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KRG parliament speaker calls for rethinking strategy in Baghdad talks

The speaker of Iraqi Kurdistan's parliament, Yusuf Mohammed Sadiq, is calling for the establishment of new mechanisms of governance in the region.

Kurdistan Region parliament Speaker Yusuf Mohammed Sadiq has criticized the way the recent independence referendum was organized and accused the government of not properly involving the parliament.

In an interview with Al-Monitor from his office in the hillside neighborhood of Ali-Naji in Sulaimaniyah, Sadiq spoke about the ongoing crisis between Erbil and Baghdad and his vision for going forward. He said that the first priority of the Kurdistan Region should be to restore the role of parliament and to prepare for negotiations with Baghdad over all disputed issues. He said the negotiations would first require an internal review. “We cannot negotiate with Baghdad with the same old mechanisms,” he said.

While he preferred not to voice an opinion on whether the results of the recent independence referendum should be annulled, he said that if it “had not been held, conditions in the Kurdistan Region and the disputed areas might not have deteriorated.”

Sadiq said that since he was abroad following the referendum, he was unaware of the details concerning the peshmerga’s loss of Kirkuk. “The parliament must establish a special investigation committee to investigate all the events related to the referendum, [including] the events in Kirkuk,” he stated. “The most important question to ask is why we reached this point.”

Sadiq did, however, praise former President Massoud Barzani for stepping down from power. “[W]e need to respect democracy and learn to distribute and hand over power.… From this aspect, Barzani’s leaving power was a good thing.”

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  After having suspended its work for more than two years, the Kurdistan Region parliament resumed sessions on Sept. 15, 2017, without you. What is preventing you from returning to Erbil?

Sadiq:  We do not believe that parliament’s return to work was done properly. After having been suspended for more than two years, parliament resumed sessions only to legalize the decision that some parties made to hold the Kurdistan Region [independence] referendum, and then the parliament endorsed that decision as a recommendation. This is not the right way to deal with the legislative power in a democratic system. The issue of the referendum should have been discussed in parliament, and all the political, economic, security and military aspects of the referendum should have been calculated; all preparations should have been evaluated, and then a decision should have been made. But they [the two main political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] even set the referendum date without consulting parliament, and didn’t consider the consequences. Ten days before the referendum was held, they brought those decisions into the parliament [for a vote] only to legitimatize them. This is not acceptable in a democratic system.

Now, my decision not to return to Erbil is because we are still working with the same previous mechanisms that have been proved to bring nothing but defeat and failure to the region. The parliament is still not being taken seriously by the dominant political parties.

The region was hit with a great defeat after holding the referendum, because [those involved] did not take into consideration its consequences and neglected calls by all our friends to suspend it. We saw the big defeat that happened to the people of Kurdistan.

Al-Monitor:  Is it true that the Movement for Change [Gorran] is now agreeing to replace you?

Sadiq:  My party has not agreed on changing the parliament speaker. The National Assembly of the Movement for Change, in its last meeting, asked me — after evaluating the situation and contacting different parliamentary fractions — to make my decision and [determine] how to deal with these issues.

The only reason for not attending parliament is that I want to see if parliament is able to do its work without any hindrance, with transparency to be brought into Kurdistan’s financial process and with political parties stopping interference in the security forces. We need a new stage of governance in the region. I am waiting to see whether or not we can launch this.

Al-Monitor:  What is your stance on Mr. Massoud Barzani’s decision to step down and distribute his powers to the Kurdistan Region parliament, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the judicial authorities in the region? Do you have any plans to step down?

Sadiq:  I think Mr. Massoud Barzani [did a good thing by quitting] the authority of the Kurdistan Region presidency. I wish he had done so earlier so that the process of the peaceful handover of power might have become normalized in the region. The issue of whether Mr. Barzani has ruled well or badly — this evaluation should be left for another time. But we need to respect democracy and learn to distribute and hand over power. Therefore, from this aspect, Barzani’s leaving power was a good thing. The decision to distribute his authorities is a good decision, though it requires much legislation.

Al-Monitor:  According to the law, after the two-year extension of Barzani’s term expired in 2015 and before parliament was suspended, you had the authority to assume the de-facto authorities of Mr. Barzani. Why did you not do so?

Sadiq:  I did not want Kurdistan’s conditions to be further complicated, since I had known that Mr. Barzani would remain in his position. We were at war against the Islamic State [IS] terrorist group; we were facing a harsh economic situation in the region. It was not proper in all these complicated conditions to claim the presidency and compete with Barzani. My goal was not that at all. I wanted instead a peaceful handover of power. If I had shouldered the presidency, it could have been viewed as my seeking power and the presidency post.

Al-Monitor:  What is your understanding of the peshmerga defeat in Kirkuk and other disputed areas in mid-October? Who ordered them to withdraw? Why did they not fight?

Sadiq:  I am not aware of the details of the issue. I was in Germany when, unfortunately, that happened. The parliament must establish a special investigation committee to investigate all the events related to the referendum, before and after holding it, as well as the events in Kirkuk. The most important question to ask is why we reached this point. How did we lose all the gains we had made since 2003? Why did we lose nearly 49% of Kurdistan’s territory? The consequences of unwise KRG policies in suspending parliament and holding the referendum are not only that some peshmerga forces were defeated in Kirkuk, but that a large number of peshmerga brigades — for whom a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars from the KRG and the international coalition against IS was spent — are currently dissolved.

Al-Monitor:  On Oct. 30, angry protesters stormed the parliament building, fiercely struck journalists and attacked Kurdish lawmaker Rabun Maruf, a former Kurdish MP from your own parliamentary faction. Who was behind the incident?

Sadiq:  Those attacks were an evil endeavor and were pressures from outside the parliament from groups affiliated with some political parties against parliament. Parliament cannot work in this way … where one day the speaker of the Kurdistan parliament is not allowed to enter Erbil and another day they launch an attack on parliament and hit journalists and legislators inside parliament. This all should be stopped.

I made a statement on the evening of those attacks against parliament, and I sent a message to the foreign consulates in the region, asking them to help stop those assaults. Assaulting parliament was a very bad deed.

Al-Monitor:  If you decide to return to Erbil, what will be the parliament’s priorities?

Sadiq:  The first priority is finding a way to negotiate with Baghdad to deal with the problems and salaries of the public servants of Kurdistan. The second priority is bringing more transparency to Kurdistan and enforcing parliament’s local observation role. The third priority is passing several draft laws associated with the life of our people, including a bill for social insurance, and several other draft laws related to the life of the people of Kurdistan — but a review and an investigation into all that has happened in the past also needs to be on parliament’s agenda.

Al-Monitor:  In the period of parliament suspension, the KRG — headed by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani — made several financial decisions such as decreasing salaries of state employees. To what extent are these measures legal?

Sadiq:  All salaries of the people of Kurdistan, including civil, military and pensions, are regulated by law. And according to the law, the government cannot amend them in any way. All those measures that were taken in the past, including decreasing salaries, and all those taxes and customs that were increased by law, are illegal deeds. Currently, the KRG is in debt to its citizens; these debts should be fixed by the government in order to repay our citizens.

Al-Monitor:  Baghdad has cut the Kurdistan budget from 17% to about 13%, in addition to a variety of other punitive measures after the referendum. What is your and your party's stance on this? Do you plan to challenge these measures, and if so, how?

Sadiq:  The Movement for Change has members in the Kurdistan parliament and in the Iraqi Council of Representatives, which are working on these issues. The budget must be divided according to the Iraqi Constitution. Article 121, Item 3 of this constitution guarantees that the Iraqi federal government allocate a budget for the regions suitable to their works, needs, activities and the ratio of their populations. Therefore, we will discuss this issue with Baghdad according to the above-mentioned criteria.

 Al-Monitor:  So, would you agree with the 13% portion of the Iraqi budget?

Sadiq:  Distributing the budget according to the population is a key, but the needs of Kurdistan are important as well. No population census has been made in Iraq, and Iraq’s population is unknown. Thus, it is better we continue with the other past agreement, which is the 17% portion of Iraq’s budget, until a population count can be made in Iraq. But we in the Kurdistan parliament and the Iraqi government should also confirm that total transparency in spending the incomes be brought about. I am fully with the Iraqi government’s steps for carrying out transparency in Kurdistan as well as in Iraq itself, but reducing civilians’ income is an unsuitable action that must be corrected.

Al-Monitor:  What is your position on the Sept. 25 Kurdish referendum? Can Kurds use the results of the referendum as a document to declare their own state, or do you think now that the results of the referendum should be annulled?

Sadiq:  The referendum indeed has brought us many complications and led us to the current crisis. If the referendum had not been held, conditions in the Kurdistan Region and the disputed areas might not have deteriorated, and we could have better negotiated with the Iraqi government in a position of power; hence, the international community could have further supported us.

As for nullifying the referendum results, I do not have any comment. Since the beginning of the referendum’s process, I was not a participant, because I knew it would cost the region.

Al-Monitor:  According to your perspective, when and how can an independent Kurdish state be established?

Sadiq:  To create a state, you need to build a powerful economy; you need to establish a systematic system of governance. You need an effective judicial authority, and you need one regular armed force within which no figure or party can have a role.

You should internally build the state’s fundamentals, even if you would not declare independence, the international community will deal with you as a state. States are built internally, not from the outside.

Al-Monitor:  What is your opinion on neighboring countries’ interfering in the region? How can the Kurdistan Region have balanced relationships with neighboring countries — Iran and Turkey in particular?

Sadiq:  We first need to reorganize our own affairs at home in order to reduce foreign interference in the Kurdistan Region. We as the Kurdistan Region need to have very good relations with all the neighboring countries; in addition, we need to re-establish good relations with the Iraqi federal government.

On the international level, we also need good relations with all neighboring countries and all of our friends — especially the United States, which was a key supporter of us in the fight against IS. The United States and Iran have a big conflict in the areas, but both countries were big supporters of us in the first days of the IS attacks on areas near Erbil; thus, we should keep our friendly relations with all countries.

Al-Monitor:  How do you describe the agreements that the KRG signed with Rosneft — the state-owned Russian oil company — for investment in the region’s oil and gas sector, without having consulted parliament?

Sadiq:  The KRG signed those contracts with Rosneft at a time when the Kurdistan parliament was suspended. Thus, those agreements and contracts are under serious question. Hence, the contracts should be examined by the Kurdistan parliament first and then come into effect.

Al-Monitor:  Kurdish opposition demanded the formation of a transitional government to replace the current KRG. What is your view on the transitional period?

Sadiq:  We need a transitional period until the next election is held. This transitional period may need a transitional government, but a transitional government, or reshuffling the current KRG government, needs a settlement between the political parties.

We need an internal revision before starting negotiations. We cannot negotiate with Baghdad with the same old mechanisms since it has disadvantages for the region rather than being in our interests.

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