After more than seven months from the fourth parliamentary elections in Kurdistan - Iraq, the new speaker was elected by the majority of delegates on April 29, 2014 at a meeting of Parliament on the basis of election merit, (the prime minister was elected from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as it won the election, the parliament speaker was dedicated to a member in Change Movement as the second party in the polls and since the PUK come third the deputy prime ministry was dedicated to the party). The election and the atmosphere around the Parliament were very different from the previous periods and years. Unlike the previous three rounds, this time the head of parliament was not a member from the Politburo of the two ruling parties (the KDP and the PUK) that have been ruling the region in the past 22 years nor he was a person close to KDP leader Massoud Barzani and the PUK leader Jalal Talabani; but "Youssef Mohammed Sadiq,” a 36-year-old young PhD student in political philosophy who had a different background from its predecessors in the position, those who had a history of armed struggle in the ranks of leftist groups.
The groups’ years of their activity went back to a time period that armed struggle and resistance were their characteristics and their activities and practices were like those of communist parties in Eastern Europe. But the new president of the legislative body in Kurdistan Region and the writer of a book titled “reviewing Kurdistan Region constitutional projects” entered the political arena and started organizational activities in a different period with a different feature and is known as a politician from the third generation of the region.
Due to their time necessities and according to their priorities, the Iraqi Kurds, at this period, were not founding governmental institutions and organizations as they did after 1991 nor they were cementing the Kurdish rights in the Iraqi constitution and playing a role in Baghdad as they did after 2003, but they were busy handling and organizing the region’s internal affairs. The political structure of the region altered after the opposition’s four years of political activities and the balances and the allies entered a different phase.
A member in Change Movement (Gorran) political studies chamber, the new parliament speaker was a university professor and a political-civil activist who has been and is being considered to be a theorist and an influential character in the movement. After more than a year and a half passed from the activities of the parliament which was coincided with the end of Barzani’s presidency over the region and the efforts of parliament deputies from the four factions of Gorran, the PUK, the Islamic Unity of Kurdistan and the Islamic Community of Kurdistan to change the presidency law of the region, the security guards affiliated with the KDP prevented Yusuf Muhammad to go to Erbil and the Kurdistan Region’s parliament has been shut down since then.
What follows is a Kurdpress exclusive interview with the speaker, Yusuf Muhammad, about the political and the economic crises in the region and the Iraqi and regional developments, during the Islamic State (IS) diminishing power period in particular, in the region (Middle East);
Kurdpress: It is more than a year and three months that the chief of the legislative body of Kurdistan Region is being prevented from going to Erbil, the capital of the region and the parliament has been shut down, what is the reason behind the situation and do you see any solution for the current political crisis in the region?
Yusuf Muhammad: You are, surely, well aware of the troubles in Kurdistan Region. The closure of the parliament was due to the KDP displeasure with the legal bills- on the region’s presidency- that had been delivered and were under study in the region’s parliament. After the prolonged two-year presidency period of Kak Massoud Barzani ended on August 19, 2015, the majority of the parliament tried to change the region’s presidency law in a way that a new president can be elected for the region and after all parliament efforts ended in no avail due to the KDP persistence on its stance over the issue. The majority of the lawmakers decided to discuss the issue in the parliament. To prevent the meeting from being held, the KDP prevented us from entering Erbil on October 20, 2015. Its goal was to make the parliament stop short of doing its legal duties and make them unable to amend the region’s presidency law and a new president can not be elected for the region. The economic crisis in the region was another factor which led into the closure of the parliament. At that time three requests were delivered to the parliament to question Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami over his actions and he would have been impeached, if the parliament deputies had not been satisfied with his answers. The issue too, was another reason that led into the closure of the parliament. Now, the two mentioned factors have remained intact. The economic crisis continues and the payments of the region’s employees have been stopped under the pretext of a saving plan, since then, the employees of Kurdistan Region have not been paid for six months and, in the past two years the salaries have not been paid; in some cases 25 and in others 50 percent of the payments have not been paid. The presidency trouble of the region still has remained unsolved and the crisis has remained untouched.
Kurdpress: A new round of talks among the political parties of the region has started after a recent Massoud Barzani’s message over the crises in the region, his bid for negotiation among the parties to change the speaker of the region’s parliament and his- stated readiness to quit power if the political parties reach an accord. Do you see any change in the KDP policies and stances at the present time and is there any hope for an exit from the political deadlock in the region?
Yusuf Muhammad: The two troubles are the main crises in Kurdistan Region. The region’s presidency crisis that led into the closure of the parliament and paralyzing the government and the economic crisis that is related to the ambiguity and the lack of transparency in the region’s revenues; particularly the oil and gas and the internal revenues. I don’t have any ideas about the present talks among the political parties and their stances in the negotiations and whether they are serious or not. I believe that a fundamental solution has to be found for the two crises. The revenues have to be clarified so that the government employees will receive their salaries, the livelihood of the people should be guaranteed and the presidential crisis has to be solved in such an essential way that the parliament would not face such a trouble another time.
Kurdpress: The KDP stresses, right now, on changing the region’s parliament speaker and then solving the region’s presidency problem and later making reforms. What is your notion on the approach, would you accord with such a thing?
Yusuf Muhammad: The presidency of Massoud Barzani over the region lacks legal legitimacy and the government has failed conducting its activities; among them is its inability to meet the basic needs and rights of its citizens. We have no problem with changing the region’s parliament speaker, if a solution is found in which the legitimacy of the region’s president is solved and a new president is elected for the region and there is a powerful and effective government in power that is capable of solving Kurdistan Region’s crises. We are not facing a crisis of legitimacy in this position (parliament speaker) and have not done any illegal action and have not made any troubles in Kurdistan Region. In such a situation we don’t have any problem with changing the region’s parliament speaker.
Kurdpress: The Islamic State (IS) is receiving defeats and is becoming weak in Syria and Iraq as well as the region (Middle East). We know a number of young people from the region who joined the group and conducted terroristic attempts in the cities of the region and those that are under the control of the Peshmerga. How do you assess the future of extremist, Takfiri outlooks and the danger of the movement for Kurdistan Region?
Yusuf Muhammad: Kurdistan nation is naturally a nation with a coexisting morale with other nations and religions and extremist believes have no compatibility with the nature of the people. But at some times, the defeat of the governing system in Kurdistan Region and the disappointment of its young people led some of them into joining the terroristic groups. Despite the current situation the number of Kurds in the IS and other terroristic groups are much less that those who belong to other nations. I dare to say that the nationals of some neighboring and regional countries and those of European countries are much more than the Kurds in the IS.
Kurdpress: Despite the economic development and growth in the region after 2003, we have witnessed a tough economic situation and a diminishing development. What’s the reason behind the trouble and what are the ways that can help the region to get out of it?
Yusuf Muhammad: There are reasons that led into the economic crisis in the region. The main one was corruption. The corruption has turned into an agent which wastes national capitals. 107 billion dollars has been sent from Baghdad to Erbil as the latter’s budget share from 2004 to 2013 and the amount does not include the revenues the region has received from the customs, tax, selling oil and gas and the money that international oil companies have sent to Kurdistan Region within their deals with Erbil. There are estimations that some 5 to 7 billion dollars have been paid to Erbil within the oil deals it has made with the international oil companies. Despite the huge income and revenue, there is no strong infrastructure in Kurdistan Region. Nothing called national economy has been established in the region and, as I mentioned earlier, the government owes its people. On the other hand and according to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) statements, the government’s debt is some 20 billion dollars. I reiterate again that the main reason behind the situation in “corruption” and a large number of the incomes have been taken out by officials in Kurdistan Region and Iraq.
The second reason behind the economic crisis in the region is its reliance on oil and gas as a source of making income and providing its budget. We mostly relied on the budget which was sent from Baghdad. But our main source of revenues is selling oil and gas and now the oil price has experienced severe fluctuations and the situation is a serious agent that has made us unable to establish a scientific economy. On the other hand, if relying on oil is wrong for a country, it is twice worse for us as Kurdistan Region; and I have repeatedly warned the reality in meetings with the government. Because we are landlocked and Kurdistan Region, therefore, should always be dependent on its neighboring countries to export its oil. Unfortunately right now we have only one channel to export our oil which is Turkey and the country sometimes misuses the issue as a political card against the region. Therefore we need to have different ways for making incomes. We can count on industry, agriculture, tourism and trade within the goal. And simultaneously need to make other corridors for exporting our oil. Besides our good ties with Turkey, we can have the same good relation with the central government in Iraq and can make a good tie with Iran in the fields of energy and exporting oil.
Kurdpress: Kurdistan Region officials, including Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Minister of Natural Resources, Ashti Hewrami, have stated the budget which Baghdad sends to the region is not enough to make Kurdistan Region provide its necessities and it is less than the direct oil export of the region; on the other side we are facing with a terrible economic situation which is the result of following an independent economic policy through exporting oil. So what should people do in this situation as they are wrestling with a tough economic situation and have problem in making their ends meet?
Yusuf Muhammad: The situation proved that direct oil export not only did not lead into our economic independence but made us economically bankrupted. The independent oil export not only did not increase the region’s currency backing but inflicted heavy debts (on the region); that’s why it is unavoidable to review the policy. It has to be assessed and studied again to see what are the benefits of the people of the region. I believe that a large part of the region’s citizens want Kurdistan to increase and develop its ties with the Iraqi central government and that the region should reach a new deal with Baghdad in the fields of energy and oil and they want Erbil to remain committed to the Iraqi constitution in order to see an opening in the economic situation and the people’s living and they can defeat the big crises they are facing with.
Kurdpress: Since 2003 that Kurds returned to Baghdad and turned into a partner in power serious rifts and unresolved tensions have remained between the two sides. What kind of relation you are seeking with the Iraqi central government and what do you expect from the relations?
Yusuf Muhammad: Kurdistan Region sees itself, till now, within Iraq and we are better to settle our differences through dialogue as long as we are in the country. I believe both the Iraqi government and the Kurdish region are at wrong for the troubles to remain unresolved. That’s why the two sides should prove their goodwill for settling bilateral tensions and problems and we need to talk seriously to Baghdad in the case the region decided to secede from Iraq and the central government in Baghdad should be aware of our decision to divide the region from the country as Kurdistan Region’s independence does not go through Ankara, Tehran, Washington or any other capital. The way passes through Baghdad and we have to reach agreement with Baghdad over the fate of our region. That’s why we need a serious dialogue in order to bring our tensions with Baghdad into an end and all scenarios should be on table in negotiation with Baghdad. It can be diverse; the scenario to remain in Iraq- as it is now- to having a federal system or a peaceful and nonviolent division and the definition of a friendly relation between the two sides.
Kurdpress: considering your definition from the relation between Erbil and Baghdad, how do you see the horizon of Kurdistan Region’s independence?
Yusuf Muhammad: Forming an political independent state and the right to decide one’s fate like other nations in the world is a big goal for people in Kurdistan; but establishing a state needs fulfilling basic affairs and the presence of basic governing foundations. What we witness today in Kurdistan Region is a chaotic system which is suffering from serious organizational problems. We, in Kurdistan Region, need to organize our governing and legal foundations, strong economic infrastructures, unity among people and removing the troubles of two-party governing system. As I mentioned and reiterate again, we need a strong and constructive relation between Kurdistan and Iraq. It’s not a good idea to turn Iraq and other sides into our enemy while we have not taken any steps in this way and have not conducted any useful action to realize Kurdistan’s independence; a situation we are witnessing now. Right now the question of independence is mostly a tool being used in internal tensions within the region.
Kurdpress: If the ties between Erbil and Baghdad are defined within any one of those frameworks you mentioned, then will the question of disputed regions, which have mostly been mostly controlled by Peshmerga forces during their fight against the IS, remain as a crisis-making situation? Is there any solution for the situation?
Yusuf Muhammad: I should stress that sending Peshmerga forces to the regions has not created any trouble and crisis. The presence of the Peshmerga forces has led into saving and securing the life of the residents, ranging from all ethnical and religious groups. Considering the multiethnic and multi-religious characteristic of Kirkuk (a province in the north of Iraq) and the presence of different religions and ethnics, such as Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs, Shiite and Sunni Turkmans and Christians, there would surely be Mosul and Shingal- like disasters in the province in the case of an IS attack if there was no Peshmerga forces. Sending Peshmerga forces not only did not complicate the situation but also saved the lives of the people in the regions. The ultimate solution for the regions is not deploying forces. These regions are now being protected by Peshmerga forces. The ultimate solution has been defined in the Iraqi constitution. A referendum has to be held, according to the constitution, and the people should decide if they want the regions to remain within an Iraq or they want their regions to be annexed to Kurdistan Region or turn into an independent region. I reiterate again that the tensions in the region should not be resolved militarily or by deploying forces.
Kurdpress: You referred to the Iraqi constitution and the defined solution which, according to Article 140, a referendum should decide about the fate of the regions. What stance will Kurdistan Region take if the referendum says the regions should remain under Baghdad’s control as the demographic structure of the regions has changed and Arabs or other groups are the majority in the region?
Yusuf Muhammad: As the parliament speaker of Kurdistan I reiterate that the vote and the decision of the residents of the regions should be respected and their choice is respected.
Will Kurdistan Region declare independence without the disputed regions?
Yusuf Muhammad: That is a complicated issue and will not be restricted to the disputed regions. The independence of the region depends on the internal situation of Kurdistan Region, particularly its political and economic situation and its relation with Baghdad.
Kurdpress: What, in your view, the stances of Sunni Arabs in the regions, Iraq and the neighboring countries will be on holding a referendum over the regions and the result of the referendum?
Yusuf Muhammad: The title of my PhD thesis is the fate of Kurdistan Region and the effective factors on it and I have discussed the issue of the disputed region there. The regions are historically Kurdistani (belonging to Kurds). All the regions, as well as Mosul Velayat which 60 percent of its residents have been Kurds, have been Kurdish from the beginning of the First World War. Kurds have demoted from his historical and geographical right over the regions and they agree with the idea that they are the residents of the region who should decide about their future. I am not with the remarks that borders are to be drawn by blood. Those borders which have been drawn by blood will be redrawn by blood once more and they will change. Saddam Hussein was to change the identity of the regions with his blood and he failed in fulfilling the goal. The most democratic way is that the people of the regions should decide the fate of the regions and we, Kurds, should respect the vote of the people and all other sides should respect the will and the vote of people.
Kurdpress: Kurdistan Region has turned into an outstanding player in the region (Middle East) as political and military situation of the region has changed after the IS attack on Iraq. Where is the place of (Kurdistan) region in the political and international polarities?
Yusuf Muhammad: I believe that Iraq interests and those of Kurdistan Region and other parts of Kurdistan, in particular, require that the region should not take the side of any political front in the region (Middle East) and should not turn into a part of the regional tensions. It is necessary for us to have friendly, strong and deep ties with our neighbors. The ties should be balanced and equal. We should have good ties with Iraq at the same time. What is the most important thing in this situation is amicable and strong ties between political parties and sides in Kurdistan Region. I reiterate again that (Kurdistan) region should not turn into a part of the tensions and polarities in the region (Middle East), as it is not in Kurdistan region’s interest to be a part of the tensions and be a partner and a supporter of one country and go against some others. Or a political party or movement in Kurdistan region supports a special front and the other party or movement backs another front which bring the tensions and rifts into the region; such a thing is not in the interest of the region.
Kurdpress: Do not you believe that Kurdistan Region has been divided over two rival fronts in the region (Middle East) as there are political rivalries and tensions among political parties in the two provinces of Erbil and Sulaimaniya?
Yusuf Muhammad: Kurdistan Region was, unfortunately, divided between regional polarities due to a Kurdish civil war in Iraq over power and interests and we still witness supports from regional political fronts (from different parties) in Kurdistan region but we believe that this is not true.
Kurdpress: What’s your assessment from the situation of Peshmerga forces at the present time? Has the force been able to take itself out of the dominance of political parties and if that is not the case, what dangers the dominance of political parties over the forces will make for the region now and in the future?
Yusuf Muhammad: Peshmerga forces defended Kurdistan Region against the Islamic State heroically and the defense did not include only the Kurds but all religious and ethnic groups and received all Iraqis from any group who were under the threat of being killed or genocided by the IS and protected them. The forces received their budget from that of Kurdistan Region and the will and demand of the forces, from a usual Peshmerga to a high-ranking commander, is to be a protector of Kurdistan’s people and soil. But there are wills and inclinations in some political parties to control a part of the armed forces within Peshmerga and security forces and this situation is a potential danger for both now and the future of the region. It is necessary for all political parties to not have any control on Kurdistan Region’s military and security institutions and foundations and the foundations are better to conduct their duties professionally and be a protector of the people in the region. That’s why the military forces should not turn into a part of political tensions and the status of the national forces has to be protected. The forces should not be weakened by making it a part of the political tensions.
Kurdpress: We have witnessed extensive regional and international supports from Peshmerga forces in the past two years and after the formation of the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition. Do you think the political and military supports from Kurdistan Region would continue after the end of the war against the IS? How do see the future of the supports?
Yusuf Muhammad: The current political situation in Kurdistan Region, the closure of its parliament in particular, has made many allies of Kurdistan Region to assess the situation in the region dubiously and the war against the IS has turned into an agent so that the influence of the political crisis would not be a lot on foreign supports to Peshmerga forces. Those countries that are supporting Peshmerga forces have democratic governments. The parliament in these countries supervises all costs, the military costs in particular, based on democratic laws. So due to the political situation in Kurdistan Region and the closure of its parliament, it seems that none of the European states would continue their support to Kurdistan Region after the war against the IS and the reason behind the possible action is that Kurdistan Region has taken a wrong road and democracy has been violated and quashed. The reality is being announced to us clearly from friendly countries. However, we believe that international supports to Peshmerga forces should not be sacrificed to political tensions in Kurdistan Region and we have announced to the international community that the current supports should be within joint interests as the IS is a threat and jeopardy that puts all in danger. I am not sure the supports to Peshmerga forces will continue after the IS.
Kurdpress: You, as the Kurdistan Region’s Parliament Speaker, and you party (Gorran) has taken a different stance from that of ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Kurdistan Regional Government towards the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Shingal and other parts of Kurdistan Region after the war against the IS is over. What are the reasons and the causes of the severe rifts and rivalries between the KDP and the PKK and what role the KDP ties with Turkey will play in the tensions?
Yusuf Muhammad: As I am legally the parliament speaker of Kurdistan, I refrain from taking my parties stance in this regard. We really appreciate the PKK as it rushed to help Kurdistan Region in tough days and when the IS attacked Kurdistan Region and it participated in the war against the group. The PKK was in Makhmor, Kirkuk, Khanaqin and Shingal. When unfortunately some party officials made Shingal to fall into the control of the IS, PKK forces and Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and Women Protection Units (YPJ) [the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) armed forces] warriors protected and defended, along with a part of Peshmerga forces that remained in Shingal Mountain, from a large population of Yazidis in Shingal and did not allow the big population to be massacred like those who were killed in the city in the attack by the IS. We cannot forget the aids and helps and that’s why their efforts and actions are praiseworthy. The tensions and problems between political parties have to be settled and resolved through dialogue and peaceful ways and not through using military forces, in Shingal particularly. What has to be considered in Shingal is the interests of the people in the city. The important and vital issue is that how we can defend and protect Shingal and how to protect Yazidis against another massacre. Yazidi citizens are not sure about their security as their habitats are in a situation that makes protecting them difficult. That’s why what is important in the question of Shingal is protecting Yazidis, their interests and forming a special forces among them to protect them and provide their security, not political interests. The Yazidis should not be sacrificed, once more, to limited political interests.
Interview: Hasan Salehi