There can be no turning back for Iraq, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari tells Greg Sheridan
IN the cacophonous, bitter and rancorous debate about Iraq, there's one voice we seem determined not to hear: the voice of Iraq's democratically elected Government.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed genuine anger with the Western media about this in a press conference in Baghdad a few days ago. Standing among Iraqi ministers, he upbraided the media and said, in effect: "Let's not rule these guys out of the debate, you know they were actually elected, they have a little more legitimacy than the terrorists."
Few of them have more legitimacy than Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's Foreign Minister since 2003. A veteran Kurdish politician, a former insurgency leader (as he sometimes jokes to the US military commander, General David Petraeus, if you want to design a counter-insurgent strategy, consult a former insurgent leader); a leader of the opposition to Saddam Hussein, both inside Iraq and internationally, throughout the 1980s and '90s, Zebari has high credibility on the international stage.
He is one of the few Iraqi politicians to emerge with credit in Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi's definitive new book The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace, and he has survived assassination attempts.
Zebari does not want the international forces in Iraq - the Americans, British and Australians, among others - to leave anytime soon. He outlines the consequences of a rapid coalition withdrawal: "The country would disintegrate, it would be divided. There would be civil war, slaughter, sectarian war. There would be mayhem.
"International terrorists will find a safe haven in Iraq, a much more important and sympathetic safe haven than they found in Afghanistan, and they will attack others from there. Iraq's neighbours will be tempted to cross its borders and establish zones of influence there.
"Australian (troops) have a very good reputation in Iraq," he says. "The message the Australians are bringing is important: it's a message of standing with our people."
The time is coming soon enough, he says, when Iraq will be able to provide for its own security and Australian and other international troops can go home. But not now.
"This is a crucial period, this next few months," Zebari says. "Now is not the time to show weakness, to send the message that the coalition is crumbling."
In his only newspaper interview in Australia, Zebari also points out that although he deeply appreciates what Australia is doing, it is not an altruistic exercise. Australia, in Zebari's view, is acting in its own long-term interests by participating in Iraq.
"Iraq is not Somalia, Iraq is not Afghanistan. Iraq is at the heart of the Middle East, it is at the heart of the global energy equation, it is at the heart of the Islamic world. An Iraqi failure would affect you here in this part of the world.
"But I also know that Iraq will recover, I have every faith that Iraq will recover eventually. What you are doing in Iraq is contributing to your own future."
Zebari, like virtually all Iraqi democracy activists from the '80s and '90s and beyond, strongly supported the invasion of Iraq. (Indeed, the only pro-invasion demonstrations in societies such as Australia were mounted by Iraqis).
"From our perspective, the (US-led coalition) operation in Iraq was the right decision. We don't question the integrity of the leaders who planned the overthrow of Saddam Hussein," he says. "Those 12 million Iraqis who defied suicide bombs and the threat of death in order to vote, that is the vindication of overthrowing Saddam."
Zebari believed Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction at the time of the invasion. In his view, this was not a fevered conspiracy cooked up by flint-hearted neo-conservatives. Zebari's Kurdish group was among the first to be attacked with chemical weapons, even before Saddam's notorious slaughter at Halabja in 1988, in which 5000 civilians were gassed to death.
Zebari played a pivotal role in the '80s in telling the world of Saddam's WMD capabilities, both his chemical weapons and nuclear program: "Yes indeed, I believed in Saddam's WMDs. As Iraqis, we had tasted these weapons. He had possessed them, he had used them, the UN destroyed a part of it but not all of it. He didn't reveal everything, he was constantly lying, constantly cheating.
"If he didn't have weapons he could have revealed this, as (Libya's) Colonel (Muammar) Gaddafi did. There were no attacks on Gaddafi after this. Saddam used these weapons to strengthen his regime. It is still a mystery what he did with them. But the case that he had them was very convincing. He kept cheating all the time."
Zebari thinks the culture of Islam and the Middle East does not preclude democracy forever. "The hopes were high that with our democratic reforms, with women's rights and civil rights, that the Iraqi democratic project could represent what the region could look like. This, the prospect of a democratic Iraq, caused shockwaves and nervousness in the Arab world.
"Our message to our neighbours is: 'Don't be afraid of this. A peaceful, democratic Iraq is safer for you than a militarised Iraq under a dictator.' Arab countries will need some time to come to grips with this. This is a strong Government, despite all the conflicts of a coalition. It won't collapse or disappear. Twelve million people voted for it."
Though a remarkably frank and straightforward interlocutor, there is one question Zebari won't touch, and that is Iran's role in fomenting insurgency or other forms of violence within Iraq.
"As a Foreign Minister I cannot answer you," he says. "We assume the goodwill of our neighbours and we expect them to live up to that."
However, his Government is not passive in the face of the difficulties posed by its neighbours. One reason the Iraqi Government did not like the Baker-Hamilton report, charged with assessing the situation in Iraq, was that it called for direct, wide-ranging bilateral negotiations between the US and Iran and the US and Syria. But in that scenario Iraq would be the last topic they would discuss, the least item on their agenda.
Zebari has led Iraqi efforts, so far successful, to initiate a US-Iran dialogue on the subject of Iraq. Next Monday, in Baghdad, the US and Iranian ambassadors will meet directly for the most substantial, high-level US-Iranian dialogue in decades. Iraq will not only be the subject of their talks, the Iraqi Government will also be at the table.
"Any reduction of tension between the US and Iran will help us," Zebari says. "Instead of the US and Iran settling their scores with each other on my country, we have worked hard to try to establish a dialogue."
It is in Iran's interests, Zebari believes, for Iraq to succeed. It will have a Shia-led, friendly government on its borders instead of the "monstrous" and "demented" regime that Saddam represented.
Zebari, who as a Kurd is not directly involved in the Shia-Sunni Arab split at the heart of so much sectarian violence in Iraq, thinks both communities can furnish moderate leadership.
He describes the destruction of the Samarra mosque in a terrorist bombing in February 2006 as a "historic provocation" that led to much of the increased violence in Iraq. However, the US troop surge and the new security strategy for Baghdad, combined with what he sees as some restraint exercised by Shia leaders, has resulted in a decline in sectarian killings and ethnic cleansing.
Now is the time for the Sunni leadership, he says, to come to the table of political compromise: "The Sunni Iraqis have to come to grips with the new reality. The genie is out of the bottle, it can never be put back. They have to make compromises like everyone else. They have overcome the complex that Iraq can be ruled only by them. Those days are gone. But no one need be marginalised in the new Iraq. There is room for everyone."
Zebari thinks the US troop surge is having a beneficial effect and he has a high opinion of the new American military leader.
"We do have faith in our American friends, despite our concerns about the way they do things. General Petraeus is an experienced commander who has worked with us closely. But unless his military moves are accompanied by political moves by our Government, there will be very limited progress. We need our Government to come up with oil revenue-sharing agreements, to stop the work of the militias, to review our de-Baathification process, and many other things."
Zebari has plenty of criticisms of the Americans but understands that without them, perhaps hundreds of thousands more Kurds would have died at Saddam's hands and that Saddam would still be in power.
He also understands that he needs the Americans' help for some time more, and in some form for a long time more. But Iraqis will determine Iraq's future.
** End of feature report
Greg Sheridan is The Australian's foreign editor.