Iraq's outgoing overseer Paul Bremer chats with head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Masoud Barzani (L), during his Kurdish visit on June 22, 2004 in Erbil. File photo: AFP via Getty
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Kurdistan has achieved what it has today by standing strong and insisting on its rights in the face of external efforts to mold Iraq. And Kurdistan has to hold onto the same fortitude as it strives for independence. This was the message Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani had for a gathering of academics and university professors on Wednesday.
Barzani recounted a heated argument he had with the then-US administrator to Iraq Paul Bremer over whether to disband the Kurdish Peshmerga following the invasion of Iraq about 14 years ago.
He said past experiences such as the one he had with Bremer prove that the will of the people will prevail if they stay strong in the face of external pressure.
He said no one was more against Kurdish federalism and the Peshmerga than Bremer, who was finally forced to give in.
When Barzani was a member of the then Iraqi Governing Council formed by the US following the invasion, Bremer insisted the Peshmerga be disbanded.
Bremer, Barzani said, wanted to disband the Kurdish “militia” because Shiite Arabs had refused to dissolve their own militia unless the Kurds did too.
“He said... this is a red line for me,” Barzani said of Bremer’s insistence. “I told him if it is a red line for you once, it is ten times more a red line for me.”
He said then that he and Bremer entered a heated argument that ended with Barzani leaving the room, giving a final ultimatum to the American.
“I stood up and said ‘I am going back to Kurdistan. If you are a man, come and disband the Peshmerga,’ ” Barzani recounted.
A second meeting of Barzani and Bremer was arranged via a British representative. At this meeting, Bremer said again he wanted militia forces disbanded in Iraq, Barzani said. But added that by militia, he does not mean Peshmerga.
Barzani told the academics that he wanted to share this exchange so that people would know that the issue of independence, like other debated issues, would not be gifted to the people of Kurdistan.
“We have to be prepared to pay whatever price for the independence of Kurdistan,” Barzani said.
He said he had many similar instances with the American administration following the invasion, adding that the Kurdish leadership made their demands heard because they insisted on their rights in the new Iraq.
He said the people of Kurdistan should not be concerned about a statement made by this ambassador or that minister.
What prevails, he said, is “the strong will of the people," as was the case after the Kurdish government was formed in 1992, or when federalism was announced and was then accepted as de facto.
Barzani has recently received senior officials from the likes of the US, Iran, Turkey, and the European. He said while none expressed their opposition to the referendum in principle, they all want the vote to be delayed and negotiations to continue.
He said none of these countries offered an alternative and therefore the referendum will go ahead as planned.
“We will not retreat from referendum even by a bit. It will be held on its scheduled date,” Barzani said to applause.
Talks are ongoing between Kurdistan representatives and leaders in Baghdad over the referendum. For the Kurds, the goal of the negotiations “is about how we become an independent country, an independent Kurdistan,” while remaining a good neighbour and ally with Iraq, Barzani said.
Barzani congratulated the Kirkuk Provincial Council on their decision to participate in the referendum, saying the province will be an example of coexistence. They are ready to offer senior positions to Turkmens, Arabs, and others in Kirkuk but stressed that the Kurdistani identity of the province is not up for debate.
“Concessions will not be made over the identity of Kirkuk,” Barzani said, promising that nobody will be able to “take Kirkuk by force” and that Kurds will fight to the last person and breath to defend its identity.