Iraq encouraged by US reassurances, minister says
By EDITH M. LEDERER,Associated Press Writer AP - 2 hours 48 minutes ago
DAVOS, Switzerland - Iraq's foreign minister said Friday his government is very encouraged by reassurances from the new U.S. administration that there will be no quick withdrawal of American forces or irresponsible decisions regarding his country.
Hoshyar Zebari said in an interview with The Associated Press that it's "very, very critical" that American troops remain in Iraq in 2009 because the country is holding a series of elections starting with provincial voting on Saturday and culminating with general elections in December that will determine the next government.
Future U.S.-Iraqi relations were discussed when Vice President Joe Biden visited Baghdad just before he was sworn in Jan. 20 and again when Zebari spoke recently with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"We've been reassured by the new administration that there wouldn't be any quick disengagement, there wouldn't be any quick withdrawal or irresponsible decisions and this has been very, very encouraging," he said.
In his conversation with Clinton, Zebari said, "she told me she's strongly committed to Iraqi democracy, sovereignty and to the strategic framework agreement ... between Iraq and the United States."
He said President Barack Obama's statement "that he will deal with the Muslim-Arab world respectfully ... went down extremely well, and it indicated a new direction in the U.S. administration _ that he will listen, listen to all the parties and not make prejudgments."
Obama's appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as his Mideast envoy was also "positive," Zebari said. "People have high hope. There is an air of optimism that things will move for the better in the whole region, and there would be a break with the previous administration."
In the Middle East, he said, "everybody somehow is behaving himself." He said this included Syria, Iran and Hezbollah which is a powerful force in Lebanon.
"But at the same time people have their own apprehensions and concerns," Zebari said.
Iraq remains concerned about Obama's policies which are still being developed.
"We need some continuity," Zebari said. "That's our key concern."
Now that the Iraqi government has "turned the corner" and made progress in security and political development, he said, its main concern is not "to jeopardize these achievements" and to ensure the country remains on the road to democracy and stability.
"We are here after all these years, after all the suffering," he said. "We need continued commitment with the agreements that we have signed, and the messages that we are getting back have been supportive in that direction."
An agreement negotiated under former President George W. Bush's administration called for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June, with all American forces out of the country by the end of 2011.
Obama campaigned on a promise to remove all combat troops within 16 months, and has asked the Pentagon to plan for "a responsible military drawdown from Iraq."
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Monday he believes the U.S. will pull out its troops more quickly than the three-year timeline set down in a U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
Zebari stressed the link between successful elections and the continued U.S. military presence.
He said the registration and enthusiasm for the provincial elections on Saturday "has been unbelievable," compared with the last election three years ago which the Sunnis boycotted.
Iraq's political scene is certain to change as a result of the vote, Zebari said, with new forces emerging among the Shia, the Sunnis as well as between the Kurds, Arabs, Shias, Sunnis.
"I believe the outcome will have a major, major impact on the upcoming elections," he said.
District elections in June will perhaps be coupled with a referendum on the U.S.-Iraq agreement, he said, and "the most important" general election will take place in December.
"And that's why the continued presence of U.S. forces in 2009 is very, very critical. That's why I'm saying that the continued presence of the U.S. forces in 2009 is a key to Iraqi democratization and stabilization, because of all these events," Zebari said.
He stressed that Iraqi stability "is key, really, to the Middle East."
"We are making progress regionally, in the Arab countries, with our neighbors," Zebari said. "The Iraqi voice now is very important, it's counted and it's listened to."
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