WASHINGTON DC – Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani told the American PBS television that the war with Islamic State (ISIS) has only delayed the Kurdish bid for independence, a goal he vowed the Kurds would pursue to the end.
In the wide-ranging interview that also touched on the fight for Mosul and captured Peshmerga fighters, the president also reiterated a call for more and better weapons to confront ISIS and said Erbil had no problem with Iranian involvement in the fighting.
Asked about Kurdish aspirations of independence, he said there would be no “retreat from it,” but that the process would be peaceful.
“The conflict delayed this process but the process is still valid,” he told PBS. “We are not going to abandon it. We are going to do it through dialogue. We are going to talk to Baghdad about it,” the president added. “The process is still valid and we are not going to retreat from it.”
He stressed that the process would be measured: “We need to study, we need to use wisdom, we need to be united; we can’t use force, we cannot shed any blood.”
Before an ISIS attack on the Kurdistan Region in August that pulled the Kurdish Peshmerga forces into a fierce war with the Sunni Muslim militants, Barzani had seriously floated the idea of independence at a time of growing strains with the central government in Baghdad.
The United States has been a staunch opponent of the Kurds breaking away from Baghdad, but the Kurds’ frontline role in the war with ISIS has raised Erbil’s international profile and international backing for independence.
Jaafar Eminiki, deputy speaker of the Kurdistan parliament, said last week that more than two dozen countries have expressed support for a potential Kurdish state should the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) declare independence.
In an interview with Breitbart News this week, US senator and possible 2016 presidential candidate Rand Paul suggested a change in US policy, saying the Kurds should be promised their own homeland. “I would draw new lines for Kurdistan and I would promise them a country,” he said.
He also added that Iraq’s Kurds should be armed directly by the US-led coalition in the war against ISIS, instead of weapons funneled through Baghdad.
In the PBS interview, Barzani also called for more and better weapons.
“We are satisfied with the air support,” said Barzani, referring to air strikes by US-led coalition forces in support of Peshmerga forces on the ground.
“We are getting good support, but in reality and to this present moment we have the same view as in the past on arming and equipping the Peshmerga forces with the right weapons: it is not to the standard that we want,” he said.
Asked whether the Kurds were worried about Iranian involvement in the fight against ISIS alongside the Baghdad-backed Shiite militia, Barzani said that anyone fighting the radical group was considered an ally.
“We have a principle: wherever we can strike ISIS we are not going to hold back,” he said. “Whoever will take part and help us attack ISIS we will thank them. Right now I do not share that concern -- if you are asking me about helping to fight and defeat ISIS. What happens after that we can’t predict.”
Iran has been playing an open role in the wars in Iraq and Syria, admitting to military advisors in both countries.
The Kurdish president told PBS special correspondent Jane Arraf that the Peshmerga forces were willing to assist any Iraqi force in the fight for Mosul, which ISIS captured in June, but that the Kurds would not go at it alone.
“If there is a program to liberate Mosul or anywhere else that is on the doorstep of the Kurdistan Region, we can study the situation,” Barzani said. “In principle, we have no objection to helping the Iraqi military forces, the (Shiite) Popular Mobilization Forces or the Sunni forces,” he added.
“If they have a program we will help and support them. We are not going to do anything on our own,” he said.
Barzani explained that the war with ISIS was like no other war the Kurds have fought, adding that the Peshmerga had still managed to “defeat and tarnish the image of ISIS.”
The Kurdish president said he would try to secure the release of some 21 Peshmerga soldiers currently held captive by ISIS in Iraq.
“Of course, it is very sad to see a group of them (Peshmerga) falling into the hand of ISIS,” he said. “Of course it is very sad and it hurts me a great deal personally. We will try our utmost to free them. But if it doesn’t materialize we will classify them as martyrs and the number of our martyrs will increase.”
Well over 1,000 Peshmerga soldiers have been killed in the fighting with ISIS, some of them murderously beheaded and their killings shown in videos released by the radicals.