Aljazeera interviews Iraq's Kurdistan
President Massoud Barzani
Q&A: Iraqi Kurdish leader
In an exclusive interview with Al
Jazeera the leader of Iraq's Kurdish region
discusses oil, Syria and independence.
July 30, 2012
Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — The Kurdish president
warns that Iraq's Kurds could seek independence if
they do not get what they need from Baghdad.
There are more than thirty million Kurds - most of
them living in an overlapping area of Iraq, Iran,
Syria and Turkey.
It is said to be the biggest ethnic community in the
world without a homeland. In some of the countries
in which they live, they are prevented from speaking
their language or obtaining citizenship.
Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader, used
chemical weapons against the Kurds, destroyed their
villages and killed tens of thousands of them during
his rule. The bodies are still being unearthed.
The US encouraged them to rise up against Saddam
when his forces were driven out of Kuwait in 1991
but then left them hanging. And thousands died
fleeing to Turkey as refugees.
But the no-fly zone that the US, British and French
established to protect them from Saddam's attacks,
allowed them to break away from Iraqi government
authority, while remaining part of Iraq.
Since 2003, the Kurdish region has become the most
stable and prosperous part of Iraq, fuelled by oil
and Turkish investment.
And while relations with Turkey have improved, they
have worsened with Baghdad - with disagreements over
oil, land and politics that some fear could turn
Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, has emerged
as a crucial player in Iraqi politics and as the
leader of Kurdish aspirations in the region.
He has warned that Iraq's Kurds could seek
independence if they do not get what they need from
Baghdad. And that his region will not be dragged
down by the rest of Iraq.
"We have seen tanks, artillery and other weaponry
being used against our people. We have seen large
numbers of troops being used against our people,"
explains Barzani. "Our fear is not of that. Our fear
is the mentality that still believes in using planes,www.ekurd.net
artillery and tanks to solve problems. We do
not believe that that will solve the problem. This
is the wrong approach and the misery and the
troubles that Iraq faces today is a result of that
kind of mentality. Therefore we do not want that to
be repeated again.
"Otherwise if Baghdad or the federal government
thinks about the usage of such things then we will
be obliged to go back to the times when we had to
think about how to target the F-16s in order not to
allow them to reach here. We hope this will not be
the case but we have to get ready."
On this episode of Talk to Al Jazeera, we sit down
with Barzani to find out how far he is willing to go
to protect and promote the interests of the Kurdish
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani
In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera the leader
of Iraq's Kurdish region discusses oil, Syria and
As president of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish
region in the country's north, Massoud Barzani
carries considerable sway with 30 million ethnic
Kurds living in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
He has warned that Iraq's Kurds could seek
independence if they do not get what they need from
Baghdad. And that his region will not be dragged
down by the rest of Iraq.
In a wide-ranging interview with Al Jazeera's Jane
Arraf, Barzani discusses the situation in the
region, the battle for control over oil wealth and
the aspirations of his people.
Jane Arraf: This
region has been through two wars, sanctions,
fighting inside and attacks from outside. It seems
more powerful and autonomous than it’s ever been.
But do you still feel you are in a struggle for
There’s no doubt that the Kurdish question has made
a lot of progress. I cannot deny that there are
still a lot of challenges. I can surely say that the
Kurds have passed that stage where their survival
would be threatened. I believe it would be
impossible to step back from whatever we have
Q: There is a
real crisis going on in Iraq and you warned just a
few months ago that if it continues, the Kurdish
region could seek its independence. Are you still
prepared to follow through on that?
If I can make clear what I said exactly: Iraq is
facing a serious and genuine crisis and we have two
kinds of problems. One is a general problem for Iraq
as a whole and the other is problems in the region
and Baghdad. We have called for genuine reform for
the problems - the Iraqi wide problems and also
[for] the ones between the [Kurdish] region and
Baghdad. I call upon the Iraqi forces if they are
ready and willing to come and deal with us. We are
ready to do whatever we can to help solve these
problems. If the other Iraqi forces are not ready to
follow us, then I will go back to the Kurdish people
and ask them to do whatever needs to be done. I am
still saying the same thing.
Q: Given that
there hasn't really been much progress between
Baghdad and Erbil [the Kurdish capital] do you feel
now that you will go Kurdish people in September and
ask them in a referendum on whether they want
Frankly speaking, the current situation is not
acceptable. Our people cannot tolerate that and I'm
sure the Iraqi people will not accept that. But
certainly when it reaches that stage, I will go back
to the people.
But in this case, I have to consult with the
political parties in the region, I have to consult
with the parliament - this is not a decision for me
to make alone. But certainly, the moment we are
disappointed and lose hope of solving the problems
and getting out of this crisis, I will go back to
the people. But before that, I have to consult with
the political groups here and the parliament.
Q: There have
been attempts for some months now to actually have a
vote of no confidence in the prime minister. It
seems to have failed. Do you hold out any hope that
he could be replaced in the next two years before
the next elections?
The process has not stopped and the issue of
questioning the prime minister (in parliament) will
Q: This seems to
have become quite personal. You helped Prime
Minister Nouri al-Malaki form a unity government. In
fact, you helped him become prime minister and there
seems to have been a feeling that he has betrayed
your trust. How much of this is personal between
Prime Minister Maliki and yourself?
I will not allow under any circumstances for the
problem to become personal. Of course, I had a lot
of trust in Prime Minister Maliki as a result of the
old relationship we had. Now certainly, I have lost
hope in him as a result of what has happened. I
always wished at least once he defended Kurds in
some forum the way I do. But unfortunately, in 2008,
he ordered the tanks to be moved against the Kurdish
people in Khanaqin. From then, I started losing
confidence in him.
Q: There does
seem to be military buildup. There is tension
between the de facto border between the Kurdish
region and Iraq, you've talked about fears over Iraq
having F-16s. What are you doing on your side to
ensure that the Kurdish region is secure?
In fact, for us, F-16s are not different from MIG-19
or MIG-21s. We have seen them being used against us.
We have seen large numbers of troops, tanks,
artillery and other weaponry being used against our
people. Our fear is not that,www.ekurd.net
but of the mentality that still believes in using
planes, artillery and tanks to solve the problems.
This is the wrong approach. The misery and the
troubles that Iraq faces today is nothing but a
result of that kind of mentality, and we do not want
that to be repeated. If Baghdad or the federal
government thinks of using such things, then we will
be obliged to go back to the times when we had
thought of targeting F-16s so that they couldn't
Q: Could you
expand a little bit more on that - on measures that
would not allow their F-16s to target you - are you
in fact in the process of taking measures to improve
All of our efforts would be for us not to allow the
situation to reach that point. We want to make sure
that balance in the Iraqi army returns. That there
will be an Iraqi army for all Iraqis, to defend the
entire Iraq and the Iraqi people, and not to use it
against the Iraqi people or any region in Iraq. This
will be our strategy and this will be our policy and
we hope we will succeed in this.
Q: You've made
amazing strides in relations with Turkey. Turkey is
now the economic lifeline of the Kurdish region, but
still there are concerns in Turkey of course over
growing Kurdish power. Do you think Turkey will
allow a Kurdish region that is not just economically
more powerful but also militarily more powerful?
I believe that the region has had the willingness
and the readiness to have good economic relations
with all our neighbours and certainly there has been
a lot of progress in our relations with Turkey. The
more these kind of economic relations progress, the
more it is helpful for them to allay the fears from
any other aspect. As far as the military
strengthening of the Kurdistan region, this is
something relevant to the Kurdish people and the
Kurdish region itself and we do not allow anyone
else to interfere in it.
Q: Oil now is
very much a question. Baghdad has threatened to cut
off some of the revenue that it gives to the Kurdish
region. The Kurdish region says it's exporting crude
oil to Turkey. One of Prime Minister Maliki's
advisers has warned that things like this could
actually lead to armed conflict. Where does this
It is unfortunate that this subject has made clear
that some of the people in Baghdad do not intend any
goodwill for the people of Kurdistan and are simply
hostile to the Kurdistan region. The issue is not
legality or constitutionality, but they just want to
stop the progress that the Kurdistan region is
making - this is our conviction. In fact, none of
the contracts that we have signed have violated the
constitution. In the draft of 2007 of the oil and
gas law, there was a proposal supposed to go to the
parliament and there were annexes which said if the
law was not passed within May, then both sides could
continue signing contracts.
Why did they not allow the law to pass in the
parliament? I will not say that we are right in
everything - there may be some issues with us as
well. But let's sit down and talk, let's look at it.
We have not done anything contrary to the
constitution. If there is any violation, we are
ready to admit and repair it.
Instead of having animosity against the Kurdish
people and Kurdistan, they should respond to the
Iraqi people. After spending $27bn on the
electricity sector - can they tell the Iraqi people
what happened to that money and what is the
condition of the electricity sector in the country.
They should answer these questions instead of
spending time on working against the Kurdish people.
They should spend their time providing services to
the people of Iraq. I would say the best way forward
would be for talks to continue in order to have the
oil and gas law passed in the parliament. The moment
it would pass it will be an opportunity for the
problems to be solved. In contrast, if we wait for
the temperament of a personal decision by someone in
Baghdad that would not help the problem. And of
course cutting the budget of the region from
Baghdad, we would consider it as a declaration of
war and Baghdad will be held responsible for
whatever consequences that will happen.
Q: What does
that mean? If they do cut the budget you do consider
it a declaration of war what does that mean? What is
the next step?
The moment they cut the budget, it will be
considered a declaration of war and when you say
there is a declaration of war, it's obvious what it
entails. It's premature (to talk about that now) but
certainly, the moment they do it, then we consider
it a declaration of war. I don't think there is a
need to go into details on that.
Q: To most
people, declaration of war would mean you get your
fighters, you get your weapons and it starts armed
conflict. Is that what we are talking about?
There are many options. This is not the only option.
Q: Can the
Kurdish region survive economically if Iraq did cut
the budget? Through oil exports to Turkey or other
This situation will not remain - this situation it
will not continue like this.
Q: Does that
The question will not be only about the (Kurdish)
region, but will the whole of Iraq remain like that
or not? That's the question.
Q: Which is a
good question, because we are seeing increasing
attempts at autonomy, some of them from the Sunni
provinces, some in the south. Will Iraq hold
We are not talking about the old Iraq. Wwe have
contributed and are partners in building this new
Iraq. The new Iraq should be ruled jointly and also
there has to be partnership, real partnership in
this country. It's not about one individual or one
group to rule the country. This is exactly what the
problem in Iraq is today. It is the problem of
one-man rule and the imposition of central things. I
do not believe that even Iraqi people will accept
that - neither the Shias nor the Sunnis will accept
the current situation and it's not the case that
with this crisis, a (single) group would be able to
lead Iraq toward an unknown future for the rest of
the Iraqi people to accept.
Q: In the
Kurdish region these days, young people don't speak
Arabic, they don’t learn it in school, you have your
own economy, your own services and you even pretty
much control the borders. What is there that still
ties the Kurdish region to Iraq?
Of course, Arabic is the official language in the
country and in the region and it is studied here in
the region, a continuation of the policies of the
past 30 years. As far as the second part of the
question, this is exactly the reality and the truth
that we want to be considered and we want people to
be convinced of: Iraq has Arabs and Kurds and we
have decided this on the basis of a voluntary union.
The moment we are recognised and accepted there will
be no problem. If people think that someone in
Baghdad can determine our future, it’s wrong. That
time is over. If they are ready to make the decision
on the basis of a voluntary union to accept this
truth, then that is fine. But if they want to
forcibly impose their will on our people, we will
not accept it.
Q: A few weeks
ago, we saw you lower the coffin of one of the
Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein's Anfal campaign
into the ground. One of tens of thousands still in
mass graves. How much has that affected the history
of this region?
This is of course a deep wound. We will never forget
that. I am very proud of being one individual among
the Kurdish people because our people have had their
suffering and pain and they don't think about
retaliation or revenge after the tragedies that have
happened to them. As far as I'm concerned the
remains of that martyr - I didn't know if that was a
man or a woman, a child, a boy or a girl. I had the
very strange feeling and probably it was the first
time in my life I had that feeling and I thought
that he was my brother, he was my son, my mother, my
daughter. It really touched me.
Q: You've talked
of training Syrian Kurds - from Syria. Training them
to go back. What do you think is the effect of some
of the regions in the Kurdish areas of syria having
fallen to opposition fighters? What are we looking
at here - is a country that will hold together? What
is the future of the Kurds in Syria and how does
that affect the Kurds in the region?
Of course, they are our brothers... but the
situation for the Syrian Kurds is different than in
other areas. They were deprived of the basic right
of citizenship, they did not have state identity.
They were considered refugees or they were
considered as infiltrators. Therefore the training
that has taken place is not for fighting, it is just
a precautionary measure to play a role in Syria once
the situation collapses and there's a vacuum.
Certainly we want to see a change in the Kurdish
situation in Syria, but this is something for them
to decide upon. It's their role and we believe that
they can play a positive role in building a new
Syria that will be democratic and pluralistic.
Q: You've talked
about hosting a regional conference of Kurds here
this year, that would be an extraordinary step -
possibly the biggest gathering of Kurds in the
region. Do you feel with everything going on in the
region, the Arab spring, changes going through, are
you on the verge of creating a more powerful Kurdish
community across the borders?
The purpose behind the conference is for the Kurds
to have a united statement - a statement that
stresses on peace and peaceful co-existence and also
attempts to solve our problems in a peaceful and
Q: You've been
betrayed at some point, the Kurdish region as a
whole, by pretty much everyone. By the Americans in
1991 when they did not immediately come to your aid,
by Turkey, by the surrounding countries. Who do you
trust, who are your allies?
Of course, the world has changed. But before
anything else, we believe in God and we believe in
Q: Here in the
Kurdish region there are some concerns that the
democracy you are aiming for hasn’t quite taken
hold. Elections here, provincial elections which
were to have been held have been delayed. When will
those take place and how do you respond to the
criticism that this is not a democratic region?
I have been against the delay of the provincial
elections. In fact, when the parliament, the
government and the independent commission in Baghdad
told us that for technical reasons it can't be held
and has to be delayed, I accepted that. Otherwise, I
am against that decision and I support holding the
Q: This region
has a tragic history on many levels and part of the
tragedy has been Kurds fighting the Kurds in the
region. In the 1990s, the other major
Kurdish faction appealed to Iran for help and you
appealed to Iraqi government, to Saddam Hussein's
forces to help drive them out of Erbil. Is there
anything about that part of the past that you
First in my capacity as president of the region, I
am proud, and that has been one of the main aims in
accepting this responsibility to make sure that this
internal Kurdish fighting will not happen again. We
will do whatever we can in order to remove that.
This was a stage we passed through - it was very
unfortunate, very sad. We hope we have put that
behind us. And I have no objection if the Kurdish
people want to investigate and look into this
fighting - how it happened and why and how it came
Q: Do you feel
there is a gap between what the younger generation
wants and what they demand in fact and the older
generation who have lived through all these
tragedies? Some of the younger generation believes
that the time is over for family members to be heads
of national security councils for instance. Is there
something in those concerns?
Of course, people have all the right to say what
they believe in and everybody is free to think - but
let them look at the results. Look at the stability
and security of the Kurdistan region. The new
generation, the old generation, whoever is a
resident of the Kurdistan region. What we have in
terms of security and stability has been hard to
achieve - it has not come without any efforts. These
are the results of the working of certain people who
have been successful in accomplishing their duties.
These people have to be appreciated for what they
Q: You've been
such an essential part of the history of not just
the Kurdish region, but the Kurdish people
regionally. How would you like your legacy to be
I have a clear conscience as I have done whatever I
have been able to do for the sake of our people.
From my childhood, I have done everything to free
our people, to liberate our land. The judgment will
be left to the people.
Q: Is the region
ready for an independent Kurdistan?
It's a natural right of the people. But when and how
it will be ready is a different question.
Barzani thank you so much for talking to Al Jazeera.
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