Over the past few months, Iraqi Kurdistan has come under attack from Sunni Muslim extremists in the group known as the Islamic State, it has become home to over a million refugees and it has also been subject to a “financial blockade” by the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
NIQASH held a wide-ranging conversation with Safeen Dizayee, the spokesperson for the Iraqi Kurdish government in the semi-autonomous northern region and a member of the region’s biggest political party, the Kurdish Democratic Party.
The conversation covered everything from the establishment of a new US air base in Iraqi Kurdistan to whether Iraqi Kurdish authorities were discriminating against Arab refugees. He also discussed whether Iranian and Turkish reactions to Iraq’s security crisis were adequate as well as where exactly Iraqi Kurdish oil was being exported to, and how much of it was going there.
Dizayee also commented on whether Iraqi Kurdish authorities might be getting any closer to resolving their long standing disputes with the government in Baghdad, especially now there is a new Prime Minister in charge.
The conversation has been split into three parts for ease of reading.On US Plans To Build Air Base in Erbil
NIQASH: Apparently the US has also decided to build a military base – maybe more than one – in Iraqi Kurdistan. What can you tell us about this?
Safeen Dizayee: Discussions are continuing about the specifics of this issue. Nothing has happened on the ground as yet.
NIQASH: Would this base be a substitute to the nearest US base, the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey?
Dizayee: No. Incirlik Air Base is a NATO base and it will remain so. The prospective air base in Erbil is in order to confront the IS group in the nearby area.
NIQASH: Do you think that the Iranians will see this as a threat to their influence in the region?
Dizayee: Incirlik Air Base and other US military bases in the Gulf States - in places like Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – are also close to Iran. The base to be built in Erbil is all about fighting the IS group, not about confronting Iran, or any other country, in any way. We have stressed time and again that we don’t want Iraqi Kurdistan to become a battlefield for major powers in the region.
NIQASH: So did anyone tell the Iranians that Erbil’s potential new air base isn’t going to pose them any problems?
Dizayee: Given the close ties that bind Iraqi Kurdistan with Iran, the position of the region regarding Iran is very clear.
NIQASH: How is your relationship with Turkey currently – it seems to have been becoming warmer and certainly the region does a huge amount of business with the Turkish. But Turkey has shown a lack of support for Iraqi Kurdistan when it comes to confronting the IS group.
Dizayee: We still have good relations with this country and it has helped Iraqi Kurdistan on a humanitarian level. Even now, Turkey is helping build camps for refugees in Dohuk. However the Turkish were busy with an election and the IS group also held 49 hostages for a long time. Perhaps these were some of the reasons behind a lack of participation in efforts against the IS group. However now that the hostages have been released, Turkey’s position may change.
NIQASH: Has Iraqi Kurdistan felt differently toward Turkey because of this: did the relationship get chilly?
Dizayee: No, it didn’t. It is true that Iraqi Kurdistan’s government was expecting the Turkish government to take more steps. And we are still waiting for them to do this.
NIQASH: Many countries have been helping with humanitarian aid. But some have also been helping with military aid. One case in particular – that of Germany – is interesting because in general, the country’s laws ban exports of weapons to conflict zones. But Germany has ignored this and decided to send weapons to arm the Iraqi Kurdish forces.
Dizayee: We appreciate this very much. It means that European countries, the US and in fact, the whole world has realized how serious this confrontation with such a savage force as the IS group is – not only for Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, but the whole world.On The Million And More Refugees In Iraqi Kurdistan, And Whether They’re Being Discriminated Against
NIQASH: What can you tell us about the latest influx of refugees now in Iraqi Kurdistan?
Dizayee: Since the beginning of 2014, we’ve had 850,000 refugees coming into Iraqi Kurdistan. We already had about 350,000 internally displaced Iraqis, mainly from the central and southern parts of Iraq, come into the region after 2005 – but most of these people are now settled here and they have jobs.
There are also around 230,000 Syrian Kurds here, who came to Iraq after civil war broke out in their own country. So in total we have about 1.4 million refugees and displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan, all from different areas of Iraq and from Syria. This huge number has really burdened the regional government financially and we need help from the international community to assist all of these refugees.
[When the world’s attention was focused on Sinjar and] there were large numbers of people hiding on Mount Sinjar, there was a lot of humanitarian aid and it reached those people quickly. Now there’s no doubt amounts are dropping. But in general, aid is still continuously reaching the refugees. Despite this, it’s still not enough – especially considering the magnitude of the situation – so we thank the international community but we urge them to continue helping, especially before winter starts here.
NIQASH: In its latest report on the situation here, the United Nations accused the region’s government of discriminating between different types of refugees – and in particular between refugees from Syria who tend to also be Kurdish and refugees from other parts of Iraq, who are more likely to be Arabs.
Dizayee: Any such accusations, no matter who they come from, are baseless. We reject them. In fact, some senior United Nations officials have visited Iraqi Kurdistan and the refugee camps here and they have praised the region’s government and the region’s people.
Despite the financial crisis that is impacting Iraqi Kurdistan, we continue to receive refugees of all ethnic groups and from all religions. The fact that the latest United Nations report mentioned something like this was an unpleasant surprise for us too.
NIQASH: How much money has Iraqi Kurdistan’s government allocated for refugees?
Dizayee: Provinces were given the freedom to choose how to spend the money allocated for the refugees, especially in Dohuk. Spending is not limited to providing food and supplies – there’s other less visible aid such as the provision of water, electricity, medical supplies, safety and security and the administration of the camps. Recently, around US$50 million was paid in cash to Dohuk provincial authorities, in order to cater for the refugees.
NIQASH: Some of the refugees in Dohuk and Erbil are still living in schools that were disused during the school holidays. But the holidays are now over. When will these schools be able to be used by local students again?
Dizayee: Refugees are living in around 650 schools in the Dohuk province. Almost all of the schools in certain areas in Dohuk have now been emptied of refugees though, with the refugees transferred to camps. However there is still a lot of pressure on central areas in Dohuk, like Zakho and Semel. There are still about 110,000 displaced people living in schools there. But we are in the process of building camps there too and the schools should be vacant in one to two months.
NIQASH: Has the Iraqi government in Baghdad been helping with the refugee situation?
Dizayee: The Iraqi government formed a committee that decided to help refugees by paying each family IQD1 million [around US$850]. But unfortunately they didn’t really coordinate this with the Iraqi Kurdish authorities or the provincial authorities here – so we have no idea how the amounts were distributed or who has this money.
Baghdad also said they have IQD50 billion [around US$42 million] to put towards helping the displaced people but as yet, we haven’t received anything.
NIQASH: Do you think the financial dispute between Erbil and Baghdad has delayed the sending of financial aid?
Dizayee: No. This is a humanitarian issue and the federal government should help these people because they are Iraqis.On Whether The Financial Conflict Between Baghdad And Erbil Is Nearly Resolved, And Whether Kurdish Oil Is Going To Iran
NIQASH: The Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, says he recently sent a letter to the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, with the intention of solving the long standing problems between Baghdad and Erbil. Do you know what the letter was about?
Dizayee: The letter talked about the problems Iraqi Kurdistan is having, about the dangers presented by the IS group and about the long standing issues between Erbil and Baghdad. It also talked about the refugee crisis the Iraqi Kurds are facing and how we needed help with that. The letter said that the region was ready to send a delegation to Baghdad to discuss, and hopefully solve, all of these problems. As yet though, we have had no response.
NIQASH: In fact, we heard that al-Abadi was going to transfer an advance payment of Iraqi Kurdistan’s share of the national budget during the first week he was in power. But he didn’t.
Dizayee: Because there was no such a decision. It was only a rumour.
NIQASH: Why haven’t the Iraqi Kurdish ministers gone to Baghdad yet to take the oath of allegiance and join the government? Do you actually want more power and more ministries?
Dizayee: The Iraqi Kurdish share of potential ministries is less than the percentage we have of MPs in Parliament. It’s also less than our ratio, as an ethnicity that is part of the general population. We should have at least four ministries so we are still negotiating this issue. Additionally the Iraqi Kurdish were only given two ministries so far - so there is also dispute about who from Iraqi Kurdistan should run these ministries.
NIQASH: Iraqi Kurdish politicians have said that they’re giving al-Abadi’s new government three months to pull things together. Is the Iraqi Kurdish government just bluffing to put pressure on the new government? Or are they serious about threats like secession and abandoning the government in Baghdad?
Dizayee: It’s not meant to pressure anyone. During the three months, the al-Abadi government should prove it is serious about tackling some of the problems plaguing Iraqi Kurdistan and longstanding conflicts between Erbil and Baghdad.
Of course, some problems – like Article 140 and issues around oil and gas and the Iraqi Kurdish military – cannot be solved within three months. But what is important to us is that the government shows it has good intentions and initiates some steps toward resolution.
NIQASH: It is true that the conflict around oil and gas remains a big issue for Baghdad. They accuse you of selling oil and drilling rights illegally. But Iraqi Kurdistan believes it should be allowed to do what it wants with its own resources, especially in the absence of a national oil and gas law. Can you tell us how much oil Iraqi Kurdistan is currently selling per day and how much you’re earning from that?
Dizayee: Currently we are exporting 200,000 barrels per day through the Ceyhan oil pipeline, to Turkey. We’ve been paid for three to four oil shipments and each of these bring in between US$90 to 100 million. This money was used to pay the salaries of government employees in the region – even though they didn’t quite cover everything.
NIQASH: Is Iraqi Kurdistan selling oil to Iran as well?
Dizayee: The export of oil through the pipeline is more practical. We are not exporting any oil to Iran currently. However there are negotiations with Iran going on about moving oil through their territory.
NIQASH: Will Erbil ever accept the idea of selling its own oil through the Iraqi national company, the State Oil Marketing Organization, or SOMO?
Dizayee: The Iraqi Constitution actually gives Iraqi Kurdistan – as a semi-autonomous region – the right to work its own resources and to export them too. But the authorities here believe that the wealth of Iraq belongs to all Iraqis and that, therefore, oil revenues should be evenly distributed.
A delegation from Iraqi Kurdistan – headed by Nechirvan Barzani – has been to Bagdad four times to discuss this with the former Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
There was some good progress made but unfortunately Baghdad insisted that all oil had to be under its control. Whereas Iraqi Kurdistan thinks we should be partners – in the sense that SOMO can take part in oil extraction, export marketing and the distribution of revenues and that this should all be done fairly and with transparency. Everything would happen on the condition that we’re partners and we work
Our main fear is that Baghdad would take our oil, do with it as it wishes and then have complete control over Iraqi Kurdistan and its revenue sources.
We were always afraid that Baghdad might use the issue of our share of the national budget against us. And now we’re living this. Baghdad has imposed a financial blockade upon us and has not released the Iraqi Kurdish share of the budget to us for nine months.
NIQASH: Apparently part of a recent proposal said that Iraqi Kurdistan would export 100,000 barrels of oil per day through SOMO and in return Baghdad would pay the region its budget. If the region extracted more oil, it could do what it wished with that. Is that deal still on the table?
Dizayee: This proposal has existed since April 2014. Its purpose was to show the goodwill of Iraqi Kurdistan so that negotiations would proceed in a positive way. Unfortunately Baghdad then told us the necessary pipeline was not operating properly due to terrorism. So the deal went nowhere. However it is now back on the table and the Iraqi Kurdish authorities are placing emphasis on it.
NIQASH: So how are the negotiations with Baghdad going at the moment? Do you feel there may be some positive news soon?
Dizayee: Our participation in the current Iraqi government indicates that we support a solution through dialogue. We are going to carry on like this because we don’t want to be accused of being the problem or of being the root cause of the failure of the political process in Iraq. At the same time though, we do have to consider the interests of the Iraqi Kurdish people whom we represent and we will not compromise their interests.