Iraqi Candidate Urges Unity in South

Laith Kubbah is one of many seeking a parliamentary seat in Thursday's Iraqi elections. He says the people of southern Iraq must find a way to agree before addressing deep problems with the Kurdish North. He envisions a system of regional control.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Most of the thousands of candidates who are competing for the 275 parliamentary seats in Thursday's election are unknown outside Iraq. Not Laith Kubbah. During his years in exile in the US, he often took part in academic discussions about Iraq. For the past six months, he's been the spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jafari. Now Laith Kubbah has established his own political slate with what some consider a radical platform. As part of our series highlighting some of the candidates in this election, NPR's Peter Kenyon has this profile.

PETER KENYON reporting:

When was the last time you heard a spokesman for a prime minister deliver a stinging assessment of his government's ineptitude and keep his job? This is Iraqi spokesman Laith Kubbah explaining how he defends his boss, Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jafari.

Mr. LAITH KUBBAH: I defended his position to say the weak performance of the government is by default. It's the fact it's made of 17 political groups in two blocs. Each one of them wanted a ministry at least and that the prime minister did not even appoint one minister from his own party, and he struggled to discipline a minister. He cannot sack a minister for bad performance.

KENYON: To be fair, Kubbah did not say this at one of his regular press briefings. In this interview, he's wearing his other hat, that of a parliamentary candidate heading the Iraqi peace list, a small group of independent Iraqis who believe that Jafari's dominant Shiite bloc is just too religious. Kubbah recognized the awkwardness of his position and says he offered to resign, but Jafari asked him to stay on, but what really catches people's attention is when Kubbah calmly says the most important task for Iraqi Arabs, both Sunni and Shiite, is to forget about the Kurds and get their own house in order.

Mr. KUBBAH: We have now an open wound called the past. It's still bleeding. It's rotten at the moment. So everything is based on the assumption you need to fix the Arab side of Iraq first. From there on, you start building the state and looking at the economy and looking at empowering society.

KENYON: The implications of Kubbah's plan are enormous, not only because of the deep mistrust between Sunnis and Shiites, but because he's essentially talking about cutting the Kurds out of the southern two-thirds of Iraq.

Mr. KUBBAH: With the vision, we're saying, if there is a region from Mosul to Basra, then the Kurds will have no room in that region. It has to be run by the people of those provinces, and what would remain is what is known as the federal government, which by definition is weak, and it has to be funded by both regions, by the Kurdish region and by the Arab region.

KENYON: Essentially Kubbah is arguing that the Kurds are starting with an unfair advantage. They have their own autonomous region and they also have nearly a one-third stake in the federal government, which he says they're not paying their fair share for. It's not an argument often heard amid the general calls for unity and avoiding civil war, but Kubbah hastens to add that he's not trying to pull the country apart, and he says the constitution lays out a federal framework that all Iraqis must live with. But he says regional charters are permitted and the Arabs badly need one, whether they realize it or not.

Mr. KUBBAH: So the Kurds at the moment have written their own constitution, and what we're saying, outside Kurdistan, there is chaos. There is just fragmented bits and pieces undefined, nothing binding them, and that is creating an imbalance in the country. To fix Iraq, you need to fix the Arab side of Iraq.

KENYON: Almost in passing, Kubbah also dumped cold water on another popular assumption, that major amendments are in store for the constitution once the new parliament is formed. That's especially important to Sunnis who had very little say in the drafting of the current constitution and fear being marginalized even further. Kubbah says, `No, the procedures for amending the constitution include obstacles that few groups, especially the Sunni minority, will be able to overcome.' Kubbah admits that his ideas are drawing a fierce backlash from some quarters, not least being Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, but he says slate number 635, with its message of Arab solidarity, will at least give Iraqis something to ponder as they go to the polls.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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