Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, believes the power of a centralized government in Baghdad should be “lessened,” and more autonomy given the 18 provinces that comprise Iraq. It’s a relatively new concept, the younger Talabani told an audience at the University of South Carolina, last week. It is an idea that will put his country on a governing fast-forward, and one in which Iraq’s neighbors are watching with particular interest, perhaps even concern.
I’ll get to the concerns as expressed by Talabani in a moment. Let’s first consider the idea and the current dynamics in Iraq.
According to Talabani, Iraq needs to form representative regional governments encompassing more than one province. “The country cannot again be ruled by a centralized authority,” he says. The Iraqi people have an inherent fear of a centralization of power, and a general mistrust of those outside their own communities.
Talabani points to his native region, Kurdistan – from which he serves as a representative to the United States – as an example of how this idea might be implemented.
“Iraqi Kurdistan [comprised of six provinces] has its own regional government, its own parliament,” he says. “Other parts of the country are looking at forming similar regions so they can govern themselves with as much autonomy as possible over their own affairs, thus reducing the powers of the central government. By reducing such powers, you will reduce the different communities’ insecurities because of the mistrust that exists today.”
He adds, “At the moment, Baghdad is the prize and everybody is fighting over it. We need to reduce the relevance of that prize so that we reduce the level of tension throughout Iraq.”
The mistrust and tension, Talabani says, is a part of Saddam Hussein’s legacy, pitting one community against the other, as well as instilling fear from cruelties committed by the former regime against all segments of the population.
“My own region, Kurdistan, was decimated by Saddam,” Talabani says. “He destroyed about 4,000 villages, killed about 200,000 people, and used chemical and biological weapons in over 250 incidences – primarily against civilians.”
Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, most Kurds believed themselves to be the only victims of Saddam’s brutality. “But when the regime fell, we realized that Iraqi Arabs were also victims,” Talabani says. “We recovered hundreds-of-thousands of bodies in mass graves across the country, many of which were dedicated to children three to six-years-old. Most had been experimented on by the regime. I cannot describe the carnage and brutality in a way that you would be able to comprehend just how bad it really was.”
OFT’ SKIRTED NEWS
Despite problems stemming from fear and mistrust, Talabani is quick to point out the ongoing, and too-often underreported, positive developments in Iraq.
“Of the 18 different governorates [provinces] – similar to the states you have here in the U.S. – 13 or 14 of them are relatively calm and stable,” he says. “People are going about their daily lives and trying to rebuild the country.”
Additionally, the military and police forces are taking the lead, as opposed to U.S. and coalition forces (which were doing so a year ago), in operations aimed at quashing sectarian violence, terrorism, and crime.
“Today, Iraqis are out front, firing the first bullets,” says Talabani. “The Americans are now the ones in support.” He adds, Iraqi men, eager to serve in the security forces, are literally defying death to serve. “Time and again, the insurgents target recruiting centers,” he says. “But every time a recruiting center is bombed, the next day we see twice the number of recruits trying to enlist in the army.”
Despite the impatience and complexities surrounding the forming of a national unity government, there also has been enormous political progress in Iraq since the fall of Saddam. Iraq has held three overwhelmingly successful national elections. The last of which was a turnout of nearly 12 million people, more than 75-percent of Iraq’s eligible voters. Iraq now has a constitution and freely elected representatives from all regions and all ideological quarters.
“In Saddam’s day, 99 percent would have turned out for an election, because if you did not vote, you would be arrested,” says Talabani. “And he always managed to get 100 percent of the vote. Today we have thousands of candidates. We have a healthy system where people of different ideologies from Islamic organizations to secular groups are all trying to debate their issues on the political front. We have representatives from the different communities negotiating, bargaining, sometimes bickering over the formation of the new government. We know that some are impatient here [in the U.S.], and it is frustrating for us all, but the reality is politics are complex in Iraq, a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian, opinionated society.”
Not one to sweeten facts, Talabani concedes there are serious problems and challenges ahead. Sectarian violence did indeed spike after the bombing of the Golden Dome shrine in Samarra. The terrorists are still operating in Iraq. And Iraqi society still bears the scars of the old regime.
“A colleague of mine once said that when the war is over, we are not only going to require several-hundred-thousand U.S. troops, but we are going to require several-hundred-thousand U.S. psychiatrists,” he says. “The citizens of Iraq have gone through a very traumatic last-few decades. It’s going to take a long time to rebuild our society and our trust in our neighbors.”
Economic development woes are perhaps the most important challenge facing the new Iraq, because economic problems fuel any unrest.
“We still cannot provide adequate electricity throughout the country,” he says.
Indeed, and for several reasons. Prior to the invasion of 2003, Iraq was producing an average of 4,300 megawatts of electricity, much of which was diverted from the outlying provinces to Baghdad. That wattage has fluctuated – higher and lower than the pre-war averages – since 2003. But the electricity is now more evenly distributed throughout the country, and that creates an appearance that the previously high-powered cities are now not getting adequate electricity. Also, insurgent sabotage on the nation’s electrical grid has had a direct impact on output. And, if nothing else, demand for electrical power has doubled.
“People are bringing in more air conditioners, computers, Playstations, satellite TVs, and this is putting a much greater load on the system,” says Talabani, adding, “We also still cannot get enough oil out of the country. Oil exports are at an all-time low. Part of that is because of sabotage against the pipeline. Part is because of bureaucracy. Part is because there is a decrepit infrastructure that simply needs to be rebuilt. That takes time and money.”
According to Talabani, the insurgency in Iraq will not be put down unless the lives of Iraqi citizens are improved. “We are not going to defeat the terrorists by having only a good government and a super-strong army,” he says. “We have to also make sure Iraqis have electricity, water, healthcare, and jobs.”
A TOUGH NEIGHBORHOOD
“We live in a very difficult neighborhood, where we sometimes look at Europe and think, wouldn’t it be nice if we had Luxembourg as a neighbor,” Talabani says, smiling.
The audience laughs.
“But we have neighbors like Syria, Iran, even Al Qaeda, and others who have an interest in Iraq one way or another. All are looking at the democratic experiment in Iraq. They are looking at the fact that Iraq’s different communities are for the first time having a say at the national level.”
It is a disconcerting fact for many regional heads of state, both Islamic and secular, for as Talabani explains, “Iraq is sounding alarm bells throughout the Middle East. Others are feeling as if they too should have a say in how their government is run.” Hence, the concerns for those in power throughout the region.
Following the lecture, I ask Talabani if it is disheartening for the Iraqi people to hear and read the words of Americans who are so vehemently opposed to our efforts in Iraq.
“Yes,” he responds, “Because what is a very honorable debate among your society and among the American Congress is being translated in Iraq as a sign of division and a wavering U.S. commitment to democracy in Iraq. This of course has an adverse affect on the morale of the Iraqi people, the government, even the security forces. Most dangerously, the terrorists are emboldened. They know that by influencing public opinion in different countries, they can affect policy. That’s exactly what Al Qaeda did in Madrid.”
Another member of the audience poses a question about whether or not Iraq is devolving into civil war.
“We can get a lot of really smart people in a room and debate and try to categorize whether or not it’s a civil war, sectarian violence, or ethnic violence,” says Talabani. “I think that is beside the point. I think we are wasting too much time on trying to define it. The reality is there is sectarian violence. It has peaked since the tragic attack on the mosque in Samarra. We are addressing it. But if you ask 12 Iraqis whether or not it is civil war, you’ll probably get 14 different answers.”
Mr. Talabani’s lecture was arranged and hosted by USC students Anthony Busch and Erin Hutchison, both undergraduate fellows with the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.