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Iraq: Official Says Neighbors 'Must Do More'

March 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On March 10, Baghdad will host a meeting of representatives from neighboring countries, as well as regional powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council, to discuss cooperation to improve security in Iraq. Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi discussed the government's expectations for the meeting with RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo.

RFE/RL: What does the Iraqi Foreign Ministry expect to come out of the neighbors meeting?

Labid Abawi: Well, first of all, you know, this is the meeting in a series of neighboring countries -- this is supposed to be the background of this meeting. This one we look forward to because, first of all, it's going to be held in Baghdad and secondly, that we have managed to expand the participation to include the permanent members of the [UN] Security Council and their ambassadors in Baghdad to participate in this meeting.

Thirdly, we think this is the time after the Iraqi political process has taken very big steps forward, and now we are in the position to ask our neighboring countries to do more to help the Iraqis and support Iraqis rather than just to issue political statements.... We think it is time now that all neighboring countries take a serious decision to implement all what they have promised to do before, and we look forward to participating.

We will discuss measures and call on them to follow up commitments towards Iraq from all neighboring countries. So we really look forward to this meeting and we look to the positive contribution of every country that will be present.

RFE/RL: Do you think that there will be a different outcome this time, because as you said, Iraq has been asking its neighbors to do something about the situation in Iraq and we've seen very little movement from some neighbors. What makes this meeting different?

Abawi: First of all, this is the first time this meeting is going to take place after the general election in Iraq and after a government of national unity. Also, we have during the past months...embarked on several initiatives in order to alleviate all of the political problems we faced.

For instance, reconciliation and national dialogue, the Baghdad security plan, the reappraisal of the law of de-Ba'athification. As an example, yesterday we had a conference of all the ex-army officers. Now we have about 85,000 [members of the] ex-army that have been recruited back to the new army. So we have [taken] very important steps towards the political solution of Iraq, as well as [with] security matters.

So we think now that it is needed, after we have made such steps forward, that tangible measures of support are needed.... Now, everybody -- these neighboring countries -- see that we are moving forward, they know that we have scored some successes, marginal as they are, but still they are positive.

Second, I think in the last months or so the Iraqi diplomacy has also scored some marginal success in trying to redevelop its relationship with some of our neighboring countries which we had very negative stances before -- like with Syria -- as you know, the [restart] of diplomatic relations, the visit of the President [Jalal Talabani] to Syria, the signing of some agreements between the Iraqi security apparatus and their Syrian counterparts.

Also there was a very important [progress] with Iran, to get the Iranians to cooperate more with stability in Iraq. I think also that...the Iranian visit to Saudi Arabia, they agreed that they should work together to diffuse any sectarian violence in Iraq. So there is a lot of movement on the regional and political scene in the region which necessitates that the neighboring countries do take some tangible measures.

I think now everybody realizes that terrorism, which has been spreading in Iraq, is not just an Iraqi issue -- it's a regional and international issue. If we cannot cooperate in combating terrorism, it will spread and engulf neighboring countries. I think now it is needed more than ever a sort of coordination and cooperation to combat terrorism. So, all this makes us feel that maybe the neighboring countries would be able to or can do more than they did before.

RFE/RL: Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari had initially expected senior officials to attend the meeting, but now we hear that the meeting will take place on the ambassadorial level. Was there some disappointment on the part of the Foreign Ministry that more senior officials wouldn't be attending this meeting?

Abawi: No, I wouldn't say disappointment. It is true that we had hoped this meeting would take place on the Foreign Ministry level, but in our consultations with all the countries concerned, we heard a lot of argument about the timing of the meeting, which is near the Arab summit which is going to take place in Saudi Arabia at the end of this month.

Secondly, there are still some [concerns]...that because of the security situation, Iraq wouldn't be able to organize such a big event. Also on the political scene, they knew that the government would show more credibility on the political scene especially after the Baghdad security plan has been initiated. [Neighbors] prefer to see some progress in this....

We accepted the idea that we, maybe we would have a meeting on the experts and higher-official level to prepare for the forthcoming meeting of the neighboring countries, to [assess] what the Iraqis need at this time, so that...the foreign ministers will know what the Iraqis [expect] from this gathering [in terms of need] so that when they come, they will have the possibility of signing any declaration that might come out of this meeting.

So, I think that better preparation is needed and that's why we decided to have this preparatory meeting on this level and also this is the first time that the P5 [permanent members of the UN Security Council] are participating in this meeting.... So I think it is part of a good preparation, so we are not really disappointed.

RFE/RL: Can you confirm that all of Iraq's neighbors will attend this meeting?

Abawi: Up to this date, we have not received any negative [response] from any country.... I think all we be participating...I think we will have a full house.

RFE/RL: What about the follow-up meeting. We've heard that it may be held in Istanbul or in Cairo.

Abawi: This is going to be discussed in the Baghdad meeting itself because as you know, we still believe that a meeting on the foreign ministers' level should take place in Baghdad also. So this is going to be our position, but of course we will listen to other proposals.... As far as the Iraqis [are concerned], we prefer to have it in Baghdad.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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