Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Barham Salih discussed a number of issues, including the future of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region following the US withdrawal from Iraq, the political scene in Baghdad and Erbil, and the future of the region as a whole.
Barham Salih has been the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since September 2009, prior to this he served as Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. He is a leading member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] party, and previously served as PUK spokesman in London. He later served as PUK and Kurdistan Regional Government representative to the United States for a number of years. He headed the Kurdistan List in the Iraqi Kurdish legislative elections of 2009, which won 59 of the 11 seats.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view future US – Iraqi relations following the complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq?
[Salih] There can be no doubt that the US withdrawal represents the end of an era. Now, a completely new stage will begin. It is in Iraq’s interests to build balanced relations with its neighbors and the rest of the world, as well as the US, which has important interests in the region. It is in our interest to have a balanced relationship with the US in the future. We have an agreement with Washington called the “Strategic Framework Agreement”, which regulates our security, political, economic, and cultural relations [with the US]. It is in Iraq’s interests, in my point of view, to work to benefit from the US in these areas, and obtain US and international guarantees to protect Iraq from the forthcoming challenges, particularly as the region is currently passing through a critical stage.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What kind of guarantees are you talking about?
[Salih] For its part, Iraq decided – in accordance with the US – to end the military presence of the US – NATO forces [in Iraq]. We have our own military capabilities, however there are some who say – and I agree with them – that Iraq’s military capabilities at this time are incapable of completely defending Iraq. In our view, Iraq must be a party of an international and regional security organization that protects [Iraq’s] sovereignty and security, particularly as Iraq’s security cannot be viewed as being isolated from what is happening in the region as a whole. We believe that many parties on the UN Security Council and regional and international organizations – not to mention our bilateral relations with the US – guarantee the protection of Iraq’s sovereignty and the decision taken by Iraq to implement the security agreements that provides for the withdrawal of US troops.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq will create a security and strategic vacuum. Who do you believe will fill this vacuum, particularly in light of fears that Tehran will seek to increase its influence over Iraq?
[Salih] We, as Kurds, had a clear position: we were not loaded with ideological considerations when dealing with the issue of the US security presence in Iraq, and we announced that the US continuing to have some presence after 2011 would be beneficial to preventing the creation of any vacuum in Iraq that other parties not concerned with Iraq’s interests might seek to exploit. However what happened happened [with regards to Baghdad and Washington failing to reach an agreement to secure the presence of US troops in Iraq post-2011], and we are committed to the Iraqi decision in this regard. So we now say: in light of this withdrawal [of US troops], and the changing strategic reality of Iraq, and in order to ward off any vacuum that any foreign power that is not a friend to Iraq might seek to fill…what is required is clear and frank national unity to resolve Iraq’s political problems, particularly as the security situation remains vulnerable to problems and challenges. However ultimately it will be the political problems that will cause security breaches and allow the infiltration of a [foreign] power that does not have Iraq’s interests at heart. Let me also say that we want internal national dialogue. In the end, it is up to the Iraqis themselves to fill this vacuum, or indeed to prevent its occurrence. If we do not fill this vacuum, it will be filled by others.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Middle East today is suffering a number of crises, the situation in Syria, the Iranian nuclear file, the Palestinian Cause, the security of the Gulf, the fate of Yemen, and more. Do you believe that national dialogue in Iraq will be enough to fill the vacuum created by the US withdrawal and ensure stability?
[Salih] I do not underestimate the extent of the changes taking place in our region, for these are deep structural changes whose repercussions will significantly affect Iraq, but our starting point must be cohesion and national unity in order to confront these changes and challenges. This is the basic requirement, but it is not the only requirement, for the region also requires a new understanding [of the new reality] that overcomes the previous traditional viewpoints. The region is agreeing on several important changes; firstly it is no longer permissible for the people to be ruled by tyranny. Another important concept is that of regional security, for Iraq cannot be safe and secure in the midst of all these regional problems and challenges, and vice versa [i.e. the region cannot be safe and secure if Iraq is facing problems and challenges]. Individual national security affects regional security at large, and so regional countries need to reach an understanding with regards to certain principles, namely respecting national sovereignty and independence with regards to decision-making. We must also reach an understanding about creating a network of inter-related economic, political, and security interests. I would like to add that although the region is facing difficult problems, we can achieve this goal, and learn from Europe’s experience in this regard, for Europe has made significant achievements despite the massacres that occurred [in Europe] over two world wars.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is preventing Iraq from reaching a defense treaty with Washington, particularly as the US has signed many such defense treaties with other countries in the region? Is this due to an internal division in Baghdad regarding the opinion of Washington? Or is it a result of Iranian influence on Iraq?
[Salih] There can be no doubt that the internal situation was a primary factor in ending the US military presence [in Iraq], because a decision such as this is primarily a national decision that no party can take by itself. However the issue of concluding a mutual defense pact with Washington, or a European country, or even a neighboring country, or NATO for that matter, will be put forward to the Iraqi leadership, who will come to a decision about this, according to what they believe is in the national interest.
Some key leaders in the past put forward the proposal to draft an agreement such as this along the lines of the agreements that are already present in the Gulf States [with the US]. However today the Iraqi leadership is required to study all possible options; what is important is that they have a national vision with regards to what is best for Iraq. We do not want to throw Iraq into one axis against others; our primary interest is to protect our security and stability and harness our natural resources to serve the people of Iraq. We know that ideology and narrow political considerations prevent crystallization [of thinking] and harm these concepts. However in calmer conditions, we can look and explore such prospects.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The most dangerous crisis taking place today is that in Syria. We understand that there are intensive consultations between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Kurdish community of Syria. Why are the Syrian Kurds in the background of the Syrian opposition and demonstrations against the al-Assad regime? Why are they not at the forefront of this?
[Salih] I do not believe that the Kurds in Syria are in the background; however there is a caution amongst some of the Kurds…and this is because what they hear from some parties in the opposition is a source of concern for them, particularly with regards to Kurdish rights. I personally met with [Syrian] Kurdish leaders who came to visit us in Erbil, and the main Kurdish interest lies in democratic change and the establishment of a regime that respects the pluralism that is present in Syrian society, as well as Kurdish citizen rights. The Kurds are a part of the Syrian national fabric, and I say – without reservation – that the era of dictatorships has come to an end. We support all the possibilities for peaceful democratic change, based on respect for the Syrian citizens, and that includes the rights of the Kurds.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However we do not see the Kurdish regions of Syria participating in the protests and strikes. Why is that?
[Salih] We understood, from our talks with the Syrian Kurdish National Council, who visited us recently, that their position is clear and explicit with regards to the need for the establishment of a democratic system [in Syria], and an end to tyranny and single party rule. You must ask the Kurdish leaders in Syria themselves about how they are applying this on the ground. My understanding is that the Kurdish leadership in Syria is demanding guarantees for democracy, transition to a civil democratic state that guarantees civil rights for the Syrian people, including the Kurds.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What political advice did you give to the Syrian Kurds?
[Salih] They know their situation better than us. We must be cautious, and not give [such advice]. We in Iraqi Kurdistan must not give the impression that we are interfering in Syrian national affairs. We are concerned about what is happening in Syria, and believe that the killing and violence will not benefit anyone; we are also concerned about the unarmed Syrian civilians who are being killed day after day. Our conscience and our position are clear, and we say that the Iraqi experience is full of lessons; Saddam Hussein could not quell the Iraqi people, not with chemical weapons or prison or torture. The era of tyranny has ended, and people want a dignified life. The Syrian people are no different than other people, and so violence will not work with them. We support the democratic project and genuine democratic reform to end single party rule and the confiscation of people’s rights and the phenomenon of violence in Syria. I do not have the right to say that this country is democratic or not, it is up to the Syrian people to decide this, and the [Syrian] forces that represent the Kurds are committed to democracy and establishing a democratic regime in Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, do you believe that the official Iraqi position with regards to “centralization” is contrary to that of the Kurdistan Region?
[Salih] There are many issues in which the federal [Iraqi] government does not reflect our views. [Iraqi Foreign Minister] Hoshyar Zebari expresses the official Iraqi position, and the [Iraqi] federal government is responsible for decision-making with regards to Iraq’s foreign policy. However as an Iraqi citizen, and as the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, I have the right to express my own point of view. Let me reiterate that we believe that single party rule is over, and violence will not work to prevent our people moving towards what they want.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Just a few short years ago, Baghdad asked the UN to form a committee to investigate terrorist operation being carried out in Iraq, and whether Damascus was behind this, whilst today, Iraq is strongly supporting the al-Assad government. How do you explain this change in the stance of the Iraqi regime towards Syria?
[Salih] If you ask our brothers in Baghdad, they would deny this accusation that they “support” the al-Assad regime. This question should be put to Baghdad. I understand this position as being a desire not to interfere in internal Syrian affairs. As for our position [on Syria], I have already expressed this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any ambitions to become the next Kurdistan Region President?
[Salih] There is an agreement between the two major Kurdish parties [PUK and Kurdistan Democratic Party] to swap positions [president and prime minister] every two years, and this period is ending at the end of the current year. I aim to step down [as Kurdistan Region Prime Minister] at that time. This has been a great honour and responsibility, and over the past years I have served my people, along with my colleagues in the [Kurdistan Region] Council of Ministers. Whoever succeeds me and takes up this responsibility will have all my support, as well as the support of many others.
As for the other issue [of Salih becoming Kurdistan Region President], nothing has been decided yet, however I confirm that I will always be committed to a political project that aims to achieve and deepen the required democratic reform in Kurdistan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mean to say that the issue of your stepping down from the post of Kurdistan Regional government Prime Minister has been settled?
[Salih] From my personal view, this issue has been decided. I will not ask for an extension [of my premiership], nor do I want one. I have served for two years; my period of service was full of ups and downs, but I believe that I have fulfilled my duty.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has Kurdistan’s position within Iraq been permanently resolved or is this still under the consideration of “prevailing circumstances?”
[Salih] The Kurdistan Region has decided its fate to the point of engaging with the project of a democratic federal Iraq. Iraq today is based on a constitution that the Iraqi people requested, and it is the sole guarantor for Iraqi unity, and Iraq will remain united so long as this constitution is respected. However any setback in the application of the constitution – or reduction of its powers – will harm Iraqi unity. We will not return to tyranny once more, and we will never accept a return to this. I am not just speaking as a Kurd in this regard, but also from the perspective of the people of Basra, Anbar, and Baghdad. All Kurds aspire to independence, and I will not deny the sentimental nature of the Kurdish people. We, like other people around the world, have the right to enjoy independence. However let me say once again that the Kurds have to choose carefully. Perhaps during the time of the ouster of the Saddam Hussein regime there were those who were saying to the Kurds, “now is the time for you to separate from Iraq”, and perhaps we truly were separate, as the federal government had no presence in Kurdistan. However following the ouster, the Kurds returned to Iraq, and the Kurdistan Region is now the most stable region of Iraq, and I can say that the Kurds are the most committed to a democratic Iraq, and the future of the country. Secession will not come from the Kurdish side, and if it does occur this will be from those that want to impose a central totalitarian authority on Iraq, which is something that the people of Iraq and the Kurds mutually reject.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However the text of the Iraqi constitution can be interpreted in different ways on certain important issues. What is your view of that?
[Salih] There are mechanisms for interpretation; however the text is clear regarding the issue of a democratic and federal Iraq with clear mandates for the central state [Baghdad], and the regions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You talk about regions here, plural, but in reality there is only one such region, namely the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
[Salih] Yes, that’s true. However there are mechanisms to form other regions. This is an option, and not a necessity, and if there are certain Iraqi governorates that want to become Regions, as we are called now, there are constitutional mechanisms for this. However Kurdistan will continue to have its special nature due to its historic background. In addition to this, I can say – based upon my experience in Baghdad [as Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister] the central state has failed miserably to meet the demands of the Iraqi citizens in terms of providing services. There are also demands from the governorates to grab up some of the constitutional powers to allow them to benefit from their natural resources to provide services to these areas and governorates. Such “centralized” institutes have ended even in the East, and an example of this is the UAE, which is overcoming centralization. Moreover, the imperative of the centralized state ruling over the joints of the rest of the country has ended. The pioneering Kurdistan experience in this regard, in terms of activating the private sector and advancing our region, is a good example of this.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Kurdistan Region recently signed a deal with ExxonMobil, to drill for oil. You previously described this agreement as “completely legal”, however Iraqi Oil Minister Abdul-Kareem Luaibi has said this deal is illegal and that ExxonMobil is in breach of the law. What’s the latest?
[Salih] This is true [we signed a deal with ExxonMobil], however unfortunately there are different interpretations on this issue. We completely disagree with these statements [from the Iraqi Oil Minister], as we have clear constitutional rights in this regard. The Constitution provides that the Kurdistan Region should be responsible for the administration of lands not already producing oil, and let me add to this that Iraq today is in need of developing its resources. Under an agreement with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki we reached a stage of producing 100 bpd [barrels of petrol per day] via the Iraqi –Turkish [Kirkuk – Ceyhan] oil pipeline, and Iraq’s oil revenues go to the central treasury, according to the constitution. Kurdistan receives 17 percent of these revenues, whilst the rest is for the budget of Iraq. However unfortunately, there are many mistakes being made against the Kurdish oil policy, and I would like to take the opportunity here to reiterate our commitment to the constitution, and our rights under the constitution, and I say frankly that we cannot hand over all the economic requirements…to a bunch of bureaucrats in Baghdad to do with it as they please. We also ask about the delay in recognizing the oil law, despite the presence of a prior agreement to submit this draft law to parliament before the end of this year, particularly as Iraq needs this law to regulate its oil file in a clear manner.
Iraq needs additional revenues to respond to the needs of the Iraqi people and in order to finance reconstruction operations. Kurdistan this year produced an average of 100,000 bpd, whilst next year we will produce 175,000 bpd. In 2015, we may be producing as much as 1 million bpd for Iraq, if we succeed in our plans. This is what is required away from political controversies, i.e. that we work together to maximize our revenues and utilize this to serve the Iraqi people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] When will there be a solution to the contested city of Kirkuk, or will this remain an issue of division and conflict?
[Salih] The mechanism to resolve this situation is present in the constitution, and that is Article 140, which confirms that measures should be taken to reverse the policies of ethnic cleansing [in Kirkuk] that took place during the Saddam era. Some of the steps have been implemented, but we still need to take more steps in this regard. Kirkuk embodies the Iraqi suffering. If the new Iraqi state wants to be at peace and in harmony with itself and its people, it must resolve this tragedy and Kirkuk must return to its previous reality. The people of Kirkuk should be given the choice as to their administrative affiliation and whether they return to Kurdistan or not. I believe – as a Kurd – that Kirkuk is an integral part of Kurdistan, but my Arab and Turkmen brothers may disagree with me on this. Therefore, what’s the solution? The answer is letting the people decide, in a referendum.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] However the issue of a referendum raises more questions, not answers, such as the precise regulations and mechanisms of this referendum. What do you say to those who question this?
[Salih] We have a mechanism to determine who were the original inhabitants of Kirkuk, before the policy of ethnic cleansing [carried out during the Saddam era].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many people are wary of the growing Turkish role in the region…what is your opinion?
[Salih] Turkey is a neighboring state, and there has been a significant change in Turkey’s dealings with Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkish companies and Turkish investment in the gas sector and infrastructure here is very active. I have no doubt that Turkey is dealing with Kurdistan today differently than it did in the past. Turkey is a strong and resurgent economic power and a political model that cannot be taken lightly. In my view – as a Kurd – I have certain views about certain issues [with regards to Turkey], but the power of the Turkish model on the Islamic world is clear. We also hope that the democratic experience and openness in Turkey is strengthened and that it reaches genuine results with regards to the Kurdish issue “in Turkey”, and that Turkey recognizes this identity. In this regard, I say that the Iraqi experience is important.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you referring to self-government?
[Salih] I do not mean that. I mean recognizing the Kurdish identity, not the opposite. The Turkish Kurds will decide what they want from Turkey via their parties in parliament. Violence must not be a means to rejecting the Kurdish identity.
As for the Turkish role, our relationship with Turkey is balanced, as it is with Iran. Iran is also an important neighboring country. Trade between Iran and Turkey exceeds 8 billion dollars, whilst trade between Iraq and Iran ranges between 4 and 5 billion dollars. We want to transform Kurdistan into a communications link between the peoples of this region. We do not want to be a part of any axis to be used against any other [axis], but rather a part of a stable regional order that is based upon democracy and mutual respect.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about those who claim that Iran’s influence on Iraq is growing, to the point that Tehran has influenced political decisions being made in Baghdad, including Iraq’s recent positions on Syria?
[Salih] I say to all Iraq’s neighbors that interfering in Iraqi affairs will only result in greater complications and problems. Iran is a neighboring state; we share a 1,400 km border. This has its historic problems, and Iraqi – Iranian relations are thorny and complicated. We believe that Iraq’s interests are best served by having good and balanced relations with Iran. We do not want to enter a violent war with Iran once more, and we are certainly not going to do so. Allow me to confirm that the best thing for Iran to do is to respect Iraq’s sovereignty and not interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You are talking about what should happen in principle, but what about the reality on the ground. Just how pervasive is Iran’s influence in Iraq?
[Salih] This is what I believe, and I want Iraq to be in a state of peace and enjoy good and balanced relations with its neighbors based upon mutual political, security, economic interests. Iran is an important regional country, and it has influence, not just in Iraq, but in many countries. However the question is ultimately for the Iraqis to demonstrate the extent of their ability to achieve national unity and prevent any harmful interference in Iraqi affairs.