Interview with Talabani: Beyond the cult of personalities 
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Interview with Talabani: Beyond the cult of personalities  

Thursday, June 01, 2006  Soma - By Tanya Goudsouzian 

DUKAN: In an exclusive interview, President Jalal Talabani discusses his resolve to fight terror and corruption, as well as his plan to devise a robust economic development policy to improve the lives of Iraqis. 

On a cold winter’s night a few weeks before the US-led invasion of Iraq, our convoy made its way along the winding mountain road to an erstwhile army barracks, which had been converted into the home of Jalal Talabani, or “Mam Jalal” (Uncle Jalal) as he is known among the Kurds of northern Iraq. A term of endearment and respect, the title of “Mam” has been used to address the indomitable Kurdish resistance leader for as long as anyone can remember. 

In February 2003, the no-fly-zone region in northern Iraq (aka Iraqi Kurdistan) was swarming with journalists from around the world. Media was rife with speculation over the role Iraqi Kurds would play in a US-led invasion, whether the peshmerga forces would be used against the Iraqi army, and whether territory under Kurdish jurisdiction would be used to accommodate US military bases. At the time, I was working for a Dubai newspaper, which had explicitly forbidden me from using the term “Kurdistan” for my dateline, after the editor received complaints from a number of Arab embassies. 

My interview was scheduled for the evening, and my editors had given me a long list of sensitive questions to ask Mr Talabani, who was then General Secretary of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party. Arriving at the house, my photographer and I had expected to be frisked and interrogated, and yet, the door swung open and we were greeted by the larger-than-life politician himself, who welcomed us into his home as if we were long lost relatives. 

Over tea and finger-food, Mr Talabani regaled us with startlingly non-pc jokes about the region, until his wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed joined us. She had returned from a long day’s work at KurdSat, the Kurdish-language satellite channel. She was wearing an elegant mauve pantsuit, and suffering from a toothache. Mr Talabani left us briefly to peep into the kitchen and personally check on the dinner, a practice he is famous for. He returned holding a mutant cucumber, which he called his “triplets”. His wife explained that Mr Talabani was very proud of his cucumber garden, and then teased him about his rose garden. The invincible revolutionary with a weakness for roses… 

This was a little over three years ago. I had the privilege of interviewing “Mam Jalal” again on 2 May 2006. Everything had changed, and yet nothing had changed. He greeted me with the same warmth and exuberance of an uncle, and invited me to spend a day relaxing with his family in Dukan – a resort town northwest of Suleimanieh, which may be for the Talabanis what Hyannis Port was for the Kennedys. 

Today, Jalal Talabani is the first democratically elected president of Iraq. The Kurdish struggle has certainly come a long way, and yet, the leader of the Kurdish resistance remains a man of the people. 

This week at Dukan, he held a lunch in honor of 250 artists, writers, filmmakers and journalists from across the Middle East, who had come to Iraqi Kurdistan to participate in the annual Al Mada Cultural Festival. There were no formalities, no strip searches, no metal detectors in sight as the Iraqi President mingled with his guests, which included Arabs and Kurds alike. In an exclusive interview, President Talabani outlined the objectives of the new Iraqi government, and expressed optimism for the future. 

Nouri Al Malki is essentially Ibrahim Al Jaafari’s number two man in the Dawa Party. After so many objections to Jaafari’s performance as prime minister, why did you settle on Al Malki? 

We don’t believe that either of them is bad. But we did have some objections to Jaafari’s initiatives. It’s nothing personal, and it’s not about exchanging a bad prime minister for a good one. Moreover, we believe the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) had the right to choose their candidate for prime minister, and we respect their choice. We will do our best to make his work easier, and ensure his success, in the interest of Iraq and the Iraqi people. But you had thoroughly objected to Al Jaafari’s re-nomination as prime minister… Look, there was a point of view that the UIA should choose a new candidate for prime minister. That’s all. The new cabinet will start their work on the basis of an agreement reached by the different groups. The most important thing is that the work of the government will be carried out collectively. It will not be a one-man-show by the prime minister. It will be a collective effort by the ministers’ council. In that frame, we will help and support the new prime minister to fulfill his duties. 

What plan have you set to deal with the rising insurgency? 

First of all, there is the Political Council for National Security, which consists of representatives from all groups in the parliament, and is headed by the President. This Council will devise a comprehensive plan to fight terror and insurgency in the country. We believe that when all the groups are working together, cohesively, it will close the doors, or at least narrow the path for insurgents to conduct their activities. It will start dialogue with those who want to end violence and participate in a peaceful democratic process. This comprehensive plan shall not be limited to security issues alone; it shall also include putting together a robust economic development policy that will improve the lives of our citizens. 

There are reports that elements within the Ministry of Interior are involved in acts of terror… 

Let us look to the future. We will work together in the new cabinet and set a plan whereby every ministry can contribute in defeating terrorism. Where there is a problem, the government will study it and choose a best way to solve it. 

I’ve heard that the Kurdish regional administrations have hired a British firm to monitor the activities of their ministries in a bid to curb corruption. Will this be done for the Iraqi ministries? 

No, there will not be foreign monitoring. We don’t need this. The new government of Iraq will pay great attention to this problem, and the cabinet will put a plan in place. The government and the cabinet plan on controlling corruption and they will take any measure to stop it. We are serious about tackling corruption; we all understand that we need accountable institutions of government that are transparent. We owe it to our citizens to be open with them; we are after all working for them. 

There is some controversy surrounding the peshmergas, as your political opponents claim they are militias. 

Some people can claim what they want… But the peshmergas are not militias. They were forces who defended the Kurdish people of Iraq, and fought in the struggle against the dictatorship. And now, they are part of the national defense of Iraq. They have been integrated into the police, the border guards, army and national guards. We have a constitution and in this constitution, we solve all the issues related to Kurdistan, and especially with regards to Kirkuk. 

How do you feel about the future of Iraq? 

I am optimistic. I am sure that all the political forces across Iraq have learned from the experience of the last crisis and all of them are now sure that unity is best for the Iraqi people. And now, even those Iraqi groups that use the gun have come to see that there is no other way to solve the problems of Iraq except through the political process. As I said, we have direct contact with some of them, and we are doing our best to push them to be part of the political process. 

I am optimistic that this year we will see real progress in eradicating the terrorists from our country. We will strengthen our governing capacity, strengthen our army and security services as well as rebuild our infrastructure to provide the best services we can to our citizens. Especially since the local people have started to understand the dangers associated with terrorism, and have come forward to help the Iraqi Security Forces. 

Have you reached an agreement over the ministries of Interior and Defense? 

I think we all agree that within all the groups, alliances and coalitions, whether Sunni or Shia, we have some capable and loyal people. There are reasonable people who are able to think about the good of the nation and such people can handle these two important portfolios of Defense and Interior. .. I think most of us have candidates in mind, and perspectives about all the problems. But it is not going to be candidates alone that will resolve the problems of this or any ministry. We need to build up our ministries as institutions. We must move beyond the cult of personalities. All of these issues, however, will be solved during the ongoing discussions. I think it will not be too big a problem. Anyway, the main crisis is behind us. After this, everything can be solved through discussion and meetings, because now we have a very good basis of trust on which to operate. 

Are the two Kurdish administrations facing problems in unifying? 

There are no problems, and in the coming few days, we will see the Kurdistan parliament in session, and the unity government of Kurdistan will be announced. 

Some Kurds complain that the Kurdish leadership has abandoned them and put most of their focus and energy in Baghdad. 

Suleimanieh is part of Kurdistan and Kurdistan is part of Iraq. I think the president of Iraq should pay great attention to all cities and I am not forgetting Suleimanieh. As you see, from time to time, I am here, and I have meetings with my colleagues in the politburo and I have meetings with the cadres and the people of Kurdistan… And at the same time, if I have the chance, I will visit other parts of the country. Nobody should be afraid that I have forgotten my hometown 

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