[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the federal government in Baghdad considers you as its partners in government?
[Barzani] This is the main problem. During my recent visit to Baghdad, I emphasized this point. We asked them: Are we partners or not? If you consider us as your partners then this is one issue; if you do not then this is another issue. They stressed that we are partners. However, in real practice, I doubt this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you yourselves feel that you are partners in the federal government?
[Barzani] This is a coalition government and we are partners in it. But the actions of this government are weird. We are partners but we do not have a role in the government. We are not partners in security, economic, and military issues and we do not know anything about these institutions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you talk openly to them in Baghdad? What is happening is that during you meetings with the federal governments, optimistic reports are issued but later the opposite happens.
[Barzani] During our recent visit, we reached good agreements and mechanisms to implement these agreements. We have a program on which we are in agreement with the government in Baghdad. But when we returned to the Kurdistan region, everything we had agreed upon was ignored. The programs agreed upon are being marginalized. This state of affairs does not serve our coalition or Iraq or the future of Iraq. Performance should be based on the principle of partnership and agreement. This is the only way to build the new Iraq. The consequences of monopolizing authority are well known. This situation will not lead to any result in favor of Iraq.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] After five years in rule and prior to that many long years of joint political action in the opposition where the goals and mechanisms were agreed upon at the opposition’s London conference in 2001, what does the federal government and where have you reached?
[Barzani] Indeed, this is a question that puzzles us. We do not wish for anything outside the constitution and we do not want anything more than what the constitution gives us. We do not want anything more than what we have agreed upon in the constitution. The constitution was agreed upon by the majority of the Iraqi people and it sets rights and duties. We in the Kurdistan district are accurately committed to the articles of the constitution. We are not asking for more than what the constitution gives us. This includes Article140 (pertaining to the issue of Kirkuk and the disputed regions). Commitment to the constitution is the guarantee for safeguarding the unity of Iraq. It guarantees security and stability in Iraq and the building of a prosperous future for the Iraqi people. Thus, the constitution is the judge. No abiding by the constitution means potential disaster.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the Kurds in Baghdad – I mean President Jalal Talabani, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, and even the Kurdish members of parliament – are capable of intervening in the political or security decision-making process?
[Barzani] President Talabani definitely plays a major role in the political process as Mr. Talabani. However, as president of the republic, he does not have many powers. We do not know how the powers are distributed. He constitutes the gathering point of many political factions and entities in Iraq. Furthermore, the presidency of the republic, the prime ministry, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies (the Parliament), and the ministers have specific powers. However, these powers are very often ignored and sidestepped.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the government in Baghdad continues to behave with the logic of the strong brother and the weak brother?
[Barzani] Unfortunately, we seem to be still under the influence of a totalitarian regime. The one that takes over power thinks he has the last word in everything and that it is his right to make decisions without consulting others. He forgets the coalitions, the commitments, and the constitution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are critical media reports inside and outside Iraq against the Kurds in Iraq. Are you aware of such reports?
[Barzani] This is very true. This is what we feel and it constitutes a grave danger. This is part of the injustice that we have suffered and that we continue to suffer from. The media is trying to distort the image of the Kurds and the Kurdish people. However, we are fair. The role played by the Kurds in safeguarding Iraq, the unity of Iraq, and the Arab-Kurdish brotherhood is much bigger than the roles played by others in this regard. The Kurdish role is well known and cannot be denied. Unfortunately, however, they do not wish to recognize this role; they want to distort this role. After the fall of the regime, everyone knows that we could have proclaimed something else. However, Brother Talabani and I went to Baghdad and tried with the brothers to fill the vacuum that resulted. We helped in the electoral process and in the elections and in drafting the constitution. We protected vast regions in Iraq from terrorism and the terrorists. We protected and continue to protect many Arab families that fled from their regions as a result of the terrorist operations and came to the Kurdistan region. During the uprising (of 1991), two Iraqi army corps (the First Corps and the Fifth Corps) surrendered in our regions, but not a single Iraqi soldier was harmed. In fact, we gave them the options of returning to their families or immigrating to another state or staying in Kurdistan although we were still bleeding from the effects of the Operation Al-Anfal and the chemical shelling by the Iraqi army. I say yes, this is unfortunately an unjust [media] campaign. We call on those that are fair like yourselves and through your fair newspaper to help us in conveying the true picture of what you see here. We do not ask anyone to polish or embellish our image. We ask the media to tell the truth about the Kurds and about Kurdistan for the sake of honesty.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] On the other hand, the Kurdish media is weak in conveying the true image of the Kurds and of the Kurdistan region and it ignores certain important issues that are taking place here.
[Barzani] This is true; I agree with you that the performance of the Kurdish media is unsuccessful. This is regrettable.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you expect a confrontation to take place between you and the federal government or, shall we say, a Kurdish Arab government confrontation rather than a popular confrontation?
[Barzani] We oppose any escalation and any confrontation. We have to abort the chances of those that are lying in wait for democratic Iraq and its democratic experiment. There are wicked and ill-intentioned hands that are pushing night and day toward escalation and confrontation. However, we are exerting all our efforts to avoid such a situation. Matters have not reached this stage of escalation between the [Kurdistan] region and the federal government. However, there are misunderstandings, differences in viewpoints, and differences on many issues. Through dialogue and meetings, we shall try to agree on the common points. The points that unite us are more than those that separate us from one another. But we have to admit that there are points of agreement. There may be differences on the concepts of democracy and federalism but we hope that matters would never reach the point of confrontation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the situation almost reached the point of confrontation in Khanaqin.
[Barzani] Yes, it is true that it almost reached the point of confrontation, but this was the result of a big mistake. Everyone should understand that the Iraqi army is our army and it includes many Kurdish forces. There was the peshmerga and they later joined the Iraqi army. In fact, our Kurdish forces were the nucleus that formed the new Iraqi army. We want the Iraqi army to be educated well. It should be given a patriotic education based on the principle of protecting the homeland rather than on the principle of killing the citizens. The incidents that took place in Khanaqin constituted a big mistake. First of all, the Kurdish forces that were deployed in the region contributed to the consolidation of security and stability in Khanaqin. They purged the area of the terrorists and gangs that tampered with the security and safety of the citizens there. Secondly, these Kurdish forces went to Khanaqin at the invitation and request of the federal government. When the government asked the Kurdish forces to withdraw, they actually withdrew. However, the military forces that replaced the Kurdish forces arrived to raise provocative slogans and acted exactly like the former army that had committed crimes against the Kurdish people in the past, including the crimes that were committed during Operation Al-Anfal. Unfortunately, these forces arrived with the same slogans, the same mentality, and acted in the same manner. Naturally, we do not consider this to be the army of new Iraq. We consider it as an extension of the dictatorial Baathist army that destroyed Kurdistan and destroyed Iraq. I reiterate that we are not opposed to the deployment of the Iraqi army. If we are subjected to any aggression we shall ask the Iraqi army for help and if the Iraqi army asks for our help we shall send our forces to wherever they wish. We did that on several important and dangerous occasions. We are the ones that founded the Iraqi army but the conduct of a specific commander in the region is raising problems and reminding us of the tragic past.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it true that the government did not consult or take the opinion of Chief of Staff Babaker Zebari (a Kurd) and that the dispatching of the forces of the Iraqi army to Khanaqin was made without his knowledge?
[Barzani] I believe that everything during this period is taking place behind the back of the chief of staff. He was not consulted and his presence has become nominal. Perhaps there is no use anymore for his remaining in this position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the events will drive you to proclaim your independence from Iraq?
[Barzani] Independence is a natural right but it should be under reasonable and suitable conditions that can be implemented. We reserve this right and we consider it a natural right. It is not a crime to demand this right at all. Iraq belongs to us and to all the Iraqis. There are Kurds in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul just as there are Arabs in Irbil, Al-Sulaymaniyah, and Dohuk. Irbil is for all the Iraqis just as Al-Sulaymaniyah, Dohuk, Basra, Baghdad, and Al-Najaf. I am surprised at this chauvinist attitude. If they do not consider us as Iraqis, they should tell us so frankly. We refuse to be treated as second-class Iraqis. We should have equal rights and duties. We have equal rights and we have equal duties. Otherwise, let them have the courage and proclaim that we are not Iraqis. Let them proclaim this and then we shall have an answer. Our Iraqi identity was not given to us as a gift by anyone. We have been on this land before those that now claim that they are more Iraqi than we are. We do not accept such outbidding from anyone.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is it true that the restoration of Kirkuk of its “Kurdish identity” is one of the conditions for your independence or are you waiting to annex Kirkuk to the Kurdistan district in order for you to proclaim your independence, as some are saying?
[Barzani] This is a wrong notion. Kirkuk is the symbol of the suffering of the Iraqi Kurds. The past wrong policies in Kirkuk have turned it into a special and very sensitive issue. These policies have left a deep wound in the heart of every Kurd. We want to resolve the issue, not to exacerbate it. Not solving the issue of Kirkuk means keeping a problem that is subject to explosion at any minute. Why do we not learn from our experience and from our past? There is an article in the Iraqi constitution that set a mechanism to resolve the issue of Kirkuk and other similar problems related to it since the issue is not just Kirkuk alone. The issue of Kirkuk can be solved and the problem ended in accordance with this article in the Iraqi constitution. Kirkuk is an Iraqi town just as Baghdad, Al-Sulaymaniyah, and Basra. But the problem is the insistence that Kirkuk should not be restored to the district of Kurdistan. We do not wish to regain Kirkuk by force. In accordance with Article 140 in the constitution, if the people of Kirkuk decide to return to the district of Kurdistan, they should not be prevented from doing so by anyone. If the majority of the people of Kirkuk decide – based on the mechanisms of Article 140 and following normalization, the census, and the referendum – not to return to Kurdistan, we shall respect their wish and we will not annex Kirkuk to Kurdistan by force. I firmly say and I firmly reiterate that the issue of Kirkuk regaining its Kurdish identity has nothing to do with the independence of Kurdistan. I reiterate that the independence of Kurdistan is a natural and legitimate right regardless of whether Kirkuk joins the Kurdistan district or not. It is a right that God has granted to every nation and every people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do the people of Kirkuk want? Do they want to return to the historic documents or do they want reality?
[Barzani] They do not want to read the historic documents that date back to the Ottoman Empire or to the 1957 census. They claim that perhaps these are forged. I went to Kirkuk and said that I bring the message of brotherhood, peace, and amity. Part of the Arabs and Turkomen boycotted the meeting while a large part of Arab and Turkomen personages attended the meeting and I met with them. I told them with a brotherly spirit that we wish to turn Kirkuk into a model for religious, ethnic, and denominational co-existence. We told them that we would be open to them in a manner they cannot imagine. But we should solve this problem on the basis of Article 140. I told them that we will respect their opinion and whatever they decide. I found that many of the Arabs and Turkomen understand this issue and that it is in their interest to resolve the problem of Kirkuk just as it is in the interest of Iraq. I told them: Believe me, not solving this problem and finding alternatives to Article 140 is not in anyone’s interest and will make the problem get out of hand of everyone. Is this in the interest of Iraq? No, of course it is not. Furthermore, why did we exert efforts to draw up the constitution that we approved and that was approved by the majority of the Iraqi people? What use is the constitution if we do not respect it? We should respect our constitution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some are saying that the validity of Article 140has expired.
[Barzani] How has it expired? This is an article in the constitution. If the validity of this article has expired it means that the validity of the whole constitution has expired. This is illogical.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there any worries that Turkey may interfere in the issue of Kirkuk?
[Barzani] Kirkuk is an Iraqi town and its problem is an internal Iraqi affair. Neither Turkey nor any other country should interfere in this subject since it is an internal issue. Why should there be worries when Kirkuk is not a Turkish affair?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have described the vote on Article 24 of the provincial elections law that took place in the Iraqi parliament last July as a conspiracy. By whom and against whom was this conspiracy?
[Barzani] It was a conspiracy by countries in the region and some tools of these countries inside the Chamber of Deputies. But how were other deputies tricked and voted on the law? How did this conspiracy deceive those that we call partners who later felt the danger inherent in this issue? This is indeed what perplexed us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you be forced to give up Kirkuk under certain circumstances?
[Barzani] Never, we will not relinquish Kirkuk whatever the circumstances are. At the same time, we emphasize that the solution to the issue of Kirkuk will be clear and constitutional. We do not wish to resort to other means and we emphasize our constitutional and legal right.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If you discover that the door to negotiations is closed, will you resort to force to annex Kirkuk?
[Barzani] We are working hard not to resort to this solution. We are seeking to implement Article 140 so that the issue would be resolved on the basis of the constitution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion on the call made by the provincial council in Kirkuk to join the district of Kurdistan? Do you think it is serious?
[Barzani] Yes, it is a serious call and a subject of interest for Kurdistan. We are waiting for the federal parliament to resume its sessions. If they insist on finding an alternative to Article 140, we shall immediately respond to the request of the provincial council in Kirkuk.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think there is an Arab campaign against the Kurds?
[Barzani] The fact is that, yes, there is such a campaign. But how deep are the roots of this campaign and how is it conducted? We have to make certain of this. We have good relations with some Arab countries and leaders and I have personally visited several of them, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Syria. I have also recently responded to an invitation by brother Muammar al-Qadhafi where we were very warmly received in Libya. When we talk to the leaders of these countries, we discover that they understand the Kurdish position and the historic and geographic partnership between the Arabs and Kurds. At the same time, we feel that there is an Arab campaign that is targeting us and that aims at distorting the image of Kurdistan and the Kurds. All we need are friends to help us in conveying the facts.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there many accusations against you in the[Arab] media?
[Barzani] They have accused us of welcoming half a million Iranian and Turkish Kurds in order to change the demographic structure in Kirkuk. For God’s sake, brother, is it possible to hide half a million birds in Kirkuk, let alone half a million Kurds from Iran and Turkey? So far, we have not succeeded in returning half the Iraqi Kurds originally from Kirkuk that had been expelled by the former regime from their homes. How can we bring in Kurds from other countries and settle them in Kirkuk? I defy anyone to prove to me and to the world that there are Iraqi Kurds from Dohuk or Irbil or Al-Sulaymaniyah in Kirkuk in order to change the demographic structure. They have also accused us of assaulting the Arabs and Turkomen in Kirkuk. This is unacceptable. The Arabs and Turkomen are Iraqis and they are our brothers. We will not allow any Kurdish official to attack any Arab or Turkoman. Anyone that has any information about an attack by a Kurdish official let him bring it to us. Our record has to remain clean in this regard. Throughout the long years of the Kurdish revolt and after that, we did not kill a single captive of the Iraqi army or anyone else. The events of the resurgence [in 1991 against Saddam Hussein’s regime] and our welcoming of thousands of members of the Iraqi army that surrendered is the best evidence that attests to this fact. We respected the captives and we respected the principles of brotherhood and good neighborliness. When we were subjected to chemical bombardment and to the Al-Anfal operations we did not commit any act that harms the brotherhood so how can we do it now? These are all false charges. We welcome any Arab or western international commissions to come to Kurdistan on fact-finding missions to investigate these charges or to search Kirkuk for any Kurds that are not the original residents of the town. If it is proven that we attacked any citizen, we shall apologize and correct the mistake. In return, we want the true pictures to be conveyed about the warm relationship between the Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomen in Kirkuk or in any other region of Kurdistan. These are false rumors that are made by people that do not wish stability for this country. There are people that are not mature. They know the facts that are known to the Arabs but they do not wish to listen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, why were no Arab consulates opened here while western consulates have been opened in Irbil?
[Barzani] We should first ask whether the Arab countries opened embassies or consulates in Baghdad before asking about Irbil. Last March, the conference of members of Arab parliaments was held in Irbil. This was a good omen, a good initiative, and a major step forward toward breaking the ice.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you sent invitations to Arab officials to visit Kurdistan?
[Barzani] We do not wish to embarrass our Arab brethren. We send invitations only when we are almost certain that the invitation will be accepted. We understand the positions of the Arab officials in this regard.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Iraqi flag is waving in Kurdistan and in front of the building of your headquarters. Were your positive responses to the requests of the Iraqi government met with similar responses by the federal government?
[Barzani] The federal government is delinquent in this regard. Unfortunately, however, the media and some Iraqi politicians are blaming us for this and accusing us of being delinquent in this regard. The federal government makes many promises to us but does not implement them. I personally was given many promises when I visited Baghdad but many of these promises were not met. This is something that we do not understand.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion on the demonstrations that recently erupted in Al-Najaf against annexing Kirkuk to Kurdistan?
[Barzani] This was indeed odd and weird for us. It is one of the quirks of fate. Why were these demonstrations staged in Al-Najaf? We would understand if such demonstrations are staged in Kirkuk, but Kirkuk is distant from Al-Najaf.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How is your relationship with Turkey?
[Barzani] Our relationship is normal. There is a slight improvement. We look forward to better development of these relations.