Interview:Barham Salih Prime Minister, Kurdistan Regional Government (northern Iraq)
Michael Rubin, a member of the MEIB advisory board and a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, interviewed Dr. Barham Salih regarding United Nations sanctions, US policy, Iraqi Kurdistan's relations with her neighbors, and the impact of the Internet. This interview was conducted online between Washington and Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, on August 18, 2001. A brief follow-up was conducted after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Barham Salih was born in 1960. He joined the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1976 while it was still an underground movement. He was arrested twice by Iraqi security authorities before leaving Iraq in 1979. He received a BS in Civil and Structural Engineering from the University of Cardiff and a Ph.D. in Statistics and Computer Modeling from the University of Liverpool. In 1985, PUK President Jalal Talebani called upon Barham to serve as the group's spokesman in London, a position he retained until 1991 when, soon after having been elected to the PUK leadership, he departed for Washington and served there for ten years as the PUK and Kurdistan Regional Government representative to North America. On January 21, 2001, he assumed the premiership of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Sulaymaniyah.
How do you envision the future of sanctions against Iraq?
Given Iraq's huge economic opportunities and the dynamics of Middle East politics, it is remarkable that the formal regime of sanctions has lasted as long as it has. The reality is, however, that eleven years on, the sanctions are eroding gradually but surely. Sanctions cannot be more than a tool to attain a policy objective - Iraq's compliance with the Security Council resolutions. Any rational observer would recognize that sanctions in their own right - at least in the manner they are enforced - cannot bring about this stated objective. The Security Council has to find a way to resolve this dilemma and develop a more effective framework to deal with the unrelenting crisis in Iraq.
Are sanctions the cause of the suffering in Iraq? In northern Iraq?
The suffering of the Iraqi people - all the people of Iraq - predates the imposition of the UN-mandated sanctions. Iraq's predicament arises from its political system, which denies basic human rights to her citizens. This is a chronic problem that has beset the Iraqi state since its inception. It has deepened in recent decades as the power structure has become less and less inclusive.
Iraq's problems can only be resolved through fundamental reform of its political system. Only the establishment of a representative government in Baghdad, based on the rule of law and respect for human rights, can bring an end to the Iraqi people's suffering and ensure that the Iraqi state is at peace with its people, its neighbors and the world at large.
What advice would you give to the new Bush administration for a more effective Iraq policy?
Ease the burden of sanctions on Iraqi citizens, ensure that Iraq's oil revenues are spent on the well-being of the Iraqi people, and help genuine democratic movements inside Iraq. Last, and by no means least, remain strategically engaged with the evolving situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, as it truly represents the best hope for a better Iraq and an element for regional stability.
Very few people inside northern Iraq, either in the PUK or the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)-administered areas, seem to place much faith in the Iraqi National Congress. Do you see it as an effective opposition group? If so, why do they have so little popular support?
The Iraqi National Congress has an impressive political platform advocating democracy and peace. However, there is a pattern of unrealized expectations and failed policies which continues to undermine confidence in the Iraqi opposition in the Diaspora.
We in Kurdistan do not have the luxury to engage with armchair strategists and pursue half-baked measures that do not correspond with the realities of Iraq, or for that matter [the realities of] international politics. The bitter memories of Saddam's invasion of Irbil in 1996 are still very fresh in our minds. People's lives are at stake and it is understandable that we must be cautious and careful not to be dragged into adventures born out of the endless political squabbles in the ranks of the Diaspora opposition.
Furthermore, our contribution to the cause of democracy in Iraq is very real and tangible. The process of democratic self-government in Kurdistan is potentially the catalyst for a better Iraq. We must protect and expand this success story - not risk it unnecessarily for short-term expediencies.
Many policymakers have criticized the occasionally violent rivalry between the PUK and KDP. Since the beginning of your administration, however, there has been significant reconciliation. Please assess the rapprochement between the PUK and KDP. Do you think that elections for a unified parliament will be possible in the near future?
While the peace process remains inconclusive and the terms of peace accords are yet to be implemented, especially with regard to normalization and revenue sharing, relations between the PUK and KDP are stable and the atmosphere is generally positive. I believe both sides realize the dangers inherent in renewed confrontation and are eager to avoid undermining the tangible achievements in our region.
However, we believe that the status quo is untenable and cannot last. For example, PUK constituents cannot indefinitely be excluded from Irbil, and the PUK areas cannot be denied their rightful share of the region's revenues. Ultimately, elections are the only way to arbitrate the power struggle between our two parties - the alternatives are dire and catastrophic. We have consistently called for elections under international supervision. There are many problems hindering elections, some internal and some external. Our neighbors are apprehensive about this possibility - this is somewhat ironic as both Turkey and Iran have comprehensive systems of elections at both the national and local level. We should work harder to convince our neighbors that what is good for their respective societies is also good for our region. Further institutionalization of democratic self-government in this region is not a threat to the national security of our neighbors; rather it is an element of long term stability.
I hope that we will be supported internationally and regionally to bring about free and fair elections and end this sorry and futile episode of internal conflict.
There are several different Islamist groups operating in northern Iraq, especially in territory along the Iranian border. One maintains an armed compound in Sulaymaniyah. What threat does political Islam pose to stability and democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurdish society is overwhelmingly Muslim, and naturally we are also affected by the wave of political Islam sweeping the Middle East. We have our own brand of Islamic political movements, most of whom recognize the authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government - in fact the Islamic Union is represented in our coalition government with two ministers. There are some radical fringe groups that are anti-democratic and use violence in pursuit of their aims. These are undoubtedly destabilizing, and we continue to combat the threat posed by such groups through a combination of political and security measures.
I personally believe that moderate political Islamist movements have an important role in our political system - and we cannot deny their right to political activity within the law if we are to remain true to our democratic values. The secular movements can compete well and attract greater political support by offering better services and uprooting the causes of poverty and injustice in our society.
There are external factors that foster some of these groups as tools for policy and security objectives. We have to be creative and decisive in dealing with such problems in our complex political and security environment. The corner stone for lasting stability, including countering the terrorist threat, remains reconciliation between the PUK and KDP.
Northern Iraq is religiously and ethnically diverse, with Kurds, Turkmens, Christians, Yezidis, Sunnis and Shi'ites. What problems are faced by the Christian community in northern Iraq, especially given the growing rise of Islamism?
Generally speaking, Kurdish societal values are tolerant and moderate. Various religious communities have coexisted in this land in peace and harmony - with the exception of a few tragic episodes in the last century. Here in Sulaymaniyah, we have a vibrant, though numerically small, Christian community. I do not recall, nor foresee, serious religious tension in the city.
Surely fringe Islamists have an intolerant view of other religious communities, but they are very much marginal and inconsequential. The authorities of the Kurdistan Regional Government take seriously the issue of religious freedom, and we do not hesitate in taking firm action against religious bigotry and intolerance.
Here in Kurdistan we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate a model of tolerance and diversity. We cannot be true to our cause of Kurdish identity if we were to deny the Turkmen and Assyrians the rights we claim for ourselves. We pride ourselves in the strides that have made in assuring, for example, educational and other cultural rights to the Turkmen and Assyrians living in this region. This is a work in progress, and the achievements so far are promising.
What do you could predict the relationship between the United States and Iraqi Kurdistan will be like in ten years?
I am hopeful that the experience of the last ten years provides the United States good cause for expanding its engagement with Iraqi Kurdistan. The mainstream Kurdish leadership is moderate and understands the imperative of regional stability and the realities of international politics. It is only logical for us to seek good relations with the United States, which is the world's only remaining superpower with vital strategic interests in this region. US-led protection over the last decade has been indispensable for our people and we are grateful for that support.
Iraq's current political system, which is based on centralized minority rule, has failed. That system cannot endure and there is no future for Iraq unless it becomes decentralized and inclusive of all its communities. We in the Kurdish movement have also come to realize the limitations of nationalism and recognize that our interests dictate that we become active players on the Iraqi scene. We cannot leave the future of Iraq to be shaped by others - we are directly affected and must be involved to ensure that the future of Iraq is different from its miserable and brutal past. This is surely consistent with the principle of Iraq's territorial integrity to which we are committed and upon which our neighbors insist. Iraqi Kurds are emerging as key players in Iraqi and regional politics, so I foresee that the engagement of international powers with our region will endure and expand.
I believe that the history of the last ten years has left us with a good foundation for an even closer relationship with the United States, based on common interests and values, not only in the next ten years but also beyond.
In January, you accompanied Jalal Talebani to Ankara, whose assistance the PUK is also enjoying in the fight against the PKK. In the past, however, relations between Turkey and the PUK were strained. Have things changed? Why?
Thankfully, relations between Turkey and the PUK have improved noticeably. Many problems marred our bilateral relations in the past. Turkey's concerns over PKK presence in Iraqi Kurdistan, and her fundamental anxiety over Iraq's territorial integrity, have contributed to a problematic and erratic relationship. We in the PUK have also been concerned over Turkish involvement with internal conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan and her sensitivities to the political developments in Iraqi Kurdistan.
I believe that the Turkish government increasingly recognizes the PUK's commitment to the legitimate security and political interests of Turkey in this region. Further, we affirm that the developments in self-government are consistent with Iraqi territorial integrity and that we aspire to be part of a better and more peaceful Iraq. Democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan, and in Iraq, should be seen as an asset to Turkish democracy.
Trade relations between our region and Turkey are improving, and our regional government has taken wide-ranging measures to encourage trade with our neighbors.
Will an improvement of relations with Turkey mean a downturn in relations with Iran?
I do not see this as a zero sum game. We share a border of over 600 km with Iran, so we cannot be indifferent to her security and political interests. We have an abiding interest in good neighborly relations with Iran. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries of the region rightly seek good neighborly relations with Iran, so it is only natural for us to do likewise. Further, we can neither forget nor ignore that Iran has traditionally been our refuge at times of crisis and supported our resistance movements during a time when our people faced genocide. Iran is also an important trade route for our region. Our policy is to seek balanced relations with our neighbors based on mutual interests.
Even though the PUK-governed territory is not adjacent to Syria, how do you envision the future of Iraqi Kurdistan's relations with its Arab neighbor?
We have to work with all our neighbors to bring about peaceful coexistence in this troubled region. Syria has, in the past, supported Iraqi Kurdish movements against Baghdad - in fact, it hosted the PUK after its founding. Syrian support for our resistance movement has been important and we have not forgotten it.
The Kurds, however, have had a bitter experience with the Arab world. Most Arab governments, if not all, either supported Iraq or were indifferent during the Anfal campaign and chemical attack on Halabja. My good friend Kanan Makiya, in his book Cruelty and Silence, depicts the hypocritical stance of many Arab governments and intellectuals toward the plight of the Iraqi people - Kurds and Arabs alike.
We have received in recent months a number of delegations of Arab intellectuals who were impressed with they saw in Iraqi Kurdistan by way of civil society and democratic evolution. The visitors have written extensively in the Arab press on the situation here, and we are grateful for their courage and sincerity. There are plans to convene the second session of the Arab-Kurdish Dialogue Forum (the first was convened in Cairo in 1999) which is designed to bring together Kurdish and Arab politicians and intellectuals to debate the dimensions of Arab-Kurdish relations.
I hope that our Arab neighbors recognize, after these decades of turmoil and instability, that their political, security and economic interests dictate support for our rights within a federal democratic Iraq.
Local residents in northern Iraq joke that the numbers in UN Security Council Resolution 986, the "oil-for-food" program, stand for "900 parts for New York, 80 parts for Geneva, and 6 parts for the Kurds." Is SCR 986 working? Could it be more effective?
The oil-for-food program is a great and truly revolutionary concept. In fact it is historic, in the sense that never in our history have we had a government obliged by international law to devote Iraq's oil revenues to the wellbeing of the Iraqi people. It is refreshing to see these revenues not used on weapons and repression.
The program suffers from serious management problems emanating from the complexities of the Iraq-UN political framework, as well as the inefficiencies inherent in the UN system itself. Some UN agencies are better than others: UNICEF and UNDP are generally well-regarded. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) is singled out as uniquely wasteful and inefficient. The World Health Organization is not that well regarded either.
Despite these serious problems, we cooperate with UN agencies to ensure that projects are implemented more effectively. While we are critical of the inefficiencies of the system and the bureaucratic waste, we must not lose sight of the overall success and vitality of the program.
The program can surely be made more effective. Five years on, I believe, the time has come for a serious review of the Memorandum of Understanding between Iraq and the UN Secretariat. This review must duly consider the unique nature of the situation of Iraqi Kurdistan and focus on sustainable development of our region. The UN has yet to realize the full potential of this program in Iraqi Kurdistan, and therefore it may be losing an important opportunity to score a far greater success story.
Many local Kurds and non-UN international aid workers claim that Arabs within the UN offices in Iraq are working to stymie economic and infrastructure development in northern Iraq, especially in health, agriculture, and watershed management. Is there any truth to these accusations?
I do not like to generalize as there are always good and bad examples in any situation. I am aware of incidents in which some UN staff in Baghdad are said to have gone "native." We consult with the UN management on such issues on a case by case basis.
You have been the driving force behind the wiring of Sulaymaniyah. How has the Internet changed the city?
The Internet is new to Kurdistan, but people are catching up fast. We have inaugurated an Internet service center at Sulaymaniyah University, which is offering free unrestricted access to all students. We are already in the process of expanding that center. I am told that the impact on university students has been remarkable. How could it not be? This technology enables us to overcome the most fundamental problem of Iraqi Kurdistan: isolation. Citizens can access anywhere in the world without having to get a passport or even a visa! For an Iraqi Kurd, this is so liberating.
Furthermore, there is a growing number of private Internet cafes that are offering increasingly inexpensive access to citizens. We are presently debating in the Council of Ministers tax relief to promote such ventures.
A digital telephone switchboard is being installed for Sulaymaniyah - and this will also help average households gain access to the Internet. This technology empowers the individual and makes him or her less reliant on government authority for information. This will undoubtedly provide a good impetus for the evolution of the civil society to which we aspire. [September 18 follow-up]
In what way do you think the aftermath of the terrorist attack this month should impact US policy toward Iraqi Kurds and the region in general?
We were shocked and profoundly saddened by the terrible outrage that afflicted the people of the United States on September 11th. Being a victim of state-sponsored terrorism of the worst kind, Iraqi Kurds readily identify with the challenges that now face the American people.
In recent weeks a fringe Islamist group has been declared in Biara, east of Sulaymaniyah. There are reports connecting this group, called Jund al-Islam, to Osama bin Laden's terror network. We are monitoring the situation and have made it clear that Iraqi Kurdistan cannot be used as a terrorist haven. In the same context, all the major parties of the region, including the mainstream Islamist movements, have pledged support for the efforts of the Kurdistan Regional Government to deal with this problem.
This outrage must unify humanity against the evil of terrorism. The international community has been complacent for far too long with terrorists and their sponsors. States that flout international law and sponsor terrorism, whether directed at foreign nationals or their own citizens, must be held accountable. We are hopeful that there will be a more robust policy to root out this scourge and I know that the Kurdish people will be among the first to benefit from a world order based on the rule of law and respect for human life and rights.