Iraqi Kurdistan and the Islamic State Group

Friday, May 8, 2015
Azad Lashkari/Reuters
Masoud Barzani

President, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Jerry Seib

Washington Bureau Chief, The Wall Street Journal

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq's Kurdistan Region, joins the Wall Street Journal's Gerald F. Seib to discuss recent developments in the conflict between the Islamic State group and the Kurdish peshmerga. Barzani begins the conversation by offering a situation report of the state of the battlefield in northern Iraq, noting the territorial gains of the peshmerga against the Islamic State group. Over the course of the discussion, Barzani outlines the relationship between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which he heads, and the central Iraqi government. Furthermore, Barzani reviews his meetings in Washington, DC, noting his unsuccessful bid to convince the Obama administration to provide weapons directly to the peshmerga. Barzani notes that Kurdish fighters would have suffered fewer losses had the United States provided arms directly, instead of through of the Iraqi government. Barzani addresses a range of topics over the conversation, including prospects for Kurdish independence, the role of Iraq's Sunni tribes in the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group, and Iraqi politics.

SEIB: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jerry Seib. I'm the Washington bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal.

As you all know, our very special guest today is Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. And it's a pleasure and an honor to have you with us at the council, Mr. President.

Equally important is the presence of Falah Mustafa Bakir, who's the foreign minister of the KRG and crucially will serve as our interpreter today so that we can make this conversation happen in a very meaningful and substantive way. Thank you very much for joining us. We appreciate it very much.

Mr. President, I thought I would start by just asking you if you want to talk for a couple of minutes if you have something to say at the outset, perhaps summarizing your visit here this week or anything else you want to cover, and then I'll launch in to ask some questions.

We're speaking on the record today. And after we have a conversation at about 1 o'clock, I'll shut up, and I'd open the floor to your questions, and we'll have microphones that go around at that point. And I very much look forward to having all of you join in the conversation well.

So Mr. President, the floor is yours.

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Sir (ph), I'd like to thank you for providing me with this opportunity. It's a pleasure to meet some friends here around in this audience.

Our visit to Washington came at invitation of the White House. So we are here in order to communicate and convey our thanks to the president, the vice president, the American administration, and the people of United States for the support that they have provided when we were faced with the terrorists of ISIS. As you all know, that—it's almost a year that we have been in a tough and difficult fight with the most brutal terrorist organization of the day.

So so far, as a result of this, we have given huge sacrifices. 1,200 Peshmergas have been murdered (ph). 7,000 have been wounded.

Yes, at the beginning, we have faced some difficulties. We have lost territory to the ISIS, but immediately, we were able to take full control of the situation and to liberate the areas. We have been able so far to clear and liberate an area of 20,000 square kilometers, and the Peshmerga have full control of the initiative in their hand.

The areas so-called the disputed territories, or areas of Kurdistan outside the KRG administration, are almost in the hands of the Peshmerga today, and we are ready to go back to the will of the people as it has been stipulated in the constitution to go back to the will of the people in a referendum (ph) for the people to make the final decision on their choice, what do they want to be and to decide their own future.

So we are committed to that, and we are committed to respect the will and the choice of the population in these areas.

And the losses suffered by ISIS, this is the information that we share also with General Austin that they have lost 11,000 of their members, those who have been killed in our front lines, those who have been killed by the Peshmerga forces or those who have been targeted by the airstrikes.

And I'd also like to share with you that the coordination and the cooperation between our forces, the U.S. forces and coalition partners, have been excellent, and no civilians have been targeted throughout all these operations.

Well, certainly, if it were not for the air support that was provided by the United States, our losses would have been much more. But at the same time, had the Peshmerga's had the necessary needed weapons, the losses would have been much less.

ISIS is not a new organization; it's an extension of Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda mainly relied on those trend (ph) of the jihadi (inaudible) trend. ISIS benefited from that, plus the Arab chauvinism with all its factions. ISIS would not have been able to achieve all that it has achieved.

As an example, they were able to acquire 1,700 Humvees, or Hummers, because as a result of the wrong policies of the former prime minister, the former cabinet, which paved the way for ISIS to take full control.

So the front line that we have with ISIS in Iraqi Kurdistan, if we count (ph) from (inaudible) to Sinjar (ph), is 1,050 kilometers. But as Kurds, we are in the front line, which is 1,500 kilometers from (inaudible) to Kobani.

And it's a source of pride for the people of Kurdistan, for the Peshmerga, that we have been able—the Peshmergas were able to destroy the myth and the image of ISIS being an invincible force.

And also, we believe that we are defending some common values: values and principles that the free world believes in and cherish, and we defend these values.

In addition to the costly war, other burdens of war and sustaining that war, we are under huge pressure economically for the—for providing refuge and sanctuary to the internally-displaced people from the rest of Iraq and the refugees from Syria. Altogether, it's 1.5 million. A quarter of a million or 250,000 of them are from Syria. The rest are from different parts of Iraq.

There are Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, they all have found refuge and sanctuary in Kurdistan. And we did provide them with the services that we could. We will continue to do so, but certainly, their needs and expectations are far more beyond the capability and the capacity of the KRG.

The relationship between Erbil and Baghdad today is much better than it was with the previous cabinet, and we are working together in order to find solutions to the problems that we face.

Finally, I would like to say that we are delighted and pleased with our visit and we consider it as a successful visit, and we found out that there is a very good understanding of the Kurdish question of the issues of the Kurdish people, and also we have been given assurances that the Peshmergas will get the weapons and the requirements into their hands.

SEIB: Mr. President, thank you for that overview.

Let me start with that final thought. The—you said in your comments just now that the—the battle against ISIS would be easier if the Peshmerga had the necessary weapons.

What assurances did you get specifically while you were here that you will get the weapons that you need, and specifically what does the Peshmerga lack right now that you would like to see in the hands of your fighters?

BARZANI (through translator): Well, if we go back to the history of this issue, we're going back to the old days, during the time of 2007 when General Dempsey was in charge of the U.S. forces in Iraq. There was an agreement that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, which are part of the Iraqi national defense system, they would get their share from whatever the Iraqi army gets.

But unfortunately, we did not receive neither a bullet nor a piece of weapon.

So the Peshmergas had all the outdated weapons, and they were the weapons that we have captured in the fight against Saddam Hussein regime and in other fights.

Indeed, we discussed this issue with the al fashazid (ph) administration, the details of this issue, and there were assurances made that this will not be repeated again, and we were given assurances that they would—there would be follow-up on that, and before now, we did not get such kind of assurances.

Therefore, we are pleased that at that level, assurances have been given to KRG.

SEIB: And just to be specific about your conversations here, do you leave Washington confident that the president, the vice president, the secretary of state will make sure that that—those assurances are followed through?

BARZANI (through translator): We go back with full confidence and a great hope to Kurdistan.

SEIB: Let me talk more broadly about your relationship with the government in Baghdad, if I might. I'm curious about the status of the December agreement, the—the questions that were to be resolved in that agreement, particularly regards, with regard to the sale of oil.

What is the progress in implementing the December agreement? Are you satisfied with it? Are there things that need to be worked on?

BARZANI (through translator): As far as the agreement is concerned, the KRG is required to provide 550,000 barrels per day in return for the federal government in Baghdad to provide 17 percent share of the KRG as it is in the Iraqi budget for 2015.

In April, the KRG provided and exported even more than—maybe more than what is required to, but according to the news that I have received while here, Baghdad has not honored that agreement in order to provide KRG with its 17 percent share of it, and indeed, it's less than the amount of oil that KRG has given to Baghdad via (inaudible) to be sold.

But we will follow up on that when we go back to Kurdistan.

SEIB: And on that point, did—I assume you raised that with officials of the—of the Obama administration here.

Will you have their assistance in making sure that you get what the—what the December agreement says the Kurdish government is supposed to receive?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Yes. Before now and now, they have been trying seriously in order to encourage Baghdad and Erbil in order to stay committed to this agreement and to be implemented.

SEIB: There is coming an important fight for Mosul. What role do you think the Peshmerga forces are likely to play in that enterprise?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): For your kind information, Mosul has got its own characteristics. Mosul is unlike Anbar. In Anbar, you have all Sunni Arab tribes, all the Arab population in Anbar. While in Mosul, you have got Arabs, you have got Kurds, you have got Turkmens, you have got Christians. You've got different religions, different sects and different ethnicities. Therefore, we have to find a formula to be agreed upon even before thinking or going to the liberation of Mosul. So we have to find a formula that all the communities who live in Mosul agree upon and they are sure about their future in the city.

Right now, there is a tripartite committee that has been established between Erbil, Baghdad and the representative of the United States in order to discuss a detailed plan for the liberation and the day after. The moment that agreement is reached, the Peshmergas are ready in order to play a serious role in the liberation of Mosul.

SEIB: One of the other factors that has changed in the regional political structure in recent weeks has been the emergence of the P5 plus one agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. How do you think that agreement, if it's executed, changes the regional political structure? And how specifically do you think it affects your part of the role, the Kurdish—the Kurdistan section?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I believe that will have an impact on the entire region of the—well, (ph) the region not only Kurdistan Region, but if that issue could be solved through understanding and dialogue, definitely it will help in the reduction or reducing the tension that exists in the area.

SEIB: And how would you describe the extent of Iranian influence on the government in Baghdad now, particularly the new government, obviously?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I believe this is a given fact, that today, Iran has more influence on the ground than any other country in Iraq.

SEIB: And is that inevitable? Or is that something that could be changed by American policy? By a new alignment within Iraq itself?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): I believe—I believe in any country—in any given country, it would be important for the people of that country to decide what kind of policy do they want. And they have to decide for their own. What will the United States be able to do if the people of that country would not? (ph) Would they declare a war, or what?

SEIB: Well, one of the—one of the—one of the questions that inevitably follows you is the question of Kurdish autonomy, Kurdish self-determination, Kurdish independence. What is your own thinking about the path forward on the question of Kurdish autonomy?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Of course, right now, the priority for all of us is fighting ISIS, to continue to push them out and away from our areas. But the process for the referendum (ph) to take place for the people of Kurdistan to determine their future and for the people of Kurdistan to exercise the right to self-determination is a process that has happened. (ph) It will not stop and we will not step back on that process. We are determined, and we insist on continuing the path.

SEIB: Mr. President, let me ask you one final question of my own. And then I will open it up to the—to the audience.

When you step back from the fight against ISIS, I'm just wondering, as we speak here today, is ISIS being defeated, or is it not being defeated?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, of course, fighting ISIS should not be confined only to military operations. It has to be a military fight, an ideological and intellectual fight, an economic fight, a logistics, access, et cetera. Therefore, it's the responsibility of many in the international community not to take part in that and honestly, and faithfully to fight that. And it would not be good and it would not be in the interest of stability or security if any quarter (ph) would like or would try to use ISIS as a pressure card (ph) on the others.

As far as our frontline is concerned, I can tell you that we have been able to give—to make sure that ISIS suffers great losses, but still take—they pose a threat to us. At the same time, ISIS have to be dealt with in both Syria and Iraq to be defeated in both places. We can't target them in one place, leave the other area a free area for movement for ISIS.

SEIB: Mr. President, thank you for that. Let me ask you for your questions. If you raise your hand. A couple of requests. Wait until I call upon you. Please wait for the microphone and also state your name and your affiliation and we'll have a lot of questions, so please keep them concise. I'll start right there and go there next.

QUESTION: I'm (OFF-MIKE). Welcome to Washington, President Barzani. The question is can you defeat Daesh in Anbar Province with—by the support of the Sunni tribes? And secondly, it seems everybody is fighting Daesh. The peshmerga is fighting Daesh. The Shiite ministers are fighting Daesh. The Iraqi army is fighting Daesh, the Syrian army is fighting Daesh. Hezbollah is fighting Daesh. And the U.S. Air Force is fighting Daesh. How come they have been able to sustain themselves and where are they getting their weapons and money from?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): First of all, very briefly to respond to your—the groups that you have mentioned, some of them before fighting ISIS, they have got their own internal problems fighting each other. Therefore, ISIS is the beneficiary in this.

So this is also a question that we have been considering where do they get all these weapons and ammunition. We do realize that they have been able to get some weapons from the Syrian army, some weapons from the Maliki army. But they also have got some new weapons. They have got some missiles—antitank missiles, very developed (ph), that they have used against us.

SEIB: If I might follow up, where do those come from?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): We really can't seem to find an answer and somebody to tell us.

SEIB: We'll do what we can right here.

QUESTION: Trudy Rubin from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Pleasure to see you again, Mr. President. Just a follow-up on Otis (ph) question. In Anbar and also Nineveh and Mosul, can ISIS be defeated if Sunnis on the ground do not rise up and fight against them.

Do you feel that the central government is doing enough or will do enough to do the political things necessary to encourage Sunnis to rise up? And did you discuss this with the Americans in your visit here? Do you feel the U.S. should be doing more to somehow facilitate a political deal where Sunnis in these provinces would be encouraged to fight back against ISIS?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): To be very honest with you in responding to this question, first of all, it's very necessary that the Sunnis in Ramadi and Mosul (inaudible) in this fight.

And the problem here is that I have shared that with the Sunnis. That's why I shared with you that I have told them that the Sunnis have neither a united political reference nor a religious reference.

That has created some difficulties among the Sunnis. So for the Sunnis to be able to play a more effective role, they have to put their at together. They have to united among themselves.

And we wish-- and in terms of this sectarian sensitivity, it's a given fact it's there. No one can deny that. We wish that it had not been there. But instead—and there are problems and (inaudible) between the federal government and these groups. That trust has not been built yet.

SEIB: Let me first interject a question that comes from a council member who's been listening remotely that's been e-mailed in. This is from Kermit Jones, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

The question is, President Barzani, in your recent remarks at the Atlantic Council you reiterated that an independent Kurdistan is coming, once the region is stable and ISIS is defeated.

In your vision for Kurdistan, now and in the future, what role do you see pesh merga fighters playing in the broader regional fight against ISIS?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): In order to make sure that he got it, after Kurdistan is independent, what role the pesh merga can play?

SEIB: In a broader regional struggle against ISIS. Long term.

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Well, certainly the pesh mergas have been able to achieve what they have achieved so far in destroying the myth of ISIS with the very limited and humble capabilities that they have. Certainly when pesh mergas turn to be an army of an independent state, they will be able to achieve much more.

Certainly the pesh mergas will be defending the values and principles that the free world all share and cherish.

SEIB: Here and then there.

QUESTION: Thank you. Ari Bakri (ph), from Lehigh University. I was wondering whether your relationship with the Syrian Kurds, the PYD in particular, has changed, especially after Kobani, given the fact that in the past you were not very sympathetic to the PYD, you would rather saw the KNC emerge as the force in Syria?

And in this context, where do you see and what is your preference in terms of the future of what happens—what's happening in Syria and Bashar Assad's reign?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): As far as the future of Syria is concerned, indeed, it's complicated and there is nothing in the horizon. The way I see it, neither there is military solution in the horizon nor a political solution in the horizon. The possibility is now for the current situation, the status quo, to continue for a while.

As far as the Kurds of Syria, they are our brothers and sisters. When they needed our help, we sent pesh merga forces there. We have given martyrs, wounded pesh mergas, in order to defend our sisters and brothers in Syria, and we did not ask them whether they were PYD or KDP or anything, because we realize that the Kurdish people were there attacked, and it was our responsibility to go and protect them, and without considering or asking them which party they belonged to.

And as far as their future is concerned and our future relations, we will try our best so that they get their act together, they cooperate with each other, they have a clear statement, so that we will be able to help them more than this.

QUESTION: Michael Gordon (ph), New York Times.

Sir, as I understand it, Kurdish law limits the presidents to two terms in office. Your second term in office was extended by two years in 2013, until August of this year. Do you plan to seek another extension of your term in office as president, or, if there was significant internal opposition to that, would you step aside? Thank you.

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): The two-year term or the two-year extension that was extended, it was not upon my request, and it was imposed on me.

And now, I have not asked for extension, and I will not ask for it. And now I have written a letter, two years ago I have written a letter to the parliament for them to carry out an election to prepare the ground for this and for me to hand over the responsibility to the person who will be elected.

And even now, before my trip, I have talked to the parliament and the political parties that they have to sort this issue out.

Certainly I would not be the reason that as a result of the presidency chair, I would create an internal problem for Kurdistan. I will never do that.

QUESTION: Judith Kipper (ph).

It's always good to see you, Mr. President, in Washington, and I think many of us here really admire how the Kurds have thrived in the last 25 years through so many conflicts.

You've talked a little bit about Iran, a little bit about Syria, but I wonder if you could give us your impression of whether Turkey is being cooperative in the struggles in the region, not only against ISIS, but generally—a member of NATO, a very powerful country and very important, obviously, to your region.

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): When we realized that there was a big change in Turkey in their policies towards the Kurdish question, we thought that this would be a good opportunity for us also to improve our relations with Turkey and to encourage them and to cooperate with them in that. So we will continue on this in order to encourage a peaceful solution for the Kurdish question in Turkey.

We enjoy good relations with Turkey now.

In the fight against ISIS, Turkey at the beginning had some reservation. What we see right now—that reservation has been decreased.

SEIB: And just, if I can...


SEIB: I was going to add, what lessons did you learn from the way—or what lessons perhaps Turkey learned from the way they handled the fight over Kobani, which I think was reflected (ph)...

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Of course, this was the second time for a Peshmerga force to go from Iraqi Kurdistan to another part in order to support and to protect. The first time was is in the year 1945, '46 during the times of the Republic of Kurdistan in Mahabad when a force went from Iraq Kurdistan to help. And this time, they went from Kurdistan to Kobani.

Of course, without American cooperation and Turkish cooperation, this would not have been possible.

So, a lesson that have learned—if there is cooperation among us, then we would be able to achieve good results.

And a—a strange coincidence—so that the first Peshmerga who martyred—was martyred in Kobani, and the first Peshmerga who was martyred in Iran in 1946—they were cousins.

SEIB: Hmm. Wow.

Way in the back there, and then they're next, just behind you.

QUESTION: (inaudible). My name is (inaudible) from Rudaw News Agency. My Iraqi passport has been expired since March of this year. Do you think I should wait from the two years until I get a Kurdish passport?

And also...


... has any country given concrete promise to support Kurdistan independence? When you met, for example, the European leaders?

Thank you.

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Until we get an independent Kurdistan, you can renew your passport, extend your passport. The Iraqi ambassador is here and he's a Kurd. You can use that passport.


So in the past, there were many world leaders who were not ready to talk about Kurdish independence or the rights of the Kurdish people and the future of the Kurds. Right now, that barrier is no longer there.

So we are pleased and delighted to see the change that has taken place. In the past, we would have known the answer even before the meeting. We would have known what we would be told. But we still—we would go—we would talk about our issues. And we would be told that this is an internal issue. We would not interfere. But, thank God, nowadays, we are not hearing such kind of statements.

SEIB: There, and then back there next.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mohammed Hashki (ph) from the Research (ph) Group. Mr. President, I had a question—forelorn (ph) question on Kurdish independence. Assuming that there's progression towards that objective, do you see that as an end in itself as far as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is concerned? Or do you see that as being a nucleus for perhaps, you know, a broader sort of Kurdish coming together, given that the Kurdish nation is spread across multiple countries in the region?

Thank you.

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Throughout history, there have been a lot of injustices committed against our people. The right that was given to other nations—it was—our people were deprived of that right, especially after World War I, when during—during the self (ph)—the right to self-determination was supposed to be given to the Kurdish people.

Each part has got it's own characteristics. As a nation, yes, we are one nation, but we have to observe the new realities on the ground today.

But most importantly is that—the most important point is that neither we as the Kurdish nation nor other nations that (inaudible) we should not be thinking about bloodshed and wars in order to solve our problems; Solving these problems have to be through democratic and peaceful means.

And for us, when we talk about Kurdish independence, we talk about Iraqi Kurdistan, or the southern part of Kurdistan. For the other parts of Kurdistan, it's up to the people, the Kurdish people in these areas to decide their own future.

SEIB: Right there, and then there.

QUESTION: Hi. I'm Nancy Berg (ph), George Washington University.

I have another question about lessons learned. In the places that you've liberated, I wonder what the learning has been about the way ISIL tries to govern, what's—what's been happening with the people there, other lessons about ISIL operates.

And then you mentioned the day after for Mosul. And I wonder what—what the process is in the other areas that have been liberated for meeting the needs of the people.

Thank you.

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): As far as ISIS and their fighters are concerned, there are three main categories.

First, the immigrants, or the caliphate army. They are the foreign fighters who come from different parts of the world.

The second group are those who were in (inaudible) and now they have adopted the ideology of ISIS and some of the former Ba'athists.

They also had some other people with them at the beginning who were coordinating, but now they have adopted their policies and their style. They agree on whatever ISIS is doing, and they agree with the approach, with the conduct and behavior, and they have chosen to be with ISIS and the lifestyle that has been chosen by ISIS.

Of course, they are the minority. The majority of the people there—at the beginning, the majority of the people there, they were thinking that ISIS is their liberator. They came to rescue them from the situation.

But that has changed afterwards when they realized the reality. Now the majority of the people are tired of ISIS, and they want to change it.

Just imagine when one would live in such an area, that everything would be imposed on you, imposed on you what to wear, what to do, what to eat, when to sleep and when to wake up, and that would be very difficult to endure and to afford.

As for the areas that have been liberated, we—those who have come to Kurdistan region, we have held them, and those who have stayed in these areas—after those who were with ISIS, they have left the areas, those who have remained, they have been provided with respect and with services, and they are much—much more comfortable than the times they were under ISIS.

And according to what they have told me personally when I visited these areas, they said that "We do not want to belong to any other area; we want to belong to Kurdistan region."

But of course, we—we will provide every service and everything that we can, provided that these people are not with ISIS.

SEIB: We have time for one last question, Robin.

QUESTION: Thank you. Robin Wright, the New Yorker.

What role is Iran playing specifically today in terms of providing arms and developing strategy?

One of your colleagues described Kassim Soleimani as the commander-in-chief of Iraq. Would you disagree?

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): Of course, Iran provided assistance to us at the very early of the fight against ISIS.

We were short of some kind of ammunition that was a type that we did not have any. They provided that kind of ammunition, and that was a great help to us.

I talk on behalf of the Kurds and on behalf of the Peshmergas. They would not accept a foreigner to lead them.

SEIB: I believe I have to give you the last word.

QUESTION: Your excellency, (inaudible).

First of all, we're honored to have you here in D.C.

Second, I'm sure I'll give the password to the...


Third, I have a reflection question (inaudible) Iraqi to an Iraqi or Kurd to a Kurd.

My father, when I started my political activism back in the early '80s, when I asked him about describing the Iraqi opposition and others, he used to say they need to have more deep-rooted community connection for the politics flourish.

Now, after 30 years, how does the excellency (ph) see we need for our politics and our interests (ph) to converge rather than diverge, as what we have now in Iraq? Thank you.

BARZANI (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): And I want to assure that I knew your late father before you were born.


He was a very patriotic, very respectful and very human person. That same statement is true for today.

SEIB: Our time is up. I want to express two sincere thank-yous here. First, to you, Mr. Minister, for making this conversation possible. You did a flawless job. And we really, really appreciate. Thank you very much. We're honored to have you here.


Safe travels. And I hope, next time you're in Washington, you'll join us.


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