Arbil, Asharq Al-Awsat- In his last interview with Asharq Al-Awsat just before leaving his post as prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, nearly two years ago, Nechirvan Barzani stressed that he would serve the Kurdistan Region and its people from any position he assumed. Today, as he assumes responsibility as deputy leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP], led by Masud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region, he translates his promises, “urging the KDP’s cadres to support the government in performing its missions to the advantage of the Kurdistan Region and its people,” as he put it.
Nechirvan Barzani is currently handling thorny dossiers, particularly issues relating to merging the two administrations of Arbil and Al-Sulaymaniyah and implementing construction projects to which people still point with great interest. Previously, he had conducted a peaceful rotation of power, a precedent in Iraq’s political history, when he congratulated, warmly and vehemently, his successor, Dr Barham Saleh, saying: “We are certain that we have handed power to a trustworthy man.”
Barzani granted Asharq Al-Awsat another exclusive, lengthy interview in which he spoke of his leading role in the KDP, which he joined when he was barely 16 years old. He also spoke of the Kurdistan Region’s government, its relationship with Baghdad, and ways of solving the Kirkuk problem. He stressed also the importance of the need for the US forces to stay in Iraq for the time being.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did the so-called old guard in the KDP agree that a young man like you lead the KDP?
[Barzani] Those you call old guard were once young men like me when they started their struggle to serve our Kurdish people’s cause at extremely hard phases of the Kurdish revolution’s history. They gave much, made sacrifices, strove, and fought in the mountains. This generation and the future generation look on them as senior mentors. We will benefit much from their experience and wisdom in political action.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you see an opportunity for a change within the KDP?
[Barzani] Talk of change in the KDP does not mean a turnaround in the party’s march. We work together: the old generation, our generation, and those who have joined the party. We all have to adjust to the ongoing changes, not only in the KDP or Iraq, but even the positive changes taking place in the world. The KDP members, both our predecessors and the new generation, accept and understand these changes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When did you join the KDP?
[Barzani] I began political action through the Kurdistan Students Union outside Iraq. I was not yet 16 years old, and I have continued my activities in the ranks of the KDP in the Kurdistan Region since 1991, that is, after the Kurdistan uprising.
[Asharq Al-Awsat]] What is the extent of intercession of the two major Kurdish political parties — the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] — in the affairs of the Kurdistan Region’s government?
[Barzani] Based on my experience as former prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, this issue has constantly been raised as though the government could do nothing because the political parties intervened in its work. I believe that the KDP struggled in hard phases of its history for the sake of the people. Those currently serving in the government are members of both the PUK and the KDP. I certainly do not agree with the view that a political party, any political party, hampers government performance, or that it is an obstacle in performing government functions. A political party may affect the modus operandi of a government. Having served as prime minister, and in my current capacity as a leading member of the KDP, I can clarify to the KDP cadres the party’s role in the political process, the nature of the government tasks, and how the party can help it perform its duties.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think you will succeed in performing this mission?
[Barzani] Certainly. The KDP displays great understanding and response, and every member hopes the government will succeed. The atmosphere is good and positive.
[Fayyad] Your peaceful rotation of power in the Kurdistan Region is regarded as ideal and a precedent in Iraq’s political history. How did you accept ceding your post as prime minister of the Kurdistan Region to your successor, Dr Barham Saleh?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] First, there is a strategic agreement between the KDP and our partner, the PUK. As for me, I have not been, and am still not, interested in high posts as much as I have been interested in the services I can offer to the people. It is a source of pride for me that when I quit my post as prime minister, I was at the height of my popularity, and I handed over my post to a strategic partner. In fact, I handed over power to Dr Barham Saleh, who is a leading figure in the party to which we are linked by a strategic bond. I am certain that I handed over power to a trustworthy man. In addition, there is a strong bond of fraternity and friendship between me and Dr Saleh. I believe that the tasks, which I left incomplete while prime minister, will be completed by Dr Saleh.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Since you mention the deep relationship between you and the prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, how far does this relationship contribute to advancing the government functions and implementing its programs?
[Barzani] Before he came to the Kurdistan Region to assume the post of prime minister, Dr Barham Saleh was representative of the Kurdistan Region to Baghdad. And through the posts he held in Baghdad — deputy prime minister in the Iyad Allawi’s government; minister of planning and development in the Ibrahim al-Jaafari government; and deputy prime minister in the first term of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government — Dr Saleh succeeded in playing a [useful] role as much as available opportunities and circumstances permitted. When he assumed the post of prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, he consolidated the rules of work the foundations of which I laid. We should realistically assess the government’s performance through the past two years. Dr Saleh gave great support to the policies I devised in the formation of the fifth government in the Kurdistan Region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This means you are satisfied with the performance of the government of your successor, Dr Barham Saleh. Do you think this government will win extension of its term for two more years?
[Barzani] We have not yet discussed this issue at the KDP meetings, all rumors notwithstanding. When the appropriate time comes, we will evaluate the government’s performance and decide what will be in the interest of the Kurdistan Region and its people. I want to repeat that we have not as yet discussed this issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If Dr Barham Saleh’s government does not win extension of its term, will you be the next prime minister?
[Barzani] Up to this day, we have not discussed this issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Based on your well-known candor, are there two governments in the Kurdistan Region: One ruling Arbil and Dahuk and another ruling Al-Sulaymaniyah? Or are there one government ruling the entire Kurdistan Region?
[Barzani] The situation is not as you portray it. If you ask me whether all the effects and obstacles of both administrations have been removed, I would say this is not true. There are still steps that must be taken to unify everything, even those relating to minor matters. I will give you two examples: The first is about the peshmerga forces, which we are seeking to completely unify. We have not yet accomplished this task. The second relates to the Asayish rule (internal security), which the Kurdistan Region’s president recently signed. The process began with unifying the peshmerga forces. Our goal is to take important and firm steps to ensure a solid and permanent unification. When we end with this issue, we will act to unify all administrations. We have taken practical steps toward this goal. This process has begun and will continue until we achieve our goal.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do your meetings with the prime minister of the Kurdistan region take place on a partisan basis as meetings between two allied political parties, or on a government basis?
[Barzani] A few days ago, a meeting took place between the two parties’ political bureaus. The meeting was chaired for the PUK by Barham Saleh and for the KDP by me. That meeting was a partisan one. Several other amicable meetings take place to exchange views or experiences. Our communications take place almost daily.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is a well-known fact that you assumed the post of prime minister of the Kurdistan Region under circumstances that were described as extremely complicated, and involved overlapping and intertwining between the two administrations of Al-Sulaymaniyah and Arbil. You succeeded in performing your duties in a distinguished manner. Are you worried about your achievements?
[Barzani] I think I started my work at a phase that was the most difficult. There was a huge lack of confidence between the PUK and the KDP. I am honored to have been assigned the task of rebuilding confidence between the two political parties. Frankly speaking, were it not for the support I received from the PUK, I would not have succeeded in playing that role and achieving the mission of merging [the two administrations]. The support I received from the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, was constant and unlimited. I would say for history that the PUK members, who were in my government, worked earnestly to remove the [bad] effects of the two administrations. We worked together as a team, not in my capacity as an individual, and stood up to challenges. I will absolutely never forget the role played by Omar Fattah, who was deputy prime minister, and who was succeeded by Imad Ahmad. Both were members of the PUK. They played important roles in rendering the government’s work successful. As for me, at the meetings of the Council of Ministers, I did not think this minister was a member of the KDP, of the PUK, the Communist Party, the Islamic Union, or the Islamic Group. I felt that the two major political parties were one integrated team working together to serve the interests of the Kurdistan Region and its people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You may remember that in our latest interview just before you left your post as prime minister, you said that you were not interested in high posts and would serve the Kurdistan Region and your people in any position you might assume. Do you think you are capable of doing that through your new responsibilities as deputy leader of the KDP?
[Barzani] There is no doubt that a political party work differs from any other. I would say in jest that members of the KDP leadership believe that if they have to give every member one copy of the KDP’s bylaw, they think they would have to give me more than one copy, because they believe I did not approve of that bylaw, or that I need someone to remind me of its existence.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you perused the KDP’s bylaw?
[Barzani] Certainly. The problem is that major responsibilities devolved on the KDP. After all, it is a grand old party and its struggle and historical and revolutionary roles are remarkable. The KDP’s responsibilities and importance are not solely limited to the Kurdistan Region, but also extend to all Iraq. I think I will play an important role in leading the KDP.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were you concerned about the situation in the Kurdistan Region in the wake of the demonstrations that were staged in Al-Sulaymaniyah?
[Barzani] I would not say that what happened in Al-Sulaymaniyah did not impact the situation there. I cannot describe what happened as agitation by the masses in the Kurdistan Region. When several thousand people take to the streets in demonstrations, we should listen to their demands and know what they want. Yet what I think is that the political parties in Al-Sulaymaniyah asked their masses to take to the street. This is how things began, but did not turn into a state of agitation b y the masses throughout Al-Sulaymaniyah or the Kurdistan Region. The demonstrations were limited. In my view, the political parties wanted to emulate what happened in some regional Arab countries, and to seize the opportunity to agitate the masses. However, they did not succeed. As for demonstrations, I must say that the people have a right to demonstrate, and the authorities have to pay attention to the people’s demands. I must stress here that we did not seize power in the Kurdistan Region, but came to power through democratic elections. The voters who elected us are the only ones who have a right to remove us from power. The opposition has a right to consider assuming power, but has to avoid violence and come to power through the ballot boxes in a democratic way. I think there were miscalculations on the part of the opposition, which entertained stirring up the masses. However, that did not happen. The opposition seems to have imagined that the demonstrators would garner international support, but that did not happen. In addition, the people here were not a party to the [opposition plans].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view the current negotiations between the authorities and the opposition in the Kurdistan Region?
[Barzani] We hope these negotiations will reach good results. The door is open to the opposition to play a role in the Kurdistan Region’s government, and to join it to contribute to achieving reform. There is an opportunity for the opposition and the decision is up to it; it is welcome. If it wants to remain as opposition, this will be its option, and we welcome its position. We have so far held two meetings with the opposition for dialogue, and we hope this rapport and positive attitude will continue in the negotiations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think of the future situation in the Kurdistan Region?
[Barzani] There are yardsticks for evaluating the situation. According to these yardsticks, we are optimistic about the future of the Kurdistan Region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are remarkable diplomatic activities in the Kurdistan Region; do you think this is due to stability and security there? How do you view these activities?
[Barzani] It is only natural that the embassies in Baghdad should have consulates and diplomatic offices in the rest of Iraq, and the Kurdistan Region is one of the Iraqi regions. Stability and Security certainly provide economic opportunities in the Kurdistan Region. Add to this the Kurdistan Region’s role in the political process in Iraq as a whole. These are the key reasons that encourage opening more Western and Arab consulates in Arbil. We will encourage other countries to open consulates in the Kurdistan Region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] During your term as prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, you tried hard to establish balanced relations with the federal government in Baghdad. did you succeed in your efforts?
[Barzani] There are several issues that we must resolve with Baghdad once and for all. Since we are in the same country, we have to solve these problems through dialogue, and put everything on the table. Regrettably, up to now, none of these problems have been radically solved.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So these problems are still standing?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This leads us to another question on the reasons for the Kurds’ support for Nuri al-Maliki to stay in power?
[Barzani] It is wrong to hold Al-Maliki fully responsible for the crisis. He bears part of the responsibility. What greatly concerns us is Iraq’s stability. We do not think of part of the crisis, but of the Iraqi crisis as a whole. We are well-known for having great capacity for endurance. We do not make our decisions extemporaneously or hastily. Let us be realistic, Al-Maliki is not wholly to blame for the crisis; there are also the parliament and the Council of Ministers. Affairs in Iraq are complicated, and cannot be viewed as simply as that.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you bank on reviving President Masud Barzani’s initiative for solving the political crisis in Iraq?
[Barzani] His Excellency President Masud Barzani has made major efforts to solve what can be solved of the political problems in Baghdad. I believe that he will continue his sincere efforts with all Iraqi parties to ease the crisis, reach good results, and solve the problems. What he is currently doing is holding dialogue with all parties to work out a mechanism for emerging from this crisis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Arbil has turned into a Mecca for most of the Iraqi political forces. They come to meet with the Kurdish leaders, primarily President Masud Barzani. This means that the Kurds are serving as a balancing act in the political process after they were once viewed with suspicion as seeking secession?
[Barzani] President Barzani and I do not see Iraq as two states, but as one state. All people are partners in Iraq, not outside it. Therefore, we will continue our serious efforts to bring about and consolidate stability and work for the Iraqi people’s prosperity. The Kurdistan Region’s president is interested in this issue, and has often done all he can toward this goal. He played a key role in the formation of the government, and he is now striving to bring the views of all parties closer to solve pending problem in Baghdad. Those who speak of the Kurds as separatists use this as a pressure card to further their political purposes. We have publicly decided to remain part of Iraq. After all, secession is not an issue that can be concealed. We have decided to abide by the Iraqi Constitution, which is the arbiter. As a people, we have a right to enjoy the right to self-determination, for we are not Arab, Persian, or Turks; we are Iraqi Kurds, and have voluntarily decided to live within this homeland in accordance with the Constitution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This is because you are Iraqis?
[Barzani] Of course, we are Iraqis, and this is our country and homeland where we have lived for thousands of years.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view the future situation in Iraq?
[Barzani] The Iraqi leadership should have a strategic vision for Iraq and its future. If the political leaders want to create problems, there are thousands of small problems that may become obstacles in the way of political action, such as who will assume the post of prime minister in this or that government, and who will assume this or that post? I believe that the political leadership’s horizon and vision should be broader. Iraq is rich in its manpower and natural resources, and its people are smart. The country has an important strategic location, and opportunities are available for everyone — Shiites, Sunnis, Arabs, Kurds, Turcoman, Christian Chaldeans and Assyrians, Azaydis, and Sabiah — to live in prosperity. We have to transcend this phase and not remain hostages to posts and ministerial portfolios. Otherwise, Iraq will have no future.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you optimistic about solving the Kirkuk problem?
[Barzani] I think that if Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution is fully implemented, the Kirkuk problem can be solved. I will be frank with you: The Kirkuk issue will not be solved by one party banging on the table and saying Kirkuk is part of the Kurdistan Region, or for the other party to bang on the table and say Kirkuk is not Kurdish but belongs to Baghdad administration. This is not a solution to this problem. I think this problem has two aspects: First, we do not see genuine efforts being made by Baghdad and the United States to solve the Kirkuk issue, and, second, the United Nations is not helping us to solve it as required. Some believe that we want Kirkuk for its oil wealth and to secede from Iraq. Everyone knows that there is a great deal of oil in the Kurdistan Region’s territories. I think if Iraq wanted to solve this problem once and for all, it would act to share the revenues and enact a law on oil wealth-sharing. This is the key to the first step toward solving the Kirkuk problem. Then comes the role of the judiciary and law to solve the problems of the revenues of houses and ownership of properties. In fact, this problem was not complicated as it has become. Were there a genuine will for action, we would reach solutions satisfactory to everyone.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view the issue of withdrawal of the US troops?
[Barzani] Before answering this question, the political parties in Iraq should consider this issue very realistically. They have to answer this important question: Is Iraq capable, in terms of training, arms, defense, and tactical preparedness, of doing without the US forces? The evident objective and practical answer to this question leads us to decide whether or not Iraq needs the US forces to stay in Iraq. I think this issue must not be placed only on the shoulders of the Iraqi prime minister to be used politically by other parties against him. We should be realistic. They say in public that we do not need the US forces to stay in Iraq, but behind closed doors, and at bilateral meetings, they emphasize that Iraq needs the US forces to stay. In fact, as Iraqis, we currently need the US forces to stay. The day will come when the US forces should leave Iraq after our forces have completed their preparedness in terms of training, arms, and sufficient preparation. The military command should present to the National Assembly a comprehensive report on the level of preparation of the Iraqi forces. Afterwards, the political leadership will make a decision on this issue. I hope that all Iraqi political parties will not engage in one-upmanship over this issue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you feel worried if the US forces withdraw?
[Barzani] Certainly. We do not say this as Kurds only, but as Iraqis. We are concerned for all of Iraq, and this issue concerns the future of Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you feel you are more preoccupied now than when you were prime minister?
[Barzani] No. I now feel that I am under less pressure than when I was prime minister. My responsibilities were greater as government work at the beginning was hard, particularly building premises of the ministries, enacting laws, and unifying the two administrations of Arbil and Dahuk. In 2004, no one spoke of corruption and reform; the people were talking of security and stability. Thanks to the efforts of the peshmerga and the security agencies, we provided security. We then moved to construction and providing services, such as water and electrify. This was only natural as our people deserve many services because they suffered much from deprivation for many years. Today, as culture, education, freedom, and sound vision prevail, the people are demanding reforms. This is an indication of the people’s growing awareness and progress.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you have more time to give to your privet life?
[Barzani] Certainly. Apart from the political party meetings, I devote my time to my family life, I exercise, travel, and read much.