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Iraqi Minister Reacts to Mosque Bombing, Other Violence

June 14, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: It’s been a tough week for the Iraqi government. Two top American officials — Mideast commander Admiral Jack Fallon and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte — traveled to Baghdad earlier this week to press Iraqi leaders for quicker action on political reforms. Those promised legislative changes are designed to promote national unity among Iraq’s warring sects.

Then yesterday, a revered Shia mosque in Samarra was bombed for the second time in 16 months. Last year’s attack there triggered an intensified level of sectarian violence. And a new Pentagon report this week said violence across Iraq has actually increased since the new U.S. strategy to pacify Baghdad began putting more U.S. troops into the capital and other strategic locations.

For an Iraqi government view of these developments, we’re joined by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. He’s at the United Nations, taking part in a review of the U.N. Security Council mandate in Iraq. U.S. and other troops operate in Iraq under that mandate. The foreign minister is coming to Washington next week to confer with administration officials.

And, Mr. Minister, welcome back to the program.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, Iraqi Foreign Minister: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: When we spoke at this time last year, you said that the then-new Iraqi government had about six months to demonstrate that it could and would tamp down sectarian violence. That has not happened; it has not succeeded. Why not?

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: Well, it hasn’t happened mainly because of the efforts of our enemies and adversaries, that they are doing everything to ignite sectarian strife and convulsion throughout the country. But the situation is not, again, as hopeless as people see it, really, from a distance.

I mean, look at the bombing yesterday of the remaining of this holy site in Samarra. Many people anticipated there would be a wave of sectarian killing and outrage, but it hasn’t happened today, according to my contacts with my colleagues in the government and the ministry. The situation seems to be under some control.

So, really, not everything one hoped to see we’ll be able to achieve because there are those who are working against this democratic experiment, against this government, to derail our plans, to derail the plans of our allies in the multinational forces, and it’s a battle. It’s an uphill battle between those who believe in the new Iraq and those who want to destroy this country.

MARGARET WARNER: And when you speak of enemies and adversaries, are you referring to people inside Iraq or also some of Iraq’s neighbors?

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: No, definitely those terrorist groups, al-Qaida and the like, who are inside Iraq, and definitely our neighbors also have not been very helpful. Many of our problems or difficulties are coming across the border.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, both from Syria and Iran?

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: Yes, you can say that, but from other countries, as well, really, not only these two.


HOSHYAR ZEBARI: Well, we get many foreign fighters from different countries in the Gulf, from countries as far as North Africa, Morocco, from the expatriate communities in Europe, and so on. These are the suicide bombers who draw themselves up among ordinary Iraqi people and civilians, or in public markets, you see at schools and universities. So they have a responsibility, also, you see, to help prevent that from happening.

Compromises on all sides

Hoshyar Zebari
Foreign Minister, Iraq
We are conscious of the time constraint in Washington and the timeline that General Petraeus and our friends in the U.S. embassy are under to produce some results.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when President Bush earlier this year announced this surge of additional U.S. forces into Baghdad, he said it was designed to create greater security and, thus, political room for your government to hammer out compromises on items that are necessary for reconciliation, among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. None of the really major benchmarks have been met. Why not?

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: My government is committed, in fact, to move on all these issues. Yes, the speed may not have been as what one would like to admire or to desire. There is impatience, also, in Washington about the lack of speed on these issues, but the government is committed. The surge strategy is working, in fact, although people already started to raise doubt and questions, but it is working, and we see improvement on the ground. We see life coming back in many parts and districts of Baghdad, business reopening to see if there's more traffic, as was the case before. There is less sectarian killing on the streets and so on, and people have more confidence in their security and the plan.

But this needs to be augmented to be supported by a political move and initiative. The government is focused. It has its plan. And, hopefully, we'll see very soon, we'll see some significant moves on national reconciliation, on the other issues.

And these are, in fact, Margaret, our benchmarks. They are not dictated on us. The government has made a commitment to meet these goals and these objectives.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Mr. Minister, there is a growing feeling, at least here in Washington -- and we've heard it expressed on our program -- that, really, the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds who are involved in supposedly negotiating these compromises see greater self-interest in holding out, think they're going to gain more power by holding out, while the Shiite militias and the Sunni insurgents fight each other, than they will get from compromising. Is that how you read it?

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: No, you see, there has to be compromises by all sides. I mean, everybody has to give into something to gain the bigger thing, and that's the logic of negotiation, of agreements, and so on.

But not everybody's holding, entrenching, that say, "I won't accept anything else." In fact, one of the reasons that this has been delayed, Margaret, we are not ruling and governing by majority rule, by 50-plus-one. Otherwise, many of these things would have been passed, you see, already by the parliament, by a legitimate representative body of the people.

But because the government knows that these issues are going to affect future generation, the future of the country, that's why some more time is needed. We are conscious of the time constraint in Washington and the timeline that General Petraeus and our friends in the U.S. embassy are under to produce some results.

MARGARET WARNER: Could I ask you about that timeline? Do you think that any of the three big items -- de-Baathification, the new oil law, constitutional reform -- will, in fact, have been adopted by September when General Petraeus is due to make his report to the president and to Congress?

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: Well, the most likely, the oil law is very close to conclusion. In fact, it has been approved and passed by the cabinet unanimously or by the majority vote. Now it is with a legal body, called the council of state consultative body, to look to scrutinize the law and then pass it to the parliament.

So the hydrocarbon law is a real possibility, we will be able to get it. Still, there are some thorny issues that need to be negotiated, but it's very close for a deal.

Adjustment of strategy

Hoshyar Zebari
Foreign Minister, Iraq
I think the stakes are too high for everybody. It's not just for us as Iraqis but for U.S. interests, for Iraq as a very important country, at the heart of the Middle East, at the heart of the energy, the resources of the world.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Minister, if, by September, there has been no progress made on that political front -- at least in American eyes -- how long do you expect the American public and the Congress to continue sending young American men and women to serve and to die there?

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: Well, we understand the impatience of the American public, Congress, and the administration, even. Really, we fully understand, and we highly appreciate the value, the sacrifices, the commitment they have made to liberate us or to help us in this difficult time of a major transformation.

But on the other hand, I think the stakes are too high for everybody. It's not just for us as Iraqis but for U.S. interests, for Iraq as a very important country, at the heart of the Middle East, at the heart of the energy, the resources of the world.

So I don't think there would be any thinking of abandonment under the circumstances. There may be some adjustment on the strategy, which is a possibility. And that's why we have been pushing and asking to speed up, to accelerate the build-up of Iraqi military and security forces, in order to be able to stand and to defend ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: Minister Zebari, thank you for being with us.


MARGARET WARNER: Next, the perspective of a reporter finishing a long tour in Baghdad. Jeffrey Brown has that story.

A change in tone

Ed Wong
New York Times
I think everyone there knows that the U.S. presence and the time that the Americans have in Iraq is very limited at this point, and they're all holding onto their arms for day that there will be some sort of all-out war there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Edward Wong of the New York Times arrived in Baghdad in November 2003, seven months after U.S. tanks rolled into the Iraqi capital. He spent most of the next four years writing about that complex story, now the deadliest war for journalists to cover.

He also put his reporting to work during many NewsHour appearances, including on the day of the first Samarra mosque bombing in February 2006. Wong's tour in Baghdad ended last month. He's with us now in person, for once, to talk about Iraq and his experience there.

Welcome to you.

EDWARD WONG, New York Times: Hi, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reaction to what we just heard, in terms of tone? The foreign minister was saying situation not so hopeless as portrayed, it's an uphill battle, but he sees positive political progress being made.

EDWARD WONG: Well, throughout this war, we've been hearing a lot of the same pronouncements coming from the Iraqi government. There's been various governments, and we've always heard them saying, "Progress is being made."

The fact is that progress is never being made as quickly as a lot of the politicians say it's being made. And it's become apparent, at least in my eyes, that, in America, the political will for the war has ebbed severely, and basically the type of progress that's needed right now is something that has to be dramatic progress in order for the White House to shore up any sort of support for that. And right now, on the ground, no one's seeing that taking place, and no one really expects any dramatic changes to happen this summer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before you left, you wrote one last piece, an analysis piece, which was rather pessimistic in terms of the potential for even much greater violence than we've seen up to this point.

EDWARD WONG: That's right. I think, from what we're hearing from people on the ground there, from what we're seeing, we're seeing a lot of the armed groups -- none of them have demobilized, none of them have demilitarized. In fact, their weapons are getting better; their techniques are getting better; they're getting better training; they're getting more financing. And these are groups on all the different sides.

They're basically reinforcing themselves for the larger war that all of them see coming down the road, and that war might take place when the U.S. draws down its troops significantly. I think everyone there knows that the U.S. presence and the time that the Americans have in Iraq is very limited at this point, and they're all holding onto their arms for day that there will be some sort of all-out war there.

JEFFREY BROWN: You used the term "decisive victory" in your piece. You said it now seems that the Iraqis have been driving all along for the "decisive victory," the act of sahel, the day the bodies will be dragged through the streets. What is sahel? And what do you mean by that?

EDWARD WONG: Well, sahel is a word that I actually came upon just a few months ago in Iraq, and I heard about it from several people, including from an American official and also from a friend of mine named Razzaq, someone I've worked with very closely throughout my years there. And then other Iraqis also explained its nuances to me.

And, basically, it means the complete defeat and humiliation of someone by taking their corpse and dragging it through the streets or bits of the corpse through the streets. And it's happened before repeatedly in Iraqi history. And even other Arabs, other Arabs in the area, accused Iraqis of being so sort of wedded to violence that they've become the country or the culture of sahel.

And, basically, what that implies, the fact that this word exists in that society implies that, at least in modern day Iraq, that there's been this drive to completely dominate the country by its rulers. And so far, during this U.S. presence in Iraq, we've seen Americans fail to do that, which partly accounts for why the war has basically started to spin completely out of the control of the Americans.

And each side right now is looking to completely dominate the country and completely dominate the other side.

"The loss of hope"

Ed Wong
The New York Times
They see the war stretching on for five, ten, fifteen years. They see a Lebanon-style civil war on their doorsteps. And all of them want to leave the country, or most of them want to leave the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Given the violence and given the difficulties of reporting, how much have you yourself been able to meet, to get to know Iraqi citizens? And what can you tell us about what their lives are like?

EDWARD WONG: Well, I'd say that it's changed. Our access to Iraqi civilians has changed dramatically during the arc of the war. When I first got there in 2003, you could spend an entire day, you could spend nights even sleeping over at the homes of ordinary Iraqis, and not fear any repercussions.

Then, as the violence grew, people became more fearful of having foreigners approach them or talk to them or come to their homes. And at the same time, we became much more aware of the security risks that we were taking on in if we made these trips. And so our conversations with Iraqis became more limited, and we would make appointments or we'd go through very involved security measures to make sure to vet their homes, to vet their neighborhoods, to make sure everything was safe before we went to see them.

But we still did it. I think the New York Times, of any of the news organizations, has been the most aggressive in terms of still getting out there, getting out into the street, and into the homes of people, and talking to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what do you see? I mean, what in terms of changes in their lives? What can you tell us?

EDWARD WONG: The biggest change is the loss of hope.

JEFFREY BROWN: The loss of hope?

EDWARD WONG: The loss of hope, right. I know very few Iraqis at this point, especially the moderate Iraqis or the more secular Iraqis, the ones that would really improve the country in a way that the Americans would want to see it improved, these are the Iraqis who've basically completely lost hope in the future.

They see the war stretching on for five, ten, fifteen years. They see a Lebanon-style civil war on their doorsteps. And all of them want to leave the country, or most of them want to leave the country.

A lot of them -- I can look at the Iraqis who work for us as an example. A lot of our Iraqi reporters are moderate Iraqis who've always wanted peace, who don't want this war. And all of them don't see a place for them in the current Iraq. They don't see any future for themselves; they don't see a future for their families.

When they go home from work, they basically just shut themselves in their homes. They rarely leave. They don't socialize with people anymore. Their world has become constricted, and now they're all looking for opportunities abroad. They're looking to apply for asylum in countries. They're looking to apply for jobs. They're looking for fellowships.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you briefly before we close here a personal question. I understand you were a business reporter before you went to Iraq, and you went over there initially to cover what was presumed to be an economic development story.

EDWARD WONG: That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Instead, of course, you found yourself covering a war.

EDWARD WONG: Right. That's right. I think, in 2003, no one knew exactly what direction the future of Iraq would take. And at that time, there was more optimism. And I was sent over thinking that there would be stories about a boom in oil export or a boom in commerce. And instead what we saw was the blossoming of violence and the turning of the country towards civil war and into, basically, a quagmire for the American presence there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And your next assignment, I understand, is Beijing?

EDWARD WONG: That's right. I'm supposed to be heading to China afterwards. I'll be improving my Mandarin language skills and then heading off to Beijing to do reporting for the Times there.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, good luck with that, and thanks for all your reporting for us from Baghdad.


JEFFREY BROWN: Ed Wong of the New York Times.

EDWARD WONG: Thank you.