Baghdad, 23 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's interim Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari told RFE/RL yesterday that the conflict in Al-Najaf between the armed followers of radical Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and combined U.S.-Iraqi forces is having a negative impact on the interim government's credibility.
"The government's reputation is on the line. I believe it has to act decisively and robustly in order to contain this major crisis that is facing the government," al-Zebari said. "It threatens law and order."
Al-Zebari said that there have been serious discussions among cabinet ministers about how to deal with the conflict. He said the ministers are aware that time is not on their side.
"The cabinet is united. The government is united," al-Zebari said. "But what people would love to see is some real actions from the government -- some decisiveness -- a clear policy toward this challenge. This is what the debate is all about because unless we win this confrontation, it will encourage other hot spots in the country to flare up."
Al-Zebari also downplayed statements in the past two months by the defense and interior ministers that Baghdad has evidence proving Iran has been meddling in Iraq's internal affairs. He said has not seen evidence of Iranian involvement in the Al-Najaf crisis.
"When you describe a country as your 'Enemy No. 1,' you have burned all your bridges." -- al-Zebari
"So far we have heard, really, claims," al-Zebari said. "What I am trying to establish as a foreign minister is facts -- to be able to convey them to the Iranians or to any other country that, 'This is what you are doing and this is unacceptable. We will not tolerate it. If you don't stop it, I am going to make this public'."
He indicated the critical public statements by those ministers have made his job more difficult. As a result, he said, the cabinet has decided that only he will speak about issues that could affect Iraq's relations with its neighbors.
"Well, here is the problem. Our government is new and it hasn't been long since many of our colleagues have taken office," al-Zebari said. "When you describe a country as your 'Enemy No. 1,' you have burned all your bridges. There is no need to follow on [with] any other means to build relations, to cultivate relations, to try to influence their policy and so on."
While apparently trying to exonerate Iran of some of the harsher charges made in the recent weeks, al-Zebari was openly critical of Iraq's neighbors and many other Gulf and Arab countries. He said they have not helped Iraq's new government establish security.
The interim foreign minister also said that if other governments in the region are merely trying to "score points" by opposing the United States in Iraq, they are following a misguided policy that in the long run can create more problems in the Middle East.
Al-Zebari said Baghdad has obtained videotaped testimony of foreign terrorists who have entered Iraq from neighboring countries. But he said that the administration has had less than the desired success in publicizing such cases through the media.For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".Factbox: Iraq's Holy City of Al-Najaf