Interview: Rallying to combat Isis

16 June 2015

The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir says more international support is needed for the Peshmerga fighting Isis. Florian Neuhof reports

Falah Mustafa Bakir is a polished media professional. Thanks to a degree in English literature, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) de facto foreign minister speaks eloquently, and, as a former public relations officer, he knows how to be on message. Right now, it has never been more important for him to get his message across.

Beleaguered, short of cash and with the feud with Baghdad still simmering, foreign support is vital to the KRG. As the head of foreign relations, Bakir is one of the key people crafting the image of the autonomous region abroad.

These efforts have met with considerable success, and the Kurds have become the darlings of the international press since the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) swept across northwestern Iraq last year. Despite some early retreats, Kurdish forces played an important part in halting the insurgents’ rapid advance.

Safe haven

With its frontlines stabilised, the KRG then became a refuge for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, which joined the many Syrians that had escaped the civil war in their country.

The Kurdistan region has proven… it is the only safe and secure part of the country

“The Kurdistan region has proven to the international community that it is the only safe and secure part of the country,” says Bakir, sitting in a ministerial building in the Kurdish capital Erbil. “And it has opened its doors to all those fleeing violence and seeking a safe haven.”

According to the most recent figures from the International Organisation for Migration, the KRG has taken in about 1.1 million displaced Iraqis, alongside 240,000 Syrian refugees.

The Isis takeover of Ramadi in May set off the latest wave of arrivals. Bakir says about 50,000 people from Ramadi and its environs have come to the Kurdistan region since the city fell, while estimates by humanitarian organisations suggest about half that number.

The KRG’s willingness to take in huge numbers of displaced Iraqis is admirable, and sets it apart from the central government, which unabashedly restricts the movement of those trying to escape the fighting and the reach of Isis.

Most of the recent internally displaced persons have flown in through Baghdad, says Bakir, where the Sunnis fleeing Isis-controlled territory are threatened by the sectarian tensions stoked by the jihadist movement. “We are under huge pressure, but still, when you see such a situation you can’t but help,” he says.

With a history of armed struggle against Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Kurds have long set themselves apart from the rest of Iraq. The bloody insurgency that rattled the Americans in the aftermath of the Second Gulf War never took hold in Kurdish territories, and the stable security situation paved the way for the entry of international oil companies (IOCs).

Attracted by reserves estimated at about 45 billion barrels, and by contracts that are more lucrative than the technical service deals dished out by Baghdad, IOCs flocked to the autonomous region.

Production has been rising steadily, but the KRG-controlled region’s oil bonanza has been severely undermined by a bitter dispute with the central government. Baghdad refused to acknowledge Erbil’s right to grant exploration and production licences and sell its oil independently of the federal Oil Marketing Company (Somo).

As a result, budget payments to the Kurdistan region have been intermittent and often incomplete for years, preventing the KRG from paying oil companies in full.

The dispute boiled over in 2014, when Baghdad ceased federal payments to Erbil, which is entitled to 17 per cent of Iraq’s budget. In reply, the KRG tried to market its oil independently, but failed to shift significant amounts as buyers baulked at the central government’s threat of legal action.

Common enemy

The two sides were united by the common Isis threat, and the KRG last December agreed to resume exports under government control in return for its share of the budget.

Yet any hopes that the war against Isis would overcome the chronic squabbling between the Kurdish and the central governments were soon dashed, as Erbil quickly complained loudly about the size of the payments, which it feels are far smaller than it should be getting.

“Some amounts have been coming in, but it is not what the KRG is entitled to receive,” says Bakir. He says the KRG should be receiving $1.1bn every month, and has so far not received any amount even half as big. The most recent payment, for May, amounted to just $424m.

We want Baghdad to think seriously about partnership. We are equal partners

While Erbil has been vocal, Baghdad has kept silent about the issue. The cost of waging a war may be a factor, as could the failure of the KRG to export the promised 550,000 barrels a day (b/d) in previous months. According to the KRG’s Natural Resources Ministry, in May, its exports through Somo were raised to 577,000 b/d.

Apart from the size of the paycheque, it is the opacity of the federal government’s decision-making that irks Bakir.

“We want Baghdad to think seriously about partnership. We are equal partners,” he says. “If Baghdad has problems, then it has to be transparent and open with the KRG, and sit down and discuss this. What hurts the region is if Baghdad unilaterally decides to cut [payments] without any consultation.”

The KRG’s finances, which already took a huge hit during last year’s budget dispute, has been crippled by the war. Despite the resumption of budget payments, salaries for civil servants and the Peshmerga are three months in arrears, says Bakir.

The inability to pay contractors has led to about 6,600 projects being put on hold since the start of the year, he says. “We are trying to pay [the contractors] for at least what they have accomplished. When we are not able to pay the salaries for the civil servants, we cannot do that,” says Bakir.

Deep mistrust

The continued squabbling between Erbil and Baghdad is symptomatic of the mistrust that runs deep in Iraq. After long years of discrimination and bloody incursions by the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein, the Kurds have come to see the West as natural allies. Even in the budget dispute, these allies have been at hand to smooth over the differences between the KRG and the central government, says Bakir.

“It’s an ongoing process. I believe our American friends, our British friends are working with the federal government in Baghdad to encourage both sides to honour the agreements,” he says.

The Kurds have also been receiving more substantive help than mediating words in the shape of war materiel and training from a range of Western powers, including Germany, the UK, the Netherlands and Sweden, all European countries with a sizeable Kurdish immigrant community.

Anti-tank missiles supplied by Germany have been crucial in fending off Isis vehicle-borne suicide bombers, depriving the group of its most potent weapons. Foreign instructors have helped to improve the fighting capacity of the poorly trained Peshmerga. But the Kurdish fighters still lack everything, from anti-tank weapons to non-lethal aid such as medical supplies and communication equipment, says Bakir.

“We are thankful for the military and humanitarian assistance. But it is not sufficient,” he says. Bakir is hopeful that more aid is on its way.

In February, the World Bank published a report detailing the financial squeeze being felt by Erbil. The report concluded that the ‘cost of stabilisation’ of the KRG’s economy was $1.4bn. Deprived of budget payments, the economy had already contracted by 5 per cent in 2014, and the effects of a 28 per cent increase in population since the outbreak of the conflict continues to weigh heavily on infrastructure, public spending and the job market.

Armed with this assessment, Bakir has been making the rounds, trying to convince the international community to commit stabilisation funds to the KRG. So far, he admits, no money has been forthcoming.

Frustrated by the Iraqi Security Forces’ poor showing against Isis, most recently during the loss of Ramadi, the US is slowly moving towards providing direct military assistance to the Kurds. Previously, aid was channelled through Baghdad, which chose to direct most of the materiel and funding to the forces under its control.

But the defence bill for 2016 passed by the US House of Representatives in May has designated a quarter of the $715m in military aid to Iraq for the Peshmerga and Sunni tribes. Keen to preserve the central government’s authority, the US has so far been reluctant to bypass Baghdad in its dealings with Erbil.

Calls for independence

Washington is aware that Kurdish aspirations for independence hardly need any encouragement. During a visit to the US in May, KRG President Masoud Barzani remarked that being part of Iraq was “voluntary, not mandatory”.

His comments served as a reminder that Erbil is already paving the way towards the exit. Last July, a month after Isis had taken Mosul, Barzani instructed the region’s parliament to establish an electoral commission to prepare for a referendum on independence. Bakir offered no update on these efforts, instead stressing that the KRG remains part of Iraq for now.

The Kurds feel that the case for independence has been strengthened not only by the apparent weakness of the central government, but also by the seizure of oil-rich Kirkuk. The Peshmerga moved into the city last year, ostensibly to prevent it from falling to Isis. Iraq’s Kurds regard Kirkuk as their historic capital, and the city has been referred to as the “Kurdish Jerusalem” by the KRG’s first president Jalal Talibani.

Under Saddam Hussein, Kirkuk’s ethnic make-up was changed with the resettlement of Arab’s into the city, which remained part of Iraq proper after 2003. Iraq’s post-war constitution calls for a referendum to determine the status of the city and Bakir reaffirms Erbil’s determination to keep hold of Kirkuk until its inhabitants have voted on their future.

“The people of Kirkuk will decide whether they want to join the KRG or stay with the rest of Iraq,” he says.

Baghdad is unlikely to give up Kirkuk easily and experts argue that the three-stage process towards a referendum will raise plenty of legal disputes between the two sides.

Whether on Kirkuk, independence or oil exports, Erbil cannot simply ignore Baghdad’s wishes in the long term. As the KRG’s failed attempt at selling its oil independently shows, the central government is still the internationally recognised authority in Iraq, and unilateral moves quickly fall foul of international law.

As a land-locked oil producer that cannot contain its enthusiasm for independence, the KRG is more reliant on international good will than most governments. With Iraq’s Kurds facing an uncertain future, it is more important than ever that Bakir talks a good game.

Career highlights

  • 1996 Appointed spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party
  • 1999 Appointed deputy minister of     agriculture and irrigation
  • 2002- 04 Senior adviser to KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, before being appointed Minister of State.
  • 2003 Acted as liaison officer to the Coalition Provisional Authority
  • 2006 Oversaw the creation of the Department of Foreign Relations and was appointed its head

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