President Talabani speaks with RFE/RL's Kathleen Ridolfo (left) and Charles Recknagel (top left)
Prague, 5 October 2005 (RFERL) -- Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is on his first state visit to Europe since taking office in April. His first stop was the Czech Republic, where he arrived on 3 October to meet with officials and discuss economic and military cooperation. Today, President Talabani visited RFE/RL's broadcast headquarters in Prague. RFE/RL regional analyst Kathleen Ridolfo and correspondent Charles Recknagel asked Talabani about a range of issues -- from preparations for Iraq's 15 October referendum to the situation of minorities in the country.
RFE/RL: Mr. President, you and other Kurdish leaders have criticized Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's government for not abiding by the terms of the alliance set between the Kurds and the Shi'a following the election in January. Can you tell us, given the political climate, whether the Kurds will remain aligned with the Shi'a following the next election?
President Talabani: Surely the Kurds will remain aligned in a strong alliance with the Shi'ites. We had historical friendship and cooperation against the dictatorship [of Saddam Hussein]. Such differences that have appeared among the cabinet [members] will not affect the strategic alliance between the Kurds and Shi'ites.
RFE/RL: In the newspaper today, you will find the UN, the U.S., and the Iraq [Independent Electoral Commission] criticizing the National Assembly's [decision] to change to some extent the definition of a voter.... The definition has been changed to two-thirds of registered voters must vote against the constitution [in order] to refuse the constitution, not two-thirds of actual voters. Can you comment, please?
Talabani: That is decided in the TAL [Transitional Administrative Law]. Because when we adopted this article [of the TAL], we said that two-thirds of the population must refuse, reject the constitution. Not two-thirds of those who are voting. You can say [that] it is in respect of the TAL.
RFE/RL: So you feel the National Assembly has taken the correct interpretation of the TAL?
Talabani: Yes, of course.
RFE/RL: Mahmud Uthman told RFI on 3 October that time is running short to distribute copies of the draft constitution to the public. [Kurdistan Regional Government representative to the UN] Dindar al-Zebari said last week that copies will reach Irbil by 5 October, Al-Sulaymaniyah by 8 October and Dahuk by 11 October. Do you feel that the government has taken sufficient steps to give the Iraqi people enough time to review the draft constitution?
Talabani: Well, it is not the government which decided [the referendum date], this is the resolution of the [UN] Security Council which decided that the referendum must be on the 15th of this month. If the Iraqi government, or the Iraqi parliament were free, perhaps they could do something else. But now we are obliged to respect the resolution passed by the Security Council. For that [reason], the time is short. But I think the people can read [the draft] within three to four days.
RFE/RL: So there is no intention on the part of the Iraqi government to ask for, perhaps, a one-week delay so that the Iraqi people have more of an opportunity to read it?
Talabani: I don't think so.
RFE/RL: Mr. President, the referendum is in 10 days. There are still reports that some influential Sunni leaders are trying to organize a "no" vote. Are you optimistic that the referendum will approve the draft constitution, and if the approval is given, that the Sunni community will finally come to back the constitution?
Talabani: First, I think that the majority of the Iraqi people will vote [in favor] of the draft constitution. Second, let me correct for you: This is Arab Sunnis -- not all Sunnis. We, the Kurds, are also Sunnis. We are a main part of the coalition working for a constitution. There are people among the Sunni Arabs who are against the constitution, but I think they will participate [by] voting "no." OK, it is a democracy, they can do it. Nevertheless, I think the constitution will get the majority of the ["yes"] votes of the Iraqi people.
RFE/RL: As a lawyer, do you believe that Saddam [Hussein] will get a fair trial in Iraq? And if he is found guilty and sentenced to death in the Al-Dujayl massacre, do you think the other trials will proceed and go forward, or will the [death] sentence be carried out directly?
Talabani: I think Saddam will have a very just and fair trial in Iraq. Now he is enjoying all kinds of freedom for a prison[er] -- he has television, radio with him, books, he can write, he can read, he can contact everyone. But Saddam Hussein is a war criminal. He committed crimes against the Iraqi people, against our neighbors, against Iranians, against Kuwaitis. For that I think he will deserve to be presented to the court as a war criminal; and when [he] is sentenced, the sentence must be respected.
RFE/RL: But if he is sentenced to death for Al-Dujayl, will the other trials go forward?
Talabani: Yes, of course. Saddam Hussein committed many, many, crimes -- in Al-Dujayl, in Halabjah, in Karbala, in Al-Najaf -- everywhere. Of course, a judge must arrange a trial for him for each grave crime he committed. But altogether [editor's note: unclear] sentenced 20 times to death because he committed many, many, crimes in different parts of Iraq.
RFE/RL: Some Turkoman groups in northern Iraq say that they face pressure from Kurdish authorities. For example, they say Kurdish authorities are encouraging Kurds to resettle Kirkuk to change the ethnic balance in the city. Are ethnic tensions increasing in northern Iraq?
Talabani: This is a false accusation. This is not true at all. What is going on is that those deportees are going back home, and it is according to the decisions of Iraqi opposition conferences [prior to the fall of Hussein's regime], according to Article 58 [of the TAL], that deportees from Kirkuk, Kurds and Turkomans, must go back home; and those who were brought [to Kirkuk] according to the ethnic-cleansing policy of Saddam Hussein must go back home.
What is going on is that such extremist Turkomans were exaggerating their numbers. They said that we are 3-4 million, while they are less than 1 million. And the election proved that they are not [numerous]. They could not get more than 90,000 votes from what they claimed is 4 million Turkomans.
Now when they saw that the [vast] majority of the Kirkuk area is voting for the Kurdistan list, they must go and [make] some kind of accusations. They must go and find some kind of pretext in their hands to tell their masters: "Why Kirkuk is not with us, [it is] because Kurds are sending people." We cannot send non-Kirkukis to Kirkuk. Believe me, [until now] the Kirkukis, the real people of Kirkuk, are not back to their own [homes in Kirkuk]. Because it is not so easy to bring a family who lived for tens of years [outside his city] and bring him back to [his place] of origin. It [requires] housing [and] money. But there is no pressure on the Turkomans. We [have] very good relations with the Turkomans. We are in an alliance with many Turkoman parties, and Turkomans are enjoying their full rights for the first time in the history of Iraq. At the time of Saddam Hussein, they were under pressure. Saddam denied the Turkoman nationality, and [Hussein] said, "There [are] no Turkomans in Iraq." Now they are enjoying all rights, including their own newspapers, using the Turkoman language, they even have a militia of their own.
RFE/RL: As our final question, we want to ask you about the psychological impact of Ba'athist rule on Iraq. Do you think the government is doing enough to address this issue? For example, if the government had enacted some kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as South Africa did, do you think that the insurgency would be as far along as it is now?
Talabani: I think the government is not doing very well. Second, the terrorist activities are not only [by] Iraqis. The [vast] majority of them are coming from outside -- Al-Qaeda, Ansar Al-Islam, al-Zarqawi's group, they came from outside the country. They came to invade Iraq. For that, those people who are extremists, who declared the war of annihilation against Shi'ites and Kurds in Iraq, [they] will continue their terrorist activities. But I think that the Iraqi terrorists who are now engaging in the war gradually, they will come back to the political process in Iraq.
RFE/RL: And the government?
Talabani: Of course, the government must help them to come back to the democratic process.