Prime Minister Masrour Barzani Speech: Chatham House
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests.
I’m very pleased to be here speaking from the floor of one of Britain’s foremost institutions. For over a century, Chatham House has informed the foreign policy of the UK and influenced greater understandings far beyond these borders. It has brought insight and authority to some of the most complex challenges of our times and provided a vital platform where global ideas have been tabled and debated – often for the greater good of the world.
I embrace the opportunity to address you today; to discuss events in our region, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and in the Middle East – a part of the world that I know has consumed a lot of your bandwidth in recent decades as, I can assure you, it has mine as well.
With war raging in central Europe, and signs of a global realignment taking place, it may well seem that the caravan has moved on from our neighbourhood – that events in the Middle East are no longer as relevant to what happens elsewhere. That after generations of wars, insurrections, coups and catastrophes, it’s another continent’s turn in the spotlight. That the causes that consumed so much of our energy; Isis, mass immigration, displacement and tyranny have more or less been resolved, or at worst are in a holding pattern, which has become more manageable.
While I understand the reasons behind such conclusions, I would respectfully, but stridently, disagree with them. Away from the headlines, the Middle East remains a combustible, unpredictable driver of world events with a proven potential to be a mass global disruptor. Whether it be energy security, political turmoil, global warming tipping points, or the ever present threat of conflict – the region still requires the close attention of everyone – and that’s not going to change.
Even when we want to, it’s never wise to look away from the Middle East for long, or to pretend that its problems have been resolved. Quite simply they haven’t. Foundational issues, such as post-world War One borders drawn arbitrarily, and indifferent to the will of its peoples, have hindered our region’s development. So too have more recent impositions; poverty, inequality and corruption, all of which are symptoms of deeply rooted themes, which continue to feed instability and terrorism.
Outcomes from such flawed beginnings have been difficult to reconcile with the notion of a nation state. Middle East countries that have succeeded in providing robust economies, with thriving societies at peace with their neighbours, living behind defensible borders, set a rare example.
We need not be shy in acknowledging that Iraq isn’t one of them.
Since the time of Sykes Picot, and perhaps well before, Iraq has been a tricky place to govern. Mongols and other conquerors, tyrants, Kings, and more recent occupiers have all tried. So have elected governments – and they’re still trying now in Baghdad, more than six months after a national election, where lawmakers are yet to agree on a President, or a Prime Minister and the country remains adrift.
It’s a familiar story of all post Saddam Iraqi elections; competing blocs, spurred on by foreign parties looking to carve out spheres of influence, which often relegate national concerns to a distant second.
We need not hide from reality; power sharing in Iraq does not come easily.
Nor does agreement on anything that challenges narrow, vested interests that have little to do with nation-building.
We in Kurdistan have not often had reason to believe that Baghdad has our best interests at heart. In the post Saddam years, every one of the agreements we have negotiated with our brothers in the federal Parliament have required constant monitoring to ensure that our end of bargains were upheld.
And, in many cases, they haven’t been. Every month, we are forced to rely on Baghdad’s – often-lacking – goodwill to ensure we are paid our rightful allocation from the federal budget. There has rarely been a month since this deal was negotiated in 2004 that our quota has been paid in full, or on time. And there have been many more months where we have not received any payment at all.
Earlier this year, a so-called Federal Court in Baghdad delivered a ruling that challenged our right to develop our oil and gas industry. This ruling was blatantly political.
It stemmed from positions we have taken on forming a federal government. We know well the regional issues at play here and who is behind them. And what this says about Iraq’s capacity to manage its own internal affairs speaks for itself. The decision-making process in Baghdad is not truly independent.
And that sad fact has remained a constant, despite nearly two decades of attempts at capacity building and building institutions.
The federal legislature, as constituted, simply cannot provide fairly and equitably for all those people considered to be Iraqis.
While I speak to you as a Kurd, I would like for my voice to carry the weight of all Iraqis, and I hope that it will. We all aspired for a better future in 2003. But the situation we all find ourselves in now can’t go on. We must be brave enough to recognize this and to come up with solutions.
I say to my brothers in Anbar, Basra, Mosul, Najaf and Baquba that it is time to do things differently. We all deserve to live at peace with each other, without being beholden to enmity, the tragedies of our past, or our fears for the future.
We need means to bring about fresh and sustained trust between us. We need to share power in meaningful ways that better the lot of all.
We need to work towards an autonomy that the federal system, which was enshrined after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, has failed to promote.
Even those who on paper appear to have benefited from the new Iraq have failed to do so. Basra, for instance, sits on enormous reserves of oil. Yet its people remain deprived of the most basic services.
It is time for a full, and frank conversation about what could come next.
I believe that in order for us to live as partners, we need to have more influence over our own affairs, and more control over our own destinies. Basra’s residents need a stake in their futures. So do those of Fallujah and Ramadi, which have cast off the dark shadow of the ISIS terror group and now want to govern on their own terms, just as much as we do.
Through the bloodshed of the civil war and the Isis occupation, both cities were cut off from Iraq, menacing places where few outside the Sunni sect would dare to tread. But once fear subsided, and opportunity rose, borders dropped, economies grew and trust re-emerged. All it took was hope and a glimmer of self determination.
On a micro level, real change is happening. We acknowledge this and we remain invested in the national political process which, for all its flaws, aims to provide a better, more sovereign Iraq for all, regardless of sect, or ethnicity.
We in the KRG are a robust national partner, fighting hard for the rights for our people – as we should – but at the same time advocating for the betterment of all within our national borders.
But what if real progress continues to flatline. What if our collective best endeavours fail to cut through? What if the system in place fails to deliver? At what point do we start to look for a cure?
A model that I believe should be discussed in this context is a different structure. I say this after long, careful consideration as someone who has observed, and indeed been a part of regional and federal decision-making for at least the past two decades. As someone who took part in the constitutional drafting process, I was invested in how to transform Iraq from the terror of tyranny to a country for all, under one banner.
Many good people were committed to the efforts we made. I can see that many are here today. And while their good faith attempts are recognised, there is no shame in saying that our work has largely been in vain.
I say this as someone who has spoken to our brothers and sisters in the rest of the country, Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Shabbak, Turkmen, Yazidis and other groups – all of whom at some point have spoken about the stagnation and distrust that has held us back.
In Iraq, 2022, trust between ethnic groups remains – shall we say – a work in progress. And it is hard to envisage how we make that quantum leap from hope to reality without empowering different communities in tangible and meaningful ways.
I would like to assure all in this room that advocating that the model I am canvassing here does not mean stripping all power from Baghdad. And nor does it mean breaking down national borders.
Rather, I believe that credibly decentralizing decision-making deserves serious thought. My belief is that aiding self determination in the manner that I envisage could truly be nation building.
We must be brave enough to discuss what sort of a nation would work as a model for the peoples of Iraq.
Thriving communities living under their own banners, and those of a state that they can truly believe in would be a big leap from where we are now, beholden to forces intent on dividing us to their own ends and stuck in an endless loop of inertia.
Institutions that were supposed to serve people have instead become fiefdoms that hinder progress and devalue notions of true citizenship. Iraq, as currently governed, is unable to fairly provide for its people and barely able to fend for itself.
The model I envisage does not mean division.
It is a subtle devolution of power that sponsors trust and sustained coexistence. There are models of confederation elsewhere in the world that have created thriving, self contained communities who are also proud to unite behind a single banner.
I spoke earlier of Fallujah and Ramadi. Mosul and even Baghdad have their own stories to tell. In both cities, enterprise has risen from the rubble, yet the huge potential of both is yet to be fully unlocked, and that won’t change until its people are fully empowered.
Given the problems I have described, Erbil and Baghdad need to think about new arrangements. With its long history of centralism, Baghdad never fully embraced that the existing constitution makes the KRG the ultimate authority within Kurdistan on most matters—including security, taxation and natural resources.
Iraq’s new Constitution is described as federal but in fact already has many elements of a Confederation. Let us move to make it explicit; instead of conflict in which one entity tries to coerce the other, let’s become equal partners; join common institutions to address the many issues of common concern from trade to environment, to security. Let us move towards a model that stops our partners in the west from having to pick a side.
I know that there is opposition to even mentioning this idea. I realise that some in the region may fear the potential for knock on effects into their countries if we embarked on such a journey. But the time to debate new approaches has come, as has the time to speak honestly, without fear or favour.
I again want to reiterate that the issues I’m canvassing here pose no threat to national borders. They are simply an overdue recognition of what goes on between them and how best to change that.
I am confident that informed discussion and debate will lead many to similar conclusions. Let us no longer be shy in admitting that we need the courage to confront our flaws.
A new configuration can be a starting point for a dialogue between communities; one whose starting point comes from a position of strength among parties.
Mutual respect can quickly build from such a dynamic. It rarely does, however, when one party needs to constantly seek favours and patronage from the other. Cooperation on the right footing, would feed trade and stabilisation.
The latter is in the interest of all of us, not just those who call ourselves the peoples of Iraq, but the broader region as well. This model reconfigures how power is proportioned from the centre to the regions. It does not diminish the state. In fact, it does the opposite – creating possibilities for long term viability, where it is in short supply today.
Ladies and gentlemen, I realise that some of you may be surprised by what you have heard here. I also know that others of you won’t be. For many of you this is as personal as it is for me. In this room and watching online are some of the world’s pre-eminent observers of Iraq and the Middle East, who have had a bird’s eye view of the never-ending chaos that has held our region back.
Our peoples in all of Iraq deserve a chance for dignified self determination.
In this place, a forum for consequential ideas, I take great satisfaction in starting what I hope will be a fruitful debate that will energise policy makers and thinkers inside this room and elsewhere.
My sincere thanks to you all. And may the conversation continue.