Middle East


Interview: Iraqi Kurdish Leader Jalal Talabani

Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani
Iraqi Kurdish leader and current president of the Iraqi Governing Council Jalal Talabani leaves the Iranian foreign ministry headquarters in Tehran, Nov. 17, 2003 (Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP-Getty Images).

Jalal Talabani, current president of the Iraqi Governing Council and general secretary of the Kurdish National Union, says Iraq wishes to improve its trade and economic relations with both Iran and Syria and insists that the Americans “do not oppose” this aim.

In an interview with Al-Hayat soon after he was appointed president of the Iraqi Governing Council and a few days before he set off on an official visit at the head of a ministerial delegation to Tehran and Damascus to sign major trade and economic deals, Talabani revealed that he and fellow council member Abdel Aziz al-Hakim convinced the Americans to release 65 Iranians detained in Iraq. He also revealed that Iranian representatives—operating with the knowledge of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami—recently began secret negotiations with Washington in Geneva that would include “all matters,” including security issues. The Kurdish leader played down the significance of the coolness in relations between [the council] and Damascus, insisting that members of the Iraqi Governing Council are “friends of Syria” and that he wanted boost trade with Syria even beyond the proportions it attained under Saddam Hussein, vowing to open the Iraqi oil pipeline to Syria. He said that he would speak to the Syrians about plans to set up an Iraqi court for war criminals and seek Syrian promises to extradite any Baathist figureheads who might have fled there.

He indicated that some of those responsible for anti-U.S. attacks in Iraq would throw away their arms if they were satisfied that there would be no Shiite-Kurd dominance over Sunni Arabs. He confirmed a desire to build good relations with Turkey, promising that the Kurdish Workers’ Party would not be permitted to organize anti-Turkish operations from Iraqi territory. The text of the interview follows:

Iraqi Sovereignty and Iranian prisoners
Al-Hayat: Is the Iraqi Governing Council getting more powers? Is there an American response on this issue?
Talabani: There is an American response to our previous demands. In a meeting convened between the presidency and the two ambassadors, Paul Bremer and Jeremy Greenstock, they informed us that they were giving us new powers: We’ll have control of the Iraqi budget; we’ll oversee the building of the Iraqi police force army; we’ll have the right to strike trade deals with neighboring countries; and we’ll have the right to issue laws to alleviate the internal situation. They gave us six new powers in all and promised to give us more every time we progressed in our work. This time, they gave us the authority to appoint ambassadors....We want to complete our transition to national independence and to restore our national sovereignty that was stripped from us by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483.

Bremer has opposed Iraq’s making deals, or rather, its making petroleum deals with Iran. Is it possible that this could affect future draft deals with Iran during your visit?
There’s no petroleum agreement with Iran for Bremer to object to! Quite the contrary. We have asked Bremer to release two Iranian journalists who were arrested. Abdel Aziz al-Hakim and I requested the release of another 65 Iranians. [Bremer] assured us he would try. There is no opposition. When I return from Iran, I gave Bremer and Greenstock a full briefing on what I’d learned, and they didn’t object to anything. We will visit Iran, and I will bring a group of ministers to make deals. [The Americans] don’t object to this.

Secret talks
There has been a widely held impression, especially on the part of the Americans, that Iran is intervening in Iraq. Is this impression still prevalent?
The Iranian-American relationship is rocky and is passing through many repeated stages. We don’t make it more complicated. For our part, we will work to repair any disagreement, because we believe that repairing the Iranian-American relationship serves us. To my knowledge, there are, at the moment, negotiations being held in Switzerland between the Iranian and American governments. We always act as a goodwill messenger conveying positive messages to the Iranians and the Americans.

The negotiations on security issues between Iran and the United States in Geneva were halted in May. When did these talks resume, and what are they about?
They resumed a while ago, some weeks ago. They aren’t focusing on the issue of security: The negotiations include all aspects of relations [between the United States and Iran].

In your view, who in Iran is behind the resumption of these negotiations: the conservatives or President Khatami?
I don’t interfere in Iranian affairs. Iranian state policy can only be decided in Khatami’s National Security Council. Likewise, no decisions can be made without the agreement of Ayatollah Khamenei, because no single group in Iran can act alone on these matters.

Problems with Syria
You’re going to Syria while tension and coolness prevail in relations between Baghdad and Damascus following the [Nov. 2] “seven-state meetings” [between the foreign ministers of Iraq’s neighbors. Syria’s current position is that there is no legitimate government in Iraq—WPR]. Will you discuss the $3 billion some claim Saddam Hussein transferred to private bank accounts in Syrian and Jordan when you go to Damascus? Will you discuss the issue of infiltrators?
I want to be clear on the subject of Syrian relations. All of us in the governing council are friends of Syria. I am the president of the governing council and am proud of our steadfast, historical links with Syria. I recognize that Syria has done a great kindness for the Kurds, including the National Kurdish Union [of which Talabani is secretary general], and the Iraqi opposition. For many years, Syria was the only country that gave refuge and valuable assistance to the opposition. Had it not been for this Syrian assistance, the opposition would never have reached its current strength, and the governing council would not have come into being.

But recently [Syrian Foreign Minister] Farouq al-Sharaa has evinced a kind of misunderstanding. He first appeared to be upset by the fall of the dictatorial regime, then said that the regime’s fall only benefited Israel and American Kurds. We hadn’t expected Al-Sharaa to group the Kurds with Israel and the United States, because he knows the depth of Kurdish-Syrian relations and the depth of [Massoud] Barazani’s and Talabani’s relationship with Damascus. So the majority [of what he said] was untrue. It’s not true that no one benefited from the toppling of Iraq’s dictatorship. First, the whole Iraqi people benefited; second, the Syrian people benefited; and third, the Kuwaiti people benefited. The Iranian people and all peoples of the world, all the peoples of the Middle East, benefited from the toppling of the dictatorial regime that trailed in its wake the mass graves of 600,000 innocent Iraqis. Al-Sharaa’s announcement annoyed us and all Iraqis. I am speaking now as president of the Iraqi Governing Council.

As for Al-Sharaa’s inviting the foreign ministers of neighboring countries and excluding Iraq: ...If there was an invitation to study the Iraqi situation, Iraq should have been invited. The Syrian foreign minister should have invited the Iraqi foreign minister to the meeting. The Syrians say that he was invited. That’s not true! The first thing the official in charge of the Iraqi Embassy in Syria did was immediately visit the [Syrian] foreign ministry and meet with Bashar al-Jafari, who told him, “You aren’t involved in the matter, because this is a meeting of countries neighboring Iraq.”

He told Al-Jafari, “This is an affair discussing Iraq, so how aren’t we concerned with neighboring countries studying the Iraqi issue? By what right do these nations meet in our absence?”

The [Iraqi] foreign minister was invited to come and remain outside the ministers’ meeting. Then Al-Sharaa gave him a summary of what had been said in the meeting. Of course this wasn’t right at all, especially since the Arab countries [Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan] demanded the attendance of the Iraqi representative and stipulated Iraq’s presence. This stipulation forced [the Syrians] to say, “We invited them and they didn’t come,” and then to place these obstacles [to Iraq’s participation].

Then [Syrian foreign ministry spokeswoman] Bushra Kanafani—an old friend whom I know well—started leveling accusations against us, saying that the governing council isn’t legal, doesn’t represent anybody, and is an American puppet. I replied that the governing council represents the Iraqi people better than any government in the Arab world, considering the demographic and political diversity of its members.

As for the future of Syrian-Iraqi relations, I think that it’s going to be glorious because we are friends of Syria. I really am astonished. Why are they opposing this council? The whole council is composed of friends of Syria. For many years, [the Iraqi regime] accused us of being a Syrian puppet; of being followers of Syria. Our relations with Syria are as firmly rooted as the mountains of Kurdistan, and the Al-Sharaa’s and and Kanafani’s don’t affect them. True, they annoyed us, but not to the extent of shaking this firm bond.

Terrorism and international legitimacy
You are going to neighboring countries to discuss financial deals and contracts. Is this a carrot-and-stick policy? Is this the change you’re undertaking?
First, we don’t have a stick. We have suggestions, logic, and brotherly demands. We have projects that we’ll share with these neighboring brothers—our Iranian, Turkish, and Syrian brothers—and ask them to participate in Iraq’s projects…

At the moment, we’re discussing the issue of terrorism and the issue of gaining recognition for the governing council. Iran was the first country to recognize the governing council and send its congratulations. Turkey recognizes the governing council, and Syria has accepted many of its members. Now [Syrian Vice President] Abdel-Halim Khaddam has sent me an invitation as president of the governing council in Iraq, and I will visit Syria with a high-level delegation...to study with the Syrians and to understand their erroneous perception [of events in Iraq]. I believe that some sectarian, racist Iraqis are distorting [the views of] those in Damascus and distorting many events in Iraq. Sometimes they portray the Kurds and Shiites as dominating, sometimes as dominated. Other times they depict the Arabs as oppressed, or they say that we don’t want good relations with the Arab world. These are the damaging claims that have had an effect.

War crimes and internal conflict
This understanding with Syria will be useful in solving the problem of the $3 billion said to be in Saddam Hussein’s Jordanian and Syrian accounts. Will there be a settlement of this issue? Will some of the figureheads of the former regime, rumored to have fled to Syria, be handed over?
I really don’t know if there is any $3 billion or not. Personally, I have no knowledge of that amount of [Iraqi] money being in Syria and Jordan. I am confident that if that kind of money is found, our brothers in Syria and Jordan won’t hesitate to return it to us, because they believe that we need it to rebuild Iraq.

Second, we will talk to the Syrians and the Jordanians about establishing an Iraqi court for prosecuting war criminals. If war criminals are found in Syria or Jordan, we’ll demand their return to Iraq. But to be honest with you, I don’t have any reliable information about the number of [criminals] that are in those two countries.

Will you disband the peshmergas...?
I consider the peshmergas—so far—to be one of the coalition forces, because they’ve acted with goodwill toward the coalition forces and aided their cause in Iraqi Kurdistan when the Turks prevented the U.S. army from advancing. But these forces won’t remain as militia forces as such. We have a plan to build Iraq anew. This new Iraq will have one army, and this army will be a national army, not the army of one party. It will not be beholden to any ideological, ethnic, or sectarian group. It will be an army for all Iraqis.

Many of the peshmergas will be incorporated into the army, another section will become border guards, another will join the police, and yet another will become part of the administration. In the new, united, independent, federal, democratic Iraq, there will be no militia, Kurdish or Arab.

What about the townspeople who you have said were prepared to defend security: How would they be organized, and how would they be funded?
We consider our people to be the source of our strength, the source of our existence, and the source of our progress. We rely on the strength of our people, even in those areas in which terrorist operations—which you falsely and slanderously attribute to the resistance—take place...

The leaders of one of the tribes from the region of Al-Dalim [near Baghdad] came to me and said that many of those who call themselves mujaheddin had told them that they don’t hate the new regime but that it had forced them to take up arms. They said that if the coalition forces were to talk to them about some of their demands, they would be prepared to abandon armed struggle against the new regime. We welcomed that. What are their demands? Their demands are that they, their customs, and their beliefs be respected. Their demands are the foundation of equality between all Iraqis, since there is a certain amount of fear about a lack of equality.

You’re responsible for the bad position that Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya [The Islamic Group] in Kurdistan finds itself in, despite the fact that they once enjoyed your protection. Why?
The JI in Kurdistan is a branch of the Al-Haraka al-Islamiya [The Kurdish Islamic Movement, an opposition political party] in Iraq which split into three factions: The first, and weakest, faction is still called Al-Haraka al-Islamiya. A second incorporates Ansar al-Islam [believed to be connected with Al-Qaeda]—they began awful terrorist operations. The third faction started calling itself Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya. We were providing them with aid and had excellent relations with them, but disagreements arose between us because of their stance on Ansar al-Islam. In the presence of our Iranian brothers, we, Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, and Al-Haraka al-Islamiya agreed to condemn the actions of Ansar al-Islam, to cease assisting them, and to cut ties with them. But Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya continued providing Ansar al-Islam with a certain amount of assistance. Eventually, we agreed that we’d help transfer Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya from the area they were in to another of their choice. Our one request was that they cut ties with Ansar al-Islam.

When they cut ties with Ansar al-Islam, our relations with them will be restored to their previous state. We have done all we can to get [arrested members of Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya] released, and we’ll continue to do so. We have recently signed an agreement with them over a unified position regarding terrorist acts, and there’s an attempt to arrange a meeting between the two political offices to improve relations between us. I received a telegram of congratulations from them on the occasion of my appointment to presidency of the council. Relations with Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya are not completely severed, but at the moment one of their wings is slaughtering in Fallujah and West Baghdad in cooperation with Ansar Al-Islam and Al-Qaeda. As far as we’re concerned, this is a faulty policy. Their leader, Ali Babeer, is imprisoned in Umm Qasr, and we’ve been demanding his release for several months. I’ve presented an official request and have said that I’d act as his sponsor.

Do you fear assassination?
“When their end comes, they may not delay the hour, nor put it forward.” Also, I’m a believer. I expect death at any moment and have done so for a long time. The brothers in Syria arrested an individual who had come to assassinate me. There have been many attempts. This is the nature of the struggle against dictatorship. The Iraqi dictatorship believes only in terror and killing and will not stop short at trying to assassinate Jalal Talabani or anyone else in the governing council. Despite this, I fear no one other than he who created me.