Iraq's Foreign Minister says the violence in his country is being carried out by those who want to derail its path toward full sovereignty and democracy. But the minister also says mistakes made by the U.S.-led coalition shortly after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime contributed to the rise in terrorism in Iraq. There are just six weeks to go before the U.S.-led coalition is to hand sovereignty in Iraq back to the Iraqis. But the continuing violence and lack of security in the country have raised questions about how smoothly the handover will go and what might happen afterwards.
Iraqi authorities and coalition forces blame the violence on elements still loyal to the former regime of Saddam Hussein, on Islamic extremists and on foreign fighters, some of whom may be linked to the al-Qaida terror network.
Speaking at a regional economic summit in Jordan this week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said there are 40 or 50 groups claiming responsibility for the various attacks in Iraq, and he estimated there are now a few thousand foreign fighters in the country. He says their presence is in part due to mistakes made early on by the coalition.
"I was one of the people who warned them [he coalition] very clearly, please don't open the borders," said Mr. Zebari. "If you open the borders you'll let in all these terrorists, all these hostile elements to agitate against you. But, the reasoning was, no, to bring in goods, to revive economic activity, to have trade, to remove the tariffs, open the borders. We opened them, after three to four months we struggled very hard how to close them."
Mr. Zebari says there was a sense the coalition did not fully understand the situation it was dealing with in Iraq, and equated it with what might have been found in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.
"The attitude of the coalition was that this case is like Eastern Europe, like an authoritarian dictatorship that has been removed from power and we can remedy the situation by injection of capital, by providing jobs, economic opportunities for people and the situation will be stabilized," he said. "This is Iraq, this is not Romania."
But, Foreign Minister Zebari said in spite of mistakes made, there were also successes for the coalition.
"I think the major success we've had as Iraqis over the last year is the removal of Saddam Hussein," he said. "The second bright, positive element is this new freedom that we are experiencing. There has been a meaningful improvement in the living conditions of ordinary Iraqis in terms of salaries, of their buying power to acquire new goods and to move around freely, to have access to the world and to feel that they are human beings."
At the same time, Mr. Zebari acknowledged the precarious security situation in his country. He said Iraq will still need the presence of foreign troops for some time after the transfer of sovereignty at the end of June.
"We, as Iraqis, need these forces to remain until the time we are ready to take over security responsibilities," said Mr. Zebari. "Their premature departure will bring disaster for Iraq."
That, Mr. Zebari said, presents a dilemma, on the one hand Iraqis want foreign troops off their soil as soon as possible, but on the other hand they fear that if those troops leave too soon the country could disintegrate into sectarian violence, division and even civil war.
The foreign minister said he remains optimistic such dire predictions will not come true.