Arbil, Asharq Al-Awsat- Masrur Barzani, Chief of the Kurdistan Region Protection Agency gives his first ever interview to Asharq Al-Awsat. The following is the full text:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Could you speak to us about the nature of your work in this apparatus?
[Barzani] Like other security and intelligence organs, we try to preserve the region’s and our people’s security and be a factor in Iraq’s stability. We fight terrorism, foreign espionage, and the drug trade. In general our task is to maintain security. This is not a party organ. It is like any other regional apparatus. We have been building it for a long time. So far we have not succeeded in unifying all the security organs in the region. Through parliament we succeeded in passing Law Number 46 to create a legal framework for the region’s security organs. Our work continues to place the security organs within a legal regional framework.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does the region have other security organs? Does the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] have a similar apparatus?
[Barzani] When the region had two separate administrations, the PUK had a security apparatus of its own. Now that the two administrations have been unified, our aim is to unite the security organs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there any rivalry or contradiction between the different security organs in the region?
[Barzani] There is cooperation and coordination between the two organs. There is no negative rivalry because our goals are the same.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you coordinate with the security organs in Baghdad and the US forces?
[Barzani] Yes, we coordinate and cooperate with the federal government’s security organs. Indeed, we have been helpful to Baghdad’s security organs all over Iraq. Because of the presence of the coalition forces in the region and Iraq, we coordinate and cooperate with them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you coordinate and cooperate with some of the region’s security organs?
[Barzani] Iraq has a constitutional and legal frame work that organizes its relations with the other countries in the region. We obey the Iraqi Constitution and therefore we do not coordinate with the other countries in the region.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a terrorist threat to the Kurdistan region?
[Barzani] Yes, there is. However, it is much smaller than the threat to the other parts of Iraq. The threat would be greater if we did not fight the terrorist groups inside and outside the region. We recently foiled a planned suicide attack in Irbil.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you hold non-Arab detainees in Kurdistan?
[Barzani] All the detainees are members of the terrorist groups and they are all Iraqis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are your activities confined to Iraqi Kurdistan or do you operate in other Iraqi areas as well?
[Barzani] By law we are concerned with Kurdistan’s security but because of the security vacuum in other parts of Iraq we cooperate and help to maintain stability and security all over Iraq. We are always ready to offer any assistance asked of us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you take part in uncovering or combating terrorist groups outside Iraqi Kurdistan?
[Barzani] Yes, we did. We took part in combating terrorist groups in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Mosul. We carry out these operations in coordination with Baghdad, not on our own initiative.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mentioned that one of your apparatus’ tasks is counter-espionage. Is there espionage within the region of Kurdistan?
[Barzani] Yes, there is.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who are the spies working for?
[Barzani] They work for neighboring countries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that there is no internal espionage on Baghdad’s behalf?
[Barzani] No, not at all.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How far does your apparatus’ work affect freedom of expression in the region?
[Barzani] The nature of our work does not conflict with freedom of expression. On the contrary, we create a favorable atmosphere to encourage freedom of expression to allow the people to speak their minds freely on political and economic matters.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you hold political prisoners?
[Barzani] Of course not. We do not have a single political prisoner, a prisoner of conscience, or anyone detained because of his political beliefs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What efforts does your apparatus carry out to promote economic stability?
[Barzani] The extent of economic investments in the region is a sign of security. Any area that has no security and stability cannot have any economic investment in it whether external or domestic. The credit does not go to us but to our people who cooperate with the region’s security organs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you coordinate with the regional government?
[Barzani] We are part of the regional government.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does your apparatus fall under the jurisdiction of the region’s government?
[Barzani] We have not yet finalized this issue legally. However, the region’s prime minister plays a major role in our work and in regional stability.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The name of the security apparatus has been changed to the Kurdish term “Asayesh.” Has the essence of the apparatus been changed?
[Barzani] Asayesh is the Kurdish term for security. We intentionally used this name because the security apparatus under the former regime left a negative and frightening effect on the people. We do not know how we will get rid of that terrible legacy. Our current security apparatus is a service organ that we try to make the people trust. Our citizens are very cooperative with our security services for the sake of their own safety.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is said that your security services require any Iraqi citizen who wishes to reside in the Kurdistan region to have an entry visa, a sponsor, and a residence permit. What is your response to these reports? Are you trying to place obstacles before Iraqi citizens who wish to come and reside here?
[Barzani] We are not a separate country. We do not require a visa from Iraqi citizens. Our cities are Iraqi cities like any others. The reports about visas are rumors that seek to distort the region’s reputation. Nevertheless, certain security procedures are taken when someone enters the region whether he is an Arab or a Kurd. These procedures apply also to Kurds who come from other parts of Iraq. This is because of the poor security situation in the other parts of Iraq. We wish to protect the citizens of the region. Thousands of Iraqi families have settled here because of the stability in our region. We do not wish to risk this stability and open the doors to terrorists, booby-trapped vehicles, and suicide attackers.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are these procedures?
[Barzani] They are very simple. Every person who wishes to reside in the region should visit an Asayesh center, register his address, and obtain a permit to reside in the region. This makes it easier for us to know who the inhabitants are. There is another procedure which we do not strictly require. If the newcomer knows a longtime resident, we would like him to sponsor him but we do not apply this procedure strictly. The media exaggerate its importance and some of our security personnel apply it too strictly but this is individual behavior that we are trying to eliminate. We hope soon to eliminate all these procedures when the security situation improves everywhere in Iraq. The important thing is that everyone should know that the aim of these procedures is to defend their security and the region’s security rather than place obstacles in the face of newcomers. On the contrary, the region’s presidency has given instructions to facilitate the entry of new arrivals on condition that this should not take place at the expense of the region’s security. We have long borders with the neighboring countries and many persons try to infiltrate into Iraqi territory across these borders. It is difficult to control all the possible entry points, especially as the security situation in neighboring provinces is unstable. This does not allow us to act with great confidence at the entry points that we share with these provinces. Therefore, we are forced to adopt these measures for the safety of the region’s citizens. We sincerely hope that security will improve all over Iraq so that we can remove the checkpoints and open the gates of our cities to all visitors, Arabs and Kurds alike.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is a lot of talk on the streets and in the media about financial corruption in the region. Does your apparatus intervene in combating this corruption?
[Barzani] Some corruption cases reach us and we handle them. We report the other cases to other government departments. At any rate, this issue does not lie at the heart of our work.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is talk that foreign intelligence services are training your cadres, including the CIA and Israel’s Mosad. Could you give us direct clarification on this point?
[Barzani] Frankly, if you want the whole truth from me, this news is totally untrue. The problem is that those who spread these rumors know nothing about what is really happening in the region. I do not know how effective my answer is to the people who spread these rumors.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do your security services use any form of torture to extract confessions from detainees? [Barzani] No, absolutely not. This practice is absolutely unacceptable in the Kurdistan region. When we took over this apparatus, we decided that it would be a merely service organ. The region’s president issued strict instructions not to use torture to extract confessions and not to put undue pressure on any detainee or suspect. If this happens, the confession is considered invalid and any official who practices torture or any form of pressure is investigated and punished. This is a matter of principle to us.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What groups pose a real threat to the region of Kurdistan?
[Barzani] In the first place Al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Sunnah, and other terrorist groups.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do your security centers and jails take human rights standards into account?
[Barzani] All our instructions stress the importance of human rights. We monitor these matters very carefully. We run courses to train our cadres to observe human rights standards when they deal with suspects.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some Kurdish journalists and writers have been murdered in the region. Several Kurdish newspapers accused the security services and some party organs of being behind the murders. What is your comment?
[Barzani] We strongly regret the death of any journalist, writer, politician, or citizen. This is a very sad thing. People usually make accusations without ascertaining the facts. It is easy to make accusations. At any rate, not only journalists but also military persons, politicians, merchants, and ordinary citizens have been murdered here in the region and in other parts of Iraq. Were the security services and party organs behind those incidents? If anyone has proof of any party being involved in a murder, let him bring us this proof and we will be grateful to him. We will investigate these regrettable incidents. However, making hasty and gratuitous accusations is another matter. There are hostile circles that try to slander the reputation of this or that party by making false accusations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What procedures are you taking versus these accusations by the Kurdish press?
[Barzani] Just as in any other sphere in the region including culture, the economy, and political activity, the press needs to become more mature and professional in accordance with the requirements of journalistic work. It was we who encouraged freedom of expression and freedom of the press. There are writers and journalists who can tell the difference between freedom of expression and assaults on others. There are some who cannot tell the difference and think that whatever they write falls under the heading of freedom of the press even if it slanders others. We are working together to reach an equation where we preserve freedom of expression while protecting people from being slandered. A bill has been referred to parliament that organizes journalistic work while protecting the citizens from being slandered. Parliament decided that the proposed law was too harsh and the presidency asked that it be reviewed. Slander is indeed not part of journalistic work. In my view a journalist wins respect through the credibility of what he writes or loses it when he has no credibility.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Kurdish armed forces go by several names including the Peshmerga and the Regional Guard. Which ones are the official forces that defend the region?
[Barzani] According to the constitution, the forces that defend the region are the Regional Guard forces.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the connection between the Peshmerga or the Regional Guard forces and the Iraqi Defense Ministry?
[Barzani] The Regional Guard forces are part of the overall Iraqi defense system. Since the region of Kurdistan is part of Iraq, these forces defend this part of Iraq’s territory.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you reached a solution regarding placing the Peshmerga or the Regional Guard forces under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi Defense Ministry?
[Barzani] In principle there is no problem. All that remains to be done are tactical steps. However, the federal government is not cooperating properly with us to include the Regional Guard forces and pay their salaries. Now the region of Kurdistan is part of Iraq but when we demand our rights or certain services on the grounds that we are part of Iraq, our demands and requests are ignored. The region of Kurdistan’s budget is well-known to be17% of Iraq’s total revenue. Large sums are deducted from this sum, however, and only 14% of Iraq’s revenue reaches the region. Part of our budget is deducted under the name of sovereign allocations for the Iraqi Army. The Regional Guard forces and the Peshmerga are identified as part of Iraq’s defense system, that is, they are part of the Iraqi armed forces. When we demand appropriations for these forces, however, the federal government says no and claims that these forces are part of the region of Kurdistan and their appropriations should come from its budget. The federal government uses a double standard with us. In obligations we are part of Iraq but when it comes to rights, we are sidelined. When we are asked to carry out certain tasks, we do so and are always prepared to help but when we demand our rights, we are ignored.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have the Peshmerga forces taken part alongside the Iraqi forces in battles in Basra, Baghdad, or Mosul?
[Barzani] The Peshmerga operate on the Iraqi Government’s orders. They participated in operations in Baghdad and other places on the federal government’s request. According to the region’s president, the Peshmerga will fulfill any security request demanded by the federal government for the sake of stability. As I noted, they are part of Iraq’s defense system. Anyone who does not view them in this light does not believe in the new Iraq. Iraq is no longer a totalitarian state or governed by decisions from the center. According to the constitution, Iraq today is a federal, pluralistic, democratic Iraq based on power participation and on participation in rights and obligations. The Kurds are basic partners in government. They are not a marginal force.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] On the level of your security apparatus, are you partners to the security decisions made in Baghdad?
[Barzani] In principle, we are members of a joint security commission with the federal government. The important thing is the principle. The important thing is for Baghdad to believe that we are its partners. If this is accepted, there will be much cooperation and many problems will be solved. However, when there are committees of which we are members but the decisions we make are not implemented, this is not proper partnership.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The situation in Khanaqin almost reached the point of armed confrontation between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army. How do you describe this from a security point of view?
[Barzani] What happened in Khanaqin was something bad. The Iraqi Army’s entry was not for the purpose of combating terrorism, for Khanaqin is very secure. The army entered for political reasons. Some circles in the federal government believe that disputed territories should be under the federal government’s control. However, the idea of disputed territories means that no final decision has been made on their ownership. Why else would they be called disputed territories? Agreement should be worked out between the two sides over their ownership. Khanaqin is the most secure area in the Diyala Governorate. Saddam Hussein’s regime tried for many years to seize these areas by force but failed. Now, attempts are being made to take these areas from us by other means.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the reason for your failure to appear in the media?
[Barzani] I do not appear in the media because of the nature of my work. I also do not like publicity.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were you chosen to lead this apparatus because you are President Barzani’s eldest son?
[Barzani] I was selected on merit. I pay a price for being Masud Barzani’s son and a security official.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there disagreements or a power struggle between you and your cousin, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani as is rumored?
[Barzani] On the contrary, I like him very much. We grew up together. Our relationship has always been fraternal. I respect him on a personal level and because he is the prime minister. There is no rivalry between us but some of our enemies would like us to quarrel. God willing, this will not happen.