Iraq's foreign minister urged the United States on Monday to take a more active role in breaking the deadlock over formation of a new government, saying the nearly seven-month election stalemate has not only left the country in limbo but hurt its economy.
Hoshyar Zebari said in an interview with The Associated Press that since the pullout of U.S. combat forces at the end of August, Iraqi security forces have proved that they are taking responsibility and there hasn't been a security vacuum — but he said the failure to form a government is creating serious problems.
"Lack of efforts of government formation has been very negative on all aspects of life," he said. "Everybody is holding back to see whether there would be a government, whether this political, security stability can last and continue."
A Sunni-backed coalition led by ex-Prime Minister Ayad Allawi narrowly defeated Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated bloc in March elections, but political bosses have been deadlocked over forming a new government. The Iraqi public grown increasingly frustrated, and Iraqi and U.S. officials fear that insurgents are trying to exploit the political vacuum in an attempt to re-ignite sectarian tensions.
Zebari said the Obama administration hasn't taken "an active or pro-active engaging role" because it believes the formation of the government should be done by the Iraqis themselves.
"I personally think strongly that they have a role — to encourage, to urge, to facilitate the Iraqis leaders to meet, to take the process further," he said.
Zebari said there has been "an important positive result" of the delay in forming a government.
It shows "that the Iraqi leaders, that the new Iraq, will not budge to foreign pressures, not to Iran, not to the United States, not to Arab countries, not to Turkey," he said. "They want to decide their own future, to choose their own government, their own leaders by themselves. But their way — it has taken us too long."
That's why the United States should become more actively engaged to help break the deadlock, Zebari said.
The Iraqi minister blamed the impasse on a fight over personalities — essentially who will be prime minister — not "the substance of government."
"Unfortunately ... there has been a case of entrenchment, of insistence, and unwillingness to compromise or to reach middle ground solutions, or to make concessions," he said.
Zebari, who is returning to Baghdad on Friday after more than a week of meetings around the United Nations General Assembly, voiced confidence in his country's progress in spite of the election stalemate and all that the country has suffered over the last three decades of war, sanctions, invasion and internal divisions.
He noted that the country has survived with its borders intact, and that in the end it avoided the perils of breakup or open civil war.
"Iraq has passed the most dangerous period of its history," he said. "Despite all the trauma and pain, ...we have not lost hope in the future of this country." He added that now Iraq "needs a period — a big period — of stability to rise up and become the powerhouse of the Middle East. And it is the soul of the Middle East."
One other challenge awaiting the new government, he said, is to win parliamentary approval for $400 million in payments to settle claims by U.S. citizens for damages from the former government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who was ousted in the 2003 U.S. invasion and later captured by the United States and executed by Iraq's authorities.
Iraq has been pressing for the U.N. Security Council to cancel sanctions and more than 70 resolutions adopted after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. In August, the council called on Iraq to solve the outstanding issues related to Kuwait, oil-for-food program contracts, and disarmament, so those sanctions can finally be removed.
Settling the U.S. claims "is very important for us," said Zebari, to get free of the limits that the United Nations still puts on Iraq.
By paying the outstanding claims to U.S. citizens, he said, Iraq would also be indemnified against other possible claims against it and therefore be able to operate internationally without fear of court cases attempting to seize its assets.
"Unless we settle this, there will be many, many other legal claims against our money and our assets here in the United States by different law firms, by different individuals and by different companies. That is why the settlement that we have is the key, really, to close that."
Zebari congratulated Iraqi security forces, who as of last month are now taking the lead in maintaining safety across the country, even though the United States still has some 50,000 troops in the country to train, advise and provide backup to the Iraqi army and police.
The foreign minister acknowledged that government opponents like Al Qaeda in Iraq and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq are still able to mount sporadic attacks around the country, but on the whole he said that the country is healing and far safer that it was just a few years ago. "The security forces really are stepping up to their responsibility and there hasn't been a vacuum (that) many people anticipated," he said.
Zebari also heralded the fact that Iraq's former isolation within the Arab world is starting to come to an end. "That negative attitude toward Iraq, it has changed," he said.
"Egypt has reopened its embassy. Kuwait has sent an ambassador. UAE, Bahrain, Syria restored relations recently. ... Everybody is waiting actually for the new government to have full diplomatic relations with Iraq because they realize that their absence is not in the best interest of Iraq, or the region, or themselves."