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The Iraqi government is set to vote this weekend on the Status Of Forces Agreement with the United States, which would allow U.S. troops to stay in Iraq for three more years while outlining benchmarks for withdrawal from certain regions. A United Nations mandate currently governing the presence of the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is set to expire on Dec. 31.
After meeting with President Bush, Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani visited National Journal on Oct. 30 with U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who was formerly in charge of reconstruction in Iraq. Barzani, using a translator, and Garner spoke with NJ staff about the new agreement and the future of the U.S. presence in the country. Excerpts of the conversation, edited by NationalJournal.com's Theresa Poulson, follow. Visit the archives page for more Insider Interviews.
NJ: Will the Status Of Forces Agreement be approved or not? If not, what are the implications?
Barzani: We have expressed our position clearly that we are for this agreement, and we see it in the interests of both sides, Iraq and the United States, and it's in the interest of the Iraqi people and the United States people. Our position has been expressed clearly in favor of the agreement, and the efforts are continuing, but at the same time there are still obstacles in the way, and there are doubts, and there are possibilities of not having the agreement, or at least to have it delayed.
NJ: What would be the consequences if there is no agreement? U.S. forces have said they will stand down and stop operations and retreat to their bases.
Barzani: Indeed, the agreement is the best option that we have. All the other alternatives are not good; therefore the options are not good. Whether to have an extension of the status quo or to have the withdrawal of the forces -- with the agreement or without the agreement -- we're expecting bad consequences, not good ones.
NJ: General Garner, please explain the situation as far as getting oil out of Kurdistan under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.
Garner: The disagreement with the government stands on who has the authority to let people come in and drill oil. The Kurdish government says, "We have the right to let the contracts," but what they're doing as they do that, they pay 83 percent of the revenues to the Iraqi government. They're filling the Iraqi government's coffers.
... So what 140 says is, we'll have a democratic process, where we have a referendum, and let the people choose what they want to do. And what we've continually done here is put that off; where the constitution called for that referendum by the end of 2007, we put it off. We said, OK, we'll have it in six months. We still put it off.
NJ: President Barzani, if indeed that obstacle is cleared, would Kurdistan be willing to sell its oil to the United States as a preferred customer? In other words, we would pay the market price, but we would be first to be able to tap into the Kurdistan oil supply?
Barzani: Rest assured that our preferred customer would be the United States.
NJ: Are you concerned by Barack Obama's plans for withdrawal?
Barzani: As we have heard and seen, Senator Obama has a plan to withdraw the forces within 16 months. Of course, we will be seeing elections taking place in Iraq as well. As a result of the elections in Iraq, there will be change in Iraq before the end of 2009. Of course the Iraqis have to try to find a solution for their problems and to manage their country, because they should not wait forever to see the U.S. forces to remain there. It's true that within the 16 months that's critical for us -- to withdraw the troops by the end of 2011 -- but the events in Iraq would also determine how things go.
NJ: What does the United States need to do to stabilize when the troops begin the pullout at some level?
Barzani: Sometimes there are cases when you can do things to avoid problems, but the problems have happened, and now it's too late to talk about it. I believe with the fall of the regime, when the U.S. forces were liberation forces, when they turned themselves into an occupation force and the issuance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1483 -- that has been the biggest mistake, and we are dealing with the consequences of this. And now it's too late to talk about what's to be done.
NJ: During a withdrawal, what does the United States need to do to avoid Iraq completely falling apart?
Barzani: Indeed, we have to be honest, and the United States has to come up and say clearly... whether Iraq would remain as the top priority of the United States and would be at the top of its agenda or not. Otherwise, having 140,000 troops on the ground, how would you be acting in that way? While you have liberated that country, you have brought these people to be in power.
NJ: How long should U.S. troops stay in Iraq?
Barzani: Of course we do not want the troops to stay there forever. And we want them to come back to their homes [as soon as possible]. But of course if you leave the business unfinished and leave Iraq, that would be the biggest success and victory for the terrorists, and will be a big defeat for the United States and the allies of the United States....
We believe that there is room for the forces to be gradually decreasing. It's not necessary for this size of the troops to remain on the ground there.
But of course if there would be a withdrawal from the country, without having the agreement and without having a proper alternative, there is the fear that once again the terrorists would be encouraged and the situation in Iraq would deteriorate, and Iraq once again will become a safe haven for the terrorists, and that would lead to more deterioration.
NJ: Would Iraq then move toward civil war if the U.S. troops withdrew?
Barzani: That possibility is there.
NJ: Is your regime providing protection for PKK bands operating out of Iraqi Kurdistan?
Barzani: We refute such kind of accusations. We challenge if there is one evidence for us to be protecting these groups. The problem of PKK is an internal, domestic Turkish problem.
Recently we have seen some positive change on the attitude of Turkey. And in the last week, within a week, I have met for two times the special representative of the Turkish government, and both sides have agreed that we will continue in this dialogue and that we try together in order to find a solution to this problem.
NJ: Can you dispute that Kurdistan Workers Party guerrillas are largely based in the territory, in Kurdistan?
Barzani: One has to know the geography and the topography of that area when talking about this issue. So we are talking about a border strip... a border triangle between Iraq, Iran and Turkey. These are tough and rough mountainous areas. The majority or the bulk of the PKK forces are inside Turkey; probably they have some presence on this border strip. We have neither villages nor our forces present in these areas, and we have never prevented Turkey from doing any operations in these border areas of this triangle. PKK is not present in any populated village or city or areas that have road access to it.
NJ: What's your assessment of the sustainability and competence of the Maliki government?
Barzani: The situation in Iraq is a complicated one. In fact, we are not happy with the performance of the Maliki government, nor are we satisfied with our own performance. But the issue is not personally Maliki.... It is true that there are differences and also disputes, but we believe that so long as we have the constitution, the constitution is where we should go, in order to find solutions within the framework of the constitution.
NJ: How close is it to sustainability in the long term without large-scale foreign support?
Barzani: Of course any government would not be able to function properly if there is no stability and security in the country and would not be able to implement any program or any plan that they have. Also, the security situation in Iraq cannot be sustained without the support and the assistance of the multinational forces in Iraq; the Iraqi forces themselves would not be able to provide that kind of stability or security.
NJ: And how long until that situation changes?
Barzani: Certainly it needs time; probably it needs a few years.
NJ: Could and should the surge have worked three or four years earlier?
Garner: Would the surge have worked three years earlier? Possibly, yeah. We didn't do a lot for those three years except just sit around and watch. ... What helped the surge was, in Anbar of course the tribes decided they were so tired of al-Qaida, they decided to cooperate. Muqtada al-Sadr decided he'd be a little bit quiet during this time, so those two things helped. Whether those would've occurred three years earlier, I don't know.
But where I think we missed the boat, what really would have worked, is if when we went in there, instead of trying to rubber-stamp a democracy... if we had let them go to a federal system, where you could have still had a government in Baghdad, but where you put the people in their own tribal, ethnic and religious comfort zone. So you could have had a federal system -- like in Kurdistan, where they elect their own leader, they have their own security forces, they have their own constitution, and they could report back to Baghdad, just like they do in Kurdistan -- but where the velvet fist of government felt by the people would have been from their federal district, not from Baghdad.
NJ: What policy could the U.S. take toward Iran that would be helpful to the future of Iraq?
Barzani: There is no doubt that Iran has influence in Iraq. And Iran wants to have a role in Iraq and also in the region. And at the same time, Iran wanted assurances that the situation in Iraq would not have a negative impact and that Iraq would not be utilized to launch attacks. Of course Iran has its own agenda.
As for the next president of the United States, what Iran wants is that role to play, so it depends on both the next president of the United States and Iraq, and to what extent the U.S. is ready to give that role, or to what extent that role would be given, to Iran.