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Interview

Kurdish Eyes on Iraq's Future

Eastern sector's chief urges limited U.S. aid to the opposition in ousting Hussein

November 24, 2002|Robin Wright | Robin Wright is The Times' chief diplomatic correspondent and the author of four books on international affairs.

Jalal Talabani used skills learned during his obligatory Iraqi army duty to fight in and help lead the first Kurdish revolt in 1961. He subsequently became a top official in the Kurdish Democratic Party of Mustafa Barzani. After the collapse of the Kurdish revolt in 1975, precipitated by a U.S. policy shift, Talabani and other Kurdish intellectuals launched a more modern and less clan-based movement, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which then began its own armed resistance inside Iraq.

The split reflects a core problem for the Kurds, the world's largest ethnic group without a country and the most victimized sector of Iraqi society -- the only group in Iraq against which Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons. The rivalry between the two Kurdish parties has diverted attention from their long-term goal. Disputes over revenue-sharing and land led to two years of sporadic clashes. In 1996, Hussein's intervention helped the Kurdistan Democratic Party push the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan back to the Iranian border, leading Talabani to call Barzani a traitor.

Talabani now controls the eastern sector of "liberated" Kurdistan, Barzani the western area. Both have their own administrations and military forces. But they share a national assembly originally elected in 1992. It reconvened last month for the first time in six years, a symbolic move reflecting new attempts at unity mediated by the United States. Talabani's headquarters are in Sulaymaniyah.

Question: Will the new U.N. resolution inevitably lead to war?

Answer: We're not against an invasion, but I would be glad not to see a U.S. invasion of Iraq. It would be better to help Iraqis liberate their own country. If an invasion means 150,000 troops, occupying Baghdad and imposing a government, this should not be the intent of the United States. But if the United States helps the real opposition forces -- the peshmerga, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Free Officers and others -- with its Air Force and Special Forces, [victory over Hussein] will be easy. It won't need to send a large army.

Q: Would the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan collaborate with a U.S. military campaign?

A: When [Secretary of State] Colin Powell sent his message of congratulations to our parliament [last month], he said he was proud that the Kurds are partners of the U.S. in the fight against tyranny and terrorism and for a free, democratic Iraq. This [partnership] was unanimously adopted by the national assembly.... But we would also be happier if the United States agrees on a future plan for Iraq based on democracy, federalism and a multiparty state.

Q: Since the imposition of the no-fly zones in 1991 and the U.N. oil-for-food program in 1997, the Kurds have created an area of self-rule in the north. What difference has it made?

A: The Kurds [proved] we can administer our territory and provide an example of peace and stability in Iraq. We're a balance between Sunni and Shiite, secular and fundamentalist. You see the climate of democracy even in the progress of [Kurdish] women -- two women ministers and four judges, many Kurdish women's organizations, even a battalion of women fighters [in the PUK area].

Q: Aren't Kurds actually better off now than if they were integrated back into Iraq?

A: That's very shortsighted. What we have is not stable or permanent. Half of [Iraqi] Kurdistan is still under Iraqi dictatorship. We need to reunite Iraq to get back with other parts of Kurdistan and reunite with Iraq for a permanent democratic life.

Q: Are the Kurds willing to give up their dream of an independent Kurdistan?

A: We never asked for an independent Kurdish state. These are only accusations of neighbors. What we ask for always is in [the] context of Iraq. But we do want a new government within a framework of self-determination.

Q: In a new government, Kurds talk about federalism as the solution to the problem of Iraq's long-standing ethnic and religious rivalries. What does this mean?

A: It means giving the rights of sovereignty to the central government -- the presidency, control of the finance ministry, foreign policy, the army and important industries like oil. Other powers will be given to the freely elected regional governments. We haven't selected one final model. There are lots of federal systems as models -- the United States, Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, the United Kingdom.

Q: What should happen to Kirkuk, the Jerusalem of Iraq, claimed by different ethnic groups?

A: President Clinton wrote a letter to the U.S. Congress in which he described Kirkuk as a Kurdish city. But Kirkuk is, historically, a city of Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians and Arabs in the region of the Kurds. It should be ruled like Brussels. It should be a city of brotherhood, not what it is now, a city of hatred undergoing ethnic cleansing.

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