Bakir: Kurdistan as a Model for Iraq

Minister Bakir says Kurds favor a political solution to cross-border tensions with Turkey, but so far, Ankara has “only considered a military operation to solve this problem.”

October 18, 2007, 3:04 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Falah Mustafa Bakir, director of the foreign relations department for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, says his government favors a political solution to cross-border tensions with Turkey, but so far, Ankara has “only considered a military operation to solve this problem.” He adds that while Kurds “would like to have an independent Kurdish state,” political realities in Iraq have prompted Kurdish officials to embrace a federal government strategy to solving Iraq’s sectarian problems.

Turkey’s parliament has voted on a military plan to allow Turkish soldiers to conduct cross-border raids against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. How would the Kurdish government respond to such an act of aggression and, in your view, what’s behind the latest tough talk from Ankara?

We believe the best way to solve this problem is through political dialogue. We understand Turkey’s concerns and we are against the killing of civilians, but there is no military solution for this problem. It would be in the interests of both Turkey and the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] for this question to be addressed politically, and we believe there may now be an opportunity for a political approach.

So far the Turkish government has only considered a military operation to solve this problem. But history and experience have proven that you cannot solve such a problem only through military means. We believe there is a window of opportunity and the door is still open for an alternative to a military solution.

The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has been described as a Kurdish separatist group. As far as you can tell, what are the aims of the PKK, and what is your government doing to reign in the separatists?

In the last few years, the PKK has begun to change its conduct and it now may be ready for a peaceful approach within Turkey. Our understanding is that the PKK may be prepared to join the political process in Turkey, and it is left to the Turkish government to seize this opportunity for a potential political solution to this problem. But as far as we are concerned in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, we agree on the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of Turkey, and we are not ready for the Iraqi-Kurdistan region to be used against Turkey or any of our neighbors. We do not provide support to any group that wants to create problems for Turkey.

The U.S. Congress recently voted to label the Ottoman Turk killing of Armenians in 1915 as genocide. The move has clearly angered Ankara, and could leave the impression that lawmakers in Washington have in some way turned their backs on the KRG. I was wondering what your thoughts were on this.

We do not want to be part of any friction between Turkey and the United States. We are allies with the United States and we are neighbors with Turkey—we want to enjoy good relations with everyone. We did not want Ankara’s reaction to the House resolution to negatively affect our region, which is the only safe part of Iraq. Any military action by Turkey would jeopardize our hard work to cooperate with our Iraqi colleagues to build a more stable and prosperous future for all of the Iraqi people.

Shifting gears a bit, Kurdistan and Turkey have been in the news a bit lately because of growing cross-border tensions. Less heralded, however, are economic ties between your government and the Turkish government. What is the status of these economic partnerships?

Even before the fall of Saddam’s regime, we had encouraged Turkish companies to come and do business in the Iraqi-Kurdistan region. We had limited capacity internally and therefore wanted to reach out to those Turkish companies who have had a good reputation and good performance and invite them to be active in our region. After the fall of the regime, the main construction projects have been granted to Turkish companies because we believe that both sides can benefit from these kinds of commercial and business activities. These ties are growing, not decreasing, and that is very good news. We want this trend to continue.  

What sectors are you seeing the largest growth in?

Mainly construction—Irbil International Airport, Sulaymaniyah Airport, bridges, roads, public buildings—to name a few.

You mentioned in your speech to the United Nations this week that Kurdistan has experienced “an historic period of economic growth and expansion.” I wonder if you could detail what those expansions are, and define this historic growth?

If you go back to the history of the Kurdistan region under the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein, the infrastructure was ruined and there was no attention given to the agricultural sector, industrial, or service sectors. It was after the fall of the regime that we got the opportunity to expand and institute economic and investment policies to encourage growth. These policies have provided an opportunity for the public sector, the private sector, and people who lived abroad to start small businesses. It’s in the housing, tourism, agricultural, and construction sectors, and others, that the government is trying to build a stronger economic foundation for our people and for our future. People have started to have hope for the future and are working together for a better future.

You also mentioned during your speech at the United Nations that the Kurdistan region serves as a model for the rest of Iraq. Could you expand on that?

Since 1991 we have been free from Saddam Hussein’s control. The Kurdistan National Assembly, our regional parliament, opted for a federal solution in 1992 in order to be part of a federal democratic system in Iraq. We wanted to show the rest of the country that, when given the opportunity, we are able to administer our own region and take care of our own affairs. We have agreed with the rest of the leadership in Iraq to draft a constitution which states that Iraq is a federal state, a democratic state, a state that lives in peace with its own people and its neighbors. Therefore we wanted the stability, security, and economic activities in Kurdistan to be seen as a gateway to the rest of Iraq, so that the rest of Iraq could be doing the same as Kurdistan. We believe that companies established here will move south when the time is right; Kurdistan is a gateway to the rest of the country.

You mention the Iraqi constitution and the federal system of government. Last month the U.S. Senate approved a nonbinding resolution that urged the furthering of this federal government strategy in Iraq. But the legislation has been widely criticized by the Shiite government in Baghdad, Sunni groups and, in fact, the U.S. Embassy. I wonder what your thoughts are on the resolution?

We were surprised by that reaction to and criticism of the nonbinding resolution. We understand what the resolution was asking for, and it was exactly what is stated in the Iraqi Constitution: the implementation a federal system in Iraq. After trying a strong central government, which has proven a failure, the best solution that we could see that would bring the diverse Iraqi groups together within a unified country in a federal system of governance. We see federalism as a solution and not a problem. Federalism means uniting Iraq and not partitioning Iraq. It’s unfortunate that people have misrepresented federalism as a problem.

After trying a strong central government, which has proven a failure, the best solution we could see that would bring the diverse Iraqi groups together within a unified country is a federal system of governance.

The president of the Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, has called for a conference for all the major Iraqi political parties and groups to come to Kurdistan and discuss the most appropriate means of putting a federal system in place that will have the best chance to bring political stability and progress to Iraq. Again, this is an example of the Kurdistan Regional Government acting proactively and constructively to find the best solutions to the problems facing Iraq.

Now there are also those, however, who suggest that Kurdistan’s favoring of this system is tantamount to favoring separatism. That seems to be the concern that Turkey has. What are your thoughts on that characterization of support for this strategy?

It’s unfortunate, because we have contributed so positively to the political progress in Iraq and have given the best that we can. We have done our best in serving the Iraqi people. But unfortunately, still that kind of accusation, and that kind of fear, remains.

We have opted voluntarily to be part of a federal democratic system in Iraq. So long as Iraq continues to be committed to the constitution, we will remain part of Iraq. We know very well that it is in our interest to be part of this country, and we have decided voluntarily to remain so. We have contributed so much to Iraq, and expect that the rest of Iraq can return that kind of goodwill and gesture from the KRG, so that we build together a federal  and democratic system that can give us a situation that allows for power sharing and wealth sharing within the same country, which is for all Iraqis. Basically, the foreign, defense, and monetary policies would be handled by the federal government in Baghdad, and the rest would be left to the region.

The oil and gas law passed by the parliament of Kurdistan has been questioned by many, including the Iraqi oil minister. I wonder if you could talk on the subject of legality, and how the oil and gas law, as passed, benefits not just your region but Iraq as a whole.

Whatever we have done comes within the constitutional rights that our region enjoys. And more importantly, we talk about revenue sharing. Whatever we do, only 17 percent will come to the KRG area, while the rest, which is 83 percent, will go to the federal government in Baghdad. So we are committed to our constitutional rights, we are committed to the constitution. We are committed to revenue sharing. But our people have high expectations —they need services and better opportunities.

Every Kurd would like to have an independent Kurdish state… We understand the circumstances and the neighborhood we live in, and therefore there is a difference between what one wishes to achieve, what is achievable, and what can be achieved.

We cannot put our future on hold while the rest of the country stabilizes. Therefore we have an opportunity: Kurdistan can serve as the gateway for investors to come [through] and be a launching pad or a stepping-stone toward the rest of the country.

As an Iraqi from the Kurdish region of Irbil, do you believe the Kurdish region deserves its own independent state?

Every Kurd would like to have an independent Kurdish state. We are the largest nation in the world without a state. But we understand the difficulties. We understand the circumstances and the neighborhood we live in, and therefore there is a difference between what one wishes to achieve and what can be achieved.

The leadership of the Kurdistan region is wise enough and there is enough political maturity in the region for them to make calculations that take into consideration all the factors. Therefore they have opted for a federal democratic pluralistic system to be part of Iraq because they know what’s in the interests of the people. During the elections, there was a referendum—97.5 percent of the people voted for an independent state, but still the political leadership tried its best to manage the expectations of the people and explain to the people why it’s in the interests of the KRG to be part of Iraq and to work within Iraq.

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