Kurdish Leader Talabani?

Officials in Washington insist that no suitable Iraqi candidate has yet been found for the post of Iraqi ruler after Saddam Hussein. They say they are still looking for a unifying figure of national stature on the Afghan Hamid Karzai model.

Drawing on the Afghan lesson, the Bush administration is reconciled to the US military commander being the dominant figure in the administration of occupied Baghdad alongside a provisional civilian governor. This interim post-war period could go on for as long as 18 months.

The US president’s adviser on Iraqi affairs, Zalmy, Khalil-Zad, would be a candidate to fill the latter position until Iraq’s democratic institutions are installed.

At the same time, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources hear that members of the Bush team are promoting a revolutionary plan in Iraq, Ankara, Tehran and key Arab capitals, to name the veteran Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani, 69, as the head of state or prime minister of a democratic Iraq.

Khalil-Zad, the man who installed Karzai in Kabul, has been the go-between for Washington and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan chief. According to our sources, Talabani’s chances of making it to the top in Baghdad are beginning to look good.

Secret messengers sent out by Khalil-Zad in the last few weeks to canvass opinion met surprisingly favorable responses in Iraq. The most important Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders understand that, after being loyal to Saddam Hussein and collaborating with his regime for three decades, they stand little chance of putting up an acceptable candidate of their own, even if they could agree on one. They also understand that, if a suitable Sunni leader is not found, they could well be saddled with a member of the Shiite community, which constitutes 60 percent of the Iraqi population.

Furthermore, if Saddam’s armed forces lose the war to the Americans, Baghdad will be left without a Sunni-commanded fighting force, excepting only for the Kurdish militias: Talabani’s and Barzani’s US-trained and equipped forces, 20,000-strong each. The two forces would combine as the backbone of a new Iraqi army capable, with American help, of defending Iraq’s Sunni community against the Shiites.

Khal-Zad’s emissaries are currently in intense dialogue with Barzani and his men for the purpose of joining the two foremost Kurdish leaders in a power-sharing pact that would form the bedrock of central government in Baghdad.

One proposal under discussion, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, is to replicate the Afghanistan formula whereby Talabani would be prime minister and Barzani defense minister. Another would place Barzani at the head of autonomous Kurdistan.

The Talabani formula is being taken seriously enough in Washington to bring before Iran. Talabani himself visited the Iranian capital this week to promote his prospects.

Our sources in Tehran report that Iran’s leaders are not averse to the notion, but have set a high price; they want Washington to promise them a strong Shiite representation in the new regime and provide them with a list in writing of government jobs reserved for Shiites. The American side does not object to tendering this list, but first demands the annulment of Barzani’s collaboration pact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, as a matter of principle; no part of the central government in Baghdad may be allowed private military relations with an outside body.

Turkish leaders, when they first heard three weeks ago of a Kurd possibly becoming Iraqi prime minister, did not reject the idea out of hand. US envoys made a different presentation in Ankara to their pitch in Tehran. They argued that installing a Kurdish prime minister in Baghdad as ruler over a federated Iraq, that included a self-governing Kurdish province, would mute Kurdish independence claims. Their national pride and aspirations would find satisfying expression in this appointment.

However, Turkish resistance to the plan grew as the talks in Ankara went on, the American argument failing to convince. Turkish officials countered that promoting a Kurdish leader to the highest office in Baghdad would whet Kurdish nationalist appetites and they would fight on until they had carved Greater Kurdistan out of the Kurdish areas of Iraq, Iran and Turkey. These talks continue.


Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, shares control of Iraqi Kurdistan with his long-time rival, Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Based in Sulaymaniyah, the PUK’s lands lie in southeastern Kurdistan, while the KDP rules the west.

The two Kurdish leaders, who fought on and off for decades, made common cause in 1998 and threw in their lot with the American campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and commit their armies to the war effort.

In 1976, Talabani launched an armed revolt against the Baath government in Baghdad. His people suffered a tragic setback in 1988 when Saddam murdered an estimated 50,000 in a chemical attack against Halabjah on the Iranian border.

Talabani sought refuge in Iran, where he has friends. A law graduate of Baghdad University, he has displayed a flair for politics since the 1991 Gulf War, when the declaration of a no-fly zone by the Western alliance provided Kurdish tribes with a safe haven.

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