Iraqi Foreign Minister: We Need American Help

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki will meet with President Obama Friday, and is expected to ask for more and stronger military aid. Iraq is suffering increased sectarian fighting, and a resurgent Al-Qaida presence. Robert Siegel talks with Iraq's Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, about what the leadership in Baghdad is asking for, and whether they're doing enough to merit assistance.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

The prime minister of Iraq is in Washington today, in part seeking military assistance. Coordinated terror bombings have risen sharply in his country, and the old group al-Qaida in Iraq, with a new name, is reported to be active in Syria. They're one of the radical Islamist groups fighting against the Assad regime there.

Iraq lies between Syria and Iran. Its prime minister is the Shiite politician Nouri al-Maliki. Joining us is the foreign minister of Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari, who has accompanied Prime Minister Maliki on this visit to Washington. Welcome to the program.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: Thank you. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Let's start with a request for military hardware for counter-terrorism. Some American senators say the most important thing Prime Minister Maliki could do to lessen sectarian violence would be to invite more participation by Sunni Muslims and also rein in some of the extremist Shiite groups who would oppose that invitation. Is that welcome advice or American meddling?

ZEBARI: No. We welcome the advice of all American friends. And here we have a common interest with the United States. We consider ourself to be an ally and a friend to the United States. And we have a pressing security problem. We have a capacity problem. We need American help. This is the message we've come to Washington.

SIEGEL: One of the specific suggestions about reaching out to Sunni Muslims has been to engage more Sunni fighters into the Iraqi army.

ZEBARI: Yes.

SIEGEL: Is that one of the steps that we could expect?

ZEBARI: This is one of the - our plans, actually, to accelerate before the Sunni fighters from the Son of Iraq or the Awakening forces played a crucial role...

SIEGEL: These are militias in the (unintelligible) area...

ZEBARI: ...in defeating al-Qaida. Al-Qaida has now resurged in Iraq, and it is a mortal threat to Iraq and to the United States and to the countries of the region. That's why we really support enhancing security cooperation with the United States, with other neighboring countries to defeat this terrorist network.

SIEGEL: What do you say, though, to Americans, Foreign Minister Zebari, who say you're coming here for help. You had a lot of help from the U.S. In fact, Prime Minister Maliki changed positions, yielded to a popular Iraqi position for the U.S. to get out of Iraq and not retain people who would've been there to help you at this point.

ZEBARI: We negotiated jointly. And I negotiated that, too, on behalf of the government for the U.S. troops withdrawal from Iraq after helping the Iraqi to establish a democratic system and to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein and dictatorship. And after that, there was a common willingness here in America and in Iraq that Iraqi security forces have developed a certain level. But in fact, we are bound with the United States with another far more important agreement, which is the Strategic Framework Agreement, that is longer than the SOFA that we ended and negotiated...

SIEGEL: SOFA being the Status of Forces Agreement.

ZEBARI: That's correct.

SIEGEL: Standing for that, yeah.

ZEBARI: Yes. And so we are trying to develop this Strategic Framework Agreement in many areas of mutual interest, economic fields, education and security. And we are here really to call upon our allies, our friends in Washington not to leave Iraq to its own fate, to help, to assist especially...

SIEGEL: But you understand the irony that the message a couple of years ago was please leave us to our own fate or start leaving us to our own fate.

ZEBARI: No, I think it was a common willingness, not from the Iraqi, from the American public also. They were tired. They were fed up of American troops being involved in wars outside the United States. But now, actually, when American troops withdraw from Iraq, the United States did not withdraw its interest in Iraq or in the region.

SIEGEL: Yesterday, a senior American official was asked by a reporter if Washington is satisfied with what Iraq is doing to halt arms shipments over Iraqi airspace from Iran to Syria, arms for the Assad regime. The answer was we'd like them to do more.

ZEBARI: Yes.

SIEGEL: Will Iraq do more, and if so, what will you do?

ZEBARI: We will do more, definitely. Iraq's position is not supporting the Assad regime at all, contrary to the perceptions. And also, we are not party to the conflict, in fact, in Syria. We tried to play a constructive role to reach a political settlement to support Geneva II peace process. Yesterday, I had a good meeting with Secretary Kerry, and we discussed about the upcoming development in pushing all the Syrian parties, let's say, to the negotiating table.

On halting the flights or suspected arm flights from Iran to Syria over Iraqi airspace, believe me, it's a question of capacity, of ability. Iraq doesn't have, as we speak, a single fighter plane. Iraq doesn't have an integrated defense system that...

SIEGEL: If you had fighter planes, would they intercept Iranian planes flying over the north of Iraq?

ZEBARI: I believe so. I believe so. We have given them the marshes - I personally have reached out to them and asked them really not to misuse our territory, our airspace for any arm shipments because this is contrary to our policy. But you need to reinforce that, you see, with some capacity. We don't have that.

SIEGEL: It is now commonly observed that with the election of Prime Minister Maliki and the empowerment of Shiite Muslims in Iraq that there's been a huge power shift in the region that favors Shiite Iran and that worries Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia. Whether the Saudis should be worried or not, is it fair to observe that there has been such a shift?

ZEBARI: I think it was in the best interest of Saudi Arabia and other countries to reach out to the new Iraq. Yes, the Shiite power has risen in Iraq as a result of the democratic election and the majority rule. But at the same time, this would not be at the expense of other communities in Iraq, whether the Sunnis or the Kurds. And the new government, actually, is one - an inclusive government is a partnership government where all the communities participate. Iraq has no problems with Saudi Arabia or with its neighboring countries. In fact, we now have nearly over 90 diplomatic missions in Baghdad, including 17 Arab countries...

SIEGEL: But the Saudis seem to think that the war handed in Iraq over from a Sunni-led Saddam Hussein regime to the current regime, which they see as a Shiite regime.

ZEBARI: I think it's a simplification. It was Saddam Hussein who invaded Kuwait, who threatened Saudi Arabia in the past, as we know the history very well. But Iraq sees itself that it has a vital national interest to be integrated in the region, in the Arab world, in the Middle East and to be a force for good.

SIEGEL: That's Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister of Iraq. Minister Zebari, it's good to see you again. Thank you.

ZEBARI: Great seeing you. Thank you.

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