As president of Iraq's semi-autonomus Kurdish region in the country's north, Massoud Barzani carries considerable sway with 30 million ethnic Kurds living in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
He has warned that Iraq's Kurds could seek independence if they do not get what they need from Baghdad. And that his region will not be dragged down by the rest of Iraq.
In a wide-ranging interview with Al Jazeera's Jane Arraf, Barzani discusses the situation in the region, the battle for control over oil wealth and the aspirations of his people.
Jane Arraf: This region has been through two wars, sanctions, fighting inside and attacks from outside. It seems more powerful and autonomous than it’s ever been. But do you still feel you are in a struggle for survival?
Massoud Barzani: There’s no doubt that the Kurdish question has made a lot of progress. I cannot deny that there are still a lot of challenges. I can surely say that the Kurds have passed that stage where their survival would be threatened. I believe it would be impossible to step back from whatever we have achieved.
JA: There is a real crisis going on in Iraq and you warned just a few months ago that if it continues, the Kurdish region could seek its independence. Are you still prepared to follow through on that?
MB: If I can make clear what I said exactly: Iraq is facing a serious and genuine crisis and we have two kinds of problems. One is a general problem for Iraq as a whole and the other is problems in the region and Baghdad. We have called for genuine reform for the problems - the Iraqi wide problems and also [for] the ones between the [Kurdish] region and Baghdad. I call upon the Iraqi forces if they are ready and willing to come and deal with us. We are ready to do whatever we can to help solve these problems. If the other Iraqi forces are not ready to follow us, then I will go back to the Kurdish people and ask them to do whatever needs to be done. I am still saying the same thing.
JA: Given that there hasn't really been much progress between Baghdad and Erbil [the Kurdish capital] do you feel now that you will go Kurdish people in September and ask them in a referendum on whether they want independence?
MB: Frankly speaking, the current situation is not acceptable. Our people cannot tolerate that and I'm sure the Iraqi people will not accept that. But certainly when it reaches that stage, I will go back to the people.
But in this case, I have to consult with the political parties in the region, I have to consult with the parliament - this is not a decision for me to make alone. But certainly, the moment we are disappointed and lose hope of solving the problems and getting out of this crisis, I will go back to the people. But before that, I have to consult with the political groups here and the parliament.
JA: There have been attempts for some months now to actually have a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. It seems to have failed. Do you hold out any hope that he could be replaced in the next two years before the next elections?
MB: The process has not stopped and the issue of questioning the prime minister (in parliament) will continue.
JA: This seems to have become quite personal. You helped Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki form a unity government. In fact, you helped him become prime minister and there seems to have been a feeling that he has betrayed your trust. How much of this is personal between Prime Minister Maliki and yourself?
MB: I will not allow under any circumstances for the problem to become personal. Of course, I had a lot of trust in Prime Minister Maliki as a result of the old relationship we had. Now certainly, I have lost hope in him as a result of what has happened. I always wished at least once he defended Kurds in some forum the way I do. But unfortunately, in 2008, he ordered the tanks to be moved against the Kurdish people in Khanaqin. From then, I started losing confidence in him.
JA: There does seem to be military buildup. There is tension between the de facto border between the Kurdish region and Iraq, you've talked about fears over Iraq having F-16s. What are you doing on your side to ensure that the Kurdish region is secure?
MB: In fact, for us, F-16s are not different from MIG-19 or MIG-21s. We have seen them being used against us. We have seen large numbers of troops, tanks, artillery and other weaponry being used against our people. Our fear is not that, but of the mentality that still believes in using planes, artillery and tanks to solve the problems. This is the wrong approach. The misery and the troubles that Iraq faces today is nothing but a result of that kind of mentality, and we do not want that to be repeated. If Baghdad or the federal government thinks of using such things, then we will be obliged to go back to the times when we had thought of targeting F-16s so that they couldn't reach here.
JA: Could you expand a little bit more on that - on measures that would not allow their F-16s to target you - are you in fact in the process of taking measures to improve air defence?
MB: All of our efforts would be for us not to allow the situation to reach that point. We want to make sure that balance in the Iraqi army returns. That there will be an Iraqi army for all Iraqis, to defend the entire Iraq and the Iraqi people, and not to use it against the Iraqi people or any region in Iraq. This will be our strategy and this will be our policy and we hope we will succeed in this.
JA: You've made amazing strides in relations with Turkey. Turkey is now the economic lifeline of the Kurdish region, but still there are concerns in Turkey of course over growing Kurdish power. Do you think Turkey will allow a Kurdish region that is not just economically more powerful but also militarily more powerful?
MB: I believe that the region has had the willingness and the readiness to have good economic relations with all our neighbours and certainly there has been a lot of progress in our relations with Turkey. The more these kind of economic relations progress, the more it is helpful for them to allay the fears from any other aspect. As far as the military strengthening of the Kurdistan region, this is something relevant to the Kurdish people and the Kurdish region itself and we do not allow anyone else to interfere in it.
JA: Oil now is very much a question. Baghdad has threatened to cut off some of the revenue that it gives to the Kurdish region. The Kurdish region says it's exporting crude oil to Turkey. One of Prime Minister Maliki's advisers has warned that things like this could actually lead to armed conflict. Where does this stop?
MB: It is unfortunate that this subject has made clear that some of the people in Baghdad do not intend any goodwill for the people of Kurdistan and are simply hostile to the Kurdistan region. The issue is not legality or constitutionality, but they just want to stop the progress that the Kurdistan region is making - this is our conviction. In fact, none of the contracts that we have signed have violated the constitution. In the draft of 2007 of the oil and gas law, there was a proposal supposed to go to the parliament and there were annexes which said if the law was not passed within May, then both sides could continue signing contracts.
Why did they not allow the law to pass in the parliament? I will not say that we are right in everything - there may be some issues with us as well. But let's sit down and talk, let's look at it. We have not done anything contrary to the constitution. If there is any violation, we are ready to admit and repair it. Instead of having animosity against the Kurdish people and Kurdistan, they should respond to the Iraqi people. After spending $27bn on the electricity sector - can they tell the Iraqi people what happened to that money and what is the condition of the electricity sector in the country. They should answer these questions instead of spending time on working against the Kurdish people. They should spend their time providing services to the people of Iraq. I would say the best way forward would be for talks to continue in order to have the oil and gas law passed in the parliament. The moment it would pass it will be an opportunity for the problems to be solved. In contrast, if we wait for the temperament of a personal decision by someone in Baghdad that would not help the problem. And of course cutting the budget of the region from Baghdad, we would consider it as a declaration of war and Baghdad will be held responsible for whatever consequences that will happen.
JA: What does that mean? If they do cut the budget you do consider it a declaration of war what does that mean? What is the next step?
MB: The moment they cut the budget, it will be considered a declaration of war and when you say there is a declaration of war, it's obvious what it entails. It's premature (to talk about that now) but certainly, the moment they do it, then we consider it a declaration of war. I don't think there is a need to go into details on that.
JA: To most people, declaration of war would mean you get your fighters, you get your weapons and it starts armed conflict. Is that what we are talking about?
MB: There are many options. This is not the only option.
JA: Can the Kurdish region survive economically if Iraq did cut the budget? Through oil exports to Turkey or other places?
MB: This situation will not remain - this situation it will not continue like this.
JA: Does that mean tha...
MB: The question will not be only about the (Kurdish) region, but will the whole of Iraq remain like that or not? That's the question.
JA: Which is a good question, because we are seeing increasing attempts at autonomy, some of them from the Sunni provinces, some in the south. Will Iraq hold together?
MB: We are not talking about the old Iraq. Wwe have contributed and are partners in building this new Iraq. The new Iraq should be ruled jointly and also there has to be partnership, real partnership in this country. It's not about one individual or one group to rule the country. This is exactly what the problem in Iraq is today. It is the problem of one-man rule and the imposition of central things. I do not believe that even Iraqi people will accept that - neither the Shias nor the Sunnis will accept the current situation and it's not the case that with this crisis, a (single) group would be able to lead Iraq toward an unknown future for the rest of the Iraqi people to accept.
JA: In the Kurdish region these days, young people don't speak Arabic, they don’t learn it in school, you have your own economy, your own services and you even pretty much control the borders. What is there that still ties the Kurdish region to Iraq?
MB: Of course, Arabic is the official language in the country and in the region and it is studied here in the region, a continuation of the policies of the past 30 years. As far as the second part of the question, this is exactly the reality and the truth that we want to be considered and we want people to be convinced of: Iraq has Arabs and Kurds and we have decided this on the basis of a voluntary union. The moment we are recognised and accepted there will be no problem. If people think that someone in Baghdad can determine our future, it’s wrong. That time is over. If they are ready to make the decision on the basis of a voluntary union to accept this truth, then that is fine. But if they want to forcibly impose their will on our people, we will not accept it.
JA: A few weeks ago, we saw you lower the coffin of one of the Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein's Anfal campaign into the ground. One of tens of thousands still in mass graves. How much has that affected the history of this region?
MB: This is of course a deep wound. We will never forget that. I am very proud of being one individual among the Kurdish people because our people have had their suffering and pain and they don't think about retaliation or revenge after the tragedies that have happened to them. As far as I'm concerned the remains of that martyr - I didn't know if that was a man or a woman, a child, a boy or a girl. I had the very strange feeling and probably it was the first time in my life I had that feeling and I thought that he was my brother, he was my son, my mother, my daughter. It really touched me.
JA: You've talked of training Syrian Kurds - from Syria. Training them to go back. What do you think is the effect of some of the regions in the Kurdish areas of syria having fallen to opposition fighters? What are we looking at here - is a country that will hold together? What is the future of the Kurds in Syria and how does that affect the Kurds in the region?
MB: Of course, they are our brothers... but the situation for the Syrian Kurds is different than in other areas. They were deprived of the basic right of citizenship, they did not have state identity. They were considered refugees or they were considered as infiltrators. Therefore the training that has taken place is not for fighting, it is just a precautionary measure to play a role in Syria once the situation collapses and there's a vacuum. Certainly we want to see a change in the Kurdish situation in Syria, but this is something for them to decide upon. It's their role and we believe that they can play a positive role in building a new Syria that will be democratic and pluralistic.
JA: You've talked about hosting a regional conference of Kurds here this year, that would be an extraordinary step - possibly the biggest gathering of Kurds in the region. Do you feel with everything going on in the region, the Arab spring, changes going through, are you on the verge of creating a more powerful Kurdish community across the borders?
MB: The purpose behind the conference is for the Kurds to have a united statement - a statement that stresses on peace and peaceful co-existence and also attempts to solve our problems in a peaceful and democratic way.
JA: You've been betrayed at some point, the Kurdish region as a whole, by pretty much everyone. By the Americans in 1991 when they did not immediately come to your aid, by Turkey, by the surrounding countries. Who do you trust, who are your allies?
MB: Of course, the world has changed. But before anything else, we believe in God and we believe in our people.
JA: Here in the Kurdish region there are some concerns that the democracy you are aiming for hasn’t quite taken hold. Elections here, provincial elections which were to have been held have been delayed. When will those take place and how do you respond to the criticism that this is not a democratic region?
MB: I have been against the delay of the provincial elections. In fact, when the parliament, the government and the independent commission in Baghdad told us that for technical reasons it can't be held and has to be delayed, I accepted that. Otherwise, I am against that decision and I support holding the provincial elections.
JA: This region has a tragic history on many levels and part of the tragedy has been Kurds fighting the Kurds in the region. In the 1990s, the other major Kurdish faction appealed to Iran for help and you appealed to Iraqi government, to Saddam Hussein's forces to help drive them out of Erbil. Is there anything about that part of the past that you regret?
MB: First in my capacity as president of the region, I am proud, and that has been one of the main aims in accepting this responsibility to make sure that this internal Kurdish fighting will not happen again. We will do whatever we can in order to remove that. This was a stage we passed through - it was very unfortunate, very sad. We hope we have put that behind us. And I have no objection if the Kurdish people want to investigate and look into this fighting - how it happened and why and how it came about.
JA: Do you feel there is a gap between what the younger generation wants and what they demand in fact and the older generation who have lived through all these tragedies? Some of the younger generation believes that the time is over for family members to be heads of national security councils for instance. Is there something in those concerns?
MB: Of course, people have all the right to say what they believe in and everybody is free to think - but let them look at the results. Look at the stability and security of the Kurdistan region. The new generation, the old generation, whoever is a resident of the Kurdistan region. What we have in terms of security and stability has been hard to achieve - it has not come without any efforts. These are the results of the working of certain people who have been successful in accomplishing their duties. These people have to be appreciated for what they have done.
JA: You've been such an essential part of the history of not just the Kurdish region, but the Kurdish people regionally. How would you like your legacy to be seen?
MB: I have a clear conscience as I have done whatever I have been able to do for the sake of our people. From my childhood, I have done everything to free our people, to liberate our land. The judgment will be left to the people.
JA: Is the region ready for an independent Kurdistan?
MB: It's a natural right of the people. But when and how it will be ready is a different question.
JA: President Barzani thank you so much for talking to Al Jazeera.
MB: Thank you.