RAY SUAREZ: Kurdish groups in northern Iraq have developed a large degree of political autonomy since the Gulf War, in part under the watch of U.S. and British planes patrolling the northern no-fly zone. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, is one of the two parties that controls the region that shares a border with Turkey, and is preparing for the possibility of an Iraq without Saddam.
Barham Salih is the prime minister of the PUK regional government, and he joins us to talk about Kurdish hopes for -- and fears of -- a war in Iraq. Welcome to the program.
BARHAM SALIH, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there a sense of resignation in the part of the country that your government controls that war is coming?
BARHAM SALIH: All indications are that war is inevitable, unfortunately our hopes that Saddam Hussein will step aside and leave Iraq have not come to become a reality. And unfortunately it seems that a war will be needed -- force will be needed in order to push him out.
RAY SUAREZ: Both your PUK government and the neighboring Kurdish government have armies in the field. Have they be in consultation with the United States; are they part of a plan about taking over Iraq?
BARHAM SALIH: We are in close consultation with the U.S. government, and these are matters of great importance for our people and our future. And we believe we have a vital stake in the developments in Baghdad and we want to be partners with the United States and with other Iraqi opposition groups in the mission to build a federal democracy in Iraq that will provide the people of Iraq with the government that will be at peace with them and at peace with the neighbors of Iraq.
RAY SUAREZ: But in something as complex as invading Iraq in the political dimension, is the United States interested in having your troops stay right where they are, in the areas that your government now controls?
BARHAM SALIH: Well, the United States-led coalition will be no doubt crucial to any of the developments that will happen in the days and weeks-- coming days and weeks. And we will have to consult very closely with the United States on these matters.
We have a stake in a democratic Baghdad. We do not want to engage in any unilateral military action that will complicate the situation. We want to be focused on the mission ahead of us, namely, democracy in Baghdad. We have suffered for far too long. We need to think strategically. The salvation for our people will be in replacing this dictatorship with a federal democracy that will provide our people with peace, security and human rights at long last.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you heard Elizabeth Farnsworth’s report a few moments ago. She talked about Turkish troops massing on the border with northern Iraq about the new prime minister’s -- or coming prime minister's -- desire for guarantees from the United States that the Turks would have a role in the future of northern Iraq.
BARHAM SALIH: Well, Turkey has always insisted on Iraq's territorial integrity. And it will be ironic if Turkey were to violate Iraq's territorial integrity. The future of Iraq should be a matter for the people of Iraq to decide.
We have said all along we are going to be part of Iraq. We're going to work with other compatriots of ours Iraqi, democrats, Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, to build a new political system that will be at peace with our people. Turkey stands to benefit from transformational politics in Iraq, but the rest is a matter for the Iraqi people to decide.
We respect our neighbors; we will have to be mindful of their interests, but military intervention in Iraq by any of our neighbors, by Turkey or Iran or any of the other neighbors, will only complicate the situation, will only help undermine the stated political objective that the United States has declared as far as military intervention is concerned, namely freedom for all Iraqis.
We must insist on keeping Iraq for the Iraqi people and giving the people of Iraq the space within which they can decide their future freely.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me make sure I understand you. Are you saying then if Turkish troops come into northern Iraq to secure it, as has been suggested in some schemes, they will be fired upon by the two armies that are there now -- from the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party?
BARHAM SALIH: We're talking to our neighbors in Turkey. We want to make sure that this situation is handled with reason and with care. We have had too much conflict in this part of the world. We want to emphasize to our neighbors that they stand to benefit from a new government in Baghdad, a stable, peaceful government that will provide for the unity of the country as well as for the rights of its people.
Turkey, by the way I want to say also, despite all this Turkey has helped protect Iraqi Kurdistan by facilitating the air patrols by the United States and the United Kingdom. And I think Turkey has a stake in the stability of our region, has a stake in the stability of the whole of Iraq.
Turkey's interest and for that matter, the other neighbors' interest, lies in getting in one country getting in would lead to others getting in would lead in to muddying the waters, would lead to all kind of complications, would lead to instability in the region. This region needs peace -- does not need further clashes, does not need further confrontation.
RAY SUAREZ: The stated reason that you heard the Turkish newspaper editor is insecurity they feel about Kurds living in Turkey. What kind of reassurances could you give them about the kind of Iraq that you want to see that would reassure Turkey?
BARHAM SALIH: Well, to start with, let me say we want a federal democracy in Iraq that will retain on the one hand the territorial integrity of Iraq but will provide the various constituent groups of Iraqi society a significant degree of self-government.
Who is asking for assurances? Who should demand assurances? Look at our history, look at our predicament as Kurds; we have been at the mercy of dictatorship after dictatorship. And this situation that the Kurdish people have found themselves in for the last eight decades of this Iraqi state has been a major cause of instability for Iraq and for the neighbors of Iraq.
I believe our neighbors will do themselves good, will do the international peace and security good by making sure that the Kurdish people of Iraq and for that matter the other communities of Iraq are treated well and their human rights are respected.
This region again has seen too many wars, too many conflicts. And the Kurdish people have suffered for far too long. We are working for something tangible in Baghdad -- a federal democracy. We want to insure that the new system of government in Baghdad will be stable, peaceful, democratic. We do not want to see another tyrant rising to power and gas our people -- that is good for the Iraqi people; that is good for the Kurdish people and I say it's good for Turkey and the other neighbors of Iraq.
A stable Iraq, a democratic Iraq will be a partner for prosperity, for democracy, for freedom, for stability across the region. There can be no peace in the Middle East; there can be no peace in this neighborhood unless the basic human and national rights of the Kurdish people are addressed. There can be no stability based on genocide of the Kurdish people.
RAY SUAREZ: The Kurds who have been talking to western reporters over the last several months have talked about how much progress they've made, what a good life they've been able to enjoy in the last several years of self-rule. Are they afraid that whatever happens in a war, that they may end up behind where they are today?
BARHAM SALIH: Well, things have never been as good in Iraqi Kurdistan. And we are very proud of the achievements that we've made over the past ten years in very, very difficult circumstances. We have a lousy geography -- geopolitics -- we're surrounded by powerful neighbors who are, to say the least, sensitive to our aspirations but in that terrible environment, in the shadow of the tyranny of Baghdad we have really developed an inspiring process of self-government.
We have moved on the path of democratization in my hometown of Sulaymaniyah. Just to remind you, we have 138 media channels and news outlets mostly independent. We have dozens and dozens of political parties. I'm proud to say that in the region we administer we do not have a single political prisoner. And you cannot imagine the pressures that we have to deal with from the independent press, from the demonstrations we receive on this issue or that issue.
This is inspiring, but this is not good enough because this is very precarious and cannot be institutionalized, cannot be protected so long as tyranny rules over Baghdad. We want a federal democracy in Baghdad within which we can work and develop our system of self-government and hopefully produce a model that can be emulated in the rest of the Middle East.
RAY SUAREZ: Prime Minister Salih, thanks for joining us.