The Survival of Saddam
an interview with jalal talabani
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Jalal Talabani Secretary General of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two largest Kurdish opposition groups in Iraq.
How is it that Saddam Hussein is still in power after two wars and after being opposed by the U.S. and the West?

I think to answer this question we must study the structure of Iraqi society. It combines Kurds, Arabs, Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs. ... To move any regime you need to have co-operation and co-ordination between Kurds, Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs, the people and the army. Until we have this we cannot change the regime.

In my opinion there is a very big opposition everywhere. And people are not satisfied, armies not satisfied, even the ruling party, members of Ba'ath Party, Kurdistan Ba'ath Party are not satisfied. But, they couldn't unite and mobilize their forces and prepare for ending the regime.

How effective has Saddam Hussein been at using divisions within the society to keep a hold on power?

He played a very clever role in exploiting the differences among earlier governments. He tried to show that he is the protector, defender of Iraqi national unity. And that without him, Iraq will be divided.

The regime could also exploit differences among states surrounding Iraq. Turkey has its own policy. Syria. Iran. Saudi Arabia. Jordan--all these governments are on different lines They are not in good relations with the Iraqi regime, but they are on different lines to change it. He could exploit this. And I think he exploited mistakes made by United States policy.

I always believed that we must depend on ourselves ... and we must not expect that America will send their sons to fight for us here. U.S. policy, in my opinion committed three big mistakes. First, George Bush when he stopped and didn't do anything [at the end of the Gulf War]. They [U.S.] showed the Iraqi people that they want Saddam in power. They don't want to interfere in the general affairs of the Iraqi. The second big mistake was in April 1995, when there was preparation--the INC,some army officers, to change Iraq. But at the last moment the American administration said 'we are not encouraging it.' Not only they didn't help but they said some comments which helped the regime. The third mistake was August 31, 1996 when Iraqi army invaded. That was a very good chance to help us, to strike those forces. ... These three big mistakes helped the regime to stay.

Another mistake I think is American policy is thinking a military coup in Iraq. But it is impossible. A military coup needs a sacrifice and courage that you can't find in an army without morale. We are a poor army, an army which was defeated.

... Second, the Iraqi army is now a big army--tens of divisions. Third reason--every Iraqi military unit has four commanders. To move any unit you must have the permission of the military commander, the party official, the intelligence service and the special security force responsible. And when the units are transferring from a place to place in Iraq they are without real arms. Without bullets at least. The regime always has very strong measures to protect itself. So I think, to depend only on the hope of military coup, a palace coup, is suseless.

You knew Saddam Hussein some, and negotiated with him some. What was your impression of him and his importance within the Ba'ath Party?

I had some friends within the Party. They told me that the most important man in the party after Bakr is Saddam. Saddam was young, active and brave and he was playing the role of defending party. ... For that the majority of party gathered around him.

Second, he tried to show himself as a progressive, as a man making development and progress for Iraqi people. Third, he showed himself as the man of unity for Iraq. He had in his office Arab Sunnis, Arab Shias, Kurds. ... .Many people were thinking that Saddam is representing a new generation. Myself included. I was thinking in 1969-70 that Saddam represents a new generation of Ba'ath Party.

When you met him at that time, we've heard that he was, particularly with the Kurds, conciliatory, offering things and very polite.

Yes. He was always talking about the rights of Kurdish people to autonomy, to have democratic rights.

1972. Can you talk about the change then in U.S. policy towards the Kurds?

When President Nixon came back from Moscow he stopped in Tehran and met the Shah of Iran, and the Shah raised this problem of the Kurds with him. And asked him to support Kurds. Because Mr. Barzani was always insisting and trying to convince and persuade the Shah to ask Americans to support him. ...Mr Barzani was trying too much to have good relations with the United States of America. The Shah got a promise from President Nixon to help the Kurds. When I met President Nixon later in United States he told me, 'Mr. Talabani, you are the first Kurd I am meeting in my library.'

Mr. Nixon promised to help the Kurds and he gave money, arms, etc. Then the Algiers agreement came, and if you go back to the history you will see that the Americans were encouraging this Algiers agreement. When I met Doctor Henry Kissinger I asked him about this. He said we were at that time obliged to do it, because first of all the relation with the Kurds was practical.

But, we must understand this reality--the leadership of any people is responsible for their own policy, and must not put responsibility on the shoulders of others. The United States of America is not the lawyer of the Kurdish people, it is a big state, with its own policy, and it has its own national interest. We must be ready to understand the differences and to know where we are and where our international interests are and where this is similar to the Americans and where there are differences.

Unlike others, I am not blaming the United States that they betrayed the Kurds. The United States didn't say that we are going to help you having a state. ... We must blame ourself, why were we deceived by the Shah of Iran. It's our responsibility, not the American responsibility. Of course, regarding American responsibility, we can blame it in other ways.

President Woodrow Wilson, when he drafted the League of Nations, he said that Kurdistan, Arabia and Armenia must not go back to the yoke of the Turks. ... He was the first American president who gave his promise to the Kurdish people. ...

I think one of the big mistakes of the Kurdish leadership in the 1970s was to have relationships only on the level of covert action with the CIA. ... To have only relationship through the CIA with the United States. I think it's not a wise policy. We must have overt policy relationships and covert relationships. It wasn't possible at that time to get a lot of support from Congressmen, from Senators, House of Representatives. The Kurdish leadership paid attention only to talking to CIA secretly and this covert action. Publicity was necessary for us to have friends among journalists, in institutions, in parliament, in Congress, everywhere. This is our responsibility, the Kurdish responsibility.

What about the change in Kurdish policy towards Baghdad during the early part of Iran-Iraq war

We changed our policy, we accepted the offer from Iraqi regime to start to negotiate with them, to stop fighting with them. We stopped fighting with them, we had two years of negotiation with them, and it failed because they were not ready to change anything. They were insisting in the deportation of the Kurds and neglecting the rights of the Kurdish people.

And how was Saddam at that time?

When we went to Baghdad at the end of 1983, he received us and he was very kind to us. He said that by coming here you have done some historical achievements. First of all your homeland is in danger, you are coming to protect it from Iranian invasion. Second, he said, 'you came to co-operate with us while our party is in a weak position.' Third, he said that, you are not supporting invaders, you are supporting your government, your people. And he said, 'you have done historical favors and we are owed to you,' he said. He told me, 'Jalal, I will give you something, some Kurdish demand that will raise you not only in the eyes of Iraqi Kurds but with Iranian Kurds and Turkish Kurds.' And he looked to Tariq A ziz and he said, ''this nationalistic political position of PUK must be studied in Iraqi history and in the schools.'

At what point did you become convinced that Saddam was not somebody you could deal with?

It depends on the time. When he is in need of us, he will be ready to deal with us. When he is in a strong position, he is not ready to listen to us. In 1991 when he was defeated in the Gulf, he asked us to come, and when I went there he kissed, etc.and said, 'you are very much welcomed and you have come again, you proved that you are patriots.' ... That time he needed us.

If Saddam is weak he will be ready to talk to us. For example, sometimes he will be weak, but he is not in need to us. We cannot solve his problems. ... in his heart he is not ready to recognize the Kurdish national rights or democracy and this is the main problem. He is not ready to accept a democratic system in Iraq, and while there is not democratic regime there will be no solution for Kurdish problem or other problems. I always say that democracy is the panacea for all problems of Iraq, including Kurdish problem.

Regarding the American policy in the early 1990s, there was a presidential finding to try to change the government of Iraq. And the CIA became involved through the Iraqi National Congress (INC). What did you think of that involvement and how did it develop?

CIA and others were coming here, for co-operating and co-ordinating with INC Sometimes they are coming to visit us, but they mainly were there in Salahadin where the headquarter of INC was. Americans were there and their relation was mainly with INC.

To what extent did you believe that the American government actually supported an INC co-ordinated attack?

I always believed that we must depend on ourself, we must prepare our plans according to our forces, our relation with the army and with other groups. And we must not expect that America will send their sons to fight for us here. What we want from America is to not obstruct our work. Second, help us morally. Third politically. That time the man who was in touch with us was very frank and he said that they would help us, by all means--but not militarily. They didn't promise at all military. In the dawn of the day which we decided to start, I received a letter from National Security Council. They said that we are not responsible for what you are doing. Your plan is known by Iraq government. We don't advise you to have any kind of risk, and we are not responsible for anything you are doing.

I answered them that we are doing it according to our forces and we know that you are not responsible. They were very much afraid that Saddam will hit us. ... But when they said openly and officially that they are not supporting this revolt and this is not co-ordination with the United States of America, it harmed us too much, this statement. Because many officers in the army who are promising to co-operate with us and thinking that America is behind us, when they heard that America is not with us, they changed. I am always blaming American friends, that they are not taking into consideration the impact of this inside the army, inside the Iraqi people.

For example General Zinni [Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, in charge of the Gulf region], when he is talking about humiliating the Iraqi opposition, he is indirectly supporting Saddam. People of Iraq will think this American's telling us that the opposition are nothing and why should we go with them. It is discouraging people to side with us; it is making the regime strong and saying to people, yes, there is no opposition. ...

So if America was not going to actually support that operation in March 1995, why do you believe that they had the CIA, beforehand, helping to co-ordinate?

I think in the beginning they decided to support us, but they changed later, and I think there were differences between the White House and CIA, and I think that the Americans were afraid of failure--like in the Cuban invasion. They were afraid that this will be repeated. ... They were not ready to send arms to support us. They were afraid.

Later they came and said, 'ah, we are sorry.' And Margaret Thatcher after she was out of parliament told me that 'if I was in power I would not be accepting this from Saddam until he was giving me his pistol and raising up his hands.'

What about the Iraqi Liberation Act and the implementation of it by the administration? To what extent is the Act helpful and to what extent do you think the administration is serious about using it as a way to change the regime in Iraq?

I think the Iraqi Liberation Act, is useful, very important, it's for the first time assuring Iraqi people that America wants to end dictatorship and replace it with a democratic system. It's important because many Iraqis were confused that America doesn't want to remove and replace the regime with a democratic system. And everyone is now confident because it became a law after that and Clinton signed it.

Second, because if there are promises to support Iraqi opposition by materials, of course military training.

Third, it's important because there are promises that when Iraq will be democratic, America will help Iraqi people to end sanctions and these debts.

But I don't think the administration is enthusiastic in implementing it, or perhaps they don't know how to do it, because they were not participating in preparing it. It was imposed by Congress. I'm not satisfied with the way they are trying to implement it. About nine months have passed and still there is no sign of implementation.

And the Iraqi National Congress would like to hold a meeting?

Iraqi National Congressand also another group ...they are now co-operating with Iraqi National Congress for having a new body, to develop INC, to reach a new cooperation among all Iraqi forces.

That is a good step forward. But I still think that those who are outside cannot change inside. The real opposition forces are those who are inside working among the people, among the army, in the towns and rural areas. There must be a kind of co-ordination and co-operation between those who are outside and those who are inside. We think that American policy must be to defend and to help those who are inside.

I've heard two theories about American policy now. One is that the administration is telling people in the region that yes, the Iraqi Liberation Act is useful, the opposition outside is useful for certain propaganda purposes. But in fact, they are working through other secret means and they do want a change of regime. The other theory is that the events of 1995-96 made the CIA and others tired, they've had their fingers burned. And nothing is happening and the situation as it is now could continue indefinitely.

I'm supporting the first theory. That there are American covert plans, contacts with others, preparing others outside this Iraqi opposition, or behind them, for this change.

Why?

Because they are still wrong-headedly thinking that the military coup is the only one available and it can keep the structure of the system and hierarchy of Iraq and will not disturb neighboring [states].

You understand American politics well. What do you think the political realities are in America and would it help Vice President Gore in the election?

I don't claim that I understand American policy very well. I think the most important thing which could help Al Gore in the election will be a plan of action to remove the Iraqi dictatorship. Otherwise the Republicans will come and tell him that--we could defeat the Iraqi military; we could liberate Kuwait in just months. Why couldn't you remove him from power these past eight years? ... There are some foreign policy points that Republicans can use, and one is regarding Iraq.

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