Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish politician newly inaugurated as president of Iraq, was interviewed by the BBC's Jim Muir in Baghdad.
Q: During all those years when you were leading the Kurdish rebellion or insurgency against Saddam Hussein and previous Iraqi governments, did you ever imagine that one day you might be president of the Iraqi republic?
A: No. In my life I didn't think about being in any official post. My struggle was only for democracy in Iraq and for Kurdish rights, sometimes in the shape of autonomy, sometimes of federation in the framework of a democratic Iraq. My personal desire was to be a professor in the university.
Q: The Kurds themselves were dancing in the streets when they heard the news. What do you think it means for Iraqi Kurdistan, for the Kurds of Iraq, that you're president?
A: First, it means that the Kurds are equal citizens, they are no more second-class citizens. Second, they think that our Arab brothers recognise their right to have an important post in the country because all the time in the past, the Iraqi governments were giving the Kurds second-ranking posts or ministries which were not important, always looking on them as second-class citizens of the country. And third, it proves for the Kurds that their struggle ended in a way that they can say the blood of their martyrs was not in vain.
Q: But has that struggle now ended, or is this another step along the way?
A: The struggle will continue forever, as long as we are alive. The struggle now is for achieving our demands in Iraq, to secure the Iraqi country, to start rebuilding the country, reconstructing, for the prosperity of the Iraqi people, for democracy and human rights, and so for improving the life of the Kurdish people and strengthening the important developments that happened in Iraqi Kurdistan in the past decade.
Q: In their hearts, all Iraqi Kurds would like independence. Could this be a step in that direction?
A: No, on the contrary, I think the Iraqi Kurds voted for federation. Wishful thinking is one thing, and reality another. As wishful thinking, of course, I think all Kurds want independence. But in reality when they are thinking for some kind of demands which can be achieved, they voted for the Kurdistan list which was asking for federation within the framework of Iraq. I think that a Kurd having this post means that the Kurds are going to bring their experience to Iraq, to Iraqise [sic] the Kurdistan development, and to strengthen the unity of Iraq.
Q: Saddam Hussein several times issued amnesties for Kurdish rebels, but he usually excluded you. How do you think he felt, watching your inauguration on television, as he is reported to have done?
A: I don't know. I think he is now very sorry because he lost all Iraq. And I think if he is reviewing his past, he must be very sorry because he committed big mistakes.
Q: You're a lawyer and human rights advocate, and you're against the death penalty. Yet you may be asked to sign a death warrant for Saddam Hussein. Will you sign it?
A: Personally, no. But you know the presidency of Iraq are three people. These three must decide. So I can be absent. I can go to holiday and let the two others decide. I personally signed a call for ending execution throughout the world. And I'm respecting my signature.
Q: So you cannot do it?
Q: And you won't do it?
A: No. This is one of my problems.
Q: So you wouldn't sign his death warrant yourself, but would you advocate a reprieve?
A: Well, I said my word, but no-one is listening to me, to be frank with you. My two partners in the presidency, the government, the House, all of them are for sentencing Saddam Hussein to death before the court will decide. So I think I will be alone in this field.
Q: A minority president?
A: A big minority, an isolated president among other friends. But this is the principle, I believe in this principle, and this is a matter of principles.
Q: If he were to be executed, are you worried that it might have a negative effect on efforts to win over the insurgents?
A: I don't think so. I think if he'll be finished, many of his followers will finish their hope or their wishful thinking that one day he will come back.
Degrees of opposition
Q: You're under a lot of pressure, to release prisoners, and to issue amnesties for the insurgents. Would you do that?
A: Well, I cannot do it alone. There must be consensus between the presidency and government. In my opinion, we have three kinds of people who are now fighting against the new democratic regime. First, a criminal group, of Zarqawi, al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Sunna, those fundamentalist groups who are launching the war of annihilation against Shia and against Kurds. They are the enemy of Iraqi people, they are criminals, they must be punished, they must be eradicated and kicked out from Iraq.
The second group, we can say they are those people who were angered by some policies of the Iraqi government or officers or people responsible for ruling their area. Those people can easily be brought back to the democratic process in Iraq.
The third are Baathists, and Baathists are two kinds: pro-Syrian Baathists with whom we can reach agreement because they were with us at the time of opposition. They were one of the opposition parties, they struggled against the dictatorship. It is easy to talk to them, to convince them to come back to the democratic process.
But those who are pro-Saddam are very difficult to reach agreement with, because they are still dreaming to bring back the dictatorship, which is of course refused by the big majority of the Iraqi people.
Q: Could you at least amnesty them so that they could stop taking part in actions?
A: Well after the election, which was a turning-point in the history of the Iraqi people, many people who were obliged to take up arms against the new democratic regime are now regretting it, and they're looking for a kind of amnesty to come back to the civil life. We must permit those people to come back to the democratic process. But there has to be consensus among the presidency, the government and the speaker of the house.
Q: What will your position be?
A: I will try my best to convince my colleagues that we must have a comprehensive policy towards those who are fighting the regime. This must be political, ideological, of course military but also economic. All kind of measures must be used to end this fight against the regime.
Q: What about the question of de-Baathification, that is, rooting out former Baathists from the administration and security forces - how far should that go?
A: First of all we must understand that there were two kinds of Baathists.
The pro-Syrian Baathists, who were with us in opposition, were a party struggling against Saddam Hussein. They sacrificed, they had martyrs, they suffered a lot. Those people are like us, they have full right to engage in the new political life, to have freedom to work here, to be treated as patriots.
The other group of Saddam, in reality Saddam himself ended the Baath Party, because he killed hundreds of their cadres, tens of their leaders, real Baathists. What remained was the party of government. The government was obliging everyone to sign up, to join the party. Those are hundreds of thousands of people. We must give them the right to live in Iraq as Iraqis.
Then there is a group of criminals. Those criminals must be sent to the court to be tried. But in the military departments, in the police and army, the Baathists, ex-Baathists must be prevented, because they will try to make a new coup d'etat. When they are retired, they must be paid a salary. When they are sent to the other offices, they must be respected. But not permitted to go back to the army or to the military forces.
Q: Some have already been recruited though, haven't they?
A: Yes, and I'm not satisfied that this is a good step. There were hundreds of free officers who were in touch with us. Some of them were executed because they plotted against Saddam Hussein, they tried to change the regime. Of course, I can say those thousands of officers can be permitted to go back to the army to work, because they were not pro-Saddam Hussein, they were not pro-dictatorship. I don't think they will try to make a coup d'etat. But I mean Saddamists who remain loyal to Saddam must not be permitted to go back to the Iraqi army or armed forces at all.
Q: Is this a big point of difference in the current efforts to form a government?
A: There is [sic] some people who say that all Baathists must be prevented from come back to the posts. I think that in civil posts, the Baathists must be permitted - university professors, doctors, teachers, engineers, those who didn't commit crimes, and they were Baathists.
Why not? They must come back and we must use them for the interest of Iraqi people, and perhaps try to change their beliefs and even the ideology. I think de-Baathification must first mean de-Baathification of the ideology of the Baath party, which was based on dictatorship, the so-called vanguard party, the necessary leader, something like fascist phrases which were used in Iraq. Saddam Hussein's word, for example, was more important than the law. If he issued a decree and the law was against him, the law had to go, not his word. Such a kind of ideology must be eradicated.
Ending the violence
Q: It will obviously be the first task of the new administration to tackle the insurgency in one way or other. What's the best way to stop it?
A: I think the best way is to have a comprehensive policy, which must depend on media, ideology, political solution, economy, and stopping some kind of violating the rights of people by armed forces, and at the same time trying to convince our neighbours who are supporting them, that this is not a resistance movement, this is a movement committing crimes against Iraqi people, and this will not lead to oblige allied forces to escape from Iraq.
Q: So your neighbours are not being very helpful at the moment?
A: Well not all of them. Some of them.
Q: Would you like to name names?
A: No, I don't want to.
Q: Now the issue of combating the insurgency obviously is linked to the building up of Iraqi security forces, which will be crucial also in determining when the Americans and their allies can start pulling out. What's your guess as to when the Iraqi forces will be in a position to take control from Americans, the British and others?
A: In my opinion, Iraqi forces, the popular forces and government forces, are now ready to end the insurgency and this terrorism. But there is a kind of thinking inside the government, the outgoing government, that they must not use the popular forces, they must not benefit for example from the Peshmerga, from Badr, from the armed forces of former Iraqi opposition parties. Otherwise we have enough force to eradicate the terrorists, but they don't want to...
For example, we have many times proposed to the government that Peshmerga are ready to secure the oil of Iraq from Kirkuk to the border. They didn't agree, because they said, ah, these are Peshmerga, they are not government forces. In the south, the same. Many times in this area of Latifiya and others, Badr was ready to eradicate terrorism and to clean the area from them. But they said no.
If we depend only on the Iraqi security police and security forces, I think it needs time to train them, because in the beginning it was taken in a very wrong way. They gathered the people, regardless of their loyalty to democracy, to the new regime, and thousands and thousands of others, from pro-Saddam elements, from Baathists, and they didn't fight when they were facing the terrorists, they laid down their arms, escaping and going back home.
If we were planning to have a real security force from those who are believing in the democratic process, in the new regime, it's easy to eradicate these terrorist groups, because it seems to me that they are not so strong. Those who were arrested and then came to confess on the television, many of them were paid, some of them were not even real Muslims when they came to fight in the name of Islam.
Q: So you're saying that your Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and for example the Shia militia known as the Badr brigade, could do the job. Why are they not doing it then?
A: Because the Americans did not agree that they work in this field, and the (interim) government of Dr Allawi also didn't agree.
Q: But you people are now in charge, so will you be able to do it?
A: If we are not able to eradicate these terrorist groups by using the police and new national guard, we must call for volunteers, people who are ready to come to fight against these people, and I think hundreds of thousands of people will come and join us to end these terrorist groups.
But this must not be first step. The first step is to have a new policy, a comprehensive policy, and to try to solve it in a political way. For example, I started to talk to some Sunni leaders, some Sunni groups, parties, personalities, to convince them to participate in the new process, and they agreed.
Even they proposed [outgoing interim] President Ghazi [al-Yawar] as their representative in the presidency, and I agreed. The speaker of the House is a Sunni who is accepted by those groups. Now they are proposing to have ministers in the cabinet, and are ready to co-operate with us to calm down their areas.
There are many of them. We can convince them to come to the democratic process and in the same time, they are ready to take the responsibility of securing their areas. Why not? We must depend on them.
Q: Doesn't this risk turning Iraqi into a country of militias and fragmentation?
A: In any place in the world, when the country is facing difficulties, beside the army, the people depended on the militias and the partisan groups. Look at the Second World War, the Red Army in Russia depended on the partisans; in France, in Italy, Allied forces, the Americans and British, depended on the popular forces who were fighting fascists.
We can depend on this militia for a while, then send them to the army or back to their jobs. But at a time when we are need them, when our enemies are using everything against us, why we must not use all these people against them?
Q: Do you think the Americans would now accept the idea of handing over to militias?
A: No, they are not accepting.
Q: Are you arguing with them?
A: Of course. Now we are independent. It is our duty to do it. We will try to have a comprehensive plan. After that, we will think about these things, about calling on people to come and fight.
We cannot wait for years and years of terrorist activity because we don't have enough government forces. The people must defend themselves. Now, for example, they took hostage a group of Shiites. They say they will kill all of them, unless Shiites leave the area. Well, the Shiites cannot wait forever, waiting to be killed or deported. They will fight, they will defend themselves. And this is the right of self-defence.
Q: Why has it take so long to get the new government going? It's been months now since the elections.
A: Because it is democracy. We do not have one party which got the majority. We have different groups, different parties. Second, we are rebuilding the country, we are reshaping Iraq. It takes time to reach agreement among all the different groups and parties.
Q: This is the real problem now, it's the Sunnis and trying to bring Mr Allawi's group in, isn't it?
Q: Why is that proving so difficult?
A: I don't think it is very difficult. I think it needs time to talk to each other, and it can be solved.
Q: A week? Two weeks?
A: I think one more week.
Q: There's been a lot of wrangling, argument, over the formation of the government. After all that, are you convinced that Iraq can hold together as a country, or is it eventually going to split up?
A: I think it can hold together. And I think democracy is the main reason. All Iraqis will have the right to participate in the government and to ask for their own demands, and this will help to reshape Iraq on a base of national unity.
Role of Islam
Q: As well as combating the insurgency, you have a big job to do in the next year, which is to produce the constitution which will set the foundations for the future of Iraq. What are going to be the big problems there, what about the issue of Islamism for example, the role of Islam?
A: I think there is a kind of agreement among all of us that Islam must be the religion of the state, that the Islamic identity of Iraqi people must be respected, and that Islam will be one source of the laws in the country. That is a kind of compromise among all of us. And fortunately, the Islamic parties are not asking for an Islamic government now. They are satisfied with this agreement or this compromise which we reached at the time of (the) Governing Council.
Q: Do you trust them? Because many people believe they do want an Islamic government.
A: They cannot have Islamic government. In Iraq, Islamic government is impossible. Because you have Kurds, Arabs, Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, such a kind of mosaic society, it cannot be. This is not Iran, it cannot be an Islamic society.
Q: If they tried to impose it, would Iraq split up?
A: Yes. Iraq will be divided.
Q: You're the first Kurdish president of Iraq...
A: This is the first time a Kurd has been freely elected to be the president of an Arab country. But I am feeling as Iraqi, and my duty is to work as an Iraqi for all Iraqis regardless of their nationalities. I consider myself the president of Kurds, Arabs, Turcomans, Christians, Yazidis, Sabiis, Muslims, Shiites, Sunnis - all Iraqis.
Q: You've been an active politician all your life. The presidency is supposed to be a symbolic role. Are you going to be a symbolic president?
A: It's not symbolic. People are not understanding. There are 70 articles in the TAL [Transitional Administration Law, the 2003 interim constitution] talking about the role of the presidency.
The president is representing the sovereignty of Iraq. He has the right to oversee all common issues of Iraq. He is commander-in-chief of the Iraqi army... he has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of the government.
We are not single people coming to power as individuals. We are representing huge forces of this country. I represent millions of Kurds. Adel Abd al-Mahdi [Shia Vice-President] represents Sciri [Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq], which alone got more than two million votes, Shaikh Ghazi [Sunni Vice-President] represents a big tribe, if not all the Sunnis. So it is not possible to look on us as symbolic.
Q: During the time of Saddam Hussein, the Arab world saw Iraq as another Sunni Arab country. Now they see an Iraq with a Kurdish president, a Shiite prime minister. How's this going to go down in the region?
A: The Arab world must understand and recognise the reality of Iraq. Iraq always had a Shiite majority. But some people in the Arab world were not looking at the realities in Iraq, they were looking in a narrow-minded way at Iraq and treating it as a country purely of Arabs, all Sunnis, which was not true. Now the Arab world must recognise the realities of Iraq.
Q: You've struggled for 50 years yourself. Now you're president of Iraq. On a personal level, how do you feel?
A: Fifty-eight years, in fact. Well, in my personal life, I was never dreaming to be president of Iraq. But I think now, some of my dreams have been achieved. Democratic Iraq has appeared. Now we are living in a country with a very democratic climate. The Kurdish right of federation is recognised. And the Iraqi people are liberated from the worst kind of dictatorship. Now they are enjoying their democratic rights, all kinds of freedoms, a free press.
We have a country which we can say is unique in the Middle East. These dreams were achieved. For me, I hope to continue to the end, my struggle and life, to see a democratic, federative, united, prosperous Iraq, that Iraqi people will live in peace and prosperity, and Iraq will use its huge wealth for the benefit of the Iraqi people.