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Barzani: Iraqi Kurds keeping their options open

In an interview with Al-Monitor, President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani speaks about the current crisis and doesn’t rule out the right to self-determination if unification efforts fail.
The President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani (C) visits Kirkuk June 26, 2014. Barzani visited Kirkuk on Thursday for the first time since forces from the autonomous region took full control of the city. Kurdish forces moved into bases deserted by the Iraqi army two weeks ago in Kirkuk, which lies just outside the formal boundary of the northern region and is a centre of Iraq's oil industry. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST POLITICS) - RTR3VY11

On July 8, before the publication of this interview, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani issued an open letter to the Iraqi people. In the letter, he reviewed a series of crises between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad, which brought the option of self-determination to the forefront. Barzani allocated large parts of his letter to confirm that a unified Iraq requires joint action, a new administration and a new vision on how to manage the country in the future.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, President Barzani confirmed this concept. He pointed out that the crisis with Baghdad is a crisis of concepts, and stressed that the decision to declare independence, if adopted by the Kurdish people, will be based on an autonomous will. However, he indicated that freedom is not without a cost. Barzani said that following the last security collapse in Iraq, Kurdish politics are based on two courses of action. The first is working with the national forces to rebuild Iraq, and the second is exercising the right of self-determination if efforts to save Iraq fail.

He said the crisis in Iraq is first and foremost a political crisis and that the failure to bring about sweeping reforms would lead to a failure in fighting against terrorism. Barzani also stated that Sunnis in Iraq will succeed in ousting terrorists from their cities if their demands are achieved. On a different note, he stressed that Turkey understands the course of things in Kirkuk today.

Al-Monitor:  On July 1, the Kurdish and the Sunni parties withdrew from the first parliamentary session that was held to form a new government. You clearly said you will not work with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Will you be working with other members of the State of Law Coalition, and what are your conditions and expectations for participation in the next government?

Barzani:  After eight years of failure in all aspects, we can no longer work in a “field of failed experiences.” The problem with Mr. Maliki is not personal but rather conceptual, and related to the core philosophy and culture of state administration of caring for Iraqis’ interests. Therefore we believe that this intractability will continue unless the faulty political process, its courses and applications are changed so as to serve the people and their components and so as to meet all of the obligations incurred by the formation of a real government of national partnership. Otherwise, we do not see any point in participating in the next government; this would be going against the choices determined by our people.

Al-Monitor:  You talked about new facts in Iraq and called for a referendum on independence in a matter of months. Would you explain your point of view about this step and how the Kurdistan Region will be able to manage independence without financial support from the central Iraqi government? Will Turkey provide it support?

Barzani:  What happened in Mosul and the western region caused significant changes on the ground, led to a new situation and drew borders stretching over 1,050 kilometers (652 miles) separating us from the rest of Iraq. This placed us in confrontation with the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS), which in fact means the division of Iraq. The party responsible for this division is whoever disregards the constitution, excludes others and monopolizes power.

With this in mind and in light of the bitter reality, we are bound to resort to parliament to inform it of the dangerous situation that we are facing, so that it examines it and decides what falls best within the people's interest, and takes the steps that are required to determine its concept of self-determination within the scope of the current tangible conditions. In my opinion, other details — such as needs, support, etc. — are subject to their circumstances.

With respect to financial support, we have good friends. Our people are competent and have undergone battles and came out victorious. We are ready to provide the necessary requirements, but I assure you that any decision taken by our people would be based on their own free will, as well as on the rich historical experience with abundant lessons, conquests and achieved victories. Yet, the various possibilities must be taken into consideration, and we must be prepared to face them. Ultimately there is no freedom without a cost.

Al-Monitor:  The chairman of the Presidential Office of the Kurdistan Region and the official responsible for external relations in the Kurdistan Regional Government visited Washington this week. Will the United States support Kurdish efforts for independence? How do you assess your relations with Washington? What did your adviser ask and what are the recommendations that the United States gave on the crisis in Iraq?

Barzani:  The visit of the Kurdistan Region’s delegation to Washington comes in the wake of the recent developments in Iraq. It aims at explaining the Kurdish point of view on these developments, as well as concerns of the people of Kurdistan as to the uncertain future of Iraq. We want to make clear to the United States our position and course of action imposed on us by the new circumstances. 

We act based on two interrelated courses of action: full cooperation with other Iraqi forces to save Iraq from its ordeal, and considering our choice of self-determination if we failed again in our attempts to rebuild a democratic federal Iraq that achieves partnership. This does not mean in all circumstances waiving our people's right to self-determination with the right timing and under the circumstances they see fit.

Al-Monitor:  Questions arise about the role of Turkey and the Kurdistan Region in terms of the progress of IS and on the role of former Baathists in Iraq. Were you aware of these operations before they occurred? Did you welcome the pressure on Maliki and the government in Baghdad?

Barzani:  We had confirmed intelligence on the movements of terrorist groups in western Mosul, and Maliki informed us of this more than six months ago, stressing that the situation in Mosul was very bad and that the locals were dissatisfied with the government's performance, and a vast uprising might occur. Furthermore, we expressed our readiness to participate in the fight against terrorism in Mosul and its outskirts. Yet, what was disappointing is that Maliki refused to do so for fear of expansion of our influence, as he had imagined. What does this mean? It means we shared with the [central government] what we knew, thought and expected, and our interpretation of the events was accurate and based on very precise facts and information. This also means that we are keen to protect the country against collapse. However, this also means that we [Erbil and Baghdad] are worlds apart and they do not care. The accusations thrown at us by those who have failed to lead the country and the attempt to blame failure on others, are acts that those who were defeated [used] to justify their failure, and to pull the wool over the eyes of their deceived followers.

Al-Monitor:  Currently, there is a powerful terrorist entity on the southern border of the Kurdistan Region. Are you willing to cooperate with the United States, Baghdad and other regional forces to remove IS? And if not now, when?

Barzani:  The basis and origin of the problem is political par excellence. This problem is reflected in the failure of those who hijacked the authority while dealing with the demands of the people of the mentioned areas. Thus, the political process was not mended and there was no radical shift in the management of the state institutions and facilities. It will be difficult to make major breakthroughs in the fight against terrorism. The more the political solutions are effective, the more successful the military actions against terrorism. Thus, one ought to seriously think about dealing peacefully with the legitimate rights of Sunnis in these areas, and thereby isolate terrorists from those demanding legitimate rights. This is when Sunnis will manage to drive away terrorists from their areas, and we certainly will help them all.

Al-Monitor:  Can you tell us in detail about your plan to put an end to the conflict with Baghdad over oil? Do you feel that the Kurdistan Region has become too dependent on Turkey? Given the history of Turkey in dealing with the Kurdish issue, and the volatile situation in the region, do you see any alliance between the two sides in the long run? What did Turkey say to you regarding the peshmerga's control of Kirkuk?

Barzani:  We refer to the constitution in the issue of gas and natural resources. We have a good law on oil and gas in the Kurdistan Region and we made a draft law with our partners on oil and gas in Iraq. However, they [the central government] amended it without our knowledge and presented it to parliament. There are some obstacles on the way to pass the law because they are not serious in tackling the problem.

Turkey is a friendly country that trusts our laws and inclinations. Turkey has struck long-term agreements with the government of Kurdistan, which lays a good foundation for the future relations between the two sides. Regarding Kirkuk, Turkey is well aware of the course of events there. We assure everyone that we wish for Kirkuk to become a model for national, religious and sectarian coexistence.

Al-Monitor:  How do you perceive the relationship between Iraq and Syria, especially with regard to the issue of Kurds in both countries? You had tense relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria. What is your outlook for the Kurdish issue, not only in Iraq, but in Syria and Turkey as well? What is the link between them?

Barzani:  I believe that the relationship between the two authorities is very good, yet at other levels it is not that good. What you call tense relations, by which you mean the relations with the Democratic Union in Syria, one important thing should be clear in this context: We support the unified action between the parties of the political Kurdish movement in Syria, and we are against monopolizing action and sidelining others. We have warned our brothers there against the perils of such an approach.

As for the issue of Kurds in Syria and elsewhere, the cause is the same but differs from one part to another. However, the rights of the people are the common denominator — the banner under which the world's oppressed people gather. We call for a peaceful and democratic solution to the Kurdish cause in all its aspects.

Al-Monitor:  According to some reports, the Kurdistan Region has limited the flow of refugees coming from the areas controlled by IS. Would you explain to us what are the steps taken to deal with this worsening humanitarian tragedy?

Barzani:  The truth is that we did not restrict any refugee from entering our territory. On the contrary, Kurdistan has received hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who are living with their brothers, although this exceeds the budget of the Kurdistan Region, especially since the Iraqi government and the international community are not contributing as they should be to providing necessary aid. The situation is the same in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Nevertheless, we are keen on the security of refugees and that of Kurdistan. In this context, some security measures have been taken here and there on the border between Syria and Kurdistan to ward off risks and there is nothing more to it. This is not to mention the flow of hundreds of thousands of our brothers in Mosul, Anbar, Salahuddin, Diyala and even the capital, Baghdad, who were received and accommodated. This has impressed the international community because the Kurdistan Region managed [to host these large numbers of refugees] despite our limited capabilities and the siege imposed by Baghdad on Kurdistan since the beginning of this year.

Al-Monitor:  You said last week that "Article 140 of the constitution was implemented and completed and [we] will not address it anymore." Do you expect future Iraqi governments to accept this position? Is this not seen as a violation of the issue of Kirkuk, which is stipulated in Article 140?

Barzani:  It is quite the contrary, what we have done was the right thing to do. We've provided protection to the people of the areas where the army withdrew and prevented terrorists from taking control of them, following the humiliating withdrawal of the Iraqi military forces, leaving the people to their sad fate.

We have waited 10 years to be able to implement Article 140, but with our patience we reaped nothing but procrastination, fraud and ways to further complicate the problem. The unfolding developments and events have proved that those who are defending the security and safety of people without any discrimination are worthy of staying in this area. However, despite everything, we will not impose a "reality," as I have said on many occasions. We will hold a referendum as stipulated in Article 140 to reflect the views of the people in these areas, so they can decide for themselves which area they want to be affiliated with and which identity to take.

Al-Monitor:  How do you assess the security situation in the west and south of the Kurdistan Region? Are there only IS militants, or other armed groups or tribes? And why all this confusion in describing the Sunni scene?

Barzani:  IS is one of these factions you've mentioned. However, the most important thing is that the mismanagement of the people's problems in these cities and towns is what turned them into hotbeds and fertile soil for these factions, and thus favoring them over the institutions of the federal government. That is why I repeat, unless serious solutions to political problems are put forth, we will continue to fail to persuade the people to cooperate in the fight against terrorism.

Al-Monitor:  How will you deal with the post of the Iraqi president? Do you have any preferred presidential candidates? Do you believe that the post of the president can be effective in the next stage? Who is your candidate?

Barzani:  First of all, it should be noted that there has been a consensus among all political components of the political process to allocate the post of the prime minister to Shiites, and that of the speaker of parliament to Sunnis, while the presidency is left for the Kurds. We believe that this is good for this phase. We have put forth the names of candidates, but this issue is still under discussion. The constitution set the powers of the three presidencies.

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