ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has said that the relations between Erbil and Baghdad is akin to that of landlord and tenant — neither party likes it — as he argued that the Kurds should face the challenge and take advantage of a “golden opportunity” in forming an independent Kurdistan that could have a good neighbourly relations with the central government of Iraq.
“Kurdistan has never had a better opportunity throughout its history to determine its fate,” PM Barzani said, calling it “the golden opportunity”.
He said that Kurdistan successfully has gone through “fire” in the past few years, an experience that few nations could survive when they are pushed to the “extremes.”
On the economy he said that there are early indications, though slow, that the economy is developing again.
PM Barzani addressed an international conference on the future of Kurdistan in the Erbil-based University of Kurdistan-Hewler (UKH) on Wednesday morning.
In light of the ISIS-claimed Manchester attack in the United Kingdom that has killed at least 22 people, he stressed that all nations have to join arms to face what he called “a global threat” that needs to be defeated militarily and ideologically.
Regarding the much-anticipated Kurdish referendum on independence widely expected to be held in 2017, PM Barzani said that the federal system that binds Erbil to Baghdad is not satisfactory for either side.
“Our current situation [relation] with Baghdad on paper has more meaning than on the ground. Certainly forming a good neighbourly relation with Baghdad is far better than continuing a relation that is akin to the relation between landlord and tenant, a relation that neither party likes. Neither do we like it, nor do they like either.”
He said that while it is true they are not able to influence the outcome of certain events, Kurdistan should not wait for change to come, and instead it should look into specific objectives and try to sway the tide of the events in its favour.
"[There are] big events and global trends that we [Kurds] cannot influence their outcome: Oil prices, wars, and changes in the international alliances. We have to understand these factors, but we should not busy ourselves too much with these factors forcing us to forget what can we change and what is it that we want to change.”
PM Barzani however was mindful of the domestic politics where there are strong disagreements between the main Kurdish parties, especially with regard to the now-paralysed Kurdistan parliament that has not convened since 2015 because of tensions between PM Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Gorran or Change Movement, the second-biggest Kurdish party.
"Without a strong political and social wall, we cannot build the independence roof,” PM Barzani said, just days after he paid a visit to Sulaimani where he showed respect to the late Gorran leader Nawshirwan Mustafa, a move seen as attempt to mend ties with the Sulaimani-based party.
He said that unity in Kurdistan will give greater value and strength to stand against what he called “foreign agenda.”
“One of the objectives [of the referendum] is that independence in itself is our common objective,” PM Barzani said of the Kurdish parties.
He said the way ahead for Kurdistan is that of nation building which “means unity [among Kurds] and eventually becoming an independent nation.”
He continued to say that independence alone does not solve all of the challenges facing Kurdistan.
"We do not claim that independence is a magic solution to all problems. But it will become the starting point of a new journey towards the right direction."
War against extremism
Making reference to recent ISIS attacks against the Peshmerga positions south of Kirkuk in Tuz Khurmatu, the PM said that the extremists always strive to test the security capabilities of the Kurdish government, an attempt he said the extremists failed to accomplish.
"We in this city, and every other city of Kurdistan feel fully protected,” he said. “Thanks to the bravery of the Peshmerga, the security forces and those who help them,” he added, mentioning this has come at the expense of some 1,700 Peshmerga fighter’s deaths and nearly another 10,000 injured in the war against the ISIS group.
He extended his condolences to the victims of the Manchester attack, a reminder that extremism does not respect borders.
“The issue of terror is not confined only to one place. This is a global threat that concerns us all,” he said, adding that the Kurdistan Region is proud to have been at the forefront of the fight against the ISIS group.
“This shows that all of the international community has to work to root out terror both militarily, and ideologically which I think the ideology — fighting the ideology is far more important than the military defeat of these terrorists,” he added.
Early indications for development
PM Barzani said Kurdistan is indeed at a “crossroad,” also the official title of the conference. To understand this, he said, we have to understand how Kurdistan reached this stage.
He outlined the recent history of Kurdistan in three phases: freedom after what the Kurds call the liberation of Iraq by the US-led coalition in 2003, followed by development until 2014, and finally the current economic, security and humanitarian crises.
"We were faced with economic, security, and humanitarian crises,” he explained. “Few countries can prevail against [these crises] without existential damage inflicted on them.”
He said the Kurdish region is now on the verge of a new phase of development. He warned though that the pace of development wouldn’t be as fast as the economic recession. It will be slow, he maintained.
He added that he sees what he called “indications of optimism” further ahead for Kurdistan’s development.
He described the progress he anticipates as “development post war.”
“We may not see the initial indicators for [the development] just yet,” he said. “But the positive indications for optimism are being surfaced.”
As part of the phase ahead, he said that his coalition government that critically includes the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) with great influence in the two provinces of Sulaimani and Halabja as opposed to the KDP strongholds of Erbil and Duhok is committed to the reform plan that extends through all government sectors.
He specifically said that he as PM and his deputy Qubad Talabani from the PUK are committed to the biometric registration of the region's estimated 1.4 million public employees that is expected to cancel the monthly salary of thousands of ghost employees and double salary holders.
Kurdistan at its best
PM Barzani said that people and societies alike are tested best when they are pushed to the “extremes” during which the real identity of that individual or society would surface.
"I believe we were successful in this test,” he said. “We passed through fire, and our genuine values surfaced, something that we all in Kurdistan have to be proud of."
He continued to give examples of Kurdistan being able to show its best despite the crisis in Kurdistan Region: an ongoing economic crisis, the war against ISIS, and a humanitarian crisis caused by the influx of millions of people to Kurdistan caused by the ISIS war.
“At no stage did we embrace extremism,” he said. “Extremism could not make a nest in Kurdistan. We continued to protect the religious and ethnic coexistence. We did not block the door in the face of the refugees, despite the difficult pressures on the economy of Kurdistan, the health and education sectors and other service sectors.”