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Iraqi National Assembly Elects Kurdish Leader Jalal Talabani as New President

April 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: First tonight, the effort to build a unified government in Iraq. Spencer Michels starts with some background.

SPENCER MICHELS: Iraqi Kurds took to dancing in the streets to celebrate news that one of their own, Jalal Talabani, would be Iraq’s first democratically chosen president.

IRAQI MAN (Translated): We congratulate the whole of the Iraqi people, and this indicates Arab-Kurdish fraternity. And when Talabani was elected, this means victory to the whole of the Iraqi people.

SPENCER MICHELS: Kurds have long been a repressed minority in Iraq, but won the second highest percentage of votes in January’s elections. They’d been bargaining hard on issues important to them such as control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and keeping their own militia. Talabani spoke shortly after the vote, addressing the elected Iraqi national assembly that gave him the job of head of state.

JALAL TALABANI (Translated): The multinational forces came to Iraq to liberate Iraq from dictatorship. And when we build up our troops, we will ask the foreign troops to leave the country.

SPENCER MICHELS: After two months of political wrangling that at times degenerated into shouting matches, today members of the 275-seat national assembly streamed to the ballot box to cast their votes for the three-member presidency council.

After the ballots were tallied, the winners were announced. Members of the two other major sectarian groups became vice presidents — current interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni, and Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite politician.

The other two top posts are being divided along sectarian lines as well. The prime minister is expected to be a Shiite, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. And the speaker of the national assembly, elected Sunday night is a Sunni, Hajim al-Hassani. The speaker’s job had been a major sticking point for the minority Sunnis who wanted more positions in the new government.

GWEN IFILL: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: So does breaking the logjam over top jobs mean the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are finally ready to cooperate in governing the new Iraq? To explore that we turn to Judith Yaphe, who spent 20 years as a Middle East intelligence analyst at the CIA. She’s now a senior research fellow at National Defense University in Washington; Najmaldin Karim, president of the Washington Kurdish Institute; a doctor by training, he’s also a political consultant to several Kurdish leaders. Born in Kurdish Iraq, he’s now a U.S. citizen. And Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan; he recently wrote a book about the Iraqi Shia, entitled “Sacred Space and Holy War.” Welcome to you all.

Let’s just start with a quick go round on a general question. And Professor Cole, I’d like to start with you. Does the fact that after all this wrangling and hassling they came together and divvied up these top jobs, does this tell you that these three groups have developed the spirit of compromise they’re going need to govern this country?

JUAN COLE: I’m afraid not. I think the Sunni Arabs in particular have gotten the short end of the stick in all this. It does show that the Shiites and the Kurds have developed a minimal ability to come to political compromise. But we don’t know the details of that compromise and it could be they have put off a lot of difficult issues.

MARGARET WARNER: Dr. Karim, what’s your view in general about whether this is a hopeful sign for cooperation?

NAJMALDIN KARIM: I believe this is a great day for the people of Iraq. It’s certainly a great day for the people of Kurdistan to have one of their own become president of a democratic Iraq for the first time in history.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean does it tell you that these three groups — are you as pessimistic as Professor Cole seems to be, or do you think that this says these three groups are really ready to cooperate?

NAJMALDIN KARIM: I believe this is a sign of cooperation; compromises have been made by all sides to reach this point. And you can only reach success by compromising, and I think that has been accomplished.

MARGARET WARNER: And Judith Yaphe your view on that question?

JUDITH YAPHE: Well, I would have to agree with Najmaldin to a great extent and disagree a little; I guess I’m sort of in the middle. I think there has been a lot of cooperation. It a process and it’s stage one and they’re going to fight bitterly over many issues to come, but I think it shows that they’re more willing to try to work through them than to physically fight each other; that’s a good sign.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, let’s take these groups one by one. And Dr. Karim, I’ll begin with you and the Kurds.

Does the fact that the Kurds were happy to have Talabani elected president and are ready to work in this new government, does that mean that the Kurdish leadership really does accept a unified Iraq, not an independent Kurdistan?

NAJMALDIN KARIM: Well, first the Kurds have given up what is a de facto independence now to be part of a new Iraq, provided the new Iraq is accepting of the Kurdish aspirations, which is a true federalism in Iraq, self rule by the Kurds, and no return to the previous policy of oppression, genocide, and tyranny that had been committed by previous regimes for the past 85 years.

MARGARET WARNER: And Professor Cole, what’s your view of that, about the Kurds, what this says, about whether they’re willing to work within the unified Iraq?

JUAN COLE: Well, clearly the two major Kurdish parties are willing to work within a framework of a federal Iraq, but they mean by federal something very loose. They talk about a Canada solution. And I think they really have more something on the lines of Switzerland involved.

But I worry that, for instance, in Tamin Province where the oil city of Kirkuk is and which is at issue between the Kurds and the Turkmen and the Sunni Arabs, that council is unable to meet because the Arabs and Turkmen are boycotting it, so all is not happy here.

MARGARET WARNER: And Judith Yaphe, comment on that point and also how much will having the presidency really mean in terms of influence in the federal government?

JUDITH YAPHE: In terms of influence let me take the second one first, it’s hard to say. Symbolically it is very important to see that a Kurdish leader and one who was so active in opposition for so many years is now president of the country, that’s a major step and the Kurds have made a major victory there. I think they want to work within the system.

I think Juan said something else which comes back to the first question. There’s a lot of things we don’t know; what was agreed on, what was not. I would just make a guess that at getting this far, suggests that they have agreed to put some of the more difficult issues and Kirkuk is certainly high on that list, kick it down the road and we’ll deal with that later. You can’t deal with all the issues and get everything you want now.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professor Cole, let’s move onto the Sunnis. As we know they boycotted the elections, they only hold 17 of the 275 seats in parliament as a result, but they did get the speakership, speakership of the assembly and a vice presidency. Does that say to you that at least a significant faction of the Sunni leadership is now ready to play ball in this government?

JUAN COLE: Well, I think a significant faction of the Sunni leadership is willing to come into the government. But I don’t think that the developments so far have been positive. In fact, the Sunni caucus in parliament met and decided on a candidate for a speaker, and they were shot down by the Shiites because the Shiites felt that that person’s family had had Baath Party connections; so there was a kind of guilt by association.

And finally the person who was chosen was chosen by the Shiites and is not somebody who has indigenous grassroots in what was long-time expatriate. So I don’t think the Sunni Arabs have gotten what they wanted, there were demonstrations in the weekend in Tikrit for a candidate that did not win. And I feel as though many Sunnis believe that the Shiites have imposed a speaker on them, one that they didn’t want.

MARGARET WARNER: You think the Sunnis got the short end of the stick here?

NAJMALDIN KARIM: I don’t think so. I think some of Professor Cole’s informations are inaccurate. The person who he says that was selected by the Sunnis was a Baathist, not he was guilty by association. He had association and business deals with Uday, Saddam Hussein’s oldest son, and he was actually not chosen. He came out, he said he was chosen.

Some did vote for him, but then the same people who were — supposedly had voted for him came out and said no they didn’t select him, and I believe that the present speaker is well respected, he’s a member of the Islamic — Iraqi Islamic Party; he’s an Arab from the city of Kirkuk, and that actually adds to the reconciliation in my opinion.

MARGARET WARNER: And Judith Yaphe, how much – again, same question to you as before, how much influence does having the speakership, the assembly and a vice presidency give them, the Sunnis?

JUDITH YAPHE: It gives them a degree of influence, and they’ll probably get one of the assistant prime ministerships as well. But I think there is another point that I’d like to make which is, I just forgot what it was.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s all right.

JUDITH YAPHE: I’ll come back to it. But it does give them a certain amount of influence. Nobody is going to get everything they want. The next big arguments will come over who is going to get which ministries. There are a lot of decisions and a lot of tradeoffs that are going to be made.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask you now about the Shiites, because of course the big question, I mean they are a majority, literally a majority of the Iraqi population. Does the fact that they went through this two months plus of haggling and wrangling and they did divvy up these jobs, did that tell you that they are ready to compromise, that they are ready to share power?

JUDITH YAPHE: I think they’ve been ready to some extent all along. They’ve announced that for a very long time, even when they were in exile, the leaders of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, those groups always said that they recognized the Iraq was not Iran, and they were willing to compromise. The question is short term versus long term. I don’t think anybody should waste time worrying about the really long-term goals. The point is to get through the crises as they are coming up now.

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s get to the constitution. Professor Cole, what do you think this says about the Shiites’ willingness to compromise and share power in a meaningful way? Too soon to read it, or does it say something?

JUAN COLE: I – well, I think the Shiite political leaders, and particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali-Sistani who is very influential amongst them, have behaved in an extremely mature manner and a very admirable manner throughout this process. They were the once who insisted on one vote, one person elections. They are the ones who put together a coalition that won the election; the religious Shiites really won this election.

And they have been assiduous in reaching out to other parties and compromising; clearly they have come to an agreement with the Kurds, and I think, as I said, the one failure is that I don’t believe that they have sufficiently reached out to the Sunni Arabs, and that is a cloud on the horizon. The Sunni Arabs, most of them who amount to anything had some kind of relationship with the Baath Party. And I think the standard should be, you know, did this person do something wrong, was this person a criminal? If it’s guilt by association, then the Sunni Arabs are going to be marginalized and it’s going to cause a lot of trouble.

MARGARET WARNER: Dr. Karim, before we go back to that point, just you on the Shiites, does this say to you that they really are reaching out and ready to share power?

NAJMALDIN KARIM: I believe they have. If you look at the numbers, they certainly have the overwhelming majority in the parliament and they are the majority of the population. And they have reached out. It is compromise. We as Kurds are not 100 percent happy. I’m sure they are not and so are the Sunnis.

And they have both sides have gone out of their way to actually reach the Sunnis and to have them included in the process, actually they excluded themselves to an extent by not participating in the election and they say now they will do it the next time around, can and we hope they will.

MARGARET WARNER: In the time we have left I’d like to go around and have each of you nominate the number one issue that you think, thorny issue remains outstanding that needs to be settled, if they’re going to meet this deadline of getting a new constitution by mid-August. Judith Yaphe.

JUDITH YAPHE: Well, I’d like to say one thing, if you talk about the key issues you have to worry about, one thing that is a negative result I think of a lot of this bargaining is that national reconciliation is still very far away because they’re arguing over which Sunni you put up and who’s got what connections, and that’s a dangerous thing.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean this identity politics still.

JUDITH YAPHE: It’s not just identity, he was a Baathist; there’s no such thing as national forgiveness reconciliation move on. And I think that is going to be a serious issue in the long term.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Cole briefly your nomination for a thorny issue that has to be resolved in the constitution writing process.

JUAN COLE: First of all, they can’t possibly meet this deadline of mid-August for writing a new constitution. But in the writing of it, the big issue is going to be the place of religious law and the issue of federalism will also be important.

NAJMALDIN KARIM: The issue of federalism is very important and that resolving the Kirkuk issue, Kirkuk issue is the key to unity of Iraq. If that issue is not resolved to their satisfaction and consideration of the historical facts, it will be a disappointment by everyone.

MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly, Judith Yaphe, do you think that the fact that the Sunnis now are at least participating in the government will have an effect, dampen the insurgency?

JUDITH YAPHE: No. Some of the insurgencies go on forever because people are not reconciled; some of the insurgencies are criminals; that is not going to be solved by this. But it could cut off some of the support. I think the Sunnis saw that they made two mistakes, boycotting elections didn’t have an impact and trying to intimidate or frighten people not to participate had no impact. They want, I think, a growing number want to get in and that’s good.

MARGARET WARNER: We have to leave it there. But Judith Yaphe, Professor Cole, Dr. Karim, thank you.