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President Nechirvan Barzani: The failure to implement federalism is the source of Iraq’s problems

Gulan Media February 22, 2024 News
President Nechirvan Barzani: The failure to implement federalism is the source of Iraq’s problems

The Arabic television channel Al-Hadath interviewed President Nechirvan Barzani about the security and political situation in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, the problems between Erbil and Baghdad, and developments in the region.

The following is the transcript of the interview:

Q: Mr. Nechirvan Barzani, we will start with the latest developments. There are currently negotiations to end the mission of the international coalition in Iraq, and representatives of the Kurdistan Region are participating in these negotiations. In your opinion, is the retention of the international coalition forces necessary for Iraq and the Kurdistan Region?

President Nechirvan Barzani: Coalition forces came to Iraq at the request of the Iraqi Government to help in the fight against ISIS terrorists. Of course, a long time has passed since 2014, and it is time to negotiate again to determine the future relationship between the coalition forces and Baghdad. On that basis, it is necessary to decide what the future relationship will be, and whether Iraq needs help or not.

Q: You said that this coalition was formed in 2014 when ISIS existed. You said that it has been a long time, which is about ten years. How do you see the ISIS situation in Iraq now?

President Nechirvan Barzani: In our opinion, the issue of ISIS is not only related to Iraq, but also to the stability of Syria. We believe that as long as the current security situation in Iraq and Syria persists, ISIS will still be a major threat to Iraq.

Q: Will the Kurdistan Region be an alternative to Iraq for US military bases?

President Nechirvan Barzani: We do not see the Kurdistan Region as separate from Iraq in this regard. Our policy is that any decision made will be within the framework of Iraq, and the Kurdistan Region as part of Iraq will abide by Iraq’s decision in general on this matter. Our view is whether we need help or not. Let me give you an example. In 2011, US troops left Iraq. In 2014, Iraq urgently wrote to the United Nations asking for help. Indeed, without the assistance of the coalition and US forces to the Iraqis at that time, they could not have stopped the ISIS terrorist forces. The Kurdistan Region makes decisions within the framework of Iraq and does not decide independently, because it is part of Iraq and makes decisions within that framework.

Q: How do you assess the stance of the international coalition against the threats to the Kurdistan Region?

President Nechirvan Barzani: They have supported us with messages and statements. They have condemned the actions that have taken place so far. In general, I cannot say that these positions have protected the Kurdistan Region one-hundred percent, but I can say that they have done what they could.

Q: Do you think that a US withdrawal from Iraq will leave armed groups with no excuse to attack US bases and interests in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region?

President Nechirvan Barzani: Let me start with the fact that the Iraqi Prime Minister described the actions of these groups as terrorist acts. What these groups are doing is firstly violating Iraqi sovereignty. It is unreasonable that Iraq itself has asked a force for help, and now, by launching drones and making threats, it is asking this force to leave or not remain. If the US leaves, what guarantee is there that these forces will not be more of a threat to the Kurdistan Region, or more of a threat to other communities in Iraq? Who says they will not be a threat to the form of governance in Baghdad? These forces have no clear vision and remain in the shadows. Where do they want to take Iraq? I would like to say that if the issue is Iraqi sovereignty, they are no more Iraqi than the Iraqi Prime Minister. Now, does the Iraqi Prime Minister know where Iraq’s interests lie? In my opinion, there is no excuse for the vile acts committed by these groups. The issue is not only that they have threatened the United States, but they have also attacked the Peshmerga forces, which are part of the Iraqi defense system, and they have also attacked civilians. They have tried before, and there must be a limit to this. They talk a lot about Iraqi sovereignty. Those who violate Iraqi sovereignty are first of all these groups that prevent the Prime Minister from doing his job as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Unfortunately, it is the actions of these groups that devalue Iraq both internally and in the international community.

Q: Is the situation in the Kurdistan Region more difficult when facing ISIS, or when facing the current challenges of Iranian drones and rockets and the groups they support? How do you face these challenges and threats?

President Nechirvan Barzani: ISIS occupied one third of Iraqi territory, but the battlegrounds were visible. This was ISIS. The forces that stood against them were the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga, the Hashd al-Shaabi. In my opinion, what is happening now is much more difficult than it was then, because the threat is not outside, the threat is inside your own home, the threat comes from a group that receives money from the Iraqi Government itself. This is much worse than the former, and you don’t know how to deal with them. The battlefield is not visible, nor is it clear where he is fighting you from. In my opinion, what is being done and what is happening now is much, much more difficult than the issue of ISIS.

Q: How do you as the Kurdistan Region face the threats that you said are more difficult than ISIS?

President Nechirvan Barzani: The Kurdistan Region cannot do this alone. This is a violation of Iraqi sovereignty, so it is the duty of the Iraqi Government and the Prime Minister as the commander of the armed forces to fight them. Since we live in Iraq and are part of it, the protection of the Kurdistan Region must be a fundamental part of Baghdad’s policy and vision. This issue is not only about the Kurdistan Region, it is about Baghdad. The Iraqi Government must play its fundamental role in protecting the Kurdistan Region.

Q: Do you agree with the Iraqi Government’s response to the threats facing the Kurdistan Region, both from Iran and Turkey?

President Nechirvan Barzani: As Prime Minister, as a person and as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he has had a very good attitude, both about Iran and other countries that create problems for Iraq. Regardless of whether it is possible or not, in my opinion, Iraq should try to do more. It is not right for Iraq’s reputation to have several groups of armed factions inside Iraq that threaten parts of the country. Iraq and the Iraqi Prime Minister are responsible. It must end this issue, which can only harm Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. The danger to the Kurdistan Region starts with the fact that if Iraq does not protect the Region, if Baghdad does not seriously defend the Region, then the Region must think of something else, because ultimately, protecting the Region is our priority. I believe that the Prime Minister will not hesitate and will do what he can for this purpose.

Q: You have repeated several times that this is the responsibility of the Prime Minister. What can the Prime Minister do about it now?

President Nechirvan Barzani: The Prime Minister must make concerted efforts, and these groups must do as he says, because what they are doing today will devalue Iraq in the eyes of the international community. They must allow the Prime Minister to fulfill his duties as commander of the armed forces. Sooner or later, they must be constrained.

Q: Is Iran a neighbor, a good friend, or an enemy?

President Nechirvan Barzani: Our relations with Iran are old. Iran is an important neighbor of ours and we cannot change that geography. Before these events, let’s talk about our relations with Iran. We thought we had very good relations with Iran. If we look at the numbers from an economic viewpoint, the numbers were going up in terms of economy and trade. For the second year in the Kurdistan Region, we allowed those going to Karbala and Najaf to pass through the Kurdistan Region. We have made very good progress with Iran on the security issue. When I say we, I mean Iraq and the Kurdistan Region together. So Iran is an important neighbor for us, but the question is: Can you call it friendship if you hit a civilian house with missiles? What do we call it, when you do this on the pretext that it is an Israeli base? Bombing a civilian house in Erbil and killing three or four people, one of whom is a very young child, you cannot class this as friendship. Otherwise, we have always tried to be a factor for security and stability in the region, and it has been the same with Iran in the past. We are not a source of threats to Iran. Our relationship with Iran is an old, ancient relationship. But the question is: Why did the Islamic Republic of Iran do this to Erbil, when we consider Iran an important neighbor? We consider Iran as a friend. We have already seen that it is our friend. Why did they do this? It’s a very big question.

Q: What is your relationship with Tel Aviv? What about the presence of a Mossad base in the Kurdistan Region? Of course, my question relates to the Iranian accusations against you and on that basis, as they say, they have targeted the Kurdistan Region?

President Nechirvan Barzani: First of all, regarding foreign policy, we are committed to Iraq’s policy as a state. Whatever foreign policy Iraq adopts, the Kurdistan Region will act within that framework, neither separately nor contrary to Baghdad. There is no contact and no Mossad headquarters in Erbil. This is all an excuse. What Iran did as a neighbor of Iraq, which considers itself a friend, was the biggest violation of Iraqi sovereignty and if the Iranians really knew that it was a Mossad headquarters, they could have acted differently. They could have gone to Baghdad without the Kurdistan Region, handed over the evidence that the site was an Israeli headquarters, and demanded a joint investigation. Iran could have done that. There is absolutely no Mossad or Israeli headquarters in Erbil. These things have been said about the Kurdistan Region many times before. The Kurdistan Region has been depicted as Israel. Why is it Israel? Why are we not Palestinians, why should we be Israelis? Our rights are being violated, our rights and entitlements are not being given. So why isn’t the Kurdistan Region Palestine?

Q: So why did Iran launch these attacks on the Kurdistan Region?

President Nechirvan Barzani: I don’t see any explanation for it except that they have missiles and they can hit us and they do it. Otherwise, there is no excuse or evidence that justifies this. If the Iranians have information that the site was the headquarters of Mossad, this is a disaster for Iranian intelligence agencies and they must review all their security agencies. We had the same issue before, with the late Qassem Soleimani. Once he came to me with a group of people from the Iranian intelligence agencies. They said that the information of our intelligence agencies is that you are monitoring Iran from somewhere in Kurdistan! I immediately told him, General, we are sitting here now. Let those who say this go and investigate and see if it is true or not. Indeed, they did so, and it became clear that there was no truth in it! This time, we could have solved those problems in the same way. The question that surprises us is: Why did Iran do this? The reason? We still don’t know why, but we are absolutely sure that there was no Israeli base nor any Israeli people there.

Q: Did any contacts develop between you and Iran after that incident?

President Nechirvan Barzani: No, the head of Iran’s National Security Agency visited Baghdad and spoke with the Prime Minister and Qassem al-Araaji, but there was no contact between us for the Kurdistan Region.

Q: Is there any coordination between Erbil and Ankara when Turkey attacks the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Kurdistan Region?

President Nechirvan Barzani: The PKK is a headache for the Kurdistan Region and Iraq. They do not respect the legitimate institutions of the Kurdistan Region and threaten Turkey from within our territory. We completely reject this principle and do not accept the Kurdistan Region’s territory becoming a source of threats to our neighbors, be they Turkey or Iran. The opposition of these countries cannot consider the Kurdistan Region a security zone to create problems. Unfortunately, the PKK is playing a very bad role in this regard. It is using the mountainous areas of the Kurdistan Region and trying to create problems for Turkey. This is unacceptable to us.

Q: I noticed that you have great respect for Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani. When I saw him a few days ago, he had the same respect for you. He called the relations with the Kurdistan Region very good, but why have the problems between Baghdad and Erbil not been resolved?

President Nechirvan Barzani: There is no doubt that the Iraqi Prime Minister has good intentions for the whole of Iraq, including Kurds, Arabs, Christians and all communities. He is one of those who, after becoming Prime Minister, has focused on services and how to develop the country’s economy. These are two fundamental things for Iraq, and he has a clear vision that he wants Iraq to enter a different era, but how much assistance will the Prime Minister get? In my opinion, very little help is given to the Prime Minister. We as Kurds have helped and will continue to do so because the Prime Minister’s vision serves the whole of Iraq. The issue is not only about the Kurds, this vision serves all Iraqi communities. What we see is that the Prime Minister does not discriminate between the communities of Iraq. Iraq has a big problem of confidence. After 2003, we created a system in Iraq, we said we are a federal system, but today, twenty years have passed since 2003, we really do not know what the Iraqi system and the system of governance in Iraq is. Baghdad’s treatment of the Kurdistan Region is too centralized. Twenty years later, the federal system has not been implemented in Iraq as a system of governance. The reason for these problems not being solved is not the individuals, the problem is basically the mentality. The system is federal in the Constitution, but very, very centralized in implementation. This must be resolved. What is being done with the Kurdistan Region has nothing to do with any federal system in the world. The problem starts here. In 2003, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, what we as Kurds, both the late Mam Jalal and President Masoud Barzani, did to keep Iraq united was to send Peshmerga forces to protect Baghdad during those difficult times. We did that, but today in Kurdistan, the essential question is: Where are we going? Where is this country headed? We had the same situation in Iraq before 2003, but the US told us that federalism and democracy would come, and we as Kurds did what was necessary for Iraq. Now our brothers in Baghdad must think very seriously. Enough of all the accusations they are making against the Kurdistan Region, that the region is separatist, the Region is like this or that. No, the Kurdistan Region does not want to secede from Iraq, nor is it separatist. The Kurdistan Region wants its rights.

Q: But you held a referendum to secede.

President Nechirvan Barzani: Even the referendum was held in our despair with Baghdad. Without that hopelessness, many things would not have been done. Whenever a new government is formed, we become part of that government in the hope that these problems will be solved, but the solution is difficult. The Prime Minister makes things easier. When a problem arises, we try to resolve it through phone calls, but it is not the Prime Minister, it is the mentality. Our brothers in Baghdad must pay serious attention to this issue and work for the unity of Iraq and for coexistence within the geography called Iraq, and we are ready for that.

Question: Mr. President, the Kurdish people are in a tough situation because of the delay in paying their salaries. Does the Kurdistan Region not have the money to pay their salaries to ease their burden until you solve your problems with Baghdad?

President Nechirvan Barzani: The Kurdistan Region’s capacity in this regard is very limited. We used to sell oil in Kurdistan to pay salaries. Now, as you know, that oil is not sold. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been very transparent with Baghdad. It is now Baghdad’s duty to provide the salaries of the Kurdistan Region, as part of Iraq. This is their responsibility, and the Prime Minister understands this. During my visit to Baghdad a few weeks ago, we had a long discussion with the Prime Minister. I can say that we are in the final stages of finding a solution to this issue.

Q: In the past, when oil was exported through the Turkish Port of Ceyhan, the money that was returned did not go to the government treasury, but to private pockets. Iraq accused the Kurdistan Region in this way. How do you respond to this accusation?

President Nechirvan Barzani: When I was Prime Minister, oil was going to the Port of Ceyhan from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s oil fields. There is SOMO in the Turkish port of Ceyhan, which handles all oil exports and Iraqi oil issues. There they watched every barrel. We demanded that SOMO be there. SOMO recorded all the figures, after which the oil was sold to oil buyers. The money would come back to the Kurdistan Region with the permission of the Central Bank of Iraq. When we did not have a budget from Baghdad, the money was spent on salaries. This process was all audited by international companies. International companies were looking at all those numbers, and now they are all there. We have given all these details to Baghdad and the Kurdistan Parliament. Anyone who wants to know about the case has everything in the utmost transparency. These allegations are unsubstantiated and untrue. Selling oil is not something you can sell and put in your pocket. That’s not possible! It is often said that the Kurdistan Region has sold oil unilaterally. We did not sell oil unilaterally. Iraq cut the Kurdistan Region’s budget in February 2014. We started exporting oil in May of the same year. We had an agreement with Iraq before, that if they did not give us the budget, when Maliki was Prime Minister, we had the right to export oil.

Q: What can you tell us about the current relations between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)?

President Nechirvan Barzani: There is no doubt that we have disagreements because we are two different parties, not one, but I am not so worried that the relationship will deteriorate. When a problem arises in this relationship, we try to resolve it. When there is a position, we try to coordinate it. This issue is not a big threat to the Kurdistan Region, but of course the relationship must be better than it is now, because its current state is not a healthy situation for the Kurdistan Region. Of course, both sides must strive to improve this relationship.

Q: You were at the forefront of the Kurdistan Region’s revival process. I have been visiting the Kurdistan Region since 2007. When I arrived, the airport was just a small room. Erbil was just a few houses. There were no skyscrapers. The road to Duhok had no lights. Erbil is now a developed city in social, cultural and reconstruction terms. How do you assess that experience now, especially the current economic, political and security situation?

President Nechirvan Barzani: In fact, the Kurdistan Region’s prosperity started gradually in 2005, but unfortunately, ISIS significantly set back the reconstruction process in the Kurdistan Region. Thankfully, we have a very good security situation. In terms of security, there is no problem in Kurdistan, but in terms of the economy, unfortunately, because of the issue of oil exports and salaries, we are now in a difficult economic situation. We are not alone in this. Because Baghdad has not seriously addressed the issue of oil exports, Iraq has lost about $7 billion. The issue is not only the Kurdistan Region, but Iraq in general. The private sector plays a major role in the Kurdistan Region. Today, if you see Erbil and other cities in the Kurdistan Region, there is considerable economic activity, but if the issue of oil exports and salaries is resolved with Baghdad, I predict a very good future economically for the Kurdistan Region.

Q: Kak Nechirvan, as your relatives call you, how willing are you to put your heart and soul into defending the Region and its achievements?

President Nechirvan Barzani: This is a duty and responsibility. Of course, I will do whatever I can in these interests, for the good of the whole of Iraq, for the good of the Kurdistan Region as part of Iraq and for all Iraqis.

Q: What is President Nechirvan Barzani’s vision for the solution to the many problems in the region, including the Gaza war and the fear that this conflict will turn into a regional war?

President Nechirvan Barzani: We as Kurds have a long experience with the problem of war. Consequently, such problems must be resolved through dialogue. The Palestinian issue is a legitimate one, a people’s issue, not a party issue, nor an ideological issue. It is the issue of a people. This people have the right to have their problems solved. Of course, war will not solve the problem. No matter how long the war continues, it will produce nothing more than destruction. Consequently, this problem must be resolved through dialogue. In our opinion, this dialogue is an opportunity. It is true that there is a big problem in Gaza, but we hope that this is the beginning of an opportunity, if not the last opportunity, to resolve the problem, so that the people of the region can live peacefully and happily side by side.

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