Council on Foreign Relations
New York, N.Y.
DAVID PHILLIPS: Thank you all for coming today. My name is David Phillips, and I’m a senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations and deputy director of the Council’s Center for Preventive Action. Qubad Talabani, we are delighted to have you here at the Council on Foreign Relations.
QUBAD TALABANI: Thank you.
PHILLIPS: A warm welcome to you.
TALABANI: Thank you. It’s an honor to be back here.
PHILLIPS: The rules for our meeting today is that it’s on the record, which means that everything you say can and will be used against you.
TALABANI: Against me—hopefully it’s not an Iraqi court of law.
PHILLIPS: We hope that a legitimate Iraqi court will soon be able to try war criminals in Iraq.
PHILLIPS: The topic of our discussion today is about Iraq’s political transition, and Qubad Talabani, who is the United States representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK], is ideally positioned because of his work internationally and over the past couple of years in Iraq to speak with us substantively about some of the important issues Iraq is facing today. You may also know Qubad’s father, who is Jalal Talabani, the new president of Iraq, and I’d like to congratulate you and your family on his presidency.
TALABANI: Thank you.
PHILLIPS: Although I gather that you are not speaking for your father here today; you are speaking on behalf of the PUK.
TALABANI: That’s correct.
PHILLIPS: Well, a warm congratulations to you all.
TALABANI: Thank you.
PHILLIPS: And also condolences because of the terrible bombing that happened yesterday in Erbil. I understand that the death count is now up to 60 persons.
TALABANI: That’s correct.
PHILLIPS: So I am afraid that the report on Iraq is typically bittersweet; we have reasons to celebrate, but also reasons for great concern. The political transition in Iraq is something that we’ve been talking about now almost since April 9, 2003, which is when Saddam’s statue was toppled in Firdos Square, and I know that you played an important role during the negotiations over the interim constitution, the Transitional Administrative Law that was adopted in March of 2004, and some of the people in this room, including Mr. and Mrs. Martinez’s son, [Roman Martinez, a U.S. adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad] played a very important role in that negotiation. And the interim constitution still serves as the roadmap guiding Iraq’s progress toward democracy.
Let me just summarize some of the key milestones in that, and then I will ask you a few questions before we open it up to our guests, and they’ll have the opportunity to question you as well. The Transitional Administrative Law called for elections in Iraq for a transitional assembly by the end of January 2005. It also stipulated that a primary responsibility of that assembly would be the drafting of a permanent constitution. It estimated that the draft would be prepared by August 15, and then it would be disseminated and debated and ultimately ratified both by the assembly and in a referendum by October 15. And then by December 15 of this year, there will be another round of elections in Iraq for a more permanent government that would be seated for a five-year term.
Anyone who watched the elections of January 30th couldn’t help but celebrate with the Iraqis. Not only did they not come out to the polls to express their democratic aspirations, but Iraqis recognized that the best way to end the occupation was to actually establish a government of their own. Could you comment for us a little bit about the election and the participation and attitudes of Iraq’s different ethic and sectarian groups?
PHILLIPS: In particular, I’m sure we are interested in hearing a little bit about the reluctance of the Arab Sunnis to participate and why the Kurds did turn out in such high numbers.
TALABANI: Well, initially, there was some confusion as to what kind of elections we were going to have. It wasn’t like the U.S. system where you directly elect a president or prime minister. These were in fact parliamentary elections, where parties submitted their slates, and the list of candidates and people actually voted for each slate. This created the National Assembly that we have now, which ultimately elected the president, and the president appointed the prime minister, who was to go back and form his cabinet, and we have made some progress there.
But really, there was a lot of excitement, as you mentioned, about the elections, and for many, this was the first time that they actually truly went out to vote; had a stake in their country to make decisions on the future of their country, and for the Kurds it was clearly a very joyful moment. And the footage that was broadcast over the airwaves showed thousands of Kurds in jubilation turning out to vote.
Some tragic, bittersweet stories about people leaving their deathbeds—leaving the hospital to go and vote and literally passing away immediately after putting in the ballot. I saw an old lady being taken to one of voting booth in a wheelbarrow. They couldn’t find anything to transport this lady; she was taken there in a wheelbarrow, which really showed us the commitment that people had to voting.
This couldn’t be said throughout the country. Obviously in the south, the predominately Shiite-dominated areas, there was a similar level of enthusiasm, similar level of excitement and intent to go out to vote. The parties were very, very active in getting out the vote, expressing the necessity to vote and the importance. Unfortunately, in the Sunni parts—in the western part of Iraq, this is where few people turned out to vote. Many in the Sunni community thought that if they didn’t vote that this would ultimately de-legitimize the election. That was a calculated mistake on their part, and some of the religious figures within the Sunni communities were also urging the communities not to vote; again, with the intent that these elections are not legitimate, and that they are put together by the Shiites and the Kurds to ultimately take away domination—take away power from the Sunni communities.
Since the elections, we have seen and heard many members of the Sunni communities regretting actually not taking part in the elections because they saw the people turning out to vote. They saw the effect that this had on the whole country, and they have expressed regret, really, that they didn’t vote. And now is the challenge of trying to bring back Sunnis into the political process, because this country really needs all of the major communities to work together in order for it to succeed.
PHILLIPS: Let’s talk a little bit about that. There was enormous momentum coming out of the elections. They where heralded in Iraq and in capitals around the world as a major milestone in the country’s history, but it took three months to form a government, and a lot of the goodwill coming out of those elections was dissipated. Why the delay?
TALABANI: It was very frustrating. It was very frustrating for everybody involved. It was frustrating for the Iraqis involved, for those that braved the terrorists, those that turned out to vote. It was frustrating for the capitals around the world. The momentum—we feared that we were ultimately losing the momentum that we had gained since the elections. But when you try to analyze it, it turns out that the delay in forming the government was not because of not wanting to form a government. It wasn’t idleness. It was basically the complexity of Iraqi politics—the jockeying between the different communities, different political parties that have very diverse ideologies; the fact that the Sunnis didn’t turn up to vote so they didn’t have the representation in the assembly. All are part of the reason as to why there was this delay. We could have easily formed a government immediately the day after [elections]. The ruling Shiite majority could have put together its cabinet, could have used its majority in the National Assembly to put in place a government, but the reality is that would have led to more trouble down the road, to more ethic division, and to potentially the failure of Iraq as a state.
PHILLIPS: Wasn’t the delay due in part from the insistence of the Kurdish party to agreement on core issues of your concern?
TALABANI: That was part of the delay, and this was at the onset. The Kurdish bloc had stressed that, in order for us to form a coalition government with the Shiite bloc, that certain core political principles would have to be agreed on beforehand, and I think this is quite common in all coalition governments, and there was some delay in coming to agreement on critical issues such as federalism, such as the role of the armed forces, which I’m sure we will discuss later on.
But another element of the delay was really the lack of the Sunni participation and how—what strategy were we going to use to bring in the Sunnis. And the Kurds in this instance were really playing a balancing act; trying to tell our Shiite brothers that we need the Sunnis, to try to bring the Sunnis into the process saying, “Come on guys, the train is leaving the station, and you need to be part of it.” This is really the crux of the issue.
PHILLIPS: Yet, when there was the ceremony and swearing in of the new government this week, there were four seats that were empty that were designated for Arab Sunni representatives, including a critical portfolio of the Defense Ministry. Tell us a little bit about that.
TALABANI: The Defense Ministry is really one of the biggest hold-ups at the moment, as we are trying to form this government. We have the current prime minister, Dr. Ibrahim Jaafari, as the acting defense minister, but we have, again, time and time again, found it difficult to find Sunnis that are respected within their communities; not to give a Sunni a position purely because he is a Sunni, but to give somebody that has a constituency, that has a following, that actually commands respect and is known throughout his community. That has been the challenge and the lack of—the fact that we do not have a defense minister today is mainly in part due to that, the fact that those candidates that have been brought forward either do not have major constituencies or they are too tainted with the old regime. And the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite bloc, has vetoed their nominations.
PHILLIPS: Since you have raised this whole de-Baathification issue, to what extent was that an obstacle in moving forward?
TALABANI: It is an obstacle, and it’ll continue to be an obstacle, because there is—are very—there’s a big divergence of opinions here. There are sides that want to truly de-Baathify Iraq. There are others that say, “Well, for technical reasons or for issues of expertise, we need to include the Baathists. Now, I don’t think this is a cut-and-dry issue. You cannot completely de-Baathify the country or leave them all in place. We have to distinguish between the kinds of Baathists that used to exist. There were people that were opportunists that needed to be members of the Baath Party to work in government, to work in hospitals, to be a teacher. Now, are these people a menace to society today? Probably not, but there are other Baathists, particularly in the security services, and this is really where the sensitivity lies, is, what do you do with the Baathists that were in the security services? Do you get rid of the top layer and leave the bottom and middle layers intact, or do you delve more deeply into those securities. I’m personally for delving more deeply, and my argument is—it was made very clear to me a week or so ago when yet another mass grave was discovered—1,500 Kurds dressed in their best Kurdish outfits executed purely because they were Kurds. Now, the person that executed them wasn’t a high-ranking military official. He was probably a mid-ranking official. He carried out an order to kill 1,500 innocent women and children. Does this person deserve a place in the new Iraqi security services?
PHILLIPS: I think that we’d all agree that anyone who committed war crimes has no role in the new Iraq, but quite notably, we saw that [former interim Prime Minister] Ayad Allawi was not a part of this new government specifically because he had emphasized bringing back members of the Baath Party and former security service representatives into the government and into the new Iraqi army. Tell us a little bit about Dr. Allawi and what brought him to the decision to step out of the new government?
TALABANI: Well, it’s still unclear how much involvement Dr. Allawi will have in the new government. He has a sizeable bloc within the assembly. A million people turned out to vote for him, which for him, I think, anyone should be proud of. But I think there is a lot of criticism of Dr. Allawi for securing his reign of bringing back people that were very closely affiliated with the old regime. And it all comes down to, what is the vision for this new country? Are we going to build an Iraq based on new foundations, or are we going to look to some of the old guard to help us through this transitional phase? It’s a very complex issue, but I think one that, if separated—if we look at each different—each sector on it’s own, I think we can come to some kind of agreement.
PHILLIPS: And one last question on the new government: Was there disagreement among different Arab Sunni factions, or was the disagreement primarily between Shias and Kurds and the Arab Sunnis?
TALABANI: Part of the—I think one of the biggest problems, as far as the Sunni community is concerned, is that they’ve never been organized as a community. The Sunni community has never needed to be organized. Iraq was run by the Sunnis since its inception. The Kurds were in the opposition. We formed underground movements. We have political parties. We have military units. So we’re considerably organized. The Shiites as well, through being part of underground movements, are very organized. The Sunnis are not organized. And this is part of the problem that we’re facing today, is that there is no cohesive block, no entity that can truly represent the Sunni. We have the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is probably one of the strongest Sunni political parties in Iraq. They have quite a strong grassroots following. We have the Association of Islamic Scholars, which is a very radical group. But other than that—and then you have a whole swath of tribes; that there are tribal rivalries, historical rivalries among them. And again, this is the problem: there is no Sunni block, per se.
PHILLIPS: Everyone agrees that the real fight for power in Iraq is going to be over the permanent constitution. If it took 90 days to just form a government, is there any reason to think that Iraqis are going to be able to look over the horizon and compromise and consent?
TALABANI: That’s a very good question, David. And it has taken us quite some time to get where we are today. And the constitution is ultimately the big prize. The new constitution, the permanent constitution for Iraq, is what everyone will be fighting over, and whether we can do this in the timeframe that we have, I’m not sure. It depends on what strategy we use. We have the TAL, the Transitional Administrative Law, that you mentioned. That is Iraq’s current constitution. And I would say that is a fantastic document, and it is a very suitable roadmap to the permanent constitution. If people—if we can—if the drafting committee can come to a consensus on actually using the TAL as the skeleton for the new permanent constitution, I think we can meet the deadlines. If it’s scrapped and we start from square one, then I would personally think it’s very difficult for us to meet the August deadline.
PHILLIPS: And the first step in that process is appointing a constitutional commission—
PHILLIPS:—to begin working on a draft. How do you envision that going forward and what role do you see the U.N. playing, given that the most recent [United Nations] Security Council resolution  specifically mandates the U.N. provide technical advice?
TALABANI: And the TAL also has a provision where it mentions that we can seek assistance from the U.N. I think the U.N.’s role in the constitutional process is going to be critical, and I think it’s something that the—I’m sure most, if not all, Iraqi leaders will be consulting with the U.N. and seeking their advice and guidance. The complexities are still huge. We still don’t know how the drafting committee will be formed, for example. It will probably come from the assembly. It may include people—hopefully it should include people from outside of the assembly. We need experts. We need lawyers, and we need constitutional experts to be part of this committee, but moreover, it needs to be representative of Iraqi society. It cannot be dominated by one group, one party, or one affiliation. It needs to have representatives of even smaller communities like the Turkmen population, the Assyrians, not just the Kurds, the Sunni, and the Shiites.
PHILLIPS: You’ve had a chance to look at the Council’s Special Report on Power-Sharing in Iraq. Many of the issues that the committee will be debating are addressed in that document, and I’d encourage you all to pick up a copy on your way out. Those hot-button issues are pretty serious, and there are several deal-breakers.
PHILLIPS: Talk to me a little bit about federalism and whether or not federalism, secularism, and the status of Kirkuk are really the bottom-line issues for the Kurds.
TALABANI: They’re all critical. They’re all critical. And the federalism concept is non-negotiable for the Kurds. We feel that the Kurds made a concession to be part of Iraq. Not only to be part of Iraq, but to actually help lead Iraq, to help reconstruct Iraq politically, economically, and through its security services. But this has to come with the understanding that there is a region called the Region of Kurdistan, and it is an administrative region with its own parliament, with its own original government, with its own security forces, and it’s conceivable to think that this could be resolved and have a new system of administration in the north. So the concept of federalism is something that—it is not a new concept. It is actually discussed in the first Iraqi opposition conference in the early ‘90s, something that all of the players who are sitting around the table today had agreed to in the past.
PHILLIPS: This is the Salahadin Declaration.
TALABANI: The Salahadin Declaration. And it’s interesting to see the people that were steering that conference [in Salahadin, north of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan] in ‘92 are the people steering Iraq’s political process today in 2005.
PHILLIPS: Is that part of the problem?
TALABANI: Some would say it’s part of the problem, but I would disagree, because we have tried since the fall of Saddam to create an inclusive environment, to bring in people, bring in—too much has been said about exiles. There are too many exiles in the process. We need to find people from the different constituencies. And well, there’s been an opportunity for people to come in. The governing council is a perfect example. We had 25 members of this governing council. But those that were steering the policies, those that were actively engaging in trying to get something done, were the same people that were in Salahadin in ‘92, and we’ve seen this time and time again. These—somebody like Dr. [Ahmed] Chalabi—Chalabi, a very controversial [political] figure in Washington and New York and certainly in Iraq. I’ve read five obituaries, political obituaries on Ahmed Chalabi. But he’s back and he’s showing his dedication. Whether we—whether you—whether people like him or not, he is part of Iraq’s political process.
PHILLIPS: If the Kurds do get this federalism, and I’m quite sure that at the end of the day that will occur, concessions will be required. What do you think about the ownership of Iraq’s oil?
TALABANI: In the discussions for the TAL, the Kurdish bloc made, I think, one of the biggest concessions, which was to give management and ownership of Iraq’s natural resources to the central government, something that, as part of the negotiating team, I was strongly against, and I had very heated discussions with [Roman] Martinez on this particular issue, but ultimately it was a concession. Because in a negotiation like this, we have so many different sides, so many different ideologies, everybody has to walk away from the table slightly unhappy. If one group walks away from the table, the negotiation table, thrilled and ecstatic, then something is wrong. And the mood after the TAL, after the TAL was signed, was exactly this. We were relieved that we managed to get the process through, but everyone walked away thinking [they] could have gotten more.
PHILLIPS: Especially the Arab Shia, who didn’t even accept it after having signed the document.
TALABANI: They signed it, and then five minutes later, they realized what they’d done and obviously they backed out, but they’re back into it now and Dr. Jaafari has mentioned on several occasions that the TAL is Iraq’s current roadmap, it is Iraq’s constitution, and although the U.N. did not endorse it, the Iraqi government certainly did.
PHILLIPS: What about the peshmerga and militia such as the Badr Brigade? What do we do with them?
TALABANI: I think that we have to have a long-term strategy for the peshmerga and the Badr. The peshmerga obviously are a very trained, disciplined force, Kurdish force, have been resisting Saddam Hussein for—for several decades. The peshmerga actually, its literal translation means, ”Those who face death.“ And they have been instrumental in maintaining stability in the north. They were instrumental in rooting out Ansar al-Islam, the al Qaeda-affiliated group that were holed up near the border with Iran. They worked very closely with U.S. forces in liberating those areas from the terrorists. So there is a—the trouble is what, now? Do they remain as a separate security force? Are they integrated into the Iraqi army as individuals, or are they integrated into the Iraqi army as units? The current agreement, and it’s—I wouldn’t say it’s a detailed finalized agreement between the Iraqi partners, is that the peshmerga will remain as a regional defense force. And this force will maintain the security in the Kurdistan region, and if they are needed outside of the Kurdistan region, if they are called upon by the Iraqi minister of defense to put out an uprising somewhere outside of the Kurdistan region, then the Regional Assembly, the Kurdistan Regional Assembly, would have to approve that deployment. But as a force, they will remain under the umbrella of the Iraqi security forces. Whether they will remain to be called peshmerga or they’ll be called something else, I think that’s not critical here.
PHILLIPS: That’s a good opening position, but I suspect at the end of this negotiating process that the Kurds might be a little unhappy with the ultimate outcome.
TALABANI: We’ll see. [Laughter]
PHILLIPS: Kirkuk is also a critically important issue. Tell us a little bit about how to harmonize the competing claims that there are Turkmen, Iraqi Kurds, Arabs, all of whom have property claims. Is there a claims procedure or compensation process that’s underway? And what role again do you envision for the U.N. in this program?
TALABANI: The Kirkuk issue is a very emotional issue. Whenever you mention the word Kirkuk to a Kurd, immediately the Kurd will get excited. And my father is actually from Kirkuk, which he’s very proud of. Kirkuk—in order to be able to solve Kirkuk we have to understand what happened in Kirkuk. Kirkuk has been a site of genocide for the Iraqi regime. They have committed atrocities that could be considered genocide in international law. Kurds and Turkmen have been ethnically cleansed from the city of Kirkuk, truly because they wouldn’t say they are Arab, and these number in the hundreds of thousands. Secondly, Kirkuk’s administrative boundaries have been altered. Parts of Kirkuk have been cut away from the governorate of Kirkuk. And these parts have been predominantly Kurdish or Turkmen in population. Kirkuk has been downsized to increase the Arab population of Kirkuk and decreasing the Kurdish and Turkmen populations.
What we are asking for is for justice here. We cannot obviously resolve anything in Iraq without bringing to justice those that have perpetrated these crimes, but also without rectifying their crimes. We have Saddam in the dock for committing crimes against his people, but how can we let his crimes remain when we have an opportunity to—to rectify them?
Now, land disputes, as you know, is a very complex issue. It’s legally complex, politically tense, one that will require, I think, a lot of thought and a very wise strategy to solve this dispute. But ultimately, with the tensions that could arise from leaving this issue unchecked, I think it could potentially be very, very detrimental to Iraq. Tensions are high. People want their lands back. They want their houses back. And if they don’t see a legal process for them be able to do this, I’m afraid that people are going to take it into their own hands to reclaim their lands and property.
PHILLIPS: So far, the Kurds have been very accommodating, and there’s no one who could blame Iraq’s failure on the demeanor of the Iraqi Kurds. But the referendum movement in Kurdistan is pretty clear. I think the polling was 11 to one, Kurds supporting [inaudible]. What’s the bottom line here? Have Kurds really abandoned their dream of independence, or is there a sense of Iraqi-ness that’s developing?
TALABANI: It’s—the referendum movement is an indication that the majority of the people of Kurdistan want independence. And this is very clear. The Kurdish political leadership have foregone the concept of independence at this point and realized that today it is in the interest of the Kurdish people to not only be part of Iraq, but to be a leading part Iraq. And that is the policy of the Kurdish leadership, but the population wants something different. So it’s a juggling act for us, to be able to come back to our population with something almost as good as independence for them, and the federalism decentralizing authority from Baghdad, I think, will be enough to pacify the Kurdish population.
PHILLIPS: Well, I tried to provoke you with that last question. I’m sure the audience will also provoke you with their questions. Let’s open it up to the floor. There will be someone with a microphone. If you could stand and identify yourself by name and affiliation.
QUESTIONER: First of all—
PHILLIPS: There’s a microphone on its way to you.
QUESTIONER: First of all, I’d like to welcome Mr. Talabani to our group. I knew your father, and he once said to me, ”I never want you to forget anything. The Kurds have no friends—“
TALABANI: But the mountains.
QUESTIONER: And I never forgot that. But he was a great patriot and we enjoyed having him here in New York many times.
TALABANI: Thank you.
QUESTIONER: I wanted to ask you something about the new constitution, something that’s concerning us in the international human rights field, and that is, whether or not this constitution will reflect more of a secular or a non-secular basis. As a Kurd, I’m sure you understand what I’m saying.
QUESTIONER: With the Shiites and the Shia, there’ll be heavy demands to impose the sharia—Islamic-based law—as a conditional precedent to all legislation. Does that concern you, and how do you foresee that being—evolving in terms of the negotiations that are pending?
TALABANI: Certainly. I’ll start by saying that we’re proud to say that [we] have more than the mountains of Kurdistan as our friends today. Those days of our only having the mountains as our friends, I think, are over. And we’re proud to have many friends here in the United States.
QUESTIONER: And in this room.
TALABANI: And in this room. The issue of religion, the role of religion in Iraq, I think, will be the most hotly contested issue as we’re debating the constitution. It was the most hotly debated issue as we were debating the transitional administrative law. Whether Islam is the main source of legislation, a source of legislation, a principle source of legislation, this is the battlefield. This is the issue. The Kurds, predominantly secular, want to retain Islam as the religion of the state, but only as a source of legislation, providing also that there are religious freedoms, because we have to understand that Iraq is a multiethnic, multi-religious country. We have to protect the minorities. We have to protect the Christians in this instance. And sharia law, if applied throughout the country, would be against many people’s wishes.
How do you overcome this? When we talk about decentralizing Iraq, we don’t only mean politically. I think we need to think beyond that and think about decentralizing Iraq economically. And here, also, it could apply to the religious issue. If you have the people of [inaudible] that want to live within a very conservative society, want to strictly adhere to sharia law, then let them do so. But it is not for people in [inaudible] to tell people in Sulaymaniya how they should live their life. And I think by decentralizing this, by having the local governorate councils address these issues, to have the people of those regions debate these issues, we can overcome this. And that’s why it’s important that the language in the constitution is very explicit, that there has to be religious freedom.
QUESTIONER: If I could just add that the real issue here has to do with family law, governing marriage and divorce and inheritance, because that would disenfranchise Iraqi women who traditionally and today enjoy a very important role in society.
TALABANI: And have a large bloc in the assembly.
QUESTIONER: Welcome. I’m Richard Whalen from the Conference Board. Could you comment on the role that you hope to see played in the entire region by Turkey? Outsiders are watching with keen interest the growth of the Kurdish minority within Turkey. It’s the fastest-growing and the most creative. What role do you see Turkey playing?
TALABANI: Well, Iraq and Turkey share a border and share a very strategic border, and I think that all steps will be taken to maintain as good of a relationship between Iraq and Turkey as possible. And the Kurds of Iraq play the critical role here. And we’ve seen in the last few years a strengthening in the relationship between the Kurds and Turkey, the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey. Obviously, there are certain things that could happen in Iraq that could raise the tension between Turkey and Iraq’s Kurds. One such issue is Kirkuk. The other issue is the Turkman population in Iraq and how much freedom and protection they get from the new government. So, I think it’s a delicate relationship. It’s one with a lot of complications with history, both good and bad, but one where I think both sides clearly understand the need to work together to try to address each other’s concerns as to the best possible, but understanding that there is a border between Turkey and Iraq, and the Kurds are in that area in between. And there is a lot to be gained from having good relations with Turkey. Economic ties, I think, are the interest of both Iraq and Turkey, and we’ve seen this in the Kurdish areas—Turkish businesses getting engaged in Iraqi Kurdistan’s economic development.
QUESTIONER: And you also see statements coming from Turkey about the importance of a buffer. The Iraqi Kurds are secular, pro-Western. If there’s instability in Turkey, or if it becomes—in Iraq, or if it becomes Islamicized, you’ll play an important role vis-a-vis Turkey.
TALABANI: I think so, and I think we’ve tried our best to allay the concerns of Turkey as far as the Kurdish independence movement is concerned. In a recent letter from Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to my father, he stated that the Turkish government supports federalism for Iraq, which is the first time that they have ever publicly endorsed the concept of federalism. And I think that the Turkish government is wise to understand that Iraq potentially could be unstable for several years, and if there is a stable part of the country as a buffer, as David said, as a buffer between the instability in Turkey, I think it serves their political and economic interest.
QUESTIONER: What about the PKK [Kurdistan Worker’s Party]?
PHILLIPS: Could you just identify yourself to those who don’t know you?
QUESTIONER: Richard [inaudible]. I’m a journalist.
TALABANI: The PKK issue is definitely one issue Turkey has raised and will continue to raise with the government of Iraq, and there has to be a solution to this issue. We cannot have this particular issue continue ad infinitum. There needs to be a process, there needs to be a dialogue between all the parties involved to come up with a solid solution, long-term solution to this problem. I personally do not think that the solution is military. We can solve this issue politically. We can solve this issue through dialogue. And I think it’s a matter of convincing all parties involved that it is in their interest to sit around the table, find a peaceful solution to the PKK problem.
QUESTIONER: What would be your solution?
TALABANI: I would suggest—I think it was over—about 18 months ago now, Turkey proposed a repentance program for the PKK soldiers. That was a good step, but I don’t think it quite reached the mark that the members of the PKK were hoping for. Now, you have to understand that the PKK of today is not the PKK of the ‘90s. It is a fractured, much weaker organization with many of its members who have very low morale and want to go back to civilian life. I think we can capitalize on this sentiment within the mainstream elements of the PKK. And if there is an amnesty program where we take a large portion of the PKK, issue them an amnesty, let them go back into civilian life, we can further apply a wedge between the hardcore elements of the PKK that want to continue the struggle and those that are fed up with this and want to go back to civilian life.
PHILLIPS: There’s also a role for the international community in targeting economic assistance in Turkey southeast to create conditions for this demobilization to occur.
QUESTIONER: I’m [inaudible]. How do you analyze the insurgency and how—what are its dynamics? How long is it going to last? How long can Iraq continue with what’s been going on for the last two years now?
TALABANI: I’m glad you asked that question. The insurgency is multilayered. There are many parts of this insurgency. The main elements of the insurgency in Iraq are comprised of former Saddam loyalists, those that were senior in Iraq’s military, those that had a vested interest in maintaining the Baath party, and those that feel that they have no place in the new Iraq.
Joining them has been this growing presence of radical Islamists, foreign fighters, and local Islamists that have waged this so-called jihad against the coalition and against the conspirators, meaning us. On top of that you have crime, criminals, petty criminals, remembering before the war Saddam released hundreds of thousands of prisoners, just let them out onto the streets. Now the streets are flooded with criminals, people that are benefiting from the money that the insurgents have, the money that the former regime members still have. It only costs $500 to—if you give a criminal $500 to plant an IED [improvised explosive device] on the side of the road, and this is actually one of the—a very big challenge for us. On top of that, I would add that no insurgency can survive without the support of the local population. The PUK was an insurgency movement. We could survive because our populations fed us, allowed us access, allowed us to stay in the home.
We have to—as a part of our strategy, we have to convince the average Iraqi citizen that the insurgency is harming them. It’s not harming the coalition, it’s not harming the multinational forces, it’s harming them. And we do this by trying to erase 40 years of Saddam’s effort to have Iraqi citizens mind their own business, not care what’s happening next door to them, not care if somebody is being kidnapped or somebody is being mugged or murdered on the streets. And this is a difficult task. It’s changing a mentality of a people, getting them on the right side, and we can only do this by having an effective, transparent, and good government, which is something that we’ve lacked since the fall of regime.
PHILLIPS: Well, presumably, most of the suicide bombings are undertaken by these foreign fighters.
PHILLIPS: What about [al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist leader] Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, how come he hasn’t been apprehended yet?
TALABANI: He’s—they call him the master of disguise, and they’ve turned him into this character that’s so elusive, and he has proven to be very elusive. But I think the issue is beyond just Zarqawi. If we capture Zarqawi, it’ll be very important, but I don’t think it’ll be the end of terrorism in Iraq. And I think that there are these cells that are seeing Iraq as the center of the war on terrorism. They’re seeing Iraq—they’re seeing the United States as a big target in Iraq and are using this opportunity to pay back for what the U.S. did in Afghanistan, for what—that the concept of secular democracy in the heart of the Islamic Middle East is terrifying to these jihadis, and this is what they’re resisting.
QUESTIONER: Thank you. Welcome. My name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer. If you know, what is the status of utilities and social services in Iraq, as much as you know, compared to pre-war, electricity, water, sewerage, hospitals?
TALABANI: It depends on the region. It’s very difficult to generalize, because there are different standards in different parts of the country. But I think that electricity is better now than it was pre-war. That the—where we have problems with the fuel, there’s still a fuel shortage, which is unbelievable to think, that Iraq has all this oil, that there would be a fuel shortage in Iraq is—
TALABANI: Petrol. But it’s improving gradually. And I think what has frustrated a lot of Iraqis is the pace, the pace of the economic development and the pace of the services. Of course, everyone thinks in the Middle East that the U.S. has this magic wand, and if it wants to do something, you know, in a wink of an eye we’ll have 24 hours of electricity and clean running water. This is not the case. They don’t know about USAID’s [U.S. Agency for International Development] bureaucracy.
It’s a challenge, and it’s a challenge because the insurgents are targeting the infrastructure networks. They’re targeting the oil pipelines; they’re targeting the water treatment facilities. And it’s an ongoing battle.
QUESTIONER: What about corruption in Iraq? Has that also undermined services?
TALABANI: It has undermined services. It also undermined the legitimacy of governance. And unfortunately, the previous government, the outgoing government, was corrupt. There were corrupt elements within this government, sometimes even the ministers. And this is what the new government has to wipe out, because you can only gain support of the population—going back to the strategy to win over the population—you can only gain support of the population if you show them that you have a government that is transparent, that is not corrupt, that is using its money for the people and not for themselves.
QUESTIONER: Jeff Laurenti at the Century Foundation. I admire your tact in handling the question on insurgency and not exactly speaking to the American military presence. Let’s put that directly on the table, because this is one of the most problematical and by all accounts polarizing dimensions of the—or pieces of the Iraq political puzzle. That is, the new political class can’t live without it, but arguably can’t quite live with it, at least in the longer term. To what extent is the American military presence itself one of the divisive factors that contributes to—[that] fuels resistance? How long could this political process play out if the Americans were to leave at year’s end? At what point is it able to summon its own forces to be able to defend it? And to what extent have the tales of abuses committed by American military personnel for which the U.S. finds reasons not to prosecute reverberating in a negative way inside Iraq and poisoning the atmosphere further for a longer-term partnership?
TALABANI: If the U.S. troops were to pull out tomorrow, there would still be an insurgency in Iraq. It’s not about whether it’s the U.S. presence or not. It’s about what is happening in Iraq. It’s about the political transition in Iraq. It’s about the concept of secular democracy in Iraq, pluralism, a society where people can have different voices, can be secular or Islamic if they want. This is what’s driving the insurgency.
Now, [inaudible] doubt the American presence is something that—it’s a target for the insurgents. To them—if you look at the number of attacks in the last several months, the majority of them have been against Iraqis, not against Americans. The foolish acts of a few [U.S. soldiers] in Abu Ghraib [prison] really cannot be—doesn’t give you a perspective of the U.S. military. You have brave men and women in Iraq that are doing their best—trying to do their best for the Iraqis and also for the American image abroad. And it’s unfortunate that the acts of a few have somewhat tarnished the image of the U.S. military in Iraq, and our enemies have capitalized on this and are using this as potential recruitment methods. But I think that, you know, it’s the chicken and the egg thing. You cannot—if you have the U.S. out of Iraq you’ll still have the insurgency. You’ll have more of an insurgency, because the people will be free to come in. The U.S. presence in Iraq is a major deterrent against real unfriendly forces in the region.
PHILLIPS: And let me just push back a little bit, because when the president of the United States stands up and says, in the fight against terrorism, the Geneva Conventions need not apply, the problem is more pervasive than just a few reserves and foot soldiers who are held responsible. [Inaudible]
QUESTIONER: Could you—you know, we have talked about so—there’s so many problems that are there right now. But could you also give us perhaps a small list of the good things that are happening so far? I mean, schools, theaters. For instance, I have also heard our friend [inaudible]. He was planning on creating a festival of movies, you know, a film festival. Could you please give some good news as well?
TALABANI: I’ll sum it up in one sentence. We have a democratically elected government in Iraq. This is as good as—I mean that’s—how much better news could we want than that? Yes, there’s instability. Yes, there’s kidnappings; there’s an insurgency. But we have—we had nearly 9 million people turning out to vote for their representatives. We have an elected parliament now that is today, as we speak, hotly debating [inaudible] political issues. This is great. This is politics. We have factions within parliament that are trying to form alliances with other groups. We have women lobby groups. We have—the civil society in Iraq post-Saddam has boomed. The number of press outlets before the war I think were five. Now we have 150 and counting and growing. Everyone has their voice heard. And this is actually really good news.
The schools there—schools being built. There are villages that are being refurbished. We have the Marsh Arabs—who again, Saddam committed genocide against the Marsh Arabs. He drained them. He drained the water, which means that they had no way of living. The new Iraqi government, the first thing it did was re-flood the area with water. Thousands of people now in the south have gone back to the old way of living for themselves, to fend for themselves, and to provide income for themselves. That’s not to say that everything is moving at the pace that we want it to. But there is still a lot of good work that is being done that unfortunately, the media, because of the security situation, doesn’t have the ability to go out and cover.
QUESTIONER: David Mark of NYU [New York University]. I just wanted to carry the Kurdish question a little further. You talked about the Kurds in Turkey who are maybe the largest-single group Kurds, and of course in Iraq, but there are these others living in Iran and Syria and some other places. Do you think that the pattern that’s developing in Iraq and maybe in Turkey will lead to Kurds all over accepting a life inside the national boundaries, where they happen to find themselves, and give up the ideal of a Kurdistan the way maybe Latin Americans have given up the idea of a single Spanish-speaking area in the world?
PHILLIPS: Are you referring to a greater Kurdistan?
QUESTIONER: Greater Kurdistan, yeah, absolutely. Just one other question, what proportion of Kurds speak Arabic in Iraq?
TALABANI: I doubt very much that the Kurds would ever give up the dream of the greater Kurdistan, but this is on a people level, and this is their dream. Whether that dream is ever attainable or not, that’s—I mean, that’s where reality brings you back down to earth. So I think that, what will pacify a lot of people’s nationalism is good governance. If people have water, if they have electricity, if they have freedoms, if they can speak their language and name their children whatever they want, and they’re prospering and their kids are at school—the same things that the people expect here in America, this is what people want in their parts of the world. The Kurds in Syria don’t have citizenship of Syria. I mean, this cannot go on in this modern age. And I genuinely hope that—not only for the Kurds, but there are many minorities in the Middle East that are in this position. And that by having an Iraq that really caters to its minorities, I think it gives a lot of people hope that people do not have to live under this kind of oppression anymore.
PHILLIPS: Let me just point out that the PUK and KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] have had enough problems forming a unified Kurdistan regional government. [Laughter] Extending that beyond Iraq’s borders is even more problematic. Ethan?
QUESTIONER: I’m Ethan Bronner from the New York Times. I wanted to ask you to be more precise about the role of the local population in the insurgency, because, on the one hand, I thought I heard you say that, as with the PUK, one can’t have an insurgency without local support. On the other hand, I thought you said that after decades of totalitarian rule by Saddam Hussein, people have learned to sort of look forward and not worry about what’s going on, not get involved if something threatening is nearby. So it seems to me it could be both, but I wanted to know whether you think it’s one or the other. And also, at the same time you said that the Shia and the Kurds had learned to organize quite well under Saddam, and so it would seem to me that, in those communities where terrorism goes on, you would have people playing a role of stopping the insurgency. So you may not know the answer to these things because I know nobody really does, but I’d like to hear you talk about them.
TALABANI: But you can see where the majority of the terrorist attacks are taking place. They’re not in the Kurdish areas. They’re not in the Shiite areas. They’re there—you have a far greater level of cooperation between the population in the Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish security forces, and furthermore in the south [it is] the same. It’s in the so-called Sunni triangle. It’s not really a triangle; it’s more than a triangle. It’s the Sunni areas where there is the cooperation between the street and the security services. And this is what we have to do.
When I said the average population is somehow connected with the insurgency, it’s through acquiescing and more or less acquiescing to the actions of the terrorist. Obviously, they don’t want to live in this situation, but they feel, one, they look at the government. The first thing they do is [ask], ”Which entity am I helping?“ And if they see a corrupt government that isn’t serving them, they’ll feel less likely to want to help. So, really good governance is critical here. Good economic development strategy is critical. If we have failed to convince the Arabs of western Iraq that the reason that there is no economic development—major economic development projects—in their parts of the country is because of the insurgency. And this is something—again, it comes back to having a wiser economic-development strategy. If we can start showing some tangible successes in the more stable parts of the country, we can point to those successes. We can point to those successes and use this as an example, take them to the Arabs of [inaudible] and say, ”Look, you, too, can have this if you can help us as the Kurds are helping us and as the Shiites are helping us.“ We cannot fight the insurgency with force alone. We have to incorporate good governance, good economic development policy, and actually better use of our media. The Iraqi media, there is 150 outlets. People still watch Al Jazeera.
QUESTIONER: Gary Rosen from Commentary magazine. What is your sense of Syria’s role in the insurgency and of Iran’s role in Shiite politics in Iraq?
TALABANI: Laced question there. Syria’s role is—it’s difficult to be very precise about Syria’s role, because the Syrians can easily say this isn’t government-sanctioned activity, this is the work of rogue intelligence units or just a porous border. There’s clearly assistance coming to the Baath-led insurgency through Syria—financial assistance, logistical assistance, military assistance. The rocket shell that landed in the stadium in Kirkuk on Election Day had Syrian markings on there. Now, is this the government of Syria saying, ”Here is this weapon, use it against“—I don’t know.
Iran has obviously long ties to Iraq, a long border with Iraq. They have religious and political interests in Iraq. And I don’t see an unstable Iraq in the interests of Iran. A completely lawless Iraq is not in Iran’s interests. But obviously, [it] is watching closely at the advancement of secular democracy in Iraq, and a secular democratic Iraq is not in the interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Secondly, with Iran, there is the religious issue. If Najaf and Karbala can once again regain their status as the centers of Shia, the center of the Shiite religion, then this lessens the dependency on [inaudible] Iran. So, I think this is playing a lot in some of the voices that are coming from the clerical establishments in Iran.
PHILLIPS: What about federalism?
TALABANI: To Iran and Syria? I don’t think there’s much that either country can do about the emergence of a federal Iraq. If a federal Iraq could have autonomy, federalism, have self-governance within Iraq, obviously it can turn Syria [inaudible], because both have Kurdish populations, and I can imagine them very quickly taking efforts to prevent the Kurds of Iran and Syria to even mentioning such things. We saw this when the TAL was signed. There were scenes of joy both in Syria and in Iran, the Kurdish populations of those two countries. And both governments acted very quickly to quiet the celebrations.
PHILLIPS: We have several more questions. Why don’t we take a bundle of them and give you a chance to answer in rapid-fire. We’ll start with you, sir.
QUESTIONER: Roswell Perkins, law firm [inaudible]. In addressing the issue of federalism in relation to Kurdish—the Kurds, have you thought of the analogy of Tartistan and Russia, which seems to have a rather bizarre degree of autonomy which I’ve never fully understood, but there are precedence, I guess, that I wondered if, in drafting the constitution, those are being considered.
PHILLIPS: Let’s take a bundle and—
PHILLIPS:—we’ll come back to them. David.
QUESTIONER: David Slade [inaudible]. I have the same question you just answered, but in relation to Saudi Arabia and the relationship, if any, between that country and its religious establishment and the Sunni insurgency.
QUESTIONER: I was wondering, I mean, you said that the Kurdish zone would be a buffer zone, but Mr. Talabani was known as the balancing power between KDP and Turkish government for a long time, for about 20 years. Now he’s in Baghdad. Who would be the balancing power if [KDP leader Massoud] Barzani becomes the regional leader?
PHILLIPS: We’ll give the last question to Michelle.
QUESTIONER: Michelle Billig, PIRA Energy. It would seem increasingly—tremendously difficult to implement a national oil strategy in the context of the strong political and economic decentralization that you were talking about. I just want to know how you envision the debate about regional control about—for contract negotiation and management of facilities.
PHILLIPS: You have two minutes to handle all those questions.
TALABANI: Can I answer them in Kurdish? [Laughter]
TALABANI: As far as—
PHILLIPS: Not Arabic.
TALABANI:—different federal models, there are many that exist worldwide. The Russian model is one. Spain has a very interesting model where different regions have different levels of autonomy. There isn’t one particular region, one particular model, that is applicable to Iraq. But I think there are elements of different federal models that we can benefit from. The language issue that exists in Canada is applicable in Iraq. I’m interested—I mean, Australia has a very interesting oil policy. In Australia’s federation, regions have quite a lot of control over the oil. The revenues from the oil are levied into the central government. The central government then taxes those regions as well and distributes the oil revenues quite equitably across the country. So I think, really, it takes a debate, and this again is where the U.N. can be very helpful in sitting down with us, showing us the different models of federalism that exist, and finding out which elements of which model can be applicable to Iraq. As far as the question on—
PHILLIPS: I think [former presidential adviser] Mr. [Theodore] Sorensen might be able to advise you a little bit on that as well.
TALABANI: Well, we look forward to his advice.
Saudi Arabia. Again, I doubt that this is state-run assistance to the insurgency, but there is a big border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and people are coming and going. Charity organizations are funding people in Iraq. The Wahhabi strand [of Islam] came from Saudi Arabia, something again that we have to be mindful of. Saudi Arabia has its own Shiite population that it’s concerned about. Interestingly enough, the Shiite population of Saudi Arabia are in the oil-rich areas of Saudi Arabia. So I’m sure it’s in the back of their minds, but again, whether they are actively, officially assisting these groups, it would be very dangerous for any regional country to officially assist the insurgency.
The president—I mean, the issue of—the issue of the balancing role that the—Talabani used to play in Kurdistan, and now he’s in Baghdad, I think as president of Iraq, he can still have quite a bit of influence and try to preserve Turkish-Iraqi relations to the best that he can.
Oil. Big problem. And it’s one that really—our government at this point has been unable to tackle, to formulate a sound oil policy. Will the regions control the oil and pool the revenues to the central government? Will the central government control everything and distribute Iraq’s wealth equitably across the country? This is what’s being debated. We made a concession, or the Kurdish block made a concession in the TAL, to give management of Iraq’s natural resources to the central government. And if Kurds continue to not really benefit from Iraq’s natural resources, then I think that that position may change. It’s important when we mention decentralization that decentralization covers every aspect. Decentralization prevents dictatorships. It prevents centralized tyranny. And I think we need to create systems, institutions in Iraq that have checks and balances. We shouldn’t put all Iraq’s wealth in the hands of Iraq’s oil minister, who was actually just announced I think yesterday, Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum.
PHILLIPS: But I suspect that many of our guests came to the luncheon today concerned about Iraq’s political transition. After spending an hour with you, I’m sure that they are more hopeful. And if they spent a day with you, they might have even left optimistic. [Laughter]
TALABANI: I doubt that.
PHILLIPS: Thank you very much.
TALABANI: Thank you. Thank you very much. [Applause]
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