Iraq Kurds have no ‘immediate’ plans to break away

Masoud Barzani
Masoud Barzani

President of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Masoud Barzani speaks at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, May 6, 2015.

The unity of Iraq “is voluntary and not compulsory,” the head of the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region said on Wednesday, while stressing the Kurds had no immediate plans to break away from the central government in Baghdad.

Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani was speaking in Washington after holding talks earlier with U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on issues that included the campaign to battle Islamic State.

The White House said that in those talks, Obama and Biden stressed that Washington supports “a united, federal and democratic Iraq.”

There have been fears that the country could fracture further along ethnic and religious lines following rapid advances by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a radical militant group.

Barzani said the Kurds were coordinating with Baghdad in the fight against ISIS, where their Peshmerga military forces have played a major role. But he voiced the Kurds’ long-held dream of their own independent state.

“Certainly the independent Kurdistan is coming,” he said, speaking through a translator at an event sponsored by the Atlantic Council and U.S. Institute of Peace think tanks. “It’s a continued process. It will not stop, it will not step back.

Iraq’s unity “is voluntary and not compulsory, so therefore the important thing is for attempts to be made for everyone in Iraq to have that conviction that it would be a voluntary union and not a forced union,” he said. He added that any changes in Iraq’s make-up should be made peacefully.

Barzani said the Kurdistan Regional Government, based in Irbil, has not received 17 percent of Iraq’s federal budget due to it under an agreement in which the Kurds are supposed to export an average of 550,000 barrels of oil per day.

Irbil has not always been able to meet its export target, and the cash-strapped Baghdad government has missed payments in the past.

“We hope that Baghdad honors that agreement,” Barzani said.

‘We fight ISIS on behalf of free world’

Meanwhile, Barzani said his region’s forces had destroyed ISIS’s reputation for invincibility but now need help dealing with a flood of refugees.

Barzani thanked U.S.-led forces for their air support in the battle against the jihadists, but called for more humanitarian aid.

“We are proud of what we have achieved, because we believe we are on the frontline fighting on behalf of the free world this brutal terrorist organization,” Barzani said.

“And it was by the hands of the peshmerga forces that they were able to destroy the myth of ISIS being this invincible force, but this has been a costly war.”

Barzani said 1,200 Kurdish peshmerga troops have been killed fighting to hold back ISIS forces that swept out of their bases in Iraq and Syria last year and seized several cities.

Kurdish forces prevented ISIS from advancing far from the mainly Arab cities they have seized in Iraq and into the area controlled by Barzani’s autonomous Kurdish region.

But they now find themselves dealing with “more than one-and-a-half million refugees and internally displaced people,” many from ethnic and religious minority groups that are prey to the Sunni Islamist extremists.

“We believe that we have a humanitarian as well as a national responsibility,” he told guests at Washington think tank the Atlantic Council. “But of course the burden is huge and we cannot afford it alone.

“That’s why we call upon the United States and our friends in the international community to come and help the Kurdistan regional authority with these needs.”

Barzani said he had met with the leaders of the Christian, Turkmen and Yazidi minorities and had assured them that the Islamic State threat can be defeated.

And he told them: “We do not want any of you to think about leaving the country, going to be asylum-seekers abroad. I assure you that we will be together. Either we will live freely in our country or we will die together.”

The Kurdish leader confirmed he regarded his Tuesday meeting with Obama as successful, and that he believes the United States will find a way to better arm his forces, but would not be drawn on specific pledges from the U.S. side.


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