MESOP BARZANI ; SPEAKING AT LANTIC COUNCIL / WASHINGTON – Barzani says independent Kurdistan is coming, but only through peace

WASHINGTON,— 7 May 2015 -The unity of Iraq “is voluntary and not compulsory,” the head of the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region said on Wednesday, while stressing the Kurds had no immediate plans to break away from the central government in Baghdad. Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani was speaking in Washington after holding talks earlier with U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on issues that included the campaign to battle Islamic State. The White House said that in those talks, Obama and Biden stressed that Washington supports “a united, federal and democratic Iraq.”

There have been fears that the country could fracture further along ethnic and religious lines following rapid advances by Islamic State, a radical militant group. Barzani said the Kurds were coordinating with Baghdad in the fight against Islamic state, where their Kurdish Peshmerga military forces have played a major role. But he voiced the Kurds’ long-held dream of their own independent state. Iraq’s unity “is voluntary and not compulsory, so therefore the important thing is for attempts to be made for everyone in Iraq to have that conviction that it would be a voluntary union and not a forced union,” he said. He added that any changes in Iraq’s make-up should be made peacefully.

“Certainly the independent Kurdistan is coming,” he said, speaking through a translator at an event sponsored by the Atlantic Council and U.S. Institute of Peace think tanks. “It’s a continued process. It will not stop, it will not step back.

Barzani that the Kurdish quest for independence is an ongoing process though it might have been slowed down by the current war against the Islamic State (IS). “I don’t know whether it happens next year or when, but independence is certainly coming,” said Barzani during a Q&A at the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council. Barzani who answered questions from policy analysts, journalists and Middle East experts just a day after he met with US President Barack Obama at the White House, said, “I want to reassert that (Kurdistan independence) is an ongoing process, but we want it through peace, understanding and dialogue not violence.”

Barzani said that at the moment the Kurdistan Region is focused on removing the IS threat from its borders.

“Now our country is at war and the war has not been finished, that’s why it (referendum) is delayed,” he said. “As soon as the war ends, referendum will be held and the people of Kurdistan must have the opportunity to decide their own future,” he added. On the question of the Kurdish region staying as part of Iraq, Barzani said that it depends on people’s will and also on how democratic Iraq can be.

“The unity of Iraq depends on the people of Iraq, how democratic they want it to be and it has to be a voluntary union with peaceful coexistence.” he explained.“Both the vice president and the president want the Peshmerga to get the right weapons and ammunition,” Barzani told his audience at the Atlantic Council. “The important point here is that the Peshmerga get weapons. How they will come, in which way, that’s not as important as the fact that Peshmerga need weapons to be in their hands.” he added.

He said that the IS war has driven out millions of people from their homes in Iraq and Syria and that 1.5 million refugees have taken shelter in the Kurdistan Region which has created a severe financial burden to the local authorities.“The economic cost of hosting refugees has been huge and I call on the US and international community to assist us,” said Barzani. Barzani said the Kurdistan Regional Government, based in Erbil, has not received 17 percent of Iraq’s federal budget due to it under an agreement in which the Kurds are supposed to export an average of 550,000 barrels of oil per day.Erbil has not always been able to meet its export target, and the cash-strapped Baghdad government has missed payments in the past.

“We hope that Baghdad honors that agreement,” Barzani said.