New York, Asharq Al-Awsat- Iraq’s participation in this year’s meetings of the 65th United Nations General Assembly focused on efforts to remove Iraq from Security Council resolutions based on Chapter VII that were passed in the days of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Iraq is striving to close this file – that puts heavy political and economic burdens on the country – by the end of this year when a meeting is held to review the resolutions against Iraq. During his visit to New York this year, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani exerted strong efforts in this regard. He met with Kuwaiti Prime Minister Nasser al-Muhammad al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah and affirmed to him Iraq’s commitment to the international resolutions and borders between the two countries. In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Talabani affirmed that he expects Iraq to be removed from the provisions of Chapter VII this year. Meanwhile, he is busy with the details regarding the formation of the government. Asharq Al-Awsat met with Talabani in his place of residence in New York to discuss the situation in Iraq and Iraq’s foreign relations. The following interview ensued:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us begin with your participation in the UNGA this year. What is Iraq’s message to the world?
[Talabani] Of course, we participated this year to outline Iraq’s position on developments and to show our stand on a solution to the Middle East crisis. The issues on which we focused are Iraq’s removal from the provisions of Chapter VII, solutions to Middle East issues based on the proposal outlined in the Arab project, and resolving the issue with Iran through peaceful negotiations. We also emphasized Arab solidarity and the amicable solution of Middle East issues. Moreover, we gave a briefing on Iraq’s progress and the accomplishments it has made on the cultural, political, economic, and security fields as well as in living standards. I believe that our position was clear in all the issues that were under discussion.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us discuss these issues. Let us talk about the efforts at the United Nations to remove Iraq from the resolutions of Chapter VII. What are the obstacles impeding Iraq’s removal from these resolutions? Did you sense cooperation from the United Nations in this regard?
[Talabani] Yes, we sensed cooperation. The other point is that the Kuwaiti brothers made some observations. We held the discussions with them this time. I affirmed to Sheikh Nasir al-Muhammad (Al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah), the prime minister of fraternal Kuwait, and that Iraq is committed to the international resolutions, including the issue of the borders. We are ready to affirm to them Iraq’s permanent commitment to solving the issues that were pending between the former (Iraqi) regime and Kuwait. They too expressed their readiness to support us on this issue. I also talked to United Nations Secretary General Ban-ki moon and he too made promises to us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will this issue be reviewed at the end of the year?
[Talabani] We hope that Iraq will be removed from this chapter at the end of the year.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] With Kuwait’s endorsement?
[Talabani] Kuwait will not object. They only want a confirmation from us on the issue of the borders and we are ready.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you ready to be committed to the Safwan agreement?
[Talabani] Iraq accepts all the international resolutions and we reaffirm our approval.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So let us talk about relations with the Arab countries in a broader sense. Have you sensed an improvement in relations with the Arab countries?
[Talabani] Yes, I personally am noticing a major improvement. I had the honor to visit Egypt, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. They all expressed their readiness to cooperate with and help Iraq. The custodian of the two holy shrines promised me that after the formation of the government “I will exert efforts to improve your relations with the other Arab states and I will bring the Arabs to support you”. He added: “We stand equidistant from all the sides and groups in Iraq”. He also said, “We want Iraq’s progress, stability, and independence”. His stand was indeed gracious and in support of Iraq and of cooperation between Iraq and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is our big neighbor in the region. Brother Dr. Bashar (Al-Assad, the Syrian president) has the same stand. He recently said that he wants close cooperation with Iraq. We are now exerting efforts to improve the relations, restore the oil pipeline, and develop trade and political relations with sisterly Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But some Iraqis are wondering why there is Arab interference in the issue of the Iraqi government formation.
[Talabani] Actually, we have not sensed any strong interference, as is alleged. The Arab countries express their views if asked. I asked the custodian of the two holy shrines who said, “We stand at an equal distance from all the candidates in Iraq. This is a matter that concerns you. Form your government and we will help you”.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Iraq is preparing to host the Arab summit next month. Do you think that Baghdad is ready to welcome the Arab leaders?
[Talabani] Yes, we have begun to prepare Baghdad. We are building, reconstructing, and preparing. Baghdad will be ready to welcome the upcoming Arab summit.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you expect all the Arab leaders to attend?
[Talabani] So far, I think, they have decided that Iraq should host the summit. They will come to Iraq, particularly after the government is formed and security conditions have improved.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You met with Iranian President Ahmadinejad in New York. Tell us about the meeting and about the latest developments in relations between the two countries.
[Talabani] Iraq’s relations with Iran are very good. There is a high volume of trade between the two countries. Iran backs Iraq, the elections, and the selection of the president and the prime minister. The Iranian side is eager to establish good commercial, economic, cultural, and religious relations with Iraq. There is no problem between us, but sometimes there are some minor issues, such as the common rivers. They are all issues that can be discussed and resolved.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But there are always fears about Iranian support for specific armed groups in Iraq or lack of support for stability in Iraq.
[Talabani] Actually, Iran supports stability in Iraq. Iran wants the Iraqi government to succeed. Particularly after the withdrawal of 100,000 US soldiers from Iraq, Iran no longer has the fears that were caused by the presence of a large US force in Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The withdrawal of 100,000 US soldiers from Iraq is part of a new relationship with US President Barack Obama. How do you classify this relationship?
[Talabani] Our relationship is good and normal; it is improving. In fact, we have the “SOFA” (Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq) agreement and we welcomed the withdrawal. We believe that our armed forces are capable of safeguarding security, stability, and internal security in Iraq even after the withdrawal of all the US forces from Iraq. Our relations are developing on the political, cultural, scientific, and technological fields and so on.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You had historic relations with former President George W. Bush. How is your personal relationship with President Obama?
[Talabani] Our relationship with President Obama is normal, but President Bush governed for eight years and relations were formed during these eight years. This man has been here for only one year; nevertheless our relationship with him is normal; it is good. We hope it would improve in the future.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] US Vice President Joe Biden has been put in charge of the Iraqi file.
[Talabani] Our relationship with Joe Biden is better than best. He is our old friend and I have known him for years. He understands the situation in Iraq; I love him and respect him very much.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you satisfied with the current US strategy in Iraq?
[Talabani] Yes, we are satisfied with this strategy. It is appropriate for Iraq in the long run. They are ready to cooperate with us on the political, cultural, scientific, and economic levels as well as in training the Iraqi forces and the Iraqi army.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you not worried that American preoccupation in Afghanistan and the issues of peace in the Middle East may divert their attention away from Iraq?
[Talabani] No, I think the United States understands the political, strategic, and geographic importance of Iraq. It understands the role of Iraq in spreading democracy and co-existence among different ethnic groups in the Middle East. Therefore, I believe that the United States will not abandon Iraq. It will remain interested in establishing good relations with Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can Iraq mediate between the United States and Iran?
[Talabani] We have exerted efforts in the past to establish direct US-Iranian relations related to Iraqi issues and non-Iraqi issues. We once reached agreement on a meeting between senior officials (from both sides) in Iraq. This meeting, however, failed at the last minute. But there have been meetings between the ambassadors in Baghdad. We always exerted such efforts because we are friendly with both sides and we have alliance relations with both countries. It is also in our interest to have good American-Iranian relations. That is why we always exert efforts in order to have a meeting, understanding, and dialogue between the United States and Iran. In my speech at the Security Council, I pointed out that dialogue is the best way to solve problems.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But we do not expect specific progress in this regard at the present time.
[Talabani] Let us be realistic; at the same time, let us be optimistic.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us talk about the internal situation in Iraq. Seven months have passed since the last elections but so far there is no agreement on forming the government.
[Talabani] I believe that the government will be formed soon, God willing. I expect agreement to be reached in the Shi’ite alliance on one person and this person will begin to form the government later. I am personally convinced that the issue is a bit exaggerated. It has not been seven months. After a deputy is elected, he should obtain the approval of the constitutional court. He then goes to parliament and takes the constitutional oath in order to become a deputy. Thus it has been three months and not seven months. The three-month delay is due to the fact that no agreement has been reached on who will be the next prime minister. God willing, such an agreement on a person will be reached soon.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you expect a candidate from the National Alliance to form the government and not Dr Iyad Allawi?
[Talabani] Yes, I think the candidate to form the government will be from the National Alliance. But brother Iyad should play a major role appropriate to his struggle, stature, and large bloc in parliament.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you not worried that the Iraqi people will start wondering about the credibility of the elections if the result in forming the government does not reflect the result of the elections?
[Talabani] The government should reflect the result of the elections because the result of the elections is that the government should be formed by a parliamentary bloc that obtains the vote of confidence of the parliament. If it is not a constitutional government it will not win the vote of confidence of the parliament. In this respect, I am not worried that the Iraqi people may be reluctant about their government that will obtain the parliament’s vote of confidence.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Should we expect a second term for you as president?
[Talabani] Actually, all the parliamentary blocs have announced that they support a second term for Jalal Talabani. The suggestion was made by Masud Barzani, the president of the [Kurdistan] Region as well as by the Kurdish Alliance. We also heard support from Dr Iyad Allawi. The National Alliance has already reiterated its support and so has the Islamic Party. I have not heard of any opposition to my holding a second term as president. Some brothers may be harboring other things in their hearts but what they have shown is support for me.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you hope to accomplish in a second term as president of Iraq?
[Talabani] I think that my role is to gather the fold; it is to strengthen reconciliation, coordination, and cooperation among the various forces. I believe in the political theory whereby the various parliamentary blocs and parties agree on and execute a program that serves the interests of the Iraqi people. I play the role of bringing the various forces together and unifying them. One of the things that I am proud of in my life is that I have good relations with all the brothers that were in the government or the opposition. I have good relations with the brothers in the Al-Iraqiya List, the State of Law Coalition [SLC], the Islamic Party, the National Alliance, and, of course, with the Kurdistan Alliance. I act in accordance with this role. I have a good relationship even with those that were in the opposition or the government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the biggest challenge facing Iraq at present?
[Talabani] The biggest challenge is to achieve genuine national alliance and to form a genuine national unity government and a national partnership in Iraq in which everyone participates without any marginalization of the major forces such as the Al-Iraqiya List. I believe that such an accomplishment will produce a climate of tremendous opportunities for the new government so that it would not be worried about terrorist operations or sabotage activities. Its main task then will be to draw up a plan for the development and prosperity of Iraq as well as for Iraq’s strong return to its Arab, Muslim, and world arenas.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So the present challenge is to form the government and maintain the participation of all?
[Talabani] I am saying that the first priority is national unity and the second priority is the formation of a national partnership government with no marginalization of any of the forces Let us assume that the next prime minister will be from the National Alliance. The Al-Iraqiya List led by Dr Iyad Allawi cannot be ignored or marginalized. This is an important list. Moreover, Iyad and many of his elements struggled in the opposition against the dictatorship and they also won many votes from the Iraqi people. They should not be marginalized. If one of them does not become prime minister, they should occupy posts appropriate to them in the various ministries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But what would happen if they refuse to participate in the next government if they do not approve the candidate for the post of prime minister?
[Talabani] We strongly oppose their marginalization. I personally am determined not to have them marginalized and to be represented.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us turn to the Iraqi people. Services in the capital Baghdad and many other towns are not up to standard. What do you say to the people?
[Talabani] Compare the conditions of the Iraqi people now and under Saddam. You will find a big difference. In the standard of living, the latest figure on the income of the Iraqi individual is $3,486. It was a few dollars under Saddam. In some places salaries have gone up 100 times or 50 times more. All the consumer goods can be found in the country. Hospitals, universities, and schools are operating. We have some shortages in certain areas, like electricity, but the people suffered from these shortages also under the former regime. When Saddam left the country, the country produced 3,000 megawatts. We need 15,000 megawatts but we now have 7,000 megawatts and, God willing, we will add to this. In certain regions, like Kurdistan for instance, it is prosperous, developed, and has electricity. There are no problems there. Also in the south, the situation has begun to improve and become stable. There is a real exaggeration of the negative aspects while the positive aspects are ignored. The progress we have made is not bad. A teacher used to make two dollars per month; now, a teacher makes hundreds of dollars per month. A junior employee who used to make two dollars per month now makes $200 or $300. This is huge progress.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you satisfied with the rate of progress?
[Talabani] No, I am not satisfied; I want more and more, but this takes time. Even the construction of electric power plants and roads takes time. Under Saddam Hussein, everything was in shambles. The railroad was in disarray and the roads needed renovation. All the needs were non-existent; we are starting from zero.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But seven years have passed.
[Talabani] But a lot has been developed in these years. Moreover, the basic services such as hospitals and schools are now functioning in Iraq. They could have been better but we are under occupation; we were restricted. Moreover, terrorism was a big obstacle to the development of Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you certain of the US commitment to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011?
[Talabani] The Americans will definitely withdraw; they intend to. However, I hope they will not withdraw completely. As an Iraqi that has struggler for Iraq’s independence all my life, I think it is necessary for some US units in Iraq to remain in order to train the Iraqi army on the use of arms and on protecting Iraq’s stability. In the coming years, we cannot spend a lot of money on building a strong army equipped with thousands of tanks and planes because we want to spend the money for the security, prosperity, and happiness of the people. Therefore, a symbolic presence of US forces is important.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the number of these forces?
[Talabani] No, they will withdraw; they will stay only if we ask them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will we see this after the formation of the government?
[Talabani] If God wills it.