Bafel Talabani: ‘Every Kurd wants an independent Kurdistan’

Editor’s note: Below is an abridged version of the interview with Bafel Talabani, which was conducted a day before the electoral commission announced the final results of the September 30 parliamentary vote in Iraq’s Kurdish region.

Sulaymaniyah, Iraq – Over the past year, Iraq has seen a number of major political developments, including the fallout of the Kurdish independence referendum, the May national elections, and the September parliamentary vote in the Kurdish region.

Earlier this month, after a delay due to intra-Kurdish disagreements, Barham Salih, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was elected president of Iraq (a position reserved for an ethnic Kurd) by the newly formed Iraqi parliament.

Currently, important negotiations are being held between different political powers regarding the formation of a new Iraqi government, a new Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), and the future of Kirkuk, which was taken over by forces loyal to the Iraqi government in Baghdad from the KRG in October 2017.

The PUK, which is seen as being close to Iran, and one of its leaders, Bafel Talabani (the son of the late Jalal Talabani, one of the founders and long-term leader of the party), have played a key role in all of these events.

In this exclusive interview, Al Jazeera talks to Mr Talabani about the political situation in the Kurdish region of Iraq, a year after the failed independence referendum, the KRG’s relations with Baghdad, and the US-Iran rivalry in the country.

Al Jazeera: Why did it take so long to elect a president after the parliamentary elections?

 Bafel Talabani: I think if you look over the last few elections we have had, it’s always taken a long time.

There are a lot of different groups jockeying for different positions. Lots of deals that have to be made and partnerships to be formed. I don’t think it took a particularly long time, to be honest.

Al Jazeera: But there were negotiations happening between your party, the (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Talabani: Yes, there were.

Al Jazeera: And there seemed to be disagreements along the way.

Talabani: There was a little disagreement along the way but perhaps not as big a disagreement as it’s being shown in the media.

We think really there was not enough time to make a decision. We used to have a strategic alliance with the KDP and the strategic alliance was that the KDP would have – or one of the parties – would have the regional president and in return, the other party would have the president in Baghdad.

This became complicated the position of president in the north has been put on hold.

As the position has been put on hold, the powers of the president have been spread among the prime minister and certain other places. So it seemed difficult for us, as the PUK, to have both presidents in effect with the KDP.

So what we wanted to do was make some kind of an arrangement where Dr Barham [Salih], the PUK candidate, was the candidate of the Kurds as a whole.

Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be enough time to manage these negotiations with the KDP. So, what happened was, both parties ended up going to Baghdad with two different candidates.

This saddened me a great deal because I would have preferred the Kurds to have made their own decisions before going to Baghdad.

Al Jazeera: So what is the situation now between the two parties?

Talabani: The situation between the two parties I think is not so difficult to overcome. There have been issues between the KDP and the PUK for a few years. And to be fair a lot of those issues have been caused more by the PUK than the KDP.

The PUK has had problems internally. Imam Jalal [Talabani] became sick and then, sadly, passed away. The PUK had lots of issues amongst itself, issues of confidence, issues of direction, issues of unity. And because of this, it’s been very difficult to make concrete and strategic deals with the KDP, with Gorran [Movement].

But now a more unified and cohesive PUK is able now to make the appropriate agreements and alliances with all the political parties that it needs to do.

Al Jazeera: How are negotiations going for the new Kurdish regional government (KRG)?

Talabani: I think we will have soon a Kurdish government. What happened was that the elections had gone ahead and there were complaints from many different parties about certain irregularities. So, it’s up to the commission and, if necessary, the court to look at this and make a final decision.

I don’t think it’s taking a particularly long time. And what I’m aware of in the next few days, the results will be made [public].

Al Jazeera: Another issue that seems to cause a lot of disagreement between the two major Kurdish parties is Kirkuk. Currently the governor there was appointed by Baghdad but he has been elected to parliament, so there needs to be a new governor.

So, are there negotiations or even a competition for who will take this governorship?

Talabani: I don’t think it’s necessarily fair [to say] there is a competition for the governorship. What I would like to see happen is for the PUK and KDP to sit down together and work through these issues.

I think with one voice, we would be much stronger in our position to influence things in Kirkuk and Baghdad. And in fact, we’ve already reached out to the KDP.

When our team was in Baghdad for government formation, the first person we called was the KDP delegation and offered to sit together and help each other get the ministries we want. And the same thing has happened regarding Kirkuk.

We reached out to the KDP and said, ‘Look we want to have a meeting of all parties where we can sit down and discuss Kirkuk and the best way to move forward.’

Again, I really want to stress: unity, unity, unity. And I think if we can do that, we can get past the other issues holding us back. I really think we can move Kurdistan forward in the next four years.

Al Jazeera: What are these other issues? What is the biggest problem between the KDP and the PUK?

Talabani: Honestly, I think the biggest problem is bad experiences of the past, of deals and contracts and negotiations that haven’t been fulfilled. And you’d speak to most people and they would say – they did it, we did it. I think the reality of the situation is that both parties are responsible.

Both parties have made errors. I’m optimistic for our partnership with the KDP. The friendships in the PUK and the KDP are very deep.

Some of the people I most respect politically and as people are members of the KDP, people like Nechirvan Barzani, obviously Kak Masoud [Barzani] himself, Kak Masrour [Barzani], etc.

Al Jazeera: Are there negotiations going on between the caretaker KRG and Baghdad on resuming the production of oil in Kirkuk?

Talabani: I couldn’t actually answer you on this one with any kind of authority or information. It’s not something I’m dealing with and to be honest, not something I want to deal with.

But I would be very surprised if somebody wasn’t talking about how this pipeline is going to be.

Al Jazeera: Over the past year, there have been quite a few deals made with Russia’s Rosneft, which has taken over the oil pipeline. Are these deals in the interest of the KRG?

Talabani: I would be very surprised if the KRG did things, after all this investigation and communication, that wasn’t good for the KRG. Whether Baghdad sees it as good for the KRG, I can’t really speak for.

Again, the only way to get past this is for Baghdad and the KRG to sit down together and see what areas are disputed.

Al Jazeera: There seems to be anger at least in certain quarters in Iraq about Iranian influence or interference in the affairs of the country. How do you see that?

Talabani: It’s unrealistic to expect other countries not to want to influence this situation. But the solution is very simple.

I think the Iraqi political parties and the Iraqi people have to simply do what’s best for Iraq and not get involved in external struggles.

 Kurdish voters cast their ballots during the Iraqi parliamentary elections at a polling station in Erbil in May 2018 [File: Gailan Haji/EPA] 

Al Jazeera: You are known to have good relations with both Iran and the US.

What are your relations right now, under the Trump administration, with the US and how do you see continuing US presence in Iraq?

Talabani: I’d like to think our relations are very good. The United States of America have been a strategic ally for us for many, many years in the fight against terrorism, etc. I’d like to see the relationship get stronger. I’d like to see a US presence here for many, many years to come.

I think we have some trips planned soon to the United States and things will become clearer then. But everybody we are currently in contact with here, Brett McGurk, the ambassador, the general consul – the relationship has been very, very good. There have been trying times of course. The issue with the referendum strained things a little, but I think, in general, we have a very good relationship with the United States – something we wish to keep.

Al Jazeera: But the Trump administration is building an anti-Iran coalition here in the region attracting a number of political forces here to join that coalition against Iran.

Where does the PUK stand on this?

Talabani: I think the PUK really has no desire to become involved in regional conflicts.

We have enough financial, security, and stability issues in Kurdistan. We have a long relationship with Iran going back many years. And many times, Iran has helped us and many times, Iran has hindered us. I think it’s unrealistic to expect the PUK, or any other Kurdish party or any other Iraqi party, to cut ties and political relations with Iran.

The reality of the situation is we have hundreds of kilometres of borders with Iran. The majority of trade in the Sulaymaniyah region is with Iran.

Al Jazeera: Should the Kurdish region have one unified armed force rather than forces loyal to different parties?

Talabani: I’d love to see that happen. I think we are slowly moving in that direction. But every time we have some kind of political setback. I think if you want the honest truth, I think people are afraid. People are afraid of something new and it’s a huge change for Kurdistan.

But I would really like to see that, to see one untied Kurdish security apparatus, military apparatus, etc. And I think we can move towards that and I think it would help the political process here. It would help normalise Kurdistan. It would change the dynamic of the region, I think, for the better. It’s something I wish to try to work on over the next four years.

Al Jazeera: This year, it’s 20 years since the end of the civil war between the two Kurdish parties and some Kurds worry that the tensions between the KDP and the PUK can escalate into an armed conflict.

Is this possible?

Talabani: Over my dead body. And over the dead body of many, many Kurds. This is just not something that will happen. I think nobody is willing to do that any more. Those days are long gone. We are still paying the price of that internal conflict.

Kurds will not, should not, and absolutely must not be allowed to kill Kurds. We need to be able to resolve our issues politically.

I think this is the absolute doomsday scenario that every Kurd with a single brain cell would do everything in their power to make [sure] this never, never happens and I can’t see it happening.

Al Jazeera: Do you think the Kurdish political elite has failed its people?

Talabani: I think to say that it has failed its people is a little harsh. But if we are very honest with each other, we could have all done better.

Saddam [Hussein] hasn’t been in Kurdistan for decades now. When I look at Kurdistan, I think the situation with electricity still isn’t as good as it should be. The situation with sewage still isn’t as good as it should be.

The situation with roads and infrastructure still isn’t as good as it should be. But some of it is also down to the curse of oil. Kurdistan is very mineral-rich.

Cityscape of Erbil, Kurdish region of Iraq [Getty Images]

Al Jazeera: Some say that politics in Iraq is run like a family business. What do you say to that?

Talabani: I think you could make that argument.

You could make that argument to a lesser degree in the United States, you could make that argument in many, many countries. I think that nobody in any family should be in a position of power just because they are in that family and they are in that position of power.

But on the opposite of that, I don’t think someone should be held back from politics if they are working in the party and are doing well and are trying to improve the situation. A family name shouldn’t be held against them.

Al Jazeera: And this sense, then do you support the cause for this next government of Iraq to be technocratic?

Talabani: I think that the government of Iraq needs a mixture of everybody.

We need some technocrats but we also need some strong political figures that can hold everything together.

This is, after all, Iraq and it has its unique set of problems and its difficulties.

Al Jazeera: Is the PUK after specific posts within that cabinet?

Talabani: No, it’s not.

I think the PUK has always been part of the solution for problems in Iraq and we want to be back to being there. We want to part of the solution, not to be part of the problem.

I would like the PUK to work more with Baghdad, increase its presence in Baghdad, ideally side-by-side with the other Kurdish parties because, if you look at our seats in Parliament, we are so strong in Baghdad if we are united.

That’s what I would like to see happen and I think it’ll happen.

Al Jazeera: So is the future of the Kurdish region within the borders of Iraq? Is independence out of the question?

Talabani: I don’t think independence is out of the question and I don’t think it’s an issue that needs addressing now. We have so many current problems, we have so many issues that we need to overcome.

We need to be part of Iraq, the strength of the region for now for us is through Baghdad. And I think every Kurd wants an independent Kurdistan, but the reality of the situation is that this cannot happen unilaterally.

Baghdad, some of the surrounding countries have to agree to this and we have to make movements towards that very carefully in a considered diplomatic manner.

Al Jazeera: What are your personal ambitions and where do you see yourself? Do you see yourself taking leadership of the party?

Do you see yourself staying a military man?

Talabani: I’d like to see a unified PUK. For me, frankly, who’s in charge is not important. But I’d like to see a unified strong PUK with the other Kurdish party moving Kurdistan forward.

I’d like to see many different policies implemented for the good of the people. Some anti-corruption policies.

We need to change the way we hold our elections. We need to move forward together with all the parties. My personal ambitions are that.

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