Barzani: Maliki’s Crime against Kurdish Region Worse than Saddam’s Anfal Operation

Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani. (Reuters)
Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani. (Reuters)

Barzani: Maliki’s Crime against Kurdish Region Worse than Saddam’s Anfal Operation

Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani. (Reuters)
Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani. (Reuters)

President of the Kurdish Iraqi Region Masoud Barzani expressed his disappointment and “bitterness” towards former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Baghdad’s treatment of Kurds during his time in office.

Barzani told Asharq Al-Awsat on Wednesday that Maliki’s term deepened the Kurdish desire for independence from Iraq, accusing the former PM of “committing a crime against the Region that was worse than Saddam Hussein’s Anfal operation” that left more than 180,000 Kurds dead.

He therefore reiterated his commitment to holding the Kurdish independence referendum as scheduled on September 25, saying: “The vote is decisive and it is the choice of the people and the majority of political forces in Kurdistan.”

The referendum must be held on time “unless there is a better alternative”.

Asked if this alternative exists, he replied that “this is just an opinion as there is a higher referendum council in Kurdistan that takes decisions unanimously.”

“We have heard from several sides that the timing of the vote was not appropriate and that it should be postponed for six months or a year…. Such an alternative would require guarantees from the Iraqi government and parliament, the United States, International Coalition, European Union and United Nations,” Barzani explained.

He noted however that such guarantees seem unlikely at the moment, which means that the referendum will be held on time.

Moreover, the Kurdish leader stressed that he will respect the will of the people if they rejected the independence, revealing that he would resign if such a result emerged and possibly quit political life.

He remarked however that it seems that the people are prepared and excited to hold the referendum, predicting that the majority will vote in favor of independence, “but all options are still on the table”.

Commenting on a meeting he held around a month ago with an Iranian delegation, Barzani revealed that it had relayed to him Tehran’s call for cooperation and coordination, but its reservations on the vote.

Iran said that the timing of the referendum was “not appropriate” and that it was better for Irbil and Baghdad to resolve their disputes and return to the constitution. He added that he did not receive any threat from the delegation over the vote, revealing that some Iranian threats were later made through the media, but he did not go into details.

The Kurdish leader also received at a later date Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who reiterated Iran’s stance on the referendum. The Turkish official noted that the war against ISIS was not over yet and that “the referendum may affect the security and stability in the region.”

“Cavusoglu acknowledged that the Kurds have been wronged, that the constitution was not properly implemented and that the region has the right to demand these rights, but hoped that this may take place within Iraq,” continued Barzani.

“We explained to him our perspective and our frustration after all efforts to establish real partnership with Baghdad failed. We did agree on maintaining contacts,” he said.

This is the same stance that he relayed to US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who echoed Ankara and Tehran’s concerns over the referendum.

Barzani did not rule out the possibility that the Kurdish region may end up being “besieged by Iran, Turkey and Syria,” adding: “We may be harmed by this, by they will be harmed even more if they resort to such a step.”

On the post-Saddam period after 2003, he expressed his “huge” frustration over the failure to establish a diversified and democratic Iraq.

“Everyone knows that we exerted great efforts to prepare for the overthrow of the regime in 2002 and we took part in the military operations. We have no regrets, but we were hoping for a greater opportunity and a chance for a new Iraq, based on fraternity and a federal democracy. We tried hard to achieve this goal, including the drafting of and voting on the constitution. Had it not been for the Kurdish people, the constitution would not have been a success,” he stressed.

“We initially agreed to establish a democratic civil state, but day after day it became very clear that the state shifted to become a religious sectarian one in Baghdad,” he lamented.

“They mobilized armies against us and cut the Kurdish region’s budget. Even if there are disputes between the region and Baghdad, how is this acceptable? Let us assume that we are in the wrong, how could a prime minister dare, with a stroke of a pen, cut the livelihood of an entire people? This is another form of the Anfal operation,” he declared.

“Yes, Maliki committed another version of the Anfal operation, but in another uglier way. We did not hear single voice of protest by any religious leadership or Shi’ite political parties in Iraq. We sought to establish a democratic federal Iraq, but Baghdad refused and we reached a conviction that we are not wanted there.”

He also accused the former Iraqi premier of withholding arms dedicated to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that were allotted to it by the constitution. These same weapons eventually landed in the hands of ISIS, he revealed.

“Even in the war against ISIS, they did not offer to help us. We are the ones who helped the Iraqi army and allowed it to come to Mosul. We destroyed ISIS’ first line of defense and opened the way for the army… Even up to this moment, violations were committed, not by the army, but the Popular Mobilization Forces,” Barzani said.

In fact, he stated that he was surprised by the close cooperation between the Peshmerga and Iraqi army, despite the 50 to 60 years of war between them.

Asked if current Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s arrival to office improved ties between Irbil and Baghdad, Barzani replied: “He wanted to resolve these problems and he is different from others, but there are several obstacles ahead of him. I enjoy good ties with him and we are in constant contact, but I have reached a conclusion that Abadi cannot fulfill his pledges to us due to reasons out of his control.”

This reality and “the failure of Arab-Kurdish coexistence” in Iraq prompted Kurdistan to push for independence, he stressed.

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The late Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, excelled at delivering messages subtly. In private meetings, he spoke more freely than in public statements or interviews. His chief advisor, Fakhri Karim, often joined these discussions.

Luncheons were lavish, showing Talabani's respect for different opinions, though he rarely followed doctors’ advice.

Talabani believed that Iranian leaders were smart and hoped they wouldn’t try to control Baghdad from Tehran, citing the failed attempt to manage Beirut from Damascus.

He noted that Iraq’s independent spirit makes it hard for the country to follow the US, Iran, or Türkiye. Talabani also admitted giving refuge to 80 Iraqi officers who had fought against Iran, after they were targeted by certain groups.

Talabani praised Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad for his invaluable support, providing accommodation and passports.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim revealed he had warned President Bashar al-Assad, on behalf of Talabani, that militants allowed into Iraq to fight US forces might later turn against Syria.

This, Karim noted, did happen.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, Karim relocated to Damascus. There, he expanded his Al-Mada organization, focusing on publishing, translation, and organizing book fairs, alongside his political activities.

This allowed him to build relationships with top civilian and military officials.

In 2000, after Bashar al-Assad came to power, he met with Karim.

“I felt Assad was eager to listen, especially given my connections with many intellectuals,” recalled Karim.

“I told him dissenting voices exist but are mostly positive. You talk about modernization and renewal; this is a chance for some openness, even in elections,” Karim said he told Assad.

“Do you think anyone could really compete with you, given your position as the Baath Party's leader with all its resources?” Karim questioned.

Karim then discussed the situation of Syrian Kurds with Assad, noting that many lack identification papers, even basic travel documents. He also mentioned seeing historic Kurdish areas in the Khabur region with their names changed to Arabic, which causes sensitivities.

“I am not satisfied with this situation. Rest assured, this issue is on my agenda, and you will hear positive news about it,” Karim cited Assad as saying at the time.

In a later meeting, after the change in Iraq, Karim met Assad several times.

On one occasion, Karim recalls conveying Talabani’s greetings and concerns about armed fighters moving into Iraq and the dangers this posed to both Iraq and possibly Syria.

“We have deployed large forces to secure the borders, but what can we do? There are tribes and smugglers,” Assad complained about the situation.

“I told President Assad that as Fakhri Karim, I couldn’t share with the Americans what I know. I assured him that terrorists enter Iraq from a specific location I’m familiar with, not from all borders,” Karim recounted to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“I also noted that Syria tightly controls its airspace, shooting down any foreign aircraft,” he added.

Assad then responded to Karim and said: “We’re prepared, let us know what we can do.”

In reality, Damascus was worried because there were reports suggesting that Syria’s Baath regime could be the next target for the US army at its borders. Additionally, Damascus was concerned about the sectarian divisions—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish—in dealing with Iraq and the potential impact on Syria.

Repairing Kurdish Relations

Karim has spent years working on repairing the relationship between Kurdish leaders Talabani and Masoud Barzani.

This history began with the split that gave rise to the ‘Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ from the ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party.’

Despite bloody conflicts and external meddling, Karim believes Kurdish leaders unify in the face of danger to their people and region, a pattern he expects to continue.

Karim believes that the Kurdish leadership, symbolized by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, made a big mistake at the beginning by focusing only on regional issues, ignoring Baghdad’s affairs.

He thinks they should have aimed for a federal democratic system that respects citizenship rights.

Karim pointed out that without a unified Iraq, the region’s rights would be uncertain. He also criticized the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which he sees as odd.

Additionally, he mentioned mistakes in failing to unify regional institutions and increasing corruption, with party interests often trumping competence in appointments.

Asked about the personal bond between Talabani and Barzani, Karim said: “Both have moved past their tough history, but they haven’t done enough for the future.”

“I want to highlight an act by Barzani that shows his character. When Talabani was sick, Barzani made it clear to anyone thinking of harming Talabani or his family that there would be consequences,” he revealed.

“This isn’t hearsay, it’s firsthand,” affirmed Karim.

“Barzani also refused to discuss the presidency or a successor during Talabani’s illness. I personally organized a gathering for Talabani’s family, where Barzani reassured them, ‘I’m here for you, I’m family.’ His words moved everyone, showing a strong emotional connection,” he added.

When asked about Barzani’s character, Karim said: “He's been a long-time friend, and our relationship has been politically aligned and personally warm from the start.”

“I see him as a loyal friend, and he's shown that loyalty on multiple occasions. He’s smart, decisive, and listens carefully, often changing his mind after thorough consideration,” he noted.

“Once Barzani commits to something, he finds it hard to go back on his word. There was a moment during negotiations with Saddam Hussein when he stood firm despite my advice to reconsider,” recalled Karim.

Regarding the aftermath of the independence referendum, Karim believes that the negative turn in the political landscape began during Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.

Al-Maliki’s attempts to shift alliances and his refusal to compromise exacerbated tensions.

The referendum itself wasn’t the problem; rather, it was exploited by some to punish the Kurdistan Region.

However, Karim emphasized that holding referendums is a citizen’s right, and the purpose of the Kurdistan referendum was to affirm this right, not to declare independence.