We are on the Brink of Change: A Kurdish Perspective

March 26, 2003

We are on the Brink of Change: A Kurdish Perspective

(Edited by Nikolas K.

(Edited by Nikolas K. Gvosdev from remarks presented by Dr. Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (Iraqi Kurdistan), at The Nixon Center, March 14, 2003.  Special to In the National Interest.) 

"We are on the brink of change in Iraq.  Everything we have heard from the Bush Administration indicates that this is for real this time.  We stand at a crossroads in history, which hopefully will launch Iraq toward representative democracy after thirty-five years of tyranny that has ruled over our country," Dr. Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, observed. 

Dr. Salih noted that "removing Saddam Hussein will not be that difficult" since according to reports they have received, the Iraqi military "is demoralized and much of the Iraqi military defenses will collapse before long."  He pointed out that none of this precludes Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants from "barricading themselves" or going into hiding, but that the bulk of the country should fall relatively quickly to coalition forces. 

Dr. Salih acknowledged that "the process of transition from a highly centralized dictatorship to a federal democracy" will be difficult, and that there are a number of impediments.  He pointed out, however, that these problems pale in comparison to the present-day sufferings faced by Iraqis.  He described a "sense of anticipation gripping the Iraqi population that their liberation is near," yet noted that there remains a sense of "uncertainty and fear" that the "Iraqi dictator will unleash an armageddon" upon his own people, including the use of VX and anthrax.  "We Iraqis know he has such weapons and that he is capable of using them." 

However, "the overwhelming majority of Iraqis have had enough and want to end this nightmare."  Certainly, there are obvious concerns among the populace about "the day after,"--the provision of public services, whether Iraq's neighbors will intervene, and so on.  Dr. Salih pointed out that "there is a lot of work that has been done, both by the Bush Administration and the Iraqi opposition" to prepare for a post-Saddam Iraq.  An interim national transitional authority is envisioned, to take responsibility for managing the day-to-day affairs of the country in consultation with the United States and the coalition.  "We see the U.S. mission as one of liberating the Iraqi people from this tyranny," Salih said. 

Salih acknowledged that "there will be some effort to derail our venture of building a federal democracy in Iraq," but that the Iraqi people are ready to reform their political system to produce a government "that is at peace with its own people and with its neighbors."  At the recent meeting in Salahaddin, a leadership structure of six people was created.  Salih pointed out that in the future, this structure may be expanded to include an Assyrian and a Turcoman representative and to encompass people from within parts of Iraq currently controlled by Saddam Hussein.  The goal of this transitional administration will be to "prepare for elections to a constituent assembly" to ratify a constitution for a federal democracy in Iraq.  He also pointed out that this leadership council has set up fourteen working committees (including in the areas of finance, outreach, and foreign relations), and said that "we expect these will be integrated into the interim national authority as soon as practically possible."  

"Given the nature of Iraqi geopolitics, given the failed state that is Iraq, I envision a medium term American military presence" to ensure that the Iraqi people have the ability to exercise self-determination, Salih said.  "We will have a power-sharing democracy in Iraq, where Kurdistan will become part of the federal state.  We are part of Iraq.   … The geopolitics of Iraq prevent us from breaking away.  We are going to be Iraqis, so we have the right to be players on the national scene, in Baghdad," Salih concluded. 

"We want a federal Iraq that will guarantee significant self-government, not only to Kurdistan but all regions of Iraq, and will give the right to all peoples--Arabs, Kurds, Turcomans, Assyrians--to participate in national government," Salih said.  However, he stressed that power must be decentralized, otherwise the possibility would remain that another dictator might come to power in Iraq. 

Asked about the situation vis-à-vis Turkey, Salih said, "One of the nightmare scenarios is a war within a war. Nationalist politics is a dangerous dynamic if unleashed."  He pointed out that the Kurdistan Regional Government had developed "good bilateral relations with Turkey.  We have developed collaborative relationships for security, economic matters, even on some political issues."  He noted that Turkey, after all, had facilitated the no-fly zone which protects Iraqi Kurdistan, and said that Turkey's secular democracy was a model that had value for Iraq.  "We say to our Turkish neighbors, you have insisted on Iraqi territorial integrity … we have accepted this reality … it is our sovereign right, therefore, as Iraqis to build a federal state."  Salih pointed out the inconsistency of a policy that insists that Iraqi Kurds be part of an Iraqi state yet then refuses to see them as anything other than Kurds.  "We have settled for a federal democracy where we can express our identity as Kurds but function as Iraqis," he concluded. 

Certainly, "the United States is not going to be there [in Iraq] forever. We have to visualize a future within the context of the region."  Yet, he countered, "peace and stability cannot be maintained in the region with the subjugation of the Kurdish people," with Kurds subject to being gassed and suffering genocide. 

Asked about demonstrations where protestors burned Turkish flags, Dr. Salih stated, "We cannot condone, we do not condone the desecration of the national symbols of our neighbors" and asked that the acts of a few irresponsible people, bigots, not be taken to reflect the desire of most to live and peace and harmony with their neighbors in Turkey. 

In commenting on the future of the oil industry, Dr. Salih said, "We envisage oil to be a federal issue: this should be about freedom, not about carving up oil (this oil is for Kurdistan, that oil is for Arabs, Sunnis or Shiites).  The oil industry should be managed at the federal level with revenues dispensed according to the needs of the regions of the Iraqi federal state."  He pointed out that the oil industry needs reform, that it is currently mismanaged, and noted that Russia might be a good model to contemplate--de-monopolizing the oil industry and enabling competitive entities to develop the oil fields.  Yet he acknowledged that this would be for a future Iraqi government to decide.  He closed, however, by saying that "We do not insist on oil as a Kurdish resource per se; it is an Iraqi resource that should be managed by a federal treasury for the benefit of all Iraqis." 

Asked about his vision for a federal Iraq, Dr. Salih put forward his personal  opinion that Iraq should be a regionally-based federation, not an ethnically-based federation, along the American model.  "An ethnically-based federation is a recipe for disaster," he said, noting that many Kurds live in Baghdad, while there are Arabs, Turcoman and Assyrians living in Kurdistan.  "The Iraq we want is not defined on ethnic lines," he said.  Instead, the regions would delegate power to a federal authority, for national defense, monetary policy, national economic matters (including oil policy), and foreign relations.   

He pointed out that for the last ten years, Kurdistan has enjoyed virtual independence, yet "we seek reintegration into Iraq based on a voluntary union, democracy, and a decentralized system of government."  He observed that most Arabs in Iraq recognize that what has happened in Kurdistan over the last decade--the development of effective local self-government-- is something good, a model worth emulating in other parts of Iraq. 

In response to a question about terrorism, Dr. Salih noted that Ansar al-Islam is in fact active and that it is "a serious terrorist threat."  Ansar al-Islam is the local affiliate of Al-Qaeda, and there are some 120 Arab Afghanis present in a string of villages along the Iranian border, and that this area has become the hub of Al-Qaeda for the entire Levant.  Salih concluded that with liberation, the "full scope" of the Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq would become known. 

Finally, given the discussions about a possible Turkish military presence in northern Iraq, Dr. Salih, who visited both the White House and the Pentagon, stated that "we are told at the highest levels of the United States government that the United States would neither welcome nor endorse any unilateral military action by any of the neighbors of Iraq."


Dr. Salih serves as the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (Iraqi Kurdistan).