Kurdistan Region's President Masoud Barzani. File photo: Rudaw
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Born under the flag of the short-lived Kurdistan Mahabad Republic in 1946, President Masoud Barzani says that it is his mission to declare independence through the planned referendum on September 25 that is “binding” and “its results must be implemented.”
Following conflicting remarks by senior Kurdish officials, including members of his own party, President Barzani has cleared the air once and for all: The referendum is for independence and is binding.
In an interview with the US-based Foreign Policy magazine conducted on Monday and published Thursday, the leader said that the quest for independence is something personal to him and to the struggle of his family.
“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,” Barzani said, referring to his father Mustafa Barzani who led some Kurdish Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan to take part in the declaration of the first ever Kurdish republic.
“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 flag of an independent Kurdistan.”
The Kurdistan Region has been considering holding the referendum for the last three years, since the rise of the Islamic State when the extremist group occupied large swathes of land between territories controlled by the Iraqi government to the south and the Kurdish Region to the north in the summer of 2014.
One such occasion was the period between ISIS taking control of Mosul and other Iraqi territories in June that year and then launching a comprehensive attack against the Peshmerga positions in August. It is during this time that the Kurdistan parliament passed a law to establish the Region's electoral commission that is going to run the referendum later this year.
President Barzani said that he has been considering holding the referendum for years, but that they also kept postponing it because of developments and the regional context. He argued though that there will never be a perfect time for holding it and that any further delay would not be “beneficial” for the people of Kurdistan.
Comparing an informal referendum held in 2005 when more than 98 percent of the people in Kurdistan voted for independence with this year's referendum, President Barzani said this one is official and “binding.”
"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."
Kurdish leaders have repeatedly maintained that they will enter negotiations with Baghdad after a ‘Yes’ vote, with some analysts predicting that maybe the aim is not full independence, but rather having a mandate that gives the Kurdish government leverage to seek further autonomy.
President Barzani said that negotiations are not to ignore 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."
He said Erbil is going to begin "serious, peaceful negotiations and dialogue with Baghdad" as soon as the people cast their vote.
The land-locked Kurdistan Region surrounded by Iran to the east, Turkey to the north, and Syria to the west, each of whom has a significant Kurdish population, may face some major obstacles perhaps not in holding the referendum, but when it enters the stage of acting on the largely anticipated ‘Yes’ vote.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, despite expressing Baghdad's objection to the referendum, told reporters on Tuesday that some of the neighbouring countries consider the vote as "a matter of their national security."
Turkey has already called the vote "irresponsible" and a "grave mistake" which will have bad consequences. Iran has said it supports the territorial integrity of Iraq.
The United States, a main ally of the Kurdistan Region in the war against ISIS, has said it respects the "legitimate aspirations" of the Kurdish people. However, it calls for the territorial integrity of Iraq and considers the move by Erbil to be a distraction from the fight against the extremist group. The United Kingdom and Germany, both of whom have supported the Peshmerga since the beginning of the war, have warned against a unilateral move by Erbil.
Asked whether he is concerned that a Qatar-style blockade may be imposed against the Kurdish government if it were to take practical steps towards independence, President Barzani said that Qatar and Kurdistan are two different things. Qatar is accused of supporting terrorism, while Erbil has defeated the myth of terrorism by fighting the ISIS group in Iraq.
"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."
He rebutted the assumptions that a move to declare independence would create instability and problems.
"This will help us prevent any possible future instability or bloody fighting that will follow if the situation continues," the president said.
President Barzani added that for too long the Kurds have tried to make Iraq work for all of its people based on real partnership, but that it has never materialized.
He said the share of Kurds from the foundation of Iraq in early 1920s until the fall of the former Baathist regime in 2003 was the Kurdish genocide of Anfal, chemical bombardment, and the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages. He added that the decade or so after the US-led invasion resulted in Baghdad cutting its ties with Erbil as it did not implement the Iraqi constitution, voted for by all Iraqis including the Kurds, followed by Baghdad’s cutting of the budget in early 2014 that mainly caused the current financial crisis.
"So our question for international players like the United States and others is: What else should we do?" he asked.
Barzani said that Erbil will start the path of negotiations with Baghdad, but that it is up to Baghdad whether to reach an agreement or not. He said the cooperation between the Kurdish Peshmerga and security forces with the Iraqi army and their security forces will continue.
"We will do whatever is necessary to support Prime Minster Abadi to make him successful in his premiership,” the Kurdish leader added.
He said it is too early to draw conclusions about the steps the Iraqi government may take as the result of Erbil going to the polls and then acting on its results. But he warned that there is nothing that can stop the Kurds from taking retaliatory steps.
"We want to avoid bloodshed and violence. Then we’ll see, if they take other actions, definitely we will have our own reactions,” the president explained.
Asked about the many problems the Kurdish Region is currently facing, including the political deadlock, President Barzani said that the referendum is far more important and bigger than any other issue, that no country seeking independence had first tried to solve every single problem, and that the referendum may indeed help in solving of these problems.
On the issue of the disputed areas claimed both by Erbil and Baghdad, also called the Kurdistani areas outside the Kurdistan Region based on an order by President Barzani, Barzani said that they also have a vote on the issue and they are free whether they want to go with Kurdistan or Iraq.
"Definitely," Barzani said, Erbil would not be opposed to a ‘No’ vote to independence in the disputed areas. "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."
He added that there will not be a second question specific to the disputed areas, but did not rule out future referendums in these areas, if that is what the people want.