Senior Kurdish official says Kurdistan independence referendum going ahead despite opposition

Peshmerga-Fighters-War-Against-IS-Kobane.jpg

Peshmerga troops heading to Kobane through Turkey, as hundreds of Turkey's Kurds take to street to salute them, on 1 November, 2014. The Peshmerga fought side by side with the YPG against ISIS in Syria's Kobane until liberating the city in January 2015. File photo

ARA News

Hemin Hawrami, senior assistant to Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, and a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) Leadership Council, said in an exclusive interview with ARA News that the upcoming independence referendum planned for the 25th of September “is not an opinion poll, but a binding referendum and will go ahead” despite opposition from the West.

ARA News: There was an article in the Washington Post and it basically suggesting that the referendum is not aimed to be binding, but to solidify gains over the disputed territories. What do you think?

Hawrami: It is not true. I was in the meeting on the 7th of June that president Barzani held with all representatives of the political parties that are in the parliament. The decision was made to have the referendum on the 25th of September and it is a binding one. It’s not an opinion poll. And as president Barzani recently said in the Washington Post op-ed it’s binding for the upcoming KRG government to implement and to fulfill the decision of the vote of the Kurdistani people.

So it is definitely not as the Washington Post article suggested that the referendum is a mere bargaining chip with Baghdad. This referendum is for the independence of Kurdistan and the question is in the referendum are you with the independence of Kurdistan? Yes or no. If it’s not for independence why would we put this question? If it’s not a referendum for the independence, why would we even conduct a referendum? We believe that this partnership with Baghdad has failed. This referendum is not to renegotiate federalism. Because right now federalism failed in Iraq and I can give you a lot of arguments why it failed.

So, we believe that independence is a better formula for a good relationship between Baghdad and Erbil. Other formulas have failed and we want to have this formula as a rationale for a better relationship between Baghdad and Erbil (…). With an independent Kurdistan, we can deepen this military-economic-security relationship with Baghdad. But with this failed federalism it’s not going to lead to a better situation with Baghdad.

ARA News: The US congress is threatening to cut the funds to Kurdistan, if the Kurds go ahead with independence, what do you think?

Hawrami: We have a lot of friends in the congress that really understand the important role that Kurdistan’s Peshmergas are playing in the fight against ISIS. We have joined this fight because we believe in its values, protecting Kurdistan and protecting people who fled from ISIS-held areas. We believe in the fight against terrorism and we keep doing that.

ARA News: You have recently visited Turkey and the Turkish pro-government media was quite negative regarding Kurdistan’s independence referendum. Did you try to change Turkey’s perceptions of the referendum?

Hawrami: We have a record of 26 years that Kurdistan region has not been a threat and it’s not going to be a threat. We will continue to seek a balanced relationship with Turkey. We are not going to change the current international border with Turkey. We are going to change the border with Iraq. It’s an internal change of borders, not an international change of borders. We continue our dialogue with Turkey because we came a long way with Turkey. And it was a win-win situation in the past and it’s going to be a win-win in the future as well for Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq itself, and for regional peace and security.

ARA News: There was a piece in the pro-Turkish government media suggesting that one of the reasons Turkey was against it, when Kurdistan becomes independent, they can make an agreement with Baghdad instead?

Hawrami: Even with a federal region for oil, for energy security, for trade, we have an open door policy with the regional countries for investment in Kurdistan. So we definitely diversify the roads of the economy. Turkey will remain our strategic gate in terms of the energy and security. But we also want to have a healthy relationship with Baghdad in terms of trade policy, military, counter terrorism, and also to be part of the new order system of the Middle East.

We are definitely not going to have a relationship with Turkey at the expense of Iraq, but we also not going to have relation with anyone at the expense of Turkey. Turkey is very important for all of us [the majority of companies in Kurdistan is Turkish].

ARA News: In terms of the domestic situation, people in Slemani city have a different opinion than people in Erbil and Duhok. How do you manage to convince them about the referendum?

Hawrami: First of all there is no proven poll to say the people of Slemani are against it. There are some parties and elements that have differences over the mechanism and timing. But here, I like to repeat, they don’t have differences on the principle of the self-determination and the independence of Kurdistan. No one said that.

For the independence referendum, definitely people must be given this chance to say what they want to say. But people should not be hostage of the political parties. Political parties cannot decide on behalf of the people. This is why this chance must be given to the people, and the citizens of Slemani in general if you look at the history they have been the heartbeat of the Kurdistan self-determination. We don’t think and we don’t estimate the majority of the people of Slemani will vote against the independence. Maybe some elements within certain political parties think the referendum is wrong from an anti-KDP perspective. This is not a KDP project alone. It’s a national project. And we will do everything needed to convince the majority of the people of Slemani to vote yes in the referendum.

ARA News: Why do you think some parties try to show this referendum as if it’s a ‘KDP project’?

Hawrami: First of all, it’s not just the parties. The PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] was in the meeting of the 7th of June. The deputy secretary, the head of their politbureau and head of their relations attended the meeting. But after this moment only some elements within Gorran Party are against the mechanism and the timing, not against the principle. However, as I mentioned earlier, maybe they think from a political perspective, which we believe is a wrong perspective. They look at the referendum from the anti-KDP perspective, not from a national perspective.  But they are wrong, because this is not a KDP project. This is not a parliament election, but a national issue. I even challenge the Gorran leadership to read again their own party constitution, article 3, in which they are calling for an independent Kurdistan. If they are politically against the referendum, they are standing against their own party constitution.

There is no ideal 100 per cent consensus anywhere in the world domestically on any issues. We have to be realistic and it should not be expected that 100 per cent of the people in Kurdistan are going to vote yes (…). But definitely the majority will be voting yes. So this majority should not be victim of a minority that opposes the mechanism of conducting this referendum.

ARA News: Some Gorran members suggest this referendum is being held because issues like the parliament and the presidency term haven’t been solved. What do you say about this criticism?

Hawrami: There parliament itself passed a law in 2014 that led to the establishment of the Kurdistan high election commission for election and referendum. The parliament voted for that. Second: the issue of referendum is not a piece of legislation. That’s why the executive branch of the state is going to decide on that. We also want the parliament to be reactivated and the KDP is the largest bloc in the parliament. The KDP wants the parliament to be more active than any of the other political parties, because we are the largest bloc in the parliament.

We need an active parliament to be capable of passing laws, amending laws, voting for the budget, and approving the cabinet. We do believe that with the current leadership of the parliament that when they broke the consensus on the 23rd of June, it’s going to add to the problem. It’s won’t lead to a solution (…). But I want to say clearly: the referendum should not be blockaded because of some internal political disputes and the referendum should not blockade attempts to solve the internal political differences. These are two separate issues. We do hope that the referendum –as national issue– to stay above party politics. It’s not a partisan issue but a national cause, and nothing can stop the referendum on the independence of Kurdistan.

ARA News: Barzani himself said in a recent interview that he will not stand again for presidency. Is this true?

Hawrami: When his [Barzani’s] term was about to end in 2013, the PUK and KDP passed a law in parliament asking for a two-year extension. But president Barzani refused to sign that into a law. He informed the parliament that he is not going to sign this into the law but you have one year to work on a new legislation or new election for the presidency. However, the leadership in the parliament didn’t work on this. Then president Barzani on the 3rd of June 2015 called for presidential elections to be held on August 20th 2015 because his term was finished on the 19th August 2015.

But it was the other political parties who blocked the election of the president because they did not agree with electing a president directly from the people according to the law number 1 of 2005. And the election commission, which represented all the political parties in Kurdistan, including Gorran, said that technically we cannot do presidential elections by August 20th, 2015. Then we had the Shura  [consultative] council, which is like the federal constitutional court. They said that the incumbent president can continue based on continuity principle until we have another presidential election. Then president Barzani in January 2016 called for consensus and asked other parties to come forward with their candidates, and they didn’t come forward. And now president Barzani on June 7th, when he set the date for the referendum, he asked the election commission to have the presidential and parliamentary elections by November 6th this year. So it’s not president Barzani, it’s the other political parties that don’t agree with the presidential law number one, some of them are against directly electing a president by the people and then don’t have a candidate. So, it’s not President Barzani’s fault. It’s the fault of the political parties and they are not agreeing on having presidential elections (…).

ARA New: The Kurdish media suggests that you say something to foreign diplomats and say something else to the media. What is your comment on this? 

Hawrami: In February, I accompanied President Barzani to Munich security conference and president Barzani had 23 bilateral meetings, which was the highest number of meetings in the Munich conference and shows the importance of Kurdistan’s delegation. And in April also Guterres [UN Secretary General] was there. I was in the meeting, and we reported to the media. Barzani openly told Guterres: “We want you to hear it from us, this year we are going to hold a referendum for Kurdish independence.” There were Kurdish ministers from other parties in that meeting, including the deputy prime minister, who is from the PUK. President Barzani discussed the referendum with different ministers during the Davos summit, including the prime minister of Bulgaria. President Barzani, in all his meetings, his message was the same: for the diplomatic core, for the international community, for the public of Kurdistan, to discuss this issue. So the claims that we’re telling the media something other than what we practically discuss with foreign diplomats are baseless. The same issue was discussed during President Barzani’s interviews with Foreign Policy, France24, and in his op-ed in Washington Post, so what else clarification do we need to add. And last year on September 26th 2016, he presided a large delegation from all components in Kurdistan and he went to Baghdad and met with Shiite leaders, he met with Prime Minister Haidar Abadi and Sunni leaders, and in all of his meetings he raised this issue.

ARA News: How do you see the reactions on Kurdistan’s independence referendum? Because the US reaction was quite diplomatic, while the UK was quite negative. Wasn’t the UK the country that created this mess [by creating Iraq]?

Hawrami: We don’t think the referendum is a risk-free. We take all the possible scenarios into consideration. But with the current international and regional situation, we expected such reactions.

There are differences on the timing and the mechanism, but when we talk to our friends and ask them if you don’t agree on the timing when would be a good timing for Kurdistan independence referendum, they don’t have answers for that.

Our biggest concern is post-ISIS Iraq. Who is going to reconstruct this region? The communities distrust the state institutions. Who is going to provide stability, security for the liberated areas? Who is going to prevent Daesh [ISIS] No. 2 to come back to those areas? Daesh was symptom of the failed governance in Iraq.

Unfortunately the environment that has created ISIS has not been addressed. ISIS has been psychically defeated, but virtually they have not been defeated, their ideology has not been bombed, because through bombs their ideology cannot be defeated. That’s why we are concerned about the post-ISIS Iraq with the divisions within the Sunnis, within the Shiites, and between Sunnis and Shiites, and also creation of a parallel force to the Iraqi army units. These are all forces that make reverse more possible than progress in post-ISIS Mosul.

ARA News: How do you see the tensions between Qatar and Saudi? The region seems generally unstable, do you think this is in the benefit of Kurdistan? Because more Arab countries seem to be in favour of Kurdish independence.

Hawrami: We don’t look at it as an opportunity, because Kurdistan’s independence has been long overdue. So it has nothing to do with this regional instability or potential rivalries among the Arab countries and others. But I do believe that an independent Kurdistan will add to the regional stability, and we don’t like to see out of chaos to have an independent Kurdistan, because we are contributing to the regional security and we proved that.

ARA News: The advisor to Erdogan Ilnur Cevik wrote that Kurdistan cannot sustain a state, if the Iraqi Kurds get independence. What do you think?

Hawrami: To be honest, one of the argument for an independent Kurdistan is to strengthen our economy, because we do believe that an independent Kurdistan could provide more opportunities than being a threat. First, in terms of food security, Kurdistan is self-sufficient right now. We produce 1.3 million of tons of wheat in Kurdistan, while the level of needed flour and wheat in Kurdistan is 500,000 tons per year. So we are exporting around 810,000 wheat every year. In terms of potatoes and others we are self-sufficient. We have been under two sanctions from 1991 to 2003, one by Iraq and another by the UN, and we survived that.

For us it’s a question of right and dignity, not bread. We want to get rid of this one source of income which is oil, we want to diversify the situation, we want to enhance our own private sector, we want to be connected to the international market, but we have this political economy that we inherited from Baghdad. We want to downsize our public service level, and to increase the private sector. But with this kind of political economy that we inherited from Baghdad, Kurdistan’s economy is not going to be very good. But [Kurdish] independence is going to give the opportunity to have contact with World Bank, IMF, to reconstruct, and reform of our economy and administrative situation, and also to develop our own energy, because Kurdistan can be hub and provider of energy security in the region.

ARA News: According to reports, Baghdad hasn’t provided Kurdistan Region with any financial support since 2014. Is this correct?

Hawrami: Since February 2014, Iraq has cut our budget, and we have been dealing with 1.8 million IDPs and refugees, and Iraq’s participation was zero. Even in the Mosul operation, we have treated 37,000 wounded Iraqi soldiers in the hospitals of Kurdistan. Even Baghdad’s facilitation and medical support was zero. Kurdistan has been able to survive the crisis, and an independent Kurdistan will be a stronger Kurdistan in terms of economy as well, and with that stronger economy we can build a stronger army and we can be a reliable partner for regional and international peace and security.

Interview by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News

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