A conversation with Iraq’s foreign minister

A conversation with Iraq’s foreign minister

Iraq’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ibrahim al-Jaafari was in Ankara for the last two days. This has been the first high level official visit since the relations between Turkey and Iraq froze during Nouri al-Maliki’s Prime Ministry. Hence, his message was quite critical.

I had the chance to have a tete-a-tete conversation with al-Jaafari following his speech at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), a think tank based in Ankara. He arrived for the conference at USAK right after his consecutive meetings with the president and prime minister with a three hour delay. Let’s see if this delay bodes well or not.

First of all, let’s discuss his messages at USAK. Al-Jaafari’s strongest emphasis was on the fact that the new government in Baghdad is both inclusive and equally distanced from all sects. Another point he emphasized was the importance they attribute to their relations with Turkey. “It is time to set aside the challenges that emerged between the two countries in the past,” he said, adding that Iraq asked for aid from Turkey and that the delivery of aid would help strengthen bilateral relations.

Al-Jaafari then spoke about the sectarian rift in his country: “If the Iraqi army would have fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] instead of Sunnis and Kurds separately, Mosul would not have been invaded.” With regard to this comment, I asked in the Q&A section: “Baghdad supports Shiite militias, whereas Arbil supports the Peshmerga. Hence the Sunnis remain outsiders.

Have you considered arming the Sunni tribes?” Al-Jaafari replied saying they will support all local units including the Peshmerga and “the others,” adding they will form local security units.

When he was reminded about allegations that Turkey supports ISIL, al-Jaafari underlined the fact that no Iraqi politician has ever said anything like that. Then he shared with the audience that he had been sitting next to Turkey’s ambassador to Iraq when ISIL invaded the Turkish Consulate in Mosul. “We were together and I witnessed how sad he became when he heard about the incident,” he said.

Al-Jaafari also stated that they had observed Turkey’s reaction toward ISIL during the whole process and that Ankara’s attitude has become much harsher after the release of the hostages.

Al-Jaafari also emphasized that Iraq stands against the deployment of foreign ground troops within its territories and only Iraqis could defend the country. He also added that aid for Kurdish Peshmerga should only be delivered through Baghdad.

Right after the conference, we started our tete-a-tete conversation. My first question was what the current situation between Ankara, Baghdad and Arbil is. After smiling for a while, he said: “These issues need to be dealt with in accordance with the legal and international rules. This would be for the good of all sides, namely Ankara, Baghdad and Arbil.”

Does this mean he thinks Turkey is acting against these rules? The same long smile appears. This time I can’t resist asking him if this smile is a reply in itself. “At the moment, there is an exceptional situation in the region. Under exceptional circumstances, exceptional procedures can be applied. However, my answer would be different if we were having a normal course in the country,” he said. And he annotated: “Look, I am not telling you it is against the law. Yet I have replied to your question,” which could be interpreted as: “I said it is against the law without saying so.”

“But the direct trade between Ankara and Arbil was already taking place prior to these exceptional developments,” I said. Here is his response: “Some abnormal things occurred before ISIL invaded Mosul. We will take them into account. Yet we also need to take the current circumstances into account.” Adding: “You cannot make up for a mistake with another mistake.”

What about the tension between Baghdad and Arbil? Al-Jaafari said this will be solved soon. He said they had a preparatory meeting with Arbil just before his departure for Turkey and that they made the mutual decision to solve the existing problems as soon as possible. Accordingly, Baghdad and Arbil will have a main meeting to this end very soon. Yet the date is not certain yet.

Last but not least, al-Jaafari underlines that six countries are of the highest importance to Iraq. These are Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. Adding Iraq would never interfere with their internal affairs. Then does Bashar al-Assad not create tension between Ankara and Baghdad? Here comes the very same smile. And his longest answer in this conversation: “Turkey is very important for us. And Syria is Iraq’s neighbor. We are ready to overcome this situation because we don’t side with any country against another country. Iraq has never pursued the policy of polarization.”

So, does his delay bode well or not? Well, I think it is quite clear.