ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region Nechirvan Barzani is confident that no military will attack the Kurdistan Region if the independence referendum goes ahead.
"I do not see any military attack at all on the Kurdistan Region. It is impossible to happen,” PM Barzani told reporters on Wednesday.
"Military threats against what? Against the referendum?” he asked. “I do not foresee that at all. Even if they take other measures, as allegedly they are going to do, but military option is impossible."
PM Barzani pointed out that Kurdistan’s neighbours have “strategic interests” in the Region so would not resort to military options as they oppose the September 25 referendum.
"Turkey is free to do whatever it wants to do within its own boundaries. So is Iran," Barzani said. "But if it is expected that they will come and use military means against a referendum being held in Kurdistan – it is impossible. They will not do such things, because it is not in their interest."
"They will certainly, certainly, certainly not do it," he stressed. In the off chance that the Kurdistan Region was to come under military attack, they will not be unresponsive, he added. Kurdistan’s “hands are not tied.”
Speaking to reporters in an hour-long interview, Barzani addressed several hot topics affecting the Kurdistan Region now, including the situation in Kirkuk, government reform plans, and the recent Rosneft deal.
September 25 vote will open doors to independence talks with Baghdad
PM Barzani said the independence of Kurdistan will not be declared on September 26, but that the referendum is a means to begin dialogue with Baghdad, out of which independence will be declared.
"The state will not be established on September 26," Barzani said, explaining that through this dialogue Kurdistan can move towards the goal of independence.
Despite strong words from Baghdad rejecting the referendum and declaring the vote illegal and unconstitutional, the prime minister is confident the door is still open for discussions. The Iraqi prime minister "has not rejected dialogue with us," said PM Barzani, adding that no party has preconditions for dialogue.
There is also currently no plan to postpone the vote. "If there is not a stronger alternative to the referendum," it will take place as scheduled, PM Barzani said. And if a viable alternative is presented, "We will not shut our doors."
"The referendum that is going to take place has emerged as a result of despair after all the promises given to Kurds by the international community and others, especially Iraq, over the past years," said the prime minister.
The ultimate goal, Barzani said, "is independence for Kurdistan."
In the meantime, world countries are trying to develop an alternative to the vote that they consider will be destabilizing for Iraq and harmful for the war against ISIS.
The US, UK, France, and Turkey, along with the UN, are among the nations involved in working on a proposal for Erbil. “If they all offer a better alternative to the referendum, the Kurdish leadership will certainly be ready to study it,” said PM Barzani, adding they “will take this matter seriously."
These countries want to “seriously help Kurdistan,” especially in its dialogue with the central Iraqi government.
If talks are held with Baghdad, PM Barzani said, there must be "a time frame for our calls."
"Our goal is independence," PM Barzani said, and that will top the agenda of any discussions with Baghdad.
In their mediation efforts, PM Barzani said "these countries have to understand the depth of the anger of Kurds."
He said the Kurdistan Region has put the Kurdish question on the agenda of powerful countries, as well as in Iraq and the region. This subject must now be given serious consideration internationally, but at the end of the day, PM Barzani believes "the only guarantee of the independence is our nation."
Minority rights will be secured in a future Kurdistan state
Asked about the rights of minorities, PM Barzani assured that the future Kurdistan state "will be for all."
"When we talk about the referendum, we do not talk about Kurds alone as many other peoples live in our country. We even do not name them minorities,” he said. "We believe they are deeply rooted in this country and what is really important is the right of these people living inside the Kurdistan Region following the establishment of Kurdistan."
"We are prepared to give a complete guarantee to these components in the future Kurdistan constitution, be it Turkmen, Christians, or others. We are ready to secure their rights in the constitution," Barzani stressed.
Referendum is to hear the people, not define borders
The prime minister hinted at the "sensitivity" of the disputed Kirkuk province, where the independence referendum will also be held.
PM Barzani noted that, but for the Peshmerga, Kirkuk would have been another Mosul, overrun by ISIS.
Some Turkmen and Arab parties in Kirkuk showed opposition to holding the referendum in their province, boycotting an August vote on the matter in the Kirkuk Provincial Council.
Barzani, urged "good relations with all the peoples living in Kirkuk, including Turkmen and Arabs."
He urged Kurds in Kirkuk to form “strong relations” with others in the city.
He added that holding the referendum in disputed or Kurdistani areas is not to draw the borders, but rather to give people the opportunity to express their opinion.
"We never want to forcefully incorporate these areas into the Kurdistan Region," Barzani explained. "Our referendum is not meant to define the borders, but is for people to express their opinion on a question."
Economic reforms are going well but not finished yet
Barzani was asked to comment on the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) austerity measures that saw salary cuts to civil servants as part of efforts to cope with an economic crisis.
He noted that similar problems existed even when Baghdad was still sending the Region its 17 percent budget share.
He described the KRG’s re-organizing of the salary system through a biometric system as "a very good step in the reform plan."
"But it has not been finished yet," he said.
Only half of government employees have been included in salary-saving measures. The other half, including Peshmerga, police, and security forces, has been excluded.
This remains a “heavy burden” and a “very, very big problem,” that his government is working to resolve. Qubad Talabani, deputy prime minister, has met with parliament to address the issue, PM Barzani explained.
The Kurdistan parliament is preparing to address this controversial issue. The legislature plans to convene on the matter this week and has invited relevant government officials to attend the session.
The KRG launched a massive institutional and financial reform plan at the start of 2016, including austerity measures, pay cuts, and a cleanup of duplicate names on its payroll in order to reduce the budget deficit.
The mandatory biometric system, introduced as part of austerity measures, was launched on October 10, 2016 with the goal of reducing the number of ghost workers on the KRG’s payroll through falsification of personnel or payroll records.
The austerity measures initially caused demonstrations in some parts of the Region, particularly in Sulaimani and Halabja provinces where schoolteachers staged protests and strikes for more than two months, affecting 750,000 students.
The government has said they would pay the amounts cut from salaries at a later stage through a savings account.
Rosneft deal is a business matter, unaffected by politics
Asked about a recent gas deal inked between Erbil and Russian giant Rosneft and the possibility of Turkey opposing the deal as Ankara is against Kurdistan’s independence referendum, PM Barzani stressed, "The deal we inked with Rosneft was a business contract."
"The question of gas is really important for Turkey and Europe," he said, believing Turkey will not throw up obstacles in the way of the deal.
He said resolving the Dana Gas-Erbil dispute will pave the way for other companies to trust the Region and invest in it. Rosneft played a role in resolving the dispute, PM Barzani added.
The pipeline is expected to be capable of carrying 30 billion cubic-meters (bcm) of gas from the Kurdistan Region to Turkey for export.
The Kurdistan Region currently exports its oil through Turkey's Ceyhan port. Ankara makes very little money from that pipeline, "that is a fact," PM Barzani said.
Barzani explained the decision Rosneft made to allocate $1 billion to extend the pipeline is "important" not only for Erbil, but also Turkey and Europe.
"Therefore it is completely a business matter."
Although "Turkey's stance regarding the referendum is clear," Barzani said, "we do not want our relations with Turkey to deteriorate in terms of politics and business."
He said resolving the Dana Gas-Erbil dispute will pave the way for other companies to trust the Region and invest in it.
Countries "understood that the Region could be trusted" as it acts responsibly, in line with "the international trade law framework."
Last updated at 10:52 p.m