Talabani's Role in Iraq: Mr. Big?

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Robert Siegel talks with New Yorker writer Jon Lee Anderson about his profile of the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani. Titled "Mr. Big," the piece examines Talabani's impressive management of his numerous and often conflicting allegiances — including those with the United States and Iran.


The president of Iraq, as opposed to the prime minister, is a Kurd. He is a Jalal Kalabani, long time leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. That's his party. Over the course of his more than 70 years, Mr. Talabani has embraced any number of allies, always in the name of the Kurdish cause.

There is a profile of him in the current issue of the New Yorker. It's called "Mr. Big," and it's by Jon Lee Anderson, who joins us from Madrid. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. JON LEE ANDERSON (Journalist): Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Jon Lee Anderson, when I say that Mr. Talabani has embraced many allies, literally, your story includes pictures of him over the years embracing quite a disparate cast of characters.

Mr. ANDERSON: Embracing and kissing, which sometimes he hastens to point out himself. He talked about an early trip he made to China in his days as a Maoist and he said that saw Mao from a distance but he managed to kiss Juang Lian(ph).

And yes, in the piece, we have pictures of him kissing Saddam, Prime Minister Malachi, the American ambassador Khalilzad, Rumsfeld. He's quite an interesting man. He's had to forge alliances with all manner of people over the years and for the sake of Kurdish survival and his own political fortunes.

SIEGEL: Well, you mentioned what he did in China when he was a Maoist. He's been a lot of things politically over the years, yes?

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, he would claim to be somewhat more consistent than that. When he began in the Kurdish movement as a very young boy in the '40s, what it consisted of at the time was essentially a Soviet-backed movement, and so he grew up as a Marxist.

And then as he deepened his involvement in political militancy, he adhered to the Maoist idea of prolonged popular struggle, the rural guerrilla war in the mountains, much like he and his fighters were trying to do in Kurdistan. In fact, he still regards himself as, if not a Maoist, a socialist, although he says that he acknowledges that socialism can't be built in Iraq today.

But when I asked him who he felt his ultimate political role model was, he said without hesitation Mao Tse Tung.

SIEGEL: If what underlies all this, if the constancy in Jalal Talabani's career has been the Kurdish cause and the protection of the Kurdish people of Iraq, has he evolved into an Iraqi patriot? Does he place Iraq's welfare as president of the country and its continuation as an intact country above the Kurdish dream - which was I believe endorsed nearly all the Kurds when they had a non-binding referendum - of independence?

Mr. ANDERSON: That's right, they did. And yes. He argues strenuously that he takes his role as Iraq's president very seriously and that he is first and foremost challenged with attaining and vouchsafing its unity.

Nonetheless, you know, there's an element of contradiction there. Someone who knows him quite well said that he felt that as an outside player in Iraq that Talabani was ultimately helping vouchsafe the Kurdish interests as well.

He has been able to both use his mettle and his contacts and his charisma to try to broker unity between the Shiites and the Sunnis in Baghdad while steering business towards Kurdistan and arguing for greater and increased clauses in the various bills that have been put forth in this young democracy that is Iraq, which would ultimately make Kurdistan a much more viable, autonomous place.

So you know, on the one hand, you know, if things go well, Kurdistan will be a very autonomous region - economically prosperous, ideally - within a federal Iraq, which he will have been one of the founding fathers of. If it all implodes, however, he could well be one of the architects of the new unprecedented independent state of Kurdistan.

But he argues that an independent Kurdistan is impossible under the circumstances, that all of the neighboring countries, including Iran, Syria, Turkey, would attack it, that even if they had oil and had control over their oil, they wouldn't be able to export it.

So he claims to be a realist. I couldn't help but feel that deep down, you know, he is being somewhat tactical and that in the far horizon, he too shares the dream of an independent Kurdistan, but that right now, that's not possible.

SIEGEL: As someone who goes back a long way with the Iranians and whose background is on personal politics developed along Marxist lines, what do you think he makes of the Islamic republic across the border and the prospect of it having greater influence in Iraq?

Mr. ANDERSON: Talabani seems to have made his piece with that notion some time ago. Even before the 2003 war, he and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the then Iranian backed leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who was a very major player in the country, had working arrangement.

Iran is right next door. And in several conversations with me, he made it a point that - he was very clear about what Iran was doing. He said that Iran was, in fact, up to covert activities in Iraq. And he was keen to see that reined in. And in a sense, he sees himself as trying to broker that, also, a reduction in the violence in Iraq, and if he can, to be the go-between for some kind of taunt in Iraq between the U.S. and Iran.

And it's quite interesting because you have Talabani on the one hand arranging security coordination with Tehran, and then comes back to Baghdad where the Americans begin raiding, capturing some of the people that he ultimately invited. There is this very nuanced game going on in which he is a very pivotal figure.

Now, you know, it's difficult to know if the bellicosity being expressed out of Washington towards Iran is kind of part of a more grand carrot and stick, good cop, bad cop approach or not, or how much negotiating room this still leaves Talabani.

But from what I could see, being around him, this is precisely where he excels, where the margins are very, very small, and where he has multiple and apparently contradictory forces at work to try to reconcile. And in some ways, he's the perfect man for the present situation in Iraq in that sense.

SIEGEL: Well, Jon Lee Anderson, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ANDERSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker magazine is the author of this week's profile of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. It's called "Mr. Big."

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Autonomy, Oil Money Underlie Kurdish Goals in Iraq

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Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani i

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (left) and Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani were once fierce rivals. Ali Abbas/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Ali Abbas/AFP/Getty Images
Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (left) and Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani were once fierce rivals.

Ali Abbas/AFP/Getty Images

One group crucial to the future of Iraq is the Kurds. They live mainly in the northern part of the country, known as Iraqi Kurdistan. For decades, Kurds fought for independence from Saddam Hussein's government and paid harshly for it. Under Saddam's rule, a series of military campaigns and ethnic cleansing against the Kurds took place in the 1980s, including the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations.

The two leaders of the Kurds were once fierce rivals. Jalal Talabani is now the president of Iraq, but he is also the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, which represents about half of the Kurdish population. The president of Iraqi Kurdistan is Massoud Barzani, the son of the legendary founder of the Kurdish resistance Mustafa Barzani, who founded the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, in 1946. The PUK wasn't founded until 1975. The KDP, based in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah, represents the other half of the Kurdish population.

For years, Talabani and Barzani were fierce rivals. After the 1991 Gulf War, the United States put in place a "no-fly" zone in Northern Iraq, covering much of Iraqi Kurdistan. As a result, the Kurds were mostly protected from Saddam — but not from each other. In essence, the PUK and KDP fought a civil war during the 1990s which only ended in 1998, when the United States brokered a peace deal.

The ultimate goal of both men is an independent Kurdistan. But they realize that, for now, they must work within a federal structure under a central Iraqi government. There are Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iran and Syria and all of those governments fear separatist movements of their own if an independent Kurdistan is formed. Turkey has long fought a brutal campaign against Kurdish separatists of the Kurdish Workers Party, known as the PKK. And on occasion, Iranian forces shell Kurdish separatists based near the Iraq-Iran border.

The two men are working for as much autonomy from the central government as they can get, which so far has been considerable. Iraqi Arabs must have passports to travel to Kurdistan; the official language is Kurdish, not Arabic; and the Iraqi flag has been taken down in many places, replaced with the Kurdish flag.

Even as they work within a federal structure, a crisis may emerge in Kirkuk, a city that has historically been an ethnic mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. Saddam attempted to "Arabize" the area during the 1970s and '80s, forcing Kurds from their homes, and importing Arabs. Talabani and Barzani see Kirkuk as the capital of Kurdistan, for historic reasons and because the city sits astride the largest proven oil reserves in Iraq.

The Kurdish government is attempting to reverse Saddam's ethnic program with one of its own, forcing Arabs out and forcing Kurdish families who lived there in the past to abandon their new lives and move to a very dangerous city. Unlike Kurdistan, which is fairly peaceful, Kirkuk has become a hot spot for attacks by various Iraqi factions.

A referendum on the future of Kirkuk is expected in the next year. In a move that enraged both Talabani and Barzani, the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan U.S. panel that made recommendations to the White House and Congress on Iraq strategy, called for the referendum to be delayed. The study group also recommended a stronger central government which would control oil revenue; the Kurds desperately want to retain control over that money.

The Kurds have worked well with both the Shiite-led government and the United States so far. Many Shiites want a similar autonomous region in southern Iraq, where they are the vast majority, and they have supported Kurdish autonomy. The United States has relied on the Kurds to maintain peace in their areas, and to supply the Iraqi army with members of their militia, known as the Peshmerga.

But the future of Kirkuk and control of oil revenues may become serious crises among the Kurds, the United States and the central government. And as Iraqi Kurdistan moves ever farther away from the rest of Iraq, maintaining a federal system may become ever more difficult.



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