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Kurds don’t want to ‘fix Baghdad’ at their expense, says Kurdish foreign chief

July 2, 2014 at 6:16 PM EST
Kurdish leaders are making their case for independence, despite U.S. pleas to keep Iraq intact. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner talks to Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of foreign relations for the Kurdish regional government about the instability of Iraq and the influence of U.S. support -- or lack thereof.
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MARGARET WARNER: Today, in Washington, Kerry received other Kurdish leaders, including Falah Mustafa Bakir, foreign relations chief for Kurdish regional government.

I spoke with him this morning.

Prime Minister Bakir, thank you for joining us.

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR, Head of the Department of Foreign Relations, Kurdistan Regional Government: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: We have seen the collapse of the Iraqi army up in the northern part of the country, in the face both the Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and your own Kurdish fighters who seized all this territory up there, including Kirkuk.

Are we simply seeing the collapse of the Iraqi state?

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: Iraq as a state didn’t exist that much.

Iraq is an artificial state. And what’s built here on wrong foundations will not be able to survive. We as Kurds have suffered a lot. And we pay the price of keeping the balance between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq. Time has come in order to correct that historical mistake.

And we’re not ready to pay more prices for the instability of that area. The Iraqi army collapsed because it was built or rebuilt on wrong foundations. It wasn’t an army in order to protect the country and the people of the country against external threats.

It was used against the Kurds when we had political differences with Baghdad. Therefore, we lost hope in the new Iraq. This wasn’t the Iraq that we have contributed so positively, and this wasn’t the Iraq that Americans have sacrificed their lives for.

MARGARET WARNER: So this additional territory that the Kurds have taken, you’re building fortifications around it now, this is for good?

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: We have not taken new territory.

It was our territory that was taken by others. So we have waited for 10 years in order to implement a three-stage process of normalization (INAUDIBLE) and referendum. Indeed, we have been betrayed. We didn’t find a partner. So, therefore, today, we moved in to protect the people of these areas, regardless of their national, ethnic and religious backgrounds.

It our areas, but still we said that it’s the people of these areas. In a referendum, they will decide whether they want to be part of Kurdistan or not. We’re not (INAUDIBLE)

MARGARET WARNER: So, when your president, Barzani, says there is going to be referendum on independence, that’s for certain, and, if so, how soon?

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: We have done everything we could in order to help the political process succeed in Iraq, but it didn’t succeed.

People are not ready for sharing the power and wealth. People are ready only for monopolization of power, for denying others their power. Therefore, we are determined to go ahead with the referendum. It’s the people of Kurdistan who would determine their own future. And we hope — call upon the international community to understand our position.

In the last decade or so, we have introduced a successful experience of government. We are a land of stability. We are proud of our cultural tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

MARGARET WARNER: So, is that your message to the administration coming here, that essentially you have not left Iraq, Iraq left you, Baghdad left you, and now the Kurds are going their own way?

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: Not only Baghdad left us. Baghdad betrayed us.

Therefore, we are working on two paths, one path to help the political process in Baghdad if there were any hope for it to succeed. Otherwise, we have to go our own way through a referendum for the people of Kurdistan to determine that.

And we hope that the U.S. administration understands our position, looks at Kurdistan for what it stands for. We have been the most loyal and faithful friend and ally of the United States. We stand for the same values that you stand for, freedom, democracy, human rights, women’s rights. And we are proud of our history.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there anything at this point that could keep Kurdistan within Iraq?

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: Well, there is no hope for us. We don’t want to stay with an Iraq that has failed. We are not ready to repeat a failed experience.

Baghdad doesn’t accept us. Baghdad doesn’t want us as partners. Baghdad doesn’t want to share the power and wealth. And it’s enough for us.

MARGARET WARNER: How has this message that you have already conveyed both publicly and privately been received by the Obama administration?

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: Not that positively.

We hoped that, during our visit, there would be much more reception to that, because we are friends of the United States. And we are for a long-term relationship, but we want it to be a two-way relationship.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what is the administration saying to you?

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: They say, let’s fix Baghdad.

But we don’t want it to be at the expense of the Kurds. We have suffered a lot. We, the people of Kurdistan, have challenged Saddam Hussein. Chemical gas was used against us. Our people need and deserve a better future, and we hope that the U.S. understands this position.

MARGARET WARNER: Have you been planning this all along, as many people thought, or has the sudden advance of this Sunni militant group ISIL, ISIL, did it create an opportunity that suddenly the Kurds could exploit?

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: Not really.

All the way through, we have been thinking about that. We wanted to have an independent state of our own. But the reality on the ground was difficult. The neighborhood is a difficult one. And the circumstances internationally was such, but we have never given up on our identity.

MARGARET WARNER: But then the sudden advance of ISIL essentially upended the chess board, and you think now that the world is more ready to see this situation from the Kurds’ point of view?

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: After the events on the 9th of June, when ISIL came and occupied a new territory, we woke up in the morning, and we have got a new neighbor. A new state emerged next to us.

And we have 1,035 kilometers with that new neighbor, which is the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, only 15 kilometers with the rest of Iraq. So, this is a new reality.

We’re determined to fight terrorism, and Kurdistan is the only state that has secured part of Iraq. But we need the support of the United States and the international community to strengthen our democratic institutions and to be able to fight the terrorists.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you feel you need a green light from the administration to go forward with this?

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: We hope that the U.S. administration and the U.S. public understands, as a friend and ally, as a people who are looking to the West, as a people who want to strengthen our democratic institutions would stand by us.

MARGARET WARNER: But if the administration said to you, no, now is not the time, would you still go ahead with independence?

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: With all due respect, it’s the people of Kurdistan who decide. And, yes, we will go ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Minister, thank you.

FALAH MUSTAFA BAKIR: Thank you.