- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2003

BAGHDAD — The head of Iraq’s Governing Council pledged yesterday to end the loss of American lives in his country within one year.

Twelve months from now, “we will see Americans in their military garrisons, safe, and nothing [violent] against them,” said Jalal Talabani, this month’s president of the 25-member council.

“We want to save them, not to put them in danger,” Mr. Talabani said in an interview at the huge oval table where the council was about to meet.

The jovial-looking Kurdish leader, who sports a large mustache, said he expects the country to hold elections establishing a democratic federal system of government within a year.

He said that the current council was akin to the British monarchy and that he wants to make it more like the British parliamentary system.

Mr. Talabani also criticized countries that opposed the war, warning Russia and France in particular that their continued unwillingness to commit resources to his country would place them at a disadvantage when major contracts are awarded.

At a later news conference, Mr. Talabani said there was no longer any question of Turkish forces participating in Iraq peacekeeping, but that he would travel to Turkey, Iran and Syria during his presidency to seek better relations.

“I will head to Turkey to clear the air. … We want excellent relations with our neighbor Turkey,” he said.

In the interview, the long-serving Kurdish leader said the key to reducing attacks on American forces, which have claimed about 120 lives since May 1, lies in a rapid handing over of counterinsurgency operations to Iraqi special forces.

“This kind of active antiterror force would do it better than our American friends because they know the country, they know everyone. Also we don’t want to see American casualties every day. They came from a long way to liberate it.

“We say it’s our country, give it to us. We will secure it, and we will prevent terrorism,” he said.

Officials working with Mr. Talabani argued that a heavily armed counterterrorism force would draw on elements of the fledgling Iraqi military, but would derive its main strength from the more experienced Kurdish militias that fought alongside U.S. special forces in the spring to drive Saddam Hussein’s troops out of northern Iraq.

Such a force also would recruit former members of Saddam’s disbanded military and security forces. Intelligence largely would be gathered and assessed by militias attached to several of the political parties making up the Governing Council.

“We are trying to reach agreement with our American friends about this. We think it’s possible to eradicate these terrorist webs quickly if the Iraqis will be permitted to have the responsibility of securing their territory,” Mr. Talabani said.

U.S. officials until now have opposed the creation of such a force, whose role would overlap with that of the U.S.-led coalition.

But chief U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer was reported yesterday to have softened his opposition to the plan. The Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. official saying Mr. Bremer no longer has “any objection in principle” to the plan but that he wants to make sure several conditions are met.

Mr. Talabani also said it was crucial to increase the capacities of the new Iraqi police force to allow it to coordinate operations with U.S. forces.

“They lack cars, for example, or walkie-talkies, or arms, or flak jackets.”

Asked whether he foresaw a long-term American military presence in Iraq, Mr. Talabani chucked. “Well, the Americans don’t want to stay here. They are in a hurry to go back.”

He said once a democratic, federal Iraq had been set up, the new parliament would decide what degree of American military presence was needed. But he expressed confidence that the new government would “try to have a very good relationship with the U.S. on all levels — economic, political, trade, everything.”

Mr. Talabani expressed his criticism of nations that opposed the war in careful diplomatic language but his meaning was abundantly clear.

“I warned them before the war not to put all their eggs in the Saddam basket,” he said.

“Contracts will be decided mainly on an economic basis. Of course, we are preferring those who supported us, who were our friends and liberators — that’s very normal, I think — that’s natural.”

He argued that the war had been “the only solution” to Saddam’s despotic rule and that U.S. Congress’ approval of about $20 billion in aid to the country had exposed claims that America was after only Iraqi oil as “a big lie.”

Mr. Talabani said he thought the greatest threat to security in Iraq came from foreign terrorists crossing the long Syrian and Saudi borders. He did not think those countries were deliberately permitting the infiltration, but said there was “perhaps some kind of shortage” of effort to secure their borders.

Returning to his call for an Iraqi-based counterterrorism force, he acknowledged being motivated in part by the desire for self-preservation.

“I think [the insurgents] have plans for assassinating us council members, and I am top of their list.”

He was sure the current wave of coordinated suicide attacks was the work of al Qaeda and its associates, but said elements loyal to Saddam continue to stir the insurgency.

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