Undeterred by violence
Iraqi foreign minister, Houchiar Zibari, spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly as his country was mourning a day of violence
Arab countries may take small steps towards reform and even smaller ones to resolve acute regional problems, Dina Ezzat follows pan-Arab efforts to grapple with a region in turmoil, and interviews the interim foreign minister of Iraq
Iraqi Foreign Minister Houchiar Zibari was in his hotel room in Cairo on Monday morning, getting ready to take part in an Arab foreign ministers meeting, when he learned of the horrifying explosions in Karbala and Baghdad. By the time Zibari had taken his seat in the Grand Hall of the Arab League, dozens of Iraqi civilians had already been announced dead and wounded with no clear indication of who was behind the attacks. "This was really shocking and horrifying news. This is not what the Iraqi people deserve. Innocent Iraqi men and women do not deserve to be subjected to this," Zibari told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Speaking to the Weekly in an exclusive interview at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League, Zibari did not seem particularly alarmed or concerned over the political future of Iraq, however. "This is very sad but it is a conflict that we have to go through. It is a conflict between two wills: the will to turn the page on the past and work hard to build our new free, stable and democratic Iraq and the will to keep the past alive and to maintain an atmosphere of violence and conspiracy," he said.
According to Zibari's perception the will to turn a new leaf is sure to emerge victorious since that is the true will of the Iraqi people. "The Iraqi people, with all their factions, political affiliations and ethnic colours, are bound to win in the conflict against those groups who want to interrupt the movement towards the future," he said. "The terrorist groups that can only flourish in darkness will not have the upper hand over the Iraqi people who are now struggling to build their own modern country and who are determined to build a country where people can live together in peace and be at peace with everybody else."
Zibari did not seem to be very sure about who is really behind these attacks. At one point he blames "Al-Qa'eda and other similar groups who do not belong to the Iraqi nation". He also blamed a group of Iraqis whom he qualified as sympathisers with the horrible past of Iraq. All along, Zibari accused "those terrorists who are responsible for such horrible acts and who seek to sow the seeds of civil strife in Iraq".
According to Zibari, those responsible attacked Shias in Karbala on a holy day in order to provoke their anger against Sunnis while Sunni headquarters in Baghdad were attacked in order to incite anger among Sunnis against Shias. "They simply want to harm the Iraqi people and distract their efforts to build a new Iraq because they know once the new Iraq is built it will reject their presence. They will not have many places to go to after they have been crushed in other Arab countries including Egypt and Morocco," he told the Weekly.
As far as Zibari is concerned it does not matter very much who is actually behind the bloody attacks in Baghdad and Kerbala. "Whoever they are, they do not seek Iraq's best interests," he said. "And, at the end of the day, we are not deterred. We are very saddened by the loss of innocent lives. We are very saddened that the Shias -- who were for the first time in so many decades celebrating [a Shia religious festival] -- had to suffer so much. However, we know that it is only a matter of time before we put this entire phase of violence completely and entirely behind us."
It has been almost a year since the US-UK military aggression against Iraq began. Soon it will have been a year since the fall of Baghdad to Coalition forces on 9 April 2003 and it has been almost nine months since the Iraqi Interim Governing Council (IGC) was appointed and later assigned Zibari, among other Iraqis, as members of the first post-Saddam Hussein cabinet. However, for many the IGC and the cabinet it assigned under the supervision of US occupation forces have hardly had anything to report in the way of progress. Havoc is still wrecking Iraq and the small semblance of ongoing state reconstruction is generally eclipsed by the many problems that confront the country.
Zibari, however, does not agree that progress has been minimal. "This is simply not true. This is the sad and disappointing image that some Arab satellite TV channels are putting across, but this is not what is really happening on the ground," he told the Weekly. He emphasised that "real and tangible progress is being made. We are working on rebuilding our institutions: the police, the army, the intelligence service and political parties. We are involving both new people and members of the institutions working under the former toppled regime, provided we are sure they did not take part in any crimes against the Iraqi people, or Iraq's neighbours."
The main achievement reaped so far in this process of development, the Iraqi foreign minister said, was the approval of Iraq's Fundamental Law on Sunday. "Some thought that we were not going to make it. They thought that because we had fallen a few days behind our original deadline that we were doomed to be trapped in disagreement. But we proved them wrong," he told the Weekly. According to Zibari, this achievement constitutes a major step on the road that Iraqi people are now following towards restoring their full sovereignty. "I know that some people say that this Fundamental Law was produced under occupation and with the interference of American forces. But I am not worried about that because it will not be very long before those sceptics realise that they were wrong and that we are right," he said.
This is not a view that many observers, including Iraqis, are ready to share. As far as some observers are concerned the Fundamental Law that was approved on Sunday is perhaps one of the reasons behind the violence of Monday. Critics argue that the fact that this law fell short of stipulating that Islam be considered the main source of legislation in Iraq, and that Iraq is an Arab country, directly provoked those political forces who consider the IGC as a mere puppet regime installed by the US to serve its own interests in the region.
Certainly Zibari was willing to listen to the arguments against the Fundamental Law but he still provided different answers. "Iraq is a multi-ethnic country and the Arab people in Iraq are certainly a fundamental part of the Arab nation, but we cannot ignore the other shades of the Iraqi population," he said. "Islam is referred to in the Fundamental Law to be a main source of legislation and it is made very clear that no law could be passed if perceived to contradict with the indisputable rules of Islam as identified by the consensus of the majority of clergy," he said. "However, it is equally important that new Iraqi laws do not run counter to the bill of rights that we approved codifying the rights of all Iraqi citizens irrespective of their gender, religion or ethnic background. Moreover, the temporary Fundamental Law stipulates that as a multi-ethnic country, Iraq is a federation that should be headed by a president and a prime minister. The Fundamental Law was supposed to be signed in an official ceremony on Wednesday in Baghdad. However, this ceremony was postponed for at least three days while Iraqis mourn for their dead."
The second step, "on the way to ending this phase in which violent attacks take place inflicting harm on the Iraqi people, will be taken in late June when the Coalition forces transfer power to the Iraqi people", the Iraqi foreign minister said. He told the Weekly that although he is not 100 per cent sure as to who will take over power, he is inclined to suggest that it will most likely be an extended version of the IGC. An equally momentous step should be taken with the "first free elections in decades by the end of this year", he added. "Afterwards, we will have our own permanent constitution. By the time we are done with this process, we will have in place an Iraqi government that will be capable of restoring stability to the new Iraq. I believe that the terrorists who committed these atrocious and [widely] condemned attacks against innocent Iraqi people know this very well and this is why they are trying to obstruct the move towards these goals."
Zibari said Iraq will ask both the United Nations and the Arab League to support its efforts at achieving the IGC goals. "We were pleased with the initiative of the Arab League to send a delegation to Iraq to meet with representatives of all Iraqi seats of power and to look first hand at the reality on the ground. And despite our reservations on the exaggerated emphasis that the report issued by this delegation made on some irrelevant issues we are still pleased that the Arab League is trying to find a way to communicate with Iraq," he added. He went on to say that, "by showing a sense of realism, the Arab League could provide greater assistance especially in relation to the huge reconstruction effort." It was about six months ago that the Arab League agreed to allow Zibari to take his country's seat in the pan-Arab organisation. The Iraqi seat in all Arab meetings had been vacant since the fall of Baghdad last April.
Earlier in the week, Zibari ended an Iraqi practice in force since 1989: not paying its annual contribution to the budget of the Arab League. "Our decision to honour our financial obligations to the Arab League, despite our many other responsibilities and despite the reservations made in some quarters in Iraq, is a clear indication of our commitment to the Arab organisation. We still insisted on contributing our share of the annual budget of the Arab League to demonstrate our commitment [to it]," he said. The Iraqi foreign minister is currently considering an Arab League proposal to appoint an Arab League permanent representative of the secretary-general to Iraq. "We are not considering any particular names or dates yet, but the idea is there," he told the Weekly.
As for the UN, Zibari is hopeful that it will be back in operation in Iraq. Zibari is well aware of the security concerns that have kept all UN staff out of the country since the fatal attacks of August that killed senior UN staff in Iraq, including UN Special Representative Sergio Vieria de Mello. However, he does not believe that these security concerns should be keeping the UN out of Iraq any longer. "We cannot allow the terrorists to deter us. And it is the role and responsibility of the UN to reach out to Iraq, supervise its elections to give them credibility and to end its absence from Iraq," he said. Meanwhile, Zibari and fellow ministers and IGC members say they are working towards the full restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. "Once we do this we will be able to contain all sources of violence. We will also ask the Americans to hand the toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to us to put him before an Iraqi trial, thus nullifying the prisoner of war status that the Coalition forces unfairly granted him."