(Asharq Al-Awsat) Tension persists in the Kurdistan Region. Are you still convinced that it will not lead to a war and an incursion into northern Iraq? What do you think of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s declaration about “eradicating” the Workers Party of Kurdistan’s [PKK] combatants from Iraqi Kurdistan?
(Talabani) This is a sensitive issue and I would like to speak frankly and clearly about it. For some time we have been advising the PKK to abandon armed action. We have told them: We are living in the globalization era. Partisan wars are no longer acceptable or useful. We believe that the PKK should turn to political, parliamentary, diplomatic, and popular action instead of armed action. In a speech that I recently made in Al-Sulaymaniyah, I openly stated that the Kurds do not believe that the PKK’s military acts in Turkey or Iran can serve the Kurdish people’s interests. Indeed they undermine their interests. We believe that armed action hurts democracy in Turkey and hurts Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party [AKP].This party is a new democratic feature that wishes to build a new Turkish society that makes room for Turkey’s Kurds and the other ethnic groups in the country.
The AKP recognizes the existence of a Kurdish people and a Kurdish cause. It adopts a friendly attitude towards using the Kurdish language in the media. Furthermore the recent parliamentary elections were free in the Kurdish areas and led to the election of patriotic Kurdish deputies to parliament. The AKP won more than 60 percent of the Kurdish vote, which means that they are happy with it. This means that carrying out armed actions against this party serves only chauvinist forces in Turkey.
Regarding the presence of PKK combatants in Iraq, our constitution clearly forbids the continued presence of foreign armed forces on Iraqi territory or using such forces to launch armed attacks on neighboring countries. But what can we do? We want the party to depart from the Kurdistan Region and return to its own country where there is more difficult mountainous terrain, a larger territory, and there it can do what it wants. Iraq does not approve of the presence of the PKK combatants and their armed acts. It cannot tolerate them when they go into Turkey and kill people then return to our territory, thus providing an excuse for other forces to attack our areas. What we can do is condemn these acts but we do not have sufficient military forces to send them to the Qandil Mountains to drive them out. We need our military forces to maintain security in Baghdad’s streets and to fight terrorism.
I wish to state that we are willing to operate within the tripartite committee with Turkey and the United States to put an end to the PKK’s activities in Iraqi Kurdistan and to confine them to the Qandil Mountains. At any rate we do not want to allow them to benefit from the current situation.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Does this mean that as a first step you wish to drive them out of the populated areas?
(Talabani) We drove them out of the cities and are trying to make them leave all the other populated areas. We wish to prevent them from using facilities including contacting parties abroad, bringing sums of money from abroad, and transporting persons from Europe to Iraqi Kurdistan. We need to put an end to all this. We closed down their offices in the Iraqi cities including Baghdad. They used to operate offices in these cities under various guises.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The Turkish Government wants you to arrest their leaders who are present on Iraqi territory.
(Talabani) We cannot do that. How can we arrest the leaders who are present in the mountains and surrounded by thousands of men? The Turkish army, with all its power, cannot do that. How can we do it?
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What, then, does Nuri al-Maliki mean by his comment about eradicating their bases?
(Talabani) I do not think that this is accurate talk. The prime minister and I have the same view, namely, that we cannot send sufficient Iraqi forces to fight the PKK.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some voices in the Kurdish parliament have criticized the government’s security cooperation agreement with Turkey. They are saying that the Kurdish parliament did not view the text of this agreement.
(Talabani) Pluralism is part of Iraqi democracy. As president, I have viewed the agreement and it has a provision stating that Turkish military intervention is inadmissible. However, it provides for cooperation to combat terrorist activity whether it is carried out against Iraq or Turkey. Moreover it is not true that the Kurds did not view the text of the agreement. I told them that I viewed it and that Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who is also a Kurd and member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, viewed it. The deputy Prime Minister, also a Kurd, viewed it. There are extremist voices among all parties but they represent only themselves.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Are you still clinging to your opinion of ruling out the likelihood of an extensive Turkish military action? Have you received US or European assurances in this regard?
(Talabani) I still rule out extensive Turkish military intervention. Everybody is against it, the United States, Europe, and NATO. I have other reasons to rule it out, including the fact that Recep Tayyip Erdoganis a good and wise man. He understands that military intervention will not solve the problem or produce concrete results. Additionally the text of the resolution passed by the Turkish National Assembly speaks about intervention against combatants and leaves civilians out of it. Furthermore Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi conveyed to us observations that the Turkish officials promised him that no military action was imminent.
Personally I understand Prime Minister Erdogan’s position. He is coming under strong pressure from hard-line nationalist forces and from the country’s armed forces. All of them are criticizing the AKP because it is not adopting strong positions on the issue. In brief I hope that the leaders of the armed Kurds will understand that Kurdish interest requires them not to subject the Kurdistan Region to danger. What we have in Kurdistan is a historic gain that we achieved in legal ways, in accordance with constitutional provisions and with the central government’s approval. The government of Kurdistan has provided significant services to the Kurdish people. Consequently it is in the Kurds’ interest to preserve this entity. Today there is a democratic climate in Turkey that is favorable to the Kurds. This climate should not be spoiled by reckless acts that have not and will not produce any positive results.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about the US assurances?
(Talabani) The United States announced in the words of its President that it opposes military intervention. Is this not an assurance?
(Asharq Al-Awsat) I mean, have the Americans informed you that Turkey will not carry out a military incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan?
(Talabani) They state everyday that they oppose intervention. The Turks themselves are saying that they do not want to invade the region and hurt the Kurds. They are saying that a military act would be confined to the PKK combatants. I believe that if the PKK combatants halt their operations inside Turkey, no intervention will occur.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) It has been said that Al-Hashimi was not officially instructed to carry out his Ankara mission.
(Talabani) I believe that the initiative that the vice president carried out was commendable, positive, and excellent. It has my full support. I believe that brother [Vice President] Adil Abdul-Mahdi also supports the initiative. Hence you may regard it as an initiative by the Presidency Council. I do not know if Al-Hashimi coordinated his Ankara visit with the prime minister or not. Whatever the case, it was a commendable initiative.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The initiative was criticized by Al-Maliki’s adviser Sami al-Askari.
(Talabani) Sami al-Askari talks too much.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Do you have anything to add to your former comment on the remarks made by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regarding a Turkish military intervention in Iraqi Kurdistan?
(Talabani) I heard President Al-Assad’s remarks with my own ears and saw him making them on television. First of all I believe that these are very serious remarks that conflict with the spirit of Arab solidarity and the spirit of Syrian-Iraqi solidarity and cooperation. How could the president of an Arab country support military intervention against the Republic of Iraq? This is a very serious matter that hurts relations between the two countries.
Personally I have always refrained from commenting on Syria’s positions out of my desire to preserve our longstanding ties with Syria. However, this time I cannot tolerate this serious position that goes beyond all bounds. The Syrian president would have done better to say the same thing as the Americans and Europeans, namely, that he prefers a political solution despite his understanding of Turkey’s position.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) How do you explain these remarks?
(Talabani) I think the question should be put to the Syrians themselves. I wonder why Syria did this despite the fact that we have reached agreement on numerous matters. I personally visited Syria. My deputy Adil Abdul-Mahdi visited it. The prime minister visited it. The Syrian foreign minister visited us. We have joint committees that are working on projects. I am really astonished by this unfriendly stance towards Iraq.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The oil bill and the fact that the government of Kurdistan has signed oil agreements have been the subject of criticism. Are you not afraid that this will create tension?
(Talabani) The cabinet and the five-member command council approved the bill. It has been referred to the Council of Representatives, which will undoubtedly approve it. Our problem is that many people do not read the texts of laws and resolutions carefully. The law says that the oil is a national resource and that its revenues will go to the central state, which in its turn will distribute it to the provinces according to the size of their populations and needs. Similarly final contracts are in the central state’s hands although the regions have the right to make some contracts, but the final form of the contracts is in the hands of the central government. If it does not approve them, the contracts will not go into effect. Regarding the Kurdistan Region’s contracts, they do not deal with oil production and exploitation but with the initial stage of oil exploration. When we reach the stage of production and exploitation, we need to go back to Baghdad in accordance with Article 12 of the Iraqi Constitution.
Hence we can see that the Kurdish positions are being misrepresented. The regional government there actually insists that the oil is an Iraqi resource, that its revenues should go to the central government in Baghdad, and that the final contracts should be signed in the center. Some problems arise from the fact that certain provisions of the constitution are not well understood. Articles 100 through 112 give the regions the right to participate in drawing up and managing the contracts. Why are regions given the right to take part in the management? It is because in the past Kurdish and Arab oil-producing regions were deprived of their share of the revenue. The Kurds have not made any demand to monopolize the oil and its revenues. We implement the relevant constitutional provisions and believe that oil revenues should be shared and distributed equally and fairly to all Iraqi regions without exception.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) According to some circles, the law deprives some regions of their share of oil revenues.
(Talabani) This is wrong. It violates the constitution and the law that is now being examined by the Council of Representatives.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) When will a vote be held over this law?
(Talabani) The question should be put to the Council of Representatives.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) When will the referendum over Kirkuk be held?
(Talabani) It was not possible to hold the referendum this year because the census was not complete and the normalization of the situation had not been finished. Normalization is now underway. A committee chaired by the minister of science and technology has begun to pay reparations to the families that wish to return to their original homelands. Those who do not wish to return will not be expelled but they will not have the right to participate in the referendum to determine the fate of Kirkuk.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) This means that they will become second-rate citizens, is that not so? Will this not inflame ethnic and confessional tensions?
(Talabani) There is no reason for such tensions because what is being done is an attempt to rectify errors that the former regime perpetrated. It tried to alter the city’s demographic character and impose Arabization by force. I wish to note that what we plan to do is mentioned in Article 112 of the Constitution. We wish to implement this provision while taking into account the rights of the Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and the Arabs who had lived in Kirkuk from the start. I advocate that we turn Kirkuk into another Brussels with Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Turkomen living together. If we view the issue from a humanitarian, normalization perspective, there will be no reason for problems. Chauvinist Kurds are saying: Kirkuk is a Kurdish city and non-Kurds should leave. Chauvinists from the other side are speaking in similar terms. However, if we regard Kirkuk as a city of fraternity and justice, there will be no problem.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There is a certain US inclination to reduce the military presence in Iraq, indeed to withdraw from Iraq. What is your opinion on this issue? How do you view the future of the US presence in Iraq?
(Talabani) The best solution is to train, arm, and equip the Iraqi forces. We want their number to be increased to 15-17 divisions. Currently we have 12 divisions. It is possible to complete this process by the end of 2008. It is useful in this respect to use the help of the military experience of former cadres. For example, my military adviser is staff Lt Gen Wafiq al-Samarrai, who was director of military intelligence during the Saddam Hussein era. Additionally it is necessary to continue arming the members of the Iraqi police force. Currently only one out of every five policemen has a weapon. Recently we concluded an agreement with China to supply our police force with light firearms. When we have well-trained army troops and police forces, we will gradually be able to do without the foreign military presence and the coalition forces. So far we have taken over security in eight Iraqi governorates. By the end of 2008 we will have taken responsibility for security in all the governorates.
The question then becomes: Will we need the US forces after that?
My answer is this: As long as a foreign threat exists and as long as we cannot repulse it and prevent the larger neighboring countries from intervening in our affairs, the answer is that we will continue to need the US military presence. Are we today able to prevent a Turkish intervention? Will we be able to prevent Iran from intervening in our country in the future? If we ensure that no foreign intervention will occur and if we succeed in training and equipping our military forces, we will be able to tell the foreign military forces: Thank you and goodbye. In my estimation, the United States can withdraw100,000 men by the end of 2007. The remaining forces can withdraw from the cities to three or four bases and when we no longer need them, they can depart.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Are there any plans to conclude a long-term defense agreement with Washington by which the US forces will remain in Iraq?
(Talabani) We, the five leaders, have asserted the need to establish a strategic cooperation with the United States. If we reach agreement with Washington over a formula that is suitable to both sides, we will sign such an agreement. The agreement will organize the presence of these forces and the duration of their stay. Now I wish to return to the issue of the US forces’ withdrawal. I wish to assert that what is intended is a withdrawal, not a flight. I have met with US officials and with US presidential candidates. All of them agree that the withdrawal should be an organized affair. They consider an immediate withdrawal a disaster for both sides.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The Iraqi-US relationship is in some ways a tripartite Iraqi-US-Iranian relationship. How will you succeed in maintaining balance if things get worse and reach the point of a military conflict between Washington and Tehran?
(Talabani) I do not see the matter in this way. On one side we have relations with Washington and on the other we have relations with Tehran. We operate on the basis of what is good for Iraq. It is in our interest to have good relations with Iran on condition that it should not meddle in our affairs. At the same time we are seeking to have good relations with the Arab countries. Personally I am making efforts to improve Iraq’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. It is in our interest to have good ties with our Arab environment. Regarding the likelihood of a war between Iran and the United States, we cannot prevent such a war. What I can say is that we seek to have good relations with both countries. The US-Iranian relationship is complex. Iran is now playing a role in trying to convince Al-Mahdi’s Army and other groups over which it has influence to maintain calm and refrain from causing problems. This is a new and commendable attitude.