Iraq Deputy Prime Minister on Diversity, Security Barham Salih, a Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, talks about security in Iraq, the plans to build a government of "national unity," and the situation in his native region, Kurdistan, in northern Iraq.

Iraq Deputy Prime Minister on Diversity, Security

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I'm Robert Siegel and we're going to begin this hour with an assessment of the situation in Iraq from a member of the Iraqi government.

There's no doubt that security is still the most pressing concern there. Just today, two suicide car bombers struck a police station in Ramadi, killing two people. In the northern city of Tal Afar, a suicide bomber killed at least 20 in an open air market and that is added to the ongoing threat of civil war which U.N. chief Kofi Annan today called a grave danger.

The attack in Tal Afar as well as a similar one in Mosul yesterday point to the reach of the violence that has become part of daily life in Iraq. Both cities are in the north of the country near the Kurdish region, which is generally more peaceful than Baghdad and the south.

Dr. Barham Salih is deputy prime minister of Iraq. He is an Iraqi Kurd and he is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. When I spoke to him earlier today, I asked if security was indeed a serious problem now for all of Iraq.

Dr. BARHAM SALIH (Deputy Prime Minister, Iraq): Undeniably, there is a security predicament that we have to deal with in Iraq and there is an onslaught by terrorists, certainly in the past few weeks, that have been very painful and they have been able to inflict damage on the Iraqi people.

But I want to say that there are many, many areas of Iraq that are reasonably safe and secure. But we're dealing with a very lethal and potent threat from terrorists and they strike indiscriminately, and we have always to be vigilant.

SIEGEL: In an op-ed page Arcticle in The Washington Post recently, you wrote that the Iraqi leadership must assume responsibility, deal with the challenges of security, sectarian polarization, corruption and the inability of the government to deliver services. Are they up to the job and how do we square that agenda with, say, the government taking off August for vacation?

Dr. SALIH: Well, we have very serious challenges in Iraq and that requires exceptional quality of leadership given the challenges that we are faced with and given also the dangers that we will deal with if we are unable to control sectarian strife. We always need to do better as Iraqi leaders.

SIEGEL: How can you bring and how can the Iraqi government bring militias under control, especially when there is sectarian violence and a sectarian militia might provide better protection for a neighborhood than the police or the army might.

Dr. SALIH: Well, this is one of the arguments that some people use and the response to that is to empower the government and make sure that the rule of law applies and anybody that uses weapons outside the state and outside the framework of the rule of law will not be tolerated. And I'm not telling you that that will be easy, but the government and Prime Minister Maliki is adamant to do so.

SIEGEL: In your Washington Post op-ed page Arcticle you said something which I'd like you to explain. You said this equilibrium comes from majoritarianism. The majority is Shiite Muslim. Are the Shiites overplaying their majority status and not showing ample respect to the minorities, Sunni Arabs and Kurds?

Dr. SALIH: I would say the mainstream Shiite leadership in Iraq recognizes the need for a balanced and inclusive political process. There are some of those who want to translate that majority into meaning excluding others from power and from governance and this is not a way forward.

Iraq is a diverse community. We need to recognize the rights of the majority, nobody can - that is democratic system of government and the majority's rights need to be recognized but at the same time, not to the detriment of the rights of minority and not to the detriment of the importance of power sharing and bringing about an inclusive political process that will unify Iraqis in the face of terrorism and in the face of extremism.

SIEGEL: But I want you to reconcile something for us. As you speak of inclusiveness and of the multi-communal nature of Iraq, in your neck of the woods in Kurdistan some Iraqi Arabs complain that the only flag flying over government buildings is now a Kurdish flag. Peter Galbraith, the American who has long been an adviser to the Iraqi Kurds, has suggested that there's no sign whatever of the central government in that part of the country and that the U.S. should in fact withdraw its troops up north to Kurdistan. That what we're watching on the ground there or we hear about is the fragmentation of Iraq rather than this integrating process you're describing today.

Dr. SALIH: I cannot tell you that there are not people or groups who do want to see the fragmentation of Iraq but most Kurds recognize that their interests lies in a federal democratic Iraq. Definitely not many Kurds would want to be part of a tyrannical Iraq or fundamentalist Iraq. If Iraq were to go down that path, then the Kurds will have difficulty staying in Iraq and one must understand why that is so.

As far as the flag is concerned, the Kurdish leadership and the Kurdish Parliament have said that they want to raise an Iraqi flag that would represent the unity of the country. The present flag that is flown in Baghdad is one that Saddam Hussein has changed and represents in many ways the era of Saddam Hussein.

The very fact that we are having a debate about the flag, I want to say that means Kurds care about symbols of national unity of Iraq. And I'm hopeful that the Iraqi Parliament will soon begin debate on this issue of the national flag and the national anthem and we will come up with symbols that will represent all Iraqis.

SIEGEL: But if a tyrannical dictatorial Iraq is one which Kurds would obviously not want to be a part of, what about an Iraq which south of Kurdistan is embroiled in sectarian violence largely between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs?

Would your people feel - I'm speaking of the Kurds, I know the Iraqis are your people as well - would they feel I don't want to be a part of that Iraq either and rather be in a safe zone up north?

Dr. SALIH: Definitely there is that sentiment among many ordinary Kurds and some political Kurds as well. They're saying why should we be part of that mess? But I think that is a very shortsighted view. And when I go back to Kurdistan and I explain to them if the situation in Baghdad goes sour, if there is a civil war in Iraq, it will not be a long time before Kurdistan will be plunged into it, undermining everything that the Kurds care for.

That is why you find the Kurdish leadership seriously involved in Baghdad and trying to help overcome these sectarian divides and thinking about national unity.

SIEGEL: Barham Salih, deputy prime minister of Iraq, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Dr. SALIH: Thank you, sir, for having me.

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