A gift for power
Iraq's Kurdish president is impossible to pin down. He's friends with the Americans - but also with Iran. He calls himself a Maoist - yet enjoys immense wealth. Who is Jalal Talabani? Jon Lee Anderson meets him in Baghdad
Friday February 9, 2007
The Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP
On November 5, the day Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, Jalal Talabani, the longtime Kurdish guerrilla leader, who is currently Iraq's president, was in Paris, on a state visit. He was installed in the sumptuous presidential suite at Le Meurice, a gold-and-marble Louis XVI hotel on the Rue de Rivoli, overlooking the Jardin des Tuileries. I watched the verdict with Talabani in his suite, on a large plasma-screen television tuned to the satellite channel Al Arabiya. He sat in a gilded chair, and his expression betrayed nothing. Soon, after a few curt words, Talabani got up and wandered off to his bedroom. One of his aides tiptoed behind him. The aide reappeared a moment later to say that Talabani was sitting in an armchair, deep in thought.
Saddam's death sentence put Talabani in an awkward position. Saddam had been convicted for the mass killing of 146 people in the Shia village of Dujail in 1982. If he was executed, he would not face a second trial, for the 1988 Anfal campaign, in which as many as 186,000 Kurds were killed. Talabani was on the record as being opposed to capital punishment, but, according to the Iraqi constitution, one of his duties was to approve death warrants. In public statements, he had finessed this problem by saying that he would respect any decisions made by Iraq's judiciary. Still, he was in a predicament.
After a while, Talabani returned, in a better mood. He sat down next to me, but we were interrupted by the arrival of two superbly dressed Frenchmen carrying large shopping bags from Façonnable and Ermenegildo Zegna. They approached Talabani, bowed deferentially, and took a pair of dark suits from the bags. One man brandished a measuring tape, and explained that they needed His Excellency to remove some of his clothes for a fitting. Talabani stood up and began struggling to take off his jacket. A valet rushed over to help.
Talabani, who is 73 and has the fat cheeks, brush moustache and large belly of a storybook pastry chef, is renowned for his political cunning, his prodigious love of food and cigars, his sense of humour, his unflagging optimism, and his inability to keep a secret. He is known as Mam Jalal, which means Uncle Jalal in Kurdish. It is a term of both endearment and cautious deference; Talabani has a mercurial personality, with extreme mood swings. He has survived in Iraqi politics largely owing to an ability to outfox his opponents and, sometimes, his allies. Over the years, he has made deals with everyone from Saddam Hussein to Ayatollah Khomeini and both Bush presidents. He is probably one of the very few people in the world who can claim, truthfully and unapologetically, to have kissed the cheeks of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Talabani refers to George W Bush as his "good friend" but regards Mao Zedong as his political role model.
Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a Shia politician who is Iraq's national security adviser, told me, "He's very difficult to define. If you are an Islamist, he brings you Koranic verses; if you're a Marxist, he'll talk to you about Marxist-Leninist theory, dialectics and Descartes. He has a very interesting ability to speak several languages, sometimes" - he laughed - "with a very limited vocabulary. He has a lot of anecdotes and knows a lot of jokes. He is an extraordinarily generous person, and he spends like there is no tomorrow."
Rubaie mentioned a period in the 60s when Talabani was allied with Saddam. "One day he was a good friend of Saddam, and then he became a staunch enemy," he said. (In fact, Talabani flirted with Saddam twice more.) Rubaie saw nothing contradictory in this; Talabani, he said, was the ultimate pragmatist.
No other Iraqi politician has Talabani's experience, contacts, and savvy. As a result, he has made the presidency, which was meant to be more ceremonial than the prime minister's job, a powerful post. Yet this role, too, carries contradictions. After spending decades fighting for "self-determination" for Iraq's Kurds, Talabani finds himself defending Iraq's unity. He now has a choice to make: either he can be a founding father of the "new Iraq" - the elder statesman who will help rescue it from civil war - or, if Iraq falls apart, he can be a founding father of an independent Kurdish state. As always, Talabani has hedged his bets. "I am a Kurd from Iraqi Kurdistan, but now I am responsible for Iraq," he told me. "And I feel my responsibility." In another conversation, he said, "It's true that I am an Iraqi, but in the final analysis I am a Kurd."
Under Saddam, the Kurds "were facing a dictatorship in Baghdad that was launching a war of annihilation against the Kurdish people," he said. "We were in need of all kinds of support from anybody in the world. When war starts, and you participate in it, you will need support from anyone. There is no supermarket where you can go and choose your friends in a war."
In the current war, some of his unreconciled friendships have been troublesome. Iran was once one of the Kurds' greatest allies, and Talabani had planned to fly from Paris to Tehran. But he abruptly postponed the trip at the request of the Bush administration: he would have arrived in Tehran on November 6, and the prospect of pictures of America's Iraqi ally visiting Iran the day before the midterm elections made the White House uncomfortable.
In Baghdad, Talabani lives in a yellow- brick mansion on the eastern shore of the Tigris river, outside the Green Zone. Until April 2003, when Talabani seized it, the mansion belonged to Barzan al-Tikriti, Saddam Hussein's half brother and the former chief of the secret police, who, like Saddam, was sentenced to die for his role in the Dujail massacre. (Barzan was executed on January 15, but his hanging was bungled when the rope ripped off his head.) The presidential offices are next door, in a palace that once belonged to Saddam's wife, Sajida.
Talabani's complex sits on the north side of the ramparts of the Jadiriya Bridge; on the south side is the home of his political ally Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the Shia leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Hakim's house is where Tariq Aziz, Saddam's deputy prime minister, once lived. The approaches on Talabani's side are heavily guarded by Kurdish peshmerga ("those who face death") fighters - Talabani commands some 50,000 peshmerga in the militia of his party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK - and on Hakim's by militiamen of the Badr Organization, his party's armed wing.
The two leaders and their militias work closely on political and security matters, though in other ways the Kurds, who are largely secular, and the Shias, who are very devout, present a sharp contrast in styles. During weeks spent in Talabani's company, I never saw him or any of his aides pray. Talabani is not averse to alcohol, either, and he enjoys playing cards with a small group of his cronies.
Talabani's wife, Hero, does not live in Baghdad with her husband. She stays in their home city of Sulaimaniya, where she runs a foundation and a television station, and publishes a newspaper. She and Talabani have two sons: one, Bafel, runs the counterinsurgency wing of his father's party; the other, Qubad, represents the autonomous Kurdish government in the US.
At home in Baghdad one morning, Talabani invited me up to his private quarters. It was early, and he was still dressed in loose-fitting pyjama bottoms and an immense yellow-and-blue striped rugby shirt. A valet brought us Nescafé stirred with sugar into a creamy mixture. (I later learned that this was "Mam Jalal style".) Talabani lit a cigar. (He favours the long ones known as Churchills.) The day before, two suicide bombers had blown themselves up at a police recruitment centre just outside the Green Zone, killing 38 potential recruits. It was the latest incident in what almost everyone but Talabani acknowledged was an accelerating sectarian war. "I don't think Iraq is on the eve of a civil war," he said stubbornly. "Day by day - and this is not an exaggeration - Sunni and Shia leaders are coming close to each other."
Iraq's main problem was not sectarianism, he said, but a terrorist war waged by Ba'athists and foreign forces such as al-Qaida. Without losing his habitual equanimity, he added that the situation had been made worse by American ineptitude, arrogance and naivety, saying: "I think the main one responsible for this was Rumsfeld" - Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had resigned days earlier. (Talabani has since welcomed President Bush's plan to send an additional 21,500 American soldiers to Baghdad in a so-called "surge". He said in a statement that it showed "a new effort to improve security in Iraq" and that it "concurs and corresponds with Iraq's plans and ideas" - although some members of the government had been openly sceptical.)
After breakfast, Talabani went downstairs to deal with the affairs of the day. Half a dozen senior personnel were waiting, as they do each morning. When Talabani has an appointment elsewhere, he is driven in a BMW 7 Series armoured black saloon, preceded and followed by a sizable fleet of white Nissan Patrols carrying peshmerga guards. But, more often than not, people come to Talabani. It is a measure of his ascendancy that Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister, usually comes to Talabani, rather than vice versa. Maliki is the third prime minister since 2004, while Talabani has been a constant fixture. Maliki does not have Talabani's access to American and other foreign leaders, and must often work through him. In public, Talabani tries to defer to Maliki, and he appears to wish him to succeed.
One source of Talabani's power is his wealth. Together with his old rival Massoud Barzani, who is the president of the autonomous Kurdish region, Talabani is believed to have amassed many millions of dollars in "taxes" on oil smuggled out of Iraq through Kurdistan between 1991 and 2003, when the country was under UN sanctions. And Talabani obsessively dispenses gifts, trades favours, and buys allegiances, on the assumption that, in Iraq, the richest suitor has the best chance of winning the bride.
In many ways, Talabani's behaviour and his lifestyle are those of a clandestine party boss. His private quarters are cramped, poorly lit, and undecorated, with counters cluttered with satellite phones. His indulgences are food and a large personal staff. He and the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad have regular meetings over kallapacha, an Iraqi dish consisting of the head and stuffed intestines of a sheep. Twice a month, Talabani sends consignments of Kurdish yogurt, cheeses, honey and handmade sweets to foreign ambassadors and leading politicians.
Several of Talabani's aides told me privately about men in his entourage who, they suspected, profited from government contracts that they steered toward their friends. In this, Talabani's circle is not unusual. Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish MP, is close to Talabani but is scathing about the entire government's profligacy, corruption and moral cowardice. "How does the government expect to have respect when it is closed off?" he said. "The leaders live in Saddam's palaces, and in the Green Zone, and they never go out. The prime minister and the president have discretionary funds to spend as they like of a million or more dollars a month. I think the corruption is widespread and systemic and comes from the very top . . . All of this is against a reality in which the families of killed soldiers or police are given pensions of only $100 a month."
In Maliki's government, cobbled together after four months of tortuous negotiations following the December 2005 parliamentary elections, Talabani helped make sure that many of the high-level jobs that didn't go to Shias went to Kurds. (A number of them are Talabani's friends and relatives.) One of the two deputy prime ministers is a Kurd, and Kurds head several ministries, including the foreign ministry; the minister of water resources is Talabani's brother-in-law. From the American perspective, there is simply an abundance of qualified Kurds - or, at least, many with whom the US feels comfortable.
Talabani, like many senior Iraqi politicians, views Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia militia leader whose militia is known as the Mahdi army, with a mixture of condescension and contempt. The key to weakening Sadr, Talabani said, was Iran. "If the Iranians will calm down the Mahdi army, if there will be no assassination, if these - what do you call them? - 'death squads' will be no more, then only the terrorists will remain. And if Syria will be silent, only al-Qaida will remain, and we can defeat al-Qaida very easily."
Talabani went on, "One of the main mistakes the Americans have made in fighting terrorism is tying our hands and the hands of the Shias, while at the same time the terrorists are free to do what they want. If they let us, within one week we will clean all Kirkuk and adjacent areas." (Talabani's implication was clear: "to clean" is a euphemism for wiping out your opposition, for killing or capturing your enemies.) Talabani then adopted a high-pitched, whining voice, to mimic the Americans: "'No-o, Kurds must not move to the Arab areas, this is sensitive.' If they let the Shias clean the road from Najaf to Baghdad, they can do it within days. If they permit the people of Anbar to liberate their area, they will do it, but they say, 'Ah, no, this is another kind of militia.' They don't understand the realities of Iraq. From the beginning, we have had this problem with them." He added, "Wrong plan, wrong tactic, and wrong policy."
Talabani has been involved in politics since 1946, when, at the age of 13, with Iraq still ruled by the British-installed Hashemite monarchy, he joined an underground Kurdish student organisation. It was part of a Kurdish independence movement that had taken shape during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, after the first world war, when the victorious European powers failed to give the Kurds their own state. The division of the empire left the Kurds spread among Iraq (with an estimated four million Kurds today, or between 15% and 20% of Iraq's population), Turkey, Syria, and Iran; the greater Kurdistan envisaged by some separatists would encompass parts of each of those countries.
Talabani was born in the village of Kelkan, in south-eastern Iraqi Kurdistan; his father was a local sheikh. By 18, Talabani was the youngest member of the central committee of the Soviet-backed Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani. He studied law in Baghdad (interrupted by a period spent in hiding) and completed his obligatory service in the Iraqi army. Then, in 1961, Talabani joined an armed uprising launched by Barzani.
Three years later, Talabani split with Barzani to join a splinter group founded by Ibrahim Ahmed, the father of his future wife, Hero. Ahmed did not like the terms of Barzani's negotiations with the central government. This was a period of violent political instability in Iraq, with four presidents in the space of 10 years. After a Ba'athist coup in 1968, Talabani made a deal with Saddam, who was then the deputy president, to obtain more rights for the Kurds and to get his help in fighting Barzani - only to reconcile with Barzani when Saddam switched sides. It was the beginning of a dizzying sequence of schisms within the Kurdish rebellion, for which Talabani bears significant responsibility, and which, for a time, strengthened Saddam.
Talabani was a Marxist, and then a Maoist, attracted by "Mao's idea of popular war, of fighting in the mountains against dictatorship". He was also drawn to the anti-colonial Arab nationalist causes of the day. On trips during the 60s, he made important contacts - with Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan, Muammar Gadafy, Yasser Arafat, and President Hafez al-Assad of Syria. (In Talabani's office, there is a single photograph on the wall, of him with Assad. "He was very, very kind to me," Talabani said.)
In the mid-70s, Talabani spent time in Beirut, working with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist Palestinian guerrilla organisation. It is a murky period about which Talabani says little, but Kurds close to him suggest that he was then at his most radical, and at one point became involved in a Palestinian plot to hijack an American plane in Europe. He is said to have abandoned the scheme when a contact warned him that Mossad planned to assassinate him.
"We considered the US the enemy of the Iraqi Kurdish people," Talabani told me. Through the 80s, the US, for its part, saw the Kurds primarily as troublemakers and as pawns of Syria and Iran. In Turkey, America's Nato ally, Kurdish separatists had been waging a remorseless guerrilla war, to which the Turkish military responded with a vicious counterinsurgency campaign; thousands of Kurdish civilians were killed.
At the height of the Iran-Iraq War, Talabani once again allied himself with Saddam, then opposed him and helped Iran. Saddam's next move was the genocidal Anfal campaign. Saddam razed thousands of Kurdish villages, primarily in Talabani's territory. In the town of Halabja, between March 16 and March 17 1988, 5,000 Kurdish civilians were killed when planes dropped a lethal chemical cocktail that reportedly included mustard gas and nerve agents such as sarin, tabun and VX. Although these attacks later became part of the current Bush administration's case for overthrowing Saddam, the Reagan administration, which was supporting Saddam in his war with Iran, paid little attention; when the news of Halabja broke, the White House blamed Iran.
After Saddam's defeat in the first Gulf war, in early 1991, Shias in the south and Kurds in the north carried out uprisings. Talabani led his forces into Sulaimaniya and Kirkuk. With the US looking on, Saddam dispatched his army against them. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled, in the midst of a harsh winter, provoking a humanitarian crisis. The US and its allies declared a safe haven in the north; Talabani and Barzani (who had temporarily reconciled) began negotiating terms of settlement with Saddam.
There is an unfortunate photograph from this period that shows Talabani kissing Saddam on the cheek. "But, you know, at that time the Kurdish people were in danger of being annihilated," Talabani told me, by way of explanation. "Fighting is not playing ping-pong," Talabani said. "Fighting is killing each other. When we were fighting Saddam, we killed them, they killed us. It's something ordinary. It's war. And when we stop the war both killers sit down to receive each other. And this happens all over the world. Mao, he sat down with Chiang Kai-shek! Chiang Kai-shek killed his wife. His son! . . . But when the time comes to talk peace, they must sit down with each other. This is the process of life."
As the Kurdish "safe haven" developed into a "no fly zone" policed by US and British warplanes - a de facto Kurdish autonomous zone, beyond the authority of Saddam Hussein - Barzani and Talabani fought for pre-eminence. One dispute was over revenues from oil smuggling.
"Jalal is at his best when he is down, and is prone to making mistakes when he is up," a longtime friend of Talabani's told me. "In 1991, he was emerging as a statesman of the Kurds, internationally renowned. Instead of moving to become the nation builder that he was supposed to be, he moved into battle, playing with fire, undermining all that he built. "
In 1994, a civil war broke between the armies of Talabani and Barzani. In the midst of the fighting, Talabani provided a base for a CIA task force, and for Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader, who were involved in various failed coup plots. Hundreds of people died in these efforts. Talabani continued fighting Barzani, who at one point, astoundingly, invited Saddam's army into the north.
When President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, in 1998, promising American support for Iraqi opposition groups, Talabani and Barzani went to Washington and settled their differences. By then, several thousand Kurds from both sides had been killed.
Talabani called the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's report "unfair" and "unjust"; he compared it to terms imposed on a "colony". But one recommendation that he had no problem with was that President Bush begin direct talks with Syria and Iran. "It is in our interest that relations between the US and Iran about Iraq be at least normal, and if they have other differences let them take them to other parts of the world," he had told me a couple of weeks earlier. He was about to leave for his delayed trip to Iran. He was also keeping the Americans informed. "We never hide our relation with Iran from America."
Tehran was cold and grey on November 27 last year, when Talabani and his entourage arrived. Several ministers and a clutch of Iraqi journalists and photographers were on board. During our descent into Tehran, one of Talabani's junior aides came down the aisles, handing each person a form to sign. It was printed in Arabic, and, assuming it was an official landing document of some sort, I signed it, whereupon he handed me a thick envelope and moved on. Inside were 20 $100 bills. After we landed, I asked the aide why he had given me money, and he said it was "a gift from the president". I thanked him, but said that I could not accept it, and handed the envelope back. He looked very confused. A senior aide translated my explanation about "journalistic ethics", which left the man looking only more mystified. The senior aide then opened his own envelope and, whistling, counted out 50 $100 bills. "I think he's given me the same amount as the ministers," he exclaimed. "He does this from his own pocket, you know." He said that, on each trip, Talabani gives money to all those on board, including the bodyguards, the flight attendants and the pilot. We calculated that during the one-hour flight Talabani had given away about $100,000.
The contrast with Baghdad was striking. There were no armed soldiers or blast walls and security barricades to negotiate. Instead, we drove through street after street of brightly lit stores with neon signs; the sidewalks were full of people. But what most caught the attention of the Iraqis was the large number of women and girls out on the street; the sight of women in public has become a rarity in Baghdad.
The next morning, Talabani awoke early and visited the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. Then he met Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Sources close to Talabani told me that in their talks he requested a reversal in Iran's policy - specifically, that Iran's leadership "control" Sadr's militia and ally itself instead with his government, and that it persuade its allies, including Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah, to do the same. Talabani then asked that Iran open up communications with the multinational forces in Iraq, and cooperate with the Iraqi and US governments in their security plan for Baghdad. And, perhaps most controversial from the Americans' point of view - assuming that they knew about it - Talabani proposed that Tehran and Baghdad exchange intelligence, and that Iran help train and equip Iraq's security forces.
One of the Iraqis who attended the meeting said that Talabani told Khamenei that Iraq was "at a make-or-break point and needed Iran's help". He went on: "The Supreme Leader said that he understood and would do everything he could. In return, he wanted the Iraqis to take more control over their own security from the Americans."
At a press conference, Ahmadinejad said, "Iraq is like a wounded hero." Talabani, standing next to him, said, smiling, "We can only hope that he recovers." The crowd laughed; it was a classic Mam Jalal moment. Ahmadinejad added, "The best way to support Iraq is to support its democratically elected government." However disingenuous this may have sounded under the circumstances, Talabani's officials took it as a further sign that the Iranians were prepared to help. They told me it was the first time that the Iranians had explicitly endorsed the current Iraqi government.
An Iraqi minister came up to me afterward, looking enthusiastic, and said, "You see? I told you it was more than symbolic!" After a short pause, the official leaned over and whispered excitedly, "These guys even offered us weapons!"
That evening, a senior Iraqi official said that he was worried about the "mixed messages" coming from the US. "I emphasised with the Iranians that they should not just assume that because the Americans were bogged down in Iraq they were incapable of taking action against Iran; I said that they were entirely capable of it."
Saddam's execution, which came at dawn on December 30, was a clumsy and brutish affair. As he stood on a scaffold with the noose around his neck, he was taunted by some of his hooded executioners and by spectators. Talabani was in Sulaimaniya. Hours before the execution, he had found the perfect solution to his dilemma concerning the death warrant. "It couldn't have been any better," Hiwa Osman, his media adviser, explained. "He found that in cases of international war crimes the constitution did not give him the authority to alter the court's ruling. In a way, it was a blessing from the sky, and it solved his ethical dilemma."
As for Talabani's reaction to the execution, Osman said: "Remember what he did in Paris when the death sentence was announced, and he went into his bedroom for an hour or so? This time, it lasted three or four days. No one saw him".
© 2007 Jon Lee Anderson
· Jon Lee Anderson is the author of The Fall of Baghdad, The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan and Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life
Special report: Iraq
The trial of Saddam Hussein
Britain and Iraq
In memoriam: 100 British troops killed in Iraq
Special report: UK politics and Iraq
January 1 2005 - present
Feb 1 2004 - 31 Dec 2004
July 16 1979 - Jan 31 2004
More click-through graphics on Iraq
Full text of speeches and documents
Audio reports on Iraq
Provisional authority: rebuilding Iraq
Printable version | Send it to a friend | Save story