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Hoshyar Zibari, a Kurd, is the foreign minister of Iraq. He spoke with Raghida Dergham for Global Viewpoint in New York on Tuesday. He was in the U.S. to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Raghida Dergham: Iraq is a mess, isn't it?

Hoshyar Zibari: No, it is not. It is difficult, yes. But it is not a mess because we have a clear political agenda and a clear direction: to write and adopt a constitution for a pluralistic, federal and unified Iraq in which all ethnic groups participate.

We do not underestimate the security challenge, the car bombs and the killings of innocent civilians. At the same time, this violence is not unanticipated. As we move toward the climax of the constitutional process, we know the terrorists are determined to inflict as much damage as possible. We are confident we will succeed because, in the end, they have no viable political alternative.

Dergham: From the outside, it looks like Iraq is on the brink of civil war, with Sunni and Shia killing each other. Isn't that exactly what is happening?

Zibari: These fears are misplaced. For the last two years people have been predicting the disintegration of Iraq, sectarian conflict and civil strife. Yet, we have managed to contain every eruption and bring it back to the political process. Just recently, there were assassinations of Shiite and Sunni clerics. We resolved the potential tensions through dialogue and worked to prevent the reactions to these attacks from developing into any kind of a civil war.

Dergham: Mistakes don't help. Didn't the recent arrest of the Sunni head of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Mohsen Abdel Hamid, by U.S. troops inflame the situation?

Zibari: This was an unfortunate incident. This man is committed to the political process. He is supportive of the government. This was a dreadful mistake based on misinformation. This kind of accident — shooting yourself in the foot — is unhelpful. In any case, there was an apology and he was released. It is important now that he has called for unity and thanks Shiite and Kurdish leaders for coming to his support.

Dergham: What evidence indicatesthat Iraq is headed away from civil war?

Zibari: All communities — Shiite, Sunni and Kurds — are working within the political process. All efforts are focused on writing the new constitution. This commitment to the constitution is the key element in Iraq’s stability, in my view. The process has reached a critical mass. Everybody is involved; everyone wants to have a stake.

Dergham: It took a very long time to form the current government. Does that make you worry about the possibility of reaching agreement on a constitution?

Zibari: First, our electoral system, which was devised by U.N. experts, is based on proportional representation. So, even if you win in the election but don't have a two-thirds majority, you won't be able to form a government. That means you need to build a coalition. Coalitions, with their different interests, take a while to put together — especially since this was the first time there was a representative government in 50 years.

Second, there would have been no problem forming a government with only the winners of the election. That could have been done in a matter of days. But the attitude of the new leadership was to include even those — many Sunnis — who were not represented either because of boycotts, intimidation or violence during the election process.

It took time to create representative government, yes. But it was not wasted time. This inclusive process makes me confident about agreeing on a constitution.

Dergham: Is it helpful when it has been suggested in the U.S. that the terrorists who might otherwise attack American cities have been diverted instead to fighting against the U.S. in Iraq?

Zibari: Well, we have a common goal with the U.S.: fighting terrorism. These terrorists in Iraq are not an organized opposition that wants a piece of the political pie. Their aim is only to destroy and to undermine stability, to prolong suffering in the hope of undermining our mission of creating a new constitutional order.

Dergham: Why would you want Iraq as a substitute battleground?

Zibari: Unfortunately, it is true, yes, that Iraq has become a magnet for all the terrorist groups because of the presence of the U.S. military.

Dergham: Is this war winnable?

Zibari: I believe so. But it will take time.

Dergham: Will the U.S.-led multinational forces only leave when the "war on terror" is won?

Zibari: Not necessarily. If we reach a level where we are self-sufficient in assuming our security responsibilities, then there will be no need for outside forces.

Dergham: The Turks and others are concerned that someday the Kurds will try to break away from Iraq and form their own state. Is that a possibility?

Zibari: As long as all the communities in Iraq are committed to the country's unity, and the constitution assures that there will be no room for ethnic discrimination, then each community has a responsibility to make it all work. The Kurdish community has committed itself to building a democratic, pluralistic, federal and unified Iraq. It is best for Kurdish power to be reflected within the system, not outside it, to achieve rights and respect among others, not just with itself.

Dergham: Some say that the Kurds would benefit from civil war between Sunnis and Shiites because then they could go their own way?

Zibari: That is mistaken. Our fate is integrally linked to the others. No community would benefit whatsoever from sectarian strife.

Dergham: Are you concerned about Iran trying to influence Iraqi affairs bysiding with the Shiites of Iraq?

Zibari: No. Iran has tremendous influence in Iraq and the region, and it is an important regional player. They have played their cards very shrewdly. They recognized it was in their interest for Saddam to be removed from power. And they know now that a democratic Iraq will not be a threat to them. That is why they are showing respect for a national, sovereign Iraqi government.

Dergham: So when you complain that your neighbors are interfering in the affairs of Iraq you don’t include Iran?

Zibari: When Iran’s foreign minister visited Iraq recently — the first visit by a Moslem or Arab foreign minister to Baghdad demonstrating respect for the new Iraqi government — we highlighted in public statements the need for non-interference in Iraq’s internal affairs and the need for mechanisms to stop infiltration from the Iranian borders. We are not targeting one country and excluding another.

Dergham: Your message to Syria after it announced that more than 1,200 people have recently been arrested preparing to cross over to Iraq is: That is not enough. Why? Is this due to American pressure?

Zibari: We have been too patient with Syria. But the Syrians have not been appreciative. They have been neither helpful nor cooperative with us. They have not been dealing with us in good faith. That is why I say that there are different agendas for our neighbors. We expect and we need Syrian cooperation. They can deliver, if they want to.

Dergham: What is the secret behind Ahmed Chalabi's return to power in Iraq today?

Zibari: Ahmad Chalabi is a clever politician. He managed to come back through elections.

Dergham: He is wanted in Jordan and is accused in Washington of spying for Iran.

Zibari: He had difficulties with the U.S. government, but now he is deputy prime minister of the elected government. But he came back through the right track, by elections. He was not imposed. He is a friend of ours. We worked together in the resistance movement against Saddam.

Dergham: Speaking of Saddam, will the trial indeed take place in two months?

Zibari: The trial will take place during the lifetime of this government (new elections are scheduled for December after a constitution is drafted — ed.) because this government is determined to try him.

(c) 2005, Global Viewpoint
Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC. (JUNE 2, 2005)