VOA Persian Service reporter Ali Javanmardi interviews Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government.
VOA: What solution do you have to keep Iraq united as one entity?
Kurdish President Massoud Barzani: As Kurds, we mustered all our resources and tried very hard in 2003, after the downfall of the Baathist regime, to build a new Iraq – an Iraq in which everyone’s rights and duties were well defined and clear in order to build a democratic, federal, multi-party Iraq. But unfortunately, it did not happen. After 10 years, we are facing a situation today that was not expected by anyone. The situation is chaotic and scary. Now along a 1,050-kilometer border we face terrorists and radical groups and people who are unknown to us. This is a new situation. I doubt if Iraq will go back to what it was. Maybe only God knows what will happen.
VOA: In your discussions with John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, did you discuss the possibility of Iraq not remaining united and in one piece?
Barzani: Yes, we discussed the situation in Iraq and these issues in detail.
VOA: Is it true that you set conditions under which you will agree to cooperate to prevent the partition of Iraq?
Barzani: The Kurds did not bring about the dangerous situation (that threatens) the integrity of Iraq. We did not create the situation in which Iraq finds itself today. We have not partitioned Iraq, rather, it was others who brought about this catastrophe and broke up Iraq into pieces. And that is why those who created this situation must resolve it as well. We have always said from the beginning of the establishment of the Iraqi government that Iraq is composed of two nationalities, Kurd and Arab, with due respect to other nationalities such as Turkmens, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Christians. But things were not run in a way to make the Kurds feel they were partners and stakeholders in the administration of the country. Kurds were treated as second- and third-class citizens. That is why from now on we will not accept such treatment, even the way the Kurds were treated in the past two months. We are busy monitoring the situation. We have a parliament, political parties, public opinion. We will turn to the public ballot. The decision that will be made will be in favor of the people of Kurdistan.
VOA: Your words indicate that you are moving toward independence of Kurdistan. Is this so?
Barzani: This is a natural right that must be achieved. Independence must be achieved. I believe now the conditions are also favorable for independence. This subject is clear and once achieved, we will help our brethren in Iraq, within our capabilities, to help Iraq maybe surmount the current crisis. But this does not mean that we will set aside the independence of Kurdistan.
VOA: But you said that you have a 1,050-kilometers border with Da’esh (ISIL) terrorists and unknown groups. You also have several hundred kilometers border with Iran which opposes Kurdish independence. Turkey’s position is not altogether clear yet. That means you are surrounded by crisis and fire and opposition to an independent Kurdish state. Do you still believe independence of Kurdistan is achievable?
Barzani: Our discussion now is regarding Southern Kurdistan – Iraqi Kurdistan. Up to now we have made clear that we pose no threat to Iran, Turkey or any other side. On the contrary, we have assisted very much with the establishment of security and wellbeing in these countries. We have even helped these two countries to resolve their Kurdish issues in a peaceful, democratic manner. And we will continue these efforts. We believe that Iran and Turkey have also accepted the fact that we are not a threat. But independence is our natural and absolute right. I don’t see opposition to this course as the right policy. But ultimately it is the Kurdish nation that will decide its own fate.
VOA: There is news circulating here that in the last meeting between Iranian authorities and Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, the Islamic Republic offered you five years export of oil from Kirkuk and Kurdistan region in return for your support of Nouri al-Maliki. Is this true?
Barzani: This news is baseless and without merit. Discussions with Iran were about the security situation and serious conditions in the region.
VOA: In the past you used to insist on Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution that was about the plebiscite for the Administration of Kirkuk and other Kurdish areas. Do you still believe that Article 140 should be implemented and Kirkuk should join the administrative area of Kurdistan?
Barzani: Many interpretations have been made about my views on Article 140. Now I want to make my views clear for the people of Kurdistan as well as for the public abroad. When I accepted Article 140, it did not mean that Kirkuk and other (contested) Kurdish areas were not a part of Kurdistan. We did not doubt for a moment that these areas were parts of Kurdistan. But with the aim of achieving a legal framework and understanding between all Iraqi parties, we accepted Article 140. We waited 10 years, but the Federal Government of Iraq evaded its implementation. Another point to be made is that many may assume that Kurdish peshmerga forces moved into Kirkuk and other Kurdish areas after the recent incidents. Kurdish peshmerga forces have been in Kirkuk and other Kurdish areas since 2003. Khaneghin, Shengal, Makhmour, and many other areas were under peshmerga control. In some areas, there were only peshmerga forces, in other areas, peshmerga and central government forces, and still others only the Iraqi Army. During recent events when the Iraqi Army abandoned these areas, left their arms behind, and disbanded, Kurdish peshmerga were obliged to fill the void - in areas around Kirkuk, Khaneghin and Shengal where the Iraqi Army had been present. The peshmerga did not allow these areas to fall to the terrorists. Therefore, Article 140 should be considered implemented in fact. This does not mean that we will impose our rule on the people of these areas. Under the supervision of international observers, we will conduct a transparent vote - meaning whether or not they would like to return to the administration of the Kurdish Regional Government. Article 140 is implemented and it is incumbent upon us to respect the people’s votes and desires. Both we and the other sides should respect the will of the people.
A referendum in Kurdish areas will determine our ultimate decision. We will implement whatever the people decide. Therefore, from now on we will not discuss Article 140 of the constitution, which we consider a closed subject.
VOA: You mean to say that if the people of the areas where the referendum is to be held in will not agree to the presence of your forces, you will pull back?
Barzani: We will respect the people’s will.
VOA: Mr. President, another sensitive issue is sale of crude oil, an issue that is the cause of crisis in relations between Erbil and Baghdad. It is said that KRG is selling Kirkuk oil as well. Is this true?
Barzani: Kirkuk oil was exported to Turkey via a pipeline that passed south of Mosul. Now the terrorists control this pipeline and prior to that it had been blown up. If this crude oil is not exported via the pipeline in Kurdistan, it has no other way of being exported. The income from export of this oil will go to all whose budgets were not paid by Baghdad - Kirkuk dwellers, all Kurdish people, even the people of Mosul. This oil is not only for the Kurds. It is for all including the Arabs and Turkmens of Kirkuk. The sale of this oil is our right and the right of all people of this region. Without any type of discrimination, the income from this oil will be distributed between Kurds, Arabs. Turkmens, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, and others.
VOA: But the Baghdad government maintains that it is illegal for the Kurds to sell this oil.
Barzani: So with which law did they cut off the people’s bread? Let them tell us which law allowed them to cut off the people’s bread then they can make such a claim.
VOA: How much does Baghdad owe KRG?
Barzani: It is about six months they have not paid any money – take into consideration 17 percent of the Iraqi budget, it comes to about $10 to $12 billion. Not only this but they have not paid peshmerga salaries for the past 10 years – peshmerga who were considered part of the Iraqi defense forces. Baghdad has not paid a dollar of their salaries. Even peshmerga’s share of arms and ammunition was confiscated in Baghdad.
VOA: Were these actions taken by the al-Maliki government or by the majority Iraqi Shi’ite?
Barzani: No it is not the Shi’ite. It is Mr. Nouri al-Maliki and a few in his circle.
VOA: Do you relations with other Shi’a groups?
Barzani: Yes, we have good relations.
VOA: And with the Sunnis?
Barzani: We are friends with all Shi’a and Sunni who believe in the Iraqi democratic process.
VOA: Allow me to bring up subjects from your latest speeches. You speak a lot about the creation of an independent Kurdish state. How much support does this have among the Kurdish people?
Barzani: Inshallah we will hold a referendum and at that time it will become clear what percentage of the people are behind us.
VOA: Do you believe that the majority of the Kurdish people have such a demand?
Barzani: Yes, the absolute majority. If the Kurdish people are not behind us, then we will remain silent and will not say any more.
VOA: Have you discussed this desire with the US? What was their reaction?
Barzani: We have discussed this with the US, with all sides, and with the Europeans. In the past, reaction was severe, but we don’t see that anymore.
VOA: What are your political plans for what you describe?
Barzani: We will guard and defend all areas of the Kurdish region – Kurd, Arab, Turkmen, Assyrian, Chaldean, all will be protected. We will endeavor to redevelop and systematize all regions of Kurdistan. We will use our oil revenue to create better and more comfortable living conditions for our citizens. And until the achievement of an Independent Kurdish State, we will cooperate with all to try to find solutions to the current crisis in Iraq. With all our might, we will help our Shia and Sunni brothers in the fight against terrorism and for the betterment of conditions in Iraq – although this is not an easy task.
VOA: You say it is not an easy task meaning that you cannot do it alone and need foreign support?
Barzani: If Iraqis are not prepared to reach an understanding among themselves, then foreign support will be of little use. Problems within Iraq must be resolved first – meaning through political solutions.
VOA: Many are worried about the creation of a new country in this region. How do you respond to these worries?
Barzani: Tell them to consider how many pieces Iraq has already split into. Why do they ignore reality? For 10 years we did what we could. At home and abroad we Kurds used all resources, but within 24 hours it was all lost – gone with the wind.
Now I ask them these questions: What do you expect of the Kurds? What must we do? We worked hard so many years for brotherhood – we are brothers with Arabs, Turks and Persians. We will preserve our brotherhood and we will maintain this brotherhood under any conditions. They even attacked us with chemical weapons and we did not forsake this brotherhood. So what should we do now? Did we create the current conditions in Iraq? Is it we who are fighting around Baghdad? Is it we who are drilling holes through each other’s skulls? No, they did not let Iraq remain unified. Why do they blame us? But how long should be burn with Iraq? If a democratic, federal, Iraq would have taken shape, and Kurdish rights had not been violated, no one would have thought about independence.
We are not prepared to wait for an uncertain future anymore and continue burning in this fire. We will get out of the fire.