President Barzani at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS.org)
Washington, 31 October 2008.
President Barzani: thank you very much. Thank you Mr. Hamre, the Chairman of CSIS.
Thank you all for coming. We are pleased and privileged to have the opportunity to talk to you. Our visit to Washington comes at a very critical and sensitive time; a time which is critical to the people of the United States but also to us and the whole world. In few days time we will be seeing the presidential elections which have a great impact on everything. Our visit to the United States was to express our thanks and appreciation to the people of the United States, for the United States military and the president of the United States for the assistance and support that they have provided to liberate our people from dictatorship, and we always appreciate and express our condolences for sacrifices of women and men in uniform; for sacrificing their lives for the sake of liberation of our people in Iraq.
I would like to take this opportunity to express the views of the Kurdistan Region on the situation in Iraq and in the Region and the rule played by the Kurds and also the SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] agreement. A great opportunity has come to the people of Iraq to build a new Iraq, an Iraq that is federal and democratic; and also a political process has started in Iraq; still, we have a lot of challenges ahead of us; but Iraq today enjoys a modern constitution. We had elections in Iraq, and next year we will have another election. There has been a true improvement in the security situation, but at the same time there are also challenges ahead.
The role played by the Kurds is very obvious; we have participated in the liberation of Iraq and we shed blood side by side with the Americans for that sake. Now we are partners in the federal government in Baghdad, and we continue to play our positive role in bringing about the federal democratic and pluralistic Iraq. And also I would like to say it is very normal in such circumstances to have disagreements or different points of view and deferent interpretations of the articles of the constitution, but I would like to assure you that we are determined to try our best to settle all the discords and solve all the problems through dialogue and peaceful means and to have the constitution to be the guide and the referee to go back to.
We in the Kurdistan Region focus our efforts in building constitutional institutions. Although nowhere in the world one can say there is absolute security, we have been able in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq with the assistance and support of our people and also the hard work of our security authorities to be able to provide a safe and secure environment for the people in that region. And what has helped us in order to maintain that safety and security is the culture that our people have grown up with – culture of tolerance.
Throughout history, we were brought up with the culture of tolerance and the history of tolerance. National, ethnic, religious and sectarian tolerance has been with us all the way throughout our history. Now we like to say that we want Kurdistan to be a model for the new Iraq. Although I do not claim that we do not have problems and we don't have flaws in the Kurdistan Region; but there is a strong political will in order to cope with the situation and find solutions and to make Kurdistan for all the people of Kurdistan; the Kurdistan Region to be for Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Chaldeans and all the residents of the Region. And the future of Iraq would be guaranteed in a way that all the parties would stay committed to the constitution and to have real and serious partnership in the government's system in Iraq, and we will try our best in order to make sure that this program succeeds in Iraq, and we have to stay committed and determined until we achieve the final success we will not allow the terrorists to find a foothold in Iraq.
Regarding the relationship between Iraq and the Kurdistan Region and the neighboring countries, we would like to enjoy best relations with our neighbors. I believe that there is a good opportunity in order to enjoy such relations. I am pleased to say recently there has been very positive development in positions and attitudes of Turkey and a number of good and direct meetings have happened between the two sides and we hope that such kind of meetings and dialogues will continue and we hope they will be able to achieve positive results that will be in the interests of both sides.
Regarding the Status of Forces Agreement which was the main subject being discussed today, though we don’t for your sons, daughters, men and women in the army, to stay away from their loved ones and their families and their country, and we wish one day sooner that they would come back and enjoy their lives here. But a process has started that has not finished yet. If the situation in Iraq collapses, that will have a huge impact negative on economic situation. It may develop to have impact on the entire gulf region. We believe that the current agreement that being worked upon includes a time table scheduled for the withdrawal of the troops. Working by such a kind of program that would organize the way the troops to be drawn back and also for the situation in Iraq to be under control and so that once again Iraq will not become a foothold or a safe haven for the terrorists or to be under the influence of this or that. We believe that this agreement is better than any other alternatives available.
Once again I would like to reiterate and stress on the role of the Kurds and the Kurdistan Region; we are determined to continue play our positive role in Baghdad. We are committed to the constitution that 85 percent of the Iraqi people voted for. And for the other areas or disputed territories there is an article – Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution – that stipulates a road map for in order to find the peaceful and lasting solution so that all the people of Iraq would enjoy security and stability.
Once again I would like to thank you and thank the CSIS and all of you for coming and providing us this opportunity to talk to you. And I wish success and progress to the people of the United States.
Thank you again.
Hamre: Thank you President, if you forgive me in my humble Kurdish "Zoor supas janabi sarook Barzani."
As John Hemre said "Having the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government with us today is quite an honor."
We want to give much of his time to questions from the audience. So, I would ask, when you are recognized, please stand and identify yourselves and your affiliation with whatever organization you represent. Needless to say, I would like to say that we appreciate concise questions for the President, and I would ask for myself and for various audience members here that you refrain from expressions necessarily of personal political opinions.
Now a number of the issues raised by President Barzani - I am sure of interest to many of you – not the least of which of course is the Status of Forces Agreement negotiations, the issues with respect to Turkey, the issues with respect to the oil law, the situation surrounding refugees in from the Ninawa valley and Mosul that are now streaming in to Kurdistan for protection, also Article 140 that the President referred to.
Question: it was reported, Mr. President, that the special foreign policy advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan was also here coincidentally in Washington during this trip; I know that you have also said you are prepared to meet with your Turkish counterparts. Did you have any opportunities to meet with that gentleman, during this trip?
President Barzani: No, I have not met him here but I met him in Baghdad and we met in Erbil and I did not know he was here. The program is that we would meet in Iraq or in the Kurdistan Region. I would have liked to him here.
Question: Mr. President, do you and the KRG view the PKK as a terrorist organization?
President Barzani: We have discussed this issue with Turkey and we will refrain from talking about this subject in the media until we reach some agreement with Turkey.
Question: On the SOFA, if it not signed between Baghdad and the Washington, is there a possibility for American forces to be based in the Kurdistan Region?
President Barzani: So far the focus is on the agreement to be signed. We will do our best for this agreement to be reached. This issue has not been discussed yet. But if no agreement is reached and if the U.S. makes such a request, I am confident the Kurdistan Regional parliament, people of the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistan Regional Government would welcome that.
Question: Also on the status of SOFA, can you speak about the amendments which the Iraqi government is now considering; can you be as specific as possible? And can you also tell us whether in the end there will be a successful SOFA agreement signed?
President Barzani: I participated in the last meeting of Iraq’s Political Council of National Security on 19th October in Baghdad; there was no mention of any amendments in the final draft at that time. I realize that after my visit to the U.S., some amendments have been proposed but I am not aware of the details. On the version that was submitted during our last meeting, our position was very clear that we believe that the draft was a good one and we could agree on.
Question: With your meeting with Washington Post editorial board, you indicated that you did not think that the SOFA as currently structured would pass the Iraqi parliament.
President Barzani: There are a lot of complications; and there are also efforts against the signing of this agreement. But I have my doubts for the SOFA to be signed; although I do not rule out that it could be signed. There are two views. Some are in favor; some agonist. We consider this to be a good agreement and we are in favor of this agreement. The alternatives are either the extension of the current status quo or not to have any agreement which would lead Iraq to an unknown destiny. We believe in this agreement; this agreement sets a clear withdrawal timetable at the end of 2011. This agreement at least gives us a clear picture about what will happen in Iraq in the coming period; therefore we are in favor of it.
Question: President Barzani, as you are wrapping up your visit to Washington, what is your understanding of the position of the U.S regarding Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution?
President Barzani: The official position of the U.S. government as expressed by the States Department spokesman, and also as we heard during our meetings here, is that they want Article 140 to be implemented, because this is a constitutional commitment and the people of Iraq voted for this constitution.
Question: President Barzani, could you describe for us your assessment of the relationship that exists now between the Kurdish security forces and the Iraqi national army. And how do you see this evolving over the period as we move toward a transition of U.S presence in Iraq?
President Barzani: For your information, after the fall of the former regime in 2003, the first three brigades of the new Iraqi army were formed from the Peshmerga forces. At that time, neither the Shi’ites nor the Sunnis were prepared to join the new Iraqi army. Now, many of the units of the new Iraqi army are comprised of Kurds and Peshmerga forces; we consider the Iraqi army as our own army. But there has to be a kind of system in Baghdad such that the army cannot get involved in the internal political disputes as it did in the past. The army needs to be the army for all the country not for any specific part or individual. The army is still in the making. Sometimes there maybe differences of opinion between us and the federal government but based on the constitution we have set up a committee to address this issue of the army.
Question: Mr. President, question about Khanaqin, what happened there? And what has been done to hopefully prevent that from happening again?
President Barzani: Khanaqin is administratively in the Diyala province. The terrorists have been strong in this province for some time. At the request of the federal government, we sent there a brigade of Peshmerga forces to fight and clear the area from terrorists. After many sacrifices including 18 dead and 43 wounded, they [Peshmerga] forces managed to clear the area [from terrorists]; later, other Iraqi army units requested that the Peshmerga forces withdraw so that they would replace them in these areas. As the Peshmerga forces were preparing to withdraw, a problem emerged as a result of some irresponsible behavior from an Iraqi army commander. It reached to a dangerous point but the situation was eventually controlled; we hope this will never happen again.
Question: Mr. President, I know in your area, the Kurdish Regional Government, the Christians have total freedoms, they have their own churched, and in your constitution you have a strong minority rights. But in the Ninawa province there is a lot of persecution of the Christians and they are moving into Kurdistan. Could you comment on what’s going on in Ninawa and what the KRG is doing to accommodate them?
President Barzani: Terrorists have targeted Christians in Basra and Baghdad. Recently, they have focused they attacks on Christians in Mosul. We always assured Christians that Kurdistan is open to them. We have Christians living in Kurdistan Region but I am talking about those outside the Kurdistan Region, they are welcomed in Kurdistan to live with security and dignity. Not only Christians are moving into Kurdistan; some 25000 Arab families have fled terrorism and violence to settle in the Kurdistan Region. And for your information, since 2003, over 2000 Kurds have been killed in Mosul because of their Kurdish identity. So it is not just the Christians who are being attacked. More than 100,000 Kurds have been displaced from Mosul.
Question: I wondered if you could give your estimate if the current strength of the insurgency, not just in Kurdistan, even mainly in Kurdistan, but in the rest of Iraq and what do you think are the chances of it regaining strength in coming year or two?
President Barzani: Fortunately, terrorists have not been able to establish bases in Kurdistan Region. Occasionally they have managed to infiltrate into our Region from Mosul. The bulk of terrorism was based in specific areas like Anbar, Baghdad, Baqoba, and Mosul. But now they are much weakened; in Anbar, people have turned against them and they have cleared their area from terrorists; in Baghdad too, with the support from residents and US army, terrorists have been very much weakened. In Mosul, they are still at large. Although terrorists have not been uprooted, they have been severely defeated. But there is always the chance of them regaining strength if we cannot build on our successes.
Question: Mr. President, can you give us a status update on the communications or negotiations between the KRG and the federal government in Baghdad about exporting oil from the KRG and also Baghdad’s recognition of the contracts awarded by the KRG to several oil companies?
President Barzani: The Iraqi constitution is very clear on this; existing oil field will be managed by the federal government together with the regional governments; new oil fields will be managed by the regional government together with the federal government; revenues will be shared by all. There was a draft oil law in February 2007 that was due to be presented to the Iraqi Council of Ministers and the to the Iraqi parliament; this draft had a appendix that stated that if no agreement is reached on the draft by May 2007, both sides would have the right sign contracts; of course an agreement was not reached. We have worked within the framework of the draft law and the appendix, as well the constitution. In the last meeting we had in mid October at Iraq’s Political Council of National Security, we agreed to form a high-ranking committee to deal with this issue. This resolution of this issue needs a political decision. This decision needs to be made by the Iraq’ political leaders. Based on the constitution, we have agreed to share all oil revenues, and that oil and gas belong to all the people of Iraq. We have no problems with revenue sharing and we are intent on working to reach an agreement on the oil and gas law.
Question: Two quick questions. On is a follow-up on the PKK question, when would you be able to speak to the press about the status of your talks with Turkey on the issue of PKK and if there has been any agreements. The second question: about your visit to Iran, could you give us an insight about your visit?
President Barzani: As I mentioned, our talks with the government of Turkey are ongoing and at the right time we will talk to the press. On my visit to Iran, Iran is a neighboring country to us. It was important that Iran heard our point of view regarding our relations, the SOFA agreement; it was also important for us to hear their views. We agreed on some points; we disagreed on some. This is normal.
Question: Mr. President, would you share with your view about Iran? Whether you see it as a threat or not? Because, the Sunnis see Iran as a threat. Iran has been playing a negative role in Iraq. You as a Sunni, do see Iran as a threat to Iraq.
President Barzani: From the start of the sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ite, we tried not take sides and we tried to bring them together and mediated between them. We tried to help both sides to stop the violence against each other and prevent any escalation of the strife between them. There maybe some countries that want to interfere in Iraq. But the Iraqi people, the Sunnis and the Shi’ites themselves should not allow any country to interfere in their internal affairs.
Question: You said that your dialogue with Turkey is ongoing, but still the attacks by terrorist against Turkish are also continuing. I want to ask whether you are taking any unilateral steps to end these terrorist attacks in KRG region.
President Barzani: We have never been in favor of these attacks. We have never supported bloodshed. But as I said, as long as is we have open dialogue with Turkey, I am not prepared to talk about any details to the press.
Question: You met with President Bush; you met with Secretary of State Rice; in your meetings with President Bush, can you give us some sense of the exchange that might not have been reported in the press. For example, did you talk about the 55, 000 Kurds in the U.S and those who are U.S citizens, how they might vote Tuesday?
President Barzani: The Kurds here are free like you to vote; but I know that they are divided into two camps. My visit here, was to thank the people of the U.S and the President of the U.S. to liberate us from dictatorship. Of course, a strong personal relationship has developed between President Bush and myself. But the principal issue of the meeting was the SOFA agreement. In a few months time President Bush will leave the office, and I wanted to personally thank him. We also talked about the future relations between Iraq and the U.S. and between the Kurds and the U.S.; of course we realize that our relations would be within the framework of Iraq-US relations. But the Kurds have an effective role in Iraq. I promised President Bush, that we would support the agreement and we would continue our efforts to reach this agreement.