Iraq’s Talabani Pledges to Restore Minorities Law: Exclusive

12230011614444.jpgBy KEN JOSEPH JR. (Special to the Middle East Times)

NEW YORK — In an exclusive interview to the Middle East Times at the sidelines of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was upbeat about Iraq’s future. Though a bit tired by recent surgery, Talabani also took time out from his schedule to express his views on a controversial decision taken by parliament on minorities.

“Iraq is doing well. Violence is down dramatically and people are returning home,” the Iraqi president said.

Talabani, a Kurd, comes from the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, a region in the middle of an economic boom. Separated from the rest of Iraq since the early 1990s, it has developed on its own and enjoyed a head start on the rest of the country which suffered under the stifling control of Saddam Hussein and his Baath party.

A source of controversy is a bill recently passed in the Iraqi parliament to abolish Article 50 of the Iraqi Provincial Election Law, which protects minorities by setting aside seats for them. It has spurred demonstrations throughout the world by various concerned groups including over 5,000 people who took to the streets in Iraq.

In a nation where more than 2 million people have been uprooted and are refugees inside and outside the country, minorities including Yazidis and Shabak, as well as the indigenous people of Iraq, the Assyrian Christians and others are deeply concerned at what they see as an Islamic drift in the country with growing influence from Iran and other more conservative regimes.

They see Article 50 which sets aside seats for each minority to protect them as a check on that drift.

“The law was just recently passed,” Talabani said. “It is not consistent with the constitution nor with what we feel is needed for Iraq. We need to do all we can to help those who are currently displaced to return home. As president I have the right to amend what parliament passes and I can assure you that we will be amending the change in the law immediately.”

He continued: “We need to protect our minorities and this change sends exactly the wrong message. We are doing all we can to help those displaced to return and recently have put together a plan to provide 10 million Iraqi dinars (approximately $8,500) to all who return as well as help in building a home and starting business for all.”

In an earlier statement Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari expressed the same sentiments by promising monthly payments to all refugees from the ballooning Iraqi Oil Fund as well as recognition for an Assyrian province in the homeland of the indigenous Assyrian Christians in northern Iraq.

“We need to get a message to the Assyrians and others that now is the time to come home. Whatever they need we will do for them,” Talabani said.

One Assyrian Christian representative at the event said on condition of anonymity that Article 50 was critical for the future of Iraq and that a provision should be passed by parliament in which, for example, Assyrians should be given 10 seats. At the last count – during the regime of former President Saddam Hussein – Assyrians numbered 2.5 million or 10 percent of Iraq’s population, the representative said, whereas at present they “have only two seats out of 275.”

The Iraqi president told the Middle East Times that he would fight parliament on the matter and win: “Tell them all that I will personally make sure that the article be restored and to contact me directly if there are any problems. We will do all that is needed to get all of our people home, in particular our minorities and indigenous Assyrians.”

Although promises come easy to politicians, many Iraqis have high expectations that the assurances made by Talabani, Maliki and Zebari will be realized.

In response to this interviewer’s skepticism that his words will end up just that, words, Talabani thundered with his deep voice, “I am president! Don’t worry.”

But the devil is in the details.