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World

U.S. Forces Are Still Needed, Iraqi Former Foreign Minister Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have an Iraqi voice next. Hoshyar Zebari was Iraq's longest-serving foreign minister, holding that post from 2003 until 2014. In fact, he negotiated the return of U.S. troops to Iraq in 2014 to fight ISIS. He is also a leader in Iraq's Kurdish region, which is where we have found him in the city of Irbil.

Welcome to the program, sir.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: Most welcome. Very pleased to be with you.

INSKEEP: Should U.S. troops leave Iraq?

ZEBARI: Well, we believe that still there is a need for the U.S. troops and the international coalition forces to stay and to remain in Iraq because the security achievements are really fragile. Still, there is the danger of the resurgence of ISIS and also their assistance to help assist, train Iraqi security forces, Peshmerga forces, also, are very, very imperative and most needed.

INSKEEP: OK. So Iraq's Parliament voted to remove U.S. forces in this nonbinding resolution. Let me just make clear - you said we believe the troops should stay. You're saying that you mean the Kurdish bloc in Iraq's Parliament. And it's true that a great many lawmakers did not even show up for that vote, but a majority voted for it. Do you believe that a majority of Iraq's people overall want U.S. troops out?

ZEBARI: No, definitely not. I think to get these forces out, you do need a new legislation (ph). And also, the current government is a caretaker government. And therefore, that was a resolution. There was no legislation. It was not a law enacted by Parliament.

INSKEEP: Now, you're correct that this was a nonbinding resolution. But you still have this uncomfortable reality that there's a Parliament - it is supposed to be a democratically elected government - and a majority of the lawmakers, not just a majority of those who showed up but a majority of the whole legislature, said U.S. forces should go. Do you think they didn't mean that?

ZEBARI: Well, they expressed their opinion. You see they made a statement because of recent event and the killing of Qassem Soleimani - so this was an expression of anger and protest more than anything else.

INSKEEP: But there is clearly resistance to foreign influence on Iraqi soil - of any kind. There had been protests, as you know very well, for months and months against foreign influence in the current government, including Iranian influence. This resolution calls for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Iraq. Is there some sentiment in your country to simply stop having Iraq be a battlefield between Iran and the United States?

ZEBARI: Well, we don't want our country to be a battlefield or a place to settle scores between the United States, Iran and others on Iraqi soil. But let's be realistic. It is happening. So we shouldn't hide actually from facing reality. The Iraqi government and the system is in a deep crisis. We haven't been able to name a new successor for the prime minister who resigned to have a new Cabinet and interim government to prepare the country for an early election.

So I think that is the key issue - the challenge facing Iraq in order to seek an independent policy and to see the country as a sovereign state, to deal with Iran at a normal way - as two sovereign, two neighborly countries who have many (ph) interests and also to respect our alliances with the United States, with the region, with the international community as a whole.

INSKEEP: Mr. Zebari, if U.S. forces were ordered out of Iraq for real, would those of you in the Kurdish region, which has some autonomy, welcome them there? Is that possible?

ZEBARI: Yes, we do welcome them. And already, we are hosting some of them here. And even the diplomatic missions are more than welcome. Kurdistan region is still part of a united Iraq. But Kurdistan is much safer than other parts of Iraq these days.

INSKEEP: But is it legally and politically possible for Kurdistan, if it came to that, to say - the national government rejects this; we're going to ignore the national government and allow U.S. troops anyway?

ZEBARI: Well, still actually, Kurdistan is part of Iraq. You see, it's not a separate state. And that's why it's the same Iraqi territory. If they feel pressed, let's say, to remain in the country, they can be relocated or redeployed in Kurdistan for the time being.

INSKEEP: Are you diplomatically avoiding my question, sir? (Laughter). Are you...

ZEBARI: Not really. But I'm trying to be very straight with you. If they are pressed, you see, Kurdistan would welcome them...

INSKEEP: I see.

ZEBARI: ...To be redeployed here in the north.

INSKEEP: If they are pressed, Kurdistan would welcome them. OK.

ZEBARI: Yes.

INSKEEP: Mr. Zebari, thank you for your time. I really appreciate it.

ZEBARI: Most welcome, most welcome.

INSKEEP: Hoshyar Zebari was Iraq's foreign minister from 2003 to 2014 and is still an influential Kurdish politician. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.