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Interviews: barham saleh

Barham Saleh is prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two major Kurdish political parties, in Suleimaniya. He has previously served as a representative of the PUK in Washington and is favored by some to become Iraq's representative in the United Nations. In this interview, he explains why the Kurds should be part of a unified Iraq, provided they receive equal representation in Baghdad. "We all know we have nowhere to go but to be together," he tells FRONTLINE producer Martin Smith. "In a way, we are condemned to this country together. We have to live together." This interview was conducted on Nov. 20, 2003.

Nationalism has an interesting life of its own. Kurdish nationalism has emerged as a result of years of brutal repression and denial.

[How would you evaluate the past 12 years for Kurds versus the current situation in Iraq?]

[The past] twelve years was the golden era for the Kurds compared to the previous 70 years. [Now] with the demise of Saddam, we have entered into a period of uncertainty. Most of us have a concern about the future -- how the transition will work itself out; whether we will be able to retain the self-government that we have worked so hard for; whether we will have what we hoped would be a genuine democratic federal system of government in Iraq.

But in reality, the last 12 years were good, were a lot better than what we had previously. But we were living in the shadow of tyranny. Every morning, we [would] wake up not knowing what will happen, because Saddam Hussein's forces and his tanks were nearby. We depended critically on international protection. It was a very precarious situation.

It didn't always come to your aid.

Well, [the international community] did not always come to our aid. But I [am] thankful also that it worked for 12 years, and managed to maintain a degree of protection that allowed us to build institutions of self-government that were a lot better than what we had before.

It was a monumental change for us. The days of genocide and the days of [the Arabization] campaign, from the days of chemical attacks, from the days where my people would be slaughtered in their houses without anybody uttering a word about us-- That situation at least changed for the areas that were under our control.

But having said that, we had some important economic progress over the last 12 years as well, a statistic that I'm very proud of in a very difficult hostile environment. Despite Saddam's sanctions, despite the U.N. sanctions, despite the hostility of neighboring countries, it really did a lot to improve the quality of life for our people. In 10 years of our self-government -- or 11 years of our self-government -- we built twice as many schools than were built in this region in 70 years of the state of Iraq.

So that tells you the difference in terms of the initiatives and the vibrancy of the self-governing experience that we have. For all its successes, it remained very precarious, very fragile. As I said, we were living in the shadow of tyranny and renewed genocide.

What about the precariousness of the current situation?

Of the current situation, I would not call it precarious. I would call it the uncertainties of the new era. ... Why? We had the certainty of tyranny. We had the certainty of dictatorship after dictatorship, that one Iraq community in this brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. [There is uncertainty in] how this transition will work itself out. Now we are committed to working, or at least the political [side is] committed to working with other Iraqis to build a new nation. ...

I want to be very realistic about it. That uncertainty is more sort of felt at the popular level. We have a difficult situation convincing our constituents that all will be fine in Baghdad. We need to throw our lot with other Iraqis to bring about a fundamental change of politics in Iraq.

But the other day, I had a town hall meeting with a number of students. One of them asked me a very poignant question: "All this vision about the future of Iraq, but last 70 years, 80 years was not like this. How is that you are confident that it can work?" It's genuine concern. But my hope is that we in the political leadership have made the right choice in retuning our constituents about the real challenges ahead of us, that this is not for certain.

We have a tangible option in working with other Iraqis to bringing about a parliamentally different form of government. But it takes work. It takes effort, and it takes patience. We are trying to be very candid with our constituents -- that, for all the uncertainties and the valid concerns, the legitimate concerns that we have about the past, we have no other choice, because we cannot secede away from this country. We are part of Iraq. Geography and history has made us part of Iraq.

But the dream lives of an independent Kurdish state, especially among the people.

Well, not only among the people. I would say among every Kurd, including myself. Every Kurd would ask, "Why not? Why am I different? Why am I different from the Palestinians, or the Jews, or the Arabs or the Turks, or the Armenians, or the Iranians? Everybody has a state; only the Kurds do not have one."

What's the answer?

The answer I would say very promptly is the cruel deal that history and geography has done to my people. I have two choices. Either I continue to moan about it, curse history and curse the world for this terrible deal that my people has been given.

You're the largest nation without a country.

Absolutely. It's painful. I'm not one of those who'd say the Kurds do not want independence; not when the Kurds have the right, like every other nation to enjoy their independence. But I, in my position, I have to be realistic.

Every time you throw in your lot in with the central government, you've gotten burned.

This time we have not [thrown] our lot with the central government. This time, we are telling the others in Iraq, "You want us to be Iraqis? You must allow us to be full partners with you in building a new nation of Iraq that would represent our identity."

What do the Sunni Arabs or the Shia Arabs get out of having you remain in the union?

It's not what they get out of this; it is their choice. In a way, it's not my choice. [It] is Iraq's choice. I don't think dividing Iraq is a viable option at this moment of history.

In this moment in the politics of the Middle East, we have the choice as Kurds. We have the choice either to be realistic and get something tangible for our people. We need schools. We need hospitals. We need [to] improve the quality of life of our people. But we need also to have the environment in which we can exercise our identity. We believe a federal democratic Iraq will allow us to do this.

The other option is to seek independence. While I affirm -- not just admit -- that it is a legitimate right of my people to demand the right to a state, it may not be realistic in the present circumstances.

I do not like to commit the mistake the many other elites in the Middle East are committing ... committing their people to an arduous journey of suffering without anything tangible -- to get to [what] at the end of the day? We have made that choice. We want to be partners with other Iraqis. All Arabs of Iraq, or most Arabs of Iraq want to retain the territorial integrity of Iraq. We've been very candid with them. We say to them, "Do you want us to remain Iraqis? You want us to be with you? In that case, you'll have to admit us into Iraq as full-flesh citizens of Iraq and as full partners. We will not accept to be second-class citizens. No longer."

We are not willing to stay in the margins while an Arab national [council] in Baghdad commits Iraq to war or peace, squander[s] the resources of Iraq, build[s] weapons programs, et cetera and so on. If you want us to be Iraqis, we are going to be with you in Baghdad. If you don't want us to be Iraqis, it's a different matter then. We'll have to consider another option.

To be fair, Saddam was not the first Arab who excluded Kurds from [political] participation.

No, in fact in many ways, Saddam Hussein is a consequence of Iraq's politics and political system and political culture. If we have to have the courage to admit that this Saddam phenomena resulted from many elements of Iraqi politics and Iraqi culture ... a natural outcome and exceptional situation, whatever the terms are -- but nevertheless, a consequence of many things that lead to Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein came in the wake of a succession of dictatorships. Admittedly, he was the most cruel. He was the most brutal. But in Saddam Hussein, the failure of the state of Iraq was most manifest. Now, I, as a Kurd, I as an Iraqi have the responsibility in building a new state that will make sure no other Saddam Hussein will ever rise to power again; that Iraq will never be gripped by tyranny ever again.

What makes a Kurd a Kurd? The Arabs talk about the Kurds. I'm an outsider to this situation as an American. Perhaps there's a naive belief on the Americans' part, especially naive given our own history. But what is it that makes you different from them? What is a Kurd?

What is a Kurd? What's an Englishman? What's a Frenchman? What makes you an American?

A Kurd is somebody who speaks Kurdish, lives in Kurdish town -- although in the Kurdish town region, [there are] Turkomen and Syrians and other nationalities. A Kurd is a national identity, culture, language, you name it. But at the same time, I have to tell you something as well. We are all human beings. But nationalism has an interesting dimension to it. The sense of national identity is strong.

Most people are proud with their national identity. I'm proud as a Kurd. But at the end of the day, probably what unites me with an Arab democrat, a liberal democrat in the Middle Eastern context, is much more than what unites me with a Kurdish Islamic fundamentalist.

Nationalism has an interesting life of its own. Kurdish nationalism has emerged as a result of years of brutal repression and denial. When Saddam Hussein was committing genocide based on ethnic identity, committing ethnic cleansing in Kurd-occupied spaces, it made everybody feel nothing but Kurdish. Saddam Hussein did not allow us to evolve into the Iraqi identity dimension, did not allow us to feel Iraqi. The challenge that we have with the Arabs of Iraq is to transcend our national identities, retain our culture, retain our heritage. Be proud of them, but at the same time forge this common identity of Iraq.

Will it be easy? Definitely not. Because we will be fighting against decades -- if not centuries -- of definitions of one's existence. I hope we can do it. It's not easy.

But this is in some ways a challenge for all of us in the Middle East. We have in Iraq the problem of identity, whether it is Islam, secularism, ethnicity, Kurd-Arab sectarianism; certainly, Shia. Out of this diversity, how can you forge a common Iraqi identity? In the United States, you had to go through that as well. You had this notion of melting pot. Can we have a melting pot in Iraq? Probably not. Probably not in a long, long time. But I believe out of necessity, out of recognition of realities, the Arabs of Iraq, the Kurds and Turkomans and the others, where we all know we have nowhere to go but to be together. In a way, we are condemned to this country together. We have to live together.

Let's make something out of [the recent] triumph. Find the framework of peace and peaceful co-existence; for me to be a Kurd, but at the same time to be an Iraqi as well. It should not be a contradiction in terms.

What role does America have to play? What business is it of Americans here?

That's a matter that I think is best addressed to an American decision maker. From my perspective, as a Kurd and as an Iraqi, I do value America's role. America has a fundamental role to play in Iraq and in the politics of the Middle East. We live in a global village. Democracy in this part of the world, I hope, is of consequence to American national interests. This is what I believe. This is what I hear from American decision makers, including the president of the United States, who recently articulated a wonderful vision that the United States must support democratic change in the Middle East.

For the last 50 years, your nation has supported dictators after dictators. [All the] while, you have tried to help a lot of people. But because of that support of these unaccountable, unrepresentative autocratic systems of government in the Middle East, you have a wave of anti-Americanism in a region which is so vital to your interest.

Beyond issues of moralities, right and wrong, I think -- if I understand American history and American foreign policy, with all of the misgivings that I have as a Kurd and as a Middle Easterner -- America wanted, on many occasions, to be a force for good, and wanted to support freedom and democracy around the world, except in the Middle East. For the last 50 years, the United States, during the Cold War, sided with corruption, elected and representative. The consequences are too obvious. I believe--

One of the ones was Saddam Hussein.

One of them was Saddam Hussein. Indeed so. I remember when I was in London, and also in Washington, trying to make the case why Saddam Hussein was evil, I was being countered by arguments of geopolitics and interests in Iran, Iraq. You name it. Oil, et cetera. But that was a short-sighted policy, and we have seen the consequences of that policy.

At the end of the day, I believe in this interconnected world. America's interest, Kurdish interests are intertwined in peace, in democracy, in freedom. Halabja is about an hour away from here, the scene of the chemical attacks. In 1988, when Saddam Hussein used the chemical weapons, and gassed 5,000 Kurds, how did the world react that day? Probably much of the mess since then would have been avoided.

My people paid dearly for indifference of the world. But when I am asked that question and reflect on those terrible years that we had, facing up to Saddam's evil on our own, I say thank you to the United States; better late than never.

The United States has come. We have a unique opportunity to building a new Iraq. This is not going to be easy. Rome was not built in one day. The United States, the world's greatest democracy, still evolves. You had many ups and downs. I do not expect that this proposition in Iraq would take 200 years before it gets to something meaningfully democratic. But I think the omen so far is good. The consequences of success in Iraq are really phenomenal for me, as a citizen of the Middle East, as a citizen of Iraq, as a Kurd.

But I believe also for the United States, because with a decent government in Iraq, you the United States hopefully will have a partner that can work with you in common cause against tyranny, against terrorism and for the betterment of the world.

As I listen to you, it's very interesting. You talk first about the Sunni Arabs, who, for the most part, have in the past dominated the central government and the military, and have sold you down the river, to say the least, or have brutalized you, in the case of Saddam. The Americans have acted out of practical self-interest around the world, supporting dictatorships, whether in Latin America or in Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, or Iraq. [You have] two groups here that you're now faced with having to assess their interests and decide whether or not there's a correlation between your interests and their interests. But it's got to worry you, amongst yourselves.

Oh, of course. Of course. And I tell you what -- the consequences for my people are phenomenal. The choices are just truly drastic. But I also calculate my interests. My interest lies in a partnership with the United States, and to work hard here in Iraq to build a nation that can be a partner to the United States. Without the United States, I'm unable to overcome the evil of Saddam Hussein. Without the United States, I cannot build this peaceful democratic nation that I want. If I were to paraphrase, or borrow from Madeleine Albright, "The United States is truly the indispensable nation." The United States is the leader of the Free World. I'm not using jargon. This is the only country that can effect change in this part of the world.

Having said that, as well I understand the limitations and problems associated with [the fact] that the United States does not act on my timetable, does not act on my interests alone. The United States is a global power, is also governed by domestic politics. ... But what gives me hope is that failure of the last 50 years of foreign policy towards the Middle East is so evident, and most manifest in Sept. 11 -- the wave of terrorism that is not only engulfing the Middle East, but the rest of the world.

The world has no option but to really help the people of the Middle East. There are systems of government that can be responsive to their needs. Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and other dictators and tyrants of different shades and colors cannot be. I hope they are a thing of the past. I hope the United States, Europe, and other civilized members of a community of nations must realize that they cannot just say, "Democracy everywhere except the Middle East."

There are powerful voices among the neo-conservatives who backed the invasion of Iraq, who are now coming out. I saw one who said this should never have been called "Operation Iraqi Freedom;" this should have been called "Operation American Security," and we have no business doing anything more than removing the threat. It goes to that question of realpolitik and assessing just where the United States is going to fall out on this.

I would not necessarily argue against that, because in my opinion, American security and freedom in Iraq are intertwined. ... I think freedom is a universal value with free people, free governments. The chances are that you can make partnership against terrorism. Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who used terrorism against his own people and against others as well. While we can go into the pursuit of the smoking gun about the links between Saddam Hussein and this terrorist organization or the other [organization], but Saddam Hussein--

I think that that's water under the bridge.

No, it's not water under the bridge. I think you're making a big mistake about [that], in my opinion. ... I think the phenomena of international terrorism is not enough talking about operations and logistics, of certain flowcharts of this connection and that connection. You're talking about an international system that allows the operation of terrorism, that allowed people like Osama bin Laden to inflict the type of damage that they have inflicted on New York and the Pentagon. Osama bin Laden did not operate in a vacuum. [He] operated in an environment that tolerated him, that allowed him [to be] the most visible symbol of defiance of international norms and international civility.

What's Saddam Hussein? This may sound like an abstract idea, philosophical discussion about the connection between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. I'm not making that connection, because that's a different issue altogether. But bin Laden and his likes are a consequence of corrupt elites in the Middle East -- corrupt governments that did not allow their people any other avenue of expression or political activity.

That's what bin Laden says.

In some ways. [But] I'm talking about the basic politics in the Middle East, how we and the United States will evolve after that situation. I think globalization is changing many things; Sept. 11 has changed many things; the end of the Cold War has changed many things. I lived in Washington for a while. I understand the importance of the United States.

But I also hope never to lose sight of the limitations of [a] U.S. role in terms of foreign policy and the ability to sustain [a] policy course. What we have heard so far, especially from this president, [is] a commitment that is quite unique.

I think this is a wonderful opportunity for people like us in the Middle East, who want to really be players, to change the politics of this region from that of conflict [and] dictatorship to something decent, something democratic. We can do it

On that count, this is very important. The Kurds were the most backward part of Iraq -- socially, economically and in a tough environment of sanctions, U.N. sanctions, Saddam's sanctions, regional hostility. [There were] limitations in American engagement during the last 11 years for reasons that are well known.

We could do it. We produced a model of government that was fundamentally different from the rest of Iraq. If the Kurds could do it, why the rest of Iraq cannot do it?

What is it that you want -- the bottom line for you being federalism of one type or another?

No. Bottom line is not federalism. Bottom line is federal democracy, because democracy cannot work without federalism. Federalism cannot work without democracy.

What is it that the Kurds want assured?

First and foremost, I want to make sure that there will be no more genocides against my people; that I can be free to exercise my Kurdish identity and use my language; develop my culture; acquire a proportionate share of Iraq's economic resources for the development of my economy; be able to build schools, be able to build hospitals and be--

You want your taxes to come back to you.

Absolutely, and to work hard in developing this economy and to improve the quality of life for people. How can we achieve that? That requires a constitution that will ensure that there will be representative democratic governments that will stay in for a limited term.

You will have changes of government -- not with the tanks, but with the ballot box. You'll have separation of powers, and self-government in the various regions -- not just the Kurdish region, but other parts of Iraq. It's important to develop political power to ensure that there will not be another centralizing dictatorship emerging in place of the ashes of Saddam Hussein.

I also need to have a voice in Baghdad. They want me to be Iraqi? Fine, I'm going to be an Iraqi. But I'm going to be running my own self-government here in [Suleimaniyah] or whatever that may be. But at the same time, I should also be in Baghdad, together with other Iraqis, Arabs, Turkomen and the others. Run this country together. We will not allow others to make fundamental decisions without our voice being heard and considered.

Is there any country like this that has, in the south, a significant population that it imagines--

The United States is like that.

I can't quite think of another country-- America was not founded by bringing together three distinct groups. It was founded--

Oh, from my understanding, it was founded on bringing together so many distinct groups. I'm not going to go back into American history and the Civil War and so on. That's a different matter.

Let's not be stuck in history. I can characterize Iraq for you. Iraq is a failed state. The project of building a nation of Iraq that was started by the Brits in the 1920s failed, because the state of Iraq did not allow for the inclusion of the various elements. It ended up with power residing with the Arab Sunni minority. Saddam Hussein exacerbated that problem, and as a result, led to a lot of polarization in Iraq.

Iraqis have a number of identities. Now I'm saying, even though this country is a failed state, we have no option, no viable option of dividing it unto a Kurdish part, to an Arab Sunni part, to a Shia part. Most Arab Iraqis and most Kurds understand that reality. We have no choice but to live together.

It will take a while to breach these differences. But I think there is more and more understanding by the Kurds, by the Arabs, by the various communities, that we need to work together. We have to give up some of our independence in the north as a way of integrating back into this common country.

But at the same time, the Arabs of Iraq have to give me a lot of protection that the new Iraqi military will not be what it used to be -- an Arab-commanded army that can be committed in no time to commit genocide against my people. I need guarantees. I need assurances. I think I have sensed a lot of understanding and a lot of acceptance in order for this.

But do the Americans need to stay here to make sure this happens? And for how long?

We would like the Americans to stay here for as long as it takes. Obviously this is not a decision that I would make. It's a decision that the president of the United States would make. What we have is worrisome for us, because the success of the United States is our success. This has to be a partnership.

At the moment, you have American soldiers patrolling the streets of Baghdad and other places. This is not their job. This should be done by Iraqis. I know that the Iraqis at the moment will not be able to provide the perfect option of maintaining domestic security in these cities and centers. But nevertheless, it's a better option than having Americans doing that and becoming targets for terrorists.

My hope and my expectation, as a matter of fact, for all the difficulties that we have with transition, [is that] the transition will be accomplished. But [it] will not be easy, because the stakes are very high in Iraq. Remember, it's not only us and the Americans in the theater here in Iraq. The stakes are very high. Every autocratic system of government in this part of the world has a stake in failing us, because if we succeed here in Iraq, the example will be too powerful for others.

So you're an optimist in the face of that?

... The transition over the past six months has been a significant success, if not remarkable success.

Given the context that I described to you, the failure of the state, the brutality of Saddam Hussein, the polarization in society, the devastation to the economy, analysts before the war were predicting civil war. Analysts before the war were predicting terrible humanitarian catastrophes. Analysts before the war were predicting powder kegs exploding in Kirkuk and Mosul and those mixed ethnic environments. ... With all those dire predictions around, the transition in Iraq has worked well, by and large.

I was in Baghdad about ten days ago, met with the director of police in Baghdad. He was describing to me how crime rates are going down, how social stability is improving, how people are feeling that their lives have improved in terms of the overall security. Yes, we do have a problem of politically motivated crimes and terrorism. But again, [it] is in the context of the stakes being so high. ...

[The CPA] gave us an emergency budget from July this year to Dec. 31. I think they gave us $260 million or so for salaries, pensions, social services.

Who do they give it to?

To the regional government here.

So this is Barzani, Talibani and the other groups together--

Yes, it's complicated ... What we did [is] we committed the budget allocated for projects and so on to build schools, about 70 schools in the rural areas. A number of hospitals, a number of public facilities like libraries, roads, et cetera, and so on. It created a lot of jobs for people.

People see the benefits of liberation firsthand. Public pay has improved tremendously. Purchasing power has increased. That has, by the way, generated some other problems for me, because more people are going out buying electronics, buying air conditioners and heaters, electric heaters. It's producing a major load on the grid that we have, [the] electricity grid. But that's beside the point. ...

The thing is, we could do it, and we are doing it. The model in Kurdistan is -- I believe with all its limitations, and we have limitations -- it's one that can prove the point that democracy can work in this part of the world.

I don't think for a moment that what we have is a fully functioning democracy, but everything is context. Everything is relative in this part of the world. We have made some very important strides, and we have made it in partnership with the Americans.

I hope you can see also that we are not shy to say thank you to the United States. We are proud of our partnership with the United States. The United States is seen as an important ally of ours -- not ours in terms of Kurd versus Arab, but us as Iraqi Kurdish democrats wanting to build a federal democracy in Iraq that can be a beacon of hope in the Middle East.

[Describe] the importance to the Kurds of getting to peace and democracy in Kirkuk.

Not just for the Kurds; [for] Iraq. I remember the other day I had a discussion with an Arab friend of mine about Kirkuk. We're making this point. Aside from the fact that I'm a Kurd and you are an Arab, Kirkuk is an important symbol for everybody.

Kirkuk was a scene of a terrible crime -- ethnic cleansing. You, my Arab compatriot in Iraq, you can try to convince me that the Kurds will be better off [in the new] Iraq, but it has to be proven to people. Decades of ethnic cleansing committed in the name of Arabization. You, the Arab of Iraq, have to take the lead in reversing that policy of ethnic cleansing and proving to the Kurds and the Turkomans that this time is going to be different, is not just empty words.

In the same vein, I tell many of my Kurdish compatriots in Kirkuk and elsewhere that we have an indigenous Turkoman community in Kirkuk who feels concerned about Kurdish domination, Arab domination or whatever.

How can we address their concerns? How can we address their identity issues? How can we turn Kirkuk into a place of peaceful coexistence between each other's communities? It's a challenging issue for us. It's not easy. But this is by no means the Balkans.

Why not?

I think hatreds do not go as deep. I think Arabization can be reversed without much problem, compared to what you had in the Balkans. I also believe -- and I think I have some legitimacy in making the following argument - that, unlike the Balkans, Iraqis, Kurds, the Arabs, Turkomans and the others have modern political leaderships who are trying to make this thing work. The Balkans had some characters who really made matters worse for their people. I'm not belittling the--

Populists can come from nowhere.

It's not easy. I'm not suggesting because I understand the sensitivities and the difficulties involved; but so far, so good. But when I say, "So far, so good," I'm concerned. We need to act faster to reverse Arabization, to allow the original people of Kirkuk to go back to their homes; for the people of Kirkuk -- Kurds, Turkomans and Syrians and indigenous Arab community that lived in that part of the country before the Arabization campaign to really be given a chance, a say in defining their future.


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posted february 12, 2004

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