By Amar C. Bakshi, CNN
This week I sat down with the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, Barham Salih. Salih has spent his life fighting for Kurdish rights, particularly Iraqi Kurds who suffered brutally under Saddam Hussein. Salih himself was jailed and tortured by Saddam’s henchmen.
The Kurdish people have a long and tormented history. They are one of the largest ethnic groups without a state. After World War I, when great powers carved up the Middle East into nation states, the Kurds, riven by internal strife at the time, did not get a seat at the table. In turn, they did not get a state on the map. Numbering around 30 million today, the Kurds are spread across Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran.
Wary of their aspirations for statehood, authoritarian leaders in the region have cracked down on the Kurds for decades. The most brutal acts of suppression occurred in the late 1980s in Iraq in what is known as the Al-Anfal Campaign. Saddam Hussein systematically killed Kurds, even deploying chemical weapons against them.
After the first Gulf War, the United States and its allies, Turkey and the UK, imposed a no-fly-zone over Iraqi Kurdistan to prevent Saddam from further attacks. This gave Iraqi Kurds a break, and their first experience of self-government. In the 1990s, the Kurds administered their own de facto government, which was officially christened the Kurdistan Region of Iraq after the Iraq War. Since the fall of Saddam in 2003, the region has proven remarkably peaceful and economically vibrant.
With America withdrawing its troops from Iraq this year, now is a pivotal moment for Iraqi Kurdistan. Salih is worried Iran may provoke tensions among Iraq’s ethnic groups to gain greater leverage over the country. Despite the risk of renewed violence in Iraq and the toll of eight years of war, Salih believes the Iraq War was worth it, preferring the “uncertainty of politics and power struggles” to the “certainty of terror” under Saddam.
Salih emphasizes Iraqi Kurdistan’s improving relations with its neighbor, Turkey. He notes that Turkey is investing heavily in Iraqi Kurdistan, despite tension over Turkish incursions into northern Iraq to kill members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is a militant Kurdish nationalist outfit operating in Turkey - designated a terrorist group by the U.S., NATO and the European Union - which has carried out terror attacks against Turkish targets.
Salih will not call for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to step down because he does not “want to interfere in the domestic affairs of Syria,” but he insists that Kurds are playing an important role in pushing for reform in Syria.
He acknowledges that Iraqi Kurdistan has its own troubles to deal with – corruption, violence and press intimidation. Salih admits, “We need to do better.”
A video excerpt of highlights is above, and the full transcript is below. Thank you again for submitting questions for Salih earlier in the week
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On the importance of Iraqi Kurdistan to America
Amar C. Bakshi: Now you're in DC and you have spent a decade here before in another capacity. So you know the highest echelons of the U.S. government. What is it you're trying to achieve through your visit here?
Prime Minister Barham Salih: I come to the United States at a time of great change and upheaval in the Middle East. It is a pivotal moment in the history of the region. We have the issue of the American withdrawal from Iraq by the end of the year.
This is the moment to come to the United States, the world's preeminent power, to speak directly to policymakers here, to people on the Hill, explaining to them the complexities of Iraqi politics, the aspirations of the Kurdish people, the consensus that we have about these new dynamics and also to listen to what people have to say here, and, hopefully, promote what I believe is vital for the region - continued U.S. engagement with Iraq, with Kurdistan, and continued U.S. support for promoting a more peaceful and more democratic Middle East.
We'll dig into these things, but how would you, speaking to a broad American audience, characterize the importance of Iraqi Kurdistan to Americans?
It probably is not that easy, because people tend to look at Iraq as one country and a uniform situation. Not many people have visited Kurdistan from here. And, also, probably, the international attention has not been on Kurdistan as a success story compared to, unfortunately, the problems that we have in the south with the security and some other political dynamics that exist there. So people need to know more about Kurdistan. Kurdistan, in my opinion, from what I see, from my experience, is a vibrant model, is a developing situation. We are trying to establish a functional democracy and moving ahead in that direction.
We have a vibrant economy. We have a growth rate of about 8 to 10 percent. We are unique; our own economic and political situation is unique within the overall Iraqi context. At the same time we part of Iraq; we are a gateway to the rest of the Iraqi market. And we believe, also, that we are promoting or setting the precedent of a different relationship between a Muslim nation and the Western world. We believe our interests are very much tied with the rest of the world.
On the consequences of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq
You've said on numerous occasions that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq would be utterly disastrous. Right now, U.S. troops are stationed at some of the pivotal points which divide Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. Do you see violence erupting? How worried are you about stability and prosperity?
Let's put things in context. We, as Kurdistan, came out definitively on the side of the debate saying that there should be a residual force staying behind. But we are a part of Iraq. And, at the end of the day, this was a decision arrived at by the Iraqi government and the United States government. Most of our Iraqi political leadership chose to opt for a decision to abide by the agreement that was signed in 2008, the agreement that, at the time, was titled, 'The agreement to withdraw American troops by the end of 2011.'
We are where we are now. This is a new dynamic. The Iraqi political leadership, including Kurdistan's [leadership], needs to understand the new dynamics that we are entering. The onus of responsibility will be more on us now than ever before. We have to work very hard to ensure that the political and security vacuum that will be left by American forces will be filled by the free will of the Iraqi people and by the Iraqi political leadership coming together.
This is not easy at a time when the country is still experiencing serious tensions and serious problems. It is not easy at a time when the region around us is going through so much upheaval. So these will be tough times ahead of us. But as I said, at the end of the day, it is up to us, the people of that region and the leadership of Iraq, to really get its act together and do better.
On Iranian interference in Iraq
Are you worried about Iran filling the vacuum left by the U.S.?
I have to be worried. We live in a tough, tough neighborhood. And I think there is everything in flux in the Middle East, whether it is Iran, Turkey, the Arab world. And Iraq is a pivotal state. Iraq has been, traditionally, historically, for millennia, as a matter of fact, the deciding factor for regional balances. So I'm sure every regional player is eyeing the new dynamics in Iraq and we do want to make sure that it would come out to its own advantage.
We want good relations with Iran. Iran is an important neighbor of ours. But by the same token, I would say to Iran and say to other neighbors of Iraq, “You should invest in the free will of the Iraqi people. Domination, interference in domestic affairs won't do, but this will only be sowing the seeds for more trouble and more conflict and more tensions.”
For so long, these countries have benefited - or thought they've benefited, by playing off proxy battles within Iraq. How do you convince them that now is the time to invest in a stable Iraq, as opposed to playing their proxy clients?
There are two things that we need to understand. First and foremost, we need to tell all of our neighbors this consistent message: “You were all victims of Saddam Hussein. Saddam's Iraq was a problem not only for the Iraqi people, but also a problem for the entire region. Now we have an opportunity to building an Iraq that is at peace with itself and at peace with its neighbors. So this is the right policy. We have tried the previous mode of policies and it was utterly disastrous for Iraq and for the neighborhood.”
But, by the same token, as well, the more important thing that can be done is by the Iraqis themselves coming together and safeguarding their sovereignty and not allowing [themselves] to be played against each other by outside powers. This is the only way. We cannot blame others for our problems. We have to live up to the challenge and stand up to the task.
On whether the Iraq War was worth it
Kurds were largely supportive of the U.S. intervention in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein.
Not just the Kurds. I think, I daresay, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis supported the liberation of Iraq, because the overwhelming majority of Iraqis suffered under Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, devastated Iraq, and killed thousands upon thousands of people. And people saw in liberation an opportunity. Surely, people have had misgivings about an outside force coming in and taking on a government in the country. But in reality, people were happy to see Saddam gone and wanted to chart a different course for their country.
Was it worth it, eight years of war later?
No doubt about it, from my perspective. I cannot speak for Americans. And I know this issue of the war is a very difficult issue for Americans. Going to war is never an easy option. War is never a good option, by the way.
But in the case of Iraq, it was the only option to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein committed genocide. Saddam Hussein, as far as Kurdistan is concerned, destroyed 4,500 villages, killed nearly 82,000 people in the Anfal campaign of genocide.
He used chemical weapons, pursued ethnic cleansing, and killed thousands upon thousands of other Iraqis. Iraq committed aggression against its neighbors. Iraq was a problem for the region and for the international community as a whole.
Yes, I do believe the world is a better place and Iraq is a better place without Saddam Hussein. This is not to say that eight years on, we live in a utopia or in a paradise. No. Iraq still has a lot of problems.
But the difference between now and then, under Saddam Hussein, we had the certainty of terror. Now, we have the uncertainty of politics and power struggles and all kinds of things that you and I talk about now.
On a Kurdish state
Now, for many decades now, the Kurdish people have aspired toward a state. Does that aspiration remain?
Every Kurd, deep down, in his heart, wants a Kurdish state. I was at the United Nations last week and going there and seeing every nationality there, every flag. I cannot tell you that I did not think, “When will be the day that Kurdistan's flag will be flying at the United Nations?”
This should be understandable. The Kurds are the largest ethnic community in the world that has no state of its own - 30, 40 million Kurds.
And so the desire is there. The dream is there. But we are realists. We live in that region. We live in that part of the world. In this case of Iraq, we have opted, deliberately, for a vision of a democratic federal Iraq, an Iraq that will accord the Kurds self-government and for us to be part of a larger polity, of a larger country, of a larger market and try to build a functioning democracy in that country that will assure our rights and will ensure that there would not be a repeat of the genocide and a repeat of the chemical attacks and so on.
I think most Kurds are content with that, not that this will be the ideal dream. No. But this is something workable. And ironically, it's also very important to note, on the eve of the war many people speculated that the Kurds will be the divisive factor for Iraq, that the Kurds will be posing the threat to territorial integrity of Iraq. But looking back on the history of the last eight years, in the context of all the events that happened, probably the Kurds were the most committed to the notion of a united, democratic, federal Iraq.
And the Kurdish role has been far more responsible than many of my other political compatriots, who are engaged in a power struggle in Baghdad, because we genuinely have opted for this solution, working within Iraq.
And I believe if Kurdistan were to cede away, it will not be because of the Kurds going it that way. It will be because of the failure of the political system in Baghdad and the violation of the constitution that is supposed to be bringing us together.
On the status of Kirkuk
For a long time, the status of Kirkuk has remained unresolved. How long can that go on?
Kirkuk's status is an important issue for Iraq and it is not a Kurdish problem. It is an Iraqi problem, because we have to remember that Kirkuk was the scene of a vile policy of ethnic cleansing. Thousands and thousands of Kurds and Turkmens were deported, replaced by Arab settlers that Saddam Hussein brought in as a way of changing the demographic characteristics.
Ethnic cleansing cannot stand. Sometimes the Kirkuk debate is portrayed as if it is a solely Kurdish issue. I assert to my colleagues in Baghdad whenever I go and talk about this issue, this is an Iraqi issue. This is a test. This is a challenge for the new Iraqi state.
Are we serious about changing the direction of the country from what Saddam Hussein wanted to do or not? This is a moral responsibility. This is a constitutional responsibility. And I daresay, also, an important requirement for political stability.
This has gone on for too long. I was in Baghdad about a week ago or so. I met with Prime Minister Maliki and other colleagues in the government. We have agreed on a set of measures to expedite the implementation of Article 140, consistent with the constitution and the wishes of the various communities in Kirkuk and the region. We do not want to impose a Kurdish solution on Kirkuk. This will not work. There has to be an Iraqi solution. And the Iraqi solution is through the constitution, implementing that provision, but also fundamentally is about bringing justice and eliminating the legacies of that vile policy of ethnic cleansing.
I hope, from what I have heard in Baghdad, that we will be soon moving, starting an important process of some parliamentary laws that needs to be passed, some other administrative decisions that the government of Iraq will have to undertake in order to start this process going and with a settlement of this dispute.
On Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)
Let's switch gears to Turkey, an important regional neighbor that, over the past few months, and be it years, has intervened in Northern Iraq to go after Kurdish nationalist forces that have used terror to kill Turkish soldiers and numerous civilians. Now, is the Kurdistan Regional Government cooperating with Turkey in its interventions into Northern Iraq?
This is an important point. Years back, people thought that Turkey and the Kurds will always be locked in a state of war and conflict. In fact, our relations have improved tremendously with the Turks. Turkish investment and economic activity in Iraqi Kurdistan is the largest in a variety of fields. Turkish companies have built airports in Kurdistan. Who would have thought, a decade ago, that Turkish companies would come to Kurdistan and build airports? Many in Turkey at the time would have thought that this was a direct threat to the security of Turkey.
So the dynamics are changing. But we do have the issue of the cross-border security. We insist to our neighbors in Turkey that there is no military solution. Unilateral military solutions will not do. We have a mechanism, Iraqi, Turkish, including Kurdistan's authorities, to collaborate on enhancing security along the borders. The Americans were also involved in this. This worked for a while, as a matter of fact. And this needs to be revisited.
My point of view and from the history that we have, from the experience that we have, unilateral military action won't do. And at the end of the day, while we denounce what these cross-border attacks have done, we have spoken very clearly. We told the PKK this is unacceptable - the use of our territory as a launching pad against the security of our neighbors. It's utterly irresponsible, unacceptable. We condemned it. But by the same token, we tell everybody across the border violence will not do.
These issues cannot be solved by military means. These issues cannot be solved by violence. There has to be a political track. This initiative that the Turkish government has started, the democratization process needs to be enhanced, deepened, in order to ensure that this longstanding conflict is resolved in a definitive way.
Do you think the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, is getting significant support from Syria or Iran? My reason for asking this is if it is being used by states as a client for other diplomatic or for other political means, is it feasible that a political solution could happen?
This goes around across the world: When in situations of conflict, others try to take advantage of it. I'm not suggesting that there are no elements of regional collaboration with the PKK or, for that matter, other parties in that part of the world. Definitely. This is the Middle East and everybody is looking of ways of maximizing influence and using leverage against the state versus the other. This is the reality.
Even in the case of our conflict with the government of Iraq with Saddam Hussein, many of the regional actors sought to help us and worked with us and we sought their help in order to sustain our struggle.
But that is beside the point. The way to deal with this thing is not the continuation of conflict. The way to deal with it is to address the genuine grievances that are lending dynamics and support to these types of organizations. There has to be a political track. There has to be a political solution. And that is the ultimate and the only way that this issue can be resolved.
As you know, the U.S. is considering selling Cobra helicopters to Turkey to pursue the PKK. Do you oppose that sale?
We have had our conversations with our friends in the United States, and, for that matter, in Turkey. I'm not going to get into the details of this thing, but I say we need more schools. We need more hospitals. We need development and we need less spent on the arms race and we need more focus on what the communities need in those regions. And at the end of the day, I do not believe that there are military solutions to these conflicts.
On the uprisings in Syria
Why don't we talk briefly about Syria? Kurds compose about 10 percent of Syria's population, but have not, so far, been particularly active in the opposition. What is the role of Kurds in Syria?
Obviously, we're eyeing what is happening in Syria with immense interest. Syria is a neighbor of ours and we have a large Kurdish community across the borders. And we are certainly affected by what is happening in Syria.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again now. Syria needs to heed the lessons of Iraq. Violence won't do. Repression cannot deny a people their will to live in a free society. Saddam Hussein could not suppress the Iraqi people and the violence and the genocide cannot do it. So all governments around us need to heed that advice.
We encourage all sides in Syria to engage in a meaningful dialogue aimed at addressing the genuine concerns of the Syrian people - more democracy, openness and ending the one-party rule.
That is over. That part of the world is no longer what it used to be. So leaders across the Middle East need to understand this thing.
As far as the Kurds of Syria are concerned, they are active. In fact, recently, they held a major conference in Kurdish areas of Syria. And when they got together, they were promoting the message, basically insisting on democracy for Syria, working with the opposition and also insisting on recognition of Kurdish identity and Kurdish rights.
We impress upon them, from our vantage point, to stay away from any violent acts, to try and be part of the opposition, but also promote a process of dialogue that will end in what we hope to be a democratic, free systems.
Without [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad?
This is not for me to decide. The way I look at it, we are a neighbor of Syria. We do not want to interfere in the domestic affairs of Syria. But I can tell you definitively, one party rule, dictatorships are over.
So if the present government in Syria is able to engage in the reforms that will bring about a multi-party system based on the rule of law and elections, genuine elections, the Syrian people will have to decide the fate of whoever is going to lead them.
On corruption, violence and press harassment in Iraqi Kurdistan
Let's return to Kurdistan. You've just discussed one party rule. There have been, over the past year, a series of protests and the rise of opposition parties within Iraqi Kurdistan, the largest being Change. But there have also been reports of press harassment. There have been reports of protesters actually dying, being killed. What accounts for this? What do you make of these protests and what do you do, from your perspective?
I think the protests in Kurdistan that happened early this year, in some important measure, was a reflection of the people's desire for ending corruption, combating nepotism, asking for better governance and all the issues that any society would care about.
But we also, as you said, we have opposition parties that are operating and trying to ride this wave. I can imagine and accept that this is how political parties act.
In fact, the opposition in Kurdistan is strong. Almost 40 percent of our parliament is opposition. And the difference between Kurdistan and other parts of the Middle East: We did not win our elections by a 99 percent majority. We won it by a 59 percent majority. We, in the government in the majority list that formed a government, insist on the need for reforms.
And there are some fundamental issues - political, economic and governance issues - that need reform.
We submitted a budget to parliament and that was subject to immense scrutiny by parliament. The parliament is becoming very active on this. We've engaged international consultants like PricewaterhouseCoopers to help us with improving government performance and fighting corruption and initiatives of good governance.
We are working with the Rand Corporation here in the United States, also, to developing our education system and our health care system and government efforts in general.
The Middle East is changing. Kurdish society is also changing. Twenty years on, the two major parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who have ruled Kurdistan for almost 20 years, need to recognize - I need to recognize - that my society has moved on and there is an entirely new generation of people whose view of Kurdish life, of government, is very different from my generation or my father's generation.
So the real challenge for us in Kurdistan is who's going to do the reforms? Reforms are definitely needed. I say so at a time when I also identify the amazing progress that we have achieved. But this is progress that is not enough to satisfy what our people deserve and aspire to. So Kurdish dynamics are quite active. The political dynamics is quite active. There is a lively debate within Kurdish society about how to proceed forward.
The opposition is obviously depicting everything we do in a negative light. We try to counter that. But at the end of the day, there was a bit of violence. There was an unfortunate loss of life in - in February, March, this year, but we really tried to contain it. We tried to restrain all sides concerned. And I want to tell you, every life lost was one too many. We had about eight or nine people killed, including police officers, including security people.
A single one of them were one too many. There is no way that I could justify. But in part, this was also because of lack of training, lack of ability of our forces to deal with civil unrest that happened at the time.
But we're trying to learn from that experience. And I tell you, in the same context, nearly 400 police officers were wounded, many of them severely, so that you can understand this was not a one-sided issue. We're trying to learn from that experience and move on.
And what about the press harassment?
The press harassment, there is an important dynamic in Kurdistan. There is a multitude of press, countless of newspapers and so on. I cannot say that every person who writes is a proper journalist per se. There is a lot of politics involved. And Kurdish society, again, is moving all in the idea of this tolerance and this acceptance of a free press, it is not easy for traditional societies like this.
I personally consider myself a liberal person, believe very much in the freedom of press and, in fact, took very specific action in order to stop a legal action or police action against journalists or people who wrote articles in the press and so on.
We tried to learn from this thing. On one hand, the government has a major, major responsibility, no doubt about this, in terms of protecting journalists.
But at the same time, you know, in a society that is in a flux like ours, you've got a lot of people who write libel and who do not understand the notion of responsible journalism and ethics of journalism, because the numbers are huge, those who are writing in the press these days. So you get a lot of action in the legal process, a lot of court actions being taken against journalists.
We are, I think, now talking about a new law that will regulate journalism and so on. We still have, I have to say, elements of the Saddam law still prevailing as far as the press is concerned. And now our parliament is working on changing that in order to ensure, on one hand, the freedom of expression, but at the same time, also protect individual rights from libel and from irresponsible people who would want to, in the name of free speech, attack one's integrity without cause.
The challenge every day - and I say it profoundly - every day, this is a challenge. I, as prime minister, get a lot of attacks from the press. It comes with the job. But, you know, many of my colleagues come to me, how could you tolerate this? How could you let this happen?
You know, given the context of our society, I think, ultimately, the challenge for us is how true can we be to these values?
I'm not saying that we were perfect. We certainly have had many violations and we have to be honest with ourselves. Kurdistan's value, Kurdistan's importance, Kurdistan's security in many, many ways depends on its democratic values and democratic principles and the ethics of its government.
I cannot say that we are perfect or we have been perfect. But I think, given the challenges that we have dealt with, many well-meaning people, many honest people would - would recognize that we've tried hard - and succeeded in some ways - in living up to those standards.
But I acknowledge to you, we need to do better.