New Kurdish PM makes Baghdad ties priority over independence

Masrour Barzani swears-in as prime minister of Kurdistan in the Parliament in Irbil, Iraq, on Wednesday. (AFP)
Updated 10 July 2019

New Kurdish PM makes Baghdad ties priority over independence

  • Iraqi Kurdistan has a new regional government with Masrour Barzani as new prime minister

IRBIL: Two years after a failed independence bid plunged Iraq’s Kurdistan Region into months of instability, the new regional prime minister said his priority was strengthening ties with Baghdad, signaling dreams of self-rule should be put on hold.

Masrour Barzani, sworn in as regional prime minister on Wednesday, told Reuters in an exclusive interview that under his leadership, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s focus would be to establish a “strong and constructive” relationship with Baghdad, leaving the question of independence aside for now.

“This (independence referendum) happened in the past and it’s a reflection of the enduring aspiration of a nation,” said Barzani, speaking at his palace in the hillside village of Salaheddine, near regional capital Irbil.

“However, the focus of my government will be how to build a stronger relationship and partnership with Baghdad,” he said, adding he would look to fix “those issues that were actually keeping us apart.”

The independence bid was led by Barzani’s father Masoud, who stepped down as Kurdish president in 2017 after the referendum backfired and prompted a military offensive from Baghdad.

At stake for the new premier are long-running disputes over independent oil exports, revenue sharing, security, and territory which have plagued ties between Irbil and Baghdad since a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Barzani was instrumental in orchestrating the September 2017 referendum, which was held over the objections of Baghdad and regional powers. It was seen as the culmination of years of oppositional politics by the semi-autonomous region.

The backlash was swift and pushed the country to the brink of civil war, threatening to undo the years of unprecedented autonomy the region had enjoyed. Relations eventually improved, cemented by a change of government in both capitals.

A ‘win-win situation’

The region’s oil exports have long been a source of contention with Baghdad. The Kurds, who control Iraq’s only northern pipeline, had been exporting oil independently since 2013. Exports were restarted in 2018, after a year-long freeze amid post-referendum disputes.

As part of the 2018 and 2019 budgets, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) agreed to send 250,000 barrels per day (bpd) to federal authorities in exchange for Baghdad paying civil servants’ salaries.

However, Iraqi officials, including the prime minister, complain that the KRG has not kept up its end of the bargain, having not sent a single barrel to Baghdad.

Barzani said negotiations on oil and gas were already underway and he sees room for “quick progress” on the file.

FASTFACT

At stake for the new premier are long-running disputes over independent oil exports, revenue sharing, security, and territory which have plagued ties between Irbil and Baghdad since a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“There is great potential for a win-win situation,” he said. “Working together in cooperation with each other, we can increase the production of oil.” Mutual benefits for both sides is a theme Barzani echoed regarding regional security.

Nearly two years since Iraq declared victory against Daesh militants, the country has seen a deterioration in security in the areas bordering the Kurdistan Region.

Barzani, formerly the region’s security chief, said the threat from Daesh is not yet over. 

The group exploited the rift between the Kurds and Baghdad, he said, who fought side by side to defeat the militant group in 2017.

He is looking to establish a joint security mechanism in the so-called disputed territories, areas claimed by both Baghdad and Irbil, “to close that gap.”

Masrour is the latest Barzani to head the regional government. His father Masoud, himself the son of a veteran Kurdish leader, still holds considerable sway over its politics.

His cousin Nechirvan held the premiership until last month when he was sworn in as president, following a regional parliamentary election in September 2018.

Barzani said winning back hearts and minds was a leading priority, as was tackling graft. 

The Barzanis are one of two families that have dominated regional politics for decades. 

Though they enjoy continued support among their respective bases through extensive patronage networks, their continued grip on power has opened them up to allegations of mismanagement and corruption from voters, many of whom are owed years of back pay from the government.

“I’d like to see reform,” he said. “To make sure that people have more trust in the government.”


British MPs urge UK government to recognize Palestine

Updated 21 January 2020

British MPs urge UK government to recognize Palestine

  • Palestinian envoy welcomes cross-party call ahead of visit by Prince Charles

LONDON: A group of British MPs has called for the UK to recognize the state of Palestine ahead of a visit by Prince Charles to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

In a letter to The Times, the MPs, along with figures from think tanks and pressure groups, said the move was long overdue and would help fulfill Britain’s “promise of equal rights for peoples in two states.” 

The call comes as the heir to the British throne travels on Thursday to Israel and the occupied West Bank. 

During the visit, he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem. 

Prince Charles will also attend the World Holocaust Forum to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

The letter said since 2014, no meaningful progress has been made in the peace process, and Israel’s actions are pushing a two-state solution beyond reach.

“Illegal Israeli settlements, described by the Foreign Office as undermining peace efforts, are expanding,” the letter said.

Among the signatories are Emily Thornberry, a candidate for the Labour Party leadership, and Crispin Blunt, chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council.

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the UK, welcomed the move but said full recognition from the British government should have happened many years ago.

“Recognition doesn’t contradict peacemaking and negotiations,” Zomlot told Arab News, referring to the main argument used by the UK against taking such a step. 

“It reinforces the vision (of a Palestinian state) and a negotiated two-state solution. It should happen now because of the threat of annexation (of Palestinian territory) and the killing of the two-state solution.”

FASTFACT

Prince Charles will also attend the World Holocaust Forum to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. 

Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat MP who signed the letter, told Arab News that the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government toward Palestine “makes the achievement of a two-state solution more and more remote with every week that passes.”

He said: “The UK has historic and political obligations toward Israelis and Palestinians. There’s now no longer any good reason not to recognize the state of Palestine.”

A spokesman for Labour MP Fabian Hamilton, who also signed the letter, told Arab News: “The fact that this has cross-party support shows the growing desire across Parliament for the recognition of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.”

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the international community needs to finally stand up for the solution that it has had on the table for decades.

Doyle, an Arab News columnist, said the letter is an “indication that many people in British politics think we should be doing this, we should be standing up for the Palestinian right to self-determination, the legal rights, at a time when the state of Israel is doing everything to stop this, to take more land from the Palestinians.”

The letter was timed to coincide with a meeting of European foreign ministers on Monday, who discussed the Middle East peace process.

The Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the West Bank, has been increasing calls for European countries to recognize the state of Palestine as the US has shifted to a more pro-Israel stance, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.

Writing in The Guardian on Monday, Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Europe could strengthen its role in the peace process if it recognized Palestine.

“European recognition of this state is not only a European responsibility but a concrete way to move towards a just and lasting peace,” he said.

Only nine out of the 28 EU countries have so far recognized Palestine as a state, compared to 138 out of the 193 UN member states.

In 2011, the UK’s then-Foreign Minister William Hague said the British government “reserves the right” to recognize Palestine “at a time of our own choosing, and when it can best serve the cause of peace.”

In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine’s status to that of “nonmember observer state.”