Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—Burham Salih, former head of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, is able to walk the streets of the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah unencumbered by bodyguards. Such is the popularity and respect enjoyed by the senior Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader. Sulaymaniyah’s residents—young and old—stop Salih on the street to ask for a picture, an autograph, and Salih is always more than happy to oblige.
Asharq Al-Awsat met with Burham Salih in his home in the northern Kurdish town to speak about the political and security situation in Iraq, including the advance of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters on the scene, as well as the future of the Kurdistan region and the government formation efforts underway in Baghdad.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Let’s talk about the current crisis in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. What is your take on the situation there?
Barham Salih: We need to mobilize and put all of our forces on alert to confront the terrorist threat. There is no doubt that, God willing, once we have defeated and eradicated ISIS, we must hold a serious and calm dialogue to consider the problems and loopholes that led to the recent events. We also need to introduce political reforms in Kurdistan and combat corruption. But I emphasize that our primary mission now is to support the Peshmerga and Iraqi forces in their confrontation and fight against ISIS. Solving the political problems in Baghdad should be done in a way that guarantees a broad national alignment to confront the threat of terrorism.
It has become clear to everyone that a misfortune to Kurdistan is a misfortune to Iraq and vice versa . . .Whether we like it or not we share fundamental interests with Baghdad that are embodied in confronting radicalism and terror. We need to place the resources of the country at the service of citizens and end the ongoing cycle of violence and crises in Iraq.
Q: Do you think the narrative regarding the retreat of the Iraqi army from Mosul, leaving the city vulnerable to ISIS, is a conspiracy against Sunni Arabs and the Kurdistan region?
This topic is open to debate and requires investigation and enquiry. We cannot tackle what happened in Mosul and Sinjar only in passing.
By all measures, these [incidents] amount to disasters and serious crimes and are the responsibility of terror and its backers. But those negligent [officials] who claim their task is to protect people carry the responsibility for the security and political loopholes and the criminal negligence that allowed such disasters to happen.
There may be conspiracies. But a conspiracy does not work without the existence of loopholes. Unfortunately today there are schisms in Iraq’s political and security systems. Enough of justifying negligence and failure in the name of conspiracy and diverting attention from the failed political and security reality!
Q: The leadership of the Kurdistan region claim that they have been marginalized by the central government. Do you agree?
There have been many accusations against the region in the last period, such as the Peshmerga being outside the framework of the national defence system and the region being a base for conspiracies against Baghdad, among others. But it has become clear that the Peshmerga is a fundamental force when it comes to the defence of the security of the Iraqi people and integrity of the homeland. Moreover, Kurdistan has always been a haven for free Iraqis and a platform for the liberation of Iraq and the realization of good goals. Once again Kurdistan has proved that it has been fighting to eradicate ISIS and confront the threat of terror, with the Peshmerga leading these national efforts. I wish the new government . . .and all political sides in Iraq learn the lessons from this.
We should reach a framework that achieves gains and growth for the entire country. The stability of the Kurdistan region depends on that of Basra, Amara, Najaf, Anbar, Mosul, Baghdad and all parts of Iraq. We live in one inseparable country whether we like it or not. And we share common security and economic interests which are indivisible.
Q: Do you support Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani’s call for a referendum on secession?
I’d like to emphasize, as I always do, that the Kurdish people like other peoples have the right to self-determination, including their right to independence and the establishment of their own state. Before 2003 Iraqi Kurds were independent of the center but we accepted to remain as part of a unified Iraq with the constitution being the arbiter of our problems and legislation for coexistence. In my assessment, whether Kurdistan gains autonomy or remains part of Iraq depends on the political situation in Baghdad . . .The collapse of the situation in Baghdad, the dictatorial tendencies and the sectarian infighting will undermine the unity of Iraq. The interest of Kurds lies in the success of the democratic process in the country. We think that the interest of [Kurds] lies in the support of brother Haider Al-Abadi, the prime minister-designate, to form a powerful and consistent government capable of overcoming past problems and stressing the need for Iraq to remain united.
The Iraqi state cannot marginalize any one side. As we have seen, the marginalization of Kurds, Sunnis or key Shi’ite sides had serious consequences. Had there been political and security coordination between the federal government and the region from the outset, perhaps the situation in Mosul or Sinjar would not have been what it is now.
In my opinion, the only option to achieve stability in Iraq is by implementing the spirit of the Iraqi constitution and in particular by limiting the powers of the federal government to only the contexts enshrined in the constitution and setting a budget cap so that it does not bully Iraqis.
At the same time, we are in need of a powerful Sunni ally to participate in the political process. Sunnis must be supported to crush terror. The people and tribes of Anbar are familiar with the best ways to defeat terror in their own areas. If we do not solve the problem today, we will remain under threat by ISIS and its future offshoots.
Q: Are you optimistic about the new political situation in Iraq?
I am a realist but am also always optimistic. I believe that we are capable of overcoming ordeals. I do not underestimate the sheer size of interests generated by the cycle of crises over the past ten years. The political economy that emerged from the violence in Iraq produced centers of power larger than the [state] institutes endorsed in the constitution. These interests blocked the chances of progress of Iraq and the welfare of its people.
Q: Meanwhile, negotiations to form a new government are underway. Do you think Kurds will have tough conditions for participating in the government?
To be fair, all sides should support Prime Minister-designate Abadi in carrying out his duties . . .One of the most significant ways of support is that all sides should be clear and frank about their needs and commitments towards the government in order to avoid a repeat of past crises. Without doubt there will be key demands. For example, the Kurdish side has problems with the former government, most prominently budgetary issues, oil legislation, the Peshmerga and the disputed areas.
Q: What is your view of the regional stances towards Iraq and how do you assess that of Arab states in particular?
The region is concerned with what is happening in Iraq. There is a growing understanding on the part of the region for the necessity of supporting Abadi’s government. There is a state of alarm in the region and the world in order to contain the threat of ISIS. The US and EU are increasingly helping and Iran is helping the federal government and the Kurdistan region in the fight against ISIS. In this context, it must be noted that we appreciate the contribution of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz in supporting the displaced Iraqis. We are looking forward to seeing an active Arab role in order to overcome the current crisis.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally published in Arabic.