The president of Iraq's Kurdistan Region tells FP why, despite obstacles at home and abroad, he's determined to hold a referendum on independence later this year.
- By Campbell MacDiarmidCampbell MacDiarmid is an Erbil-based freelance journalist covering conflict, international law, and humanitarian issues.
Earlier this month, Foreign Policy sat down with the leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, President Masoud Barzani. A transcript of the conversation follows. (FP‘s article about Barzani can be found here.)
FP: The date for a referendum [on Kurdish independence] has been set, and I’ve read reports that you have spoken with [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Haider] Al-Abadi since then. What was his reaction to your announcement?
MB: It’s true but we have also discussed this issue previously. I called his excellency Prime Minster Abadi on this specific issue and I explained to him that this referendum is a normal, legal right of our people, and that afterwards we want negotiate the results of the referendum in a peaceful way through dialogue. He had an understanding of that. We told him that we want to solve this issue with Baghdad through peace and not through violence. He was receptive and understanding. He was positive.
FP: You mentioned that any move towards independence would be done in a framework of negotiations with Baghdad. In those negotiations, would you settle for anything less than full sovereignty?
MB: The referendum is for independence. That question will be asked to the people and the people will decide.
FP: This referendum is taking place without a framework in place to trigger any response, either within the Kurdish political system or beyond. Can you tell me what the effect of this referendum will be?
MB: The referendum issue is about the destiny of a whole people. That’s why this issue is bigger than any other political framework, or any political parties, or any political problems within the party system. I’m sure that the majority of the people in Kurdistan are with the referendum. The supporters of the political parties, the majority of them are also pro-referendum. We had a very positive meeting with all the political parties, and they were all supporting it.
FP: You speak of the aspirations of the Kurdish people for independence. But is there a risk that by holding this referendum without a formal process to bring independence into effect, you are [needlessly] raising those expectations?
MB: When we have a referendum, it is to have that mandate from the people, to show to the domestic and to the external players what the Kurdish people want. Once the people decide and vote, then as I said, the first place we are going to start serious, peaceful negotiations and dialogue with is with Baghdad, to achieve and fulfill the wishes of the people.
The referendum is for independence, and I want the others to understand this: Once we do the referendum and start dialogue, it doesn’t mean that we give up on the wishes of the people. So the referendum is for independence and its result must be implemented.
FP: In 2005, there was a referendum in which an overwhelming majority, something like 98 percent, voted in favor of independence. That vote didn’t result in independence for Kurdistan. I’d like you to explain why this time this vote will be different.
MB: The referendum in 2005 was arranged and campaigned for by civil society organizations. This one is formal and held by the government and political parties. This one is binding and the other was not.
FP: Have you had assistance by international law experts on how you can structure this one to have greater effect this time?
MB: For years we have been working with some international experts, international law experts, political experts, to help us structure this one. Definitely they have supported us and they have helped us a lot.
FP: If you’ve been talking with them for years, why is the referendum being held now?
MB: A long time ago I reached this conclusion that it was necessary to hold a referendum and let our people decide, and for a long time I have held the belief that Baghdad is not accepting real, meaningful partnership with us. We don’t want to accept being their subordinate. This is in order to prevent a bigger problem, to prevent a bloody war, and the deterioration of the security of the whole region.
That’s why we want to have this referendum — to ask our people what they want. This will help us prevent any possible future instability or bloody fighting that will follow if the situation continues. You know what the security situation in this area is like. When the people decide in this referendum, we expect all the other parties to respect the wishes and peaceful democratic decisions of the people of Kurdistan.
To answer your question why now, previously also at many stages we wanted to hold it. But because of the overall situation, the context in the area, because of other developments, we have been postponing it. But if we postpone this longer it’s not going to beneficial to our people, it will have a negative impact on the destiny of our people. So that’s why the timing right now is the best for holding this referendum.
FP: Critics might say that the Kurdistan Regional Government is currently operating on the breadline economically. It’s able to pay some salaries, but that’s about all – there’s low investor confidence, there’s domestic criticism of the referendum being held before the reformation of parliament, and your presidential term expired two years ago. So why is a referendum a higher priority than all of these things?
MB: If we wait for the ideal situation to have a solution to every single problem, that’s not going to happen. We want to have this referendum to have independence, and that will help us to solve many of the problems automatically.
If you look at case studies of other countries [which have pursued independence], they all faced their own internal issues. They didn’t wait for solutions to all these internal issues and differences they had. We’re not going to wait for solutions to every single problem before we decide. This is bigger than those problems and bigger than those issues. We’ll do it and then we’ll solve those other issues later.
FP: If I could come back to what this referendum will give the Kurds, in terms of a tool. Publicly at least, a number of powers have already started delegitimizing this referendum before it takes place. The Americans have said they are opposed to it, Turkey has come out quite vocally – at least in public – calling it “irresponsible” and “a grave mistake.” So what leverage does this referendum give you that you don’t already have?
MB: We have worked a lot to keep the unity of Iraq. I can categorize our relationship with Baghdad into two major phases. The first one started with the creation of Iraq after the first World War and lasted until 2003. The second phase in the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil began then and lasted until now.
In the first stage, from 1920 until 2003, what was the share of the Kurds in the governance of Iraq? The Anfal campaign, chemical bombardment, the destruction of our villages, the mass graves, genocide — that was the lot of the Kurds from this time in its relations with Baghdad.
Post-2003, what was the share of the Kurds? They cut the budget of Kurdistan and they have not abided by the Iraqi constitution. So our question for international players like the United States and others is: What else should we do?
We have worked very hard to have a constitution in Iraq that can be a guarantor for the rights of duties of all of us. We voted for that constitution. But it was stipulated in the prelude of the constitution that the unity of Iraq is bound by the implementation of the constitution. So my question to them is: Has the Iraqi constitution been implemented? Of course not.
So that’s why from the point of view and reactions of the international players, none of them said they are against the referendum. They are saying that maybe this is not a good time, or it may create problems, and I have my differences with them on these two points. It’s not going to add to the problems. If this referendum doesn’t happen, it will lead to more destabilization in the relationship, it will lead to more instability in the region. We want to have this referendum in order to prevent instability.
If these international players are against this referendum, that means that they are against their own values and principles – the peaceful, democratic right of people to express their own decisions about their destiny. If they stand against the referendum, it means that they are against democracy.
FP: Be that as it may, they have their own views and your economy is such that you are dependent on your neighbors. Do you have a plan for winning over your neighbors, like Turkey? We saw recently what happened in Qatar when its neighbors isolated it — 10 days later, Iran is flying in food. Do you have a plan for how you will win over your allies or how you will continue if you are isolated?
MB: Unfortunately now, interests have the upper hand over values, morals, and humanity in these relationships.
For example, the issue of Qatar that you mentioned, they were accusing them of sponsoring terror, now you see how they get support. This issue is different. One of the reasons given for isolating Qatar is that they are sponsoring terror. But for us, we broke the myth of terror. We gave blood to break the myth of terror and defeat terror.
Here is an important opportunity to make this statement to you and the world: We would prefer to die of starvation than to live under the oppression and occupation of others. If this decision is made by referendum and the reaction is to isolate us, let our people die. That will be a “glory” for the world that they have killed our people by starvation just because those people wanted to express their destiny through democratic means.
FP: Do you think people would accept isolation again? Society here has changed so much since the 1990s: You’ve connected the Kurds to the world, you’ve built international airports, you’ve raised their standard of living, you’ve built them shopping malls. Do you think they would be willing to suffer under the conditions that you suffered under during the 1990s?
We have taken everything into consideration. This is about the will of the people, the people’s vote, the people’s voice. The people understand very well what they are going to decide. Maybe the people will decide that they are not voting for the independence of Kurdistan, then it will not be our historical responsibility. But when people decide yes, it means that people are ready to go for it and accept every risk.
You mentioned the airport. Even now, the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority – because they don’t believe in federalism or sharing the airspace – when a plane comes from Europe, or any other country, they can prevent them from landing. What kind of a state, what kind of authority is that to have that kind of power?
FP: If I’ve understood correctly, this referendum will be held and you’ll treat this as a mandate to take to Baghdad to commence negotiations for secession. How realistic do you think it is that a parliament in Baghdad would sign off on a deal to approve a fundamental change to its relationship with the Kurdistan Region?
MB: We will start negotiations with them, but it’s their own problem whether to reach an agreement or not. But we will continue our cooperation on counter-terrorism. We will continue cooperating with Baghdad by all means in this regard. We will increase the coordination between the Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army. We will do whatever is necessary to support Prime Minster Abadi to make him successful in his premiership.
FP: What will your approach be if you cannot convince him to reach an agreement with you on independence?
MB: It’s too early to say that. We have not yet done the referendum, we have not yet started negotiations. It’s not my personal, individual decision. We have our people, there are other political parties and leaders we have to consult. It’s not my decision alone.
FP: But are you worried that Baghdad could try and turn the screws again, like it did in 2014 when the issue of independent export of oil arose?
What haven’t they already done? They have done everything. They have cut the budget, meaning they have taken the bread from our people. We receive nothing from Baghdad. Maybe they only thing they can do is close the airspace. If they do those kind of things, there will also be a reaction. We will not stand with our hands tied. We really want to pursue peaceful means, negotiation, and understanding. We want to avoid bloodshed and violence. Then we’ll see, if they take other actions, definitely we will have our own reactions.
FP: What sort of reactions?
MB: I think that’s enough on that.
FP: This referendum, do you think it will set a precedent for self-determination for other minorities in Iraq?
MB: The other minorities in Iraq, we are with them, whatever road they choose in pursuing their destinies. If they want to be in the Kurdistan Region, if they want to have relations with Baghdad, if they want to choose some other way, so be it.
FP: You have the ability now in the territories you control to implement Article 140 of the constitution [allowing people in the disputed territories to vote on joining the Kurdistan Region or federal Iraq]. Will people in the disputed territories be asked – in addition to whether Kurdistan should be independent – whether they want to be part of Kurdistan?
MB: Definitely, there will be the same questions in these areas.
FP: So when the referendum takes place, people in disputed territories will be able to say whether or not they want to be part of Kurdistan?
MB: No. That will not be the question. They have the option not to vote. If they need another referendum, then maybe after that.
For example, some Arabs, Turkmen and Christians, if they don’t want to be part of it, their destiny should be decided by themselves in another referendum.
FP: But why not ask them whether they want to be [part of Kurdistan]?
MB: This is a technical issue. We have a referendum committee and the election commission, it’s up to them. There will be one question in the referendum.
FP: Can I ask you about the Popular Mobilization Units? There’s talk currently of a [putative] Shi’a corridor through Iraq and Syria. We’ve seen PMUs taking big parts of Ninewa, areas around Sinjar. How do you view this and the intentions of the PMUs? How are these developments affecting the Kurds?
MB: We don’t look at them as one package. There are two types of Popular Mobilization Units. Part of them are those who really made heavy sacrifices fighting ISIS. They gave blood, and we have a lot of appreciation for those sacrifices of those PMU who fought ISIS. There are also elements who are using the PMU as a cover for committing a lot of wrongdoings.
It’s the duty of the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police to stabilize and secure the border areas. If PMU insist on staying an in that area and exercising governance, definitely it’s going to create a lot of problems.
FP: What is your view of the PMU around Sinjar?
MB: The presence of the PMUs south of Sinjar was a big violation of an agreement we made with the Americans and the Iraqis. We had agreed that a unit of the Peshmerga forces, with a unit of the Iraqi army, would be deployed in that area where the PMU is now. For a long time that area has been cleared, but it needed the presence of a force. But the Iraqi army’s pretext was that they were much too busy with Mosul operations, that’s why the PMU didn’t abide by that agreement and they created a presence in that area.
I repeat myself: If the PMU is going to stay in that area and exercise governance, they are going to create a lot of problems.
As far as the fight against ISIS is concerned, whoever fights ISIS is our ally. But, in the future, it must be for the people of an area to decide their own destiny, and for the elected provincial councils, district and subdistrict councils to practice governance in these areas. They should have their own local police in these areas to protect their own. There must be no room for either PMU or any other forces to remain in that area.
FP: Should the Yezidi people in the Sinjar area have the ability to decide their relationship with these actors?
MB: The Yezidis must be free to decide how they want to act with these players. Because we gave our blood of our Peshmerga to give them this freedom to decide on their own destiny. Not only the Yezidis, but all people in these areas must be free to choose what they want and who they support.
FP: This is coming back to the question of the disputed territories. You said this won’t be a separate part of any referendum [in those areas]. What mechanism can they use to pursue their self-determination then?
MB: If they don’t want to be part of the Kurdistan Region, that means they want to be with Baghdad, that’s the mechanism. In these areas, if they say no in the referendum, that means they want to stay with Baghdad and we don’t have any problem with that.
FP: So you wouldn’t be opposed if some of these groups organized their own referendum and said, ‘We don’t want to be part of Kurdistan’?
MB: Definitely. If the people of these areas want to organize and the majority say, ‘We don’t want to be with Kurdistan,’ we have full respect for the decision of that people in that area.
FP: You have elections scheduled for later in the year after the referendum. What will your position be? Will you be standing down?
MB: I will not stand for election.
FP: How important is Kurdish independence to your legacy?
MB: I was born for the independence of Kurdistan. When I was born, my father and our family had left the Barzan area to go to the Mahabad region of Iran to support the first republic of Kurdistan. I was born there. I took arms when I was 16 years old. Imagine what this means for my legacy, all of my life has been for the independence of Kurdistan.
For the first time in Kurdish history, the first republic was the republic of Kurdistan in Mahabad. When they raised the Kurdish flag, I was born in the shadow of that flag. I want to die in the shadow of the that flag of an independent Kurdistan.
FP: So your legacy is inextricably linked to achieving Kurdish independence?
MB: Whatever I have done, it has been for the independence of Kurdistan.
FP: As you said, you were born in a Kurdish republic, you spent your life fighting for Kurdish independence, how likely do you think it is now that you will die in a Kurdish republic?
MB: I will be pleased when I die, to die in an independent Kurdistan.
FP: Do you think this will happen?
MB: We are trying our best for this independent Kurdistan. All of these steps are for an independent Kurdistan.
But this is important: We are against violent means. We want to do it through peaceful negotiations and dialogue. Mutual understanding and mutual benefit. We will continue and we will further increase the cooperation and coordination with Prime Minster Abadi between the Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi army against terrorism. We will cooperate more on counter-terrorism.
My plea to the free world is to not stand against their own values and principles by standing against the self-determination and peaceful democratic rights of our nation.
For those who are saying that if this happens it will increase instability in the region, I say, on the contrary, what we want to do is prevent further instability and bloodshed in the region.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Translation provided by the president’s senior advisor, Hemin Hawrami.
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images