Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—With Iraq’s Kurds set to nominate their candidates for the Iraqi presidency on Sunday, there are hopes of a breakthrough in negotiations to form a new government following legislative elections on April 30. Agreement on a prime minister, who should be a Shi’ite, could very well follow.
Meanwhile, Hoshyar Zebari, a member of the Kurdish minority, has found himself caught between the desire to form a government of consensus between all of Iraq’s ethnic groups and sects, and the growing Kurdish cries for independence. In spite of his continued leadership as foreign minister, he is one of the Kurdish leaders currently boycotting Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s Cabinet meetings in protest against comments from the premier suggesting the autonomous Kurdistan region was harboring terrorists.
Those terrorists, largely members of the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have seized control of large portions and for a month have been threatening to march on Baghdad.
As Iraq’s crises continue, Zebari sat down with Asharq Al-Awsat in Cairo to discuss the situation and the delicate political negotiations that could present a way forward.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you have any comments on this critical stage in Iraqi politics, especially the selection of the president and prime minister?
Hoshyar Zebari: Matters are progressing in the right direction regarding the political process, the selection of the leadership, and the change of government. We have concluded several meetings over the past few days, and I believe that the election of the parliamentary speaker and his deputies is a positive sign. I consider it a starting point. The Kurdistan Alliance will name its candidates for the presidency; they will be from the same party as President Jalal Talabani [the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan].
A month after the president is elected, he will ask parliament to nominate a prime minister. I believe that the participation of the Sunni bloc in parliament is an indication of the participation of all political components, and this alleviates tension and the issue of past injustices. However, the major battle will be over the choice of prime minister.
Q: So you don’t have any indications about who the prime minister will be?
The religious authorities in Najaf and Grand Ayatollah [Ali] Al-Sistani have set eight conditions that must be met by the candidate for prime minister. [These conditions include] avoiding past mistakes in the administration of the state; forming a national unity government comprising all components [of society], including the Sunni Arabs; and acceptance of the government and the head of government by all Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish components of society. The person who can fulfill these conditions will head the government. Serious discussions and consultations have begun within the Shi’a bloc regarding its choice of candidate—this is how matters are progressing. Moreover, there is emphasis on the participation of the Kurds in the whole political process.
Q: There has been considerable controversy and disagreement around the formation of the new government and the nomination of a prime minister. In your view, when will Iraq begin to overcome this political crisis?
The Shi’a National Alliance must be decisive in this regard by nominating a prime minister. There has been a great deal of deliberation, mediation and support from the United States, Iran and a number of fellow Arab countries. The next stage will be crucial to the history of Iraq, and there must be agreement on the viable options.
Q: When will we see the results of the consensus you described on the political process? Will it contribute to solving the country’s security problems?
There is a month or so to go before we can gain a clearer picture, because there is a serious crisis as a result of the control of ISIS and other organizations over numerous areas within the provinces. Iraq is working with a number of friendly states in order to achieve security and stability through counterterrorism efforts and controlling the groups that entered the country via the Iraq–Syria border areas.
Q: How do you view the current security situation?
The security situation is deteriorating and is putting pressure on the government, especially after ISIS and other armed groups took control of numerous areas in some provinces. Many people living in these provinces have confirmed that they are not in favor of the government, and that they are suffering and have demands. Thus the situation needs to be addressed politically, in a way that is real rather than just formal. [Resolving] the threat remains dependent on the political process moving forward without stopping and without facing new obstacles. If this doesn’t happen, then the country will plunge into chaos.
Q: What is your comment regarding the recent statement made by Ba’athist leader and former Saddam deputy Izzat Al-Douri, in which he said that his group has entered Iraq and that “the liberation of Baghdad is around the corner”?
These statements made by Izzat Al-Douri are merely threats, and they will amount to nothing more than threats. The strong reinforcements around Baghdad and the airport make it very difficult to come close.
Q: Nuri Al-Maliki, Iraq’s current prime minister, has accused the Kurds of supporting ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Has the tension between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region subsided?
The trend is towards calming matters and alleviating the sharp tone of media statements and even private sentiment. The Kurdistan Alliance is participating in the political process and it will participate in the formation of a national unity government that represents all components [of society], in accordance with the constitution.
Q: You are one of the Kurdish leaders boycotting Cabinet meetings because of Maliki’s comments, and Hussein Al-Shahristani has been named as your acting replacement. Are you still working as the foreign minister?
My position remains in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because the dismissal or acquittal of ministers is not the prime minister’s right; there must be approval from the Council of Representatives. Our alliance is present in parliament and is taking part in pushing the political process forward. All we have done is suspend our participation in the Cabinet in protest against Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s comments about Kurdistan, as he accused it of supporting ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Ba’athist organizations. His comments had a harsh impact because they crossed a line.
Q: Will you return to Baghdad?
I will go back because of my capacity as an official and a leader in the Kurdistan Alliance, beyond my capacity as a minister. Baghdad is our capital and my return could happen at any time. At the same time, however, we are committed to our leadership’s decision and at present every effort is being made to form a new government. I am still a member of the current government.
Q: Does that mean there will not be any more statements coming out of the region regarding independence or the secession of the Kurds?
The trend is towards participation and remaining within the framework of a unified Iraq, in accordance with the constitution. With regards to the issue of a referendum, which had been proposed, the case has been handed over to [the Kurdish] parliament on the basis that it is the representative of Iraqi Kurdistan and it is the one to decide. There are numerous mechanisms [for this]. The region is committed to taking part in the political process in accordance with the constitution, which talks about a unionist and federalist state and about pluralism within the framework of a unified Iraq.
Q: Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has put conditions for the nomination of a presidential candidate, who in Iraq’s political settlement should be a Kurd. The first of these is that the next president should to safeguard unity and a unified Iraq. What is your opinion of this?
The terms of the presidency is are at the heart of the constitution, and it [the constitution] is what will appoint next president. Nobody has the right to set [conditions] as they please.
Q: What came out of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri’s recent visit to Iraq?
It was a good initiative. We discussed at length the details of the situation and we covered many issues and topics. We spoke about fighting terrorism and the importance of security support, and he emphasized his commitment to the stability of a unified Iraq. The visit had a very positive scope, as he met with all the political components in Iraq and stressed that Egypt supports all Iraqis equally, and that what is most important is to overcome the critical and difficult circumstances the country is currently experiencing.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.