Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in an August 23, 2019 interview on Al-Arabiya Network (Saudi Arabia) that the Shiite groups that fought against the Americans during the Iraq War were directly connected to Iran, that many officials had to return to Iran from Iraq as a result of the war, and that he does not know if there was any coordination between Al-Qaeda and Iran. He said that Al-Qaeda militants came into Iraq from Syria and attacked a wide variety of targets, including Americans, Iraqi institutions, and different ethnic and religious groups, and he explained that an American attack in Syria that killed influential Al-Qaeda members served as a message to Syria to stop facilitating the passage of terrorists into Iraq. Saying that the American surge in 2007 was effective in deterring Iranian militant activity in Iraq, Zebari added that post-occupation Iraq would have been much more peaceful if not for Iranian and Syrian support of militant groups in Iraq. He said that he had urged Arab leaders at the time to help prevent Iraqi Shiites from shifting their loyalties to Iran. He said that he had argued that a strong Iraqi Arab national identity would prevent the Arabs from losing the Iraqi Shiites as allies, but he explained that the Arab leaders were skeptical and distrusting of the Iraqi Shiites. Zebari said that while some Arab leaders have recently adopted the policy that he had urged them to adopt during the Iraq war, he believes that it is too late for the policy to be effective, and he added that Iranian influence in Iraq outweighs Sunni influence.
Following are excerpts:
Hoshyar Zebari: The emergence of Shiite forces in Iraq for the first time since the establishment of Iraq in 1921 sent a positive message to Iran. But they were also very afraid of the large Iranian military presence…
Interviewer: You mean the American presence [in Iraq]?
Hoshyar Zebari: Yes. Therefore, they began to provoke and attack [American forces in Iraq] by means of mostly-Shiite militant groups. These were called "special groups," and they were connected directly to [Iran]. They started to target the American forces in order to intimidate them and force them to pull out [or Iraq] quickly. These were the two different approaches. They started to use advanced, armor-piercing technology, which hurt the Americans a lot. They used it in the south and in Baghdad. There was also the activity by Al-Qaeda…
Interviewer: Did Iran support Al-Qaeda as well?
Hoshyar Zebari: These [terrorists] would come to Iraq mainly through the Syrian border. I really don't know whether there was coordination between [Iran and Al-Qaeda]. Al-Qaeda would target everybody: The Americans, the Iraqi institutions, the army, the police, the tribes, and different ethnic and religious groups. But this was pushed back after the American surge in 2007, because the Americans targeted the Iranians as well. They did not target just Al-Qaeda, but also some Iranians. They arrested a group of them. Many prominent officials had to leave Iran [sic] and go back to Iran…
Interviewer: You mean they had to leave Iraq and return to Iran.
Hoshyar Zebari: Yes. This happened under General David Petraeus, who was the commander of the American and allied forces [in Iraq]. [Petraeus] pursued and attacked them.
Interviewer: This deterred [the Iranians]?
Hoshyar Zebari: Yes, I think it deterred them for a while, until there was security and stability in Baghdad and in other regions. If it wasn't for the Syrian and Iranian regimes and their support of attacks… There was an American attack on Syrian soil that targeted and killed influential members of Al-Qaeda. This was a powerful message to the Syrian government to stop facilitating the passage of terrorist [from Syria to Iraq].
I said to many Syrian leaders that they are like someone who is holding a snake by its tail – you are distancing this evil from you, and you are using it against others, but the snake can bite you at any moment.
Interviewer: Did you mean Al-Qaeda?
Hoshyar Zebari: I meant Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and the extremist organizations…
Interviewer: There was no Jabhat Al-Nusra at the time…
Hoshyar Zebari: What evolved into [Jabhat Al-Nusra]…
Interviewer: You mean the way things developed later on?
Hoshyar Zebari: [I mean] the organizations that grew out of the extremist Salafi Jihadi ideology.
Interviewer: Could we say that were it not for the support of the Syrian and Iranian regimes [for terror], Iraq's situation after the occupation would have been much better and more peaceful?
Hoshyar Zebari: Yes, it would have been much easier and more peaceful.
Interviewer: How much of the responsibility do they bear?
Hoshyar Zebari: They bear a very large part of it.
We scolded our brothers in the Arab countries, as well as the Arab leaders. I used to carry this message to the Arab capitals all the time: "Brothers, don't leave us alone…"
Interviewer: "Don't pave the way for the Iranians…"
Hoshyar Zebari: "[Don't let] the Shiite Arabs go further towards the Iranian axis. They are genuine Arabs and you can strengthen their independence until they stand on their own two feet. Perhaps they are friends and allies of Iran, and perhaps they share the same religion, culture, and history, but as long as Iraqi independence and national identity are not established, you are going to lose, and you will not have them as allies."
Interviewer: What was their reaction?
Hoshyar Zebari: They were skeptical.
Interviewer: Was this because of the nature of the American presence in Iraq, and because of the Iranian meddling [in Iraq]?
Hoshyar Zebari: They suspected that Iraq's Shiites were loyal to Iran. [Egyptian] President Mubarak said this once, and there was a global outcry. King Abdullah II once spoke about the "Shiite crescent"…
Interviewer: Right, King Abdullah II…
Hoshyar Zebari: Yes, the king of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Once again, there was a global outcry. The [Sunni Arab leaders] were doubtful about whether this policy would work.
Interviewer: They have recently begun [to employ this policy].
Hoshyar Zebari: I hope that it will work, but I think that it is too late now. It is too late, Iran has penetrated enough… Iran's influence outweighs the [Sunni] influence, to be honest.
Interviewer: Of course. Does it outweigh even the American influence?
Hoshyar Zebari: That is what they themselves say. When there were elections in Iraq for president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament, an influential Iranian leader said that they beat America 3 to 0 in the Iraqi elections.