Qubad Talabani: It’s Time to Go Back to Kurdistan

Qubad Talabani: It’s Time to Go Back to Kurdistan
By Sîrwan Kajjo
(originally published in the June 2012 issue of
The Kurdish Review, a monthly Kurdish newspaper from Washington, DC. Reprinted here by request of author)

US Representative of Kurdistan Regional Government Qubad Talabani is getting ready to leave his office this year. After 12 years of representing Kurds in several positions, Talabani is expected to be working in the Prime Minister office once he’s back in Erbil. To shed light on this issue and other relevant matters, The Kurdish Review met with Mr. Talabani for this exclusive interview.

Sîrwan Kajjo (L) interviews Qubad Talabani (R)

Kurdish Review: Let’s begin with the continuous dispute between KRG and central government, how do you see the US stance on this crisis?

Qubad Talabani: There is obviously a political dispute within the federal government, and this dispute is a natural dispute between legitimate entities in the country. The United States is no longer in charge of Iraq. Iraq is a sovereign country, so these disputes have to be managed domestically, managed by the governments themselves.  It’s not the United States’ role to have a stance. It’s not for the US to take one side over the other. I think the US is trying to normalize its relation with Iraq. I think what the US wants out of all of this is an outcome that will lead to stability.

KR: There were Kurdish delegations from Turkey, Syria and Iran in Washington DC over the last few weeks to meet with US officials. Did you get to meet and/or Help them?

Qubad: We were pleased to meet all of our delegations in town. The details of the Eastern Kurdistan delegation was less clear to me.  But I was certainly aware and closely following BDP/DTK delegation and Kurdish National Council in Syria’s delegation. We received them here in the office and gave them our advice of the kind of things that people here in Washington are interested in. I’m very happy to see these kinds of delegations coming from other parts on Kurdistan to meet with US government officials, meet with think thanks and educate them on other aspects of Kurdistan that they might not be familiar with. There’s a reasonable understanding in Washington regarding the issues of Iraqi Kurdistan and its complications. But I don’t think the policy community here is fully aware of Kurdish issues of Eastern, Northern and Western Kurdistan. So I believe these meetings are very important.

KR: Did you get any feedback from Washington policy-makers regarding those delegations and their meetings?

Qubad: Yes the feedback, official and nonofficial, that I’ve received was positive. The meetings were timely and people learned a lot from the delegations’ visit in Washington. For example, there is some much analysis on Syria. Very smart people in Washington and London are analyzing the situation as they read, but what makes all that even more unique is actually hearing from people from that region. Having the Kurdish delegation from Syria helped policy makers here to form a clearer vision on the issue. It was a good source of information for Washington.

KR: Rumors being spread in the Kurdish community that New-elect Kurdistan PM Nechirvan Barzani wants you in Kurdistan to hold the post of minister of oil and natural resources in KRG. Is that true?

Qubad: (Laughing)…. That is so far away from the truth. It’s true I’m leaving Washington after serving Kurdistan interests for 12 years in various posts as PUK representative, KRG – Sulaimaniyah Adminstration representative and finally the unified KRG representative. Now my time is running out here. I’m going back to Kurdistan to work for the Prime Minister in his office.

KR: When are you going back?

Qubad: This summer.

KR: Yes, but when precisely?

Qubad: This summer.

KR: Fine, who is going to take over your position?

Qubad: It’s not clear yet.

KR: Do you think KRG representative to UK, Bayan Sami Abdulrahman will succeed you?

Qubad: I have not heard anything formally about that. I think whoever takes over the job, will do it fantastically. Certainly Bayan Xan is more than capable of handling this job. In fact, she’s doing it already in England. I know she’s a great candidate and a great colleague of mine. I have a lot of respect for her. But for everybody’s sake, I think we should wait to see who the nominee is.

KR: During your period of service, how was your relationship with the Iraqi embassy in Washington?

Qubad: I’ve always had a good relationship with the Iraqi embassy. Obviously our work is different. There was some sensitivity in the past, mainly from embassy side. I can’t represent Basra here. I can’t represent Baghdad. My job here is to represent Kurdistan. In fact, we’d like to think that we’re filling a void on behalf of the embassy. So we live together, we work together but we don’t work for each other.

KR: But the embassy has complained about the expansion of your work here! Why is that?

Qubad: Up until recently, we only had six staffers, a couple of part-timers and contactors. We can’t compare our expansion and budget with the embassy. For instance, the embassy has a commercial attaché with a staff, a military attaché with its own staff and several other offices. So there really shouldn’t be any complaints.

KR: By the way, how many people work for your office now?

Qubad: Well so far, we have eight full time positions. We have a Director of Public Affairs, Director of Congressional and Academic Affairs, Director of Cultural and Community Affairs, Director of Political and Diplomatic Affairs, Director for Outreach . There also a couple of administrative positions. Moreover, we always have internships for Kurds and non-Kurds. So it’s quite a full team.

KR: What has Qubad Talabani done in the past 12 years representing the Kurds in the US?

Qubad: Well, it’s a good question. But it’s not for Qubad Talabani to say what I’ve done. With the help of my staff, we’ve been able to turn this office from a one-person office into an institution. I think that’s probably the accomplishment I’m most proud of. Twenty years ago, this office was run from somebody’s basement in Fairfax. Now it’s a true representation. We have this beautiful building that is owned by our government in a prominent location of the city. I would say it’s no less that an embassy in Washington. Of course, forming the American-Kurdish Congressional Caucus for the first time in the history of US Congress, for example, was a testimony of the good work this office’s been doing. Many other groups have been established here in order to promote Kurdish interests in the US.

KR: Many think that you played an imperative role in unifying the “divided” Kurdish community in America, in Washington area specifically. How could you get all these people together?

Qubad: I thank whoever says that. Indeed when I first came here, the community was really divided. Newroz parties were held separately. There was one for PUK, one for KDP, one for KDP-I. Even simple things like demonstrations were done separately. There was still a left over effect of the regrettable conflict in Kurdistan within the community here. But thankfully, that dynamic has changed and things are much better now. There’s one Newroz and everyone goes to it. Whether you’re Northern, Eastern, Southern or Westerner, it doesn’t matter. It was one of my goals when I first came here. I thought was crazy. Newroz is Newroz, it’s not PUK’s or KDP’s. It even went beyond that. Once we had meeting for several groups. Our eastern brothers got angry and left the meeting. And do you know what the challenge was? It was a problem with portraits of political leaders (laughing)… It was about whose picture to hang up at the event!! One party, I won’t mention names, wanted two pictures, one said just one picture is enough. Then things got so complicated… just over pictures. Of course, the experiment of having each person bring one picture became so embarrassing. So everyone eventually came to the understanding that its time to move on. Thankfully , the year after, which was 2005, we had the first new year without pictures. We just had the Kurdish flag.  The community has also been more active in getting involved in policy making in the US. For example, the community was very helpful when we passed a resolution to open the US Consulate in Erbil

KR: What advice would you give to the next KRG representative in Washington?

Qubad: Washington is a unique animal. It’s not like other capitals in the world. Anyone who comes here has to be aware of this. My advice would be for them to not become part of the political divisions here. They should work with all parties, think thanks and other institutions. Our job here is not to take sides.

The other thing that I would like the next representative to work on is our getting closer to the community here. The Kurdish community can strengthen our mission here. One aspect of my years here that I can be somewhat self critical at is my work with the community. While we did engage the youth with some success, I think I could’ve done better in terms of broader community outreach and better engaging the community in our efforts. We have some exceptionally talented and patriotic Kurds here in the US, and they can be a real asset to Kurdistan.

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HRW slams media repression in Kurdistan

HRW slams media repression and widening use of force in crackdowns on peaceful protesters in Kurdistan. Excerpts (related to Kurdistan) below are from ‘Iraq: Widening Crackdown on Protests: New Restrictions, Abuse in Arbil, Sulaimaniya, Baghdad‘, Human Rights Watch, New York, 21 April 2011.

Kurdistan authorities should end their widening crackdown on peaceful protests in northern Iraq, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should hold accountable those responsible for attacking protesters and journalists in Arbil and Sulaimaniya since April 17, 2011, including opening fire on demonstrators and beating them severely, Human Rights Watch said.

The Kurdistan Regional Government authorities should revoke their recent bans on unlicensed demonstrations in Sulaimaniya province, Human Rights Watch said.

“Iraqi authorities in Kurdistan and Baghdad need to rein in their security forces and protect the right to protest peacefully,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Repression in Kurdistan

In the afternoon of April 18 in Arbil, the Kurdistan capital, dozens of armed men in civilian clothes attacked students from the Kurdistan region’s largest university, Salahadin, as they tried to hold a demonstration. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the assailants also attacked journalists and at least one Member of Parliament.

A third-year Salahadin student told Human Rights Watch that a large group of organized assailants wearing civilian clothes attacked the protesters with brute force.

“We chanted ‘freedom, freedom,’ and then security forces came and abolished the demonstration,” the student said. “They were hitting people by knives and sticks … and arrested 23 protesters.”

The assailants beat Muhamad Kyani, a member of the Iraqi national parliament for the opposition party Goran (Change) List, and his bodyguard while they were walking away from the demonstration. “There was no violence from us, nothing happened from our side to incite them,” Kyani told Human Rights Watch. “I was on my way to the car when the Asayish [the official security agency for the Kurdistan region] threw me to the ground and started to kick and beat me.” Kyani had two black eyes and other minor injuries from the beating. “They just wanted to intimidate and insult me and those with me,” he said. “During the beating they swore at us and called me a traitor.”

Reporters without Borders documented attacks on at least 10 journalists covering the April 18 protest. The group said assailants also detained numerous journalists, including Awara Hamid of the newspaper Rozhnam, Bahman Omer of Civil Magazine, Hajar Anwar, bureau chief of the Kurdistan News Network, and Mariwan Mala Hassan, a KNN reporter, as well as two of the station’s cameramen.

Shwan Sidiq of Civil Magazine was hospitalized after the assailants broke his hand. “My hand is broken, my head still hurts,” he told Human Rights Watch. “What I saw was what in 1988 Saddam Hussein did against me and my family.”

Security forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the two ruling parties there, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have used repressive measures against journalists since the start of the protests in Iraq on February 17. The local press freedom group Metro Center has documented more than 150 cases of attacks and harassment of Kurdish journalists since February 17. In March, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 journalists covering the protests in Kurdistan.

“Time and again we found that security forces and their proxies violate journalists’ freedom of expression through death threats, arbitrary arrests, beatings, harassment, and by confiscating and vandalizing their equipment,” Stork said.

In Sulaimaniya, daily clashes since April 17 have injured more than 100 protesters, journalists, and security forces. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on April 17 security forces fired live ammunition into the air to clear protesters blocking a road, while others shot into the crowd indiscriminately, wounding at least seven demonstrators.

“Police and security forces used everything to attack us,” one protester told Human Rights Watch. “They opened fire, threw stones, used sticks and their Kalashnikovs to keep us from demonstrating.”

Protest organizers told Human Rights Watch that on April 18, security forces violently seized control of Sara Square, the center of daily protests in Sulaimaniya since February 17, and demolished the protesters’ podium. Security forces have fanned out across the city and have refused to allow protesters back to the site – renamed Azadi (Freedom) Square by demonstrators – resulting in clashes on April 18 and 19.

On March 6, masked assailants attacked demonstrators and set their tents on fire but failed to evict protesters from the site.

On April 19, protest organizers said, security forces detained dozens of students and others in and around Sulaimaniya, releasing most later in the day. One law undergraduate told Human Rights Watch that security forces attacked her and other protesters at the Dukan checkpoint on their way to Sulaimaniya.

“We were forced to get off the buses,” she said. “They threatened if we went [to the protest], we would be killed. A friend of mine asked them not to shoot us because we have pens and not guns, but when he raised his pen security forces opened fire and he was badly injured.”

Since then, this student said, she has received anonymous threatening phone calls telling her not to return to Sulaymaniya. Security forces raided Koya University, where she studies, and arrested two students. Their whereabouts remain unknown.

The family of a prominent Kurdish writer and activist, Rebin Hardi, told Human Rights Watch that security forces severely beat him during and after his arrest on April 19 for participating in a protest in front of the Sulaimaniya courthouse. Photos taken after his release later that day viewed by Human Rights Watch showed severe swelling up and down the right sight of his body including his eye, arm, and thigh.

Since February 17, clashes with security forces have killed at least seven civilians and injured more than 250 demonstrators in Kurdistan, but thousands have continued to protest alleged corruption and the political dominance of the KDP and PUK.

On April 19, the government’s Security Committee for Sulaimaniya Province banned all unlicensed demonstrations. Legislation passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government in December gives authorities wide discretion in deciding whether to approve a license for a protest. The law’s wording is exceptionally vague and susceptible to abuse, Human Rights Watch said. Under article 3(c) of the law, authorities can reject a request if “the protest will damage the system or public decency.”

Inside Story: Battle for Kurdistan

AlJazeera’s Inside Story, with presenter Laura Kyle, discusses with guests: Makki Nazzal, a political analyst; Noreldin Waisy, a journalist in Irbil and Nasik Kadir, a Sulaimaniyah protest leader.

This episode of Inside Story aired on Wednesday, April 19, 2011.

Who’s the bleeding ulcer?

Michael Rubin

Once again, Michael Rubin is spewing anti-Kurdish vitriol. His latest piece entitled Saddam in Kurdistan is much of the same stuff he’s been writing for many years, though the tone does seem a wee bit harsher.

The website that published the article describes him as ‘a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute [AEI]; senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations; and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.’ But a better description comes from investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss, who often writes for the publication Nation. In February 2010 he wrote this about Rubin: ‘The 2000s produced a panoply of villains, cretins and bunglers on Iraq and the broader Middle East. Truly, however, none of them can hold a candle to the pudgy-faced boy wonder of the American Enterprise Institute, Michael Rubin.’

AEI is a conservative, pro-corporation think-tank based in Washington DC whose neo-con ‘scholars’ and affiliated individuals include the likes of John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and Richard Kagan.

In this latest essay he writes that ‘Iraqi Kurdistan was once a shining example of democracy’s potential in Iraq, but today it is freedom’s bleeding ulcer. While ordinary Iraqis have seen their freedoms increase since Saddam Hussein’s fall, the trajectory is the reverse in Iraqi Kurdistan…’

In May of 2010 he wrote a piece published in Rozhnama that said the KRG was ‘a region of Iraq which [is] no longer a beacon of liberty.’

In July of 2009 in the Daily Star he said that while the KRG ‘could once describe itself as a democratic beacon in the region, today such depictions lack credibility. Seventeen years after its first election, Iraqi Kurdistan is at best as democratic as Egypt or Iran, and worst akin to Syria or Tunisia.’

The Washington Post published one of his pieces in April 2009 in which he said, that ‘before Saddam Hussein was ousted, Iraqi Kurdistan was certainly more democratic than the rest of Iraq. But this is no longer the case.’

In January of 2008 in MEI Outlook he stated that ‘Iraq has changed, but Iraqi Kurdistan has not. After Saddam’s fall, many Iraqi Kurds expected that their region would liberalize and democratize. Rather than reform, however, regional politics have ossified. Barzani retains dictatorial control over the Duhok and Erbil governorates, and Talabani likewise dominates Sulaymaniyah. Freed from the shadow of Saddam, however, Iraqi Kurdistan has slid backward.’

And so on, and so on. But Rubin has a track record of misleading claims, says Right Web, a group that tracks militarists’ efforts to influence US foreign policy.

It is clear in the case of the KRG that he has a grudge; a personal vendetta against the leadership of the region. While the KRG deserves criticism in certain areas, Rubin’s diatribes are nothing more than the venomous outpourings of a scorned neocon, desperately seeking revenge. Some have opined that he wasn’t offered a cushy job by the KRG after his year in Slêmanî teaching some ten years ago and this has led to his seething hatred.

Rubin’s track record in the region includes working for a number of groups associated with the US ‘Israel lobby’ (including AEI, as well as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the Middle East Forum), championing the US invasion of Iraq, suggesting the assassination of foreign leaders like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reportedly misrepresenting translations of statements by Iranian officials, working at the controversial Pentagon Office of Special Plans, and consulting for the PR firm the Lincoln Group, which was accused of planting propaganda in the Iraqi press.

He whines in his article that ‘[i]n the Middle East, power always trumps principle’ and writes frequently about it. Is this a ‘Middle East’ phenomenon? Hardly. Mr Rubin should look at his own record and at Washington’s record. In Washington’s foreign policy money always trumps human rights. And he is one of the main cheerleaders of that policy.

Rubin’s wrath is not just aimed at the Kurds who run the KRG. He hates the Kurds in Turkey too. He is an outspoken and controversial proponent of hardline US foreign policies and this is manifested in his views on the PKK. Rubin and his AIE colleagues support Turkish generals and the lies that mask the truth and label the oppressed as ‘terrorists.’ As one Kurdish commentator put it: ‘It would seem that the Turkish glasses through which Mr Rubin sees the world have blinded his vision.’

Rubin calls Iraqi Kurdistan ‘freedom’s bleeding ulcer.’ One symptom of a bleeding ulcer is the ‘passing of foul smelling black, tarry stools.’ That describes Rubin’s ‘scholarly’ articles and his regional analyses. Perhaps then it is Rubin who is the bleeding ulcer.

Kurdistan Parliament’s 17-point agreement

The Kurdistan Parliament announced on its official website that all political blocs had signed the 17-point agreement that condemns both the use of force against the protestors in Slêmanî and against the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headquarters, drawn up during the exceptional Wednesday meeting that continued through to 1.00am this Thursday morning.

While the announcement says ‘all political blocs had signed’, the Gorran Movement, the largest Kurdish opposition group said it had not signed the agreement.

‘Though the 17-point agreement contained important decisions, we did not sign it because the demands of the faction had not been taken into account,’ Kardo Mohammed, the parliamentary head of Gorran told the Sbeiy.com news website.

Mohammed went on to say that the party will disclose its position on the subject in a separate statement. ‘We will discuss it among ourselves and decide on it later,’ he said.

Here are the 17 points:

1. Condemning, prohibiting and criminalising violence and the use of live ammunition against citizens and attacking the governmental and political offices and harming the public and private properties by any party.

2. The immediate withdrawal of all of the moved forces, that were ordered to move 17/02/2011 to Slêmanî or any other city in Kurdistan Region and their return to their previous locations.

3.Freeing all of those who were detained as a result of participating in the demonstrations, and those who committed crimes should be dealt with by the courts and police forces.

4.The government should, according to the laws, compensate all persons, parties and institutions who were harmed as a result of the attacks and violence.

5. Protecting and organising the demonstrations by only the interior forces of police and the civil activities police. The identities of those forces (name, ID cards, and location of work) should be made public and nobody should be allowed to move with their face covered or windows of their cars blackened.

6. The Peshmerga forces should be prohibited from participating in any internal political conflict and should undertake its national functions of protecting the achievements of the people of Kurdistan.

7. It is necessary that the investigation committee established by the government be headed by a member of the Court of Cassation, and recruit professional and independent personality to be its member and should announce the results of its investigations as soon as possible to the public.

8. There were shortcomings in the dealing with the situation by the police and Asayish (Security) forces and those responsible for those shortcomings should be legally followed after the results of the investigations are announced.

9. No demonstrator should be detained for his or her participation without legal proceedings.

10. The decision for moving military forces should not be issued only in the cases of the existence of a foreign danger.

11. Those who burnt down Nalia channel and the Gorran/Change radio and television should be legally followed and sued immediately.

12. For the purpose of general and radical reform, projects should be prepared by the blocs and committees of the parliament with the help of the Council of Ministries and with partnership with the political parties, civil society organisations, university professors, professionals and independent personalities. Those projects should be presented to the Parliament for discussions and their implementation should be followed as soon as possible.

13. The government should immediately issue a host of important and urgent decisions that are needed for improving the living situation of the people and introducing social justice and increasing the political freedoms and rights.

14. Every party should play its role to calm the situation and end the media attacks by the political parties.

15. Calling on the Prime Minister, the Minister of Interior and the Minister of Peshmerga for a hearing in the parliament for clarifications and questioning according to the legal provisions and procedures.

16. Arranging and supporting a national political dialogue among those political parties and bodies that have representatives in the Kurdistan Parliament in order to introduce a political and legal understanding to amend those laws that have political and national dimensions.

17. The establishment of a special committee from all of the blocs in the parliament in order to investigate and start hearings about the demands of the demonstrators.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of tomorrow’s ‘Day of Rage’ protests scheduled throughout Iraq, one of the routes between Slêmanî and Erbil (Hewlêr) has been closed.

Speaking on the security measures, Erbil Governor Nawzad Hadi said: ‘Part of the plan is the prevention of entry from other Iraqi provinces into Erbil’ to stop any ‘undesired incidents’ from taking place.

Ismat Argushi, the director of the regional security agency told AKnews that they have precise intelligence information that ‘terrorists’ are trying to enter the region from across the national borders and from other Iraqi provinces.

Day 7: Peace wall and flowers in Slêmanî

Upwards of 5,000 demonstrators gathered yesterday Slêmanî in a peaceful protest against corruption by the two ruling parties and demanded an investigation into the deaths of three young protesters. In addition to the three deaths, 124 have been wounded and many have been arrested since protests began a week ago.

‘Killing of the civilians was a red line,’ said Nasik Kadir, one of the protesters. Another, 35-year-old Kardo Karim said they will continue ‘demonstrations until officials implement real change.’

Many well-known Kurdish artists, singers and actors came out to Tuesday’s protests wearing white sheets with peace slogans imprinted on them. They positioned themselves in a ‘peace wall’ between the protesters and security forces to deter further violence. Protesters handed out flowers, even to those in the security forces.

Below are some photos from yesterday (from AFP and Destour).

Woman hands out flowers

Security forces with flowers

Wall of Peace

'Peace shirts'

An emotional observer in the crowd

Amnesty International Urges Restraint in Kurdistan

From Amnesty International:

Restraint urged in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region following more protester deaths
21 February 2011

Amnesty International has called on the Kurdistan regional government to rein-in militias affiliated to political parties who killed two protestors on Sunday, as anti-government demonstrations continue in the north of Iraq.

A 17-year-old boy, Serkho Mohammed, was shot dead yesterday as hundreds of demonstrators clashed with government security forces and armed militia belonging to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the city of Sulaimaniya.

A second protester died in hospital today after being shot during the protests, which also left at least 30 people injured. Others were apparently arrested.

“These killings add fuel to an already volatile situation in Sulaimaniya and represent a very worrying, as well as tragic, development,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“It is imperative that the authorities step in and prevent further killings and other abuses, and bring the KDP militia under control and accountable under the law.”

Security forces reportedly opened fired and used tear gas on protesters trying to reach the KDP building, apparently in order to burn it down.

Armed KDP militia have killed three people in Sulaimaniya, including a 15-year-old boy, since protests began outside the party’s main offices on 17 February. The protestors have been calling for an end to corruption.

“The Kurdish authorities must order an immediate independent investigation into these killings and those who perpetrated them must be brought to justice if, as it appears, the killings were unlawful,” said Malcolm Smart.

Since the protests started on 17 February, several buildings of the opposition Goran (Change) party and the headquarters of a newly established TV and radio station have reportedly set on fire.

The KDP and another Kurdish party jointly hold power as the government of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.

“The two political parties that jointly rule Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces continue to operate armed militia which act almost as a law unto themselves and have been permitted to commit human rights abuses with impunity,” said Malcolm Smart.

A ‘day of rage’ has been organised for 25 February across Iraq where coordinated demonstrations are expected to take place calling for reforms, including an end to corruption.