Interview, Middle East, Politics

Seeking Independence in Northern Iraq, An Interview with Hemin Hawrami

Questions linger about the timing of the Independence referendum to be held in Northern Iraq on September 25, and how the new state can deal with the ethnic and sectarian schisms that are tearing apart the region.
13 min read

Despite criticisms from local groups and regional governments, on September 25, residents in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq will vote in a referendum on whether they want to completely separate from the Republic of Iraq. While the region has enjoyed autonomy for decades, if the referendum approves the secession, an independent state will be born with a distinctly Kurdish identity, a long held aspiration for the ethnic group. But questions linger about the timing of the referendum, and how the new state will deal with the ethnic and sectarian schisms that are tearing apart the region.

For The New Turkey, Şerif Dilek, Bünyamin Keskin and Hazal Duran spoke with Hemin Hawrami, senior assistant to President Masoud Barzani, and the head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.


Did you negotiate with Baghdad about the independence referendum? How does Baghdad approach this process? How do you expect Baghdad’s position to be after the referendum?

The independence referendum is not a new issue. We have discussed it with Prime Minister Abadi three times. And also, when President Barzani led a large Kurdistan delegation in September 2016, he discussed the forthcoming referendum for independence. But its date had not been fixed. In Baghdad, definitely there has not been that much negative reaction. The major concern of Baghdad is the continuation of dialogue. Of course, they prefer us to stay in Iraq. But we argue that a federal, an inclusive Iraq is over. The federal system has failed in Iraq. Because Iraq has not adhered in practice to a federal state structure although it is written in the constitution. This referendum in fact comes after a long process of dialogue with Baghdad. So, we hope that this positive atmosphere built on the cooperation against DAESH in Mosul and also on the cooperation that the Kurdistan region hosts nearly 1.8 million internally displaced Iraqi people (IDP) will help us to find new formulas in establishing bilateral relationships.

Does the referendum for the Kurdistan region indicate independence? If so, what kind of process does Iraqi Kurdistan expect after the referendum?

Yeah. The referendum is for independence and the referendum has one question: Are we with an independent Kurdistan, yes or no? So, there is no third question or a third option. After the referendum, there will definitely be a long process with Baghdad. The Kurdistan delegation, from representing all the political parties, all the components, including Christians and Turkmen; they will talk to Baghdad about for example how we can establish a healthy economic interdependence between Baghdad and Kurdistan in the post-referendum process; how we can continue on a joint military defense strategy built on what we did in Mosul together; how we can use, for example, pipelines between Iraq and Kurdistan; and how not to have visas; how to have one market for both sides and some kind of other further economic interdependency. So, these are the details that we will be taking in the post-referendum period.

Some Kurdish parties (Gorran, for example) harshly criticized the decision of the referendum. Was the referendum decision a result of general compromise between the Kurdish parties or just a decision of President Masood Barzani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)?

I cannot speak on behalf of Gorran. But, in principle, Gorran is not against independence. The charter of Gorran stipulates that they support self-determination and the independence of Kurdistan. Maybe they have concerns about the mechanism of the referendum. Well, President Barzani has communicated with all the political parties, including Gorran and we sent invitations to them for a meeting on the  7th of June. There are eleven blocks represented in the parliament and Gorran is one of them. Except Gorran and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan, the other nine blocks came to the meeting with President Barzani. The referendum issue was discussed and put to unanimous vote with the participation of the nine blocks. So, the decision was taken unanimously by all the political parties attending the meeting. It was not a unilateral decision made by President Barzani.

Intra-Kurdish Approaches to the Independence Referendum in Northern Iraq

It is stated that the referendum will also be held in the disputed territories. According to Article 140 of the Constitution, it was specified that the people living in these regions would be connected to the Central Government of Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan through a referendum, but the mentioned referendum did not happen. Will it mean that these regions will be a part of Iraqi Kurdistan if the result will be “yes” in the referendum?

The referendum decision was made unanimously by all the parties and with President Barzani. This referendum is for Iraqi Kurdistan. Disputed territories mean that both the Iraqi government and Kurdish regional government have a right in administration. In fact, we have been waiting for 10 years for Article 140 to be implemented, however, it was not. If the people of this region participate in the referendum and if they vote ‘yes’, it means that they want to be part of independent Kurdistan.

Of course, Kirkuk has a special state in Kurdistan. We believe that the Turkmen, right now, enjoy much more rights and freedom than they enjoy in other parts of Iraq. The Turkmen will be the second largest ethnic group and they will be true partners in governing the Kurdistan region. If you look at the election results in 2005 in the disputed territories, the majority voted for the Kurdistani list, which included the Kurds, the Turkmen and others. And the fight against ISIS… If it was not for the Peshmerga and KRG, this area would have been controlled by ISIS like Mosul. So, although right now we have the full military, administrative and political control of the area, we don’t want to impose anything.

In addition to this, the disputed territories have been historically and geographically parts of Kurdistan as it has faced Arabization. But we don’t want to impose a de facto situation and asked them whether you want to have a Kurdish ethnic state. It’s a Kurdistani state based on partnership.

The regional and international actors’ approach to the referendum is not positive. How accurate is it to take a decision on independence at a time where international support is weak? In addition to this, is it possible that there will be any breaks in the relations between the Iraqi Kurdistan and some international actors after the referendum?

First of all, this is a domestic issue between Kurdistan, us and Baghdad. Secondly, the international community is more interested in whether this referendum might affect the fight against ISIS negatively. Well, long before the referendum in 2014, we had nothing but we fought against ISIS. We reassure the regional and international community that an independent Kurdistan will be much stronger in fighting terrorism. Thirdly, when the Iraqi government violated the constitution and the Iraqi army melted down against Daesh, was there really an international community to stand against the chaotic situation?

Please look at the last 26 years and make an analogy. Kurdistan’s contribution to Iraq’s security and stability is immense. Take Turkey, for example. Kurdistan contributes to Turkish national security by acting like a buffer zone between the unstable part of Iraq and the Turkish southern borders. It also makes a positive contribution to the trade relationship with Turkey and the other countries. It provides energy security. In terms of governance, despite a small region with only 5 million people, we are hosting 1.8 million IDP’s and refugees. So, if we were not a functioning political entity, all these people would flee to Turkey or Europe.

Of course, we don’t except the international community to say “okay, we are officially supporting the breakup of Iraq.” But our message for the international and regional community is that the current status quo cannot continue; that Iraq is already divided on sectarian and ethnic lines between the Shiites and Sunnis, between the Arabs and the Kurds. I recently have heard from the head of a Shiite endowment, who said that “there is no room for Christians to stay in Iraq anymore.” Even if you take Kurdistan out, the remainder of Iraq is divided. It is a failed state and we need to prevent the Iraqification of the Kurdistan region.

As you know, the economy of Iraqi Kurdistan is largely dependent on oil revenues and also the budget of the region is dependent on Baghdad. How can a politically independent Kurdistan survive in economic terms? What kind of policies are you going to implement to ensure economic independence?

First, I don’t agree with the term “economic independence.” Now, all economies are interdependent and there is no independent economy. Secondly, we have survived two sets of sanctions in the past: UN sanctions on Iraq and Iraqi sanctions on Kurdistan. Third, Iraqi Kurdistan – here I should underline that I did my masters on the political economy of Kurdistan, on the rentier state – primarily wants political independence, because we want to get rid of the understanding of a frontier mentality we inherited from Baghdad. We want to diversify our economy by not relying only on oil.

We don’t have a taxation system in Kurdistan because of the central budget law. We need sovereignty first in order to go through a systematic reform to change the equation from a public-oriented economy to a private-oriented one and to help the private sector to grow. So, the Kurdistan region can survive. And Kurdistan has the 9th largest oil reserves in the world and has 8 trillion cubic meters of proven natural gas. The world economy needs that. Turkey needs that. You need our resources; we need your pipelines and your transportation. So, it’s a win-win situation. We do believe an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will be a more strategic economic partner for Turkey.

Do you have another option to export your natural gas or oil to other countries?

Turkey is our strategic partner but we will also be looking forward to have a strong partnership with Baghdad so that our economic interdependence would allow us to export our natural gas and oil through Baghdad.

We just want to get back to the point we have discussed earlier. There is ongoing regional instability in the Middle East. In addition to the chaotic situation of Iraq and Syria, there are millions of people who have either been displaced or became refugees because of DAESH. Today Iraqi Kurdistan is home to about 1.9 million refugees. How suitable is it to take a decision of referendum in such kind a complicated environment?

My question to you: when will there be a perfect environment? Those who criticize and say that it’s not perfect timing, our question to them is “just tell us two or three perfect times in the next ten years?” When is the ideal timing? There is no ideal and perfect timing. If we keep the current status quo, we can’t be sure of our future.

I am asking myself, “have we been part of the problem or have we been part of the solution?” It was not us who created DAESH but it was us who broke the myth of DAESH. In terms of the Shiite-Sunni sectarian fight, we are not taking a side. The Kurds are Sunnis, we say. We don’t care about Shiite-Sunni division because we are Sunnis.

Look, we’ve been providing support to the IDPs regardless of their sectarian affiliation. In terms of the economic stability, we were the second largest market for Turkey after Germany. Out of $12 billion trade with other parts of Iraq, why is there $9 billion with Kurdistan region? Because we’ve been part of that solution for Turkey. So, when some argue about the instability, we have not been the factor behind it. Actually, the instability in the Middle East is the result of post-colonial failed state systems, Sykes-Picot more precisely. The borders are not reflecting the true realities of the people in the region.

What do you think the referendum will result in?

In 2005, we did an informal referendum and 96% of the people voted ‘yes.’ So, this time, I believe that the landslide majority of people, including the Turkmen, Christians, and Arabs living in the disputed areas, will vote “yes” and prefer to live in a stable Kurdistan rather than for an unknown future.

How about your personal expectation about the forthcoming elections in Iraq, the general and provincial elections?

Are you sure that there will be elections? Because we aren’t. If the Iraqi parliament is going to be elected according to the current election law, which gives Shiites majority, no matter how many Kurds or Sunnis participated, we, as the Kurds, are not going to participate in the next Iraqi parliament election. Because we are giving legitimacy to an illegitimate situation. For example, if all Kurds participate in the upcoming election, we will have only 60-65 seats. That’s why we want this election law to be amended from 18 constituencies to make all of Iraq one constituency.

How will an independent Kurdistan deal with minorities such as the Turkmen, as they are opposing the independence referendum at some point, and some minor groups also oppose this idea. Which rights and guarantees will they have?

We don’t call them minorities. That’s the first guarantee. Irrelevant of their number, we will accept them as ethnic groups. Secondly, they have 5 members in the current parliament. They have the right to have education in their native language from kindergarten to university.

We don’t call it a Kurdish state; we call it Kurdistan state. Because, Kurdistan, like Turkey, is the homeland for the Kurdistani citizens. You don’t call everyone who lives in Turkey a Turk. Right? Because Turkey is home to citizens with Circassian, Armenian, Kurdish, Turk, and Arab background. So, Kurdistan is also home for whoever lives there and that’s another guarantee.

Absolutely, we will need international support for it. I mean how we can draft the constitution before the declaration by law. The rights of different ethnic groups must be guaranteed and what kind of mechanism could be established to assure their participation? I can assure you the oppressed people are not going to oppress others.

Mosul in Ruins, Kirkuk Awaits a Similar Destiny: What can Turkey do?

What are your ideas about the PYD in Syria? Commonly, you know that there is a major dispute between them and PDKS (Partiya Demokrat a Kurdistanê li Sûriyê – Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria).

PYD is the PKK. There is no difference between them. We have supported the Kurdish uprising and Syrian opposition since the beginning. We wished and supported them to have a kind of Supreme Council through the first Erbil Agreement in 2012, Second Erbil Agreement 2013 and then the Duhok Agreement in 2014 to help them to have a kind of shared and common administration. But unfortunately, the PYD did not have a clear vision for the future of the Rojava. They’ve been collaborating one time with the Syrian regime and with others without having a political future. And the PYD has been oppressing non-PYD political parties like closing their offices by not allowing them to have any political activities, or by arresting them. Because of that we’ve been against such actions of the PYD.

Do you have any ideas of a population exchange?

No. I want to make it clear. This independence referendum is for Iraqi Kurdistan and it is not going to change the current Iraqi international border, which will be the official border of Kurdistan with Turkey, Iran, and Syria. This is a propaganda by some PKK circles, who argue that there will be a connection between Rojava and Kurdistan. That’s not true. That’s not going to happen.

Our last question is about the name of the state. How will it be named if the referendum results in “yes”? Kurdistan or the Republic of Kurdistan?

Definitely, it will be a liberal republic. But the name, I can’t tell. It has something related to Iraqi Kurdistan. Honestly, I have no idea. You should ask that question after the referendum either to the referendum committee or to the founding fathers.

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Şerif Dilek earned his B.A. in Business in 2009 and his M.A. in Maritime Economy from İstanbul University. Dilek is currently a PhD Candidate at the Institute of Middle East Studies, Marmara University. Dilek also works as Research Assistant at the Department of Economy, SETA-Istanbul.