Iraq's Kurds have been enthusiastic U.S. allies since before the 2003 invasion. But as the Kurds have expanded their control over their oil-rich territory—and as they reassert claims to the contested city of Kirkuk ahead of a constitutionally mandated referendum—tensions are mounting with the central government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and with Arabs and other ethnic groups. Last week, Massoud Barzani was reelected president of the Kurdistan Regional Government despite a strong opposition showing. Days later, he sat down with NEWSWEEK's Larry Kaplow in his mountain complex high above the Kurdish city of Irbil. Excerpts:
How should people interpret the election?
This was a success for the people of the Kurdistan region. In the past, our people were subject to annihilation. Now we have reached a stage where they can vote freely for whomever they want.
How should we view the emergence of a new opposition?
I welcome it. I see having an opposition as a healthy phenomenon.
What do you say to charges that there is too much corruption, not enough democracy?
We will immediately constitute a public integrity or anticorruption commission. Whoever has any complaint, any evidence, they are welcome to come forward.
For the first time in many months, you and Prime Minister Maliki spoke yesterday. is your relationship improving?
Prime Minister Maliki called and congratulated me. This was a good initiative, and we believe it will help break the ice.
You have made some tough statements lately about how bad relations are with Baghdad.
There has been misinterpretation of what I said. In fact, my position has been the same from day one. I did not ask for anything else for my people beyond what the Constitution entitles us to. I have always stated that I will defend the rights of our people, and the only weapon in my hand will be the Constitution.
How concerned are you about the U.S. withdrawal?
Within the time that's left, we all have to sort out Iraq's problems. The important thing here is the political [will] of the United States and not the number of troops left on the ground. Will the United States leave Iraq and allow the situation to collapse, or will they withdraw in a way that leaves stability?
Has there been improvement in relations with Turkey, seen as an adversary to Kurdish ambitions?
There has been remarkable progress. We welcome it and we will try to make sure that this progress is sustained.
What about your commitment not to let the kurdistan workers' party (PKK) stage attacks on turkey from Iraqi Kurdistan?
We have not allowed the PKK to launch attacks from here. There has been some exaggeration of the PKK presence. This is a tough mountain area at the border of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey that is difficult for any force to control.
Could Turkey end up being an ally if the U.S. withdrawal goes badly?
Turkey can play a positive role in all of Iraq. If they're ready to play that kind of role we are ready. But we can't accept interference in our internal affairs.
The United Nations wants a negotiated settlement for who controls Kirkuk. Do you endorse that process?
My answer is very short. Kirkuk and other disputed territories have been covered by a constitutional article that stipulates the road map to solve them. Any other alternative will complicate that issue.
what if you are alone on this and others don't accept it?
Then the rights of the Kurdish people would have been usurped and we have the right to defend [ourselves] with the means that are at our disposal.
But if you're talking about war, you'll be outnumbered.
A larger number does not mean that they will always win. Only at the ballot box is it the [rule] that the majority wins.