In Sunday’s paper, The Times interviewed Kurdistan region’s President Massoud Barzani about the growing rift between the Kurds and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. Below is a transcript of most of the interview.
Barzani, whose late father led multiple revolts against Baghdad in the 20th century, discusses the Kurds’ differences with Maliki and his own conviction that the prime minister is drifting toward authoritarian rule. Barzani reviews in details his differences with Maliki over the the Iraqi army’s current direction and a pending oil and gas law. Other topics discussed include disputed territories like Kirkuk, and a recent confrontation between Maliki’s body guards and Kurdish security forces at the Iraqi parliament, that ended with Maliki’s guards calling in an Iraqi army unit to seize control of the parliament building. The interview was conducted Saturday at Barzani’s offices in Salahuddin, outside Irbil.
Barzani is asked about his expectations for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s coming visit to Kurdistan.
Barzani: "I think it will be his fourth visit to the region as PM. Although the time has not been set for the visit, but of course when he does come, there are five specific issues and the issues which have been set forth that will be discussed, and they will be the key topics to be discussed with him.
"The first one will be the file of the security and the military. The second one would be partnership in government — in other words our partnership in government. The third one is the economical one, which covers oil and gas as well. The other file would be the disputed regions. And finally the foreign affairs or foreign politics."
Barzani is asked about disagreements between Maliki and his partners in the government, including the Kurds. Have those disputes centered about concerns that the Prime Minister is trying to rule by himself and is there any progress in resolving these questions.
Barzani:"What I mentioned earlier. One of the issues that will be discussed and one of the key files is partnership in administration. Which is based on the rule by consensus among the key groups as well as commitment to the constitutional principles and what has been laid out in the constitution. Indeed, it is a big issue in Iraq."
Barzani is asked to describe the prime minister’s policies.
Barzani:"We certainly have expressed our views very openly and clearly and we also have expressed our views in official correspondence with the prime minister. We have expressed that we have reservations on certain issues and they have also been made public. What we have geared, what we have aimed, is to resolve these issues through direct contact, and obviously adhering to the constitution that has laid the groundwork for such issues."
Barzani is asked about comments he made in November on the Al Hurra satellite television channel that the Iraqi government ignores the Kurdish role whenever possible in every area and that the government wants to return to a one-party system and a totalitarian authority. He is asked to elaborate on what he meant.
Barzani:"It was earlier in November when I was interviewed by al Hurra. After that interview I visited Baghdad actually … I stayed there for a couple of weeks. We had meetings and we presented our views and certain notes that I had mentioned earlier and the committees [that] were formed were as a result of those notes, as a result of the concerns that we had expressed openly and sometimes in private, so these committees were agreed. We had a chain of meetings – of key groups al Dawa, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party], PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] and Islamic Party of Iraq as key components or political groups, or government to government, or KRG with federal government.
"So these committees were formed in order to handle these issues, in order to resolve these pending issues which are detrimental. This is what we are proceeding with right now… The formation of the new Iraq is based upon the principle of consensus. These key groups must adhere to the constitution, to the roadmap that has been laid, as well as the principle of consensus because no single party has won elections and has come to power by absolute majority. This is through consensus and we all have to adhere. If one particular group diverts or moves away from this line and principle of consensus, obviously it creates such problems which have been [seen] more recently. We would fully support issues to be handled and to be resolved through the constitution and dialogue. This is how we’ve proceeded and this is what we are doing right now."
Barzani is asked if any of these new committees have made progress.
Barzani:"There has been some progress within certain committees, but maybe not that significant or tangible due to the fact that there were was full concentration by all parties on the security agreement or SOFA. Everybody was concerned with that. As of now the committees have begun their work in earnest."
Barzani is asked if there has been any progress on the oil law.
Barzani:"As far as we are concerned, there is a foregone conclusion on how the oil law should be drafted, but unfortunately it seems that Baghdad is dragging its feet and not wanting an amicable solution to it. In real essence, the problems or blame are being laid at the doorsteps of the Kurds at a time when the state has no oil policy and the ministry is a failed ministry with a failed policy. And at the same time, they do not want to see any development in this field in Kurdistan as well and [are] blaming the Kurds for the failures in Baghdad. And quite contrary to that the problem is not with the Kurdistan region.
"Over the past three years, there has been a budget of eight billion dollars allocated for the [rehabilitation] of the oil industry sector in order to increase the production level, and when you look at it the production it has perhaps even decreased, rather than increased. That’s what the Iraqi public has to be told. What was the reason and why [was] this budget that was allocated was not properly spent and what actually has happened to that budget and why has the oil production not met the required production level.
Barzani is asked why the money hasn’t been spent properly.
Barzani:"This is what we ought to know as well, to know the reason for it, the Iraqi public need to know about it."
Barzani is asked if the reason is corruption in the oil ministry.
Barzani:"I can’t prejudge that. I cannot say. It’s a very important issue, that the Iraqi people need to be aware of and they need to be informed."
Barzani is asked if he feels that elements within the government or parties are trying to blame the Kurds about the oil law to distract the Iraqi public from larger political issues.
Barzani:"Until very recently, yes indeed, it was the case to blame the Kurds for any mishaps or lack of developments, whether it was [in] the prime ministry or any particular ministry where they face obstacles or problems. And they were trying to blame the Kurds for any lack of developments, which was not the case, although things have moved on a little bit now. It has improved but until very recently that [was] the case having the Kurds as a scapegoat for every misfortune."
[Asked about the negotiations on the oil law, Barzani speaks about an agreement to start shipping Kurdish oil through the Iraqi oil pipeline to Turkey, following a visit by Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein Shahristani to Kurdistan in November]
"We have all agreed in principle in the constitution that oil and gas belongs to all Iraqi people and should be distributed equally and this 100,000 barrels can be part of this greater Iraqi oil production level in order to be distributed as per agreements we have reached."
Barzani is asked about his previous comments that Kurds have been marginalized in the Iraqi army
Barzani:"The very beginning after the new developments in post 2003, when there were efforts to reform and rebuild the Iraqi army, it seems that people were hesitant to join the army – neither the Sunnis nor the Shiite Arabs were joining the Iraqi army. The very first steps were taken by the Kurdish side. The very first three divisions were actually formed by Kurdish units and elements. Thereafter other people gradually joined in and volunteered to join the army. Like oil and other resources, the military is for all Iraqi people and there has to be a balance of all elements of Iraqi society to participate in the army. And of course the military should and must have its own regulations and [foundations] that it has been set up on.
"Under normal circumstances, it is very natural to move around officers and units of various types and elements to various parts of the country. Of course, looking at the situation in Iraq, it is not a normal situation. It is an abnormal situation at the moment. And in more recent times, we have witnessed there has been a deliberate attitude to marginalize and to oppose the Kurdish participation [in the army]. And there seems to be a unilateral move in order to create an army that would be more responsible to an individual, which is more alarming. First and foremost, the military should not be engaged in politics, Furthermore the military should not be engaged in settling internal disputes of this group and that group."
"I believe there are 16 divisions right now in the Iraqi army. Normally the heads of divisions have to be nominated and for the parliament to approve the nomination. But I challenge [to find] any single division head of the army that has been nominated and approved by the parliament. They have been approved on personal will [decrees], and of course this is something which is not tolerated. This is not an army … we were hoping to create.
"We have been very flexible and we have tolerated this because we feel that we should discuss these matters and give this [newly formed] committee a chance in order to review the situation and come up with some kind of solutions [that can] be implemented. This is why we did not want to make a big deal out of it, until a final solution has been put forward and discussed and agreed [upon]. We hope that this would lead to a balanced participation in this important military. Either that [solution] has to be implemented… or [it] would be unacceptable to go in [a] direction that would be extremely difficult for us to tolerate. This is not a problem for us only as Kurds, but I believe this is a problem for all Iraqis."
Barzani is asked about cases of the army being used for politics or to resolve internal disputes between Iraqi groups
Barzani:"One of the examples is the issue of Khanaqin. And it was on the agenda to follow the same line in other areas [of sending Iraqi troops against peshmerga forces]. Once we realized that this was the case, obviously the program was foiled.
"Very recently there was a dispute between the bodyguards of the prime minister and the security of the parliament, when the prime minister was visiting the parliament. Immediately, the military was called, the military surrounded the parliament, and actually occupied the parliament. That’s another example. This is quite a major event. What else can [we] expect."
Barzani is asked about in which other provinces had there been plans before the Khanaqin confrontation to send Iraqi troops to evict Kurdish forces.
Barzani:"Kirkuk, Mosul [provinces] as far as southern areas were concerned I’m not too sure, too aware."
Barzani is asked how Kurds in the military have been marginalized.
Barzani:"They have been either transferred to other units out of the region or they have been sent back to the ministry of defense".
Barzani is asked about whether Maliki is the individual he is referring to as the person who is trying to direct the Iraqi army alone.
Barzani:"The prime minister has been the [commander in chief] of the armed forces. That doesn’t mean the [commander in chief] of the armed forces has the authority to do whatever he likes. The office of the [commander in chief] of the armed forces is doing things all by itself and not coordinating or working with the ministry of defense or the chief of staff nor with other various departments of the armed forces.
"And of course, why should we blame the situation only on one person, of course other institutions are to be blamed, such as the presidency council, the parliament itself and the council of ministers. How can they tolerate this? I think they should have a say in this matter as well."
Barzani is asked about allegations made by Maliki at a November 20 press conference that Kurdish forces had been involved in illegal arrests and tortures?
Barzani:"First I think it was a big mistake for him to make such a statement and unfortunately he had gone against the grain of this solid traditional relationship that we had with him and his group in the past. Perhaps there are two reasons for that kind of attitude. First perhaps he may well have been misinformed by groups or individuals who were actually trying to create some kind of animosity. The second reason may well have been to attract and to gain some support of some chauvinistic elements and individuals. But adopting that position he did not calculate … who exactly he would be losing."
Barzani is asked if the two have spoken since Maliki’s press conference.
Barzani:"We have expressed our official view in the response. The letter. After that letter that was sent out to him, I have not met with him nor spoken to him. I had visited Baghdad for a couple of hours when President Bush was visiting Baghdad, but it was not for a meeting with the prime minister."
Barzani is asked about times when he backed Maliki when others wanted to force the prime minister from office.
Barzani:"You are right. It was in April 2007. When we felt there was a serious effort to remove him from his seat. We felt what was behind it, was not well intended. It was people of sinister intention with a sinister agenda, It was not for the benefit of Iraq in general and neither for the Kurds in particular. Toward the end of April 2007, the 26th or 27th of April, there was a gathering of various Iraqi groups under the auspices of various intelligence groups of regional countries, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi, Turkey and the Emirates. I think there were six countries in total, who had organized this gathering of certain Iraqi groups and the whole idea was to undermine the situation, and we were alarmed by this. This is why we fully supported [Maliki’s] position because we felt this was first and foremost against Iraq. It was a very direct and sinister intervention in Iraqi affairs though intelligence apparatuses of these countries. We felt alarmed by it and this is why we moved on it and we supported obviously the PM. We felt it was against the Iraqi people, against Iraq and against the Kurdish people. That led to this four-party coalition, which was later extended to five [a consultative body grouping Barzani, the Iraqi presidency council and Maliki]."
Barzani is asked about a plot to topple Maliki last spring during his military campaign in Basra, and if he rallied to Maliki’s side then as well.
Barzani:"When he embarked on this operation, I phoned him … I told him I fully support you in every way and if need be I can dispatch military units to help you with this operation. Indeed, we were serious in our intervention and sincerity."
Again Barzani is asked there was an effort to unseat Maliki by some groups during the Basra military campaign.
Barzani:"Indeed that was the case. There were intentions to unseat him, but the way to remove him and the [motives] behind the removal were not well intended. Still I am not for any such measures to unseat him, or to even remove any single government official or police officer from his position through the sinister efforts of regional intelligence apparatuses. I don’t support that."
Barzani is asked if he feels Maliki has forgotten what the Kurds have done for him and the way the Kurds have been a good partner for Iraq.
Barzani:"Unfortunately, he seems to have forgotten it. Not only recently but even the relations we had in the 1980s and what we had offered him then. We had very close contact and provided support for his group, the Dawa party."
Barzani is asked why Maliki has forgotten the past.
Barzani:"We want to know. It is also a surprise for us. In Arabic there is a saying that absolute authority could lead to an individual losing insight or bearing. In other words, his character would be lost in absolute authority."
Barzani is asked if he is saying this is what has happened to Maliki.
Barzani:Unfortunately, we are disappointed. This is the reality. It is a very sad reality. We are disappointed. My expectations were that even in my absence somebody like Maliki would be defending the rights of the Kurds in any gathering or platforms. I never expected that he would be opposing the rights of the Kurdish people nor he would be opposing the existence of peshmerga units or peshmergas or Kurds within the Iraqi army and he would be marginalizing them. Unfortunately, this is what is happening and we are disappointed by that. To elaborate on the earlier [point], one gets lost in absolute authority. You become too authoritarian, you lose yourself."
Barzani is asked to describe his last conversation with Maliki.
Barzani: "On a personal level he is a good close friend of mine. And in fact, when I get to see him, I tell him far more face to face rather than what I say publicly. So I’m very open and very frank with him. In the media, I try to consider his situation and not to be so rigid."
Barzani is asked to describe their recent conversations.
Barzani:"Just to conclude on that, we have this dispute. It is very clear. We have identified the areas. These committees have been formed upon agreement of all parties concerned and we are waiting for the outcome of their work. We don’t want to exacerbate the situation further. We certainly want to concentrate on the work of the committees. Hopefully they will come out with some agreements which will be amicable, pragmatic and practical."
Barzani is asked whether there is a solution for Kirkuk through the UN beyond the referendum called for in the Iraqi constitution’s article 140. The UN has advocated alternative ideas, including Iraqi political factions coming to a consensus on what areas might be annexed to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Barzani:"The reason we had agreed as the Kurdistan region to remain within the state of Iraq is so long as Iraq is in possession of such a constitution and so long as they adhere to this constitution. The disputed areas are far more important than has been given credit. It is historical issue for us and if you look at the more recent history of the Kurdish confrontations or movements against successive and various Iraqi regimes [they] were all over these disputed areas. There were aggressions against the Kurds and unfortunately there has been a lot of unfortunate and unkind treatment of the Kurds historically on this issue. Article 140 is a constitutional article and it has given a roadmap for a solution to the issue.
"We cannot afford to lose time and to come back to new proposals every day. The constitution is very clear. The constitution was voted by 80 percent or more of the Iraqi population. The constitution is a package. One cannot be selective in taking a part of it out … Therefore it should be comprehensive. There has to be efforts to fully implement the constitution. Those who oppose any article of the constitution should have opposed voting for it in the referendum [on the constitution in 2005]. Now that it has been voted for, therefore, it has to be respected. And you cannot be selective and you cannot allow individuals or groups to take a part of it out and to stand against it and to support other parts of the constitution… No alternative to article 140 would be acceptable."
Barzani is asked does this mean he thinks there has to be a referendum on the disputed territories.
Barzani:"Normalization, census and referendum. Whatever the people decide then it should be respected."
Barzani is asked about a recent comment by Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih that there were attempts to take political and social problems in Baghdad to provoke an Arab-Kurdish conflict.
Barzani:"As far as full-scale and all-out Arab-Kurdish conflict, this is impossible because we will not tolerate and we will not accept such a conflict between the two communities, the two people. Throughout our history, we have not had any animosity or any move against the Arabs as a people, and we will never do that, and the Arab people in its entirety, the majority of it have been sympathetic to us and in support of us, the dispute is with the political forces.
"But if an individual or the head of a tribe or clan tries to enter such a conflict and turn the conflict into a Kurdish-Arab conflict then he will be confronted by all people and I think he will be the loser. If he tries to drag the entire Arab population to this, I think he will fail. It has not crossed our minds to settle problems through violence. We strongly believe in the constitution, we believe in dialogue, if somebody or individual groups consider using force, then of course, we have the capabilities to stand against it…
"In the last few years almost 2,000 Kurds have been killed in Mosul. … We have not responded in the same manner and we have not reacted in any act of vengeance, but of course everything will have its limits."
Barzani is asked if he thinks Maliki can really change his behavior, via the committees set up to broker compromise.
Barzani:"I think we have discussed a lot about the prime minister so we want to go on."
Barzani is asked about a meeting in December of major political leaders in northern Iraq that some media reports described as a meeting to plot Maliki’s ouster. The gathering included Barzani, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and vice presidents Tariq Hashimi and Adel Abdul Mehdi.
Barzani:"In fact, the gathering was purely social because of the feast [the Muslim holiday Eid al Adha] that had taken place, so we gathered there. Issues of all aspects, in general issues were discussed. On the issue that you mentioned, under no circumstances, this was discussed replacing him… There was no discussion about replacing him. Discussions were only in general terms about reconciliation and political reforms that should take place and to also activate the committees that have been set up."
Barzani is asked again whether there have been any discussions at all among senior Iraqi leaders about replacing Maliki.
Barzani:"There hasn’t been any discussion on his removal at all in the meeting in Dokan [Sulaymaniya]… That was the last meeting [of Iraq’s senior political leaders] in Dokan."
Barzani is asked whether Iraqi Kurdistan will always remain part of Iraq.
Barzani:"So long as Iraq is in possession of such a constitution and adheres to such a constitution, Kurdistan will be part of Iraq."
Barzani is asked what the Kurds would do then if Iraq does not remain loyal to the constitution.
Barzani:"That’s the bridge we will have to cross when we come [to] it. Even in the preamble of the constitution, it says very clearly adherence to this constitution is a precondition to preserving the unity of Iraq. For sure, we will not accept an Iraq ruled by dictatorship."
Barzani is asked if he is optimistic about the country’s future and challenges facing the country in the coming years.
Barzani:"In our position, one always has to be optimistic. Terrorism, and secular disputes and confrontations and of course rule of the state, the culture of democracy has to be promoted and deeply rooted."