War in Iraq: Masoud Barzani, Ex-Kurdish Leader, Says U.S. Knew in Advance About Iraqi Assault on Kirkuk

After decades of yearning for a state to call their own, Iraqi Kurds flocked to the polls on September 25 in a referendum aimed at creating an independent nation. Ninety-three percent of Iraqi Kurds backed secession. People from Kirkuk to Irbil were euphoric. Not only had the Kurds been instrumental in helping a U.S.-backed coalition defeat the Islamic State group, but now they were finally on the cusp of realizing their dreams of a statehood.

Leading the drive: 71-year-old Masoud Barzani, who led the Kurdistan Democratic Party through two decades of persecution under Saddam Hussein. This fall, he helped push the referendum to a vote, despite the objections of the U.S., Britain, Turkey, Iran and the federal government in Baghdad.

The Kurdish euphoria didn't last. In October, Iraqi forces backed by Shiite militias launched a major offensive aimed at retaking the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. The Kurds stood down, and the crushing defeat prompted Barzani to resign as leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government and president of his party. Now, as allegations swirl that Baghdad is trying to transform the multiethnic province into a Shiite stronghold, Barzani spoke to Newsweek about the future of Kurdish independence and whether his people had once again been betrayed.

Former Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani at a news conference in Irbil on September 24. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

You won the referendum, but you seemed to have damaged the chances for a Kurdish national homeland. Why did you go ahead with it?
The referendum decision was not a personal decision. It was a collective decision by all the political parties in Kurdistan. And the success of the referendum was that 93 percent of the Kurdish people [in Iraq] voted yes. So the process was successful... and I do believe this referendum has secured the future of the Kurdish people. It's true that there has been some...obstacles...post-referendum, but...it doesn't mean the determination of the Kurdish people was lost.

But many believe the timing was wrong.
We believe the timing was good...because those Iraqi forces who are currently implementing their policies to change the demography and situation in areas that they are in right now, they had this program and this plan in mind even before the referendum. They are using the referendum as a pretext to cover their plan and plot against the Kurdish people. We went ahead with the referendum in order to avoid...bloodshed, in order to avoid battles and conflict because those [Iraqi forces] who are now fighting us...want to impose a new status quo in the area. Our mistake is we should have held the referendum earlier and not later.

The Kurdish peshmerga forces worked closely with the U.S.-led global coalition against ISIS. Do you think the U.S. has now abandoned you?
Without the role and sacrifices of the peshmerga, ISIS would not have been rolled back and defeated, nor would Mosul have been liberated. But we were not expecting to see Iraqi forces use weapons—that were given to them by the U.S. to fight ISIS—against their own citizens. It was a big surprise for us.

Do you believe the U.S. approved the Iraqi plan to enter Kirkuk and other Kurdish-held areas?
We do believe, yes, that the operation to take over Kirkuk was led by the Iranians with the knowledge of the U.S. and British officials.

Senator John McCain described the Kurdistan Regional Government as America's "longstanding and valuable partner." Do you feel your relationship with the White House has changed under President Donald Trump?
John McCain is a very respected and very knowledgeable man, who is aware of the sacrifices of the peshmerga and the Kurdish people. But with regards to the relationship between Kurdistan and the White House...I can't say whether we have a relationship or not.

Iran was Iraq's most bitter enemy and now its closest ally. What does this close relationship mean for the region and the Kurdish people?
Iraqi decisions are in the hands of Iran. The Kurds are not going to confront the Iranians nor compete with Iran.

Are you going to work with the Iranians then?
That will be decided in the future.

Many worry that tensions between Baghdad and Irbil could escalate into a new war. What do you think?
We hope the fighting and bloodshed will cease. Our policy is to seek dialogue, to seek peaceful ways for conflict resolution and conflict prevention with Iraq. If the international community and the coalition...genuinely want to prevent another armed conflict, they can. But if a battle erupts, it means they gave it the green light.

Your opponents accuse you of holding the referendum for your own political gain. What do you say to them?
The decision to hold the referendum was made in 2014 by the election commission, by parliament. The decision was not a personal one, and at that time, it was a collective decision of all the political parties and all the institutions in Kurdistan. But because of ISIS, we postponed the date to hold the referendum. Later, when we did set the date, it was also a collective decision by all the political parties in Kurdistan.

Is Kurdish independence still possible?
What's going on in [Kurdish territories]...is just temporary because nobody can change the identity of those areas. We are not going to recognize any forced demographic change. The identities of these areas are still Kurdish. We withdrew from many of the areas so as to prevent any kind of conflict and bloodshed. We wanted to prevent any kind of military confrontation to pave the way for dialogue.

To what extent are you willing to go to prevent a military confrontation with Baghdad?
We are ready to go as far as it's possible to avoid fighting with the Iraqi army...as long as they are not...changing the [autonomous] status of Kurdistan.