Iraqi President Jalal Talabani Talks to Asharq Al-Awsat

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani Talks to Asharq Al-Awsat Wednesday 17 May 2006 Interview by Ma'ad Fayad

(Asharq Al-Awsat) The majority of the Iraqi people welcomed having a Kurd as the president of the republic. This is Iraq. But how do you answer those demanding that the president should be an Arab since Iraq is an Arab country? 

(Talabani) It is not a condition that Iraq's president should be Kurd but should be - in addition to his humanitarian, political, and other required qualifications - the man of national accord, acceptable to the main parties in parliament, and capable of bringing views closer and playing a role in the national reconciliation as well as a role in achieving the national unity government by bringing the views of the various entities in Iraq closer.  As to the other view, that the president should be Arab, this conflicts with the concept of national unity. The principal condition in the concept of Iraqi unity is that all the citizens are equal in rights and duties. Therefore every Iraqi has the right to be president of the republic or prime minister if he meets the conditions for these two posts. Excluding the Kurds from this or that post because he is Kurd is a chauvinistic exclusion that is not commensurate with the concept of national unity and harbors the spirit of anti-Kurdish nationalistic fanaticism. I would like to say that having Kurds occupy major posts in the Arab homeland is not something new. Let us see how many Syrian presidents were Kurds and no one objected to him because he was a Kurd. The objection concerned his behavior, performance, or stands. This objection is a new fad that appeared with Aflaqism (Reference to Baath Party founder Michel Aflaq) in the Arab world. Aflaqism, a plague as I call it, brought a bunch of chauvinistic and hostile ideas that fragmented the people's unity and was hostile to the democratic principles. We notice in the developed countries that the naturalized citizen has the right to occupy the highest position without any objection to his origins. Why should there not be in Iraq a right for all to occupy the important posts if they have the qualifications. We should object when the president of the republic comes through military coups, tanks, and regime change despite the people's will. But when the parliamentary majority selects the president, then he has the right to be whatever he is. 

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Mentioning coups, do you believe that the era of military coups in Iraq is over? 

(Talabani) I believe it is over. I believe that the whole age does not accept military coups anymore. I am not saying that there is no possibility of a coup in backward countries when some officers get it into their heads and carry out a dictatorial action through a coup but saying that the age of military coups is over. I regret to say that a Kurdish officer, Major General Bakr Sidqi who was the aide to the army's chief of staff in the 1930s, initiated the era of military coups in Iraq. He responded to a request from the Iraqi Arabs' progressive leaders, like the late immortal Ja'far Abu-al-Tamn and Kamil al-Jadirji, who assumed power after this coup. It was a bad start. Today's globalization does not accept military coups. 

GOVERNMENT CRISIS 

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Let us talk about the present crisis, that of forming the government. You bring the parties together whenever the crisis becomes more severe so as to help solve it. Where have the efforts to form the government reached? 

(Talabani) I would like to say that this is an honor for me, an honor that I do not claim and a charge I do not deny. The task of forming the government in Iraq is a difficult one. You know the Iraqi people's social, class, and ethnic structure. God gave this country many resources, its valleys, mountains, and plains. But it is not an easy country and has been a country of problems since Imam Ali. I therefore say that the formation of the government is not an easy task. There are difficulties inside every bloc on one hand and between the blocs on the other. God help our brother Nuri al-Maliki as he advances forward step by step. I believe he is on the verge of completing the formation of the government because it is the distribution of posts that remains. There are minor problems with Al-Tawafuq Front and also Al-Iraqiyah list. I am expecting the agreement to be reached tomorrow (today), God willing.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) You are known to be a secularist belonging to the national liberation tendency that is far removed from sectarianism and ethnic discrimination. How will you agree with one government of Shiites and Sunnis? 

(Talabani) Do not forget that I am a Sunni.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) I do not want to talk about the sectarian issue. You are secular and do not think of the sectarian matter? 

(Talabani) Let me tell you the reality. This is Iraq. It is made up of the Arab and Kurdish nationalities. This was stipulated in Saddam Hussein's constitution. There are the Turkoman and Chaldean-Assyrian nationalities besides these two. There are Muslims and Christians in Iraq. The Muslims are divided between the Sunni and the Shiite doctrines and there are the Hanafists and Al-Shafi'ists in the Sunnis. This is quite normal in Iraq and it is not imported or concocted. But what is lacking in Iraq today is the presence of parties spreading across the homeland as branches and organizations and extending from Zakho to Basra and where the party enters as a real list. Iraq lacks the democratic experience. When the Aflaqists took over power in Iraq, they put en end to the progressive movement in the country and also to the pan-Arabists who were unable to send a single deputy to parliament. The fact is that the political movement in Iraq is today divided into secularists and Islamists. The latter are the majority, whether they are Sunni or Shiite Arabs. They won the majority of seats in parliament as a result of the elections. It is therefore natural for the government to be formed from these lists that won the elections. Why do we not call it the lists' quotas between them and not sectarian quotas? Let us take the Kurdish list as an example. This list has five ministers and the ones we have presented include Muslims and Christians. We have a Christian minister, Fawzi al-Hariri. He was not nominated as a Christian but in the Kurdish list. We have a woman nominated to be a minister. These lists' representation reflects their reality. For example, Al-Iraqiyah list nominated Sunni and Shiite Arabs, men and women. This is its structure. It is the same with the other lists. There is nothing in the constitution indicating that this number is allocated for the Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, or Kurds. We in the Kurdistan list lost four ministerial portfolios. We had nine and they gave us five. Yet we accepted this in order to facilitate matters. It is the elections' results that reflected the Iraqi society's political reality and distribution.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) But I want this government to be one of national unity in which all the political blocs that won in the elections take part so as to participate in the decision-making process.

(Talabani) This is true.  DISTRIBUTION OF MINISTERIAL PORTFOLIOS 

(Asharq Al-Awsat) But Al-Iraqiyah list and also the Dialogue Front are feeling excluded because they are not being given important ministries. 

(Talabani) I believe that there is no intention to exclude any of the parties that won in the elections. But there are unreasonable demands. For example, the Dialogue Front led by Salih al-Mutlak. He is insisting on having the foreign ministry portfolio and saying because I am an Arab and Iraqi-Arab relations need an Arab minister for the foreign ministry. If we discuss this idea, we see that it is essentially chauvinistic. Who said that the Arabs in Iraq were able to improve relations between it and the Arab countries? Iraqi-Arab relations worsened at the Arabs' hands. But what kind of Arabs? The Arabs who do not care about Iraq's interest or the Arab interest. Did Iraqi-Syrian relations go through a bad stage like the one through the Baath rule in both countries? The Nasirites seized power in Iraq and were unable to achieve unity with Egypt. Let us ask: Have Iraqi-Arab relations worsened at the hands of Kurdish, Turkoman, or Arab foreign ministers? Therefore the idea that the foreign minister should be Arab so as to improve relations with the Arabs is a chauvinistic one. I am a Kurd but have the best relations with the Arabs and Arab countries. I am possibly the only Iraqi official who did not insult Syria but always praised its help to the Iraqi opposition and people. Brother Hoshyar Zebari played an important role in deepening relations with the Arab countries even though he is a Kurd. Al-Mutlak's insistence that the foreign minister should be an Arab created discrimination between the Arabs and the other nationalities. If the Kurdish citizen senses this discrimination in this country, he will then think about living in another country.  We want to express the nature of the Iraqi people's structure. The monarchy acknowledged the existence of a Kurdish nationality in Iraq. The two stars on the Iraqi flag under the monarchy symbolized the Arab and Kurdish nationalities. The Kurds occupied major posts in the state under the monarchy, like prime minister, defense minister, or army chief of staff. The 14 July 1958 revolution started with Article 6, which says that the Arabs and Kurds are partners in Iraq. Iraq was called the republic of Arabs and Kurds. We did not hear that Iraq was a purely Arab republic before the Arab chauvinists who destroyed the country with their plots. The Iraqi constitution stipulates this partnership and the clause on the Arab-Kurdish partnership was taken from the program of the Iraqi national congress that included the nationalist democrats, the pan-Arab Independence Party, and the Popular Front. This phrase was the common denominator for all the Iraqis before the chauvinist and Aflaqist tendencies' despotism. Therefore and from the partnership premise, the Kurds have the right to occupy this or that post. Brother Salih (Al-Mutlak) can say he is better and more qualified to occupy this or that post but not say that he is better than Hoshyar Zebari for occupying this post because he is an Arab. This is an old and defunct tendency that is really provocative to the Kurds and all the progressive democrats in Iraq.  As to Al-Iraqiyah list's participation, my information is that it is on the verge of participating in the government. Al-Maliki's proposals to Al-Iraqiyah are reasonable. I attended a meeting we held in this house and we made great efforts with Dr. Iyad Allawi to persuade him to join the government. The ministries offered by the prime minister were clear and logical. I believe that the brothers in Al-Iraqiyah accept them, that is, if they have not already done so. There is hope that Al-Iraqiyah and Dialogue Front will join, but according to their size and reality. 

FEDERALISM

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you believe that the Kurds, as a people, are satisfied with what they are now, with what they have got in Iraq? 

(Talabani) Yes, as a people and I will give you an example. If we compare between the Kurds who voted for the Iraqi constitution and those who voted for the establishment of the Iraqi state at its birth and according to the history of Iraqi cabinets, the Kurds voted against the rule of King Faysal I. Now, 80 percent of the Kurds voted for Iraq's constitution and Iraqi unity. There is therefore satisfaction, otherwise they would not have voted for the constitution. There is another proof. In the absence of the Iraqi state and the establishment of Kurdistan's parliament, the latter approved unanimously the Iraqi unity and the establishment of a democratic state on a federal basis. There is therefore general satisfaction with the present unified and federal Iraq. But there are demands, criticisms, and deficiencies that the Kurds can object to, just like the Arabs of Al-Anbar, Basra, or Karbala. Briefly and to the point, I believe that the Kurds are satisfied with the new Iraqi system.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) There are fears among some Arabs, Iraqis and others, that the region of Kurdistan will secede from Iraq's body. How do you assure them? 

(Talabani) I do not believe there are Arabs who fear secession. There are the chauvinists who believe this. The majority of the Arabs and Kurds voted for the parliament, national unity, and the democratic federal Iraq. The Sunni Arab party that objected to federalism admitted frankly that it did not object to Kurdistan's federalism. Even brother Salih al-Mutlak said I do not object to Kurdistan's federalism. More than that, he said I do not object to Kurdistan's secession from Iraq. Therefore there is no objection to the region of Kurdistan. There is objection to the region by the Arab chauvinists. All the Iraqi political parties agreed that Kurdistan should be a federal region. The objection at present is about the federalism in the south and not Kurdistan. This question, please do not take this amiss, lacks accuracy. Moreover, what role did the Kurds play in Iraq? Were the Kurds secessionists, then we would have left the Iraqi parties fight each other, said it was their misery, and sat in the region watching what was happening. Were it not for the great and persistent efforts we made with the allies, then matters would not have reached where they are now, like forming a national unity government. All the political parties acknowledge today our effort to unite the stands. This shows our enthusiasm for national unity. I do not believe that the Arabs in Iraq have objections to our federalism. Outside Iraq, they look at it positively. What we are hearing against the Kurds are chauvinist ideas against Iraq's interest. If we translate the word federalism into Arabic it would be unionism. 

( Asharq Al-Awsat) I said fears, not objections. Fears that the Kurds will think of secession, especially as there is the plebiscite committee that demanded secession? 

(Talabani) All right. Let us go to the fear. The plebiscite held in Kurdistan did not have the aim of secession but the right to self-determination. Every side has the right to self-determination. We decided our fate by being part of Iraq. We decided to remain within the independent, united, democratic, pluralist, and federal Iraq. There is a difference between a compulsory unity imposed by force of arms, like British colonialism did in the 1920's, and a voluntary unity that the Kurds decided by staying in Iraq and the Iraqis under one state.  If you read the book Mosul's Problem that was published in 1977 and written by an Iraqi Arab university teacher, you see that it says that the League of Nations came and carried out investigations in Mosul and acknowledged that the Kurds were the majority in the Kurdistan region. It also acknowledged that this region was never part of the Arab Iraq and that the majority of the population in that region preferred to live with the Arabs. There was therefore voluntary coexistence between the nationalities and we chose to live with the Arabs. Let me ask why are there not fears of the Arabs seceding? Part of the Arabs in Iraq is calling for absorbing the Iraqi entity in the entity of other Arab countries and this is a secessionist tendency. Let me ask: You are an Arab Iraqi and I am a Kurdish Iraqi. Do we have equal rights?  (Asharq Al-Awsat) I believe you have more rights and privileges than me.  (Talabani) From the legal aspect, is your right like mine? Therefore you are calling for absorbing your entity in an Arab one. So why is it not my right to protect my Kurdish entity? Yes, there are some poets and young people who object to us and consider us Arabists and that we have veered off the Kurdish national line. But the truth of the matter is that the majority of the Kurdish people voted for the constitution and this means that our people have agreed to be within the independent, democratic, and federal Iraq. There is therefore no reason for the fears that are voiced by some Aflaqist chauvinists.  THE KARKUK PROBLEM 

(Asharq Al-Awsat) How do you view the solution for the Karkuk problem? 

(Talabani) The solution is in the constitution. It is a simple solution: Removal of the effects of Saddam's ethnic cleansing, the return of displaced persons to their areas, and the reunification of Karkuk. Let us look at what Saddam did. He displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Turkoman from the area and replaced them with hundreds of thousand of Arabs from outside, especially from the south. This created a demographic and sectarian problem because Karkuk has forever been a Sunni city. Most of those that Saddam brought were Shiite Arabs from the south and many of them want to return to their areas of their own free will. Therefore the effects of the ethnic cleansing have to be removed and things returned to normal. The Karkuk Governorate's administrative boundaries have been known since the monarchy. Saddam Hussein then came and annexed Jalul to Diyali Governorate, Toz Kharmatou district to Tikrit, Kalar and Chamchamal districts to Al-Sulaymaniyah. He kept only the city and Al-Huwayjah after destroying all the Kurdish and Turkoman villages around Karkuk. Saddam Husayn carried out an ethnic cleansing operation that violated all Islamic, democratic, patriotic, and human values as well as human rights. Now it is the restoration of the situations back to normal that is required. The decision will be left to the people there. If they want Karkuk to remain a governorate not within kurdisan's borders, then they are welcome to it. If they want to join the region, then they are also welcome. We have to seek the people's view and look at the issue calmly without creating a spirit of hostility between the Arabs, Kurds, and Turkoman. There are today foreign countries interfering in the Karkuk issue and they do not have the right to talk about it. 

(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about the Arabs that Saddam had brought? What is their crime to make them leave an Iraqi city called Karkuk? 

(Talabani) If you meet and tell them those who want to remain can do so on condition that they do not change the city's demography, a large part of them want to return to the areas from where they were brought. Some said it is impermissible for us to remain because it is contrary to Islam to come and take the land of others by force. There are 10,000 Arab families that have applied so far to return to their areas. I am from Karkuk city and my family, Talabani, is one of the oldest families in the city's history. The Talabani hospice was built more than 280 years ago. Karkuk is historically a Kurdish city. I am not saying this but the Ottoman Encyclopedia book (he shows us the old book) that was published during the Ottoman rule. Read in the media index (scans the pages) and says we accept what was said during the Ottoman rule. There is the Ottoman Empire's map (points at an old map hanging on a wall facing his desk) and this a European map of Karkuk (map hanging to the left of the desk). We accept what these maps say. There are firm historic facts and if you refer to the first statistics about Karkuk you will find that the Arabs' percentage was very low. There were eight Arab students only in my class when I was a secondary school student (5 th sciences). They were the sons of employees. The Arabs are present in Huwayjah and Toz district. Between 1945 and 1955, 14,000 Arabs came to Karkuk as state employees or workers in the oil companies. We did not say these should be returned because they became part of the city's population. Those who were brought during Saddam's rule for ethnic cleansing purposes have no right to determine the city's fate. They have the right to stay and reside but not the right to vote on the city's fate. 

REGIONAL DANGERS TO IRAQ 

(Asharq Al-Awsat) There are dangers to Iraq from regional countries. These dangers have become a fact following the Iranian bombardment of areas in Kurdistan and the massing of Turkish troops on Iraq's northern borders. How do you view these dangers? 

(Talabani) I do not believe that there are real fears from neighboring countries. We in Iraq agreed among ourselves and are forming a national unity government. We can solve the disagreements with neighboring countries easily. Give me a national unity government and a delegation from it and I pledge as the president of the republic to go to Tehran and Ankara and solve the problems. If I cannot, I will go to Al-Sulaymaniyah and send my resignation to Baghdad. There are positive and negative relations between Iran and us but there is prospect for understanding between us. There is prospect for understanding between Iraq and Turkey. These countries use semi-factual excuses. Let us be frank with each other. There is the Kurdish Workers Party that acts from the Iraqi territories and strikes Turkey and then seeks refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan's mountains. Do you want Turkey to just watch what is happening? There is an Iranian Kurdish party called Pajak that also carries out killings inside Iranian territories and then seeks refuge to Iraqi Kurdistan's mountains. Do you want the Iranians to just watch what is happening? No one accepts this. We must therefore reach a solution so that Turkey and Iran will not have an excuse for strikes on Iraq's territories or to maintain their troops on our borders. I believe that the problem is in forming a government of national unity. Once this is solved, then everything will be resolved with Iran, Turkey, and Syria too, with which we have some problems. These are solved through dialogue, not through media campaigns and insults in which I do not believe. Yes, there are problems with Syria and I prefer to have a high-level delegation visit Damascus and place the problems at the negotiating table so as to solve them. There is no problem that does not have a solution if there is an Iraqi government of national unity. Moreover, Iraq is not a weak country. The neighbors can create problems for us and we can do the same to them if things do reach this point. We do not want them to reach the point where we create problems for each other. If Iran allows itself to interfere in Karbala because it is a Shiite city and Turkey allows itself to interfere in Karkuk, then this opens a very dangerous door. Iraq will also have the right to interfere in Khozestan and say there are Arabs in Arabstan and to interfere in Iskandarun because there are Arabs in it. We have to respect our countries' borders and these countries' sovereignty. 

THE MEETINGS WITH ARMED GROUPS 

(Asharq Al-Awsat) You have talked about meetings between you and Iraqi resistance leaders. What are the details of these meetings? 

(Talabani) There are no more details than what I have already said. One day, my aides said person called Abu-Mustafa wanted to meet me here in this house. He was a former officer and I was searching for him because he was one of the officers opposed to Saddam. He came with four persons who introduced themselves and said we are leaders of the resistance and trust you and therefore came to your house. They told me they had met the Americans in Amman and here in Baghdad and were on the verge of reaching results but stopped the contacts because of what they heard about the US-Iranian contacts. Their emphasis was that they saw the Iranian danger greater than the coalition forces' danger. I advised them to continue the relationship with the Americans and said you might probably reach a result. I encouraged them to do so. The second time, persons from Al-Anbar came to me and said we too have relations with the resistance. I welcomed them as Iraqis. I am the president of all the Iraqis and my door is open to all. I received letters from Iraqi citizen Barzan al-Tikriti and Tariq Aziz about being treated while in jail and I sent a message to the prime minister and he responded to their requests. This is my duty to the citizen and they still have the citizenship right. This is my way in life. (Asharq Al-Awsat) What would you do if you received a letter from Saddam Husayn? 

(Talabani) I would read it well and if he needed help, like treatment, I would help him even though I fought him until the last day of his rule. He used to exclude me from all the amnesty decision and say all except this traitor agent Jalal Talabani. But this does not mean that we should abandon our humanity and our love for our people. We have to open a new page of tolerance in Iraq and end the era of butchering and repression. The former president has the right to talk in the court and the judge has the right to pass the fair sentence and implement it.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Did a dialogue take place between the US administration and the Iranians? 

(Talabani) This did not happen. I was supposed to receive the Iranian delegation and take part in the dialogue and was ready for this. I hope that this dialogue will take place. 

RELATIONS WITH ARAB COUNTRIES 

(Asharq Al-Awsat) How do you describe your relations with the Arab countries? 

(Talabani) Very good. We have special with Jordan and more than special with Saudi Arabia and with Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Algeria, and all the Arab countries. (Asharq Al-Awsat) Are you optimistic? (Talabani) Very. I am always optimistic.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) You were 18 years old when you were in the Kurdish revolution's central council. Are you not tired of politics? 

(Talabani) By God I am tired. I cannot be with my family. It was on rare occasions that I was with all members of my family, like new year's eve.

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