The Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament, Yusuf Mohammed, was 36 when he was elected to the post earlier this year, making him the youngest Speaker in the semi-autonomous northern region’s history. And he quickly found himself overseeing Iraqi Kurdish politics during one of the region’s most troubled times. Only a month after his election, the representative of the reformist Change movement, found himself dealing with the threat of Sunni Muslim extremist group, the Islamic State, and an economically devastating financial conflict with Baghdad.
Most recently, the Iraqi Kurdish government has made several historic decisions – including officially recognising the territories run by Syria’s Kurds and, just last week, agreeing to send their own military to help fight the Islamic State, or IS, group in Syria, in the besieged Iraqi Syrian border town of Kobani.
In a wide ranging interview with NIQASH, Mohammed explains those decisions and looks at a number of other topics, including whether independence from Iraq is viable and what the future should hold for Iraqi Kurdistan.
NIQASH: You had only just assumed the post of Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament when the crisis, caused by the Islamic State group, began in June. What sort of effect has this had?
Yusuf Mohammed: It’s caused lot of obstacles. There are a lot of draft laws that need to be discussed and voted on – and many of them relate to payments and benefits and creating social justice. But because of the current financial situation in the region, we haven’t been able to move forward on these.
Additionally there are a lot of parliamentarians visiting the front lines and assessing conditions around Iraqi Kurdistan. We have a long front with the extremists – it’s 1,300 kilometres long and our armed forces are positioned all along it. It’s a lot of work administering that front as well as dealing with the refugee crisis and the financial crisis.
But we are still doing our work in Parliament. We’ve been able to go ahead with some plans, including creating more transparency for sittings of Parliament, setting up administrative systems and other tasks.
And there have been a number of very important decisions – they could be described as historic – made. Such as the decision made on October 22 to send Iraqi Kurdish military to Kobani [in Syria].
Additionally we have managed to pass a number of laws that were extremely problematic for the last government, in a very short time. This includes legislation on the electoral commission, budgets, political parties and demonstrations.
NIQASH: One of your own political party’s biggest platforms was the promise to combat corruption. Some critics now say that, with this crisis, you’ve forgotten all about it.
Mohammed: We haven’t neglected this issue. The integrity committee is active and a commission for financial supervision has been formed. That commission has sent teams to all ministries to prepare reports.
In fact an important part of the current situation relates to corruption. We believe that it impacts on the morale of our own military and leads to a waste of resources.
NIQASH: Since early June, the Islamic State group has been attacking different targets inside Iraq. But it seems that the international effort against the extremists only really started when the Iraqi Kurdish region was threatened. Why do you think that is?
Mohammed: There are several reasons. One is that even while Christians and other minorities were being driven out of their homes Iraqi Kurdistan has accepted them and Shiite Muslim Iraqis too. That was seen as behaviour characterized by tolerance and pluralism. The democratic and political progress here is another reason.
The fact that Iraqi Kurdistan is home to a lot of different countries’ economic interests also makes them want to help protect the region.
And we cannot forget that the people of Iraqi Kurdistan didn’t attack anyone – they were attacked. The same is true for the people of Kobani in Syria.
Iraqi Kurdistan had a lot of qualities that made the international community want to help it. In fact, these moves represent a major shift in the way the international community deals with the Kurds and with Iraqi Kurdistan.
NIQASH: Can Iraqi Kurdistan cope with the ever-increasing number of refugees coming into Iraqi Kurdistan?
Mohammed: In terms of proportion the number of refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan compared to the population here, and to the geography, is far higher than, say, somewhere like Turkey. Given the current financial situation, and the fact that the Iraqi government has not lived up to its commitments to the refugees, Iraqi Kurdistan is going to have difficulty accommodating many more refugees. We have asked for international assistance and this is slowly coming.
NIQASH: With regard to what is happening elsewhere in Iraq, do you feel optimistic that the conflicts between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan will be resolved with this new government, headed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi?
Mohammed: Not optimistic or pessimistic. Instead we should be thinking about how best to deal with the new government. We have already made some mistakes.
NIQASH: What do you mean by ‘mistakes’?
Mohammed: I believe that linking the outcome of a negotiation to a certain, specific negotiator is a bad thing to do. When that specific person changes, we are simply told, well, your demands have been met.
There has also been our inability to overcome the challenges presented by this financial crisis. Baghdad saw that they could put pressure on us like this and that it would work. We must develop our own ways and means to be able to pressure Baghdad back when necessary.
NIQASH: If the conflicts between Baghdad and Erbil are not resolved, would you want to take steps toward the creation of an independent Kurdish state?
Mohammed: I believe that the citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan would be well within their rights to ask: why should we bother to stay with Iraq? After all, the Iraqi government is not helping to fund our military, it has not sent the region its share of the national budget and it has not helped in resolving the refugee crisis we currently face. So they’d be well within their rights to ask this question. They’d be well within their rights to think that the Iraqi government sees Iraqi Kurdistan as its enemy.
During the 36 years of my life I’ve seen nothing good come to us from the Iraqi government. If we asked the generation before us, they’d most likely say the same.
Iraq’s elected officials should realise that acts undertaken by successive Iraqi governments against the Iraqi Kurdish region have had an effect. But not necessarily the effect they wanted. For example, in 1991 the former Iraqi regime withdrew all army and civil servants from the area – but the Kurdish will was not weakened by this. On the contrary, a Kurdish government was formed and over time, revenues grew. We can only hope that the new Iraqi government will benefit from historical experiences and start to behave and think in a new way.
NIQASH: But would you call for an independent Kurdish state?
Mohammed: That’s something that should be discussed outside of the glare and excitement of media. We should be strengthening our economy so we can be more self sufficient. Our political disagreements shouldn’t prevent our unity and we shouldn’t be too dependent on other countries. We should stand on our own two feet. I think we’re close to that but we’re not there yet. I think the day we achieve a goal like this is not far away – but we must be well prepared for it.
NIQASH: Apparently the Iraqi Kurdish government is in the midst of preparing a Constitution for the region. Will this document be based on Iraqi Kurdistan as a semi-autonomous region and part of Iraq, or as an independent country?
Mohammed: Up until now the political will has been to stay with Iraq. We are participating in the Iraqi government but that doesn’t mean we should look at that one path. We cannot continue along this path without considering other scenarios. We hope to succeed on the path that makes us part of Iraq and which allows us to live peacefully with the people around us. Even if we made another decision, we would want that decision to be a peaceful one.
NIQASH: Yet more than once high ranking officials in Iraqi Kurdistan have said that Article 140 – the article of the Iraqi Constitution that deals with the disputed areas – no longer needs to be worked on. They say it has been implemented by default because the Iraqi Kurdish military are now in control of those disputed areas, thanks to the IS group. That doesn’t seem very peaceful.
Mohammed: Article 140 prescribes a set of actions that, unfortunately, the Iraqi government did not implement. If the Iraqi government wants to, it can now hold a referendum in those areas and then Article 140 will have been implemented.
NIQASH: Also this month you opened an office of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament in one of the most disputed areas, Kirkuk. This has been controversial too.
Mohammed: Kirkuk was considered a disputed area because more than one party laid claim to it. But the people of Kirkuk have the right to communicate their demands and this can be done through this office.
We don’t deny any other party its rights in Kirkuk either. All of the people in these areas should take part in a referendum. We now have a draft law that guarantees the rights of all the region’s components. Should the Kirkuk province become part of Iraqi Kurdistan it will have a special status.
NIQASH: You’ve spoken about influence from other countries and a lot of people in Iraqi Kurdistan want to see this diminish. But it’s clear that the two main parties in Iraqi Kurdistan remain divided between two neighbours, along the Iran – Turkey axis. And those influences seem to be getting stronger rather than weaker?
Mohammed: It is a very negative development and really, we should decide together not to allow our neighbours to interfere during this crisis. It is natural to ask for assistance from further afield. But when regional players get involved, they work for their own interests in the region, which can deepen the crisis.
NIQASH: Recently the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament made two historic decisions. The first was to formally recognise the Kurdish regions in Syria as separate entities and the second was the decision to send Iraqi Kurdish military into Syrian Kurdish area, specifically Kobani. Would you consider this “interfering” in internal affairs of other sovereign states?
Mohammed: There is an emergency. It is a war against terrorism and Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq are part of an international coalition fighting against it. So Iraqi Kurdistan has the right to help our threatened brothers. This is an exceptional circumstance and requires an exceptional reaction.
NIQASH: Yet people here say that the Iraqi Kurdish military haven’t even been able to protect the territory it does have, such as Sinjar. How exactly can they help outside Iraq?
Mohammed: The Iraqi Kurdish military are expected to control a 1,300 kilometre border with the Islamic State group. They are also using old, outdated Russian-made weaponry to confront one of the best armed terrorist organizations in the world. So perhaps the Iraqi Kurdish military won’t succeed everywhere but they’ll certainly be better able to defend themselves with the better equipment and weapons they are now receiving – and hopefully they’ll be able to change the battle in Kobani in the favour of the heroes fighting there.
NIQASH: You’ve also spoken about economic sustainability. Baghdad has said it won’t transfer the Iraqi Kurdish share of the budget because Iraqi Kurdistan has exported oil illegally, the revenues of which should have been going into the national coffers. So in fact, isn’t it the Iraqi Kurdish government who have caused this problem for themselves and their people? Why should you be able to blame Baghdad for the financial crisis?
Mohammed: The Iraqi Constitution gives Iraqi Kurdistan the right to export oil. That isn’t an opinion.
Despite this, the region has also had to prepare itself to avoid any potential energy crisis – we’ve been threatened with this more than once. In fact, the Iraqi government has cut off oil and gas to us more than once. So it is our right to produce oil and gas for internal use.
True, there have been some mistakes made during this process. There is no doubt these mistakes should be corrected and that the whole process should be controlled by the government, or by an external, international organisation that could guarantee transparency. It is also the Iraqi Cabinet’s right to be involved in this process - but it is not its right to prevent it altogether.
NIQASH: Before you became the leader of the Iraqi Parliament you wrote your dissertation on the political future for Iraqi Kurdistan. What are your current thoughts on this, given realities on the ground now? What do you think the region should be doing?
Mohammed: Currently we are living in a crisis that has three major fault lines – these are economic, political and military. The strength of the Iraqi Kurdish people makes us confident in confronting these crises but we need to honestly acknowledge their roots and how to deal with them.
The financial crisis is due to the fact that we are almost completely financially dependent on Baghdad. About 85 percent of our regional budget depends on the national budget. This means that certain sectors of the economy just have not grown and that our economic infrastructure has not developed. We should not be relying solely on oil – we need to develop our industrial, agricultural and tourism sectors too.
On a political level, Iraqi Kurdistan remains divided too – and at a time when we should be more united than ever. We need to be a player in this area, not be divided among regional parties and politics where everything is about a war of words and accusations.
This kind of attitude has even made it onto the battlefield, where different Iraqi Kurdish military groups came into conflict. We need to have one clear Kurdish policy here and further afield.
On a military level, there are still problems. Our military suffer from lack of weaponry, organization, training and combat skills. But there is a lot of good will and a desire to transform the Iraqi Kurdish military into a professional and united force without partisan affiliations. Political decisions have been made with this aim, although actual procedure is going slowly because of the security crisis in Iraq.