The successful outcome of the negotiations for Saddam Hussein’s capture has demonstrated to the Americans and Iraqi leaders the PUK leader’s skill in establishing working relationships of trust with Sunni elements.
In previous issues, we revealed Talabani’s burgeoning friendship with the family of Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, one of Saddam’s closest and must trusted cronies before and after the war. We know now those relations have borne fruit. Over a period of months, Talabani has assiduously cultivated Sunnis leaders, using the carrot and the stick.
As self-appointed facilitator between Sunni tribal leaders and the US civil administration in Baghdad and local military command, he has wangled favors for them from the Americans and funds for those guaranteeing to keep their lands clear of guerrillas – Saddam loyalists, members of Ansar al-Islam and Al Qaeda and Syrian and Saudi fighters.
At the same time, special Kurdish forces and intelligence units launched night attacks on the Baath and al Qaeda cells that the tribal leaders, for one reason or another, were loath hand over to the Americans.
But after Saddam’s arrest and with al-Douri at death’s door, will Sunni chiefs continue to play ball with Talabani’s Kurdish security forces or will they decide he is too powerful and needs cutting down?
The Kurdish chief is a cautious man. Our sources report that he is wary of treading on the sensitivities of his Sunni friends. Therefore, instead of joining the American celebrations over Saddam’s capture, he left Baghdad and headed south.
A Talabani road trip is a sight to behold.
Traveling in an armored motorcade equipped with state-of-the-art communications and armament, the Kurdish chief rides with a retinue of 250 to 350 retainers. Among them are some 70 bodyguards, either CIA-trained or ex-US Special Forces units. There is also a fully-equipped medical unit staffed by doctors and nurses able to deal with any emergency, including attempted assassination.
A signals unit maintains constant contact with the PUK’s outlying military posts scattered across northern Iraq – especially Korsal Rasul’s command center in Suleimaniya – and US civil and military authorities in Baghdad and northern and central Iraq. The unit is equipped to communicate directly with capitals in the region such as Ankara and Tehran.
Talabani makes sure he can reach and talk to anyone at any time because of the paramount importance he attaches to maintaining good relations with all parties in Iraq and the immediate vicinity. His relations with Tehran are uniquely warm – even tighter than those between Iranian and Iraqi Shiite leaders. He also keeps in with the commanders of the hard-line regime’s fierce Revolutionary Guards posted on the Iran-Kurdistani frontier. His traveling communications unit makes it possible for Talabani to carry negotiations forward to swift conclusions uninterrupted even when he is on the road.
There is always an advance guard of intelligence and logistics specialists ahead of the main body of his circus that makes sure no hidden dangers lurk in waiting.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that the Kurdish chief went south in a bid to broker the same sort of goodwill relations between Shiites and the US administration as he forged on behalf of the Sunnis. First, he headed briefly to Tehran to put Iranian leaders in the picture and obtain their assent.
Talabani is intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of Shiite power politics and therefore does not make the common mistake of viewing its leadership as a monolithic entity that defers automatically to the Najef-based senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Mohammed Al-Sistani. The PUK chief has often warned US administrator Paul Bremer that the top men of the two holy cities of Najef and Karbala are deeply divided and that the influence of Sistani, whom Bremer has cultivated as the man at the top, does not extend much beyond his own “court” and is in decline.
Leading Shiite clerics, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s experts on Shiite affairs, failed abysmally in the attempt they made over the summer to make of Najef and Karbala in the post-Saddam era the spiritual and religious center of the Shiite world, the peer of Iran’s holy city of Qom. The prospect of a form of Shiite self-rule in Iraq has had a divisive effect on the communal leaders. It set them to squabbling among themselves with no sign of consensus on the community’s future.
Talabani therefore avoided Najef and Karbala in his current Shiite tour and focused instead on cities further south — Basra, al-Amra, Nasariya, Qut, Hilla and Diwaniyah — where his advance team set up meetings with tribal and community leaders.
To win hearts and minds in Iraq, the PUK leader has found nothing works as well as hard cash. No wonder, our sources say, that his trip has been a hit. Local leaders are queuing up to welcome him. Within a week, it should be clear whether the Kurdish chief can claim his second trophy as middleman between Shiites and US headquarters in Baghdad after succeeding with the Sunni chiefs.
Talabani’s emergence as a supremely able communal diplomat would relieve the Americans of a major burden and headache. Bremer and the Bush administration in general have been casting about for a Karzai-like figure to entrust with heading the government in Baghdad when the time comes to transfer sovereignty – a decision that will determine the timeline of the handover.
The Kurdish leader looks like being the aptest and best-qualified choice.