On Monday, as Kurdish forces continued to battle Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki mobilized security forces and appeared on the verge of mounting a coup to stay in office. On Tuesday, Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who served as Iraq’s foreign minister from 2003 until July, spoke by telephone with Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth from Irbil, Iraq. Zebari said that he believed the prospects for forming a new Iraqi government have improved.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Q. How do you see the situation?
A. We have two battles going on — one military, with ISIS [the Islamic State]. The other is political in Baghdad. We are in the thick of both of them.
The Baghdad battle has been won by the new president, who has named a new prime minister. Yesterday, the situation was very tense because of the deployment of military forces and of Maliki’s defiant statement against the president. Today the situation has improved significantly. The military command in Baghdad informed the president and the prime minister designate [Haider al-Abadi] that they will not take sides. The main Shiite militias also came out with a statement that they would not undermine the security of Baghdad.
The other important development is support from the Iranians for the new government. They have come out with a very clear statement of support for the process.
So you don’t think Maliki is trying to stage a coup?
He was threatening. His posture was one of defiance. But many people spoke to him, asking him to refrain from using the military, because this would constitute a coup. Today the situation has eased.
So the army will not stand with Maliki?
That’s correct. He has his own special forces in the Green Zone, but the army as a whole has reassured the president of their neutrality.
You are hopeful today?
I am hopeful. The country is facing an existential threat by the jihadists and ISIS. President Obama has taken a courageous decision to turn the tide — to order airstrikes and stop the progress of ISIS in the north. Otherwise, believe me, it could have been disastrous.
Have the airstrikes worked?
They have brought back the confidence of the [Kurdish] pesh merga forces and the people that we are not alone in this fight. The U.S. has come to our aid, with the mighty U.S. Air Force deployed against these savage groups of people, the ISIS. Immediately after the strikes, the pesh merga took their fight to ISIS, they pushed them back south of Irbil.
How long did it take before you got the aid?
It didn’t take long, because the case was very clear. They were definitely threatening Irbil, and people started fleeing Irbil — running to the mountains. It would have created a massive exodus. . . . If U.S. airstrikes had been delayed for a couple of hours, it would have gone the other way.
Are you getting the weapons you need from the United States?
I think everyone recognizes we are fighting not a bunch of jihadist amateurs but that they are well organized and have obtained sophisticated weapons.
Where do their weapons come from?
Mostly from the Syrian army and from the Iraqi army barracks they left in Mosul and Tikrit. Nearly four Iraqi divisions and all their equipment have fallen into their hands.
This is a different war. It isn’t a war between two armies or a classical guerrilla war. It is a very aggressive mobile war with a lot of firepower and suicidal fighters. And the pesh merga have very little weapons and only small arms.
Are you getting from the United States what you need?
They have started to supply us with some munitions. We . . . [need] antitank weapons, machine guns, intelligence and the airstrikes, which are in place. We have not requested any military forces.
Have you asked for advisers or trainers?
Yes, we do need advisers and trainers to train and advise our troops.
Is ISIS recruiting radicals within Iraq?
Before the U.S. strikes, most of the people in the regions they controlled were joining them. After the airstrikes, people started to abandon them.
Even if a new government is formed, won’t it be hard to persuade the Sunnis to join it?
I think they will join the government and differentiate themselves from ISIS and its evil ideology.
Wasn’t there a time when you said you might favor independence for Kurdistan?
I think that now the danger is so threatening to everybody, all these plans have been put aside.
So independence has been put aside?
Not abandoned, but priorities have changed.
Your main goal?
To defeat ISIS and to have a new government. There were clear signs of genocide with ISIS jihadists threatening thousands and displacing over 250,000 people in the last 10 days. And they were planning to do more damage.