Globalist: Kurd wants Iraq unity, but not at any price

Posted in Iraq | 21-Jan-06 | Author: Roger Cohen| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iraq's outgoing president Jalal Talabani gives a news conference in Baghdad.

BAGHDAD At the approximate pinnacle of Iraqi politics sits Jalal Talabani, a rotund fellow with a ready smile. A Kurd, he has weathered his share of a stateless people's hardships, including chemical-weapons attacks from Saddam Hussein. But the president of Iraq seems to have reached a late-life tranquillity.

Until, that is, something riles him. "We will never accept this dirty game," he says in an interview, twinkling eyes hardening from bonhomie to steel. "Never, never, never." His voice rises: "One leg with the government, one leg with the terrorists, if they do this they will lose everything."

The catalyst to this outburst is a question often posed in Baghdad these days: might Sunni Arab political parties, now entering Iraq's political theater for the first time since the American invasion, join a new government while also lending quiet support to the Sunni-led insurgency? Could their politics just be war by additional means?

As Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army once demonstrated in Northern Ireland, such arrangements are not easy to disentangle.

Sunni politicians, under fire from insurgents for participating in Iraq's Dec. 15 elections, have become masters of ambiguity. "Working with the resistance is a red line for my party," insists Tarik al-Hashimi, the Sunni leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party. "But we respect their option. There is a national resistance with legitimate reasons."

Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, knows resistance. He fought a decades-long Kurdish struggle using arms and diplomacy, sometimes simultaneously, before America's quixotic attempt to shape a democratic Middle East landed him here, in the former house of Saddam's imprisoned half-brother, of all places.

But the difference he sees is that his fight was against Saddam's dictatorship, whereas the government that will emerge from the elections after weeks of horse-trading will be an expression of democracy, however rudimentary, at work.

"Using arms against an elected government, this is terrorism," Talabani says. "It is in the Sunni Arabs' interest to tell the so-called resistance to lay down their arms and come into the political process."

With the announcement Friday of election results showing Shiite and Kurdish parties within three seats of the two-thirds majority they need to form a government, this process has reached a critical juncture.

Iraq has a Constitution, albeit contested, and the new government will hold office for four years. At the same time the loss of so much blood and treasure has strained American patience: pressure is building to cut the troops and funding that keep Iraq from a worse fate.

If the politics of division prevail as party leaders discuss what governing coalition to form, this pressure to get out of Iraq will grow in Congress. Washington wants conclusiveness, and that means bringing in Sunni parties. Talabani and other Iraqi politicians know this. But, as a Western official here put it, "the tinder is dry in Iraq's political landscape."

Arabs and Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis, are striving to balance their ambitions in an occupied country racked by violence, rich in sectarianism and replete with people disoriented by decades of dictatorship.

"We need a national unity government that must not be in the control of one group or list or nationality," Talabani says. "We must have a consensus to work together, give everyone a share. It's the new game and we did not learn that yet."

But what is he prepared to offer the Sunni Arabs to lure them into the government, coax them from the trauma of losing a power they regarded as a birthright, and convince them that as a minority they can play the political game but not dominate it? Might he even surrender the presidency to them?

Talabani, who is 72, smiles. His is the all-knowing smile of the Middle Eastern fighter-turned-politician who has played every angle, known every deceit, seen every horror and worked every ephemeral alliance of a rough neighborhood.

"If the Sunni Arabs present a person acceptable to all, one who upholds the constitution, I personally will resign and let him come and replace me," he declares. "But it must be a capable Sunni who believes in democracy and human rights."

Asked if such a person exists, Talabani replies, "I don't think so."

Then he reconsiders. Maybe a good Sunni candidate could be found. But they ruled Iraq for many years and "the result is a very rich country that is among the poorest." There are fewer Sunnis, he points out, than Shiites and Kurds, so "why should they have the right to the presidency?"

He continues: "The Sunni Arabs are not yet out of the dream, the dream of ruling Iraq. They need someone to convince them it's a new day, a new morning, a new dawn. Our Sunni brothers must become effective partners."

The Sunnis, however, tend to think it is Talabani who is deluded. They view themselves as the only true Iraqi patriots. The real interest of the Kurds, they argue, is an independent state. As for the Shia, they are no more than the means by which Shiite Iran achieves its long-held aim of dominating Iraq.

"We are not dreaming, Talabani is dreaming," says Hassan al-Bazzaz, an American-educated political scientist at Baghdad University. "He is president, but only under an occupation, and he should know that. The smart and educated people are us, the Sunnis. This is no more than a temporary setback."

Who is really dreaming in Iraq? The Kurds now enjoying unimagined prosperity? The Sunnis with their shaken sense of manifest destiny? The majority Shiites working religion and politics with remorseless subtlety? The suicide bombers pursuing a resurrected Islamic caliphate? Or the United States with its vision of Iraqi democracy?

It hardly seems to matter: One clear reality is that all this could produce a disastrous regional conflict. But another reality for now is a jovial Kurd calling for national unity, dismissing an independent Kurdish state as an unrealizable dream, engaging in coalition discussions, and sitting comfortably in a room where Saddam's murderous clan once plotted its ravages. The tangle of Iraqi politics is also the give and take of a free country.