In the first part of his interview with AVA Diplomatic, Nazim Omar Dabbagh explained the formation of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Iraq and in the second part, he told us about his role in announcing the news of Saddam Hussein’s arrest and relations of the Commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Gen. Qasem Suleimani with him and the forces of the Kurdistan Region.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Nazim Omar Dabbagh,
Representative of the Kurdistan Region in Iran
Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari
The news of arresting Saddam Hussein was first told to the media by Mr. Talabani in Qasr-e Shirin. Did you know that, too?
The story of giving out the news of Saddam Hussein’s apprehension begins from me! Mr. Talabani was about to have a trip to Iran and that is my responsibility to coordinate his trips so everything goes well. I had checked with Mr. Talabani’s deputy, Mr. Kosrat Rasoul Ali on Mr. Talabani’s trip and current whereabouts, and he replied to me, “Here’s the good news Nazim! Saddam was caught.”
How did Mr. Kosrat Rasoul Ali know about Saddam’s arrest?
His forces played a role in disclosing Saddam Hussein’s hideout and that was how he knew. The news hadn’t been leaked before that.
What was Mr. Kosrat Rasoul Ali’s position back at the time?
He was a member of Mr. Talabani’s political bureau. He told me to publish the news and I said that the honor should be passed to Mr. Talabani. That is why I called the Iranian media and informed them that Mr. Talabani had important news and they had to go to Qasr-e Shirin and ask him. Kosrat Rasoul Ali and I said in a phone call to Mr. Talabani, “Reporters are going to arrive and you should publish the news of Saddam’s arrest.”
So you had made the arrangements for news to break out, right?
Were you in Iran when Saddam was executed?
Yes, I was. A Japanese newspaper and even Lomond asked me, “As a Kurd, what punishment do you deem fit for Saddam Hussein?” and I said, “That’s a shame human rights wouldn’t allow it. Otherwise, I have a very good one in mind!”
When they asked me what it was, I replied, “I would keep him alive and put him in a cage once a week in the museums of Iraq for people to see him and that breaks him enough.” But now his execution sculptured a hero out of him for some.
Mr. Barzani and Mr. Talabani agreed that the Kurdistan Region be divided between their proponents. How did such solidarity appear?
First off, I should stress that there were bloody conflicts between the two sides which we are truly sorry for. But when logic rules, there is no war that doesn’t end up in peace. In fact, harmony doesn’t sound tuned while we play one single note and both sides should be open to reason.
When they reached the accord, they sensed they had to divide the power between themselves and none of them could eliminate the other; just like the US where the Republicans and Democrats operate and each take the wheel for a while. But the point is both of them are sure that no harm comes to them once they are not in power. In the Iraqi Kurdistan, these two parties concluded that the best mechanism for the future of Kurds is unity, for if that doesn’t happen, then the problem never goes away.
How did the accord become possible?
It was born as a result of the belief that if we are not unified and do not possess a monolithic force and policy, then we cannot build a prosperous future. That is why Mam Jalal did all he could to make it work and when the Kurdish front was formed, the uprising took place.
The parliamentary election was carried out and the Region Government came to existence. The first cabinet was headed by Dr. Fuad Masum and the first parliamentary Speaker was the late Jowhar Nameq. Mam Jalal’s efforts finally came to fruition, esp. after the Washington agreement and Mrs. Albright’s endeavors. Once Mam Jalal intended to return to Kurdistan through Turkey and had decided to cross the Ibrahim Khalil border for the first time after the civil war which was controlled by the Democratic Party. The consultations and calls within the political bureau had it that no one deemed it a proper move and said that would place the Union’s stances under questions. Of all the members, only Dr. Braham Salih said, “From the Union’s standpoint, you are right. But that is wise move and in the interests of Kurds and all people.” Mam Jalal, too, confirmed he was doing it in the interests of the people, not the Union, made up his mind and went back through Ibrahim Khalil and Dohuk.
When he got to Sulaymaniah, a lot of efforts were made for the purpose of intercession, but went in vain. He talked to Kak Masoud in a night phone call and said, “My driver and I will be your guests for lunch, tomorrow.” Kak Masoud then immediately gathered the political office and stated, “I know Mam Jalal. He will come alone. So do all you can to protect him on his way here.” That happened and the result was the strategic agreement between the Union and the Party.
The political atmosphere that governs the Kurdistan Region seems to becoming bipolar. Is that right?
Yes. Some sort of bipolar environment is there, but that results from the political thoughts, different connections, geopolitical demarcations and border proximities with Iran and Turkey, and as in the words of Mam Jalal, “Geography can never be changed.” After the Chaldoran War between the Safavids and Ottomans, Kurdistan fell into two parts and after the WWI and the demise of the Ottomans, into four parts in which Syria and Iraq were added, too.
Do you believe in the Great Kurdistan?
Why not? Why do Persians pride in having a country named Iran? If you bring all Kurds together, they will make up a population as big as 40 million. I narrated you the history. Why should we not nurture the dream of having the Great Kurdistan? As a matter of fact, my patriotic rights as a Kurd should be reserved within the Constitution of Iraq and I must not be a second-class citizen there. When the President of Iraq is a Kurd, it makes us happy.
Before that, we could not even be a concierge at the Presidential Palace, but now, the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, Minister of Economy and the President and in the past, the FM, have all been Kurds. That does make us happy. Many people come to me and ask about the Kurdish future.
Why do I support political fights? Because if I focus on human rights, then national and ethnical affairs go under it. Let’s presume someone says they are Kurd; in that case, the rights of speaking Kurdish, conversing in Kurdish in school and college, being a deputy, watchman, professor or a minister will all come under that. That is an article of the human rights. Let me offer the same example I made for the Turkish Ambassador to Iran. I told him, “I was displaced as a Kurd and moved to the Netherlands.
The city I lived in had nearly 300 families living in it. If each of them had one child, then that means 300 students. But let’s settle at 100. Since we did not want our kids to forget the Kurdish language, we went to the municipality and through the individual who was in charge of communications between refugees and government officials, we asked for our children to learn Kurdish. They responded to us, ‘We agree, but have a few conditions. First, the students should not be fewer than 20 and second, find a teacher. The rest is on us.’” So you see the existence of the Great Kurdistan is a challenging case and has its own prerequisites, possible in future. But now, each part of Kurdistan should enjoy its political and legal rights in accordance with the constitution of the country they are located in.
Do you also support the autonomy of Kurds in Syria?
We support the realization of the rights of Kurds everywhere, but that doesn’t mean we opt to whatever for it. They should work out the problem themselves and determine their rights within the constitution of that country.
There are intensive conflicts in the borders between Turkey and the Kurdistan Region. How much has the violation of the ceasefire between Turkey and PKK intensified the fight?
The fights between Turkey and PKK have definitely caused lots of conflicts and tensions. The formation of PKK and other forces is 27 years old which means the Turkish Army has carried out more than 27 attacks against Kurds and PKK. But what was the ending? It was nothing but prolonged displacement, destruction and war. The peace is obviously the answer, but in a war, everybody hurts. Turkey came to peaceful terms with Israel after 6 years; apologized to Russia after all its persistence; and with Kurds, it has to go over this patter, too.
How do you see the fights against the IS? Do the US and the central government back up the Peshmerga forces in the fight?
I have some specific comments on the IS. One day after Mosul was occupied by the IS, I proposed an idea to Iranian newspapers that we should not be happy; some Kurdish officials had even used the term “post-Mosul Iraq”. I also said I do not picture a good future, because whether the IS captures Baghdad or not, it will attack Kurdistan after some time. That is why Daesh is a threat to Kurdistan. First and foremost, we should look for the reasons the IS lives for. Second, we should browse for how the IS survives, which roots in oil and economy. Third, we must comprehend its objectives. Fourth, learn the objectives of those who support it who are after destroying Kurds, forcefully owning Kirkuk’s oil and drive the IS to the borders of Iran.
According to your statements, the IS has to make a cross through Kurdistan to get what it wants, right?
Yes, that is true. I voiced my own belief then that if Iran does not support the Kurdistan Region, then it has to fight with the IS in its own borders. Fortunately enough, the Peshmerga resisted initially and when the threat became imminent, they did not allow the IS to advance any further. But let’s not forget that the foreign helps played a major role in the victory of the resistance. One of the first countries to cooperate with us was Iran and after that, the US, UK, France and others engaged.
What piques my interest is that the governments and countries who used to advocate Iraq against Kurds are backing us up now and fight beside us against those with whom we built today’s Iraq. I believe the IS will not be destroyed, but it weakens. If you take a look at the news archives, nearly 7 months ago, I said that Russia’s involvement in the fights in Syria has a special meaning. As a point of fact, after a long absence, they once again found an excuse to come back to the region and that is why they are powerfully battling with the IS. From one point on, however, Russia’s fight against the IS contradicts the interests of the US and some other countries, and the question is what will happen then? I simply left a question mark at the end of my sentence and after that, many people called me to figure what the answer was.
I responded the future will tell us everything. After Russia came to Syria and started fighting the IS, the US immediately did the same, because when the US won the war in Iraq, it allowed as much use of resources in the country to its allies as it did for itself. The US thought it could do the same in Syria and the region, while things are different now and after the agreement with P5+1, Iran has grown more powerful.
If the US does not partner with the countries who are fighting the IS, then it will face challenges with its allies over making use of the resources in Syria. Although both sides are aiding Kurds, but what I fear is the future and what will come upon the destiny of Kurds in the rows between the two world powers, Russia and the US. Once the IS falls, what will happen to our armed forces? Today, because of the Kurdish heroism and the Peshmerga forces, the US and many other countries support them, and I hope that this will not be confined to the time of war and the Peshmerga, but be prevailed to the Kurdish Nation and the political system of Kurdistan.
Why are you worried about the future of Kurdistan after the war with the IS comes to an end?
You are much younger than I am and I wish for you a long life to see the future of Kurds when peace comes in hand. You should note that in the Kurdistan Region, the IS is a problem; Turkey had problems with Kurds and now the IS maxes out the challenges; and Syria is no different than Turkey.
The IS has caused fears and anxiety outside the Iranian borders, although it has caused some within them. Iran, however, given its strong security control, has pre-emptively managed to prevent such matters. A while ago, I had a meeting with the Japanese Consul and he said two Japanese members are fighting for the IS, and the reason is the extension of social connections. For instance, a Japanese woman marries a Muslim man or vice versa.
Whoever wants to fight in the name of Islam goes to Syrian and Iraq, and if the IS loses under such circumstances, what their fate would be like. Therefore, I fear that the Kurds become a sacrifice in the process of the realization of security and peace of the region, an agreement among countries and the demise of the IS.
Is it probable that the IS makes a highlighted appearance in Europe?
Yes. In fact, if there is no stark evidence, someone who has fought for the IS easily come back home and continue their lives until a new group, like the IS, comes to life. That is why I am saying if the IS falls now, its blood will continue to breed in the future.
Let us distance a bit from the IS and talk about the independence of Kurdistan. In this regard, the former US ambassador to Iraq, James Geoffrey reminded that the US does not advocate the independence process of Kurdistan, because it cannot maintain its security like Israel. How do you see this?
I say this, too. When I said things are not ready, it means there are still some problems. Imam Ali (PBUH) says, “I wish for the one who seeks enmity against me to be wise.” This addresses cleverness and means that a wise enemy gives credit to the person, too. The truth is we, the Kurds, cannot be overlooked; so when we exist, whether as Kurds or Iraqi fellow countrymen, we have some rights, too. But the central government has cut our budget, which is mainly because of the current circumstances.
Even now that the President of Iraq is a Kurd, he has no authority in Baghdad, whereas we participated in constructing the new Iraq and should be partners in running the country; but that position is simply ceremonial. Remember that Saddam’s deputy was a Kurd, too.
Once a committee met with him to lay the middling groundwork to fee a prisoner. He responded that required a notable middleman. They asked him, “Is there possibly anyone more notable than you? You are in charge of everything after Saddam Hussein.” Everything is now the same.
If there is no explosion in Baghdad, you will never hear of the President of Iraq. I believe there is no Kurd how comes to the ballot box and doesn’t say he wants an independent government; even if Iran arrests and expels me, I will say yes to having a Kurdish government. But this should not be published without my comment in which I say unfortunately, things are not prepared yet and that is a far-fetched objective.
How do you view the development of economic ties between Iran and the Kurdistan Region?
Turkey was the first country to import the Region’s oil and natural gas through pipelines. But it should also be mentioned that Iran is the first country and neighbor who permitted the Region’s oil to be exported through its lands and head to the markets.
You said that trade can automatically bring security. Would you explain this more?
Sure. When you seek an active and liberal market, you should definitely take security into consideration. The market must never be shut because of security matters, but it should be boosted, just like Turkey who opted to liberate and activate its market and then sought security. So when there is trade and investment, everyone strives for guaranteeing security and peace. It was believed in the past that politics comes from rifles, but we can say now that politics and trade come out of oil pipelines.
You said that security viewpoints should be reduced toward the borders of Iran and the Kurdistan Region, whereas a group named “Free Eagles of Kurdistan” has fought with Iran’s border police. Some say their bases are in Iraq. Wouldn’t such problems push Iranian officials toward adopting a security approach more?
Two things should be paid attention two. First, the bases of Iranian Kurd forces were and are in the Kurdistan Region.
Since 1986 when we made an agreement with Iran to have military coordination, one of the things under negotiation was what would happen to the Iranian groups in the Union-controlled lands. The truth is they were located there by Saddam and when we captured those regions, they went under our domination.
We agreed with Iran to not expel these people, for Saddam might attack and drive us out. But we also promised that no Iranian group in our jurisdiction would launch an assault or use our soil against Iran. We also agreed that given the friendly ties with have with Iran, they do not attack their garrisons. In general, this means security in the region. As the Director of Customs and Logistics, I personally spoke to the groups there.
One of these organizations was Mujahidin Khalq (Munafiqin), and I even had a verbal fight with its head. Because we possessed enough power then, we gave them 24 hours to leave the area if they do not accept our terms.
They didn’t stay either, and left after destructing their buildings, although many issued statements against me in Paris afterwards. Other groups and even an offshoot of the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, accepted the terms, though the latter left the Kurdistan Region after a while. The Democrats and Komalah came to terms, too, and stayed. All these agreements continued until the formation of the Kurdistan Region and after that, we have always followed the rules. So when mutual interests are met, then security comes automatically.
Is it true that some opposition groups use the Kurdistan Region to launch military attacks against Iran?
I cannot say if that is the truth, but it should be noted that our birth is the result of a few minutes of copulation between a father and a mother. So anything happens for a reason, and we must identify where it stems from. Let me tell you a memory. It was 3 or 4 years that in the Jasousan Heights in Sardasht, a military conflict took place between PJAK and Iran. One of the PJAK commanders called me and harshly said, “We don’t accept these terms.
We have military forces and are prepared to attack.” I got pretty angry and told him, “You only had those forces and did attack. Now there are 7 corpses of them left on Iran’s soil. You intend to attack again and leave a few other corpses or give me the chance to conduct a simple greeting and take them back for you?” After that phone call, I called the main liaison between Mr. Talabani and PJAK and told them what had happened. He told me, “Do it yourself, Mr. Dabbagh.” Afterwards, we managed to take the seven corpses and make arrangements for the two sides to meet in the region where the bodies were and take back the areas PJAK had taken before. The areas were returned without any bloodshed and war and border security was restored.
Mr. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Mr. Masoud Barzani and announced the US will assume the monthly salary of part of Peshmerga forces. Has the payment been carried out?
Yes. They are aware we have financial crisis and the central government of Iraq is engaged in war and cannot give us enough budget. The agreement for this payment has been inked, too. The budget the US has considered for this case is nearly $426 million, but we don’t know yet if it is paid directly to the Kurdistan Region or the government of Iraq.
Your relations with some Iranian military officials are interesting. In the Iran-Iraq War, you were in charge of logistic affairs in Iranian fields. How are your relations with them now? Your bond is intimate with Gen. Suleimani. Please tell us a little bit about this.
It was last year when I had an interview with the Javan Newspaper and talked about Mr. Suleimani. I said he is an honest, very brave fighter and whenever he has relations with someone, he is pretty loyal to them. Iran helped the Iraqi Kurds in the past, makes contributions now and I think it will do it in the future, because we have common geography, race and future in the region.
The borders with Kurds in residence are much safer than with any other group. So why shouldn’t Kurds be Iran’s close friend? In my opinion, Iran’s standpoint toward Kurds and ties with them is positive. However, things have gone in a way that Iran’s decisions have reflected in Gen. Suleimani’s daily measures. Yet we well know that not all decisions can be made by Gen. Suleimani; what is legal relates to the Speaker of the Parliament and the President and what requires consultation and directives goes to the Supreme Leader.
Gen. Suleimani is the executive and once the executive’s opinion is in line with the measures, then the results would be much more fruitful. As the individual who exercises Iran’s measures and decisions afield, Gen. Suleimani has sincere belief in this alliance and friendship and works wholeheartedly for them.
How is Gen. Suleimani’s relations with top Kurd officials like Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani?
I haven’t seen anything but positive relations, yet. Gen. Suleimani has at times met with these two figures, made phone calls to them and sometimes messages are transferred between them.
Have you ever arranged a meeting between Gen. Suleimani and Mr. Talabani?
When Mr. Talabani was in power, there were times when I used to go to Iraq twice a week for Gen. Suleimani’s sake. There were even time when I used to go to Baghdad in the morning and return at night. It might be interesting for you to know that it has only been two months since Gen. Suleimani’s last meeting with Kurd officials.
Do you attend these meetings?
It depends on the conditions of the session. Things went in a way last time, for example, that I attended the meet.
Does Gen. Suleimani take Kurdistan’s roads to join frontlines against the IS?
Gen. Suleimani has his special ground and aerial paths in Baghdad or the Kurdistan Region.
Has there been an interesting occurrence in any of those sessions you can tell us about?
I will tell you a memory. When Mr. Khatami was President, he met with Mr. Talabani on his trop to Tehran, as the then temporary chief of the Governmental Council of Iraq in Baghdad. At that meeting, Mr. Khatami told Mr. Talabani, “I pray you become the President.” That happened and when Mr. Khatami’s terms came to an end, Mr. Talabani became the President. Later, on his next visit to Iran, Mr. Talabani told Mr. Khatami that his prayer was heard and granted. Mr. Khatami responded, “Yes. If I pray for goodness, it is granted, as God is merciful.” Mr. Talabani asked Mr. Khatami if he could pray for something else, and he replied, “No, one prayer has been granted, and that is enough. I only pray God bless you.”
Do you have memories of Gen. Suleimani, too?
Once we were on our way back to Iran from a mission with Gen. Suleimani. We skipped the protocols and simply went to the transit hall at the international airport of Kermanshah with people normally coming and going. Gen. Suleimani only had a hat and sunglasses and we sat beside them. As our schedule did not tell us when we’d return, Gen. Suleimani went to the flight desk to see if there were vacancies to Tehran. They told us there are two, but we were actually 9, including me.
Mr. Suleimani decided to book one for himself and another for me. But I declined and said the second one should be your chief of staff. He said, “You are my guest and Mr. Talabani’s representative.” But I replied, “What that guy can do for you might be out of my capabilities. So please pardon me.”
Gen. Suleimani took my word and ordered his men to book the next first vacancy for me. Gen. Suleimani and his chief of staff went to board on the flight, but the chief came back after a while. I inquired what had happened and he told me, “There was a mistake. There was only one seat available and Gen. Suleimani flew back to Tehran alone.” He actually went back to Tehran without any claim or request for a personal flight. Of course, I know he has personal flights and airplane and I have accompanied him even on those. But that day, I saw the peak of his humility, as he didn’t say, “Because of my position, security forces should shut the airport closed and prepare VIP protocols for me!” He simply went to the airport and got on first flight.
When did this happen?
Nearly 6 or 7 years ago. But you should understand I cannot disclose any more details, because for someone like Gen. Suleimani, security matters are important and his means or routes of transport cannot be discussed in detail.
I wish more peace and stability for the Kurdistan Region.
I appreciate it and thank you for the interview.