President Masoud Barzani of Iraq's Kurdistan region stressed the need for reconciliation and dialogue in Iraq during a visit to Washington this week, saying the fight against the "Islamic State" militant group and the restoration of internal stability depends on a unified effort and "peaceful co-existence."

bill taylor and president barzani

In his only public address during the visit, which also included meetings with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Barzani said he has personally urged Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen and other minorities persecuted by the militants not to flee Iraq but to stay and help defeat the extremist group, also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL. Even the desire of Kurds to seek independence, a campaign that has stalled as the focus turned to defeating ISIS, must remain peaceful, he said. He called Iraqi Shia Arabs "our allies" and said he was "pleased" with the relationship between Kurds and Sunnis as well.

"There is no question that confronting ISIS needs … unity among all the peoples of Iraq," Barzani told an audience at the Atlantic Council, which hosted the May 6 appearance jointly with USIP.  "The unity of Iraq depends on the peoples of Iraq – how democratic Iraq will be, how far they will be convinced about peaceful co-existence, because that unity is voluntary and not compulsory."

He said he sought to assure the minority groups that Iraqi forces such as the Kurdish Peshmerga, aided by a U.S.-led international coalition, would prevail. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to the Kurdistan region last year, when ISIS tore across northern Iraq, leaving atrocities and pillaged towns and villages in their wake.

"There is no question that confronting ISIS needs … unity among all the peoples of Iraq."

The United Nations estimates that about 2.7 million Iraqis have fled their homes or been forced out to other parts of the country since January 2014 alone. More than 17,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2014, twice as many as the previous year, according to CNN, which cited Iraq Body Count, a monitoring project that has tracked casualties in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

"I met with the representatives of the Christians, of the Yazidis, of the Turkmens, and I have assured them that this is a temporary situation … We will win over the terrorists," Barzani said, via interpretation provided by Kurdish Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir.  The president said he told the groups, "We do not want any of you to think about leaving the country, going to be asylum seekers abroad.  I assure that we will be together.  Either we live freely in our country or we will die together."

More than 1,200 Peshmerga have died fighting ISIS, and 7,000 have been wounded, Barzani said. The toll for the Kurdish region also extends to an economic crisis, as the area tries to cope with the humanitarian crisis posed by the surge of Iraqis fleeing ISIS last year, in addition to Syrians who already had been flooding in to escape the war next door.

Humanitarian, Economic Toll

In his meetings in Washington, Barzani has appealed not only for more weapons and ammunition for the Peshmerga to continue their battle against ISIS but also for more humanitarian and economic aid. The World Bank estimated in February that the region needs $1.4 billion this year to stabilize its economy.

"We're proud of Kurdistan being the safe haven for all those who wanted to come," Barzani said. "We believe that we have a humanitarian as well as a national responsibility in order to assist those who needed our help and those who fled violence.  But of course, the burden is huge and we cannot afford it alone." 

Last year's plunge in world oil prices also has hit hard, as has the years of disagreements between the region and Iraq's central government in Baghdad over how to handle the KRG's oil exports and the resulting revenues, said Fred Kempe, president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council, in introducing Barzani.

"These conversations are critical as the United States updates its policy in Iraq in a manner that should include a more robust and forward-leaning strategy for the Kurdish region as well," Kempe said, adding that the region "holds outsized importance among its neighbors as a source of stability for the region and one of America's most reliable allies."

Kempe noted that the first free and fair election in Iraq was held in Kurdistan in May 1992, resulting in the first Kurdistan National Assembly and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Barzani was elected president of the region in 2005 and re-elected in 2009.

USIP works extensively with the governments in Baghdad and Erbil as well as civil society throughout Iraq on a range of peacebuilding and conflict resolution programs, with a specific focus on reconciliation. Programs include supporting the Network of Iraqi Facilitators, which mediates disputes to prevent escalation, and the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities, which seeks to protect and advance their status. The Institute most recently played a role in helping defuse tensions over a June 2014 massacre of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of students and security forces at Camp Speicher in Tikrit, during the rampage by ISIS.

Territorial Disputes Give Way to ISIS Fight

"The Kurds have played a major role in the past in reconciling differences among various groups across Iraq, not just in Kurdistan," said former U.S. Ambassador Bill Taylor, now USIP's acting executive vice president, who moderated a discussion with Barzani after his speech.

Indeed, Barzani downplayed ongoing disputes between the regional capital Erbil and Baghdad over territory in areas such as Kirkuk, saying those issues should not in any way be linked to the need to liberate the nearby city of Mosul from the grip of ISIS.

"It will be for the people of these areas to determine their own future," he said.

He noted the Joint Coordinating Committee that has been established by Iraqi Shia, Sunni and Kurdish forces and others to plan the operation to free Mosul, which the militants consider the capital of their "caliphate."

"So long as the terrorists of ISIS are in Mosul, they will be a direct threat to Kurdistan region," Barzani said.  "At the same time, so long as they are there, that will be the base for the terrorists to be a threat to Iraq and the wider region."

The KRG has "good relations with both the Shia community and the Sunni community," Barzani said. "I have been meeting with a number of Sunni Arab tribes in the areas of Zumar, Sinjar, Nineveh. They are very pleased with the relationship.  We are pleased with the relationship that we enjoy with them."

He did chastise some Arab tribes in northern Iraq for persuading women and girls to stay instead of fleeing to Kurdistan last year as ISIS advanced. He said estimates suggest that more than 4,000 people, mostly women and girls, have been kidnapped by the group. Opposing forces, especially the Peshmerga, have been able to free about 1,300 of them, he said.

'We Will Do Whatever We Can'

"These people could have escaped to the Kurdistan region, to areas under the KRG control and administration, but these tribes … told them, 'Stay here, we will protect you,'" Barzani said. "We will do whatever we can to rescue them."

In the meantime, a planned referendum on Kurdistan's independence from Iraq will have to wait, he said, because the focus is on defeating ISIS.

"I cannot confirm whether it will be next year or when, but certainly the independent Kurdistan is coming," Barzani said to cheers from some in the audience. "But certainly we want that to be not through violence, not through killing, but we want it to be through peace and through understanding and dialogue."

Asked about what he might do to help Kurds outside Iraq who also seek independence from other countries, including Turkey, Barzani said each situation is different and urged peaceful resolutions of any disputes and status of territory. "We are supportive of any solution that's peaceful and democratic in each part to address them in this way."

He also sought to defuse tensions with Baghdad over legislation in the U.S. Congress that would designate his region a country for the purposes of funneling American weapons and ammunition directly to the region, skirting authorities in Baghdad. Barzani called his meetings with Obama and Biden this week "very successful," and suggested that the KRG isn't demanding that the U.S. supply the weapons and ammunition directly rather than through Baghdad.

"The important point here is Peshmergas get these weapons," Barzani said.  "How they will come, in which way, that's not as important as the fact that Peshmergas need the weapons to be in their hands."

Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

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