Iraqi minister says troop pull-out would 'take the country into hell'

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The Independent Online

Mr Zebari told The Independent in an interview yesterday that foreign troops might be redeployed so they were outside the cities and less visible to Iraqis, but he did not think there would be a reduction in their number. "On the contrary, there might be a need for more troops," he said.

Mr Zebari is adamantly opposed to any withdrawal before a constitution determining relations between the Kurdish, Shia and Sunni communities is voted on in October and an election has taken place in December.

If the US and Britain start now to bow to the insurgent demand for a troop withdrawal, this would be a sign of weakness and "take the country into hell".

A veteran Kurdish leader with the reputation of being the most effective member of the present government, Mr Zebari does not believe that the Iraqi army and police are anything like ready to take over from US and British troops.

A plan proposed by John Reid, the Defence Secretary, suggests that British forces be reduced from 8,500 to 3,000 over the next nine months. The US is considering cutting its troop levels by more than half from 176,000 to 66,000 over the same period.

Other Iraqi observers fear that a wholesale withdrawal of American and British troops would lead to the disintegration of at least part of the Iraqi security forces. When armed insurgents briefly took over the southern Baghdad suburb of Dohra a few weeks ago, the local police fled their barracks and went home.

Mr Zebari, who has escaped a number of assassination attempts over the past year, including a massive vehicle bomb left near his house, believes the test for the new government is on agreeing a constitution. "If we fail, this means that the country is paralysed, literally divided," he said.

The constitution, to be drafted by 15 August and voted on in a nationwide referendum in mid-October, is of crucial importance because it determines the balance of power between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds in the post-Saddam era.

Mr Zebari says Sunnis can be partners, but have to accept that they are no longer in the driving seat as they have been in the past. Under pressure from the US and the UK, 15 Sunni Arabs have been added to the Shia and Kurdish-dominated committee drafting the constitution. Other Kurdish leaders say Sunnis are trying to tear up agreements already reached on a federal Iraq and an autonomous Kurdistan. Mr Zebari thinks Sunnis can be won round with patience.

The Foreign Ministry of the government is probably its most effective arm. But Mr Zebari does not think it is worth trying to talk to the insurgents because they have no political wing. He says there is no equivalent to Sinn Fein among them. To emphasise the point he picked up a Baathist newspaper published in Yemen and quoted a sentence from it: "'Our fight will not stop until we destroy the agent structure [the Iraqi government] and its allies'."

He also wants to put Saddam Hussein on trial as soon as possible. He said: "I will be glad to give evidence myself since he murdered three of my brothers." A problem for the present government is that, aside from the foreign ministry, much of its administration does not function. The Americans have an ambivalent attitude towards the Iraqi police and army, emphasising that they must be built up speedily but refusing to give them modern weapons.

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