Kurdish Official Hopeful amid Iraq's Havoc

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, cites progress and problems in quelling sectarian strife. He tells Debbie Elliott he sees hope in the trial of Saddam Hussein, but knows it won't be easy to craft a democracy in Iraq.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki pleaded with the country's tribal leaders today to unite and put an end to the sectarian violence that has claimed thousands of lives.

He told them, quote, Iraq needs all of its sons during this stage. There is no difference between Shiite and Sunni, Arab and Kurd, Turkman and Assyrian.

Earlier today, I spoke with one of Iraq's deputy prime ministers, Barham Salih. I asked him if his government had plans to meet with militia leaders as well.

Mr. BARHAM SALIH (Deputy Prime Minister, Iraq): The prime minister and the government is actually engaged a number of elements in the society, some of which have been outside the political process. And we have laid down a road map for a rehabilitation into public life and abandoning violence.

A society in transition like that of Iraq needs to be engaged in a lot of soul searching about better ways of solving our problems.

ELLIOTT: You know, there have been a lot of concerns about Iraqi security forces actually being infiltrated by members of the sectarian militias, and you were recently quoted as saying it's an open secret that needs to be confronted head on, the status quo is profitable to too many in the political elite of the country.

What did you mean by that?

Mr. SALIH: By that I mean any situation of conflict, there will be people who benefit from it, whether it is through corruption or manipulation of the state.

Yes, we do have a problem in certain areas of the security services and they require reform. This will be one of the toughest challenges that we have, to turn the security services into agents of the security of all the people of Iraq instead of just a few people who would use these elements to promote their own interests.

ELLIOTT: Who? Who's benefiting?

Mr. SALIH: Some of these militia leaders, some of the political leaders who are basically taking advantage of the turmoil and the conflicts that are in Iraq today to advance the sectarian agenda and advance their own political and perhaps financial interests.

ELLIOTT: Which political leaders?

Mr. SALIH: Well, some. I would not want to name names at this stage, but I think in a society like Iraq you have oligarchies that benefit from situations of conflict. And whether it is through corruption, smuggling of oil, maintaining armed militias that can threaten people, etcetera and so on.

But these are, again, symptoms of a society in transition, and I want to remind your audience this needs to be understood in the context that we were ruled by the iron fist of Saddam Hussein, a tyrant, for over 35 years. And we are trying to build a constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East. This is a tough, tough neighborhood. It is not an easy thing to contemplate and work to the ideals of democracy in a region that has not seen democracy or allowed democracy to flourish.

ELLIOTT: You know, one of the things that Prime Minister Maliki told the tribal leaders today was that liberating the country from any foreign hand cannot be achieved without a real national unity.

Now, at the same time, President Bush this week is telling the American people that U.S. troops will not be leaving Iraq as long as he's president, and that's two years from now.

How long do you think that you'll be in this transition period and that U.S. troops will be in Iraq?

Mr. SALIH: Well, first and foremost, I have to say - and I'm not just saying this because I'm talking to an American radio station - we are grateful to the presence of American troops. We need help from the international community and certainly from the United States. For some time we would need the support of the international community. We need the support of the Americans.

ELLIOTT: When you say for some time, what does that mean? Does that mean one year, two years, five years, ten years?

Mr. SALIH: I really don't want to put a time on it. And I can understand how important that is, but we have to stand together to defeat this evil and creating a democratic, stable Iraq. It is a necessary mission to be accomplished in order to really turn the tide in this part of the world.

ELLIOTT: You are a Kurd. How are the people of Kurdistan reacting to the trial of Saddam Hussein for atrocities committed against the Kurds?

If Saddam is brought to justice, do you think this will boost the Kurds' feeling of being part of Iraq?

Mr. SALIH: Tell you what. I went to the trial that day, when Saddam was brought in and that Kurdish villager came to the court to confront him, the tyrant. That was truly a definitive moment in the way that I can understand this transition in this country.

Who would have thought 18 years ago when these foul crimes were unfolding that in Baghdad an Arab judge will be trying Saddam Hussein for crimes he committed against the Kurdish people and that Kurdish men and women, civilians, victims of this tyrant, would come to confront this evil, to have their say in court?

That was an amazing feeling, I have to say.

ELLIOTT: You know, I have a personal question for you, if you do not mind.

When you meet someone and you introduce yourself to them, is the first thing you say is, Hello, I am a Kurd? Or do you say, Hello, I am an Iraqi?

Mr. SALIH: Well, I am Kurdish. I am very proud of my Kurdish identity and heritage. Iraq to me and my generation and generations before has been nothing but a disaster, has meant nothing but oppression and persecution.

However, after the war, many Kurds have also discovered that they were not the only victims of Saddam Hussein, that there were all - many, many other Iraqis who also suffered as a result of Saddam Hussein.

The Iraq of the past was an Iraq for tyrants. This is - this mission that we are engaged in is to create a nation that will be ours. The jury may be out. We are yet to establish all those elements that people can identify with, but I think that trial was an important statement about what Iraq could be. Iraq could turn from that oppressing entity into something that we can identify with, and there is a lot of work to be done in the interim.

ELLIOTT: Mr. Deputy Prime Minister, thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. SALIH: Thank you, ma'am.

ELLIOTT: Barham Salih is one of the deputy prime ministers of Iraq.

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