Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat- Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has said that his personal wish is not to nominate himself for another presidential term unless he is commissioned to do so by the main Iraqi political blocs, because he wants to dedicate himself to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] and to writing his memoirs. Talabani adds: “However, I will relinquish my personal wishes for the sake of public interests, as I have done all my life.”
President Talabani, who will move to Al-Sulaymaniyah to start his partisan duties as secretary general of the PUK as soon as he concludes his political work as president of Iraq in Baghdad, has favored Asharq Al-Awsat with a political interview, which is the first of its kind to an Arab newspaper before the end of his duties as president of Iraq and after his bilateral meeting with Masud Barzani, president of Kurdistan, in Dukan resort near Al-Sulaymaniyah last week.
President Talabani talks about his experience in the presidency, and about the Iraqi Government. He also talks in detail about the split of Nawshirwan Mustafa, the former leading member of the PUK, and describes him as “hostile to the PUK, and hostile to and opposing the Kurdistan Province Government.”
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you assess your presidential term as it approaches its end?
[Talabani] I believe that it was successful. In this term, we have played the role of coordinator and reconciliatory in the Iraqi political process, and we have been able to establish good foreign relations. We have consolidated our relations with our brethren in the Arab world, especially our greater sister Egypt, and with our brother, His Excellency President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, as we have established strategic relations. We have done the same with fraternal Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, the UAE, and with our neighbor Turkey, as we have laid down the foundation of the strategic alliance between the two countries. We have developed our relations with the important countries we visited, such as China, France, Britain, and the United States. We also have given momentum to the continuation of these relations through our monthly meetings, which I used to convene with the Arab and foreign ambassadors accredited to Iraq. We have worked to facilitate the affairs of the state, whose government is presided over by brother Nuri al-Maliki.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that your role would have been more effective if you had more extensive powers?
[Talabani] Let me correct something important for you. The powers of the president are already extensive, as ratified by the Iraqi Constitution. They are influential and significant powers. It seems that there is a misunderstanding, or lack of in depth knowledge of these powers, or it could be that the people have heard some media statements promoted by some people saying that the powers of the president are ceremonial; however this is not true.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] On the basis of what you said, have you used your complete powers, which the Constitution has allocated to you?
[Talabani] Yes, we have used them in everything related to the protection of the higher interests of Iraq and the Iraqis, and in everything related to the higher policies and the foreign policies. We have had a decisive decision to be the guardians of the safety and implementation of the Constitution. The government might not have appreciated the role of the presidency, and disagreements have occurred as a result of this; however, we do not deny that the prime minister has consulted the president about many issues, and has been trying to coordinate with us, Nevertheless, when there are disagreements between the prime minister’s office and the Presidency Council, everyone goes his own way.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you found the experiment of the Presidency Council to be successful?
[Talabani] I will be frank with you. The experiment of the Presidency Council has been both, a success and a failure; it is like all aspects of life, they have their negative and positive sides. Its positive sides include that it materializes the wish of all the major entities that constitute the Iraqi society, namely the Sunni Arabs, the Shiite Arabs, and the Kurds. This is important at the stage through which we are going until our democracy and constitutional institutions become well established, until the situation settles in Iraq, and until we reach the stage in which the parliamentary majority governs the country. At this stage – let us call it interim stage – we consider the experiment to be successful. On the other hand, the negative aspects include that the objection by one member of the Presidency Council can hinder the smooth running of the situation, and the necessary laws and proposals; this hindering from one member of the council could hinder the issues of the state.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the experiment of the Presidency Council be repeated in the upcoming stage after the parliamentary elections?
[Talabani] I do not know, because this is one of the powers of the parliament. According to the Constitution, the Presidency Council has concluded its mission, and was installed for one time only; the appendix of the Constitution says that the Presidency Council is for one parliamentary term, and this term has ended; “the expression Presidency Council replaces the expression president wherever it is found in this Constitution, and the rulings of the president are restored after one parliamentary term.” This means that in the next parliamentary term there ought to be a president, and the role of the Presidency Council ends.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] On the basis of your experience, will you nominate yourself as a presidential candidate in the next term?
[Talabani] Let me be frank with you. If it is up to my personal wish, the answer is no, I will not nominate myself for the presidency again, because I need to dedicate myself to doing more work at the PUK, being with my family, and to resting and writing my memoirs. However, if the main parliamentary and political blocs in Iraq commission me, I will not disappoint them, and I will not reject this commission.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you relinquish your personal wish?
[Talabani] By God, I will. The same as I have relinquished my personal wishes all my life for the benefit of the public interests, Iraq, and the Iraqis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the political equation will change if the president is chosen from the Shiite or Sunni Arabs?
[Talabani] No, it will not change, because the Constitution is there, and there will be no changes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that for the Kurds the post of the speaker of parliament is better than that of the president?
[Talabani] This depends on the circumstances. Under the current circumstances, the post of the president is better for the Kurds than the post of the speaker of parliament. As for the normal circumstances, the post of the speaker is best for the Kurds. Do not forget that under normal circumstances there will be no quotas, and hence it will not be that this post is for the Kurds and that for the Shiite or Sunni Arabs, because the Constitution will not grant any privileges to any constituent group of the Iraqi people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you felt from the Iraqis support for Jalal Talabani as president of Iraq because of his personal qualities, or because he is a Kurd?
[Talabani] All my life I have struggled within the ranks of the Kurdish revolution and the Iraqi cause for a democratic Iraq, and I have defended the Kurdish rights within this Iraq. I am proud that my relations with the Iraqi and Arab progressive powers always have been good. Since I was a student at the Faculty of Law at Baghdad University, I have exerted good efforts so that there would be good relations between the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP] – I was a member of its leadership – and all the Iraqi national parties, such as the Communist Party, the Democratic National Party, the Independence Party, Baath Party, and others. As for the Arab arena, I am also proud that I was the first leading member of the KDP to travel to Syria and to establish relations with the then Syrian parties, as I met Akram al-Hurani, Michel Aflaq, and others; I was the first Kurd to contact President Jamal Abdul -Nasser, I met him several times, and I established good relations with the Nasirites. This qualifies me to be a good Iraqi. Before I was commissioned to be the president of Iraq I met all the main political blocs in Iraq, and they were unanimous in their agreement to this commission. I said to the brethren in the PUK Political Bureau that when I go to Baghdad as a president, I will take off the Kurdish dress, and wear the Iraqi cloak in order to behave as an Iraqi and as a president of all Iraqis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the Iraqis reproach their president – perhaps a reproach stemming from love – for the fact that President Talabani has not visited them in their southern governorates, such as Basra, Al-Amarah, or Al-Nasiriyah. Is this for health or political reasons?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Despite my love for all Iraqis, this is only partly true, because I have visited Karbala, Al-Najaf, Al-Hillah, and Al-Samawah. I have not visited the other cities for many reasons, including the fact that the Sunni Arab regions were disturbed, their security was unstable, and they could not be visited, and I had to balance my visits to the Sunni and Shiite Arab regions, otherwise my visits would have been interpreted incorrectly in one way or another. The other reason is that when the security situation improved in Southern Iraq, for instance in Basra, this (security situation) did not improve in Mosul, and if I paid a visit to Basra, I should visit Mosul, because the two cities constitute two important poles in Iraq. This reproach is only partly true, and I accept it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you assess the security situation in the light of the latest explosions in Baghdad and other places, and the work of the security organizations?
[Talabani] I believe that the current government has been able to play an important role in imposing security and stability, and in liberating the unstable regions from the terrorists and the militias. A short time ago, Al-Anbar Governorate was under the control of the terrorists, Basra was under the control of the militias, and the main roads linking the Iraqi regions were dangerous and unusable; today, Al-Anbar has been liberated from the terrorists, Basra has been liberated from the militias, the roads between Baghdad and the rest of the cities of Iraq have been secured, and security has been imposed in many regions, such as Baghdad, Karbala, Al-Najaf, Al-Hillah, Samarra, and Tikrit. Yes, there are terrorist cells, but such cells exist also in Pakistan and Algeria. There is a difference between the existence of secret terrorist cells that carry out explosions, and the existence of entire regions that are under the control of terrorists, as is the case in Afghanistan. Therefore, the national unity government has succeeded in this field, but it has not been able to put a complete end to the terrorists. This has its reasons; the security organizations have played an important role, and offered hundreds of martyrs, and we ought to appreciate their role and sacrifices, but are there shortcomings in these organizations? Yes, there are shortcomings in the security organizations, and also there are claims that terrorists and Baathists have infiltrated these organizations and hence facilitate the work of the terrorists. We cannot deny the achievements, but at the same time we do not deny the existence of negative aspects, such as the existence of shortcomings in the security plan and in the people who undertake the implementation of this plan. Nevertheless, huge achievements have been accomplished in this field.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But after four years of this government, there is deterioration in the security situation, and the economic situation is bad. There is a lack of basic services, such as electricity, water, and municipal services?
[Talabani] Allow me to disagree with you on this. Why do you say deterioration? Look at the map of Iraq; you will find that the security situation in the south is safe, also in Kurdistan Province it is safe, and so it is in most of the regions of the country. There are terrorist activities in Ninawa Governorate, and in Baghdad, while in the past the terrorists had activities in and control over most of the regions of Iraq. Therefore, there is no security deterioration, but there is incomplete implementation of security. Such terrorist operations occur in Algeria, in Saudi Arabia, and in other countries. Therefore, we have to assess the situation realistically.
As far as the economic situation is concerned, there is improvement in this field. The standard of living has improved a great deal since the Saddamist era [the era of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein]. The economic situation has improved, but we have not reached what we aspired for in this field because of many reasons. These reasons include that terrorism has not been eradicated, no five- or four-year plan has been implemented, and we have not reached the required standard of oil production in order to implement the planned projects.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that you are satisfied with the performance of the government?
[Talabani] No, I am satisfied with some aspects, but I have remarks on other aspects of the government performance. However, in general, as the Iraqis say “something covers another thing;” yes, I am satisfied, but there are shortcomings in the five-year plan, and in the oil policy, which has started to improve recently, and it is correct, good, and serves Iraq, and we congratulate those who are administering this step. What has taken place in the issue of contracts with the oil companies should have taken place two or three years ago. Yes, there are achievements and shortcomings, and we ought to mention them all. There is nothing perfect except the work of God Almighty.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But there are disagreements between you and the prime minister, for instance what happened about the representation of Iraq at the Arab summit, which convened in Qatar, and Al-Maliki’s insistence to attend the summit rather than you?
[Talabani] This took place with my agreement. I am the one who told the brother Amir of Qatar that the prime minister will represent Iraq at the Arab summit. This was not because of the insistence of the prime minister; he wished to do so, consulted us about this, and he did not impose himself, but we agreed that he would represent Iraq at the Arab summit.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about your contradiction with Al-Maliki in his accusation leveled at Syria of being involved in the latest explosions in Baghdad?
[Talabani] There is an important point; let me explain it. I have a special relationship with Syria and with the Syrian brethren. I have said repeatedly that I owe a national, personal, and moral debt to the honorable Al-Assad family. I cannot forget the help and support given to us by President Hafiz al-Assad under extremely difficult circumstances, circumstances under which many Arab countries were not able to give us entry visas. I am proud of this relationship, and I understand its motives. Therefore, I have said repeatedly that Syria is my identical primary homeland; Iraq is my primary homeland, and Syria is my identical primary homeland. Moreover, my philosophy in work and solving problems relies on calm diplomacy, and sometimes hidden diplomacy. I do not like to solve problems by means of hard-line statements, media escalations, and altercations; I always prefer to solve the problems between the fraternal Arab countries and the friendly foreign countries in a secret diplomatic amicable manner away from stirring up problems. Therefore, regardless of the claims about Syria, I believe that solving the problems ought to be done through Iraqi-Syrian meetings, whether via a joint security committee or via mediators we commission.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Today, the talk is about the upcoming parliamentary elections, and that they are decisive and important. Do you think they are?
[Talabani] Yes, I think that they are decisive elections and they are a matter of destiny. These elections will lead either to a setback of the democratic process, or to its continuation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your prediction of the results of these elections?
[Talabani] Our reading confirms that they will be successful, and will support the continuation and development of the democratic process.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that there will be a change in the political process?
[Talabani] There might be a change in the individuals; for instance, a president other than Jalal Talabani might be elected, or another person might be elected as prime minister or as speaker of parliament. We have to be confident that the democratic process will continue. We will work to establish a national front consisting of the main political blocs that won the elections in order to establish compatible, cohesive, and strong national unity, and to form a strong, compatible, and cohesive parliamentary bloc that will help the government in its work and in passing the laws.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] On this basis, will your alliances as “Kurdistan bloc” be the same ones that took place in the previous parliamentary term. Will you form an alliance with the same tendency with which you formed a coalition before?
[Talabani] Our policy always is to form alliances with all. In the past four years we have formed an alliance with the Unified Iraqi Coalition, which is described as Shiite, and with the Islamic Party. We have had good alliances that continued for periods of time with brother Iyad Allawi and the National Accord Movement. Today we have good relations with the Coalition, with the State of Law Coalition, with brother Jawad al-Bulani, with the Iraqi List, with the Islamic Party, and with the Communist Party. We do not restrict our relations and alliances to a single side or a specific direction; our policy is to hold alliances with all.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is talk about your participation in the elections with an Iraqi national list. How correct is this?
[Talabani] The current circumstances are not suitable for participating in an Iraqi national list. God willing, we will participate in the next elections with such a list.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us move to the PUK, whose secretary general you are. What do you think of the experiment of Dr Barham Saleh as prime minister of the government of the Kurdistan Province?
[Talabani] I think this is natural. If you go back to the history of Kurdistan federalism, you will find that from the beginning there was an alternation between us and the KDP in the chairmanship of the government and the parliament. The first government was formed with Dr Fouad Masum as prime minister and the speaker of parliament was from the KDP; then the government was formed with brother Nejervan Barzani as prime minister, and the speaker of parliament from the PUK; in the current government the prime minister is Dr Barham Saleh, while the speaker of the parliament is from the KDP. This is a continuation of the alliance between the two principal Kurdish parties.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you felt some dissatisfaction from some leading members of the KDP with Saleh chairing the government?
[Talabani] No, we have not felt that. Today, I have met brother Masud Barzani, president of Kurdistan, and he stressed his complete support for and satisfaction with Dr. Barham Saleh.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you optimistic about Saleh chairing the government?
[Talabani] We are optimistic about this government. Dr Barham is clever, effective, active, and broadminded. He has very good capabilities, and I believe that he will employ them for making the duty now commissioned to him succeed.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Kurdistan parliamentary elections resulted in the emergence of tangible opposition represented by the Change Group headed by Nawshirwan Mustafa. What is your assessment of this opposition?
[Talabani] The fact is that this is the result of a split in the PUK. These differences have existed within the PUK for a number of years, differences in policies and stances. However, we were able to preserve the internal unity of the party by offering concessions, privileges, and reconciliations. However, we reached a stage after which it was not possible to continue, and hence a number of leading members of the PUK split. This has led to the formation of a tendency called the Change Group. In the beginning there was some kind of confusion and reshuffling of the cards, as those who split did not announce that they were outside the PUK, but they claimed that they were the reform wing of the PUK and presented themselves as such. They even wanted to sue me because they were removed from the leadership responsibilities in the PUK, and they issued a statement against me in the name of the reform leadership of the PUK. Thus some of the people who wanted reform became confused, and they believed that if this reform were to come from within the PUK this would be better. This confusion led many members of the PUK to vote for them; however, after it was shown that their claims were not true, hundreds of leadership cadres and thousands of the grassroots, even entire regions, returned in their entirety to the PUK. Other than that, the slogan of change is tempting and desirable. We have not denied the importance of change, but who can undertake it? We believe that the fundamental change ought to be undertaken by the two principal parties (the PUK and KDP); anyone else cannot undertake the change, as he can only shout (scream). This is what time proves clearly every day. Anyway, this is not the first split in the PUK; this is natural, but whoever split has returned to the party.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you meet Nawshirwan Mustafa and talk to him before the elections?
[Talabani] Yes I met him, and I said to him at the penultimate meeting: If you want to form a party or a tendency, we are prepared to help and support you; this is your right, and if you want the situation to end in a good way, as we have worked together for long years, and if you want the split to take place in an amicable way, you may withdraw and form your own organization. He said: No, I do not want to form a party, but I want reform; and you alone (Talabani) can undertake the reform. I said: I alone am the one who can undertake reform?! He said: Yes. I said: Then, I will begin the reform, and I want your support for this process. He said: Yes, I support you.
We sent him the first plan of reform, he added to it, amended it, and returned it to us after he approved it. We presented the plan to the Political Bureau, and waited for the convening of the political conference, and he supported these steps. Unfortunately, at the end they split in a hostile way, and focused their attack on the PUK. Through their miscalculations, they tried to destroy the PUK, but our party was not destroyed. Despite all this, we consider this split as a natural occurrence that takes place in political organizations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As the secretary general of the PUK, do you consider Nawshirwan Mustafa as someone who opposes or as someone hostile?
[Talabani] He is hostile to the PUK, and he opposes the government of the province and is hostile to it. Nawshirwan Mustafa does not believe in the concept of coalition; he wants an independent Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate, an independent Dahuk Governorate, and also an independent Arbil Governorate that are linked in a sort of decentralized way to Baghdad.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have said that leading members had split from the PUK, and then returned. Do you think that Mustafa will return to the PUK?
[Talabani] In the last conference we decided that they should not return, and we severed the link with them, because we suffered a great deal because of them and their disputes for long years.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is well known about your wife, Mrs. Hirokhan, that she does not appear as a leading member, and she prefers to work behind the scenes in her charities for children and women. This is despite the fact that she struggled with you in the mountains all along the years of the Kurdish revolution. How was she chosen an official in charge of the party organization in Al-Sulaymaniyah?
[Talabani] I have not intervened at all in this issue, and I did not discuss it with her. However, the comrades at the party’s Political Bureau – especially brethren Mullah Bakhtiyar, Dalir Sayyid Majid, and others in the leadership – talked to her and convinced her to accept this mission despite her reluctance. She became convinced after they talked to her; therefore, she accepted this mission on the basis of the circumstances of the PUK. Our party presented, and still presents female leading members; we are at the forefront of the parties that appoint female ministers, and we have a minister in Baghdad, Minister of Environment Nirmin Khan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you assess your relations with the KDP?
[Talabani] Our relations with the KDP are more than distinguished, and my relations with brother Masud Barzani are more than excellent. We are pursuing the consolidation of these relations, and their transfer from the leadership to the grassroots of both parties; Together with brother Barzani we have decided to form a committee soon to undertake this mission.