Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat Talks to KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Arbil, Asharq al-Awsat- Time is not on the side of Barham Salih in terms of completing all his plans. Salih often holds meetings with his ministers while driving his car when inspecting projects between Arbil, Al-Sulaymaniyah, and Dahuk and passing by the villages on the way. The same goes for his weekly cabinet meetings.

The prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat frankly about the crisis surrounding his government. He admitted that there are corruption files that he will not backtrack on reforming. He also spoke about his relations with the government parties and the opposition, relations between the region and Baghdad, stressing “the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination.”

Following is the text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us begin with the current crisis; how you view the protests and demonstrations that have taken place in the city of Al-Sulaymaniyah? What do you think are the real reasons for these demonstrations?

[Salih] Demonstration is a legitimate right in any democratic society. The law has guaranteed the right to demonstrations despite the reservations that the opposition has against the articles of this law that was approved by the Kurdish Parliament. Protests and demonstrations have passed through many phases and the position of the opposition, the authority, and the public mood have also affected each of these phases. On 17 February 2011, activists organized a public gathering that was licensed in accordance with the demonstrations law. The demonstration was under the slogan of “supporting the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions.” The demonstration carried a number of general demands concerning fighting corruption and providing work opportunities for the youth. These demonstrations then deviated from their path and attacked the headquarters of the fourth branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP] which is headed by Kurdistan Region President Masud Barzani. This led to the martyrdom of a number of people and many youths and policemen were wounded. The protests were then supported by the opposition and members of the opposition also participated in them.

While we are proud of the great achievements that we have made at the political, economic, and service levels in the region, we admit without any hesitation that there have been some shortcomings in the corruption files, bad management, and parties have been in control of the public facilities and this led to protests and legitimate demands for reform. During our elections campaign and within the program of the Kurdistan List, we stressed the need to adopt a serious and comprehensive reform methodology. However, what happened was that the opposition pushed its own agenda toward demanding to cancel the legitimate institutions that came out of the elections that took place two years ago during which the opposition gained great numbers. This indicates that there is democracy and transparency that does not exist in other countries.

Dealing with the corruption cases and the inherited problems – from which the opposition cannot distance itself from responsibility because up until recently, it was at the center of the political and administrative decision-making process – can be achieved through activating political action within the legitimate institutions, establishing a balanced relationship between the government and opposition, and overcoming the state of constant conflict so it becomes a matter of “conflict an d agreement” alternately; It shouldn’t be a must that everything the government does is followed by opposition and not everything put forward by the opposition is bad. This is the wrong way to manage politics. We need accord and understanding in order to push forward the reform process.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe your government has overcome this crisis?

[Salih] We have probably passed the dangerous phase of the crisis even though its causes and reasons remain. The solution lies in root reform. There is no doubt that we need national agreement that provides a political atmosphere to continue the political and economic reforms that we have started. We need to transform the challenge that was created by the demonstrations into an opportunity for true reform and to give strong momentum to the reform program that we started during the 2009 election campaign. If this challenge becomes an obstacle then this will have repercussions on us and the opposition and we will take the Kurdistan experiment into a dark tunnel.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, are the reasons for the Al-Sulaymaniyah crisis disagreements between the opposition Change Movement and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK]?

[Salih] Of course, part of the crisis is related to disagreements between the PUK and the Change Movement. The PUK represents the main alliance in the Kurdistan authority while the Change Movement represents the strongest wing in the opposition. There is no doubt that past disagreements, conflicts and splits have had an effect on the crisis. Al-Sulaymaniyah, which is the stronghold of the PUK and a place where the PUK and Change Movement jointly have strong influence, has suffered the greatest share of political conflict. In fact the protests began there and to a great degree remained there.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the size of administrative and financial corruption in the region?

[Salih] I cannot determine it in percentage but I can say that it is there to a point that affects our performance and pushes us to continue carrying out the necessary reforms, activate the monitoring with its institutions, and consolidate the concept of monitoring and wise governance.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How are you dealing with the unemployment issue?

[Salih] We have started to deal with unemployment on more than one level, whether in terms of employment, since we have launched within this year’s budget equal work opportunities for around 25,000 jobs, and ambitious programs for vocational training, or provision of small loans for unemployed youths. However, our strategic option is to activate the market, investment, and the private sector which will in turn lead to creating new work opportunities especially for the youth.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are some that oppose the way the Al-Sulaymaniyah crisis was managed. In your opinion how was this crisis managed?

[Salih] As a regional government we tried to deal with this crisis in a steadfast manner and not to get dragged into attempts to provoke and make us react. This was done in three directions: First, was dealing with the legitimate demands and proposals that were put forward by the representatives of the protesters and to blend these demands with the demands of the political forces represented in the parliament through an agreement made up of 17 articles which represents a roadmap for us not only to deal with the repercussions of this crisis but to deal with causes and reasons by adopting a real reform project that responds to those articles that were agreed on by the ruling parties and the opposition parties. Second, was to deal wisely and rationally with this unprecedented phenomenon in the political situation in the region and to take civil precautions to protect the interests, official facilities, and the general order and to protect the protesters themselves during the 62-days of protest activities, which witnessed a deviation of the protests from the peaceful path, clash with the public interest, and obstruction of the livelihood of people and their interests. Finally, dealing in a legal manner with the way the demonstrations were used to create chaos and threaten social peace. There is no doubt that there were cases where the law was violated and some members of the security agencies were heavy-handed when confronting the incidents. However, on the whole, and within the context of the deliberate provocations that aimed at dragging us into violence since two policemen were martyred and over 450 members of the security agencies were wounded, the performance of the security forces was balanced and responsible. In my opinion, the way the crisis was managed maintained the legitimacy of the ruling institutions and the democratic nature of the political path. It also protected order and social peace. Not everything can be just as we desire, especially in the light of a new experience when dealing with a series of studied protests that are politicized by the opposition’s agenda.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there one government in the region or two: one ruling Arbil and the other in Al-Sulaymaniyah, especially since there are ministries that have not been merged?

[Salih] The government was born united in its formation; more than a year ago, we started working on unifying its financial institutions and the Peshmerga formations within the infrastructure. Yes, there has been an inheritance of divisions within the Kurdish government and these divisions continue to be apparent in the fields of security and finance, but we continue to work on the program to merge the two administrations. I always say that if we measured the powers of the current government to previous governments we can confirm that the government powers have reached all the areas of the two administrations (Arbil and Al-Sulaymaniyah) more than in the past. The government is one and its capital is Arbil. Nevertheless, the unified government for us is a unified government in terms of the strategic and the national dimension. Any residue that could obstruct this goal must be dealt with. Basically though, we do not believe in the strong central government as was the case in Baghdad, the non-central administration is enough to guarantee unity without fear of centralization that marginalizes local administrations.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] To what extent do the parties, especially the two main parties, the PUK and KDP, interfere in the government work?

[Salih] Based on what was mentioned previously and the achievements that have been made, party interference has stopped in favor of resolving conflicts between the government and the party. The political scene in the region, in the presence of a reform program for the government, parliamentary action, and strong opposition presence, leads to the strengthening of new traditions that prevent interference which was part of the political action traditions in Kurdistan and was done by everyone to various degrees.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there an overlap of power between the president and the prime minister of the region? Do you feel the president of the region supports your government? What is the effect of this support if it does exist?

[Salih] President of the Region Masud Barzani supports the work programs of the government. This has been clear in more than one place. The effect of this support is great whether for the sake of integration between the regional presidency and the government or in terms of consolidating the strategic alliance, which is the basic component of the current government alliance. This represents a strong support for us in terms of dealing with the bases of the two major parties, the PUK and KDP.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The construction projects in the cities of the region are getting bigger every year. Are there projects that are carried out in certain governorates at the expense of other governorates in the region? Are the investment projects focused in Arbil since as it is the capital?

[Salih] Construction and development are taking place all around the cities in the region and they are not limited to one government over another. The difference is because there is a difference in the degree of development and the starting point and it is not because of regional favoritism. This is something that concerns the government’s construction projects or investment. As for the presence of the headquarters of the investment companies in Arbil this does not mean that their investment activities are limited to Arbil and at the expense of other governorates and cities. They are there because the institutions are in the capital, Arbil. We believe that investments represent a strategic option for development and the atmosphere in Kurdistan, politically, security-wise, and economically is suitable for Iraqi, Arab, and world investment. Iraqis and Arabs are more entitled to investment in Kurdistan than any other place. This speeds up the degree of comprehensive development.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that allocations of 17 percent of the Iraqi budget as a share for the region is enough to implement your projects and appropriate for the aspirations of the region?

[Salih] As a first phase it is not bad. However, we are awaiting the population census that has been postponed for too long in order for us to know the size of region’s rights from the budget. Until then we cannot guess the need of the region in terms of continuous development.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The budget discussions have been delayed in the regional parliament; do you not think that will affect the implementation of your projects?

[Salih] The budget was approved recently. The reason for the delay was because the budget, unfortunately, has become part of the political banter and this caused a delay in its approval. The current budget contains ambitious projects and we hope that we can accomplish a large percentage of these projects, those that cannot be completely achieved must not be mostly abandoned.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are paying great attention to the issue of higher education, scholarships, and building universities. Can we please know the level of this interest? Is this at the expense of other sectors?

[Salih] We believe that the basis of any development starts with qualifying the new generation. Everything that can be imagined about gaining knowledge, learning from the experience of others, improving the level of education, creating a strong base for economic, administrative, and social development all pass through the channels of higher education and scholarships. Therefore, our interest in this field is not only scientific, even though it is very important scientifically, but the interest is more comprehensive in order to create a development structure for Iraqi Kurdistan. This is the concern, and it is not at the expense of other sectors, but it is a top priority for us. We have launched a program in this field that gives opportunities to higher education students and we have allocated 100 million dollars annually for this. During this year and the past year we accomplished two phases of this program that included hundreds of higher education students in masters and doctorate degree programs in countries around the world. The third phase will be launched soon. In addition, Kurdish universities will see fast development and this has started with signing cooperation agreements with neighboring countries whether in Iraq or its regional neighbors in addition to top western universities.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Iraqi president and the PUK secretary general spoke in his address during the anniversary of the establishment of your party about the efforts to transform Al-Sulaymaniyah into the cultural capital. What are your efforts in this regard?

[Salihn] Historically, Al-Sulaymaniyah held the cultural and political weight in the Kurdistan region; It is basically ready for this cultural role. Politics has taken its toll on Al-Sulaymaniyah, especially during the political disagreements over the past few years. Therefore, it deserves this attention and the previous cultural and intellectual supremacy must be returned to Al-Sulaymaniyah. We need to provide infrastructure capabilities and financial requirements in order to achieve these goals. The cultural and intellectual atmosphere in Al-Sulaymaniyah is witnessing cultural and intellectual development and this will reflect in all other aspects of life. Our program for Al-Sulaymaniyah will be in this regard.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view the reports by international human rights organizations about the situation of freedom in the region?

[Salih] We do not view them the same way as dictator governments view them. We will not fall into the trap of easily undermining the role of these organizations. We must not forget that these organizations helped us a lot in fighting tyranny. Here I want to say that their interest in Kurdistan is welcome and comes within the context of developing the freedom and general political right of our people, whom we regard as an important national and democratic priority. We will not work on hiding shortcomings here and there. We deal with them in a serious manner in order to rectify the mistakes of the Kurdish experiment in this dynamic field. What we ask from these organizations is to make sure that the information in these reports [is true] in all their aspects so they do not fall into the trap of making these reports superficial and thus undermining their authenticity and denying us an extra eye watching the Kurdish scene that will help us rectify these mistakes. We ask these organizations not to take our answers or the fact that we correct certain information in their reports as a rejection of these report or denial of the role of these organizations. We want to ensure the authenticity and objectivity of the information they receive by seeking the opinion of the official institutions as well.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who is the greatest supporter of your government in the region?

[Salih] The greatest support comes from the various sectors of the Kurdish people, who can see with their own eyes the developments made on the ground and the great efforts to develop and carry out social and economic reform. Supporting the political leadership in the region is very important in order for us to carry out our promises toward the people and toward removing the obstacles that are impeding the work of the government in this regard and which are a result of the accumulated eras of backwardness and marginalization of the region by the Saddam regime, or because of mistakes made during the Kurdish experience with the conflict between the official and party institutions and the ramifications of political division.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You spoke about the Kurdish people’s right to self-determination and this is a legitimate right. Can we regard this as a prelude to the independence of Kurdistan as a state? In your opinion, what are the reasons that will speed up the independence of this region from Iraq?

[Salih] The people of Kurdistan have the right to self-determination the same way as the rest of the world, including the right to form an independent state. The right of self-determination has been part of the PUK’s program since the mid 1980s. On the 36th anniversary of the establishment of the PUK, we in the leadership brought up this strategic slogan of the PUK and KDP once again. During the public meeting on the anniversary of the establishment of the PUK, I called for us to rise above the political and regional disagreement and return the PUK to the way it was in terms of participating and dealing with the situation in the region and the changes it is witnessing. This is a slogan that we have constantly carried in a way that strengthens the opportunities for coexistence e and free unity between the people of Kurdistan and the Arab people in Iraq. The federal union as mentioned in the Iraqi Constitution is our preferred option as a Kurdish leadership. We have sought along with the noble Iraqi political forces to consolidate this principle in the Iraqi Constitution in order to bring about an agreement between the Kurdish framework and the greater national framework within a democratic Iraq. It is not necessary that practicing self-determination is equivalent to independence or secession from Iraq. Therefore, dividing Iraq is not the slogan of self-determination but it is denying the Iraqi Constitution’s option and circumventing it in favor of political centralism and ignoring historical problems. In fact, it ignores the polarization we are witnessing in the region that is leading to greater strategic options in terms of the freedom of nations and the establishment of a political system that is based on freedom, equal opportunities, and democracy, and not on dictatorships and authoritarian centrism.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your latest meetings with former Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and KDP deputy leader; were they based on a partisan or governmental basis?

[Salih] My dear brother Nechirvan Barzani and I are friends and we constantly meet to discuss developments. These meeting always take place in an effort to strengthen cooperation whether in terms of government action or political action.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you describe the relationship between the region and the federal government in Baghdad? Does the political crisis in Baghdad affect the stability and projects in the region?

[Salih] Of course it does, because part of our work depends on Baghdad. The obstruction of the government’s work and the work of the institutions along with the procrastination of the political process has an effect on us. We hope to transfer the region’s stability experience to Baghdad and not to transfer the apprehension there to here. The pending files between Baghdad and ourselves are also linked to ending the crisis between the political groups. We are worried about the political disagreements in Baghdad which regrettably are becoming deeper. We believe that the only solution is to implement President Barzani’s initiative and for all political rivals to stand together and fight terrorism and extremism and to strengthen true partnership between the political components.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has the federal government carried out its commitments to the region?

[Salih] There are many pending files between us and Baghdad. We are waiting for the situation to ease in the capital in order for us to deal with the constitutional rights and to organize the relations between us in accordance with the paper that the federal government approved.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the disputed areas crisis, especially Kirkuk, is on its way to being resolved?

[Salih] The way to resolve the disputed areas [crisis] is through a constitutional solution within Article 140, which gives the right for the final decision on this file to the people of Kirkuk themselves with positive help from the region and the federal government. This is one of the pending issues that needs to be dealt with without delay.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe there could be a Kurdish solution to the political crisis in Baghdad, especially since Dr Iyad Allawi, head of the Al-Iraqiya List, recently met with President Barzani and yourselves here in Arbil?

[Salih] We in the region believe that what is happening in Baghdad is part of our problem and that the initiative of Regional President Barzani has formed a roadmap for the establishment of a government. We are committed to our role in the political process in Iraq. We want to be part of the solution and to contribute to resolving the issue with all our effort and capability. The meetings with brother Allawi come within this context and we hope that everyone stays away from media arguments in favor of the national project and national accord. We hope that we as leaders of parties and groupings that formed the current government under the presidency of brother Al-Maliki will reach solutions for the political crisis through action on the joint pledges and providing real support for our government for it to succeed in its duties and to carry out the agreed programs. Otherwise we will lead the political process into a dark tunnel that could take us back to square one.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is noticeable diplomatic effort in the region. In your opinion how is this effort interacting with the relationship between Baghdad and countries with which you have good relations, especially Gulf countries?

[Salih] The diplomatic effort in the region is part of the Iraqi diplomatic system and it complements it. The diplomatic presence exchanged between the region and friendly countries comes within the framework of the official presence of the region and within the framework of the federal Iraq. The countries that are friendly with Iraq are dealing with opening consulates in the region based on what was approved by the Iraqi Constitution. Our relations with Arab countries, and particularly Gulf countries, head in this direction. Baghdad has witnessed circumstances that slowed down the Arab and Gulf presence. We view the presence of the diplomatic effort in the region as a continuation of the diplomatic activity at the level of Iraq until security and stability is achieved in Baghdad. Therefore, our relations with Gulf countries will reflect positively on the relationship between Baghdad and those capitals.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that your government will be extended for a further two years? You are working as though your government will remain? In the event there is an extension, or there is no extension will there be ministerial change in the regional government?

[Salih] We are working as though the government will remain because it will remain whether Barham Salih is the prime minister or someone else is the prime minister. Many of the pledges of the Kurdistan List that formed the government have been accomplished and will continue to be obligatory to the government over the next two years. For me, what concerns me is to have a foothold to serve whether I am prime minister or not. Therefore, I will not talk about extension. Honestly, the matter is not important to me personally. I am busy now performing my duty as a public servant and this is what concerns me. As for ministerial change, it was something that was talked about during the reform program. This kind of change depends on the talks with the opposition and whether or not it wants to participate in the government or it is happy with a national accord without participating in the government. If the opposition does not participate then a ministerial reshuffle could take place within the Kurdistan List and its electoral requirements.