In an exclusive interview on 12 November, Iraq’s Foreign Affairs Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the participation of Iraqi Sunnis in the October referendum on the draft national constitution proposed by the Transitional Assembly was a significant step in the right direction.

‘The most important new development in Iraq is the willingness of the Sunni population to participate in the political process,’ says Zebari, an ethnic Kurd. ‘The Sunnis have become more realistic and they now recognise that they cannot turn the clock back, and that the old Iraq is gone.’

Zebari was speaking on the sidelines of the Forum for the Future conference in Bahrain, at which regional officials such as Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa together with ministers from the G8 group of industrialised nations met non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to discuss ways of promoting democracy, human rights, transparency and the empowerment of women in the Middle East.

‘There is a growing realisation in the Islamic world that enough is enough,’ says Zebari. ‘And governments across the region need to be doing more to prevent extremism through greater political reform. The spontaneous demonstrations in Jordan following the three suicide attacks in mid-November, and mass demonstrations in Morocco, represent a major change in attitude in the region.’

The fate of political reform in the region will depend on Iraq, however: ‘Our presence at the Forum for the Future is very important because the ideas and values that are being promoted by the forum we are paying in blood to support,’ he says. ‘The success of these ideas depends on the fate of our experiment. If we succeed, this movement will accelerate. Our failure will be a setback for the laws that need to be established.’ It is a task which carries tremendous personal risk. ‘We go to work every day, and we think we are going to be blown up or assassinated,’ he says. ‘So we are frightened. But we have been facing this for 30 years. They have tried, but we are not giving in to them.’

Dialogue

Despite the security situation, Zebari believes the political atmosphere is clearing. ‘What we are seeing now is a dialogue developing with the Sunni community and they are becoming more represented in the new Iraq. Vice-president Ghazi al-Yawar is a Sunni, and there are five Sunni ministers in the Cabinet. Before the referendum on the constitution, we listened to the views of the Sunni community and took them on board, and now they are more amenable to change. So all of this has given them a good indication about our intentions.’

Although Sunnis participated in the referendum on the constitution, Zebari admits it was mostly to say ‘no’ to the document, which had been drafted by a parliament elected in January from a vote that was boycotted by the minority community. And as the country prepares for its latest parliamentary poll – the election on 15 December for a fully constitutional government, he makes a chilling prediction. ‘Although there are signs of progress in the security situation in Iraq, as we get nearer to the elections we expect the ferocity of the attacks to worsen. We expect them to throw everything at us in the period around the election.’

The difficulty, says Zebari, is that there has been no way to communicate with the insurgents, which he says are a mixture of the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party and foreign jihadists. ‘Sadly, this is not like Northern Ireland