Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Photo: Rudaw
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani pledged to step down as president and “let someone else take my place" after declaring independence from Iraq.
“The day we have an independent Kurdistan, I will cease to be the president of that Kurdistan. And I will congratulate the Kurdistan people and let someone else take my place. This is a pledge from me -- I will not be the president of Kurdistan," said Barzani, who said early this year that a referendum on independence should come before the US presidential election in November.
In a wide-ranging interview with Al Monitor, Barzani also spoke about a referendum for the Kurdish regions in Syria and relations with Turkey.
Barzani said he was serious about holding a referendum and vowed he would never "instrumenalize such a critical issue," because it "concerns the fate of millions of people, after all the suffering they have endured, all the sacrifices they made."
The issue of Barzani stepping down as president has polarized the Kurdish enclave’s politics and people. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has asked for an extension to his presidency, citing the war with the Islamic State (ISIS) group and the grinding economic crisis. The iconic Kurdish leader has been president since 2005 and an extension would be his second since 2013. Those favoring Barzani staying on believe that with Kurdistan at war it is a poor time to hold elections.
Explaining the reasons for seeking independence, Barzani asked, “I ask you, what other way do we have?”
He cited the massacres and suffering of the Kurds under previous Iraqi regimes, recounting that from 1922 to the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, 2,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed, 182,000 Kurds perished and 12,000 remain missing – in addition to the 5,000 killed in the March 1988 chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja.
“There’s the balance sheet of that first period," he said.
"In 2003, we took part in the overthrow of a regime that brutalized all Iraqis and we looked forward to living together in a new Iraq based on a new and democratic constitution with full and equal rights for all of its citizens," he explained.
But he said Baghdad "froze the Kurds’ share of the budget and failed to uphold its commitments to us on numerous critical fronts. So now we are faced with two options. This first is that we abjure all our rights — that we give up on federalism and become just another province in Iraq. The other is that we go to our people with a referendum and ask them what they want. The status quo is not sustainable. If things continue as they are, we will descend into the bloodshed and destruction of the past," he warned.
Barzani said he was hopeful because neighboring countries, most notably Turkey, have changed their attitude towards independence for Iraq’s Kurds.
"In the beginning, Turkey was against the federalism of Kurdistan, and look at our relations today. As long as the referendum is only for Iraqi Kurdistan, it has nothing to do with the Kurds in Turkey. So we do hope that Turkey understands and comprehends what Kurdistan is asking for," he explained.
He said he would be discussing the independence issue with Turkey, Iran and officials in Baghdad.
Referring to a declaration of independence, he said: “We want to do it in a peaceful and balanced way."
Barzani dismissed claims that Turkey has pressured the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to act against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Kurdistan region. He explained: "we have our own agenda."
Commenting on Syria’s Kurds, he said he favored “federalism” in Rojava, but insisted there must be consensus.
“The concept of federalism suits the situation in Syria. But there must be consensus on this among the Syrians themselves. When we declared federalism in the Kurdistan region (in October 1992), we didn't do it unilaterally."
Rojava, a de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria, consists of the three “cantons” of Jazira, Kobani, and Afrin. It was recently replaced by a federal System by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), but Barzani said he did not think it was sincere about democracy.
"Through its actions on the ground the PYD does not appear to be sincere about democracy," he said.
Asked about US support for the PYD, Barzani replied: "Any support to the PYD means support for the PKK (because) they are exactly the same thing." He explained that the United States knew that very well, but chose to turn a blind eye to the links to the PYD’s links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
"They know very well, but they don't want to say they know very well. … You know the top priority for us and the Americans is the fight against (ISIS), so they might turn a blind eye."
Barzani disclosed that Kurdistan will soon reactivate its parliament, and that a new speaker will be chosen.
"We are going to reactivate the parliament with elections of a new speaker of parliament. The independence of Kurdistan is bigger than parliament and political parties. Whoever wants to be a part of it is most welcome, and whoever wants to stay against it, they have to leave and find their own way."
In the wake of clashes between supporters of Barzani’s KDP, protesters and security forces in Sulaimani province in October 2015, the KDP accused the opposition Gorran movement of being behind the protests. Yousif Mohammed, a Gorran member and the speaker of the Kurdish parliament, was denied entry into Erbil a few days after the violence. The issue has remained unresolved.