Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani secretly visited Washington last week for the purpose of getting down to brass tacks on the makeup of the Iraqi interim government he expected to head (as reported in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 154, April 23: “One Kurdish Leader to Baghdad, One to Defend Kurdish State). However, this veteran US ally was brought up short by an unpleasant surprise, the outcome of the Bush administration’s new accommodation with the European Union and the United Nations about which Talabani had not a clue.
Arriving in the US capital with Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq in tow, the Kurdish leader had intended to bid for US guarantees against the UN secretary’s special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Al Ibrahimi, stacking the interim government in Baghdad with figures adversarial to himself and US policy at large. Instead, in his first round of talks with administration officials, he found himself under attack.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington, Talabani was given a severe dressing down, accused jointly with his former Kurdish rival Massoud Barzani of breaking their agreement with outgoing US chief administrator Paul Bremer.
“You undertook not to relocate your people or forces outside present lines,” one US official chided the stunned Talabani. “But that’s exactly what you have been doing, pushing out of those lines towards Mosul in the west and also out in the direction of Kirkuk, Makhmur and Khanakin. This has got to stop before you get into a fight with the locals. They already feel directly threatened.”
Talabani, an astute politician, had no trouble picking up the administration’s subtext: this was only the beginning. Washington’s cards were now stacked against him.
Salih and additional members of the Kurdish delegation were also registering not-too-subtle hints from Bush administration insiders telling Talabani he was no longer Washington’s favorite Kurd. The United States, they were told, now preferred Barzani, who was described in glowing terms as more thorough and serious, more of a stickler than the statesmanlike Talabani.
“Any deal with Barzani will be honored to the letter and down to the fine print, you may be sure,” one US official said. “With Talabani, you can never tell how it will end up. He can’t be bothered with petty details, so it’s very hard to come to terms with him.”
This was a far cry from the glowing commendations veteran Kurdish leader heard in Washington in 2003 – and up until early this year – when he was called a pillar of US influence, a prop of its intelligence efforts in Iraq and complimented for his agents’ help in leading US forces to the hiding place of Saddam’s two notorious sons, Uday and Qusay, last July.
The wily Kurdish leader quickly translated the US turnabout under the influence of its accord with the Europeans into a move to undermine his program for merging the two Kurdish entities ruled by himself and Barzani into a strong and united Kurdistan.
Talabani is not looking forward to the departure of Bremer, with whom he is on excellent terms, and fears he will be replaced by a European or Arab envoy with little sympathy for the Kurds and no inclination to place any pro-American figure to the fore in the new caretaker government.
Talabani sees in his frigid reception in Washington an attempt to pre-empt a united Iraqi Kurdistan by stirring up trouble between him and Barzani, longstanding rivals whose reconciliation was brokered by the Americans to promote US influence in Iraq.
This would also please Arab governments, especially those with Kurdish minorities.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources offer an alternative – or supplementary – explanation for Talabani’s fall from favor in the eyes of the Bush administration. His support for the United States is not in question. At the same time, it is not denied that he enjoys particularly close ties with the hardline rulers of Iran and is a frequent and welcome visitor to Tehran. His broad and varied network of international connections was once considered an asset in a future Iraqi leader. However, since the US and EU accord on Iraq also entails joint action against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, the last thing Washington wants or needs is a pro-Iranian leader in Baghdad.
Still, Washington’s steadfast friend in Kurdistan did not leave empty-handed. He was told that the provincial prime minister he brought with him, Barham Salih, was the administration’s favorite for the post of Iraqi ambassador to the United States. This could be interpreted as a consolation prize for the disappointed Talabani and a signal that he can still count on a powerful bridge to Washington to boost his standing in the sovereign Iraqi capital.