Q&A: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani

The Kurdish leader speaks out on the country’s divisions, talks with Iran and the future of Syria.

Erbil, Iraq – Nine years ago this week, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was toppled. Iraq is still struggling with how to keep the country’s divided political factions and its regions together. A halt in the delivery of oil from the Kurdish region to Iraqi government-controlled facilities has raised the prospect of moves towards greater independence.

Al Jazeera’s Jane Arraf spoke with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani Talabani – who, as a Kurdish leader, carried out a decades-long military struggle against Saddam – about why he believes independence won’t happen

Jane Arraf: It’s been nine years this week since Saddam Hussein was toppled. He was someone you fought for years to get rid of – has this new Iraq turned out the way you thought it would?

President Talabani: Yes, I think the collapse of the leadership was the beginning of the new Iraq – instead of the dictatorship we had, we have a democratic system. We have freedom for all parties, all groups and without any kind of obstacles in the way. Newspapers are free – they are attacking the president, [the] prime minister, [the] government. From different sides they are attacking and explaining their opinions. So, this kind of freedom – Iraqi people are thirsty to have it, and it is one of the main signals of the new Iraq.

Also we have free elections. Three times we have had elections. Listen – in the last election, the prime minister went to court to complain. This is a signal that the election was very free. You know we developed the standard of life … Any place in Iraq where we have security there is a kind of development, construction, of rebuilding. Of course we have some sort of shortages – we need to have a real national unity among different groups in Iraq, but it is a good step forward.

JA: Kurdistan is more powerful and more prosperous now it seems than at any time in its history – what is the next step?

Talabani: The next step is to strengthen democracy in Iraq and build infrastructure [within] our society and [to] develop the society as much as possible. It’s true that we [in Kurdistan] have the right of self-determination, but we use these rights to serve the Iraqi democratic system. The Iraqi constitution, which is insisting on the unity of Iraq, of a united democratic system, got 59 votes in Iraqi Kurdistan – while this constitution didn’t get any kind of votes like this in any other part of Iraq.

It means the Kurdish people showed [their] determination to remain within the framework of a democratic federative Iraq.  So we are always for having democracy for Iraq, we are still struggling [and] concentrating as much as possible to extend democracy, strengthen democracy – which will be a kind of guarantee for Kurds and other Iraqi people.

JA: You’ve said in the past that, regarding independence – even though Kurds long for it – gaining independence for the region would be impossible. But so much has changed here, including within the region – close relations with Turkey, for instance…

Talabani: We must be very frank with you – not only is independence not possible, but also now it is in the interests of Kurdish people to remain within the framework of Iraq. You know this era, this century, is not the era of small countries – it is of big unions. Look to Europe, they are trying to reunite – look to other countries. So it is within the framework of a democratic federal Iraq that we are engaging in all activities, and we have all kinds of freedom and we have all possibilities … but we must be realistic. A politician who wants to serve his people must lead people in the way that is serving their interests.

Imagine the Kurdish parliament decided to be independent. Turkey, Syria, Iraq or Iran didn’t send arms, but only closed the borders. How could you come here? So we must be realistic – we are now enjoying our rights. Within the framework of Iraq we are enjoying all our rights – freedom, reconstruction of the country – you have seen Kurdistan; within these years how it has developed – a country which was oppressed for years and years, now you see – we survived.

Talabani: We have differences, but also have common goals, common aims, common policies for many things. I don’t say we don’t have differences – but these are some kind of differences among friends, among people. For example, we consider the Dawa party a friendly alliance for us – even though we have differences with them. Here in the Kurdish opposition we have differences. Differences are the signal of a democracy – it is a good sign, not bad. We must have different views to reach good results. I think all issues and all problems between the Kurdistan region and Baghdad can be solved easily. And I am here to do this.

JA: That’s very good to hear, but you’ve been trying to convene a political conference for some time and during the Arab League summit the rival leaders set aside their differences…

Talabani: Unfortunately, at the last moment, I don’t want to mention them, but they put some obstacles in the way. They have some preconditions – but we must go to this meeting to solve problems. Some of them are asking that we must solve problems and then go to the conference. But we are going to the conference to solve problems. So I think this can be also this obstacle. This is a way, in the near future – and in the end, there is no way but to reach agreement through dialogue.

JA: The dialogue will be difficult, because some of the leaders won’t even sit in the same room. How will you fix this?

Talabani: Some people are talking about the isolation of the Sunni. Which is not true. I am Sunni. Look at the Iraqi government – the president is Sunni, the speaker is Sunni, the deputy prime minister is Sunni. If you go to look to the map you see many Sunnis … I think there is the possibility to solve problems, but of course there is a majority and minority to solve everything in this country.

JA: One of the problems has been that one of your deputies, Tariq al-Hashemi, who was given refuge here in the Kurdish region and allowed to leave in spite of an arrest warrant. Will you allow him to come back to Kurdistan?

Talabani: I would like to explain to you – Mr Hashemi is the first vice-president – I appointed him first. He came to a meeting with another vice-president, Dr Kuzai. When he came here, the court asked him to go to court. He didn’t prefer to go to court – he said: “I am afraid in Baghdad to go to court.” We asked them to change [the venue] and they refused. I don’t know if he will come back here, or stay outside.

This issue – my opinion was [to] solve it through dialogue with the leaders of Iraq. Because if he goes to court, he will be sentenced – we don’t want him to be sentenced. We also need a kind of consensus about his problem. Maybe some of his bodyguards committed some crimes, but Tariq Hashemi is still vice-president. He was not sentenced, and any man until he is sentenced is considered to be innocent. He’s not convicted.

JA: When you look around Kurdistan – particularly with the new generation – they don’t learn Arabic, they don’t seem to feel much connection with the rest of Iraq. What is there still that ties the Kurdish region to Iraq?

Talabani: Look, the new generation didn’t see the rule of dictatorship, didn’t suffer from dictatorship, didn’t see revolution, didn’t taste the difficulties – the tragedy of the Kurdish people. They came to a liberated country, they came to have freedom, prosperity – and now this gives them the impression that they got it only here. But in the past, before Saddam Hussein, there was some connection between Baghdad and Erbil. For example, students going to study there – but now they have universities in Suleimaniya, Erbil and Dohuk, they are not going to Baghdad – but Arabs are coming here.

This relationship is still alive, but you know the new generation needs some kind of experience to understand the relation between Kurds and Arabs – believe me, when they look to the historical relation between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq, it was always good between people – not governments. When the government was fighting Kurds, and Kurds went to Baghdad they were received as brothers. So we need to explain to the new generation the importance of the brotherhood between Kurds and Arabs.

JA: There are some who say Prime Minister Maliki is on the road to becoming a dictator if he continues to consolidate power. Do you believe that?

Talabani: No, I think there are some mistakes. There are some shortages – it is not only him responsible. I am also responsible. I am responsible for looking after everything to guard the constitution. I must also speak, so we are all responsible for the shortages in the government. There are, of course, some mistakes here from the government – but we are all responsible, including myself.

“There are, of course, some mistakes here from the government – but we are all responsible, including myself.

– Jalal Talabani, President of Iraq

JA: One of the hopes for Iraq had been that, after Saddam was removed, the country would be a model for human rights. We haven’t actually seen that – there are all sorts of human rights abuses still, both in Iraq and the Kurdish region itself. How would you rate Iraq’s human rights record?

Talabani: Of course there are violations here and there, but if you look in general you’ll see that all Iraq enjoys their democratic rights. The right of freedom, the right of expression, the right of meetings, of demonstrations of the opposition. We need to learn more and more about democracy, human rights and other things. But I think compared to our neighbours, we can be a good example for human rights.

JA: You had wanted US troops to stay. You were one of the biggest advocates for a continued military presence here. What effect has it had now that they’re gone?

Talabani: I was for having American trainers here in Iraq, because we have new arms from America. We haven’t officers who were trained on them, while we have thousands of officers trained on Russian arms, Soviet arms. So we are in need – when we buy tanks, we need to train our soldiers to use them. Second, the Americans proved – as many people predicted – that they didn’t come here to take our oil. They came and went back without taking one barrel of oil, so the presence of an American force here for training, for helping us – I didn’t call for having a huge force here – a symbolic base or two or three bases. And you know there is one important thing – look to the world, how many countries have American bases in their country without losing their independence – Germany and Japan, for example. Since the beginning of the liberation of Iraq we did what we want.

JA: For you, who spent so much time fighting Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein, what was that like? What do you want your legacy to be?

Talabani: I think we achieved our goal, which was democracy for Iraq. All I was thinking was to be in parliament, but then they elected me to be president. I am proud to be elected by a big majority. Democracy was always our slogan in the Kurdish liberation movement. Democracy is achieved, and we are proud to be one of the main forces for democracy. In the constitution, we played a very important role to keep the democratic rights for people and for women. We achieved our main goal.

I [would be] glad if they say I struggled for democracy for Iraq, and for Kurdish rights. I always – since I started my political activities – I was believing in the brotherhood of Kurds and Arabs against imperialism, against monarchy, against dictatorship – so I am proud to continue this.

JA: If we could talk about Syria? Iraq has taken a very fine line on Syria, being very careful to say there should be no intervention. The Kurdish government, however, has said there should be an end to the regime there. What do you think should happen in Syria, if the violence doesn’t stop?

Talabani:We think there must be reform in Syria. We are for having democratic rights for Syrian people. We are for solving problems within the framework of Syrian sovereignty, among oppositions and government. We are against military interference in Syrian affairs – we are afraid of the alternative.

JA: What would be the alternative?

Talabani: If the alternative would be a democratic system, it would be welcome, but we don’t know what it will be. And, you know, some people – even in the Arab world – are threatening us, saying that, after a change in the regime in Syria, they will come for Iraq. We are afraid of this kind of call, this kind of propaganda.

JA: Does that mean that its better for Syria to stay the way it is, despite the violence there?

Talabani: No. I think it is the problem of Syrian people. Syrian people must decide. We are for Syrian people having the right to self determination – not the right for other people to decide “this president must go, this president must come”. It is not the democratic way for change in Syria. We support democratic change in Syria, according to the desire of the Syrian people.

JA: The next talks on Iran’s nuclear program are due to be held in Iraq, and you have quite close contact with the Iranians. Do you get the impression they are going to compromise on that issue?

Talabani: I think so. I had good relations with Iranians. I know them very well. I have met all the leaders many times, and from different times I think Iran, as a Muslim country, is against the bomb. His excellency, the Ayatollah Khomenei many times explained that the [nuclear] bomb is against Islam, because it is killing innocent people. So they don’t want to have the bomb, but they want to have the technology. And this time they told me they are serious. They asked us to propose to the 5+1 to hold the meeting in Baghdad – and they told us this time they are coming with new proposals, they are coming to solve the problem.

And I called the American ambassador and told him: “This time they are serious. I think they want to reach a solution.” But with threats saying: “We will attack you, we will bombard you” – this is uniting all Iranians.

JA: What do you think those new proposals from Iran might be?

Talabani: I think there must be a proposal by the 5+1 – first to prevent building the bomb, and second to ensure the right of Iran to peaceful technology.

JA: You recently hosted the Arab League summit here – the first in Baghdad in more than 20 years, and apparently you were the first non-Arab to host the summit. What did that feel like?

Talabani: I think it was a very good step forward for Iraq and the Arab countries. Having Iraq in the Arab nation is in the interest of the Arab countries – Iraq is an important country, a big country. Iraq is a rich country. Iraq will strengthen the capability of the Arab nation to facing all problems in this region.

JA: Do you think there will ever be an independent Kurdistan?

Talabani: I don’t think there is anything impossible in the world, but in the near future, I don’t see any possibility for this.

JA: What happens then, for all those young people in particular, who want an independent Kurdistan – who don’t see a future in Iraq?

Talabani: I think young people – particularly if they understand the importance of Iraq within the wider framework, and if they try to be realistic and understand that now it is impossible to declare independence – they will support the democratic federation within Iraq.

JA: President Talabani, thank you so much.

Follow Jane Arraf on Twitter: @janearraf