Qala Cholan, Iraq
Jalal Talabani is a former peshmerga–the name means “those who face death” and refers to the Kurdish guerrillas who spent decades in the mountains of northern Iraq fending off the assembled might of Saddam Hussein’s army. Now 72 years old and a candidate for the Iraqi presidency, Talabani looks out his study window at the snow-covered peaks before choosing his words carefully to answer the question on every Kurd’s lips–for the first time in the country’s history, will Iraq have a Kurdish president?
“Without reaching agreement, there is some kind of understanding, yes. The Shiites are insisting on having the post of prime minister and they are supporting Kurds to have the post of president,” he says, puffing on a large cigar.
Talabani made this statement in an interview earlier this week, as the parties continued negotiations in the wake of the elections. His comments reflect the enormity of what has happened in Iraq in the past two years–the political awakening of the Shiite majority, the rising strength of the Kurds–but it also highlights some looming problems. Can these two communities overcome ideological differences to draft a mutually acceptable constitution, and what role will the Kurdish leaders seek for their independence-minded people?
The most obvious Shiite-Kurd clash could be over the role of Islam in Iraqi society. Some senior figures in the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the winning Shiite bloc that secured nearly 50 percent of the national vote on January 30, have insisted that Islam be inscribed as the only source of legislation in the new Iraqi constitution. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, reclusive Iranian cleric and spiritual leader for Iraq’s Shiites, who has endorsed the UIA, is also reported to favor this demand.
The Shiites need an alliance with the secular Kurdish parties in order to gain control of parliament, hence the possible deal over the country’s top two posts. But having won more than a quarter of the votes, Kurds know they are in a strong bargaining position–and Islamic law is not on their agenda.
“When you say that Islam must be the only source of all laws, that means you’re going to found an Islamic state,” says Talabani, who, like the overwhelming majority of Kurds, is a Sunni Muslim. “The structure of Iraqi society cannot accept such a kind of government.”
Talabani is known for speaking his mind, but the Kurds have every reason to be assertive. Another Shiite bloc, led by incumbent prime minister Iyad Allawi, is courting their affections, and Kurds can pick and choose whom to support in return for pushing through “non-negotiable” demands of their own.
Most important is a continuation of the autonomous status their region has enjoyed since Western powers declared the enclave a “no-fly zone” in 1991, after the first Gulf War. Under a proposed federal system this might be acceptable to Iraq’s Shiite leaders, but a major obstacle is that Kurds want the oil-rich city of Kirkuk included within their borders.