- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

LONDON — Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari predicted yesterday that national elections, scheduled for January next year, will result in a dramatic reduction in the violence that is plaguing his country.

The minister also said the elections must go ahead on schedule even if the insurgency makes areas in central and northern Iraq inaccessible to election officials.

“Our enemies will do their best to veto the operation,” Mr. Zebari told The Washington Times in a telephone interview from New York, where he was attending the U.N. General Assembly. “But it will be the turning point. It will change the whole dynamic of the situation.”

After the elections at the national, local and municipal levels, he said, the strategy would be to form “a government of national unity that would bring in the participation of many groups and trends.” That in turn would encourage those outside the process to join in, he said.

“They will be left with a very stark choice,” he said of the Shi’ite militants, Sunni extremists and former Ba’athists who have been backing the anti-government resistance. “No one will want to be left out.”

Mr. Zebari acknowledged that insurgents may still control some parts of the so-called “Sunni triangle” at the time of the elections.

“Realistically, there will be some areas left out, but they can join the process later,” he said.

Mr. Zebari was particularly concerned about the city of Fallujah, where he said foreign fighters were “holding the local population as hostages.” He admitted that the violence in Fallujah had “not been handled correctly,” and that not all fighters in the city were foreign.

“There are some die-hard Ba’athists and former security services men, ex-torturers and ex-jailers and other remnants taking refuge there,” he said.

But even in Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra, he said, “we are devising ways to put these stubborn areas under political and moral pressure.”

He maintained that the interim government and U.S. forces were receiving extensive information from “local people who identify terrorist safe-houses,” which are then attacked. “We will liberate Fallujah with the help of the Fallujah people,” he said.

Mr. Zebari said reasserting government authority over all of Iraq was “one of our priorities. I hope we solve that problem before January.”

It is vital for U.S. and other international troops to remain in Iraq, he said, but he saw no need to increase their numbers. He said U.S. funds should instead be spent to dramatically increase training programs for police and soldiers so that Iraqis can provide their own security.

Regarding the seizure of hostages by Islamic extremist groups, Mr. Zebari said: “This is terror in practice. And it is damaging the development of the country. The response is to uproot these groups.”

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