Nearly four years after the capture of Saddam Hussein, most Americans have forgotten all about the infamous “Iraqi Most Wanted” deck of cards. But not Qubad Jalal Talabani.
Taped prominently to a wall in Talabani’s impeccably neat Washington office is a vintage poster depicting all 55 war criminals, including the Ace of Spades himself, Saddam. It’s just one indication of the depth of hatred Talabani—and Kurdish people in general—felt toward the so-called “Butcher of Baghdad,” who was executed last December.
“In the 1980s, Saddam annihilated hundreds of thousands of Kurds. He dropped chemical and biological weapons on over 250 towns and villages, and he destroyed 4,000 villages in the Kurdistan region alone,” Talabani says. “We did not fit into his grand scheme of things. We are not Arabs, and we were not going to tow the line and succumb to the pressures of his dictatorship.”
With Saddam gone, the 5 million or so Iraqis of Kurdish origin are more concerned these days with keeping their semi-autonomous region free of the violence that is ravaging the rest of the country.
Talabani, Washington’s representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), also wants to attract foreign investment, positive media coverage and tourism—yes, even tourism—to Iraqi Kurdistan.
“We’ve been oppressed most of our lives, we’ve faced the worst kind of dictatorship, we’ve had genocide carried out against us, and to have risen up from the tragedy of our people to where we are today—a thriving civil society in the heart of the Islamic Middle East—is a rare success story,” he declares. “We really need to get this story out more.”
This former automotive engineer—whose father, Jalal Talabani, just happens to be the president of Iraq—spent an hour and a half with The Washington Diplomat explaining in intricate detail how he expects to achieve his lofty goals.
“All our problems started with the inception of Iraq. It was an artificial state with artificial boundaries. Nobody asked us if we wanted to be part of Iraq,” Talabani says, referring to the 1920 territorial agreement between Great Britain and France following World War I and the defeat of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The British mandate over Iraq ended in 1932, when the country achieved independence, though for decades, Kurdish separatists have unsuccessfully fought for their own state, independent of Baghdad.
“Our goal now is to get the best for our people, and our leadership has committed itself to a federal democracy in Iraq,” says Talabani. “We are not going to subscribe to the old ways of doing things. Iraq cannot be ruled by another strongman.”
Yet Talabani insists that his goal is not an independent Kurdistan.
“In a non-binding referendum in 2005, over 99 percent of the Kurds in Iraq voted for independence,” he says. “It’s no secret that Kurds want their own country, and having suffered what we’ve suffered, that’s understandable. But we have to be realistic and pragmatic, and work within the constraints that we have.”
Those constraints come in the form of the U.S. and Iraqi governments, which continue to advocate for a unified Iraq, as well as neighboring Turkey, Iran and Syria, all of which are on edge at the prospect of a Kurdish independence movement that could easily spill over to the ethnic Kurdish populations in their own borders. “If our objective was an independent Kurdistan, we’d have to fight a war on several fronts,” Talabani admits, noting that of the world’s 30 million Kurds, nearly 15 million live in Turkey, 8 million in Iran, 5 million in Iraq, 2 million in Syria and the rest in the Diaspora.
“Not all are Muslims. Some are Christians, and we also have Shiite and Sunni Kurds, and there are also some Kurdish Jews living in Israel,” he adds, noting that around 50,000 Kurds reside in the United States—with the largest communities in Nashville, San Diego, Dallas and Northern Virginia.
“Contrary to what many people predicted, we are not part of the problem in Iraq. But we certainly could be part of the solution,” Talabani says. “Yet I think the Kurdish issue hasn’t received enough attention from the Washington policy establishment.”
The sharply dressed young diplomat, who just recently turned 30, was born in exile, raised in the London suburb of Surrey, and hails from a prominent Iraqi Kurdish family with a long history of opposition to Saddam Hussein. “A few days before I was born, my father had to go back into Kurdistan to restart the revolution against Saddam, so he missed my birth,” Talabani says. “I grew up with my grandparents in Great Britain.”
How he came to be the KRG’s man in Washington is a story in itself. While a student at Kingston University, he accompanied his father on a 1999 visit to the United States. At that time, the top Kurdish representative in Washington was Barham Salih, now Iraq’s deputy prime minister.
“I noticed that he was the scheduler, the note-taker and the driver. He was handling my father’s schedule all on his own,” Talabani recalls. “So in early 2000, I returned here as an assistant to Dr. Barham. When he became prime minister of the KRG in 2001, I was appointed deputy representative. In 2003, I went back to Iraq for what was supposed to be a two-week visit, and ended up staying a year.”
When Talabani finally returned to Washington in April 2004, there were still two official Iraqi Kurdish representatives in the nation’s capital—one representing the east, the other the west. Only in October 2006 were those two positions finally combined, and Talabani was appointed sole representative of the KRG. Along the way, he also married an American who worked as an officer for the State Department.
“We don’t have diplomatic status, but obviously the U.S. government deals with us as a regional representative. It’s a liaison office equivalent to that of Taiwan. We deal with politics, economic development, grassroots organizing and the Kurdish community, but we can’t issue visas,” he explains. “We work with the Iraqi Embassy on many issues, and we have a good relationship with them. I have a lot of respect for the ambassador.”
As the KRG’s top diplomat here, Talabani currently oversees seven full-time staffers and two interns at his Eye Street office two blocks from the White House, which is decorated with color photographs of the regional capital, Erbil, and typical Kurdish handicrafts.
“Our job is to exchange views with the U.S. government on Iraq and Kurdish issues,” he says. “Being here allows us to act a little more strategically. We can raise potential issues that could come up months from now. It’s an ongoing dialogue with all branches of the U.S. government.”
And a major part of that dialogue is stressing how unique his region is from the rest of Iraq. “Today, Kurdistan has its own government, its own parliament, its own security forces and its own development strategy,” Talabani told The Diplomat. “Iraq is a big country. Americans don’t see the north thriving, peaceful and tolerant. They don’t see the south, which is relatively calm and quiet, with no kidnappings, car bombings and large-scale assassinations. They never report about the traffic lights that work.”
To help get the word out, the state-run Kurdistan Development Corp. in 2005 hired Russo Marsh & Rogers—a California public relations firm—to come up with a PR campaign titled “The Other Iraq.” The TV and print-media blitz, which went on for a year, accentuated the positive aspects of life in Kurdistan while trying to distance the region as much as possible from the violence and bloodshed Americans normally associate with Iraq.
Kurdistan’s “island of stability,” as Talabani calls it, is fueled by the 17 percent of Iraqi oil revenues that the region is entitled to, based on a compromise formula agreed to between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad. Turkey is by far the biggest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, accounting for 85 percent of the approximately billion in approved projects so far.
By comparison, says Talabani, “There’s very little U.S. investment in Kurdistan. We feel it’s important for the American business community to not lose out on the opportunities available in Kurdistan today. We’ve been telling people it’s safe and prosperous in Kurdistan. Come and see for yourself.”
As evidence of Kurdistan’s relative calm, Talabani proudly points to a booming construction industry in Erbil, noting that Americans can fly Austrian Airlines from Washington’s Dulles International Airport to Erbil—via Vienna—without ever setting foot in Baghdad. “We have two international airports with over 100 flights a week. Austrian Airlines flies four times a week into and out of Erbil,” Talabani says. “There are lots of Chinese, Russian, French and Turkish visitors. We’re in the process of building a Kempinski hotel, which will be Iraq’s first five-star hotel.”
At the same time, according to Talabani, the KRG has passed an investment law “that’s probably one of the most liberal investment laws in the Middle East, allowing full repatriation of profits and clearly designed with the investor in mind.” Such incentives are spurring projects like an Iraqi-French joint venture that’s building an “American village” on the outskirts of Erbil, where houses will cost between 0,000 and 0,000.
“Not one American has been killed in Kurdistan,” Talabani proclaims. “Not even one stone has been thrown at an American soldier in Kurdistan.”
Color Yet it’s proving more and more difficult to maintain a semblance of relative calm.
On Aug. 10, an explosion in Kirkuk—a disputed city located about an hour’s drive south of Erbil—killed at least seven people, including women and children, and wounded dozens at a busy outdoor market. Earlier in mid-July—shortly after our meeting with Talabani—a larger series of car bombs exploded in Kirkuk, targeting the offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Talabani’s party, and killing scores of people.
And on Aug. 15, the single deadliest attack since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in 2003 struck a Kurdish-speaking area dominated by members of the Yazidi religious sect. As of press time, more than 400 people died in the quadruple bombings—one of the worst terror attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.
Although all of these attacks occurred in areas that are not technically under KRG jurisdiction, they were clearly aimed at destabilizing the Kurdish population, Talabani said in a subsequent interview. “It shows how the situation, if left unresolved, will continue to deteriorate,” he warns. “Tensions in Kirkuk are continuing to rise, and the explosions we’ve seen over the last few months are an indication of that rising tension. We attribute this increased level of violence to the ambiguity over Kirkuk’s future.
“Kurds are considered pro-American,” he continues. “We are proud of being pro-American, but this makes us targets. The fact is that Kurdistan is successful and stable, and this makes Kurds living outside the region controlled by the KRG targets. So they try to hurt us in areas that we haven’t secured, which is why the issue of the disputed territories must be resolved. We cannot as Kurds allow our citizens to continue to be targets.”
Talabani says that a referendum scheduled to take place no later than Dec. 15 will allow voters to decide whether the oil-rich Kirkuk—home to Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds—should become part of the Kurdistan region.
If that happens, Talabani concedes that “we would expect some short-term instability. But in the long term, if we were able to deploy our security assets, that would in fact stabilize Kirkuk just as we’ve stabilized the entire Kurdistan region.”
He adds: “The country is polarizing. That’s a fact, and we need to now come up with a political system that reflects the current reality on the ground. That necessitates that Iraq can never again be ruled by a strong central government.”
On the other hand, the threat of a Turkish invasion—a major preoccupation of Talabani only a few months ago—has significantly diminished now that Turkey’s elections are over, although Ankara maintains that its troops will cross the border to hunt down members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) if Iraq does not crack down on the guerilla group.
Despite the tensions, Talabani says, “We fully support Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. It would not only strengthen the EU but would also be of great assistance to Turkey.”
Even so, the diplomat admits that Iraq faces a long road ahead. “There’s an academic debate on whether it’s in a civil war. I think that’s a moot point,” he argues. “Yes, there is violence, yes, it’s sectarian and yes, it’s going to be addressed or the country will fail. I don’t think it has failed yet.”
When asked to define “failure,” Talabani described it as “a complete breakdown of the government and its institutions and security services, with lawlessness and chaos spreading to the majority of the country, and regional interference inside Iraq. That’s failure.”
The KRG’s man in Washington says his people love Americans but are far from confident that the White House and Congress will act in their interests. “It was the no-fly zones that allowed us to build our government institutions and lay the groundwork for the stability we see today. But we’re surrounded by hostile forces, and without the support and the continued engagement of the U.S., this success story will be in jeopardy.
“It would be a travesty if it failed, but the Kurds have been betrayed by Americans before,” he continues. “In 1991, President Bush Sr. called upon the Iraqis to rise up. We blindly did, but a few days later the Iraqis struck an agreement with Gen. [H. Norman] Schwarzkopf to crush this uprising, and they did so brutally. So while there’s a lot of love for the United States and Kurds are overwhelmingly pro-American, there is always the insecurity that the U.S. will let us down again.”
One thing that worries Talabani is the possibility that the United States, in its search for weapons of mass destruction, will take military action against another regional power—Iran—and Kurdistan will get sucked into the conflict.
“We don’t want the Iranians and Americans fighting their war on our turf,” he says. “We’ve been living in war all our lives. We’re sick and tired of it. We want to get on with life, provide for our citizens, and move away from the culture of guns that has plagued our society for centuries.”
Although Talabani and the KRG are part and parcel of Iraq and agree with the central government on most major issues, there is one issue where their differences couldn’t be starker. That issue is recognition of Israel, which was a sworn enemy of Iraq under Saddam Hussein and continues to be under Iraq’s new leadership—and that irritates Talabani.
“Our inability to have relations with the State of Israel shows the hypocrisy of the Arab world,” he charges. “The Israeli flag flies in Cairo and Amman, and Israelis meet with Palestinians all the time, yet there is strange fear in the Arab world that the Kurds will have relations with Israel. They should just chill out.”
Asked to explain this apparent contradiction, the urbane diplomat suggested that “the Kurdish people by and large are sympathetic to Israel, maybe because the story of the underdog resonates with us.”
In the end, for Talabani, the main issue comes down to respect for Kurds, whom he says have been tossed aside by the world’s major powers throughout most of history.
“I would like to see the Bush administration come to terms with Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian makeup. I think there’s been a reluctance to accept that Iraq is a multi-ethnic and a multi-sectarian society, and a reluctance to embrace this diversity. Instead of putting everybody in one camp and telling them, ‘You’re all Iraqi, go and sort it out,’ ask instead why the Kurds are so insecure about their history,” Talabani says.
“For too long, the Kurds have been on the periphery of the international scene. We’ve been an afterthought that has resulted in our people being neglected throughout history. But now, we’re on the political map, whether people like it or not.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor for The Washington Diplomat.