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Kurd who will seal Saddam's fate

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Favourite for presidency insists on a federal, secular state

From Anthony Loyd in Sulaimaniyah

A veteran peshmerga fighter holds a photograph of a young Jalal Talabani when he was leading Kurdish guerilla resistance (RICHARD MILLS)

JALAL TALABANI, the former Kurdish guerrilla commander, prisoner and outlaw who seems likely to become Iraq’s President, has more reason than most to want Saddam Hussein dead.

The enmity between the two men is such that on one occasion, during the brutal struggle between Saddam’s forces and the Kurds in northern Iraq, Saddam offered an amnesty to every Kurdish fighter except Mr Talabani.

As President, Mr Talabani would have a chance to turn the tables on the fallen dictator. If Saddam is convicted of war crimes, including the slaughter of more than 182,000 Kurds, Mr Talabani would sign his execution warrant.

But he has a problem. “I’ve thought about it and this is one of my big problems,” he told The Times in an interview at his base in Qala Chwallan, northern Iraq. “Why? Because as a lawyer I signed an international appeal against executions and now this gentleman will be sentenced to death, and Iraqi people want to sentence him, to kill him. What can I do?”

Asked if he can resolve the dilemma, he laughed. “I hope so.”

With the Kurds securing a strong second place in elections last month, and the victorious Shia having chosen Ibrahim al-Jaafari for the Prime Minister’s job on Tuesday, Mr Talabani, 71, is the favourite for the presidency.

Yet there would be many ironies in him becoming titular head of a country whose rule he has spent most of his life fighting to escape.

“In my life I didn’t think at all to be minister, or prime minister or president,” he said. “I was thinking that the Kurdish struggle is a prolonged one and it will continue for many, many decades.”

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurds have enjoyed considerable autonomy and relative prosperity in the former no-fly zone of northern Iraq. As leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main Kurdish parties, Mr Talabani refuses to acknowledge that most of Iraq’s five million Kurds now yearn for outright independence and appears to favour more realistic goals that would not lead to the break-up of Iraq.

“Ask Kurds: ‘Do you want independence?’ Of course everyone will say ‘yes’,” he said. “But is it possible to have independence now? There are two things: wishful thinking and reality. Most Kurds voted for a legislature to be part of a united democratic federative Iraq . . . a federation within the framework of Iraq.

“The Kurdish struggle will continue until it achieves self-determination. Right now, though, in Iraq the Kurdish struggle will continue for . . . the prosperity of our people, for economic development.”

Mr Talabani, nonetheless, has drawn up some tough conditions for accepting the presidency. They include federal status for the Kurdish lands, and the departure of Arabs sent by Saddam to populate the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in place of Kurds.

“We are not ready to accept posts without reaching agreement with our partners in the parliament on the main issues like federation, like democracy for Iraq, like the relation between religion and state,” he said.

“Kirkuk must be normalised and returned to the stature before Saddam Hussein’s ‘ethnic-cleansing’ policy.”

With the Kurds commanding 75 seats in the 275-member National Assembly and the Shia well short of the two-thirds majority required to enact legislation, Mr Talabani can afford to take a strong line.

He is withholding judgment on the nomination for the prime ministership of Mr Jaafari, who has strong Islamic credentials, and said that Kurds will not co-operate with a Shia-led government unless it supports democracy and federalisation.

He is emphatic that the Kurds will insist on secular government. “We will never accept any religious government in Iraq. Never,” he declared, thumping the table. “This is a red line for us. We will never live inside an Islamic Iraq. We respect Islam. Islam is our religion . . . The Islamic identity of Iraqi people must be respected, but not an Islamic government.”

Mr Talabani’s temper is notorious. “He shouts and swears at everyone if there has been a mistake,” one of his peshmerga bodyguards said. “One time I was driving him too fast and left the escort vehicle behind. I still haven’t forgotten the shouting now. When he’s in a vile mood, everyone wants to run from his sight.”

However, Mr Talabani is also renowned for the inspiration and courage he gave the beleaguered peshmerga guerrillas during their battles against Saddam. A connoisseur of good food and a cigar-smoker who has only recently given up alcohol, he is also well known for his humour and sensitivity.

“When you are punished, he will soon also reward you,” the bodyguard said. “And many times when I have seen him speak of friends who were killed in the struggle he has come close to tears and sometimes even cried.”

Mr Talabani’s fight for dominance in Iraqi Kurdistan has not always been pretty. During the internecine warfare between Kurds in the 1990s, he called on Iranian military support to oust rival Kurdish guerrillas, and critics note that his ostensible liberalism is underpinned by ruthless realpolitik.

“He is somewhere between an authoritarian and liberal,” Asos Hardi, chief editor of Hawlati, the leading independent newspaper in Iraqi Kurdistan, said. “You can see signs in him of both totalitarianism and tolerance. There is no doubt, though, that he is a smart politician, and a man of will.”

Britain bears some responsibility for the Kurdish problem. It ignored the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which promised Kurds their independence, and surplanted it with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne with Turkey, leading to the division and subjugation of the Kurdish people. Restive Kurds in Iraq subsequently were bombed and gassed into acquiescence by the RAF and British Army.

Mr Talabani now looks to the British to make amends by safeguarding the rights of Iraq’s Kurdish minority. “When I met Tony Blair once, I told him that as a student I had taken part in many demonstrations saying ‘British go home’,” he said. “But when they came back we welcomed them. We hope, though, that they will compensate us for what they have done in the past to Kurdish people.

“British Forces and British planes once crushed our revolution. For that, now the British have a moral responsibility towards us.”


1933 Jalal Talabani born in Kelkan, Kurdish area of Iraq

1946 Forms clandestine Kurdish student group

1947 Joins Kurdistan Democratic Party

1950 Jailed for political activities

1956 Finishes law studies in Baghdad; briefly in army; back to clandestine politics

1960-64 War between Government and Kurdish peshmerga. Talabani rises through ranks; commands resistance units in Iraq for most of next 30 years

1975 Kurdish resistance collapses and splits. Talabani founds Patriotic Union of Kurdistan

1980s Central Government and peshmerga at war

1988 Iraqi forces gas Kurdish town of Halabja; at least 5,000 killed

1988-89 Iraqi campaign against Kurds leaves 182,000 Kurds dead

1991 Kurdish revolt crushed. Haven set up for Kurds in Iraq’s North

1993-96 Fighting between PUK and rival KDP, ended by Ankara agreement

1998 PUK and KDP agree to share power within regional government

Created by keza
Last modified 2005-03-06 11:04 PM

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