President Nechirvan Barzani attended the third day of the ‘Iraq Forum for Stability and Prosperity’ on May 4 in Baghdad. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Mr. Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, and a number of government officials, political party representatives, foreign ambassadors, diplomats, and academics from Iraq and abroad also attended the gathering.
The President also took part in a discussion panel, entitled “The Kurdistan Region; an Active Party on the National Arena”. In response to several questions, the President spoke about the latest security and political developments in Iraq, the Kurdistan Region, and the wider region, and expressed his views on how to resolve the current challenges facing the country.
The following is a readout of the Q&A discussion:
Question: You have been visiting Baghdad frequently lately. By all measures, all your visits have been successful, but there has been talk for some time, especially in meetings and discussions among political elite, that you seek to become the president of all Iraqis. In this context, how would you like to introduce yourself to the Iraqi people?
Answer: “First of all, thank you very much for this invitation. Regarding our visit to Baghdad, Baghdad is the capital of Iraq, our capital, and as a duty, according to the law of the Presidency of the Kurdistan Region, what we have is the duty to continue to try to improve the relationship between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad. As any Iraqi, I would be proud to be the president of this country, but I have come to Baghdad before, when I was the prime minister, and I have been visiting Baghdad as the President of the Kurdistan Region. We live within the framework of this country, which is called Iraq, and we come to Baghdad regularly. Being president is a great honor for me like any Iraqi, but it is not on my personal agenda for Baghdad now. Thanks God, elections have been held and we have a president, and we wish him success.”
Question: The Kurdistan Region, which you are the president of, is constantly developing. Everyone sees this difference and when you visit Baghdad and then you visit Erbil, anyone would certainly feel the difference. Your government has been working to attract foreign investment. Although you (Kurdistan Region) differ from Iraq in this regard, you agree that there is political conflict in the meantime, which is known to be serious. Kurdistan parties used to visit Baghdad in the past. You had political party conflicts in Kurdistan even then, but when you came to Baghdad, you came in unity. Why are there such divisions among Kurdish leaders today and how can these gaps be filled?
Answer: “Let me start with the development that has been done in the Kurdistan Region. Of course, compared to other parts of Iraq, we started earlier. The Iraqi regime withdrew its administration from Kurdistan in 1991, and since then we have had an administration. Of course there were ups and downs and problems, but there was a new environment when we were able to provide some services, but that does not mean that the Kurdistan Region is very different from other places. We have infrastructure issues and other big problems in Kurdistan. There is still the problem of electricity in the Kurdistan Region, and now the so-called standards of progress in the world. If you compare it with the Kurdistan Region, we still have a long way to go in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq. The problems that, unfortunately, other parts of Iraq had, the Kurdistan Region had much less of such security problems, and now we are happy to see that after a very difficult period and years, after the war against terrorists and the problems inside Iraq, now we see that all parts of Iraq are gradually moving towards prosperity. As for us in the Kurdistan Region, there is no difference among Basra, Baghdad, Sulaymaniyah, Erbil, and Duhok. We consider any progress we see anywhere in Iraq to be our own progress. We will be happy to see any good project anywhere in Iraq. When we see that people’s situation is not good, we are not happy. Of course, there are problems in the Kurdistan Region. I cannot say that we have no problems and everything is fine; there are political problems between the parties and there are political problems within the Kurdistan Region. We are doing our best to make sure that there are problems that should be solved under the umbrella of the Kurdistan Region Presidency. I have two deputies (vice presidents) in the presidency, one from the PUK and the other from the Gorran Party. We will work together to make the presidency an umbrella to bring together all differences and we will continue to play our role in resolving these issues.”
Question: Everyone will testify that you bring all parties together at the negotiating table. Two days ago, a meeting was held between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran Movement, but the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was not present. Why don’t your efforts lead to a permanent solution? At the same time, you will help Baghdad not to have to meet with two different teams. Is the Baghdad government now dealing with two different Kurdish parties with different political views and perhaps, two different approaches to Baghdad?
Answer: “First of all, Baghdad is actually dealing with the Kurdistan Region, and with the Kurdistan Regional Government, which include the PUK, KDP, Gorran, and others parties that participate in the government. Baghdad is not dealing with one party or one side, but with all of them together. Baghdad addresses the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). It is our job in the Kurdistan Region Presidency and I am sure it will make it easier for Iraq’s Prime Minister in Baghdad when the political parties can unite and understand each other. We support any steps that are in the direction of unity and agreement.”
Question: Do you think the sixth round of elections will be held in November in the Kurdistan Region?
Answer: “I have determined the date of the elections in my constitutional duty, as the President of the Kurdistan Region. I have asked all political parties in the Kurdistan Region to abide by that deadline for the elections. Of course, elections are a democratic process. Our efforts in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdistan Region Presidency (KRP) are to ensure that the elections are not postponed any longer, because it is a constitutional right, according to the Iraqi Constitution, the right of the citizens of the Kurdistan Region, and a democratic process. Elections must be held and I hope they will be held”
Question: After Mr. Mohammed Shia al-Sudani was appointed as the prime minister of the Iraqi government, you were the first to congratulate him six months ago. How do you assess the direction of his six-month-old government today?
Answer: “Actually, let me start with this. I think six months is too short to assess the performance of a government or a prime minister. Six months is too short, but let’s look at this, Mr. Prime Minister has been in office. If we talk about numbers, we see that there is a much better atmosphere between Erbil and Baghdad, and among Iraqis in general. I returned to the Kurdistan Region, they asked me what the difference was. I said, “Mr. Prime Minister, he speaks in numbers.” The prime minister may talk about politics for a while, but he focuses on how to serve the people, how to build big projects in Iraq, and how to try to attract foreign investment. What we felt was that this was a difference, and this is a big difference. But what I see is that the prime minister is trying to take Iraq to a new stage. What is different this time is that, for the first time within all Iraqi communities, together under the umbrella of state administration, we have a paper signed by all parties in the government. Does this paper also include a roadmap for how things should be done? What projects are priorities and how they should be implemented? Indeed, what we see is that, not only for the Kurdistan Region, but for the whole of Iraq, Mr. Prime Minister is making every effort to implement this program and agenda, which is a pleasure for us in the Kurdistan Region and for the whole of Iraq. Let us talk about the big projects. Let’s talk about the recent agreement with Total. This is a huge step forward for Iraq. This is a new language we are hearing in Iraq after many years. The Iraqi people deserve a better life. When I say the Iraqi people, I mean from Zakho to Faw. The language we hear in Baghdad today, the language of numbers, the language of services, the language of how to move the country forward, how to invest, how to provide services to all Iraqi citizens. This is the language that did not exist after 2003 and we are seeing it now. Thanks God, this language and these numbers have started in Iraq. For our part, within the framework of this policy, this is not a personal matter with the prime minister. We have nothing personal with the prime minister. Our issue is the government’s program and we, in the Kurdistan Region, support the program of the new Iraqi government headed by our dear brother, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, with all political forces. Our support is part of the support for the whole of Iraq. It is within the framework of the political agreement signed by all the forces together. I hope the roadmap will be implemented as it is.”
Question: There have been many disagreements between Erbil and Baghdad in the past, especially over the oil and gas law, but now, do you expect to find any fundamental solution to this issue in this government?
Answer: “I think what has not always been in Iraq has been the language of dialogue and understanding. Now the basic question is: After 2003, we have all made mistakes. It’s not that we have made no mistakes in the Kurdistan Region, or no mistakes have been made in Baghdad, but what is important is that we learn from the past and from those mistakes. What kind of Iraq do we want? Where do we want Iraq to go? Is the logic still about who is strong and who is weak in Iraq and to govern Iraq accordingly? I say it bluntly: we will all lose if Iraq is governed according to the logic of power. To succeed, all Iraqi communities must consider themselves as participants in the political process in the country, and we must bear this responsibility, our Shiite brothers must also bear it, and our Sunni brothers must also bear this responsibility. After so many years, the Iraqi people are waiting for the situation to improve, for the relations between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad to improve. What I want to say, as the Kurdistan Region President, is that our strategic depth is Baghdad. The solutions to our problems are in Baghdad, not anywhere else. What is important is to agree on a model of living together in a geography called Iraq. It is important that all Iraqi communities see themselves as participants in the political process. In this context, since 2003, we have been in a transitional period in Iraq, but I think now is the time for all Iraqi communities to think that we can not just tell the Iraqi people to give us a chance. Give us a chance for how long? We must be very open with each other, sit at the negotiating table, and try to resolve the problems that exist in Iraq, both between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad, other problems in Iraq, and move forward. Indeed, I will not hide from you that we have participated in this government with great hopes and since 2003, we have participated in the creation of a new Iraq with all our strength in order to establish this new Iraq together. I still think we have a chance, and I still think we all have to talk to each other, and we all have to participate together in how to solve the problems. But again, our vision is clear. Our vision and strategy is Baghdad. Baghdad is the strategic depth of the Kurdistan Region.”
Question: These words are very pleasant, Mr. President. Recently, an agreement was reached between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad, especially when Mr. Masrour Barzani visited Baghdad. In particular, agreements have been reached on oil after Iraq won the case to transport oil through Turkey. What is agreed upon? Is this agreement enough for Baghdad and Erbil to go to Turkey together and open an oil pipeline and export oil?
Answer: “It is really appropriate to thank the Prime Minister for his patience, for his calmness and continuous follow-up on this issue. When Prime minister Masrour Barzani visited Baghdad, a good agreement was reached. Of course, the agreement has its problems, but is there a political issue that prevents the agreement from being implemented so far? I don’t think so. There are some technical issues that need to be resolved to implement this agreement in full. But we, in the Kurdistan Region, are very sure that it is not a political issue, that is, we do not feel that there is a political decision to create problems in the implementation of this decision. God willing, with the support and administration of Mr. Prime Minister, all these issues will be implemented. I often say that two laws are very important for Iraq to reach political stability. The first is the budget law that is currently being discussed in the parliament, which I hope will be implemented. The other one is the revenue distribution law, in which, both create political stability in Iraq. It is very important that we focus on the laws that will produce political and economic stability for Iraq.”
Question: Mr. President, your relations with Turkey are very good, especially regarding the oil pipeline between you and Turkey. Are there any discussions with Turkish officials on this issue? Or is there any problem in this regard? What do they say about it?
Answer: “On this issue with Turkey, our team and Baghdad are one team. We have no separate team for this with Turkey. As I mentioned, there are some technical issues that have not been addressed yet. As for these issues, we have spoken and discussed them with Mr. Prime Minister before I came to this meeting. I am sure that these problems are not obstacles, but will be solved and implemented. We will certainly reach an understanding.”
Question: Will you agree to whatever Baghdad demands regarding the agreement?
A: “We have reached an agreement with each other. We have now held talks as a team with Baghdad, both with Turkey and even with oil companies. On the part of SOMO, the decision has been made, the agreement has been signed with the companies and some issues remain to be notified to Turkey. There are some banking problems that must be resolved and the agreement must be implemented.”
Question: You have good economic relations and strong security relations with Turkey. Have you spoken to Turkey about the recent bombings of the Kurdistan Region, especially the bombing of Sulaimani airport and the targeting of Mazlum Abdi? What is Turkey’s response when you talk about these aggressions against the Kurdistan Region?
Answer: “One has to be realistic on this issue. The reality is that Turkey has some security issues that Iraq needs to take seriously. The truth is, there are security problems. When we talk about the bombings, we must also talk about the reasons. Why is this being done? What’s the reason? There is the issue of Iraqi sovereignty. What is being done (the bombings), in the Kurdistan Region, are related to sovereignty issues, and generally related to Iraqi sovereignty. However, we must remove the reasons that cause these bombings. In other words, Turkey as a country has the right to expect from Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, as part of Iraq, that an armed group in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region can not go to Turkey to carry out military activities and return to the Kurdistan Region. This is also true for Iran. As for Iran, it is unreasonable for us in the Kurdistan Region or Iraq to become a threat to our neighbors. Unfortunately, what is being done (the bombings) now is for these reasons. If the PKK is not on the borders, why should Turkey bomb certain places (inside Iraq)? Then wherever it is, if Iran does certain actions, if there are no opposition military forces in certain parts of the Kurdistan Region, then Iran will not bomb. If they bomb anyway, then we can deal with them differently. So, the first thing we have to do is to address the reasons that cause Turkey and Iran to attack the Kurdistan Region. I know that Mr. Prime Minister has been very serious about this issue with both Iran and Turkey. We are also always in contact together, and we have made good progress so far. What is important is that we want to continue to be a cause of stability in the region. We don’t want to cause problems for our neighbors. We want to have the best relations with Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Obviously, not as the Kurdistan Region, because this is the policy of Iraq, and the Kurdistan Region as part of Iraq, we will adhere to this policy.”
Question: Your relationship with the United States is good. US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf met with Mohammed Shia al-Sudani and then met with you. Is improving US-Baghdad relations within the framework of regional competition? Do you see this as a positive development in terms of the region’s relations with the United States?
Answer: “In fact, we do not view the relationship between the Kurdistan Region and the United States differently from the US relationship with Iraq. If we look at these stations, we see that the United States has helped Iraq. In 2003, the regime would not have collapsed without US support. Although all Iraqi opposition forces gathered in Tehran, the main support for the overthrow of the regime was the United States. When ISIS came, the United States was a major country that helped Iraq. The United States has also helped the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. What we, I mean Iraq, and the United States have in common is a strategic agreement signed between Iraq and the United States. The Kurdistan Region will look at its relations with the United States within the framework of this strategic agreement. In my opinion, when Iraq looks at this agreement, it sees only the military and security aspects. Indeed, this agreement is a very important agreement and Iraq can benefit greatly from this agreement both economically and culturally, and it is a great opportunity for Iraq to improve its relations with the United States. It is no secret that Iraq’s relationship with the United States, in general, is a strategic relationship. We, as part of Iraq, thank the United States for all its support and assistance in all aspects, both militarily and politically.”
Question: When a new US president takes office, there is generally a change in his relations in the region. Is this happening for the Kurdistan Region? That is, when the new president of the United States takes office, whether he is a Democrat or a Republican, will this bring change in terms of support and relations, especially in the fight against ISIS and arming and logistical support for the Peshmerga?
Answer: “The US has provided all assistance to the Kurdistan Region, in accordance with the military agreement it has signed with Iraq. That means we haven’t received anything outside known agreements. The US military aid to the Kurdistan Region came first to Baghdad and from Baghdad to the Kurdistan Region. That is, as the Kurdistan Region, we have not received anything from the United States outside the agreements that are known to Baghdad, and it has been clear that the aid was for the fight against ISIS. The reception we receive in Washington in general, may be relatively sometimes warm and sometimes cold, whether Republicans or Democrats, but in general, the US institutions really support Iraq and want to support Iraq in every way. Again, in my experience, the strategic agreement between Iraq and the United States is a great opportunity for Iraq to benefit from it in every way.”
Q: You are in Baghdad. Are there any Iraqi politicians and personalities who are close to you, as friends?
Answer: “I think I am close to most Iraqi politicians. I have known some of them for, perhaps, thirty years or more. Yes, we are friends and we are trying to improve this relationship day by day. For example, the relationship we have with the Prime Minister has enabled me to coordinate with him before I travel anywhere and represent Iraq wherever I go. That is, we have a lot of cooperation and coordination with the current government and the prime minister and we will continue to do so. We have a language of dialogue, understanding, friendship and brotherhood with all Iraqi political forces. God willing, this relationship and friendship will continue for the benefit of the whole of Iraq.”
Question: Before the government was formed, you visited Baghdad and visited Hanana. Do you have any contact with them?
Answer: “No, unfortunately, I do not. The last time we met with Sayyid (Muqtada Sadr) and went to see him in Hanana, he was very kind, but after that, as everyone knows, he decided to withdraw from parliament. We have great respect for Sayyid, wherever he is, and we have great respect for this esteemed family and we believe that, wherever he is, Sayyed Muqtada and the Sadr movement have great standing. We hope he will support the government and the prime minister so that he can succeed in his mission. After meeting a delegation of Sadrists, our message was to ask them to support the current government to succeed in its work.”
Then, in response to a question from a Reuters reporter about the agreement to export oil from the Kurdistan Region, the President said:
President Nechirvan Barzani: “As I said earlier, there is no political decision not to implement the agreement. As for Iraq, there are some technical issues that need to be resolved. I hope they will be resolved in less than two weeks. Because today, Mr. Prime Minister mentioned a very important issue in our meeting. He mentioned that, overall, we as Iraq are losing, and because of that, about 450,000 barrels a day, which was a source of income, has now decreased. Therefore, we must resolve these issues as soon as possible and resume the process in order to put these 450,000 barrels, which belong to Kirkuk and the Kurdistan Region, into the pipeline and export abroad. In other words, this issue is not only related to the Kurdistan Region, but also to the whole of Iraq. If this issue is resolved, then it will benefit the whole of Iraq. To be frank, the Kurdistan Region has not sent oil for over a month. The essential question is: How will the Kurdistan Region’s employees receive their salaries? This is Baghdad’s duty. It must fulfill this duty. As Iraqi citizens, Baghdad must do it for them. The sooner this problem is resolved, the less burden it will be on Baghdad, but if it continues, it is a legal and constitutional right that Baghdad must provide the salaries of the Kurdistan Region. Therefore, I hope that this issue will be resolved as soon as possible, not in two weeks.”
ANP reporter’s question:
After the oil agreement between Baghdad and Erbil, can we say that the relations between Baghdad and Erbil have improved? What are the terms within the agreement? What are the factors that are hindering? How can you work with Baghdad, especially as the Turkish and Iranian bombings targeting the Kurdistan Region?
President Nechirvan: “I think I answered some of these issues during my speech, but in short, I can say yes, relations between the Kurdistan Region and Iraq are at their best and what is different from the previous time is that we have a written agreement with Baghdad. This agreement is an agreement signed by all the parties that formed our government. As for Turkey, the issue is sovereignty and in my opinion, the Iraqi prime minister has looked at this issue as an issue of sovereignty and has done what was necessary and possible within this framework.”
In response to a question from a BBC reporter about the relations between the Kurdistan Region and the Islamic Republic of Iran, President Nechirvan Barzani said:
President Nechirvan Barzani: “Firstly, Iran is an important neighbor for Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. Iran has been a country that has consistently helped the Kurdistan Region at many stages, from receiving and sheltering Kurdish refugees in its territory to the fight against ISIS, and we will never forget that. The Kurdistan Region has always wanted to have good relations with Iran within the framework of Iraqi policy. For your information, except for gas and other items, the volume of trade between Iraq and Iran is about ten to eleven billion dollars, more than 60 to 70% of which is done from the Kurdistan Region. In addition to the historical and cultural ties we have with Iran.
“Secondly, we will not help any country against Iran, neither Israel, nor any other country that wants to use the Kurdistan Region against Iran. We don’t have such agendas. Recently, on the decision of the prime minister, I had a meeting with the Iranian delegation in Baghdad and told them: we are ready to sit down and if there is any evidence that the Kurdistan Region is helping any party against Iran, we are ready to talk. Recently, an agreement was signed with Iran on the decision of the prime minister, and the Kurdistan Region as a party within Iraq, is committed to this agreement. The security of Iran and Turkey is important to us as two neighbors and I can assure you that in terms of foreign policy, our steps are in accordance with the policy that exists in Baghdad. Baghdad’s policy is not to have relations with Israel, and the Kurdistan Region is committed to that policy and we will not allow the Kurdistan Region to become a source of threat to our neighbors.”
In response to the last question about the absence of the PUK team in the meetings of the Council of Ministers, President Nechirvan Barzani said:
“To be frank, I don’t think the exit of the PUK team from the government was the right step. The PUK is the main participant in the government. It is the main participant in the formation of this government. We have taken great steps together with the PUK since reconciliation. There have been problems, but we have also made great strides. The late Mam Jalal and President Masoud Barzani have taken very important steps together. By leaving the government and not attending the meetings, the PUK has not really served the PUK or the Kurdistan Region. Because when you are one of the main participants in the government, you can have your say in the government. If there are problems, you can find solutions within the government. Now if you ask me, I would say yes. I have asked them to return, and the KRG prime minister has asked them to do so. I still say that the place to solve the problems is in the Council of Ministers. I ask Baghdad to help us to resolve this issue as soon as possible, and have them return to the government. If they have anything to say, let them say it in the council. I would like the Iraqi Prime Minister to help us to resolve this issue, because this problem is neither in the interest of the PUK, nor in the interest of Kurdistan, nor in the interest of Iraq.”