Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani is named president of Iraq, becoming the first non-Arab president of an Arab country. Veteran Middle East journalist Dilip Hiro talks about Talabani’s ties to the CIA, Iranian intelligence and Saddam Hussein. [includes rush transcript]
Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani is due to be sworn in today as Iraq’s new president. The national assembly ended two months of deadlock Wednesday when it elected Talabani to the largely ceremonial post. He becomes the first non-Arab president of an Arab country.
Talabani told reporters his presidency "means that there is no discrimination, that all Arabs, Kurds and other nationalities have the same rights."
Ousted leader Saddam Hussein watched Talabani"s election from his prison cell on a TV set up by his jailers.
The Iraqi parliament also named: outgoing finance minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and outgoing interim president Ghazi Yawar as the country’s two vice presidents. The three men will serve together on the presidency council. They are expected to name Shiite politician Ibrahim Jaafari to the powerful post of prime minister. Cabinet ministers are expected to be named by next week.
The transitional government’s main task will be to oversee the drafting of a permanent Iraqi constitution and pave the way for elections in December.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that Zalmay Khalilzad has officially been nominated to replace John Negroponte as ambassador to Iraq. Khalilzad has been serving as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. He was a leading backer of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and has close ties to neo-conservatives in Washington. In 1998 he co-signed a letter to President Clinton sent by the Project for the New American Century calling for regime change in Iraq.
Today we will take a an in-depth look at the new members of Iraq"s government.
- Dilip Hiro, a veteran journalist on the Middle East. His trilogy of books on Iraq and Iran are considered some of the most definitive histories of the wars in the Persian Gulf. His latest book is called "Secrets and Lies: Operation "Iraqi Freedom" and After."
AMY GOODMAN: We are joined on the line from London by veteran Middle East journalist, Dilip Hiro. His trilogy of books on Iraq and Iran are considered some of the most definitive histories of the wars in the Persian Gulf. His latest book is called Secrets and Lies: Operation Iraqi Freedom and After. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Dilip Hiro.
DILIP HIRO: Good morning to you.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you join us. Can you talk about the new government of Iraq?
DILIP HIRO: Yes, certainly. I can give you a very quick biographical sketch of Jalal Talabani. He was born in 1934 in a place in Kurdistan called [Kelkan], and he trained as a lawyer. He went to Baghdad University, joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which was then run by Mustafa Barzani, a tribal Islamic leader, and then fell out with him, with Barzani, Sr., and actually went over to work with the government in Baghdad. Then after quite few twists and turns in 1975, he again, he briefly joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party, then left to go and live in Beirut, and when he was in Beirut in the mid-1970s, he came under the influence of George Habash, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Front, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, P.F.L.P., who was a Marxist leader. And he then in 1976 set up along with others Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the P.U.K., which actually described itself as a Marxist-Leninist organization. And that is the organization of which he had been a leader. He has changed sides so often that I think it would be very boring for me to go through each twist and turn. There’s a very long entry on him in my book, The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide.
Finally, I notice that he is being described as a greater leader who fought Saddam Hussein. I can tell you, Amy, that after this 1991 Gulf War, when there were uprising of Kurds which was suppressed by Saddam’s regime, he then later on went to head a Kurdish delegation, and in June 1991, actually, they made a deal with Saddam Hussein, and I have a picture of him, Jalal Talabani, kissing the cheeks of Saddam Hussein. That picture appears in my book, Desert Shield, Desert Storm. Anybody can check it out. So, he is being described as a greater leader. Basically, he is, to put it simply, an opportunist.
And of course, he has his support in Kurdistan, and again, we talk of Kurdistan, two things to remember: One is that the formation of what is called Kurdistan Autonomous Region, K.A.R., happened in 1974 under the regime of Saddam Hussein, and these three provinces in the north, which are Kurdish majority, they are basically divided into two parts. The southeastern part is under the control of the P.U.K., the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, of which he, Talabani, is the leader, which is next door to Iran, and therefore, Jalal Talabani has a very long tradition of good relations with Iran, though, of course, he wouldn’t want to talk about them now. And in the northwestern part of Kurdistan there the Barzani is, who is the son of the senior Barzani. By the way, the senior Barzani died in a hospital in Virginia. He was very close to the Americans in the 1970s.
So, we have the situation where basically these two Kurdish parties, the K.D.P., the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the P.U.K., the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, came together and formed the Kurdistan Alliance and contested these elections on January 30, and they won 75 seats out of 275. Now, the Kurds are no more than 15 to 16% of the population. They are entitled to maybe about 40 seats. They won 75. The 25 seats they have won have come at the expense of the Sunni-Arabs. So, by the way, all I can say that Sunni-Arabs are definitely not happy. In fact, they’re very upset at what has happened, that he has become president.
That’s not the only point. The other thing is that you have to remember Turkey is next door. And Turkey is, by the way, of course, we have to remind ourselves the member of NATO, is very close to America, and they have their Kurdish population, which is 20% of the national population. They are next door to the Iraqi Kurdistan. They are very unhappy at this rising influence in power of Iraqi Kurds who now want to make the regional capital of Kirkuk, which is oil-rich city, which will give them a very powerful economic base and prepare them for declaring independence of Kurdistan. So, it is something which is going to have severe repercussions as time goes by.
AMY GOODMAN: Will the northern Iraqi Kurds fight as hard for independence if Jalal Talabani is the Kurdish president of Iraq?
DILIP HIRO: Well, I think it’s not that they will go for it now. See, basically, of course, we are told it’s a ceremonial job. Yes, in fact, it is. But, you see, also, of course, he has two deputy vice presidents, one of them is Sunni and the other is Shiite, and they must always take joint — what you call unanimous decisions. So, unanimously they have to decide who to choose as a potential prime minister, who is actually the executive prime minister. So no decision can be taken unless all three of them agree. That’s one. Secondly, as you rightly pointed out in your introduction, one of the main tasks of this government will to be have a permanent constitution, and from the way things have gone so far, the Kurds are going to press very hard to get maximum autonomy, and that is not going to go on very well with the rest of the Iraqi population, especially the Shiites. The Shiites are mostly, you know, what you call, very religious. According to them, in Islam, there is no ethnic difference. At the same time, the Kurds will insist on having more power. Next thing to remember is that since 1991, because of the Anglo-American air umbrella of Kurdistan, Kurdistan has been functioning basically as a semi-independent country. They have their own educational system. They have their own police. They have their own militia, which is now turned into an army, which is not a part of the central command in Baghdad. They have refused to allow other units of the Iraqi army to enter Kurdistan, and so all of this actually is a preparation for at some point to declare independent Kurdistan. That is the fear of Turkey.
AMY GOODMAN: Dilip Hiro, what about Jalal Talabani’s relationship with the C.I.A.?
DILIP HIRO: Well, of course, I have to say not only he has a relationship with the C.I.A., but also he has a relationship with the intelligence agency of Iran. You know, this is one of the amazing things, if you really go into this whole intelligence world, you will be dumbstruck to find these overlappings and so on and so forth.
AMY GOODMAN: Sounds a little like Ahmed Chalabi.
DILIP HIRO: Absolutely. Except that Chalabi was never actually living — never lived in Iraq, and when his parents left when he was only 12 or 13, and unlike them, of course, Talabani, as well as Barzani, they have been living in not what you may call proper Iraq, but in Iraqi Kurdistan, so in that sense they have more ground support, a proper constituency. At the same time given this kind of location they have, as I said, you have to look at the map to see the southeastern Kurdistan is next to Iran. There’s no way you can operate in this part of the world without having some good relationship with Iran. And the other thing to remember, of course, all these guys now, of course, claim secularism, and they’re so much against Iranian mullahs, but remember in the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war, the Kurdistan — the Kurdish militia run both by Talabani and Barzani fought alongside the Iranians and against the Iraqi soldiers. So, in a way you could say that they committed, in quote, "treason" to be fighting their own national army, while — and working with the enemy. So I think they have such a long and checkered and opportunistic background to — therefore others point out he was a guerrilla leader, I mean, I find really hard to take in. Of course, the relationship with the intelligence agencies is all over the place. And of course, the one man who really comes out on top in that business who is right now technically the prime minister of Iraq is Iyad Allawi. He publicly said, I have saved money from twelve intelligence agencies. I think he should go down in the Guinness Book of Records.
AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Dilip Hiro. His latest book is Secrets and Lies: Operation Iraqi Freedom and After. We’ll break. We’ll come back to Dilip Hiro and other guests to talk about the new Iraqi government.