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Talabani's Role in Iraq: Mr. Big?


The president of Iraq, as opposed to the prime minister, is a Kurd. He is a Jalal Kalabani, long time leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. That's his party. Over the course of his more than 70 years, Mr. Talabani has embraced any number of allies, always in the name of the Kurdish cause.

There is a profile of him in the current issue of the New Yorker. It's called "Mr. Big," and it's by Jon Lee Anderson, who joins us from Madrid. Welcome back to the program.

Mr. JON LEE ANDERSON (Journalist): Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Jon Lee Anderson, when I say that Mr. Talabani has embraced many allies, literally, your story includes pictures of him over the years embracing quite a disparate cast of characters.

Mr. ANDERSON: Embracing and kissing, which sometimes he hastens to point out himself. He talked about an early trip he made to China in his days as a Maoist and he said that saw Mao from a distance but he managed to kiss Juang Lian(ph).

And yes, in the piece, we have pictures of him kissing Saddam, Prime Minister Malachi, the American ambassador Khalilzad, Rumsfeld. He's quite an interesting man. He's had to forge alliances with all manner of people over the years and for the sake of Kurdish survival and his own political fortunes.

SIEGEL: Well, you mentioned what he did in China when he was a Maoist. He's been a lot of things politically over the years, yes?

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, he would claim to be somewhat more consistent than that. When he began in the Kurdish movement as a very young boy in the '40s, what it consisted of at the time was essentially a Soviet-backed movement, and so he grew up as a Marxist.

And then as he deepened his involvement in political militancy, he adhered to the Maoist idea of prolonged popular struggle, the rural guerrilla war in the mountains, much like he and his fighters were trying to do in Kurdistan. In fact, he still regards himself as, if not a Maoist, a socialist, although he says that he acknowledges that socialism can't be built in Iraq today.

But when I asked him who he felt his ultimate political role model was, he said without hesitation Mao Tse Tung.

SIEGEL: If what underlies all this, if the constancy in Jalal Talabani's career has been the Kurdish cause and the protection of the Kurdish people of Iraq, has he evolved into an Iraqi patriot? Does he place Iraq's welfare as president of the country and its continuation as an intact country above the Kurdish dream - which was I believe endorsed nearly all the Kurds when they had a non-binding referendum - of independence?

Mr. ANDERSON: That's right, they did. And yes. He argues strenuously that he takes his role as Iraq's president very seriously and that he is first and foremost challenged with attaining and vouchsafing its unity.

Nonetheless, you know, there's an element of contradiction there. Someone who knows him quite well said that he felt that as an outside player in Iraq that Talabani was ultimately helping vouchsafe the Kurdish interests as well.

He has been able to both use his mettle and his contacts and his charisma to try to broker unity between the Shiites and the Sunnis in Baghdad while steering business towards Kurdistan and arguing for greater and increased clauses in the various bills that have been put forth in this young democracy that is Iraq, which would ultimately make Kurdistan a much more viable, autonomous place.

So you know, on the one hand, you know, if things go well, Kurdistan will be a very autonomous region - economically prosperous, ideally - within a federal Iraq, which he will have been one of the founding fathers of. If it all implodes, however, he could well be one of the architects of the new unprecedented independent state of Kurdistan.

But he argues that an independent Kurdistan is impossible under the circumstances, that all of the neighboring countries, including Iran, Syria, Turkey, would attack it, that even if they had oil and had control over their oil, they wouldn't be able to export it.

So he claims to be a realist. I couldn't help but feel that deep down, you know, he is being somewhat tactical and that in the far horizon, he too shares the dream of an independent Kurdistan, but that right now, that's not possible.

SIEGEL: As someone who goes back a long way with the Iranians and whose background is on personal politics developed along Marxist lines, what do you think he makes of the Islamic republic across the border and the prospect of it having greater influence in Iraq?

Mr. ANDERSON: Talabani seems to have made his piece with that notion some time ago. Even before the 2003 war, he and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the then Iranian backed leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, who was a very major player in the country, had working arrangement.

Iran is right next door. And in several conversations with me, he made it a point that - he was very clear about what Iran was doing. He said that Iran was, in fact, up to covert activities in Iraq. And he was keen to see that reined in. And in a sense, he sees himself as trying to broker that, also, a reduction in the violence in Iraq, and if he can, to be the go-between for some kind of taunt in Iraq between the U.S. and Iran.

And it's quite interesting because you have Talabani on the one hand arranging security coordination with Tehran, and then comes back to Baghdad where the Americans begin raiding, capturing some of the people that he ultimately invited. There is this very nuanced game going on in which he is a very pivotal figure.

Now, you know, it's difficult to know if the bellicosity being expressed out of Washington towards Iran is kind of part of a more grand carrot and stick, good cop, bad cop approach or not, or how much negotiating room this still leaves Talabani.

But from what I could see, being around him, this is precisely where he excels, where the margins are very, very small, and where he has multiple and apparently contradictory forces at work to try to reconcile. And in some ways, he's the perfect man for the present situation in Iraq in that sense.

SIEGEL: Well, Jon Lee Anderson, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ANDERSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker magazine is the author of this week's profile of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. It's called "Mr. Big." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.