Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat- Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who was recently re-elected, believes that despite the success of the initiative of Kurdistan Region President Masud Barzani in finalizing the subject of the three leadership posts in Iraq based on a power-sharing agreement reached by the leaders of the political blocs, the initiative of King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz, the custodian of the two holy shrines, inviting those leaders to a meeting in Riyadh remains important to achieve national reconciliation. In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat upon his arrival in Paris after he was re-elected president of the republic to attend the Socialist International conference, Talabani said that he was ready to go to Riyadh for this purpose as he described the initiative as "a good initiative in the interest of the Iraqi people". Talabani also spoke about recent developments and the next task of distributing the government posts to the political blocs. In the interview, he said that he wrote a letter of designation to Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki and that he will send the letter after Id al-Adha. He revealed that it was agreed that no party members will occupy the post of defense minister and the security ministries. Talabani also affirmed that the Kurdistan Alliance, of which he is a member, still clings to the foreign ministry portfolio and wants current Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to remain in his post "since he is a successful minister and established very good relations on the Arab, regional, and international levels. We have to reward successful and qualified persons rather than to unjustly sentence them to exclusion".
The text of the interview follows:
[Asharq Al Awsat] You are the Deputy Chairman of Socialist International. What was your contribution? Did Iraq participate in the discussions that took place during the conference?
[Talabani] Iraq's contribution was reflected in my speech on democratic development in Iraq and the problems that Iraq faces. I spoke in detail on the democratic track and the audience listened attentively to the speech. I think that one of the resolutions will be a recommendation to support Iraq and its democratic course. I asked the socialist parties participating in the conference to send delegations to Iraq to publish reports on Iraq and support the Iraqi people's struggle for reconstruction, prosperity, and the eradication of terrorism.
[Asharq Al Awsat] The crucial subject in Iraq these days is the formation of the government and its future configuration to end the more than eight-month crisis. My first question is: Has the misunderstanding between you and the Al-Iraqiya List - the majority of its deputies walked out from the parliament session that elected the Iraqi president - ended?
[Talabani] The misunderstanding is over; the brothers in Al-Iraqiya returned to the parliament, including the speaker. A delegation of senior Al-Iraqiya leaders visited me to offer their congratulations and affirmed to me that the misunderstanding is over and that they are serious in participating in a genuine national partnership government.
[Asharq Al Awsat] Is there a misunderstanding between you on the interpretation of the agreement that the major political entities signed according to which you were re-elected and will designate Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister whose term has ended, to form the new government?
[Talabani] The problem was that Deputy Muhammad Tamim, one of the brothers from the Al-Iraqiya List, proposed that the parliament should debate the annulment of the Debathification process (of three deputies from the Al-Iraqiya). He was told that this subject should be raised in parliament at another time, particularly since the three leaders (Kurdistan President Masud Barzani, Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki, and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi) have signed an agreement to solve all these problems. This needs time; it needs judicial action. Moreover, an amnesty should be issued by the president of the republic and the prime minister. In fact, the speaker (who is from Al-Iraqiya) agreed. After the deputies (53 deputies) who refused to accept this logic walked out, they said that there was a misunderstanding.
[Asharq Al Awsat] Is this subject over?
[Talabani] Yes; a parliament session convened last Saturday and its decisions were issued unanimously.
[Asharq Al Awsat] When will you officially designate Al-Maliki to form the government?
[Talabani] After the Id.
[Asharq Al Awsat] But the Id is over.
[Talabani] That's true; but we celebrate the Id for four days. I have written a letter of designation to Al-Maliki. It will be issued after the Id and the prime minister-designate will begin discussions on the formation of the government.
[Asharq Al Awsat] It took eight months until you agreed to distribute the responsibilities to the various parties. Do we have to wait for another eight months for the government to see the light?
[Talabani] (Laughing) We expect the government to see the light within one month, God willing. In fact, we did not wait for eight months but for five months. The first three months were spent on the court's ratification of the legislative elections and on other legal measures. But the reason why it took so long is because we are determined to form a national partnership government. We could have formed a majority government but we insisted on a national unity government and the Kurdistan Alliance insisted that the Al-Iraqiya List should be present in the government. That is the formation faltered. Now, however, there is a consensus among the parties on a national unity government. What remains is agreeing on the distribution of the ministerial portfolios.
[Asharq Al Awsat] Is there the beginning of an accord on this matter?
[Talabani] It is up to the prime minister and the various blocs that should propose the names of qualified men (and women) to fill these posts. The prime minister has requested the name of more than one candidate for each post in order to select the most qualified.
[Asharq Al Awsat] Issues related to distribution are being discussed in advance as part of an integrated basket. What is the true situation?
[Talabani] It is hard to place all this in one basket and in detail. The fact is that the prime minister has been authorized to discuss the demands of each bloc and each bloc that wishes to obtain important portfolios and positions. Thus, there is a need for time so that the blocs would compromise on the ministerial positions.
[Asharq Al Awsat] Does the agreement between Allawi and Al-Maliki still stand although Allawi himself said a few days ago that this agreement is "dead"?
[Talabani] The agreement was revived by the parliament.
[Asharq Al Awsat] But Allawi made this statement after the parliament's vote.
[Talabani] The parliament ratified the agreement unanimously, including the deputies of the Al-Iraqiya, naturally. Allawi was absent. The agreement became a binding parliamentary resolution and is no longer an agreement among the various sides. However, if brother Allawi has some observations, he is the one to be asked.
[Asharq Al Awsat] But Allawi is saying that it is dead.
[Talabani] Let me ask you as a journalist and an observer: Does the parliament's ratification of the agreement mean that it is dead? Allawi is responsible for what he says.
[Asharq Al Awsat] One of the difficulties facing the formation of the government is in the distribution of the sovereign and the important portfolios.
[Talabani] We have an agreement in principle to distribute the defense ministry and the security ministries among independents.
[Asharq Al Awsat] In other words totally from outside the parties and not even those who are close to the parties?
[Talabani] We cannot say not even those that are close to the parties. But no party member will fill the post of defense minister or interior minister. The remaining posts will be distributed among the groups forming the government.
[Asharq Al Awsat] The other problem is that of the fate of the foreign minister. Sides other than the Kurdish side aspire to fill this post. Do you insist on this portfolio and in the person of Hoshyar Zebari?
[Talabani] Zebari has demonstrated exceptional efficiency in performing his mission. He also has very good relations with the Arab countries to an extent that Colonel Gaddafi proposed him as secretary general of the Arab League. We believe that brother Hoshyar should be rewarded not penalized. Dismissing him from the ministry is a penalty and his stay is a reward since he demonstrated that he is a successful minister.
[Asharq Al Awsat] I understand from your words that you insist on him and on the ministry.
[Talabani] Yes, we believe that Zebari should remain in the foreign ministry since he is a successful minister and established very good relations on the Arab, regional, and international levels. We have to reward successful and qualified persons rather than to unjustly sentence them to exclusion.
[Asharq Al Awsat] In other words, his remaining in office is a red line for you?
[Talabani] As president of a republic, I do not like lines of any color and I do not wish to engage in such a discussion.
[Asharq Al Awsat] What I wanted to say is that it is a condition to which you cling.
[Talabani] Yes, we continue to cling to it to this moment.
[Asharq Al Awsat] I understood that the price for giving up the foreign ministry is the oil ministry. Is that true?
[Talabani] These are rumors. The subject of changing the foreign minister was not discussed with us; so, we have not asked for an alternative. At any rate, the subject should be discussed among the Kurdish blocs. I am the president of the Iraqi republic. I wear the Iraqi cloak and I act as president of the republic. The formation of the government is up to the prime minister and the blocs.
[Asharq Al Awsat] But you shoulder responsibilities and one of these is facilitating the formation of the government.
[Talabani] I have responsibilities related to achieving concordance and reunification of the family. I do not have the responsibility of drawing colored lines.
[Asharq Al Awsat] One way to emerge from the crisis was to satisfy Allawi by forming the national council for strategic policies. My question is: If real powers are given to this council they will inevitably clash with the powers of the government, and if this council is not given powers Allawi will turn it down. What is the solution?
[Talabani] Agreement was reached on the national council for strategic policies and on its structure, rights, and powers. The Iraqi parliament approved all this unanimously.
[Asharq Al Awsat] Your Excellency the president: Who decides foreign policy? Is it the council or the foreign minister or the prime minister?
[Talabani] The council will not be against the government; it will be part of the state institutions. Its decisions will be made unanimously or by absolute majority (two-thirds) and all the parties will be represented in it. The powers will not be given to the chairman of the council but to the whole council, just as the constitutional powers are given to the council of ministers rather than the prime minister. The council's decisions will be binding.
[Asharq Al Awsat] They will be binding on the government as well?
[Talabani] Yes, on the government and the Iraqi state as a whole. This council does not violate the constitution and does not negate the rights of the ministers or the council of ministers as stipulated in the constitution.
[Asharq Al Awsat] Ultimately, the position of this council may be more important than that of the government.
[Talabani] No; one of the important conditions agreed upon is that the council's powers do not contradict the constitution. The Iraqi constitution drew up the powers of all the sides and the law that will be issued (establishing the council) will not violate the constitution.
[Asharq Al Awsat] King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz, the custodian of the two holy shrines, called on all components of the Iraqi political spectrum to a meeting after the Id al-Adha. Will this meeting be held and when? Have the present circumstances changed from what they were when the invitation was made?
[Talabani] I welcomed the invitation when Prince Saud al-Faisal called me to inform me about the invitation of the custodian of the two holy shrines. I expressed my readiness to participate in the meeting. Later, the Saudi side informed us that it does not want the invitation to contradict the initiative of brother Masud Barzani but that they welcome this initiative. The fact is that this initiative succeeded and brought about national accord in Iraq. If the brother Saudis call for a meeting I am the first to welcome it and to attend. But it is up to the brothers in Saudi Arabia to decide whether they wish to proceed with the initiative or whether they are content with the recent positive developments that took place.
[Asharq Al Awsat] But, in your opinion, is there an Iraqi need in this regard?
[Talabani] The two issues of electing a president and appointing a prime minister have been accomplished, and agreement has been reached on forming a national partnership government and establishing the higher council for policies. Understanding has been reached on solving all the problems; thus, the only problem that remains is agreeing on the names of the ministers. But there is an important point related to national reconciliation. If this process falters and if the Saudi brothers invite us to a meeting to solve this problem, I personally endorse it and support it. As for the other sides, they have to decide. I consider it a good initiative in the interest of the Iraqi people.
[Asharq Al Awsat] As president of the republic, you have responsibilities toward all the components of the Iraqi people. One of these components, I mean Iraq's Christians, is being subjected to an organized terrorist campaign. What else do you want to do regarding this apart from issuing condemnation statements?
[Talabani] First of all, I wish to say that I strongly condemned the criminal assaults on the brother Christians who are pure Iraqis that have lived in this country since the advent of Christ. Under no circumstances should they be marginalized or evicted from the country. The solution lies in providing them protection through government forces or through forces of their own to help them form armed units to protect their homes and places of worship.
[Asharq Al Awsat] Do I understand that this is a call to form militias?
[Talabani] No, not at all; in Kirkuk, units were formed to protect the churches and places of worship. Secondly, the government should provide special protection to the churches. Thirdly, the Christians can go to Kurdistan.
[Asharq Al Awsat] This would mean forced internal relocation.
[Talabani] No, not at all; it means moving to Kurdistan as they wait for the return of security and stability so they can return to their homes instead of going abroad. I wish to say that many Christians are originally from Kurdistan. They would be like returning to their original homes. They will be in their homeland and the government of Kurdistan and the central government will care about them and they would not be in need. Their departure abroad empties Iraq of its citizens, particularly since the brother Christians played a prominent role in Iraq's cultural and civilized renaissance. Their departure would be a blow to culture and civilization in Iraq. Therefore, we should protect their presence among us with all our financial, military, political, and media resources.
[Asharq Al Awsat] Did the Pope contact you in this regard?
[Talabani] No, he did not; however, he issued a statement and we welcome the statement and want to exert our utmost to achieve what His Holiness requested.
[Asharq Al Awsat] How do you describe your relations with the neighboring countries?
[Talabani] Let us with Turkey with which we have strategic relations based on signed agreements between us. The two sides are determined to uphold this relationship and it is a good one. With Syria, we have agreed with President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in Sirte (Libya) to have a long-term strategic relationship on the political, economic, commercial, oil, and other fields. President Al-Assad approved our proposals. We do not have any problems with Syria any more. We have folded the old page and opened a new page.
[Asharq Al Awsat] In other words, the old reports on security leaks and infiltrations across the borders have ended?
[Talabani] These are details; the basis is that we have established strategic relations and the two sides are headed in that direction.
[Asharq Al Awsat] And with Kuwait?
[Talabani] Our relationship is good with Kuwait and Jordan. With Kuwait, we agreed to recognize the international borders of Kuwait. That was the primary problem between us. The brothers in Kuwait also expressed readiness to cooperate with Iraq and to establish strong and good relations.
[Asharq Al Awsat] But with Kuwait the problem that remains is Kuwait's request to keep Iraq under Chapter VII.
[Talabani] I discussed the subject with the Kuwaiti prime minister when I was visiting New York. He said: If Iraq sends a letter to the Security Council affirming your recognition of the Kuwaiti-Iraqi borders, we too approve removing Iraq from under Chapter VII. I answered Dr Muhammad al-Sabah: You write the letter and I am ready to sign it right now. We are ready to give such guarantees. What remains is setting the time only. We have appointed an ambassador to Kuwait and they have an ambassador in Baghdad. We expect to have excellent relations with Kuwait. Finally, regarding our relations with Saudi Arabia, we consider Saudi Arabia an important Arab country and we are determined to have very good relations with it. During my recent visit to Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz graciously awarded me a medal and promised me that after the government is formed, Saudi Arabia will exert its best efforts to help Iraq solve its problems with the neighboring countries and will urge the Arab countries to cooperate with Iraq. After the government is formed, we hope to visit Saudi Arabia and ask them to help Iraq.
[Asharq Al Awsat] What remains is the relationship with Iran.
[Talabani] Our relations with Iran are normal but they are not a follower-leader relationship. This is a point that I wish everyone would understand. We are proud of our independence and the Shias in Iraq are proud of their independence. They believe that Al-Najaf is independent and that the Shias of Iraq are the original Shias of the world and that they are purebred Arabs. They believe that the differences with the Shias of Iran are due to the concept of Welayet-e faqih, which is an official principle in Iran. However, the wise religious authority in holy Al-Najaf rejects the Welayet-e faqih principle. Moreover, we consider Al-Najaf to be the Vatican of the Shias of the world and that the holy places are in Iraq: Karbala, Samarra', Al-Kadhimiyah, the sacred tombs of Imam Ali, Al-Hussein, Kadhim, Abbas, and the two Al-Askaris are all in Iraq. Therefore, we consider Iraq to be the original homeland of the Shias. What remains is the political aspect. Do we want the relationship with Iran to be like it was under Saddam Hussein? No; we reject the policy of hostility with Iran. We want a policy of good neighborliness, but so far we do not have any agreements. For instance, we have signed a strategic alliance with Turkey but we do not have such an agreement with Iran. Nevertheless, there is a clamor about Iranian influence (in Iraq). Moreover, the Iranian Kurdish opposition is present in Iraq. If you come to Al-Sulaymaniyah you can visit their headquarters: The Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, Komeleh [The Kurdistan Organization of the Communist Party of Iran], the Iranian Communist Party, and others. The Iranians are not happy with this situation. We want good relations of neighborliness and equality with Iran; we do not want relations of submissive ness. We believe that our relations are between two equals. We have problems with Iran but we want to solve them through negotiations and dialogue.
[Asharq Al Awsat] A number of Iraqi politicians have a different opinion about the relationship with Iran. For instance, describing this relationship two days ago, Saleh al-Mutlaq said that Tehran "sets the rules of the political game" in Baghdad. Are these fantasies?
[Talabani] Yes, these are fantasies and an erroneous description of the nature of the relationship with Tehran. The Al-Iraqiya and its opponents are exchanging accusations but I do not believe that these accusations are correct. We have to be objective. We have to look at the facts and describe them as they are. For instance, Iran opposed the agreements that we signed with the United States (pertaining to the withdrawal of the US forces) and urged the Iraqis to reject them. However, these agreements were ratified in the Iraqi parliament. The prime minister appeared on television calling for their ratification and they were ratified unanimously. Therefore, accusing Iraq of submissiveness to Iran is an unjust charge. Furthermore, Iran believes and its propaganda insists on calling the United States the Great Satan. But we consider the United States as a friend and an ally. We want best relations with it and we have signed agreements with it. Therefore, we are on a totally different course with Iran regarding the United States. The question is: Are we in a relationship of submissiveness with Iran? No, we reject submissiveness to any state.
[Asharq Al Awsat] We have recently noticed that terrorist operations have returned in strength to Iraq. How do you explain this phenomenon? How do you view the stage following the departure of the US forces from Iraq? Are you ready to shoulder the full responsibility?
[Talabani] Regarding the terrorists, we have to distinguish between two things: Two years ago, the terrorists were in control of large areas in Iraq and even the cities. At present, all the Iraqi lands are under the control of Iraqi forces. The Americans have left the cities. Of course, the terrorists have secret cells that are perpetrating terrorist activities that do not show a strong presence in the field. They do not bases or regions under their control. If we look at the map of Iraq we see that there is no terrorism in Kurdistan or southern Iraq. The terrorists are concentrating on Baghdad and Mosul and we hope to eradicate such activities. I believe that the departure of the Americans will make our mission easier in two aspects: First, the Iraqis will feel that they need to defend themselves by themselves and the sympathy with the opposition and the terrorists - that claim that they are fighting the Americans who would have left Iraq - will drop. Second, I wish to stress that the efficiency of the Iraqi forces in armament, training, and qualifications is rising.
[Asharq Al Awsat] What will be the nature of the relationship with the United States after the departure of its troops?
[Talabani] We lean toward having strategic relations with the United States on the political, economic, security, military, commercial, and cultural levels. This is on top of the cooperation with the United States - that includes training and arming - against terrorism. We consider the United States is a big friendly power to Iraq. We believe that the establishment of the best relations with it is in the interest of the Iraqi and American peoples.
[Asharq Al Awsat] As you wait for the establishment of the armed land, sea, and air forces of Iraq, do you want the security agreements to provide for US defense of Iraq's sovereignty?
[Talabani] Yes, we seek to obtain this American as well as international commitment. We want peace inside and outside. If we are subjected to an external aggression we will resort to the Arab League, the Security Council, and the United Nations. We want to have US commitments to defend Iraq if subjected to an attack.