As the battle grinds on against the Islamic State — also known as IS, ISIL and Daesh — there is growing concern about the mounting influence of Iran and Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units inside Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds, who continue to clash with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad over the sharing of oil revenues, are feeling squeezed. Nechirvan Barzani, the savvy young prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has played a central role in maintaining the precarious balance between his people, the central government and the big regional powers, Turkey and Iran. The United States has re-emerged as the Kurds’ principal ally in the battle against the jihadists. As the battle to liberate Mosul from IS looms, what are the challenges that lie ahead? Nechirvan Barzani explains in an interview with Al-Monitor in Erbil, the capital of the KRG.
Al-Monitor: How is the battle against Daesh [IS] going?
Barzani: It was a big shock in the beginning. But since then it seems we have been able to push them back from the Kurdistan territories, from the areas surrounding Kirkuk, Zumar, Rabia, Mosul Dam, Makhmour and Gwer. These regions have been liberated. The initiative is back in our hands now. We feel that they don’t have the same strength to mount fresh attacks. In general the situation is much better. But the danger has obviously not subsided altogether and so long as Mosul remains in the hands of ISIL the threat will remain.
Al-Monitor: I will get to Mosul, but first I would like to discuss the role of Iran and the Shiite militias or the Popular Mobilization Units. Throughout my stay here, Kurds and Western officials alike have aired more worries about Iran and the Popular Mobilization Units than about the Islamic State, or Daesh.
Barzani: There is a reality that needs to be addressed. When ISIL first embarked on this war in Iraq, Iran was one of the first countries that came forward to defend Iraq, including Kurdistan. It was felt there was a common enemy, Daesh. And the other bitter reality was that the Iraqi army did not possess the means to stop the onslaught of ISIL. As a result of a fatwa from Ayatollah [Ali] Sistani, Hashid Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilization Units, were formed. It would be unfair to deny the positive contribution of these forces to help push back ISIL. In many places they have played a positive role.
Al-Monitor: Including in Kurdistan?
Barzani: Not inside Kurdistan per se but along the border areas — Saadiyah, Jawlawla. Amerli. But these forces need to be regulated, to be brought under control, and to operate under a well-defined legal mandate.
Al-Monitor: And who will provide that?
Barzani: The Iraqi state. The central government. There are various groups inside the Popular Mobilization Units; they can act without impunity sometimes. We saw this in Diyala, even in Baghdad. Sadly, when a country is in desperate need for assistance and another country comes to the rescue not too many questions are asked.
Al-Monitor: Given your differences with Baghdad, do you foresee a situation in which these Shiite militias could be used against the Kurds? Especially in the disputed territories?
Barzani: Of course we are concerned about this. But we need to approach this matter from several angles. And — just a reminder — we do not refer to those areas as “disputed areas.” That is the official jargon. We believe those areas are part of the Kurdistan region. If the militias are drawn from locals in these areas, we will not have any problems. Because there is also a sizable Shiite population living in areas such as Jawlala, Saadiye. The major problem, and particularly if these militias remain unregulated, will arise between them and the Sunnis.
Al-Monitor: While we are on the topic of the “disputed territories,” they will have certainly added to your financial burden. The Baghdad government has virtually stopped all payments to you from the budget because of the oil dispute. Who pays the salaries of people living in those areas? You or the central government?
Barzani: We provide them some services, like electricity, for example. But the monthly salaries of civil servants are being paid by Baghdad. Civil servants in Mosul are being paid by Baghdad too.
Al-Monitor: What of Iran’s growing and increasingly visible presence in Iraq?
Barzani: The role of Iran is known and its not the first time that Iran is intervening in Iraq. But there are certain exaggerations about Iran’s role. And I find it neither helpful nor constructive for either Iraq or for Iran for the Iranian role to be exaggerated in this way. For instance, when some top [Iranian] officials say, “If it were not for us, Erbil would have fallen,” that is clearly unhelpful. It is not true. Or when they say that “Baghdad is the capital of Iran.” The plain truth is that the most decisive role in pushing back ISIL was played by the United States. Without the Americans it would have been impossible for us to succeed. We Kurds we want to thank the Americans for all they have done.
Al-Monitor: Iran is opposed to the establishment of an independent Kurdish state, correct?
Barzani: Yes, that is correct. Setting aside the fact that if you asked any Kurd about independence they would say they wanted it, independence has not been and is not presently on our agenda.
Al-Monitor: But as recent events have shown the Kurds’ security remains precarious. Relations with Baghdad remain shaky. Turkey did not rush to your defense when Daesh came within striking distance of Erbil. Would you agree that your security continues to be guaranteed by the United States?
Barzani: The reality is that after 2003, our goals were focused on rebuilding Kurdistan. We were absolutely opposed to the idea of getting dragged into any kind of conflict. And if there were a war imposed from the outside, it’s the federal government in Baghdad that would have been responsible for that. And far as our internal security was concerned, we were self-sufficient and capable of maintaining law and order. But when ISIL came to Mosul, the whole equation changed. We view Iraq as pre-Mosul and post-Mosul. Without American help we would have been unable to halt the advance of this group. Because Daesh was far better equipped than us.
Al-Monitor: What if you were in conflict with Baghdad? What would the US do?
Barzani: I don’t think the Americans would ever place themselves in a position where they would have to choose between Baghdad and the Kurds.
Al-Monitor: Are you saying that if you declared independence it would only be after attempting to negotiate peacefully with Baghdad and the regional states?
Barzani: As I said, independence is not currently on our agenda.
If our independence is to be like that of [Northern] Cyprus, we don’t want it. We want a sustainable independence. The geopolitical situation of Kurdistan is extremely delicate. We have Turkey and Iran on our borders.
Al-Monitor: Relations with Baghdad don’t seem to be going too well.
Barzani: No, they are not. We have agreements covering two different tracks. One covers political relations, the other economic relations. The big disagreement is on the economic side. The way that Baghdad treats us on the financial front is not sustainable.
Al-Monitor: How so?
Barzani: The economic agreement we reached with Baghdad was within the framework of the budgetary law of 2015. Under this arrangement we are supposed to deliver an average 250,000 thousand barrels of crude from our own production to the Iraqi government and export 300,000 barrels of Kirkuk oil through the KRG Turkish pipeline. Baghdad claims that we can export 550,000 barrels every day, including the 300,000 from Kirkuk. This is currently impossible. It’s technically impossible. We are building up toward that but it will take time. Baghdad also claims that we have extra production and that we are selling this to others instead of giving it to them. We have prior contracts that we need to fulfill, advance sales, which we need to honor. Baghdad is looking to have full control [over oil sales]. We will not give them control over our oil. It is impossible. We are ready for cooperation. But we also retain the right to make direct oil sales as the Kurdistan regional government. Baghdad owes us $12 billion from last year. If they are ready to give us our money, we can negotiate.
Al-Monitor: What have they given you so far?
Barzani: $250 million (erupts in laughter).
Al-Monitor: Does this make Turkey your main benefactor?
Barzani: If it were not for Turkey we would not have been able to pay our civil servants’ salaries throughout 2014. We export our oil through Turkey, through the Ceyhan terminal.
Al-Monitor: KRG President Massoud Barzani went public with the disappointment he felt with Turkey over its failure to intervene when you came under attack from Daesh last August. How are your relations now?
Barzani: There was definitely a degree of disappointment.
Our expectations from Turkey were quite high. We wanted Turkish jets to immediately bomb Daesh. Turkey has a military presence here already. They have tanks. They have troops inside our borders in Barmarne [near the Turkish border]. We felt they could have engaged immediately.
Al-Monitor: Did you call them and ask them to?
Barzani: Of course we did. Immediately. I personally made the first phone calls to [then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and to [then-Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoglu. He was on the phone with me until 3 a.m. in the morning. In fact, Turkish officials acknowledged to us that they had moved slowly. But it doesn’t mean they didn’t do anything. Just to give you an example. In the first few days of the attack they sent us several truckloads of ammunition.
Turkey has set up refugee camps in the Dahuk area. And in terms of financial relief, the Turkish government gave us half a billion US dollars last year and another half a billion dollars is on its way. And most important, Turkey allowed the passage of our peshmerga fighters through its own territory to Kobani.
Al-Monitor: But Erdogan was initially opposed to letting the peshmerga forces cross through Turkey.
Barzani: What matters is the result. Kobani was saved. It was a big issue politically for Turkey to allow our peshmergas in their uniforms and with the Kurdish flag to cross through its territory. We cannot underestimate the importance of this. Turkey’s president and Turkey’s prime minister helped save Kobani, as did the United States and, above all, the brave Kurdish fighters themselves.
Al-Monitor: You said Turkish officials acknowledged that they were slow to respond. What reasons did they offer for this slow response?
Barzani: They had presidential elections. Then there was the transition of power from Mr. Erdogan to Mr. Davutoglu both in the government and within the AKP. Most important, the Turkish consulate staff in Mosul were still being held by Daesh.
Al-Monitor: All of that is behind us now.
Barzani: True. Turkey needs to do more to prevent the flow of foreign fighters through its borders. Foreign fighters continue to enter Iraqi Kurdistan and most are coming from Syria via Turkey. In terms of what Turkey is doing here on the ground, Turkish officers are ... training peshmerga in the Soran area in Diyanah and at another camp in Kalacholan near Sulaimaniyah. If we ask for more training they will give it to us.
Al-Monitor: What about the battle to retake Mosul? Do you believe that Turkey should take part?
Barzani: Turkey has to be involved in the liberation of Mosul.
Al-Monitor: With ground troops?
Barzani: They don’t have to send ground troops. But if there is a need for ground troops to take part in coordination with the Iraqi government, they ought to send troops without hesitation.
Al-Monitor: Will they?
Barzani: I don’t know, but in my view they should. I have told the prime minister [Davutoglu] this. Not specifically that they should send ground troops but that they should help the Sunni elements, the Iraqi troops in the battle to liberate Mosul.
Al-Monitor: Will Iraqi Kurdish forces be involved?
Barzani: If you send in only the peshmerga and the fight is only between Daesh and the peshmerga then you will create another problem: an Arab Kurd conflict.
Al-Monitor: What of the Shiite militias, are you opposed to their participation, as are most Sunnis?
Barzani: It’s a very sensitive matter and we need to dwell on it very carefully. Having only the Shiite militia would create a Sunni-Shiite conflict. For now, we have no idea whether the Shiite militias will be involved. So far we have not heard any serious proposal from Baghdad about the liberation of Mosul. They are not consulting on this matter with us.
Al-Monitor: How are your relations with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party, of Turkey]?
Barzani: We can talk about the cooperation between the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party, of Iraq] and the People’s Protection Units, the YPG [of Syria]: They were extremely helpful in the battle against Daesh in Shengal, Makhmour and we are very, very grateful to them. Our cooperation is continuing in Iraq and in Syria.
Al-Monitor: What about the PKK?
Barzani: I don’t know about the PKK. I am talking only about the YPG. And when [the co-chair of the People's Democracy Party, the largest pro-Kurdish group in Turkey] Selahattin Demirtas makes statements about establishing cantons inside our territory, in Shengal, that is very unhelpful. Shengal is part of Iraq. It has its own representatives in the Iraqi parliament. And they will decide how they run their own affairs, now and in the future. But again we thank them for their positive contribution.
Al-Monitor: Whether you make the distinction between the YPG and the PKK or not, the PKK-led Kurds have made big gains in this recent crisis. They have gained greater international legitimacy. They cooperate with the Americans against IS in the field.
Barzani: We don’t have a problem with that. It’s to the benefit of the Kurdish people. Contacts with the Americans, with the West will bring them [the PKK] out of isolation. It will force them to be more pragmatic. And let us not forget that it was our president [Massoud Barzani] who created the environment for such contacts to materialize.
Al-Monitor: Ordinary Kurds seem to be fed up with the squabbles between their leaders.
Barzani: What we have been asking of the Kurds of Syria is to work together to unify their ranks, for all the parties to work together. And there have been new initiatives by President Barzani to bring the parties together. But unfortunately none of the agreements have been implemented. They [The PKK] have this idea of imposing themselves in Turkey, in Syria, in Iran. It’s either them or nobody else. This looks bad.
Al-Monitor: So there is no hope for convening the planned Kurdish national congress?
Barzani: One can easily convene a congress but what about results? I do not believe that the conditions exist at this time for any positive results.
Al-Monitor: Finally, under the terms of your constitution, President Barzani’s term will be expiring in August. What comes next?
Barzani: For me as a Kurd, and not as his nephew and son-in-law, he needs to stay on through this period of crisis.
Al-Monitor: But the opposition may disagree, saying his term was already extended once, and that it’s their turn to lead?
Barzani: Sure, there is a lot of noise in the parliament in the media. When its decision time', though, people will set aside their differences and agree on what is right for the country. Sadly, Mam Jalal [the ailing leader of the main opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)] is not in a position to intervene. The only other leader with the kind of skills and moral authority to steer our country through these stormy seas is Kak [“brother”] Massoud. The politicians, be they from Gorran [the Movement for Change party], the PUK, the Islamic Party, they all know that and the people know that. For the stability of Kurdistan, Kak Massoud needs to stay.
An excerpt of this interview was published in the Turkish daily Taraf.