- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2004

BAGHDAD — Hoshyar Zebari, the pistol-packing foreign minister who will represent Iraq at a summit beginning today in Egypt, says his country will become a “graveyard for democracy” if the world does not help its leaders establish a stable and representative government.

“If we lose, the region will be hell,” Mr. Zebari told The Washington Times recently at his office in the Foreign Ministry building in central Baghdad. “It will be a graveyard for democracy.”

The plain-talking Kurd hopes to get that message across to his counterparts from 20 countries when they meet today and tomorrow in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, to discuss Iraq’s future. The participants range from the United States and Britain to opponents of the Iraq war such as France, Iran and Syria.

Mr. Zebari says he is particularly upset at Persian Gulf states such as Qatar, which publicly say they want peace and democracy for Iraq but allow fiery clerics to encourage resistance and permit television stations such as Al Jazeera, which he likened to a mouthpiece for the insurgency, to operate from their soil.

He said he plans to publicly raise these issues at Sharm el Sheik.

“I will explain, ‘We need more from you,’” he said.

“‘More cooperation, more intelligence sharing, more coordination to fight terrorism, to prevent people from crossing your borders. And that’s what we expect from you.’”

For years, Mr. Zebari was a guerrilla diplomat, secretly shuttling from country to country in attempts to win good will for Iraq’s Kurdish minority and to procure weapons, recruits and political support for their decades-long struggle against dictator Saddam Hussein.

Now he is meeting as an equal with the world’s diplomatic heavyweights. But he describes himself as simply a soldier, carrying out the orders of his boss, Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which rules the northwestern half of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish enclave.

Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Zebari was a “peshmerga” warrior, battling Saddam from the mountains of Kurdistan. Saddam executed two of Mr. Zebari’s brothers in retaliation for his activities.

The warrior years, Mr. Zebari says, prepared him for life as Iraq’s top diplomat, an experience akin to dodging gunfire in a battlefield. Last month in Baghdad, his guards stopped a car filled with hundred of pounds of explosives as it headed toward his convoy.

“The one strain is that here you are always on alert,” says the 52-year-old native of Aqrah, a town near Mosul. “I learned how to deal with this as a peshmerga. I waited days, nights, hours, for a gunship to appear or a bomb to explode.”

Although he travels in diplomatic circles around the world, his old habits die hard. Underneath his gray suit, he packs a Smith & Wesson revolver.

“This is small and very effective for self-defense,” he said, while fidgeting with the five-chamber weapon. “It’s not an offensive weapon.”

Mr. Zebari, educated in Jordan and England, built a reputation as a hardworking and amicable politician among Iraqi exiles and regional political leaders with his excellent command of English and his ability to be both soft-spoken and direct. He was long the London representative for Iraq’s rogue Kurds.

Once, after a visit to Tehran several months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year, he announced to reporters that he had met with Iran’s ultrasecretive clerical rulers and learned that they supported regime change in Iraq.

He described details of his trip, naming those with whom he had spoken and disclosing details of conversations with some of Iran’s most mysterious figures — the chiefs of intelligence, defense and the Expediency Council. Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani is the chairman of the council.

A few weeks later, Mr. Zebari was spotted wrapped in a trench coat on a barren Kurdish mountain road at dusk, awaiting a convoy carrying Danielle Mitterrand, the wife of the late French leader Francois Mitterrand and a longtime champion of the Kurdish cause.

These days, Mr. Zebari says, he attempts to practice candor when speaking with world leaders. He has made repeated trips to Iran and Syria, both of which are suspected of supporting the Iraqi insurgency and whose leaders he knows intimately from years of back-channel talks.

“I have told them, ‘The U.S. is now your neighbor … and you want them out,’” he says. “‘We, as Iraqis, want foreign troops out. If you want these forces out, help the Iraqi government accelerate the democratic process. If you have a representative Iraqi government through elections, this government will not allow these troops on its soil to fight against you.’”

But Iraq’s many security woes — which include rampant car bombings, a kidnapping-for-ransom wave, highway banditry, sabotage and guerrilla warfare — cannot be blamed entirely on its neighbors, he concedes.

“We need to perform, to be more aggressive, to have a very clear security plan,” he says. “And that depends on ourselves, on our resources. And then if they insist on continuing to interfere, that will be an act of war.”

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