Jalal Talabani has been president of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) since the organization's founding in 1977. Born in Kelkan in 1933, he actively participated in the Iraqi Kurdish opposition from the age of 13, eventually becoming a central committee member inside the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). He worked as a journalist and after the 1958 revolution commanded an Iraqi army tank unit. When the Kurdish rebellion began in 1961, Talabani became an active participant. Following the 1975 Algiers accords that led to the fall of the rebellion, Talabani split with the KDP and founded the PUK. Since the 1991 Kurdish uprising following the Kuwait war, the PUK has (along with Mas‘ud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq) controlled parts of northern Iraq; it claims some 4,000 men under arms. This interview, which took place on May 16, 2001, at Talabani's office in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, was conducted by Michael Rubin.
The Future of Iraq
Middle East Quarterly: What will Iraq look like after Saddam Husayn falls?
Jalal Talabani: I don't see any future for the country except as a democracy. Democracy is medicine for all diseases. Iraq will not remain united unless it is democratic, because the social structure of Iraq requires freedom of expression, equality, and participation by representatives of all Iraqi groups. This means democracy. Only democracy can offer all these options.
MEQ: Sounds good, but what does this mean in detail?
Talabani: Democracy requires changing the central government not through coup d'état, but through the voting booth. It requires freedom of expression, freedom of belief. It requires multiparty rule, free elections, federalism, the sharing of authority, and the participation of all in the central government.
MEQ: Do you really see federalism in Iraq's future?
Talabani: Yes. Looking at the social and national structure of Iraq makes it clear that federalism is the best way to achieve democracy.
MEQ: Will Islamists have a leading role in the future of Iraq?
Talabani: No, I don't see a leading role for the Islamist movements in the future of Iraq — a significant role but not a leading role.
MEQ: Why not?
Talabani: For several reasons.
Start with the social and religious structure of Iraq, where we find both Muslims and Christians. Islamist movements are strong among the Shi‘ites and Sunnis of Iraq, but not among the Christians. The proportion of Shi‘ites in Iraq is not as great as in Iran, so we cannot take the example of Iran and bring it to Iraq.
Secondly, you have to keep in mind the discouraging experience of Islamist movements in the region, such as in Afghanistan, Iran and (the worst example) Algeria, where they could not solve the main problems of these societies. They failed to deal with national, social, or economic problems. They failed to achieve what they had promised.
Thirdly, with threats and problems coming from neighboring countries (Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iran), we don't have the luxury to embark on social experiments of the sort that the Islamists would try.
Fourthly, the cultural heritage of Iraq includes traditions that do not coincide with the program of the Islamist movements. For example, there is the drinking of alcohol, which is of course banned by them. Women's dress is less modest than they demand. And we have a tradition of more equality between men and women than they accept.
Fifthly, there is a psychological reason. Iraq, from its inception as a state, has been ruled by the Arab Sunni minority, causing a complex in the other population elements. There is now a widespread sentiment that one part of the society must not rule the other parts. This psychological state of the Iraqi people will not accept replacing Sunni rule with Shi‘ite rule—which is in effect what having Islamists in power would mean.
Finally, there are powerful and deep-rooted alternative movements in Iraq—those of the democrats, communists, and nationalists.
MEQ: In all, do you see yourself closer to or further away from your goals now than ten years ago, right after the Kuwait war?
Talabani: I believe we are closer to achieving our goals.
The Iraqi Opposition
MEQ: Do the best chances for ousting Saddam Husayn and changing the government in Iraq lie with those living inside Iraq or with those living outside it?
Talabani: I feel that real change will occur thanks to the efforts of real people inside Iraq who live and struggle on the soil of Iraq. Those who live on the outside can help our work but they cannot effect change on their own.
MEQ: Is unity among the Kurds of Iraq possible? I note the pattern of internecine fighting. Most notably, fighting between your Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in 1996 with Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party allowed Saddam Husayn to send his troops into northern Iraq. More recently, in December 2000, the PUK and PKK were fighting.
Talabani: Yes, the political forces and parties in Iraqi Kurdistan can achieve unity, and for many reasons:
Their ultimate interests are identical.
They face the same dangers and risks.
The regional plots that pushed some Kurdish parties against other Kurdish parties are about come to an end.
The two main forces, the PUK and the KDP, know they must establish full cooperation, at least to attain a minimum common interest. Perhaps the most important common interest is the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 986 ["the oil-for-food program"], which is very, very important. You must take into consideration that our prosperity here, our reconstruction, indeed our very life, depend on 986. That is important for the KDP and for the PUK and it requires that our two organizations coordinate and cooperate.
MEQ: How powerful is the Islamist element among the Kurds?
Talabani: I think there is an exaggeration about the strength of Islamist movements here. Although officially the Islamist forces are unified, there is in fact a major division among them. One group is the Islamic Kurdish Union, a front basically funded by the Ikhwan [Muslim Brethren]. They work quite cleverly, but calmly; they don't believe in using force, in using arms and weapons. The second power is the [more militant] Islamic Unity Movement, which is not united but in turn has three main splits.
MEQ: Please assess the Iraqi National Congress [INC]. Let me preface this question by noting that Ahmad Chalabi and the INC have a high standing in the United States; in contrast, after living in northern Iraq, I am aware that many Kurds criticize Chalabi's lack of experience and his non-residence inside Iraq.
Talabani: The INC started with great potential. It could have brought together all the major and minor parties in Iraq. But this did not happen and the opposition did not remain unified within the INC.
Talabani: Several reasons. First was the ambiguous American policy. People initially believed that establishing the INC meant the United States would take a more active step to bring change to Iraq. But they discovered that the United States wanted the INC to be just a propaganda organization.
Second, opposition groups could not find consensus—they had different ideas about how to change the regime. Some were focusing on a military coup. Others were focusing on armed acts inside [Iraq]. And others believed in coordination between officers inside the army and those struggling on the ground.
Finally, the Americans made mistakes. They encouraged one group against another. They played a game.
MEQ: Please explain.
Talabani: Take the example of Ahmad Chalabi, whom you already mentioned. The United States of America proposed that Chalabi be the main actor—not the leader—in the INC. Then it turned out that Chalabi was not in complete compliance with CIA policy. In particular, he favored an armed struggle inside Iraq, and to do this, he wanted to found an INC army; in contrast, the CIA wanted the INC to look to a military coup and not develop any kind of military forces to fight against the Iraqi army. He wanted to have armored forces and work on the ground against Iraq; they wanted to use the INC for propaganda campaigns. So the U.S. government changed its mind about Chalabi and began to hate him. First he had been beloved inside the CIA, then he was hated there.
MEQ: You blame all the INC's problems on the CIA?
Talabani: Look, Chalabi is a clever man and a real leader of the opposition against Saddam Husayn. He has dedicated his life to change in Iraq. At the same time, he was not someone experienced in politics, having not participated in any political parties before his founding the INC.
MEQ: What conclusions do you draw from this?
Talabani: That no single person can lead the Iraqi National Congress; it must have a collective leadership.
MEQ: Do you see the U.S. government having a role in helping to bring about unity among the Kurds of Iraq?
Talabani: Very much so. The United States had a role, has a role, and will have a role if—and put two lines under that if—if the United States is serious. If the United States is working seriously, it can do a lot.
Relations with Baghdad
MEQ: What is the state of the current relations between the PUK and the Iraqi government?
Talabani: Our relations with the Iraqi government are on two levels.
One is for the necessary relations where we have no choice, for example, dealing with Baghdad about water, transportation, electricity, trade, and other things related to the U.N.'s Resolution 986.
The other concerns political relations where—let me be very clear here—there is nothing. There are no grounds for a political relationship with Baghdad.
MEQ: Why not?
Talabani: For two reasons. First, we insist on democracy, they on dictatorship. Then there is the matter of the continuous ethnic cleansing policy in the Kurdish areas under the control of the Iraqi government [whereby Kurds and other non-Arabs are expelled and their property given to Arabs loyal to the Ba‘th party]. Take Kirkuk, for example, the Jerusalem of Kurdistan. We cannot compromise on control of it with the Saddam Husayn regime. And the other regions—Sinjar, ‘Ayn Zalah, Makhmur, Khanaqin, Badrah, Jassan—are also Kurdish areas where there is no chance for political negotiation.
MEQ: Saddam Husayn's ethnic cleansing campaign in the 1980s, called Anfal, murdered an estimated 182,000 Kurds. Does Saddam Husayn still pose a threat to the people of northern Iraq?
Talabani: The Iraqi regime does not pose that same threat today that it did then to people living in this area. The Kurdish uprising is one reason and the American-British protection of the area is another. The peshmurga [the Kurdish militia] has good training and fine weapons; it is ready to resist. Our organization is now much better than in the period of Anfal. The position of the people is much better because of the [United Nations-sponsored] safe haven.
MEQ: An increasingly vocal lobby in America and Europe argues that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis under Baghdad's rule are starving because of the United Nations sanctions imposed on the country. Are sanctions in fact to blame?
Talabani: The Iraqi people are suffering because of several factors: the U.N. sanctions, the dictatorship, and the bureaucratic nature of the U.N. agencies.
MEQ: Do you favor continuing the sanctions or lifting them?
Talabani: When it comes to the matter of sanctions, we are for the lifting of sanctions on the Iraqi people with the proviso that we continue to get our share—13 percent—of the oil-for-food revenues that are allocated to northern Iraq.
MEQ: Is northern Iraq suffering because of the sanctions? Are there starving children in the areas controlled by the PUK?
Talabani: It's a mixed picture. We get benefits from the foodstuffs, medicine, and medical instruments permitted in. But there are also problems; for example, we don't have any blood bags in Kurdistan, plus a lot of other essential medical instruments.
This is the third year of a drought in Kurdistan, but when we ask for drilling rigs to dig wells, the FAO [Food and Agricultural Organization], the concerned UN authority, refused us. We initially blamed officials working at the U.N. agencies inside Iraq, but later we discovered that it was the higher levels inside the U.N. who had refused us permission. If they had just provided us with the drilling rigs that are within our 13 percent of the revenue, we would not need water tankers to distribute daily water to the villages.
MEQ: Can you compare circumstances in northern Iraq with those in the areas controlled by Saddam Husayn?
Talabani: You know, despite all the problems we have, because there is democracy here, we don't have nearly the problems that they have in the south [where Saddam Husayn rules].