Barzani says, “Frankly, it’s better if they call me by my name than refer to me as prime minister; it’s a sign of affection. It has been a great honor to provide these services, but in reality they were achieved through a collective effort between the National Union, the Democratic Party, and others who dedicated themselves to making this progress a reality.”
Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, is crowded with foreigners and Iraqis from all walks of life, and the city is markedly different from its counterparts in the south. In his first interview since forming his third government in less than a year, the prime minister of the region told Asharq Al-Awsat that “we think about the progress and stability of our capital in Baghdad as much as we think of Erbil’s,” and discussed his feelings about the economic and political problems plaguing other parts of Iraq, and why he thinks the secession of the Kurdistan Region is a bad idea.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: When we landed in Erbil’s airport, we felt as if we were in different country [from Iraq]. Do you foresee the Kurdistan Region becoming an independent state?
Nechervan Barzani: We were independent before 2003; we had a government and government institutions and even the currency in circulation was different from that in Iraq at the time.
However, after the regime’s fall, we [Kurds] returned to Baghdad of our own accord, in keeping with the constitution for which more than 80 percent of the Iraqi people voted. We rebuilt Iraq on the basis of three fundamental principles: partnership, compatibility and full involvement in the political process.
Since then, we have done everything in our power to safeguard the unity of Iraq. We rebuilt the new Iraq as partners and we are not disengaged in any way. Let me give you an example: When the security situation in Baghdad was bleakest, we sent our security forces and the peshmerga to provide security and to protect Baghdad. I can confidently say that we have done everything within our power to protect the unity of Iraq.
Q: What are the causes of the underlying crisis between Baghdad and Erbil?
Which crisis? There are always crises.
Q: The recent crisis.
You know, the crisis begins with the mindset in Baghdad. As mentioned, we began building a new Iraq based on three fundamental principles, and unfortunately these principles have been violated in Baghdad. Our question to Baghdad is this: Are we partners in governance and in political decision-making, or are we not?
Unfortunately, however, the policy of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and of other officials in Baghdad is not a policy based on mutual understanding, but rather one of control and domination. For us this is unacceptable, just as it is unconstitutional. We have not built a new Iraq for this, and we did not agree to substituting one dictator for another. The underlying problem is Baghdad’s mindset in dealing with the Kurdistan Region.
In order to overcome the crisis, trust must be built and we must proceed in accordance with this principle. Baghdad must approach us as partners. We are partners in building Iraq. This is a short summary of the core of the problem. Frankly, there is no hope of building a civil state as long as Baghdad supports militarizing Iraqi society. The Iraqi people have already suffered a great deal from injustice and tyranny because of militarization.
Q: Is the problem not financial in nature?
There is no financial problem. Even if there were a problem of this sort, which there is not, it shouldn’t devolve into a stand-off between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region. Iraq is a rich country, and the federal government can solve such problems.
Q: So you mean to say that the problem is not related to the general budget and the USD 4 billion entitlement for foreign oil companies operating in the Kurdistan Region?
No, not at all. Let’s take a look at the budget law as it would apply to the Kurdistan Region. First, I do not call it the budget law for the Kurdistan Region; I call it the penal code for the Kurdistan Region. The law says if the Kurdistan Region doesn’t do this or that, then we will take this or that measure; therefore, I call it a penal code.
For example, they say that if we do not do what they want regarding the phone lines, then the federal government has the right to cut the region’s phone links. How can there be a compatible partnership in Baghdad if the federal government tries to impose its will on the region? When we talk about entitlements for the foreign oil companies operating in the region, I say frankly: first, we are committed to the principle that oil is the property of the Iraqi people. Second, we are asking for entitlements for these foreign companies and they have nothing to do with the Kurdistan Region, except for the fact that those companies operate in the area. Third, oil profits must return to the benefit of Iraq. So far we have exported 76 million barrels of oil, and the proceeds of this oil have gone to the federal government, and the regional government has not seen any a penny of this revenue. Yes, the oil is exported is from the region, but the revenue is distributed to everyone.
There is a simple misunderstanding, and it is Baghdad’s responsibility to resolve this problem. These entitlements should be paid to these companies transparently and on a regular basis. What is Baghdad’s policy? The federal government does not want to pay what these companies are owed in order to publicly undermine the oil policy of the Kurdistan Regional Government. This policy is meant to broadcast to the world that Kurdistan does not have any way to export oil.
Q: You’ve spoken about economic independence for the Kurdistan Region. What do you mean exactly by that?
As I have already said, the budget law for the region is tantamount to a penal code. We want to come to an agreement regarding the region’s budget in a transparent manner that is devoid of threats. Public funds ought to be allocated as they are in all federal countries. Baghdad does not approach us in this manner, despite the fact that we are constitutionally a federal region.
The new Iraq, according to the constitution, is defined as a pluralist, democratic and federal country. However, Baghdad treats us as it does a small governorate of the federal government. This is a constitutional issue, and we want the federal government to work with us in a manner that is in keeping with the constitution. Baghdad must deal with us on a federal basis and stop acting like Iraq is a centralized system in which Baghdad asserts its control over everything. We want to change this mindset.
Q: But this problem, in addition to other problems and crises, has been around since Maliki’s last government. Why did the KRG back Maliki to become prime minister again?
For us, the issue of political stability in Iraq has been and continues to be our first priority. We were convinced that we could solve the problem with Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. However, the Kurds are not the only ones who are unsettled by the prime minister’s policies. Many Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs are also unsatisfied with his policies, and the underlying issue is that as prime minister he only represents parts of Iraq, and not all of it.
Q: But you had expressed dissatisfaction with the policies of Maliki during his previous government.
Sometimes in Iraq the circumstances force us to deal with what is available. Given the other options, some parties were convinced that it was best to give him a second chance; however, what is happening now was not expected.
Q: Do you think that the policies of Maliki’s government could push you to secede from Iraq?
Remaining a part of Iraq was, and still is, a voluntary choice. Let me tell you frankly: we are not Arabs, we are Kurds. Our culture, language and history are different from the Arabs. We are a Kurdish nation, but we voluntarily chose to remain a part of Iraq in accordance with the constitution. It is in the Kurds’ interests to remain within Iraq, and this policy is part of our public platform. Both the KRG and the Kurdish leadership are committed to this principle.
I do not think that Maliki will force us to secede. The problem lies in the fact that he does not act as a prime minister for all of Iraq. The Kurds do not want to separate. Iraq is a rich country, and the Kurds want to enjoy their rights within the framework of Iraq as spelled out in the federal constitution. Of course, nothing undermines the unity of the country more than the self-serving mindset of the prime minister. His claims that he has a monopoly over nationalism and that he holds the keys to all solutions is problematic, and primes the country for an explosion. In the end, it will come back to hurt not only him but the whole of Iraq as well.
Q: What about the statement from a representative of Maliki’s State of Law Coalition that called on the Kurds to declare independence?
Iraq is not subject to a single class or politician. Iraq is for everyone. We, like them [the State of Law coalition], see ourselves as responsible for the fate of Iraq. We are even keener than they are to maintain security and achieve progress in Iraq. They talk about the unity of Iraq, but we prove our commitment to this unity through action. We have and continue to do everything in our power to preserve the unity of Iraq.
Today, no one can rightly blame the Kurds for the poor circumstances in which the country finds itself. Politically, the president of the Republic of Iraq, a Kurd, has made the maximum possible effort to gather Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Kurds around the same table. He is now absent from Baghdad, and we hope he returns to the homeland in good health. His absence has led to a lack of a communication between the political parties. Security-wise, we have provided all the support and assistance possible to keep Baghdad stable. We did this by taking concrete steps, and the talk of this or that person does not concern us.
Q: Ali Al-Adeeb, one of the Da’wa Party’s most prominent figures, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the KRG wants to expand its powers.
This is completely baseless. All we want is what we were promised in the constitution and what rightly belongs to us. If they were talking about the oil, we approach this issue as if the oil is the property of all the Iraqi people, as stipulated in the constitution. If they are talking about the issue of making Kirkuk part of Kurdistan, this is a historical and geographical fact.
In past years they [governments in Baghdad] would extract the oil from Kurdistan, buy weapons with the proceeds, and then use those to weapons to attack Iraqi Kurds. Our wounds run deeper than they perceive. Hollow rhetoric about democracy and the like will not heal our wounds. We know that such talk is mere chatter and is unfounded.
We have lost more than 182,000 martyrs because of our determination to persevere and to live in this country. Nearly 5,000 villages were razed to the ground and wiped off the map and chemical weapons were used against our people. The Kurdish people thought that these atrocities would come to an end in the new Iraq and that such statements would not exist, particularly coming from Adeeb, who fought with the peshmerga against the former regime. The political leaders in Baghdad must work to heal the wounds of the Kurds. We were expecting that Baghdad would back the courts that proved the existence of mass graves and ethnic cleansing, and compensate the victims for the losses they suffered from the shelling and exposure to chemical weapons. Oil is not the root of the crisis. We can export 250,000 barrels; within a year we will be exporting one million barrels per day, and that’s excluding Kirkuk. This boon is for the whole of Iraq, not only the Kurds. We do not know why Baghdad sees this policy as hostile to them.
Q: Government leaders are saying that Article 140, one of the key features of which provides for a referendum on Kirkuk and other disputed territories, has expired. What is your take on that?
Article 140 is a constitutional article. The constitution is still in force and has not expired. Therefore we ask: What do we want from the new Iraq? Do we want political stability, security and prosperity for the Iraqi people, or to create crisis after crisis?
Let’s return to Article 140, and, as everyone knows, it is a constitutional article and was written to resolve the impasse regarding the status of Kirkuk. However, the impasse remains unresolved, and now there is talk that the article has expired. It is important to us that we bring this issue to a close, and not listen to remarks which will only create another crisis for the whole of Iraq. This crisis can only be resolved through negotiations and flexibility. We are prepared to be flexible and negotiate.
Let us imagine that there is a problem within a family: the problem will not be resolved by the strong imposing their will on the weak, or by one party asserting itself over another party it perceives to be weaker than itself. This approach will not resolve the problem in the least. There must be flexible dialogue. Kirkuk is a symbol of brotherhood.
We must engage with one issue after the other, and not postpone and complicate them. That responsibility rests with the Iraqi prime minister. What is he waiting for in order to properly address these problems? Is he biding his time until the military is strengthened to the point that it can come and occupy Kurdish territory? Saddam was strong, and yet he could not do it. Thus, we have only a single path before us, and that is negotiations to resolve these problems and realize justice.
Q: Do you believe that Baghdad approaches the Kurdistan Region with a mindset that is preoccupied with strength and weakness?
That is absolutely how we see it. The Sunnis have a fear of the future because of what happened in the past. The Shi’ites have a fear of the past. The Kurds, however, have a fear of the past, the present and the future. This is a big problem—but what is the prime minister in Baghdad waiting for? We all know what the problem is but we beat around the bush instead of grabbing the problem by the horns and fixing what needs to be fixed. Iraqi society cannot stand strong without creating a moderate center and the genuine inclusion of all its disparate components.
Q: Of all the issues and crises, is the status of Kirkuk the most important?
No, not at all. It is one of many. Kirkuk’s importance was magnified when the US forces were present. They say that Kirkuk is vital because it is an oil city, but we have oil from throughout the [Kurdistan] Region. Even without Kirkuk, we can export one million barrels per day, and a significant amount of natural gas. For us, Kirkuk is a symbol of the new Iraq, a symbol of our persecution in times past, and a symbol of achieving justice for Iraq.
Q: Ordinary Kurdish citizens are fearful of the crisis brewing between Baghdad and Erbil, and this crisis has affected the economic situation. They also fear that Baghdad may strike the Kurdistan Region militarily. Do you share their concern?
I am not concerned about this from my personal perspective. This is a personal opinion, mind you. However, Maliki’s actions have regretfully spread fear in the Kurdish street. We had thought that such times had ended in Iraq. We all must find a way in which we can all coexist peacefully. One should look at the situation realistically—not wishfully. Grandiose rhetoric about the unity of Iraq and its people has its place, but we must also look at the reality on the ground. In the elections, for example, Shi’ites voted for Shi’ites, Sunnis voted for Sunnis, and Kurds voted for Kurds. This is the undeniable reality of Iraq, whether we like it or not. We must think of a framework that preserves the geographical integrity of the country and allows all to coexist with one another.
Q: Do you support the demonstrations in the western and northern governorates?
Peaceful demonstration is a constitutional right. In this sense, we support it and any legitimate demands that fall within the framework of the constitution. At the beginning of the demonstrations, Rafi Al-Issawi, the recently resigned finance minister, called for a dialogue to find solutions, but the prime minister refused to take part. We hope that the demonstrations remain peaceful.
Q: How do you think the current crises plaguing Iraq could be resolved?
Iraq is in need of a dialogue grounded in reality in which all parties participate. Only then could a solution be found to which all of Iraq’s different groups could agree.
Q: This is the third government that you have formed in the Kurdistan Region. Do you think that the difficulties in this government will be more pronounced than they were in the others?
Possibly, yes. Things have changed; priorities have changed. When the fifth cabinet was formed, the priority was to provide security and stability. Praise be to God, thanks to the relentless efforts of the security forces and the peshmerga, and in cooperation with our people, we have come through this stage safely. We have not entirely resolved the electricity issue, but services have improved a lot overall. Life is constantly changing and priorities change with it; the aspirations of the people grow larger. The political situation has also changed in parliament. It has become more efficient than ever, and the opposition is now a formidable force. Democracy and governmental institutions are starting to take root. We are moving forward, but without a doubt there are still shortcomings.
Q: There are no opposition members in the fifth cabinet.
The opposition was marginal, but after what happened to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [Mustafa Nushirwan’s departure and his role in the formation of the opposition party Goran], a strong opposition has been formed.
Q: Staying with the topic of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, do you think they will form a separate election list and thus bring an end to your strategic alliance with them?
We in the Kurdish Democratic Party plan to run on a separate list that does not include them. However, we will certainly continue to work with them within the framework of the strategic alliance.
Q: Has the absence of President Jalal Talabani, who is also a Kurd, impacted the situation in the Kurdistan Region in any way?
Certainly. The Honorable President Talabani had gained valuable experience and insight throughout his political career, and his absence will have a negative impact on Iraq. His presence helped to create a balance between the various political forces. The system fell out of balance once he left the political scene, and we hope he will return safe and sound.
Q: Will the Kurdish Alliance nominate a new president of the republic, seeing how that position is theirs to fill?
We hope that the president returns in good health. For that reason, no other person has been nominated for president of the republic.
Q: You were recently in Turkey. While you were there, did you discuss finding common ground between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)? Did you play a role in finding that common ground?
We worked on many issues while in Turkey, including those related to the interests of our people. We also surveyed the regional landscape and the Syrian situation. As for the PKK, we played an important supportive role. It was incumbent upon us to resolve the impasse between the Turkish government and the PKK, while at the same time we had to be wary not to give the impression that we were infringing on Turkish domestic politics. It is a Turkish issue, and should thus be solved within the framework of the Turkish state. We spoke with both the Turkish government and the PKK, and we will continue to do so as long as possible. We hope to find a peaceful, political solution to this problem.
Q: Do you think that there can be a positive outcome?
It is evident to us that there is a strong political will from both sides to overcome this impasse. Of course, there are some who want these initiatives to fail, and it is important to keep in mind that problems such as these are not resolved overnight. No matter how difficult the road ahead may be, it starts with the first step forward—and that first step has already been taken. This problem will not be resolved easily, and we should not underestimate the significance of what has already been accomplished. The Turkish prime minister [Erdoğan] played a vital role, and he ought to be commended for his efforts. The initiative undertaken by Abdullah Öcalan was also important, and Ankara should not overlook its significance. In the end, the important thing is that the two sides understand that this is a political problem that can only be resolved with a political solution.
Q: We noticed that Syrian refugees, who are both Arabs and Kurds, in work in shops and hotels and generally move around without freely in the Kurdistan Region.
Those Syrians are our brothers, whether Arab or Kurdish. The Syrian people and the Syrian government helped us a lot when we were in need. Today, it is our turn to do what we can to help. The events unfolding in Syria cause us pain, and we hope that the suffering stops.
Q: Do you think that the Syrian regime can persevere?
It is our opinion that regime change in Syria will not come about easily. Take a glance at the current situation: after two years, the army, the security forces, the Ba’ath Party, the diplomatic establishment, the Alawites and parts of the Sunni community all continue to stand with the regime. In short, 25 percent are with the regime, 15 percent are with the opposition, and the rest are confused as to what to do. The ball is still in the regime’s court, and the problem should be resolved by political means for the sake of the Syrian people.