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KRG PM: Talk of Iraqi Kurdish independence red line for Iran, but not Turkey

In an extensive interview with Al-Monitor at his office in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani speaks about the battle for Mosul, relations with Baghdad and Ankara, and aspirations for independence.

Iraqi Kurds have always dreamed of independence. Now they are moving to transform that dream into reality.

A conference titled “The Future Independence of Kurdistan: Challenges and Opportunities,” which took place Dec. 15-16 at the newly established American University of Kurdistan (AUK) in Dahuk, offered a historic platform for top Iraqi Kurdish leaders to argue the case for Iraqi statehood. Masrour Barzani, the quietly powerful chancellor of the Kurdistan Regional Security Council — and probably the most vocal proponent of breaking free from Baghdad — did not mince his words: “We are not accepted as equal citizens, and we reject subordination,” he told an electrified audience of Kurdish leaders from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Another heavyweight, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, has long been seen as less forward-leaning than his paternal cousin and brother-in-law on the subject of Kurdish independence. But he, too, appears to have shed any reservations: It is time for the issue of Kurdish independence to be debated by Kurds and the international community alike, he declared. Al-Monitor caught up with Nechirvan Barzani after the AUK conference at his office in Erbil.

The following are the highlights of the hour-long interview:

Al-Monitor:  How is the Mosul campaign going?

Barzani:  There has been a good level of cooperation between [peshmerga forces] and the Iraqi army. It’s the first time in 25 years that the Iraqi army has been permitted to set foot in Kurdistan. There is a vast amount of cooperation on intelligence and military matters. Before the Mosul operation was launched, a tripartite agreement between the United States, the [KRG] and Baghdad was reached. This called for a division of labor. There were areas that were designated for the peshmerga to liberate and control and others that were designated for the Iraqi forces to liberate and control. The peshmerga have completed their job, and we are holding those areas. At the moment we are supporting the Iraqi army in its ongoing operations, providing intelligence and conducting joint surgical operations against Daesh [the Arabic term used for the Islamic State, or IS].

Al-Monitor:  There are reports that the operation has slowed down. What is the reason for this?

Barzani:  Yes. The operations seem to be going rather slowly. There are two reasons for this. There is a concerted effort to avoid collateral damage, to avoid harming civilians during the course of the operations. The second reason is that Daesh is putting up stiff resistance. The initial days of the operation were expected to go relatively smoothly. Mosul as you know is divided by the Tigris River. I believe the liberation of the eastern part will be far easier than that of the western part. The western part will be really, really difficult.

Al-Monitor:  What makes it so difficult?

Barzani:  The topography of the city itself makes it difficult. The old city has narrow alleys; thus, it’s hard to call in airstrikes. It’s a matter of survival for Daesh, and they will resist fiercely. The Iraqi army lacks the level of sophistication required to conduct offensive action in such a challenging urban environment.

Al-Monitor:  The last time I interviewed you, the role of the Shite militias appeared to be a matter of grave concern. Are you still worried about their potential to complicate or disrupt the Mosul campaign?

Barzani:  We respect the contribution of the Shiite militias so far in this campaign. And till now, they have not ventured beyond the areas that they were mandated to operate within. But their initial motivation for taking part in the campaign — that is to get involved in the liberation of Tal Afar — was not a good idea. But they have avoided entering the city [Mosul] from the south and southwest and focused instead on the areas assigned to them by Baghdad.

Al-Monitor:  Did Turkey’s pretty bellicose statements on Tal Afar act as a deterrent?

Barzani:  Turkey’s prime concern was that the Shiite militias not enter Tal Afar so as to avert sectarian violence between the Shiite and Sunni Turkmens. And happily this has not happened. I believe the parties that are mainly responsible for averting this potentially bloody scenario are we, the KRG, Ankara and Baghdad.

Al-Monitor:  There are many other potential conflicts brewing as the Mosul operation unfolds. In your speech at AUK, you mentioned the presence of the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] in Sinjar as one such flashpoint. You said the PKK needs to leave.

Barzani:  During the calamity that befell the Yazidi people in Sinjar, obviously the Rojava forces — meaning the PYD [Democratic Unity Party] — played a valuable role in helping to protect them and shepherd them to safety, and we recognize and appreciate that. But under the present circumstances, the presence of PKK forces in Sinjar will only add to instability in the area and nothing more. The PKK presence is preventing people from returning to their homes. They are hesitating to return for fear of renewed conflict, out of concern as to what uncertain future awaits them and not because, as some allege, that we are the ones stopping them from reclaiming their lives, their homes. We share their concerns, and this is why we strongly believe that the PKK must leave Sinjar.

Al-Monitor:  We know that the United States is engaging in efforts to unite the different Yazidi militias in Sinjar, including the PKK-affiliated Sinjar Resistance Units [YBS], and is echoing your demands that the PKK leave the area. Has there been any progress on this front?

Barzani:  We have been engaging with both Baghdad and Washington on this issue. The ongoing talks have not resulted in any concrete progress, no practical measures so far in terms of getting the PKK to withdraw. The real problem lies within the mentality and the behavior of the PKK. The local Yazidi population does not want the PKK to remain. People want stability.

Al-Monitor:  But it’s also true that the Yazidis have a huge trust issue and feel they were betrayed by the peshmerga. They want to be responsible for their own safety to the extent that they can. One of the main Yazidi militias, the Protection Force of Ezidkhan, led by Haydar Shesho, has suggested that his forces come under the umbrella of the peshmerga so long as he is allowed to maintain a certain level of independence and is not expected to fully merge with the peshmerga. For instance, he wants his men to be able to wear their own identification patches and carry their own flags. Would you agree to that?

Barzani:  We would absolutely agree to that. Definitely. No problem. We told them. They know. We told all of the groups that they could [do the same]. We are currently in dialogue with all of these armed groups in the area for them to fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. They will maintain a level of independence, but they will also take orders from and coordinate with the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. We are discussing all of that. The aim should be that there be a sufficient number of Yazidi local forces to provide security for their own people, to protect their own region. The problem that we had with Sinjar [when IS attacked] is that the closest point between the KRG controlled areas and Sinjar was about 80 kilometers [50 miles] in depth, and this area was populated by Arab communities and some of the local tribes were supporters of IS. This complicated many things.

Al-Monitor:  But there are other actors involved in this matter, like Baghdad, for instance. They are said to be supporting the PKK and the YBS because they see them as leverage against the KRG and Turkey. But it's also been reported that Baghdad cut off salaries for the YBS after the United States pressured them to do so.

Barzani:  We are in continuous talks with Baghdad. So far they haven’t taken any serious steps to help [with the withdrawal of the PKK], and I personally cannot confirm that they cut the YBS’ salaries even though they told us that they had. If matters come to a head and Ankara [Turkey] and Baghdad and other players get drawn in, we too, as the KRG, are players and hold certain cards in our hands. Having said that, I don’t think it would be in anybody’s interest to reach that point.

Al-Monitor:  Are you suggesting that you might resort to military force in order to push the PKK out of Sinjar?

Barzani:  Yes, I am.

Al-Monitor:  Independence seems to be very much on the KRG’s agenda. What is your road map for independence?

Barzani:  When we raise the issue of independence, we are trying to find a solution to a pending problem, not to create instability. Quite the reverse. We believe Kurdistan’s independence will contribute to and enhance regional stability. We cannot continue with the same model that we had with Baghdad. The Kurdish issue in Iraq is an old one.

The Kurds in Iraq have not integrated into the Arab Iraqi part. I was the first one to bring up the issue of independence formally with Baghdad. I brought it up with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and with the Iraqi Shiite alliance. What I see as a road map is a very serious dialogue with Baghdad. This is the most important step.

And for argument’s sake, if we do declare our independence without consultation with Baghdad or any form of dialogue, our independence won’t be viable.

Al-Monitor:  Are you saying that Baghdad’s formal acquiescence is a sine qua non for Kurdish independence?

Barzani:  Look, for us what matters is that the first official dialogue for independence be with Baghdad. We have to sit down officially with Baghdad and remove this taboo and talk about it.

Al-Monitor:  Are they ready for that?

Barzani:  They are ready. I told Abadi, I told the Shiite alliance, 'At the end of the day, our goal is independence. And you should treat this matter very seriously.' They both said they were shocked by what I said but that they appreciated my frankness. They said it was the first time they were hearing the independence issue being articulated officially. I told them, 'In the past, this was conveyed through the media. Now I am telling you officially that our goal is independence and we must establish a committee to discuss this.'

Al-Monitor:  When exactly?

Barzani:  It was before the Mosul operation began, at the end of August. And after my visit, President Massoud Barzani … also traveled to Baghdad. The most important step is to launch this dialogue with Baghdad.

Al-Monitor:  But haven’t all of your agreements with Baghdad ended in tragedy? And isn’t it true that Abadi needs the Kurds to fend off his own internal political rivals? Perhaps this is more about his short-term self-interest. Or are you saying there is a new dynamic that makes you more confident this time?

Barzani:  It’s a different dynamic this time for sure. But what really matters is stability, and if they [Baghdad] really want stability in this country, this [Kurdish independence] is the only way. I told them, 'Look, Mr. Prime Minister, look at the history. In 1970, Saddam Hussein signed an [autonomy] agreement with my late grandfather, Mullah Mustafa Barzani. In 1974, when he felt strong again, he reneged on that agreement and then he was forced to cede half of the Shatt al-Arab [waterway] to Iran just to persuade them to stop their support for the Kurds. And when Saddam tried to get Shatt al-Arab back, he fought Iran for eight years and was bankrupted. So he invaded Kuwait and you know the rest. If Iraq had solved its problems with the Kurds, none of this would have come about.' Besides, the Iraqi Kurds are very different from the Kurds in Iran and in Turkey. They are very separate from the Arabs. They were never assimilated. They are homogenous and concentrated geographically. As for fears of an independent Kurdistan becoming a magnet, look at the Kurds in Turkey. The Kurds who leave the [Kurd majority] southeast go to Istanbul, to Izmir, to Mersin. They do not come to settle in Iraqi Kurdistan. So the idea that in order to solve the Kurdish problems in Iran and in Iraq you need to copy Iraq, that’s simply not true.

Al-Monitor:  Getting back to Iraq, clearly they are not ready to fight you and they have said so.

Barzani:  They are not ready to fight us. Not for now. But even if they were ready, nothing would be solved.

Al-Monitor:  Do you believe the cooperation that has emerged between you and Baghdad over Mosul is creating goodwill and will ease the path to an “amicable divorce,” as Masrour Barzani put it?

Barzani:  In Mosul we have a common enemy. Defeating Daesh is a top priority for us no matter what. And it is for Baghdad as well. These issues [Kurdish independence and the fight against IS] are separate.

Al-Monitor:  Where do the Sunni Arabs fall in the mix?

Barzani:  The Sunni community has to decide for themselves what they want, whether it’s regional autonomy or some other formula. Once they achieve clarity, things will fall into place. The problem for everyone though is that the Sunnis don’t seem to know what they want. That is the perception.

Al-Monitor:  But they won’t be part of your independent Kurdish state?

Barzani:  No.

Al-Monitor:  Some Kurds don’t seem to know what they want either. You have sharp and enduring internal divisions, including over the issue of independence, and certainly in terms of its timing. How will you resolve these differences?

Barzani:  I don’t expect that anyone or any party will stand up against independence. There is unanimous consensus on this issue.

This issue is above parties, above politics, above this or that leader.

That said, there is no example in the world of a nation moving toward independence that hasn’t experienced problems. We will settle our differences. Look, two years ago the biggest challenge that we faced was Daesh; it wasn’t about which article said what in the parliament. Daesh was 30 kilometers [19 miles] away from Erbil. Our priority at that time was fighting Daesh. Now, gradually the situation is changing. We lost more than 1,600 peshmergas in that fight. Nine-thousand of our heroes were injured. And now, with the support of the international community, and especially of the Americans, we regained and took control of all our territories. And so now I think it’s the right time to talk about independence, and we have started that. We sent our [Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)] delegation to the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] to [the opposition] Gorran. We will fix our differences. But first each party has to clearly lay out its positions, its demands. And also, we must not belittle what has been achieved so far. We have governed together [in coalitions]. We will build on that.

Al-Monitor:  But the PUK and Gorran both fear that independence will beget a “Barzanistan” rather than a Kurdistan.

Barzani:  There is a misconception that everything is controlled by the Barzanis, by the KDP. This is a false perception. When [PUK leader and former Iraqi president] Mam Jalal [Talabani] was on the scene, it was never an issue. Mam Jalal’s exit from the political scene created a big vacuum. At a certain point we thought we could deal with [Gorran leader] Nawshirwan [Mustafa], that he could rise to the occasion, fill the gap. But we were really very disappointed. There is nobody either in the PUK or Gorran who has either the charisma or status [Talabani has]. Plus, they are all fighting each other. It’s against this background that they perceive us [the KDP] as some kind of giant.

Al-Monitor:  Is Turkey onboard for your independence?

Barzani:  They may not be onboard in the way that we would like them to be. But at the end of the day, Turkey is one of the countries that we have to engage in dialogue with on the subject of our independence.

Al-Monitor:  Has that started?

Barzani:  Not officially.

Al-Monitor:  Are you planning to officially?

Barzani:  Yes.

Al-Monitor:  Is it on the calendar for 2017?

Barzani:  Yes, for sure we will raise it with them.

Al-Monitor:  And do you think the current leadership in Turkey would be open to this conversation?

Barzani:  I think what has changed is that before the topic was a red line for Turkey no matter what. But now I believe there is an opportunity to open this dialogue and get them to listen at the very least.

Al-Monitor:  Is the fact that Turkey allows you to export your oil independently of Baghdad a sign of this change?

Barzani:  That is a very big achievement for sure. It was beyond our imagination, beyond all our expectations, that Turkey would allow this to happen.

Al-Monitor:  Isn’t peace between Turkey and its own Kurds a critical piece of ensuring that your future independence rests on stable ground?

Barzani:  This issue can only be resolved through peaceful dialogue between Ankara and the Kurds.

Al-Monitor:  You played a key role in starting peace negotiations, the Oslo talks, between Turkey and the PKK. Are you prepared to resume this role?

Barzani:  For sure. We are ready at all times to contribute to reviving the peace process in whichever way we can. But first the PKK needs to revise its strategy. They need to understand that this problem cannot be fixed through war and violence. And this should be a strategic decision, not a tactical maneuver.

Al-Monitor:  Do you agree that Turkey needs to do the same?

Barzani:  Yes. But allow me to continue. If the PKK makes a strategic decision to abandon its military campaign in favor of a peaceful resolution of the conflict, things will get a lot easier. Killing soldiers and setting off bombs in Istanbul will not solve this problem. Both sides lose from this. When the PKK brought its fight to the cities last year, who was hurt the most by this? It was the Kurds. It’s time the PKK stopped the violence and declared a cease-fire, and not just a temporary one.

And the lead figure on the Kurdish side of any renewed peace process needs to be [imprisoned PKK leader] Abdullah Ocalan.

Al-Monitor:  What about Iran? Don’t you need to begin a dialogue with them for independence as well?

Barzani:  The Iranian media uses every opportunity to say Iran is opposed to [Iraqi] Kurdish independence even when it’s not on the agenda. Of course we need to have these discussions with the Iranians, but it seems that even before we sit down and talk about it they have decided to be against it [Iraqi Kurdish statehood].

Al-Monitor:  Is the fact that the Iranian Kurdish groups based inside Iraqi Kurdistan are now being permitted to return to the border areas to collect taxes from smugglers and to resume military activity against the regime inside Iran some kind of a message from you to the Iranians?

Barzani:  No, no. We are completely opposed to the idea of our territories being used as a springboard for military operations against our neighbors such as Iran. And we are very serious about taking preventive measures. I don’t think this [activity] would solve the problem in Iran. And there is a joint committee set up by Iran and the KRG to address these issues.

Al-Monitor:  So in that case, have the Iranian Kurdish groups been allowed to move back to the border to scale back the PKK presence there?

Barzani:  There appears to be some kind of competition between these groups. They see what PJAK [the PKK-affiliated Party of Free Life of Kurdistan] is doing, and they fear that they will be forgotten [by the Iranian Kurds]. They therefore feel the need to make themselves present inside Iran. We did not allow them to go back to the border. They did it themselves.

Al-Monitor:  You are going through a very grave financial crisis that has paralyzed much of Iraqi Kurdistan. Are things looking any brighter? What are you doing to fix the problem?

Barzani:  First of all, with regard to transparency in the oil sector, we have hired two companies: Deloitte, and Ernst & Young. They will be auditing all future, present and past activities of the energy industry. They have already started.

Al-Monitor:  And the energy agreement with Turkey?

Barzani:  Obviously, we will not allow them to see the [text of] the agreement with Turkey. But everything else will be audited. There will be full transparency.

Al-Monitor:  Including all payments made to the Turkish state bank Halkbank for the oil that you are exporting via Turkey?

Barzani:  Yes, of course. We will have a monthly auditing report. Meanwhile, our Ministry of Planning has been working with the World Bank over the past couple of years in several areas including procurement. The procurement process in the KRG has now been brought up to international standards. Social security, protecting the most disadvantaged, is another area in which we have been working with the World Bank. And of course another big project is reforms within the Ministry of Finance. The budget, taxes, all of this … I can assure you that one year from now we will have a properly functioning establishment called the Ministry of Finance.

We hired former Lebanese Finance Minister Jihad Azour, who was spearheading such reforms in Lebanon and who will be moving on to the International Monetary Fund in March. He has been helping us with all of this, with training of personnel, for nearly 1½ years. We wanted someone from the region who understands the local culture. As for the issue of ghost peshmergas, those who draw double, triple salaries, we have introduced a biometric system to eliminate this sort of mischief.

We have also cut back subsidies for fuel and electricity. All of this has reduced our expenditure dramatically. This crisis was debilitating and caused much suffering for our people, but at the same time it offered us an opportunity to seriously address many of the structural problems that aggravated this crisis. I realize that my credibility is at stake here, because as prime minister I am primarily responsible for the austerity program and it doesn’t make me especially popular. In fact, I have paid a very high price. But in the future, our people will realize it was for their own good, for the good of Kurdistan.

Al-Monitor:  Have you taken a pay cut?

Barzani:  Yes, 75%.

Al-Monitor:  Finally, how do you see relations between the KRG and Washington evolving under the new Donald Trump administration?

Barzani:  I think the next administration will be friendly toward the Kurds. And Trump’s election was not a surprise for me. I told my colleagues two months ago, 'Look, he will be the next president of the United States, no matter what,' and I was right.

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