„Presse“-Exclusive interview. The Foreign Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Falah Mustafa Bakir, demands a rapid international mediation in the escalating conflict between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad as well as neighboring countries.
The governments of Turkey, Iran and Iraq stationed troops on the Region borders as a reaction to the Kurdistan independence referendum. Are you afraid of a new war in the Region?
Falah Mustafa Bakir: The whole region has experienced so much violence and instability. Our people have suffered, the people in the rest of Iraq have suffered. Applying military means won’t bring a solution. We don’t want any war, we want negotiations with Baghdad. It is important now to deescalate tensions. There cannot be any provocations. We all have to try to stay calm. There is no better solution than dialogue.
In Turkey as well as Iran the referendum is perceived as a national threat.
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has always been a factor of stability. We always reached out our hands and were never a threat to our neighbors. This will also remain in the future: The referendum is no threat for our neighbors. The Kurds have decided about their future in a peaceful and democratic way. We mentioned from the beginning that the referendum is only the beginning of a process and not the end of the process. We told the central government in Baghdad and our neighbors: We will not declare independence unilaterally. The referendum will also not decide about the borders of the Kurdistan Region. We will discuss that in a dialogue with Baghdad. We are also willing to talk to our neighbors about their concerns.
Turkey’s, Iran’s and Baghdad’s reactions were pretty fierce, regarding the fact that the referendum was also held in the disputed area of Kirkuk. Could a deal regarding Kirkuk mitigate the tensions?
The referendum in Kirkuk was held peacefully. And we said from the very beginning: We will not determine the future status of Kirkuk. This status has to be discussed with Baghdad first. Our message to Baghdad, our neighbors and the rest of the world: Please, calm down! The referendum is over. All we want now is a dialogue with Baghdad without any conditions.
At the moment pressure against Erbil is rising. Turkey, Iran and Baghdad have imposed sanctions. International flights to the Kurdistan Region have been cancelled. Turkey will close its borders and stop the oil business.
Those measures will lead to escalation. This is neither in our nor in their interest. If they think that sanctions will get us closer to Baghdad, they are wrong. They will cause the opposite. We are surprised by the excessive reaction of our neighbors. We didn’t ask for more than we deserve: The people of Kurdistan have given a mandate to the Kurdistan Regional Government with their vote, in order to get into dialogue with Baghdad. Iraq’s central government talks about sovereignty of the country. But they should talk to us in Erbil rather than look for help in Ankara and Tehran, to act against part of its own country.
The Kurdistan Region already enjoys the status of autonomy. Why did you hold the referendum exactly now?
This is a very strange question. The central government in Baghdad did not fulfill its constitutional obligations. The troops of the Peshmerga are part of the Iraqi defense system according to the Iraqi constitution. Therefore, they should be treated with respect, be armed, paid, educated and equipped by Baghdad. But that never happened because the Iraqi government never had the political will to do so. Article 140 of the Constitution regarding the Kurdish areas outside of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq should have been implemented by the end of 2007. That also never happened. In 2014, former Iraqi Prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, illegally cut the budget belonging to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. These actions were unconstitutional. And neither our neighbors, nor the UN, the EU or the USA have said anything. The federal system of Iraq has failed. That is why we have decided: It is better to find a new formula in our relationship.
Did you estimate the reactions to the referendum in a wrong way? Baghdad and its neighbors have sent warnings beforehand. The United States and Europe have asked the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government to cancel the referendum.
We told Baghdad, our neighbors and the international community that the situation in Iraq is not bearable anymore. But nobody took it seriously. When we set the date for the referendum, everybody started to be worried all of a sudden. There was a lot of pressure to postpone the referendum. We said: Yes, we would be willing to postpone the referendum if we get an alternative offer. If we receive guaranties for negotiations and a brighter future. The international community failed. What we received was not enough for negotiations.
However, did you expect another international reaction?
We are disappointed by the international community. The referendum is over. Does the international community want to punish the people in Kurdistan? If it is like this, they should openly tell us. The unity of a state can only happen on a voluntary basis and cannot be imposed from the outside. The people in Kurdistan suffered a genocide and attacks with chemical weapons under the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. We Kurds are disappointed by the United States, Europe and the United Nations. We are a partner of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State and for that we made sacrifices: 1790 Peshmerga died, 10.195 were injured. We are thankful for the help of the United States with weapons, munition and air support. But we are not treated properly at international meetings. Even though Baghdad did not transfer any money to the Kurdistan Region and we had to fight against the brutal terrorists of the Islamic State, we opened our doors for almost two million internally displaced Iraqis as well as Syrian refugees, with no regards to their ethnic or religious background. If we had not done this, people would have probably set out for Europe. The Kurds deserve respect. The international community should stay neutral. But it takes Baghdad’s side.
What do you expect from the United States and Europe now?
They should open the floor for serious dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad. If Baghdad further exercises pressure and neighbors threaten with military exercises, this won’t lead to stability. If the international community wants stability, it has to participate. We say: Don’t deliver us to the threats of Baghdad and its neighbors. The cancelling of international flights, the Kurdistan Blockade, all this is collective punishment for the people in Kurdistan.
What do you except from Austria?
Austria has been a befriended nation for a long time. Austrian Airlines have brought an important achievement with the direct flights to Erbil. Unfortunately Baghdad forbids them now to land there. Austria has always provided humanitarian aid. But from Austria as member of the European Union we would have expected more. Our friends in the world must understand: we don’t want anything impossible. We just want dialogue with Baghdad.
original interview (German)