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Trancript: Conversation with the Kurdistan Regional Government

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Conversation with the Kurdistan Regional Government 


Speakers:

  • Qubad Talabani, Deputy Prime Minister, Kurdistan Regional Government
  • Karim Sinjari, Minister For The Interior, Kurdistan Regional Government
  • Michael Gordon, The New York Times

GORDON:  OK, we ready to begin?

TALABANI:  We're all yours.

GORDON:  OK.  Well, I have the easy part here.  I just ask the questions.  I don't have to provide the answers but my name is Michael Gordon.  I'm a New York Times correspondent and I had some recent experience in the KRG and also in their fight against the Islamic state.

It was in November that I managed to do an embed with the Peshmerga in Sinjar for the operation there.  It was a good adventure.  Pershmerga's embed is a little bit different than a U.S. Military embed, but it was a good experience. 

And, you know, what I saw there was that while the Pershmerga benefited from extensive U.S. air support before and during the operation, it was still a fight.  It wasn't just walking in there. 

There were still suicide bombers and the Peshmerga forces acquitted themselves very well and certainly had the will to fight to push ISIL out of Sinjar and also reclaim Sinjar for the KRG.

And what I also saw when I was there in November was a country, and I think our guests will address this, that is going through, a region of the country an autonomous place inside Iraq with whatever its destiny is, is going through a very severe economic crisis.  I think there's no other way to put it.

With the Peshmerga not being paid for three months, with school teachers not been paid for four months, with construction and foreign investment pretty much at a halt, and due in part, but not entirely, to low oil prices.

So what I think our speakers can address is a situation in which the KRG is both prosecuting a war against ISIL, but doing so as it's sort of in the midst of, while it's under considerable economic strain, maybe even approaching bankruptcy really.

So, I, well I think our guests have already been introduced, Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabini, the Minister of the Interior and Acting Peshmerga Minister, Kirim Sinjari, and I'm going to ask a few questions and then give them a chance to make some of their own points at the end of the, of this short session.

First off, Kirim, what is the situation at this point inside Mosul?  What's your best information?  You have people come out of Mosul.  They come to Irbil.  You can debrief them.  You no doubt have your own sources there.  What's happening?  Is the Islamic State weakening?  Is it strong?  What's the situation?

SINJARI:  Thank you very much.  It's a pleasure to be here with you.  The situation in Mosul really is catastrophic.  The situation is very bad.  ISIS controls everything.  They started to recruit people from Mosul to work for them.  Especially they started with teenagers of twelve years old, kids, to recruit them in their militia.

The economic situation is very bad.  So for that, the people are encouraged to go on work (indiscernible) for $200 a month to survive, so the economic situation is very bad.  ISIS started to have foreign fighters to increase their number in Mosul now and they divided them after that they hear, after the operation against Mosul, they divided most of them outside of Mosul to protect the city from any attack.

GORDON:  What will be the Peshmerga role in the eventual battle for Mosul?  Will you go into the Eastern part of the city or will you limit yourself to pressuring ISIL from the north end too?

SINJARI:  The north, the Peshmerga (indiscernible) and the area where they are seventeen to twenty kilometers far from Mosul so the Peshmerga will be participating and will be orchestrating the operation in Mosul after their coordination with American and coalition forces, with the Iraqi government.

So we have to have a joint plan and everyone will know what is his role, what he is going to do and then the plan should be after the liberation of Mosul, what will be inside Mosul, so our force will be helping in any attack to Mosul.

GORDON:  But will you go into the eastern part of the city?  Are you prepared to do that or do you think that would be unwise?

SINJARI:  We have, we have not planned to go inside to the city because with our men, this would be as Arab (indiscernible) fighting by Daesh.  We will be around the city.

GORDON:  One more question, then I'm going to ask a question of the Deputy Prime Minister.  Because the Peshmerga has not been paid for three months, is that correct?

SINJARI:  Yes.

GORDON:  Are you having deserters?  And how are you managing that problem?

SINJARI:  The financial situation affected the Peshmerga significantly.  We start to see some deserters.  Some of the Peshmerga when they go home for holiday some days, some of them doesn't come back because they have to pay rent for their houses.  They haven't.  They have to pay for their kids' school, have food and everything so they haven't. 

So some of them, they prefer to stay home and do another work to get some (indiscernible) to help his family.  But the number of deserters is not high.

GORDON:  Five percent?

SINIJARI:  Less, about one less.  But if this situation continues for more than two or three months, I am sure the number will increase and it will affect the fight everywhere. 

GORDON:  So now a question for you, Mr. Deputy Prime Minister, it seems that it used to be a year ago, if you talked to somebody from the KRG, they would say, we need weapons.  And having seen the weapons, the Peshmerga have, I would say they're not of the same sophistication as the ones that the Iraqi Army had.

You don't see nearly as many armored vehicles or (indiscernible) or certainly no mine clearing equipment that I saw with the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi Army has, although there are some weapons, for sure.  But now it seems the refrain is, we need money and weapons.

Are you looking for direct budget support here in Washington from the U.S. Government?  What sort of financial help are you looking for?

TALABANI:  Thank you Michael and thanks to FDD for having us here.  I have some very fine memories of this great organization with (indiscernible) and I've traveled around the country to build up cooperation of Iraqi freedom, talking about the importance of democracy in Iraq.

And Kurdistan and John Hannah, a good friend and colleague, we worked many years together, so I feel among friends here, which is why I feel I can be brutally honest among friends. 

Yes, a year ago, weapons were our number one request, because we were fighting a war against an enemy that had significantly greater fire power than us and still, today, has much more advanced weaponry, advanced military capability in terms of logistical and military weapon capabilities than we do.

But in this time, in this year, our economic situation has declined drastically and we are facing unprecedented fiscal and economic challenges in Kurdistan largely brought about by the dropping oil prices, but also it's an accumulation of policies by the Federal Government in Iraq. 

If you remember, they cut our budget in 2014 and our costs were incredibly high already.  A war is always costly and as a result of this war, Kurdistan is now home to 1.8 million internally displaced peoples and refugees.

This adds further social and economic burdens in the Kurdistan region.  Because of all these shocks that our economy faced, we fell in arrears to pay our civil servants.  We are falling back in arrears to pay our soldiers, who are valiantly defending the front line against ISIS. 

At the same time, our investment projects, our capital investment projects, have all come to a complete halt.  So, yes, absolutely, we are facing a very dark financial and economic situation which, if we cannot resolve, will undoubtedly impact the ability of our forces to keep the front line the way that we have done.

GORDON:  So are you seeking direct budget support from the U.S. and other governments and what conditions might you be willing to accept if you are able to persuade the United States to provide this for you?  What do you want?

TALABANI:  We need direct budgetary support.  We have a gaping hole in our economy.  We have a massive deficit that is accumulating every month and we need direct budgetary support to plug that deficit.  We need to be able to meet our payroll demands.  We've made this explicitly clear to our friends in the U.S. government.

As far as conditions, we've absolutely no problems with any conditions that would be placed on financial assistance given to us.  In fact, conditions could actually help us because parallel to dealing with this crisis, a major part of our policy to respond to this crisis is actually to enact strategic reforms.

And those conditions that come with financial assistance, if they can help us reach our reform goals, that actually helps us push through some very difficult and unpopular reforms with our public.  So we've absolutely no problem with conditions being placed on us for assistance.

GORDON:  Would you acknowledge that the large public sector that you need to maintain public sector employment and other aspects of how the government is managed the economy is a big part of the problem. 

That one of the reasons you face an economic crisis isn't merely the decline of oil prices but the KRG's own management and stewardship of its, of its budget. 

TALABANI:  Absolutely.  There's no secret that we have a massive government.  We have a massive civil service and we were a country, an entity, however we can be defined, which (indiscernible).  When oil is $100 a barrel, we had large revenue streams, so we dispersed those revenue streams.  We hired lots of people.  We pensioned off a lot of people. 

We expanded our social safety net to cover a whole range of people, from victims of Sudan's chemical weapons to the people of low income and disability insurance, and a very wide net was cast, which we could afford at $100 a barrel.

But crippling us at $30 a barrel.  So absolutely we need to downsize our civil service, but again we're not a country.  So countries that face economic crises have levers to manage their economy.  They have monetary policy.  They can print money.  They can devalue currency.  They can borrow.  They can go out in international markets to issue domestic bonds.

They are susceptible to bail-outs and large financial packages from the IMF and the World Bank, from friendly countries around the world.  But all of these three options are off the table for us because we're not a country. 

We're not able to be in charge of our monetary policy.  We're already in debt, so the ability for Kurdistan to incur more debt is very limited, and nobody has really come forward until now to offer us a bail-out package.

In fact, we know that the Finance Ministers from around the world are meeting today in Washington to talk about all kinds of assistance and we're hearing of a package being brought to Iraq, but we hope, we insist, that we must get our fair share of this package.

But at the same time, we're hearing of more political turmoil in Iraq which is potentially complicating the world's efforts to come to Iraq's aid again.

GORDON:  How much money are you looking for?

TALABANI:  We have about a $100 million deficit a month.  This is --

GORDON:  You want the U.S. Government to provide a $100 million a month?

TALABANI:  We need to, we'll take any amount but we have a $100 million that we spend every month more than we have.  And this, this accumulates, which means we'll fall behind in salary payments. 

We, earlier this year, we made a very painful decision.  We slashed government spending by about 46 percent.  We slashed employee compensations by another 39 percent, so we've started on this road to reform.  But first to be able to execute these reforms and get out of this bind that we're in, we need direct budgetary support.

GORDON:  I'd like to ask you a couple of more questions and then I'll give you gentlemen the last word.  Obviously, in Washington, there's a lot of focus on the eventual, I was going to say pending, Mosul campaign, but I would say eventual battle for Mosul, since it's been several times deferred. 

Do you, is there currently an agreed plan between KRG and the Iraqi government, the U.S. government coalition and perhaps other elements, to take Mosul?  Is there a plan for what would happen after Mosul? 

TALABANI:  How do you define plan?

GORDON:  And should the popular mobilization forces, the so called Hashd Shaabi depart?

TALABANI:  So if you're talking about a comprehensive plan that is on the table that includes maps, that includes the distribution of roles and responsibilities, that includes a vision for chain of command and exact units and where they're going to be stationed.

And where they're going to go and then what happens politically and what do we do with the Turks and what do the Iranians do the Hashd Shaabi do, no.  There isn't a plan like that.  We're hearing that there is a plan being drawn up. 

I know that the U.S. military commanders on the ground have a vision that , they have a very clear idea of what they want to achieve and how they think it can best be achieved.  But they're not the only actor on the ground. 

There are myriad of Iraqi forces, organized and unorganized forces that are in the mix, tied into some of the political problems facing the country.  The Kurdish forces and the Minister can guarantee more detail of the Kurdish forces.  We're ready.  We haven't been paid but we're ready.

And we know what we can do.  And we know what we can bring to the table if there were to ever be a comprehensive plan to liberate the city of Mosul.  Now the military side of things, we feel, is going to be less complicated than the politics and the governance and who is going to minister Mosul. 

How are we going to recreate an actual physical border between Iraq and Syria, which has to be a key component to any plan to free, liberate Mosul and eliminate the threat of Daesh from Iraq.

And that, I think, requires a much more in-depth look at problems in the country, political problems between the various political parties and then how can we ensure that the forces that combine to liberate Mosul, all paid in full, will stick to the plan and that there are no surprises along the way.

GORDON:  Let me ask you, Minister, should the, and then you can each make your last statements, should the so-called popular mobilization forces, and by that, I mean, not the Sunni tribes but the Shi'ite popular mobilization forces, whether it's Badr core, Kata'ib Hezbollah, Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, whoever they are, should they be part of the battle for Mosul? 

Is that acceptable to you?  And lastly, if you could just address, because I think this audience would like to hear it, what is Iran's role and influence in Iraq today, and in the KRG?

TALABANI:  Who?

GORDON:  Iran.  The Iranian influence and role.

SINJARI:  Thank you.  First of all, the popular mobilization.  Mosul is a different city from   all other cities in Iraq.  In Mosul, you have Muslim, Arabs and.  You have Kurds.  You have Turks.  You have Christian, you have   So it is a mosaic mix.  For that we have to   We say, we will not.

So we don't want to be a fight between Kurd and Arab, to be used like that.  So on the other side, from now ISIS already, they started to have big TV stations to be shown in the city, in the cafeteria and things like that, to show what the popular mobilization did in other places, so they are telling them if they come to Mosul, they will do the same.

So for that, we don't want, not me,  not others, Iraqi forces consumed to be as they call it, (indiscernible) 

GORDON:  Can you address Iran's role and make whatever closing remarks you want to make and then Qubad, you make your closing statement.

SINJARI:  Iran.  Of course Iran's a big country and near to Iraq.  They are an influence in Iraq our relations.  And they are helping the Iraqi government.  At the beginning, when Daesh attacked us, they helped us too.  So they are playing a role in Iraq.

GORDON:  So you seem to be saying that at times, they're helpful.

SINJARI:  At the beginning, they helped us to defeat Daesh.

GORDON:  And now?

SINJARI:  Now we are not asking their help.  We have the coalition forces that are helping us and we are doing the job with them.

GORDON:  And are they a positive force, or a disruptive force?

SINJARI:  Who, the Iranians?

GORDON:  The Iranians.

SINJARI:  To that time that they've been with us, they helped us.

(LAUGHTER)

GORDON:  OK.

TALABANI:  And that's our Minister of Peshmerga.  You can imagine how our Minister of Foreign Affairs is.

(LAUGHTER)

GORDON:  Do you want to make a closing statement?  And one thing maybe you could address is, given all the woes you've mentioned.  Economic woes, security issues, is this a good year to have a referendum on whether KRG should be independent?  You're having all these difficulties not being independent.  Would it be easier, how would you take this on if you're independent?

TALABANI:  So, I think that's what important to realize is we're a sub-sovereign entity but we're facing challenges that even large powers would have difficulties dealing with.  We have this massive financial crisis.  We're at war.  We have this humanitarian crisis, which we believe will only get worse. 

With any attempts to liberate Mosul, we're already housing 1.8 million displaced people.  We are expecting another half a million displaced people, at least if there were to be a prolonged military campaign against Mosul.

Now this comes in a climate when we're receiving very little assistance.  We're being spoon-fed military support in this war from the ground.  We're very grateful for the air support that we're receiving from the coalition.  It's been, it's caused a significant change on the battlefield.

But the humanitarian assistance is slow, and not targeted and not strategic and the pledged military support hasn't come to date.  So this places us as the most vulnerable entity in this coalition against ISIS because, unlike neighboring countries who are receiving refugees and IDPs , one, we are not a country and our host country, Iraq, is providing no assistance to us.

Two, we're the only place which is at peace and at war at the same time, and so we're trying to manage our own administration.  We're keeping our community safe, but at the same time, we are at war so, you know, we always say this with our colleagues in the U.S.

And our friends in Baghdad, we always hear about the number of 17 percent.  17 percent of the budget to Kurdistan, 17 percent of any support that gets given to Iraq should come to Kurdistan but in reality, we don't have 17 percent of the IDPs in Kurdistan.  We're much more than 17 percent of the displaced people who have come to Iraq in Kurdistan.

We don't have 17 percent of the conflict with ISIS.  We have much greater percentage in the conflict with ISIS so I think it's important for our friends to understand that we've kept this front line. 

We're going to keep this front line but unless we get Iraq support, unless we get a greater level of support across the board, political, economic, technical and humanitarian, we will be unable to continue the way that we're doing.

Regarding the referendum issue, it's no surprise.  There should be no surprise to anybody in this room that Kurds want to be independent.  It's a natural right of the people of Kurdistan to be independent, to have their own country and that, that right has existed. 

We're commiserating or commemorating a hundred years of this year and we're seeing how that's turned out in the world.  So for us, at this point, to start having a serious conversation, first within ourselves about independence, but more importantly, with Iraq.  We were in Baghdad just last week and we told the Prime Minister we need to have this conversation. 

There needs to, the first country we need to reach an agreement with, if we are to become independent, is Iraq.  We're not going to go strike a deal with Turkey or go strike a deal with Iran or come and ask assistance from the United States before we actually speak to the country that we are currently a part of, which is Iraq.

Secondly, the rising Kurdish nationalism is coming at a time when Kurds have yet again, not getting their fair share of their rights from Iraq.  We're not getting our budget cut.  We're not getting any support to deal with the humanitarian situation.  We are not getting our fair share of the medicine that Iraq buys centrally and distributes across the board. 

We're not even getting the medicine intended for the IDPs which are Iraqi IDPs that have been sent to us via one-way ticket from the folks in the federal government.  So all of these burdens on us, of course it's going to raise nationalism. 

Of course it's going to make people feel disaffected and disenfranchised from being part of an Iraq that we, in reality, have not really benefited from.  I mean wars, devastation, chemical weapons, genocide, scorched earth.  What have we benefited from this country called Iraq?

And, ultimately, we've been waiting 11-12 years for this Constitution that we've worked very hard to. to ratify in Iraq to actually be the law of the land and it hasn't come into effect, so we are going to have to wait another 11-12 years to finally determine the Constitution and act on the Constitution?

I'm not saying it's going to happen tomorrow.  I'm not going to say tomorrow we're going to announce independence, but we need to have this conversation.  We've started to have this conversation and it shouldn't be, the subject is not a taboo any more. 

I promise you it will not result in the end of the world if, one day, Kurdistan were to declare independence.

GORDON:  Well, thank you very much.  I think everyone here can agree that you both been actually been very effective presenters of your KRG perspective, so that this is going to conclude this panel but I'm supposed to ask you that everyone here should please remain seated for the next panel.

(APPLAUSE)

END