as possible.
As you know, 10 years ago this city witnessed the September 11 attacks. Eight years ago there was the invasion of Iraq, the liberation of the Iraqi people from dictatorship. So there is something really we could remember about what happened here and what happened in Iraq and where we are today. And the 10th anniversary showed the American resilience, their unity, that they have overcome this tragic incident.
In Iraq, after eight years also, Iraq has not completely recovered, I would say, but really it's on the right path toward a stable, democratic, federal form of government. And what we see these days in the Arab world, in the Middle East, in the Muslim world shows that the Iraqi experiment in democracy was worth all the sacrifices, whether made by American, by other coalition forces, and first and most, by the people of Iraq themselves.
And what we see on television these days in the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, in Sirte and other places also show the desire, the longing of the great majority of the people for freedoms and dignity.
The Iraqi experiment in democratic transformation has not been tidy or disciplined or easy. It has many difficulties through the political transitions. But I can say confidently, really, that Iraq has passed the test not to fall into civil war, not to see a country divided, or not to fall into sectarian war. These are the three basic things that many opponents of the democratic change or regime change in Iraq were warning.
And as we see, many commentators these days warn about change in some of these countries, that the alternative, the outcome, would be chaos, would be disorder, would be divisions, would be more terrorism, more violence and so on.
The Iraqi experiment has not been easy. In fact, with the foreign presence in our country and the opposition to this new democratic system by our neighborhood, and by those countries who wanted to derail this experiment from its right path, it has delayed our progress many, many years.
In February when the no-fly zone in Libya was announced in Paris, I was one of the participants. And I made the point that I myself was a survivor of the no-fly zone decision. Otherwise, you would not have seen me sitting on this table with you. At the time, actually, it was very interesting for many people who were skeptical about whether this would produce any result or not.
But as events (showed ?), really, it has worked. I mean, the international interventions on behalf of gross human rights violations has produced some results. It's -- again, it will need more time, let's say, for Libya -- for Libya specifically to stabilize, but really it has prevented major, major massacres of the Libyan people.
Now, the Iraqi political transition, again, has not been easy, has not been tidy. But all these countries will go through the same route that we have taken. I mean, to have an interim government, to have election, to have a constituent assembly and then to have elections for a permanent constitution -- this is really the recipe for Egypt, for Libya, for Tunis, for Yemen. We don't know about Syria; I mean, it could be the same recipe.
Now, again, actually, our experiment has not been easy one, but we have shown as Iraqis that we can overcome some major, major challenges. As the last Iraqi government was delayed for eight, nine months when everybody were in despair that this has not worked, we, the Iraqi leaders, came together through our own initiative to form a broad national unity government.
Still it's not complete, but it's established. Iraq has its structure, it has its constitution, it has its way of resolving its own difficulties or internal problems. There may be delays. It's not easy, it's not tidy, but really, when we compare ourselves to our neighborhood, we are in a stronger position. We are in a far more comfortable position than many of these countries who are witnessing this.
The other issue that is of importance to all of you is the fate and the future of American forces in Iraq. This is an issue that is being debated by Iraqi media, by Iraqi parliament, by the international press. I have participated myself in many of these discussions, and we believe that still there is a need for continued American support and engagement for this experiment.
I mean, nobody should underestimate the importance of that engagement. That could be made undone in different ways. It's not the number of troops. If Richard remembers, '91, there was only six or seven American officers in Zafar, in Iraqi Kurdistan, at the military coordination center. And these six officers were sufficient to deter Saddam Hussein's security forces from invading the safe haven area or the no-fly zone. So it's not the questions of numbers and figures; it's really -- the commitment itself is very important.
Now, the debate now is actually -- is not about renewing or extending the SOFA agreement. The SOFA agreement expires by the end of 2011, will not be renewed. It will not be extended. That is final.
Now the discussions are taking place about whether there is a need for a training agreement between Iraq and the United States. Especially Iraq is planning to buy American weapons, F-16s, other armaments, and they definitely -- we as a country, like many other countries in the region, in the world, need these trainers and experts, let's say, to help and support the Iraqi security capabilities.
Now, every country in the region is watching this with an interest and with concern. We saw recently an increased Turkish-Iranian attack, bombardment, let's say, in the northern parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, and clear violations of its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and attacks on PKK camps, on PJAK terrorists, whatever you call them. But really, it's that indication that our neighbors will try to (jog ?) for positions in post-2011. That is another reasons -- then the Iraqi government needs this continued support, at least to be able to deter this regional intervention.
Now, on the Arab Spring, this is the most unprecedented development in the region. It has shown, actually, that Iraq can offer its expertise, its knowledge, its sharing of the political transitions to this country. And we've been approached by the Libyans, by the Tunisians, by the Egyptians really to learn from how we, the Iraqis, did it. Of course, we did it by ourselves, but with the support of the United States, of Europe, of the United Nations. It took many, many years, and still we are not even -- or we are not firmly, let's say, on our feet.
So these countries also -- in my view, it will take them some times until their systems are stabilized, especially many of them have known these regimes for the past 30, 40 years, and they are used and accustomed to this form of governments. So to change that system to a new system definitely it will be not easy. It will take them more time that many people anticipate and expect.
Now, Iraqi prospects, actually, for the future, for business, for investment, Iraq has great potential. I mean, in terms of its oil, its gas, its trade. And I believe that we have done our best to change the legislation, the laws, the environment, but still we are not where we should be because of many hindering problems like corruptions, like mismanagement, like the security situation in the country that sometimes it goes ups and downs. But generally, the overall security situation has improved, in fact.
The economic environment is better. Iraq has been freed of hundred -- of tens, I would say, of dozens -- of dozens of Security Council resolutions under Chapter 7. So now it has access to its money, it has access to buy arms, it has access to be a normal country. This was done with the support of the United States, of other countries on the Security Council. When the great majority of these restrictive resolutions have been removed, the only remaining one related to Iraq-Kuwait relation was -- Richard is an expert, I think, on that period when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. We have definitely a commitment to fulfill all our obligations under Chapter 7, again, to be a normal country in our dealing with the international community.
I will stop here. Thank you very much for your patience, for attending this meeting, and thank you very much for having us with you tonight. Thank you. Thank you. (Applause.)
BOIES: Thank you, Minister.
Well, I think we just heard at least one of the reasons that you have been foreign minister continuously through all these governments since 2003, and that is that you are very optimistic and you see things in a very cheery light.
Let me ask you, though -- you say that you -- that Iraq has made tremendous progress. It has, and yet even though you did finally form a government, there is still no minister of defense, there's still no minister of interior, there's no oil law, there's no resolution of the Kirkuk issue, and that was to be resolved under your constitution in 2007. And as you mentioned, there is substantial corruption and mismanagement.
So with that, could you give us more detail about the source of your optimism in the face of those challenges?
ZEBARI: Thank you very much. My source of optimism is the people of Iraq themselves, that they want a better life. Although it has been several months, actually, we don't have these three security ministers, but the government is functioning, is working -- may not be as perfect as one would like to, but it's part of our political settlement, actually, between the political blocs that say to agree on some professional people, nonpartisan ministers, that could lead these ministries. Especially -- these ministries control large number of people and in terms of political affiliation and sectarianism, it's very important to choose the right people for these ministries. I'm talking about over a million people under the command of these two ministries. So it's part of the political package, actually.
Recently there has been some progress when our defense minister has been nominated and the Shia bloc will nominate the interior minister. So I'm optimistic, really, that it has not reached a dead end or a deadlock, and we always see the half-full part of the glass. As politician and as Iraqis, this is (one ?).
On the Kirkuk issue, I would say here, being a Kurd myself, an Iraqi and a Kurd, really there is a misconception. It's not a Kurdish-Arab conflict as such. You've seen, we've heard warning from many commentators, many people that Kirkuk would be a powder keg for Iraq. It will blow up this country into pieces. There will be ethnic fighting over Kirkuk, over the boundaries. Eight years on, or nine years on, really none of that has happened.
There is tension, but there are means to resolve these issues. I mean, one of the issue is a constitutional issue there. We call it the DIB -- the disputed internal boundaries -- dispute between the KRG and the federal government, that there hasn't been final resolutions. The U.N. is playing a role here, let's say, to ease, lower the tensions. The American forces -- they were manning joint checkpoints in certain areas, of sensitive areas. Now they are leaving definitely. We, the Iraqi, would be in charge of this, to manage.
And on the oil law, or the hydrocarbon law, again, actually there has been some limited progress, I would say. First and foremost, out of budget constraints and some international experts advised my government, the Iraqi government, that the only way to make up for the deficit in the budget is to use the Kurdish oil in the north in the national system, the national grid. And that's why the KRG have agreed to pump nearly 150,000 barrel a day in order to make up that deficit. So it came out, purely out of objective realities of Iraq.
Now, definitely there is corruption. I'm not -- but there are commissions and means to fight corruptions, in terms of the media, of the independent commission that investigate these cases and issues. But we have a problem here, definitely. It's one of the reasons that prevent investors and companies, let's say, to be more present there. But there are ways to fighting it also.
I mean, this is not an excuse. For many companies we see now -- we see all the major American oil companies, European, Asians are working and operating in many Iraqi major fields in the south, in the center. So it has not been a complete halt, let's say -- I mean, this phenomena, which is evident in many other countries. That is why we feel optimistic, to say, I mean, about all these areas that you mentioned.
BOIES: And you have said that you believe that Iraq is on the right path and has passed the test not to fall into sectarian war or civil war. Now, there is a different point of view on that, and I would just like to read an excerpt from a very recent letter to President Obama that relates to whether and what amount of American troops should stay in Iraq following the end of this year.
And the letter says, "Failure to leave a significant U.S. military presence in Iraq will leave the country more vulnerable to internal and external threats, thus imperiling the hard-fought gains in security and governance made in recent years at significant cost to the U.S." And I take you disagree with that statement.
ZEBARI: I disagree. You say -- I mean, there are two things one have to differentiate between. One, it was the Iraqis themselves, actually, who did not allow their country to fall into sectarian war or into civil war because their overall interests and the benefit, that what they can get from a unified democratic country is far more than self-interest, let's say, for -- now, if you talk about the Shia -- the Shia are now the governor (sic) of Iraq. They would not be interested to have part of the country. They want the whole country.
The Sunnis, who lost power, let's say, in Iraq, now they are part of the country. I mean, they don't control everything, but they are represented in it. And the Kurds also (tell ?) that really secessionism, independence will not serve their overall interest. It's better for them to be part of a successful country, and this is why you see the president, myself and many other officials are serving in Baghdad, not in Kurdistan, in Erbil, that you have visited many, many times.
ZEBARI: So -- here, actually this is a part of the -- second thing: that American presence there actually was helpful in many ways to ease tensions, to communicate, to advise and so on. But specifically it was the Iraqi people, Iraqi leaders who really did not encourage or did not engage in enhancing the sectarian tensions.
Recently there was an incident in Anbar, and it was deliberate to incite sectarian conflict, where a number of Shia pilgrims were massacred and there was a reaction, let's say, by the Karbala governors to go and arrest people, you see. And the tension was very high, but the leaders got together and managed to resolve it.
So that's why I believe the Iraqis themselves don't want, let';s say, to be dragged into this.
BOIES: As we all know, Muqtada al-Sadr was a key reason that Prime Minister al-Maliki was able to form a government. And al-Sadr has warned that if the withdrawal doesn't happen in total, there will be tougher military operations resumed in a new and tougher way. What role, if any, will al-Sadr and his threats play in this government's decision as to what to do, come December 31?
ZEBARI: Well, the (patric ?) statement of al-Sadr and the Sadr Trend or Sadr MPs in the government or minister (sic) is really they have suspended all activities or attacks on the Americans. I mean, this is the most recently.
They have a bloc in the parliament of 40 members or so. Definitely their ideological position is hostile to the United States or to the presence of any foreign presence in Iraq at the same time. But they are part of the political process. (Their alignment ?) -- they have four or five ministers. They have this bloc.
But as we saw in -- during the negotiation over the SOFA agreement, again, the Sadrs were totally opposed to the SOFA signing by the Iraqi government. Iran was opposed to that. But in fact, Maliki and the government and other leaders all got together and we passed it in the parliament and we had the majority. So they accepted that outcome.
This time, all the political leaders on August the 2nd, the day of Saddam's invasions of Kuwait -- (chuckles) -- all supported the government, actually, to start negotiation on the training missions in post-2011. And the Sadrs were there. They did -- objected, but really they could not block a decision of the majority.
BOIES: Has your government made a decision as to whether you want any American troop presence after the end of this year? And if you do want it, what is the size and nature of the mission that you seek?
ZEBARI: Well, again, I said the number is not important, really, as the commitment. Secondly --
MODERATOR: Doesn't the number help drive the nature of the mission?
ZEBARI: No, but I think there would be -- I would not be able to give you any figures on how many Americans are needed. I mean, the mission itself will decide it. The commanders on the field or the -- or the professional people who negotiate on this issue, they will need how many trainers they need for the Iraqi air force, for the Iraqi navy, for the land forces, for maintaining the equipment, for anti-terrorist cooperation, for intelligence sharing, let's say, on the protection of the embassies, of the American assets and consulates. So --
MODERATOR: So you're focusing on troops to have a training role.
ZEBARI: That's right.
MODERATOR: Have you ruled out troops to have a role in security?
ZEBARI: There wouldn't be combat troops, as such, or to legitimize the American forces, let's say, there under a new agreement. This would be totally a different arrangement. And so the SOFA, the presence of the American forces, legally, will end here. But even for the trainers, as many of your experts in the audience knows, they need certain jurisdiction to work and operate there. So any arrangement, again, according to our system, has to go through the parliament. And that needs political support and consensus, and we believe we can get that.
MODERATOR: Turkey's air strikes in recent weeks at your border are fueling a potentially serious crisis. Indeed, you summoned Turkey's ambassador to your ministry, and you were quoted as saying: We demanded an immediate stop to these air strikes.
What happens if they don't stop, and why are these strikes taking place?
ZEBARI: Well, it had an impact, actually. I mean, Turkey and many other countries are sensitive about their image, about their role and about consistency, also. And although Turkey has a cause, actually, to pursue, to follow the PKK or any elements hostile or any terrorists that undermine or threaten their security, but on the other hand, actually, there is a neighboring country, a friendly country to them that the balance of trade has reached over 10 billion, and so on. It should show some respect for its sovereignty, for its interests, for its territorial integrity, as such. I mean, the international law cannot be interpreted by whoever -- (inaudible).
And the same thing can apply to Iran, actually. We have been very consistent in demanding a halt and asking that this is not the way to resolve these issues. And the Turkish government had an initiative for dialogue, for resolutions; and through air strikes or attacks or sending troops across the border hasn't resolved these political issues.
MODERATOR: Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has said that Turkey and Iran are cooperating very well.
ZEBARI: This would be a very, very serious --
MODERATOR: Is that worrisome?
ZEBARI: This would be a very, very serious development, I mean, not only for Iraq, for the region. I mean there may be some competitions between the two, but on the one issue that they are united, on this Kurdish issue, let's say -- they may differ on every other issue, let's say, in the region, in the world, but on this they have a unity of purpose, and we know that. Myself, I have experienced that for many years.
But again, really, it will not resolve the issue. I mean, both countries have political issues with their own people of Kurdish origin or Kurdish populations. It needs other means, let's say, I mean, not through violence or, I mean, interventions from military means and bombardment and using airplanes. This is what we have been telling them.
MODERATOR: Do you believe that these air strikes are indeed for the purpose of clearing out PKK insurgents, or do you think that is a pretext and, instead, Turkey and Iran are jockeying for position or sending Iraq a message?
ZEBARI: No, I think it has something to do in post-2011, in my own humble assessment -- how the Iraqi government would react, how the Americans would react, let's say, to these incursions, interventions. Because, really, the level of threat to them by these groups or armed groups doesn't warrant, I mean, to go on bombing these regions for weeks and for months.
I mean, in the past, we have seen bad reactions and responses that lasted for one day, two days, three days and so on. But this time, no. It has been consistent and consistent. That's why it gives us some reason to believe it has to do with the broader regional politics of Iraq and the aftermath of the American withdrawal.
MODERATOR: And speaking of the region, you, once again, are very optimistic about the Arab uprising, Arab spring, Arab awakening. And I believe that you said that your lesson in Iraq was that the move to democracy will take some time. You seemed confident, unless I misunderstand you, that the direction these uprisings will take will be toward democracy. Are you concerned about other influences?
ZEBARI: I think that is the way that all the great majority of the people want. And there was a big debate after the war in Iraq how legitimate it was, whether it was a war of choice, of necessity. For others here, we participated in many forum and so on. But when 12 million people embraced and went to vote, to cast their votes, in my view, it vindicated, you see, what happened, because the great majority of the Iraqi people wanted democracy, wanted to participate, to be part of that system.
Now, here, with the Arab Spring, I am cautiously optimistic, really. I think that it will take them time until their system, their regimes will stabilize, until representative government will come to power. There are many divisions, let's say, and each country is different from the others. But I think the path we have taken, the political transition, is the only way that they could follow. And I participated in a debate with Arab intellectuals, with counterpart ministers in Paris during the Libyan crisis on whether what happened is -- if the change in Iraq didn't happen, would the Arab Spring would have started or not? That was the question.
And I strongly argued that Iraq really led this uprising and was the model, the example for many other countries. But these uprisings were delayed, mainly by the opposition, the rejection of all these countries to these new phenomena in the region. It was not only an American export of democracy or commodity and such. It was portrayed this was an occupation. It was portrayed that this was an imposed. It was portrayed that it has led to violence, it has led to terrorism, it has led to the activism of al-Qaida, of all these ills.
So I argued, really, you delayed us, you see, for many years. I mean, this spring should have happened much earlier. I am here not advocating George Bush's agenda of freedom or of -- and so on, but really we got into a discussion that I strongly believe that Iraq was the key reason for this uprising in many, many ways in terms of freedoms, in terms of empowerment, in terms of dignity, in terms of accountability.
And it is unprecedented, believe me, I mean, the freedoms we enjoy. I mean, there are restrictions. There are violations, at the same time, which we do not condone. As I said, the system is not tidy. But I have heard it from the Tunisians. I was the first Arab minister to go to Tunis to congratulate the new revolutions. And they really, all of them, demonstrated, expressed their willingness to learn from our experience.
MODERATOR: Well, thank you, Minister, and thank you for the -- and I congratulate you and your country on the tremendous progress that you have made.
At this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversation with questions. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand, state your name, affiliation, and please limit yourself to one concise question. I'd like to remind national members to email their questions to email@example.com. Yes, sir?
QUESTIONER: Mr. Minister, my name is Roland Paul. Welcome back to the council. I've had the pleasure of seeing you here twice before. I'd like to ask you -- perhaps you could round out more this subject of the progress Iraq is making that you've referred to several times in your remarks in, perhaps, two different areas.
One is, what progress are you making in a security manner, vis-a-vis the insurgency -- maybe the Sunni and the Shiite? And if you wanted to tell us what casualties they have suffered, I would welcome that. And on the other hand, did I understand you to say that you need that American training mission to keep out undue Iranian influence?
MODERATOR: Thank you.
ZEBARI: Thank you. Well, on the insurgency, actually, we're talking about different opposition groups to the government. I mean, you don't see the insurgency that was in control of certain cities, of regions, of areas, like Fallujah, like Anbar or like Diyala. You see that they were supported by the local populations. There was a strong al-Qaida, let's say, presence in Iraq that was launching deadly attacks. Our ministry was one of the targets. You see that they demolished it, but we overcomed (sic) it again.
So it has changed, actually. And also, the work that the Iraqi security forces, the Americans, have really tripled -- the al-Qaida and the deadly insurgence groups. Still, there are still, actually, the remnants of the old regimes. Still, there are militias affiliated with certain groups or to Iran, for instance. There are Baathists from the old regime who still believe that they have a chance to return Saddam Hussein's rule one day.
But really, their influence has diminished a great deal. Every now and again, you would see they can launch a series of attacks, spectacular attacks, but really, it takes them quite a long time to prepare. I mean, unlike before, it was a daily occurrence. I don't have a figure or a number how many people have lost their lives. I mean, there are many, many innocent people who have lost their lives. But really, they couldn't pose an effective challenge to the new Iraqi security forces.
So on the presence of the Americans, whether they will deter Iranian influence and so on, really, it is controversial, I mean, this issue. On the one hand, I remember even discussing this issue with Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, whether they want the American forces to withdraw completely or not. And anyway, he said, really, the Americans should stay, actually. They have helped. They have built this tree. They should nourish it; they should water it; they should not just pack and go.
Anyway, but in fact, the deterrence to any Iranian influence is the Iraqis themselves, I believe. I mean, to have a unified position, vis-a-vis all the regional interventions, whether it's Iran, whether it's other countries in the region who are trying -- I mean, we have shown every time we acted in a unified fashion vis-a-vis any of these countries, they have listened very, very carefully to our position.
MODERATOR: Thank you. The gentleman on the aisle. Sir?
QUESTIONER: Jeff Laurenti with the Century Foundation. Minister Zebari, while those who had felt the lash of Saddam Hussein - Iraqis like yourself, Kuwait and, with much bigger reservations, Iran -- welcomed very much the American invasion, most of the rest of the Arab world and the broader Muslim world went bananas, went bonkers over it and it incited a great deal of opposition.
And it led, for many years, to the ostracization -- or ostracism of the new Iraqi government from intra-Arab affairs. What's been the turning point in welcoming the new Iraq back into that Arab family? And how does your position, Iraq's current position, on the Syrian uprising either help you get in further or alienate you from some of those other Arab states, which appear quite conflicted on it?
ZEBARI: Well, the mood has changed in the region, actually. I mean, in all these Arab demonstrations, protest movements and so on, you haven't seen any slogans against American imperialisms or Zionisms and so on. They are asking, demanding for basic human rights, basic freedoms. And that has been, like, I mean, the main (train ?), actually, apart from certain incidents recently -- attacks on the Israeli embassy in Egypt, and so on -- but if you look back, actually, at their demands.
Secondly, I mean, it's no longer in the Arab world a taboo to call for international aid and support. I mean, look, I had many arguments with the Libyans, with Gadhafi, himself, about our need for international help and assistance, that why didn't you do it yourself to overthrow Saddam? Why it required 150,000 American troops to come and you did ride American tanks, and so on? And with President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen.
And my response was, no, we rode against Saddam in '91 during the uprising, we liberated all our cities and towns, but then we could not get any international support, or even American support at the time. So we tried that path, but we failed. And we alone could not do the change.
Now look at Libya, for instance. They have publicly, openly welcomed the NATO/American support to save lives. And in fact, not only there has been air attacks on Tripoli or in other places, no, I can tell you there has been special forces, European forces fighting on the ground to defeat Gadhafi, and cooperation, also.
Really, I think that -- look at the Syrian opposition is what they are asking for. It was a taboo, let's say, to call for international protection for these people and so on. So because of what they are suffering, the pain, the dehumanization, actually, we see in their treatment, therefore I think that the mood has changed.
And that's why many people look upon Iraq in that sense, that it was the might of the United States, of Europe, of the coalition that changed the Iraqi people from a brutal dictatorship like Saddam Hussein. The second part, I could not follow, if --
QUESTIONER: (Off mic.)
ZEBARI: Well, Syria is different, actually. Syria is not Libya. Syria is not Yemen. I mean, the geopolitical situation of Syria is completely different from other countries in its impact, let's say, on regional politics and on Iraq, on Lebanon, on Israel, on Palestine. That's why everybody really is more cautious in dealing with Syria.
But change in Syria also, actually, from all the evidence we see, is bound to happen. I mean how, this is entirely up to the Syrian people, but they, themselves, are calling, let's say, for protection, for interventions. But I think it would be extremely difficult to stop this grassroots movement of the people. And it is widespread, really, I mean from our observation.
Unfortunately, it is taking a sectarian line; I mean the conflict itself. The regime is still strong, I mean, in its monopoly of the security, the military and can maneuver that. The opposition is not united, as such, let's say, to pose a real threat, but this is not an excuse for all these violations, let's say, that happen on a daily basis. But I personally believe that the situation in Syria is a question of time, also.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Yes, sir?
QUESTIONER: Nick Bratt with Lazard Asset Management. Mr. Minister, thank you very much for your comments this evening. I'd be interested to hear from you how you perceive the involvement of Chinese business interests and government involvement in your country at this stage.
ZEBARI: Thank you. Well, China, as you know, is a world power these days and very powerful. And wherever there is an oil well in the world, you will see a Chinese flag next to it. (Laughter.) So Iraq has always enjoyed good, friendly relations with China in the past, and the Chinese have been very practical in dealing with Iraq, actually. Even in the Security Council in a number of cases, they have shown a great deal of pragmatism, not ideology.
In fact, they have secured some major concessions in the south. I mean, their oil companies, their trade relations with Iraq have improved. And we enjoy good relations with them. They have one of the key oil fields in the south, Al Ahdab oil fields, that they have secured. They are producing now. I don't know the details, to be honest with you. But really, they are competing very, very forcefully.
And this is what we have been telling our American friends, British and others, that you, who sacrificed most, who have helped -- others are far more ahead of you, let's say, in exploring this opportunity and making the best use of investment, of presence. You will see some Chinatowns, really, in Amara province and Missan and others emerging, let's say. So despite all the security concerns many people have, no, they are operating there.
MODERATOR: We have 10 minutes remaining, and we're going to cover a lot of territory. So I'm going to take three questions. One, two, three. Raymond, you're third. Yes, sir?
QUESTIONER: Thank you, Mr. Minister. David Short with FedEx. You acknowledged in your remarks that corruption remains a challenge that Iraq is dealing with, and I am sure you are aware Transparency International, the highly regarded NGO based in Berlin, ranks Iraq, I believe, among the lowest five or lowest 10 countries in the world in terms of this issue.
Could you comment, please, on why is it that -- what went wrong that a new country, a new government formed after the liberation in 2003 so quickly devolved to have such a problem with corruption? And what is being done to remedy that? Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Now I'll take the second question, directly behind you.
QUESTIONER: Hi, how are you?
ZEBARI: Hi, I'm fine, thank you.
QUESTIONER: Ned Parker, Council on Foreign Relations. I wanted to ask you, you mentioned that for U.S. military trainers to stay on, it will likely have to go through the parliament as an agreement, if I understood. And it does seem, for that to happen with the meeting on August 2nd, that there needs to be a political breakthrough as well, regarding the filling of the three security ministries and resolving the fate of this council that, possibly, Ayad Allawi would head.
It seems, now -- it's almost October, and it seems that progress on the political front regarding the ministries and the council is going very slowly, at best. So we see the real possibility that there will not be a coalition of Iraqiya with Maliki to approve, along with the Kurds, of a security training agreement, which means you would have a small security office in the embassy but not troops or enough trainers.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
QUESTIONER: So what I wanted to know -- I'm sorry -- is just, if there isn't an agreement to have trainers on the ground, what does that mean pragmatically if you don't have these trainers? What does that mean for Iraq? What does that mean for the Iraq-American relationship?
MODERATOR: Thank you. Mr. Marks, last question in this round.
QUESTIONER: Mr. Minister, on the assumption that the United States will not have a significant military presence in Iraq going forward, how will Iraq implement a foreign policy, a national security policy so as to ensure that its territorial integrity is respected by Turkey and Iran?
MODERATOR: OK, thank you.
ZEBARI: Thank you.
MODERATOR: One is corruption, two is the --
ZEBARI: On corruption, actually, I am not going to defend these figures and the rating of Iraq on the international transparency list. But this country really was rich with corruption. If you remember, the Iraqi economy depended on the Oil-for-Food during Saddam's recent years. And so the amount of corruption, not only in Iraq but even at the international level, it reached even the United Nations and so on. So it's not a new phenomena, as such.
But recently -- these figures, actually, I am not going to dispute it. We believe that we have to fight it through the right means. There is a public integrity commission that is auditing, also. Before, all our oil reserves were controlled here by the United Nations. I mean, all the oil sales used to go to a DFI account where, really, it was transparent. It was reported regularly, let's say, even to the Security Council. But there are ways, actually, for corrupt people, let's say, to find their way through contracts or interventions, through middlemen and so on.
But the trend is really to reduce it. I mean, I can mention that, I mean, confidently. And all the issues are being debated, let's say, publicly, in fact, in the parliament and in the media. So I am hopeful, optimistic, really, with good governance and accountable government, there will be less corruptions, let's say, in that. But it is a struggle. It is a fight, let's say.
Ned, who has been an old friend, has worked in Baghdad for many years, and he asked some detailed questions. I'm very delighted to see you here at the council. You know we have passed far more difficult times, Ned. Remember after the elections, the debate whether there would be a government or no, and the discussions we had in my office with you and the predictions we made all proved to be right. (Tama ?). (Laughter.)
(Chuckles.) Anyway, but in fact, we discussed with the American side whether there would be a need for a new agreement, let's say, for the trainers and so on. Couldn't we replace that with a memorandum of understanding between the MOD and the Pentagon or the Interior Ministry or the security agencies here for training of the police, of the army and so on?
But the problem, as I mentioned in my remarks -- the American laws demand and require that American forces everywhere, from Japan to Chile, they must have their own jurisdiction. And this sometimes may contrast with the local laws or the Iraqi laws that we have, and we have to work through that. That's why it needs to go through the parliament. There is a broad consensus by all the political blocs, even in the absence of the strategic policies council or of the (emergency ?) -- (inaudible) -- if it is delayed, really, in the parliament, I think all the political leaders are committed to the 2nd of August plans that they have made publicly to support the government to reach an agreement on the trainers for a training program.
Now, on the national security, definitely, this is the big question. And I have been dealing with that issue and living through that. It's not an easy challenge, really.
I mean, before, Iraq used to answer this question of Saddam Hussein through building huge armies, weapons, WMDs, attacks and threats and so on. Now the new Iraq has abandoned all this, and it has to rely on its system, its political system, its economic prosperity and the wealth it has with the good, neighborly relations with its neighbor -- I mean, with a country like Iran, where we have nearly 1,300 joint border lands, let's say, with them, and with many, many interests, last year, we had 1 million Iranian pilgrims visiting Najaf and Karbala, let's say, holy shrines. And we had nearly 600,000 Iraqis who have visited the other way.
With Turkey, with the GCC, with Syria, definitely, we have a national security council in the government where all the relevant ministers are members and meet on a weekly basis with the prime minister to plan and design what we should do, you see, to protect our national security.
BOIES: Thank you, Minister. I believe we are straight up at 7:00, and so I thank you for coming. And Minister, I thank you so much for your time here. (Applause.)
ZEBARI: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.
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