ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A referendum for Kurdish independence from Iraq will come if statehood cannot be achieved through peaceful dialogue, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) minister of foreign relations.
“If we reach an agreement with Baghdad (on statehood), there may not be a need for a referendum,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations (DFR).
“But if talks with Baghdad did not result in a positive answer or a solution, then at that time I believe the leadership in the Kurdistan Region would be obliged to go forward with the issue of the referendum,” he explained.
According to Bakir, separation is an absolute necessity. “It is simple,” he said. “We were unable to live together in a cordial manner, in a manner to share the power and wealth, in order to have a peaceful and normal relationship. It has been a challenge in the relationship.”
As Peshmerga General Sirwan Barzani posed to Rudaw recently, “what is the benefit of this famous Iraqi union? It’s a bad marriage so let’s get divorced.”
Bakir went on to explain that there was no political will for “genuine partnership” on the part of Baghdad. “It was rejected,” he said.
“What Baghdad wanted was subornation and subjugation of the Kurdistan Region and we rejected that,” he said. “So is there any room between genuine partnership and subjugation? If there is, what is it?”
Bakir went on to acknowledge that, “no matter what or whichever road we choose, Baghdad would remain an important partner.”
“Because we do understand that we live in a difficult environment and for the international community to support, endorse, approve and accept any kind of arrangement, it will be very important when they realize that Erbil and Baghdad have such kind of arrangement,” Bakir explained.
Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador and former advisor to Kurdish leaders, reiterated this point to Rudaw.
“The first priority after the passage of an independence referendum is to start negotiations with Baghdad. The goal is to secure Iraqi acceptance of Kurdistan’s independence,” he said.
Moving forward, Bakir stresses the severity and complications between Erbil and Baghdad. He also believes that relations are getting ironed out, noting the recent meeting in Baghdad between Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his Iraqi counterpart, Haider Abadi.
“I am happy to say that this time when Prime Minister Barzani visited Baghdad in his meeting with Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi National Alliance, he raised this issue and they had a historical overview of the relations between Erbil and Baghdad, the situation for the Kurdish people, the people of the Kurdistan Region and their relations with the success of the Iraqi government,” Bakir said.
He explained that is why it is important to realize that this is an important step forward and also shows that Erbil and Baghdad are ready to engage in these dialogues.
Bakir acknowledges that achieving self-determination will be a long and challenging process, but also one that must start with Baghdad.
“It is a process,” the foreign relations minister said bluntly. “But definitely for this to happen there needs to be an agreement with the Kurdistan Region to see how to go about it, when to go about it, what kind of question to bring to the ballot, etc.”
“The important thing,” he added, “is even when the referendum is conducted; it doesn’t mean that the next day you unilaterally declare the independence of Kurdistan. Again, the leadership would handle that in a professional manner, in a responsible manner, to go to Baghdad and say: ‘look, this is what the people of the Kurdistan Region have decided, that’s why we want to sit down and talk about this.’”
“So it is in our interest, it is in the interest of stability, security, and in the future of lasting peace and peaceful coexistence,” Bakir said.
In the meantime, Bakir believes, there are numerous issues that can be used as trust building measures between Erbil and Baghdad, such as the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and the crisis with IDPs (internally displaced persons).
Other areas include the rebuilding process in the aftermath of ISIS and the payment of the 17 percent of the constitutional budget owed to the KRG.
That would be another issue “to show the good will in Baghdad, to show that they care about the region,” Bakir explained.
He believes that since 1991, when the KRG formed a coalition government as part of a federal system with Iraq, that federalism has failed and the only way now is for the KRG to break away and seek sovereignty.
“What we ask for is sovereignty,” Bakir said. “We are suffering from lack of sovereignty. Because we are sub-sovereign, we cannot borrow money, we cannot enter deals with sovereign countries, we cannot print money, we cannot devalue money, we are not present at anti-ISIS coalition conferences, we are not present at humanitarian (meetings) because we are sub-sovereign. At the UN, we don’t attend. So, the point is that we need sovereignty,” he concluded.