Q&A: ‘We’re on the defensive not offensive’

Falah Mustafa, head of the Kurdistan Region’s foreign relations, talks about Iraq, ISIL and Kurdish ambitions.

Peshmerga fighters provide security outside Mosul which is currently under ISIL control [Getty]

As the so-called Sunni Rebellion gains more ground across Iraq, pundits are increasingly discussing the possible disintegration of the country. The Iraqi army have reportedly abandoned their positions in several cities rather than confront the onslaught of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq has deployed Peshmerga troops in various hotspots with the stated aim of filling the security vacuum and providing protection to beleaguered civilian populations.

 Falah Mustafa, de facto foreign minister of the KRG [KRG]

On June 12, Kurdish Peshmerga stirred controversy by seizing control of the disputed oil-rich Kirkuk – a city long claimed by Kurds as their spiritual homeland, and often dubbed the “Kurdish Jerusalem“.

Critics have panned the Iraqi Kurdish government for attempting to cash in on the mayhem engulfing the country and pursuing a nationalistic agenda.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurds have managed to consolidate an autonomous region in the north, which has prospered due to billions of dollars of investment and unilateral oil sales via Turkey.

Despite the chaos, and in defiance of Baghdad’s objections, they have continued selling oil via Turkey – most recently on June 20 to Israel.

In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, Falah Mustafa, the de facto foreign minister of the KRG, talks about the Kurdish long game, ISIL and the KRG’s call for a new Baghdad government.

Al Jazeera: In view of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) rapid gains across the country, what kind of agreement has the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) reached with Baghdad?

Falah Mustafa: We have to deal with a new reality and this new reality requires a new focus and analysis of what pushed things to go wrong. We, the Kurds, have done everything to bring about stability and security but unfortunately Baghdad was not willing to listen to us.

For the political process to start in the country, there needs to be political will, trust, and real commitment among the different players. The Iraqi government has to be respected and trusted by all the communities. Therefore the KRG will not engage with Baghdad until a new government has been put in place and we are guaranteed that the new government is ready to recognise us as a genuine partner and ready to overcome the disputes between Erbil and Baghdad.

Some of the problems are Iraq’s problems and some are problems between Erbil and Baghdad. Therefore, our engagement with Baghdad requires a clear cut scenario. It is necessary for us to know who is there and with whom we are dealing.

AJ: Will the KRG support Baghdad’s fight against the so-called Sunni rebellion? Has the KRG engaged in any talks with ISIL?

FM: Regarding the situation in the western part of Iraq, the Iraqi army has proven to be a failure. Billions of dollars have been spent on the Iraqi army, yet they were not able to protect civilians when ISIL took over one city after another. The current situation proves that this is not a national army but rather a sectarian army, which has no loyalty to the land and the people. In fact, the army abandoned the people of those areas and left them unprotected in the hands of terrorist insurgents. If we were to point fingers and ask who should take responsibility for this, we will find that the commander in chief of the Iraqi armed forces in Baghdad is mainly responsible.

Call for Iraq’s Sunni and Shia to unite

As far as we are concerned, we communicated with the Iraqi army directly and shared our intelligence with them. But we have to be clear that fighting a terrorist group does not mean fighting Sunnis. The Sunni community is an important component of Iraqi society. They have to be respected, treated equally and included in Iraq’s political process.

We still believe that a military response isn’t the only solution. Rather it should be an integrated approach that has political, economic, social, and military components to it.

As far as KRG is concerned, our top priority is to defend Kurdistan and the people of Kurdistan and not to be engaged in this war beyond that right now. We are on the defensive, not offensive. However, we will respond whenever and wherever we are attacked by ISIL. ISIL is a terrorist group and we do not have any intention of engaging in talks with them. They pose a dangerous threat to the future of Iraq.

AJ: KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani was in Iran on June 16, presumably to discuss the escalating crisis in Iraq. What was the outcome of those talks? What is Iran’s position in this conflict – and will it extend any support to the Kurds?

FM: We believe that facing terrorism is not the responsibility of one group, one country or one region. We all have to face this new phenomenon in the world as terrorism, which has become a reality that every country has to deal with. Syria is a perfect example of this. Many jihadists from different countries, including European ones, have gone to fight a religious war in Syria.

Prime Minister Barzani’s visit to Iran was at the invitation of Iran to talk about recent developments in Iraq and bilateral relations between the KRG and Iran. Iran has publicly announced its readiness to support Iraq by sending advisors and troops if needed by Iraq.

However, we believe that first and foremost, it is the responsibility of Iraqis to protect their land. We have to have some political progress in order to be able to handle this security crisis. We have to be very careful because if we open the door to one neighbour, it could give a pretext for other neighbours to interfere in the internal affairs of Iraq and that would only complicate the situation further.

AJ: There is some controversy over events in Kirkuk. On June 12, Kurdish Peshmerga entered the city on the pretext of “protecting civilians lives” after the Iraqi army reportedly deserted their posts. There are rumors that the Kurds may not leave Kirkuk, and may even consider annexing the city to the KRG. The Turkmen Front have come out stating they are prepared to fight the Peshmerga if they do not return Kirkuk to the central authorities in Baghdad. What is happening?

FM: We have proven to everyone that in Kurdistan we care about the rights of minorities. In the Kurdistan Region, Christians, Turkmen, and other minorities are protected, and their religious, national, and linguistic rights are upheld. Our regional parliament has seats allocated to the minorities, there are newspapers and TV stations in different languages and Christian churches are protected. Were this not the case, Kurdistan would not have become a safe haven for those fleeing the violence in Iraq over the past decade.

The move of the Peshmerga into Kirkuk was to fill the security vacuum that was created after the collapse of the Iraqi army and its withdrawal from these areas. It is important for people to realise that without the Peshmerga forces, Kirkuk would have become a battleground for ISIL.

Indeed we have fought ISIL in Basheer, which is a Turkmen neighborhood, and also in Mala Abdulla, an Arab neighbourhood. So we have defended both the Turkmen and the Arabs. We want to make clear that we will fight terrorism and we will protect all the citizens of Kirkuk regardless of their ethnic and religious identity.

Contrary to what reports say, Turkmen are much better off and they have thanked the Peshmerga for the security they have provided. Some Turkmen have even said they will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Peshmerga to defend Kirkuk.

AJ: What is the KRG’s long game in the midst of this conflict? Is this an opportune moment for the Kurds to declare full-fledged independence?

FM: The KRG leadership has decided voluntarily to be part of a federal, democratic, and pluralistic Iraq and that has been our policy post-2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. We have contributed positively to the political process of Iraq and we remain committed to doing so in favour of a future democratic Iraq.

Indeed, it is a fact that we have a failed state and a dysfunctional government in Baghdad. Baghdad did not act according to the political agreements that were reached between different political entities and the different components of Iraq.

Instead of providing new opportunities for the people of Iraq, Baghdad’s approach has been one of denial of people’s rights, monopolisation of power, and centralisation. The Kurds feel excluded, the Sunnis feel marginalised and even some Shia Muslim groups feel marginalised by the current Shia administration.

We have a failed state and a dysfunctional government in Baghdad. Baghdad did not act according to the political agreements that were reached between different political entities and the different components of Iraq. Instead of providing new opportunities for the people of Iraq, Baghdad’s approach has been one of denial of people’s rights, monopolisation of power and centralisation.

Therefore, we believe that the new Iraq should have a system of governance based on power-sharing and the fair distribution of Iraq’s wealth. We are committed to the Iraqi Constitution but we are also committed to the Kurdistan Region and we have to make sure that our security and stability are maintained and that our economic progress will continue here in the region.

We all have to deal with the new reality in Iraq today. This terrorist threat and the legitimate grievances of the Sunni community, and indeed other communities as I mentioned earlier, have to be separated. There is a military solution to one and a political solution to the other.

If the main three communities of Iraq are not able to live together and find a formula that ensures peaceful coexistence, we have to look for other solutions. Therefore the possible scenarios would depend on the progress that will be made politically. Federalism and confederation are possibilities.

Yet, certainly Kurdistan wants to continue on this path that it has started because we want to compensate our people for the unspeakable suffering that they’ve endured since Kurdistan became part of Iraq.

AJ: With the Peshmerga troops now deployed in various hotspots to protect civilian populations, is there a fear that they may be spread too thin and unable to protect the Kurdistan Region proper? KRG President Massoud Barzani has called on retired Peshmerga to re-enlist. Is there a real danger here?

FM: The Peshmerga are the most loyal and faithful fighting force in Iraq and the region. They have defended our people during the most difficult times, facing all kinds of brutality from Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. They have been subject to the use of napalm and chemical weapons in the past, but they continued to defend our people.

As a result, we have complete trust in the capability and loyalty of our Peshmerga forces. We have good security intelligence that we base our plans and reactions on. We are currently only defending our positions but we will take the offensive if the circumstances so require.

The people of Kurdistan stand behind the Peshmerga. When President [Massoud] Barzani called on the retired Peshmerga and veterans, former Peshmerga who now live way beyond our borders sent their names and showed their readiness to fight. Although the Peshmerga have not been well-paid like the Iraqi army or well-equipped or trained, they have proven to be an effective, efficient and loyal force.

AJ: The KRG has called for international assistance in dealing with the growing number of refugees it is being asked to accommodate. Is the KRG capable, financially, of dealing with this influx? And do the refugees pose a security threat?

FM: There is no doubt that the KRG is now carrying a large financial burden. First of all, the federal Iraqi government cut the budget of the region as a result of its political dispute with Erbil. Second, the federal government froze the payment of salaries to KRG civil servants. We have had to borrow money from the private sector in order to pay salaries.

We currently face a huge challenge because of the influx of a large number of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) who have come to Kurdistan. There was some assistance in the past in addressing the needs of Syrian refugees who are about 260,000 today. The number continues to rise as the crisis continues in Syria.

In addition, since the fall of the regime, the Kurdistan Region has welcomed about 225,000 Iraqi IDPs from the rest of Iraq, which is by itself a large burden given the limited budget that we receive from Baghdad. We host 26,000 Christians, a large portion of Iraq’s Christian community, who have fled the violence since 2003.

Since the beginning of the year we have received 40,000 IDPs from Anbar province as a result of the political and security situation. Now, with the figures from Salahadeen and Nineveh it has reached 350,000 IDPs. We call on the international community to come and provide assistance to the people whom we cannot support alone.

These large numbers of refugees and IDPs pose a security threat as we are not certain if terrorists have mixed among them but we have provided extra security measures in and around the newly established IDP camps that the KRG has built in the Erbil and Duhok governorates to accommodate the influx from Salahadeen and Nineveh province.

Source: Al Jazeera