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  Global Viewpoint



Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, was interviewed in New York for Global Viewpoint by contributing editor Raghida Dergham.

By Jalal Talabani

Raghida Dergham: The battle for the constitution is still ongoing despite the amendments that have been introduced to it. We know that Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, welcomed parts of it. But is it ready enough right now to get the endorsement of the Sunni Iraqis?

Jalal Talabani: The constitution has been completed in a fundamental way, and the National Assembly has endorsed it and has submitted it to the United Nations. But some of our Sunni Arab brothers still oppose the constitution in its current form. Some oppose some of its articles and accept the majority, but others accept it.

Dergham: What is the timetable right now? You will put the constitution to a referendum and then when will there be general elections? What will happen if there is a no vote to the constitution?

Talabani: If the constitution is ratified by the 15th of next month, then there would be elections by the end of the year. But if it is rejected next month, then we will still have to do another election on the eighth of January to elect another National Assembly to draft again another constitution.

Dergham: There is the perception that there is an undermining of the Sunnis by the rise of the Shiite power and the Kurdish power. Doesn’t this endanger the cohesiveness of the Iraqi state?

Talabani: This is not true. It is true that the parliamentary majority is Kurdish and Shiite, but we have included many Sunni elements in the process of drafting the constitution. It became apparent that we have big differences with some but not all of them. For example, some wanted an Islamic republic in Iraq; others totally reject federalism for the south. Some also refuse to acknowledge Kurdish as an official language along with Arabic and so on.

Dergham: Iran is rather influential in Iraq. You yourself have said that the liberation of Iraq also could be seen as in the interests of Iran. What is behind the rise of the Shiite power in Iraq, and is there an alliance with Iran? Is there something to what King Abdullah of Jordan once described as the “Shiite Crescent”?

Talabani: First of all, in a way the wars in liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan were in the interests of Iran. The rise of the Shiites as a notable force is due to their number and to their struggle in the opposition. And I have met with King Abdullah and I found him not to be insistent on this description he gave expressing his concerns about the “Shiite Crescent.”

Dergham: If indeed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were beneficial to Iran, should Iranians be grateful to the United States? Have they been?

Talabani: In my opinion, the U.S. deserves gratitude for getting rid of Saddam and the Taliban. This act has saved Iran from danger coming from the east and west. However, if they express their gratitude or not is not my responsibility.

Dergham: Yet the Iranian-American relationship is rather tense most of the time. We even hear that the question for the U.S. is to bomb or not to bomb Iran because of the nuclear issue. Do you feel the U.S. and Iran are headed toward escalation, or do you feel there can be an accommodation between the two countries?

Talabani: I do not think that the Iranian-American relation is moving toward escalation. The Americans have opened a wide door for the Iranians to back down from the so-called pursuit of the nuclear bomb, and so I do not expect an Iranian-American military confrontation.

Dergham: How do you expect the two countries to solve the problem between them?

Talabani: It is very difficult to project.

Dergham: I am asking you because Iraq is in the middle of the Iranian-American relationship.

Talabani: We have managed to maintain our good ties with Iran and America at the same time.

Dergham: With the blessing of the United States?

Talabani: I do not know whose blessing it is, but this is our policy.

Dergham: What about the rise of the Kurdish power? Some are being very critical; some are saying that you want too much and that you are acting as the victorious people in Iraq. What do you say to them?

Talabani: There are 190 states in the United Nations; some have populations of only 15,000 people. Is it too much for the Kurds to attain their right of federalism within an independent unified Iraq? The Kurdish people in Iraq are no more than 6 million people. After a long struggle for democracy in Iraq and for attaining their rights, they have achieved victory. However, compared to other states in the world, compared to other peoples, the Kurdish people remain the only ones deprived of their independence.

Dergham: Were you independent before the U.S. invasion?

Talabani: Before the invasion… (stutters) liberation. You say invasion, I say liberation. From 1992 to 2003 the Iraqi Kurdistan was out of the control of the Iraqi regime. We had our parliament, our government, our army, our police forces, our economy and our ties with the outside. After the liberation of Iraq, we came back to Baghdad. We gave it the right to set up a government, the right to have foreign affairs and have a national army, merging the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) into the police forces and security forces and the army.

Dergham: But you are happy to have the Kurdish state only within Iraq?

Talabani: We are Iraqi Kurds, and we are not interfering in the other parts of Kurdistan.

Dergham: When you met with President Bush, did he discuss with you what is repeatedly said in American circles that what the administration wants for both your neighbors in Syria and Iran is regime change? Is this what you heard from the president?

Talabani: I did not hear about a change of regime but a change of behavior.

Dergham: For both?

Talabani: About Iran I did not hear but about Syria, yes. We are striking good relations with Syria. My personal relations are very good. I am most grateful to what it did for us when we were in the opposition. It offered us valuable assistance and enabled us to continue the struggle against Saddam. That is why I feel morally indebted to Syria. Any problem can be solved as dialogue as brothers.

Dergham: You were quoted as saying you might want some American forces to stay on in Iraq.

Talabani: That is not what I said. I will repeat what I said: Perhaps it would be in the interest of Iraq that American forces would stay in limited numbers at certain bases in Iraq after they complete their current mission.

Dergham: When do you think there will be a withdrawal of American forces on the current mission?

Talabani: My estimate is that within the next two years Iraqi forces will be able to take responsibility for internal security. But the phasing of withdrawal is an issue directly related to American-Iraqi relations and to certain conditions for both countries. Declaring a timetable now is not in the interest of Iraq because the terrorists would consider that their victory, and it would boost their morale.