ERBIL — The Chancellor of Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) Masrour Barzani said that Kirkuk, which was once referred to as a disputed territory between Erbil and Baghdad, is now an occupied territory.
During an interview with Rudaw on Wednesday, the senior Kurdish official discussed the post-referendum status of relations between the Kurdistan Region and Iraq, the current political situation as well as the moves which led to the fall of Kirkuk into the hands of Baghdad.
[This interview was translated from Kurdish and edited for clarity and length.]
Kurdistan Region’s Referendum on Independence
Masrour Barzani said that Kurds, after the fall of Baath regime, hoped to obtain their rights through the full implementation of the new Iraqi constitution, but the constitution was undermined and attempts were made to systematically marginalise the Kurds.
He argued that the decision of holding a referendum on Kurdistan’s statehood was a reaction to Baghdad’s violations against the rights of Kurds. Barzani reminded that the Iraqi central government had prior to the referendum failed to treat the Kurdish Peshmerga forces as part of the country’s defence structure, violated 55 articles from the constitution and cut Erbil’s share from the federal budget.
“These made us resort to a move that could prevent the repetition of what had happened. What led to the idea of [holding] a referendum was to return to the [will] of our people,” the senior Kurdish official said.
The initial idea goes back to 2014 when Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani asked Kurdistan Parliament to form a committee to conduct the preparations for a referendum. “While the Iraqi government was not ready to give our people their rights, there were two options left: either resorting to a war, which we rejected, or holding a referendum.”
Concerning the international community and its position on the September independence vote in Kurdistan Region, KRSC Chancellor said that they were concerned with the timing only and not the right of Kurds to voice their aspiration to have a country of their own. The US was, according to Barzani, concerned because of the ongoing war against the Islamic State then, little hope for Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi’s re-election, as well as fear of escalation of tensions between Erbil and Baghdad.
“We thought of these as not valid excuses to put off the referendum because we had not planned to implement the results the day after the referendum.”
Draft of US Proposed Alternative to Referendum
The Chancellor of Kurdistan Region Security Council revealed that for a while prior to the independence referendum, US Ambassador to Iraq and special presidential envoy to anti-IS battle were both busy with an alternative to be put forward for Kurds to delay the referendum. “Just before the referendum, a draft was delivered, not a letter. However, we realised that there were no guarantee or obligation that the UN, US or Europe could impose on Iraq.”
Barzani further explained that another reason behind rejecting the draft was the fact that the US and EU have already several times vowed something to the Kurds, but right after a change in their offices, the promises are also forgotten.
“And no one has ever paid for it except us.”
Post-Referendum Erbil-Baghdad Relations
Concerning Baghdad’s plan to overrun Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk and other disputed Kurdish territories, Barzani doubts the military offensive to be a reaction to the independence referendum. “Regardless if the referendum was held or delayed, Iraq would have done this by resorting to arms and military. The referendum just unveiled the plot,” he explained.
The Iraqi army and Iranian-backed militias of Hashd al-Shaabi, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), overrun Kirkuk in an attempt to push back the Peshmerga from the area. The Kurdish forces had moved there back in 2014 when the Iraqi army collapsed at the face of advancing IS militants in the north of the country.
The attack on Kirkuk resulted in armed conflicts between Peshmerga and the Iraqi forces. Barzani said that Erbil spared no effort in preventing a clash between the two sides, but in vain.
He pointed out that prior to Baghdad’s attack against Peshmerga on 16th October last year, during a meeting in Dukan between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the issues related to the governance of Kirkuk were discussed. However, some members within the PUK had visited Baghdad and made agreements without the approval of Kurdistan Region’s political leadership, added Barzani.
“The highest contemporary treason against the Kurds was this act of treason to sell Kurdistan’s soil and handover Kirkuk,” the senior Kurdish official pointed out.
Barzani noted that, however, there were some PUK commanders and Peshmerga forces who rejected retreating from the frontline, but they stayed and fought to the bitter end for Kurdistan.
If the PUK officials had not made an agreement with the Iraqi government, Barzani emphasised, the Baghdad government and its army would have not been so confident in carrying out any attacks against Peshmerga. “But the Iraqi government grew in confidence and moved the army after it realised that there are such downgraded people in Kurdistan who can betray their land and their comrades.”
Masoud Barzani Refusing to Extend His Term
Chancellor of KRSC said that Barzani’s first extended term was decided by the parliament. However, then president Masoud Barzani himself refused to sign the decision. “For the second time when the term was extended, there was the war against Daesh [Islamic State] and Mr. President was then on the frontline with the Peshmergas, with no one putting a step forward to run for presidency and almost no chance of holding elections [due to the war].”
He explained that Masoud Barzani’s leadership and charisma as a political leader did not begin with the position of president and it will not end with the termination of his term.
Future of Kirkuk and Other Kurdish Territories Outside the Jurisdiction of KRG
Masrour Barzani believes that these areas, previously referred to as the territories disputed between Erbil and Baghdad, are now “occupied areas” due to the fact that the Iraqi central government failed over the past decade to implement article 140 from the constitution in these areas, and it eventually invaded the territories by the use of army.
“This has a huge negative impact on the region,” Barzani stated, warning of an ongoing Arabisation campaign against Kurds in Kirkuk at the moment.
He further explained that Kurds refuse to accept any status quo imposed on Kirkuk while the indigenous Kurds of the province are forcibly displaced and the legitimate governor of the province is removed from the office.
Upcoming Elections in Kurdistan and Iraq
Chancellor of KRSC insists that an ideal situation is the elections in Kurdistan taking place before the polls in Iraq.
Regarding the political position of Kurds in Baghdad, Barzani said, “I personally say, if all the parties come together, if they are united, I am certain that Kurds will be stronger than if they each negotiate with Baghdad separately.”