LIANE HANSEN, host:
Iraq's political leaders, Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, have begun what are bound to be long and arduous talks on the formation of a new government. That's a prime goal for the Bush Administration in Iraq now, but there's no guarantee of success.
At the center of the politicking is the Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, who is positioning himself for a second term as head of state. For 24-hours this past week, NP's Ivan Watson followed Talabani and his staff around Baghdad and filed this report.
IVAN WATSON, reporting:
Welcome to the Iraqi Presidency.
(Soundbite of spokesman giving a tour)
Unidentified Man: This is the West Wing, the Iraqi West Wing.
WATSON: A presidential spokesman gives a tour of the offices where Iraqi staffers in business suits shuffle papers and answer phones behind tidy desks. This four-story building is located deep in the green zone, behind concrete walls, guard towers, and regiment of Iraqi guards and foreign mercenaries. Expect for the periodic explosions of insurgent mortars, it all seems bizarrely removed from the violence raging outside in the streets of Baghdad.
Last Tuesday, Baghdad's main morgue received the bodies of 67 Iraqis who had all been shot dead. Some other incidents that day included a roadside bomb that killed two American soldiers, the discovery of the bodies of eight police recruits north of Baghdad, and the kidnapping of two German engineers. That same morning, President Jalal Talabani was greeting a delegation from the British parliament.
(Soundbite of Talabani with the British guests)
The lawmakers' first question: how is it going, putting the new Iraqi government together? This is the top subject for Iraq's new political elite and the motivation behind days and nights of shuttled diplomacy between their fortresses in Baghdad.
Talabani, the top national politician from the Kurdish alliance, has spent much of the last seven months trying to assert himself in what had previously been treated as a largely ceremonial position. Last month, Talabani declared he would not accept a second term as President. He has since changed his mind.
WATSON: Do you have assurances that you would be a strong President for the next four years?
President JALAL TALABANI (Iraq): I don't like the word strong. I say to be a real president. Yes, I got assurances from those who in favor of my candidacy, and they say that a president must have his role in the ruling the country.
WATSON: Talabani is a veteran politician and former guerilla leader who fought for decades against successive governments in Baghdad. This portly, cigar smoking 73-year-old disarms his guests with a combination of humor and hospitality, inviting them to meals where he cracks off-color jokes and enthusiastically shovels food onto their plates.
He is also a close ally of the United States. One evening, during a cordial phone conversation with American Ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, he discussed, among other things, the controversial trial of Saddam Hussein, and then promised to send Kahlilzad sweets.
Despite what seems like a grandfatherly approach to politics, Talabani clashed repeatedly over the last year with the current Shiite Arab Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. There are reports they have now reconciled, but it's a subject Talabani refuses to discuss.
President TALABANI: No comment.
WATSON: Negotiations are underway within the Shiite Coalition, which won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the last election, to choose a prime minister to govern Iraq for the next four years.
Talabani's favorite is current Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi from the powerful Shiite Party know as SCIRI. Despite their political and ethnic differences, Abdul Mehdi says he and the Kurdish politician can work well together.
Vice President ADEL ABDUL MEHDI (Iraq): I'm a member of the Islamist movement. Jalal is a member in the secular movement. Jalal defends the Kurds and the right of the Kurds; but he defends also the right of Iraqis, of course. We defend the right of the Shiite and we defend the rights of Iraqis. So there's differences in points of views, and we always manage to bridge them.
WATSON: But can Shiite and Kurdish politicians compromise with each other and with Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who make up the backbone of the country's deadly insurgency? This violent opposition to the new regime terrifies members of Talabani's own staff. A programmer for the president's Web page says he won't even tell relatives where he works for fear of assassination or kidnapping.
Unidentified Man #1: Even my cousin, he doesn't know where I work, even my cousin.
WATSON: Talabani insists the insurgency will soon be defeated.
TALABANI: I think this year the terrorism will be eradicated in Iraq.
WATSON: This year?
TALABANI: Yes. They are (Unintelligable).
WATSON: He says he's negotiating to bring Sunni Arab politicians and tribal leaders into a future government of national unity. And he says he's seen growing rifts develop between homegrown insurgents and foreign fighters. But that's of little consolation to residents of Baghdad who are exhausted by the violence and three years of fuel shortages and blackouts. Iraqis, like this Sunni Arab teacher named Abu Achmed(ph), say the government has done nothing to improve their daily lives.
Mr. ABU ACHMED (Teacher, Iraq): (Through Translator)
The Iraq government only controls ten percent of this country. But I like Talabani because at least he's trying to negotiate with all the parties in Iraq.
WATSON: Talabani predicts it will take until the end of February to form Iraq's new government.
Ivan Watson, NPR News.
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