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Iraq's transitional foreign minister receives a tentative nod of approval from Arab states, reports Dina Ezzat
Following hints of approval from Arab capitals Houchiar Zibari, the transitional Iraqi foreign minister, is planning to tour Arab states to meet leaders and argue the case for a "new Iraq".
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Houchiar Zibari, Iraq's foreign minister under the Iraqi Governing Council, attends the Arab Council of Foreign Ministers at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo on Tuesday. The decision to allow Zibari to occupy the Iraqi seat came after weeks of intensive debate
"It is very important for us to have the support of our Arab brothers. It is also very important for us to establish excellent ties with Arab states," Zibari told Al-Ahram Weekly in an exclusive interview yesterday. Zibari, in Cairo this week to attend the Arab League Foreign Ministers Council meeting, said his presence was the beginning of "a long diplomatic road to rebuild Iraq's Arab ties".
Zibari assumed his country's seat in the opening session of the Arab Council for Foreign Ministers behind closed doors. The decision was taken on Monday following laborious inter- Arab negotiations that brought together representatives of all Arab states, excluding Iraq, along with the Arab League secretary-general. The decision to allow Zibari to occupy the Iraqi seat was approved by all other states apart from Libya.
"Taking into consideration higher Arab interests in maintaining Iraq's Arab [ties and identity]... the Arab Council for Foreign Ministers decides to accept the request of the Iraqi Interim Governing Council (IGC) to take Iraq's seat in the Arab League on a temporary basis," read the resolution adopted by members at the official opening of the meeting. A few minutes later Zibari was in the same seat last occupied by Saddam Hussein's Foreign Minister Naji Sabri during the war on Iraq.
Exactly five months after the fall of Baghdad Zibari, appointed by the US- supervised IGC, was received with applause from most delegates. The media were not, however, allowed to cover Zibari's entry into the Grand Hall of the Arab League.
According to Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher, chair of this session of the Arab Council of Foreign Ministers, the resolution allowing Zibari to participate aimed at "turning a new page" in Iraq's relations with Arab states. Addressing the opening session Maher argued that the resolution reflected the desire of Arab countries to facilitate communication with the Iraqi people and help them through this transitional phase.
For his part Zibari told the opening session that he was happy "to legitimately be in Iraq's seat among Iraq's Arab brothers". And in an attempt to distance himself from US occupying forces -- the IGC has been often castigated in the Arab world as little more than a puppet administration -- Zibari asserted that the IGC was working steadily on the steps necessary to draft a new constitution that would allow free elections, resulting in a new Iraqi government.
"The new Iraq will be very different from that of Saddam Hussein. It will be a peaceful Iraq interested in maintaining the best of relations with its Arab neighbours," Zibari said in an obvious attempt to allay the fears of Kuwait and other Arab countries.
Speaking to reporters at the end of the meetings several Arab foreign ministers insisted that Zibari and the IGC will have their work cut out if they want to turn such tentative approval into a fully-fledged recognition of the new de facto power in Iraq.
"This decision is only meant to encourage Iraqi movement towards liberation," said Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal.
Debate over Zibari's participation began two weeks ago, when he officially requested approval to participate in the Arab Foreign Ministers Meeting. The request was strongly supported by many members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and by Morocco and the Union of Comoros. With a strong push from the US these countries managed to persuade more hesitant Arab countries to allow Zibari to take Iraq's chair.
"The support for Zibari's participation was very strong and the opposition was very timid," commented one Arab League diplomat. "The membership of Iraq was not suspended after the occupation of Iraq by the US, so from the legal point of view any Iraqi was entitled to take the seat with the approval of Arab countries."
That said, the Arab League will reassess the situation when the foreign ministers next meet in March 2004, prior to convening the Arab summit in Tunis. IGC participation at the summit will largely be dependent on the progress report that the Arab League secretary-general is scheduled to present to the March meeting.
Meanwhile, the Arab League secretary-general has said the doors of the league will remain open to all Iraqi political forces wishing to express views on the situation in Iraq.
"The situation in Iraq is highly transitional. We have to keep in touch and deal with the realities and developments," he said. "Whether we like it or not there is a situation on the ground in Iraq: there is an occupation and there is a transitional governing council. We have to deal with them and we reached a compromise".