The withdrawal of Iraqi Kurdish troops from the northern city of Kirkuk was all part of an international plot that the Kurdish could not resist, says Saadi Ahmad Bira, a senior member in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the largest Kurdish political parties and the one that was in charge of most of the security in the Kirkuk area.
In an interview with NIQASH, Bira, who was also a member of the semi-autonomous northern region’s High Electoral and Referendum Commission, talks about why he thinks the Kurdish referendum on independence resulted in such a devastating blow to Kurdish independence. He believes the timing of the referendum was wrong and he also offers his thoughts on other mistakes that Iraqi Kurdish officials made.
Bira also addresses why Kurdish military withdrew from Kirkuk and what he thinks must happen next.
There was a regional plot. Turkey, Iraq and Iran signed an agreement to return the oil wells and disputed areas to the Iraqi government.
NIQASH: Late on Wednesday night, the Iraqi Kurdish regional government said they would “freeze” the referendum results. Why?
Bira: The decision was taken because we wanted to open the door for dialogue with Baghdad. And we made it after requests from Kurdistan’s friends, who we cannot disregard. However, whether the referendum is frozen or not, this issue is in people’s consciousnesses and it will not easily be forgotten.
NIQASH: What does this mean in reality though?
Bira: During dialogue with Iraq, we will not implement the referendum. But if we cannot come to any conclusions through dialogue, then we return to the fact that the referendum was held, and we will implement it.
NIQASH: But 92 percent of those who voted in the referendum on independence, want independence. What will you say to them?
Bira: If the international community is not ready and the situation is not ripe, it is wrong to make people pay a high price for self-determination.
NIQASH: How will this decision change the situation inside Iraqi Kurdistan and what impact will it have on your relations with Iraq?
Bira: The decision shows that the people of Kurdistan are committed to peace and dialogue and that what has taken place in the disputed areas was a violation of the Iraqi Constitution. The army shouldn’t be used to resolve political conflicts.
NIQASH: Some locals accuse the committee on the referendum of doing the wrong thing.
Bira: We can accept criticism. We would also say that we didn’t expect any of this to happen, especially when it came to the reactions of Iran and Turkey, which were very strong, even stronger than that of the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. Political and geographic aspects should have been considered more seriously.
NIQASH: Baghdad wants to control Kurdish airports and the border crossings. Will the Kurdish officials hand them over?
Bira: Airports and border crossings are considered the responsibility of the central government, according to the Constitution, so they are at the central government’s disposal. But it is wrong to bring in staff from elsewhere to work there. It’s better to keep the employees of Kurdistan there, or to ask the Kurdish officials to identify the best employees, while Baghdad oversees activities.
NIQASH: Can you explain why the Kurdish military withdrew from Kirkuk?
Bira: Article 9 of the Iraqi Constitution states that the Iraqi army shall not interfere in political affairs. What happened in Kirkuk and the disputed areas happened in order to protect Kirkuk from destruction and to protect the lives of its people. That is why we withdrew. There was an imbalance between the peshmerga and the Iraqi army in terms of military capacities, that favoured the latter.
NIQASH: Was there a prior agreement about withdrawing Kurdish troops from the disputed areas?
Bira: There was a prior agreement between Turkey, Iran, and Iraq about the use of force. At a meeting of the political committee of the PUK, we have decided to start an investigation into this.
NIQASH: Are you saying that there was an international conspiracy against Kirkuk?
Bira: Yes, there was a regional plot. Turkey, Iraq and Iran signed an agreement, that the US had knowledge of, to return the oil wells and disputed areas to the Iraqi government. Forces were given 48 hours, then another 24 hours to withdraw, and it is for this reason that the peshmerga withdrew: To avoid a disaster. The clashes that happened in the areas where people did not know about this agreement led to deaths and injuries.
NIQASH: Is it true that Iran put pressure on the PUK not to fight?
Bira: Iran, Turkey and Iraq wanted these areas under the control of the Iraqi government and they told us and the KDP to withdraw without resistance.
NIQASH: What’s your opinion on oil in the disputed areas and in Iraqi Kurdistan: Was it right for the Kurdish to try and sell their oil independently?
Bira: Personally I think this was an unfortunate step. Oil sales are the work of the state and the state has its own markets and methods. Why don’t we sell the oil through SOMO [Iraq's central State Organization for Marketing of Oil]? In the past I supported that idea and I still prefer that method. Let SOMO sell it and let the government send us our budget, so we can pay Kurdish salaries.
NIQASH: The term of the Kurdish parliament has now been extended. Is democracy under threat here?
Bira: We cannot ignore realities. There are 1.5 million displaced people and a war is still going on. We cannot hold the elections as conditions are not suitable. When security is restored, then elections can be held. They say we need eight months, but I think that’s optimistic.
NIQASH: KDP officials have now said more than once, that Massoud Barzani will resign.
Bira: I have no information about this but there are examples in the world, of people who failed to make their projects work and then resigned. For example, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Will Massoud Barzani do the same? We are not sure. The KDP should have that answer for you.
NIQASH: What kind of political developments are you expecting?
Bira: We must meet to address problems. For the PUK, the absence of Mam Jalal [party leader Jalal Talabani who died recently] is the main problem and for the Change movement, the absence of Nawshirwan [Mustafa, the leader of that party, who also passed away recently] is the problem. This is why we need a serious dialogue at a regional level.
NIQASH: Let’s talk about the PUK after the death of Jalal Talabani: Are you worried about the party splitting up?
Bira: The PUK won’t suffer anything worse than it has already withstood. The party will hold a conference in the near future to renew its structures. If it does not do that, then problems will not be solved.
NIQASH: So who is going to replace Jalal Talabani?
Bira: We are not thinking about this now.
NIQASH: Does the fact that another senior member of the PUK, Barham Salih, recently left weaken the PUK?
Bira: Yes, it has an impact. Dr. Barham is an effective party member. Inside the PUK, Dr. Barham is a different person than outside the PUK.
NIQASH: In your opinion, what will be the result of dialogue with Baghdad?
Bira: I think it will be good. Iraq is preparing for elections and the MPs will use the Kurdish issue to gain votes. This is what is being said in the media. Behind closed doors, I am not so sure.
NIQASH: In terms of negotiations, isn’t the Kurdish position fairly weak right now though, especially given the withdrawal of Kurdish troops from the disputed areas?
Bira: No, that will not have an impact. The [Shiite Muslim militias] cannot protect the disputed areas because they were formed to fight the IS group, not the Kurds. That wouldn’t serve the interests of the Shiites or Iraq.
NIQASH: Najmuddin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk and a member of your party, was recently removed from office. Now there are rumours that a military governor will be appointed in Kirkuk by Baghdad.
Bira: This issue hasn’t been discussed and I have not heard anything about the appointment of a military governor. There is a person in charge at the moment who is an officer of the Iraqi military. He may stay to help the police, but he won’t stay to rule the city. If what you are saying is true, there will be a negative response.