Prospects for Democratic Change in Iraq
The following is a transcript of the meeting with Barham Salih, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen for this opportunity. It is a great honor to speak here at the Woodrow Wilson Center. President Wilson has a special place in the minds of most Kurds. We remember him for his fourteen points in which he promised, I believe the phrase is, “unmolested [. . . .] opportunity for the exercise of rights of self determination of the persecuted peoples of the Ottoman Empires.” The Kurdish people and the Iraqi people, I would say, await with anticipation the prospect of change in Iraq. Await an American lead effort … hopefully to deliver on President Wilson’s promise of redemption from tyranny and persecution.
Haleh Esfandiari spoke a bit about my background I was an engineer. I’m supposed to be working on deconstructing the present system of government in Iraq. The only thing I find useful in my academic background is that of statistics. Because statistics is a science of uncertainty and there is a lot of uncertain things in Iraqi politics that I hope that training will be useful to deal with.
We are . . . It seems to me by all accounts on the brink of change in Iraq and the Middle East. The United States appears to be intent on dismantling Iraq’s weapons programs and as the President of the United States has said on many occasions the United States wants to help the people of Iraq bring about a democratic system of government. That is truly a worthy goal, a goal that we Iraqis, we Iraqi-Kurds share and look forward to see it achieved. There is one fundamental question that goes in the minds of people in this town [Washington D.C.] and elsewhere, that is the issue whether democracy is viable for Iraq or not.
My response to that question will be slightly different from the normal one about the merits and wisdom of democracy. I can tell you Iraq has no future but democracy because the present system of government in Iraq and perhaps in most of the Arab world has gone wrong. This system has truly proven to be an abject failure and Iraq as a state, Iraq as a country cannot be kept together, cannot be sustained without some form of democratization.
If we look back at the history of Iraq, the contemporary history of Iraq, the eight decades of Iraqi state, we see a failed state by every criteria by every standard.
A state that almost from its inception, and certainly in the last few decades is the culmination of the tyranny of the Ba’ath regime in Baghdad. This state has been constant conflict with its own people. A state that has been in almost a continuous conflict with its neighbors. A state that in recent years has become a sore point in international relations and created major problems for international security. A state that has committed genocide against its people. One can get into a number of other manifestations about the failure of the state. I don’t want to bore you with those, but this very failure of the state, leaves us no choice but to seek its reconstruction in an entirely different basis, different fundamentals.
This is the task ahead of us, and I think many in the U.S. government, many in the United States, and also I think some in Europe . . . not as many as some would like also realize the imperative of this task ahead of us.
In Iraq today ladies and gentleman we are faced with the task of regime change that many people in this town talk about. We want to make the point that regime change cannot be the right objective. We have to be very specific about what we want, because we could end up with a situation where a dictator is replaced with another. And I argue and many of my compatriots argue that it is important to assert the notion of fundamental overhaul of the Iraqi political system. Because if we do not have structural reform in this system, a regime change replacing dictator with another could lead to problems like what we have had before only to emerge say a decade from now. And it is too important an opportunity now for us to misuse and lose.
We must once again restructure the system to preclude, to prevent another dictator from rising to power in Iraq ever again. It can be done, and I think what we have in Iraqi-Kurdistan in Free-Iraq, in Northern Iraq shows that Iraq need not be ruled by tyranny.
We inherited a country ten years ago that had been totally devastated. Our entire economic infrastructure was devastated – destroyed. In a very tough geopolitical environment, in a very difficult domestic political environment we were able to make some very important strides towards a functioning democratic system. Its not the United States of America, its not your developed democracies in the West, but I think by the standards of the Middle East, the Islamic Middle East, we have something functioning, and something that we can be proud of, and something that can be a catalyst for better change throughout the Islamic Middle East, and definitely in Iraq.
In the last ten years, in Iraqi-Kurdistan, the free Iraq area, a territory of 45 sq. kilometers a home to nearly 4 million people. We have tripled the number of schools, we have built in ten years twice the number of schools that were built in seven decades of the Iraqi state. We have established two new universities. We have a margin of freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of the press that is seldom encountered in the Islamic Middle East. In my hometown of Sulaymania we have I think, the last time I checked, 138 media outlets, 13 terrestrial T.V. stations, dozens and dozens of newspapers, most of whom, are critical of our government and make my life difficult everyday I go to work because they criticize and they ask for better things, but that is the type of society we are building and we are moving along with all the difficulties; economic, security and political difficulties that we have, we are moving along.
It does in my opinion prove beyond any shadow of doubt that democracy, some form of democratic accountable representative government in this part of the Middle East is viable, is possible. The Kurds of Iraq and the Kurdish areas of Iraq are traditionally the least developed part of Iraq politically and economically; if the Kurds of Iraq could do it, the prognosis for the rest of Iraq can only be better.
More importantly I could say the failure of the Iraqi state and the geopolitical ramifications of this failure, as we have seen manifests itself time and again in the war against Iran, in the war against Kuwait in the acquisition of Weapons of Mass Destruction, with open defiance this government has displayed consistently over the years against international order. This compels us, us Iraqis, us the international community, we and the Americans, we and the civilized community of nations to come together and make sure the future of Iraq is different from its miserable past.
I don’t think what happened in Halabtcha, thirteen, fourteen years ago is irrelevant to the security of the United States. What happened on the 11th of September, the prospect of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) being acquired by terrorists makes the world such a smaller place and makes Halabtcha a neighborhood, an extension of what you have here in the United States. And therefore I would say we all have a common objective, an abiding interest in making sure the outcome of change in Iraq will come right and that we will not be content with replacing a dictator with another and going back to business as usual.
We are not interested as Iraqis in a Desert Storm, a storm that will shift and change some of the sand dunes but leaving the basic landscapes the same. We are interested in a fundamental overhaul of our political system to really assure the generations to come of a better future. I believe that should also be an interest of the international community when it seeks a better, more peaceful Middle East.
The debate in this country now is about war or no war, and that troubles me as an Iraqi and as a Kurd. We, I think, especially being in this building, in this forum, of the Woodrow Wilson Center, believe in internationalism, believe in collective responsibility by the international community to make sure the world is a more peaceful and democratic, to respect human rights of indigenous people and communities. In this day and age we cannot leave an entire people to live under tyranny for so long. This has gone for far to long, and as this country went to war to liberate the people of Europe from Nazism, went to war to help the people of Kosovo and Bosnia, the people of Iraq look for international assistance. Look for American assistance for liberation. Should it come to war, and we all hope it will not come to war and we hope that this regime will move aside peacefully and let the Iraqi people decide their future in a peaceful and political way. But that definitely will be the triumph of hope over experience, but should it come to it, the people of Iraq look to the international community, look to the United States for help to overcome their predicament and confront tyranny.
This is about freedom, this is about liberty, this is about basic Human Rights, this is about making sure there will be no more future wars in Iraq. This is to make sure the state of Iraq will not use WMD’s against its neighbors of Iraq and against the international community. This should be about preventing genocide. This should be about democracy.
I have seen some of the arguments that have been put forward that this war is about oil, that this war is about rearranging the strategic alliances of the Middle East, etc. and so on. No doubt this country has its own national interests to reflect on and will act upon those national interests. Should it come to war, it has to be about liberty, freedom and democracy.
And my point is that it can be done. We have done this with limited American engagement that we have over the past decade by way of the no-fly zone, by the way of the oil-for-food program. We have done a lot to transform our political landscape into something truly different from what we have had in the past.
Imagine Iraq going democratic! Imagine Iraq starting on the path of democracy, tolerance and accepting the diversity inherit in its system. Imagine Iraq settling the issue of Islamism versus Secularism. Democracy versus Tyranny. Being part of the community of the Middle East. Willing to work for peace in the Middle East, being partner to other communities and other states in the Middle East for economic development and comprehensive peace in that region. I think in Iraq a lot of issues are at stake. I may be accused of being an Iraqi Self- Centric person, but I believe Iraq is a Nexus. If we get Iraq right we would create amazing opportunities for the rest of the Islamic Middle East. We cannot afford to lose Iraq. I cannot afford to lose Iraq as a Kurd, I have lost it for the last eight decades where I was a subject of tyranny, persecution and genocide and I do not want my people to have another eight decades of this tyranny and genocide.
Iraqis whether they are Shi’as, Turkemen, Sunnis, Assyrians also need a change. But I believe the international community, the Americans, the Middle East itself --I am not talking about the elites, I’m talking about the societies of the Middle East--need fundamental change. We have had enough of this situation. For the first time in our contemporary history we can seriously talk and expect fundamental change in Iraq. A change that will anchor Iraq and the state of Iraq in a situation of peace with its population, in a situation of peace with its neighbors and I believe also anchored in friendship with the civilized community of nations and in particular the United States of America.
In that endeavor we the Kurds of Iraq, have made our choice, we believe our interests are best served being partners to other Iraqi democrats in building a democratic federal Iraq. I cannot tell you that I disavowed my self determination as Kurd and it is very painful for any Kurd to accept that reality that we cannot have our own Kurdish state and our own Kurdish flag, like the Armenians, like the Turks, like the Iranians and like the Palestinians who will soon have a state. But we are realistic, we believe that the interests of our people are best served by being partners to other Iraqis in developing a federal system of government in Iraq. And there will be a lot more for our people to play in this larger Iraq, as opposed to committing our people to extreme nationalism, isolationism. We need schools and hospitals, and I think the experience of the last 10 years of our self-government has taught us what is real and not so real. Nationalism may fill us with pride and a sense of identity, but may not deliver the quality of life, education and healthcare that our people look for.
There is a serious transformation in the minds of most Kurds about where they see their place. This is not a political statement to appease the Turks, or the Iranians, or even the Americans when it comes to Iraq territorial integrity. This assessment this conviction is arrived at by day-to-day experience of running our own government. We deal with the geopolitical realities of this region and understand that the type of extremist nationalist cause that may be advocated can only lead us to a dead end. It can lead us to more trouble than it is worth and perhaps is much more advantageous for us to work for reforming and restructure the Iraqi state. To be part of the new government in Baghdad, and work from Baghdad to in order to assure that the Kurdish people will not suffer another genocide. We would be partners to Iraqis on the national scene of Baghdad, not a mere local player in Sulaymania or Kirkuk but be players in Iraq. If they will give us the right to be ‘Iraqis’, then yes we will be ‘Iraqis’, but that means turning the tables and giving us the right to help decide the future of Iraq. If a person from Basra can decide the fate of the Kurds, a Kurd should have a say in how things are done in Basra. It is a very simple concept that I believe most Kurds are accepting, and are willing to give it a try. And we may get some reluctant resistance from some Arab elites, but by and large the Arab body politics of Iraq have come also in my opinion to accept it. In the ten years of our self government the Arabs of Iraq realize that Kurdish Federalism, self government, what ever the terms are, is an asset for the democratic movement in Iraq.
These are general points ladies and gentleman, that I hope is a context to describe to you how we feel about the present debate, how we feel about the present situation in Iraq and in terms of U.S. Police towards Iraq.