Iraq's Kurdish Leader Discusses Troop Withdrawal

Robert Siegel interviews Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. Salih describes his concerns about the stability of the country after U.S. troops withdraw at the end of the year.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: In neighboring Iraq, U.S. troops are pulling out by the end of this year. And one question for Iraqis is: Will the delicate balance of their country's ethnic and religious groups survive the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Well, Barham Salih is the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. It runs Iraq's three northern Kurdish provinces. Kurds are not Arabs. Most are Sunni Muslims. They account for as much as 20 percent of Iraq's population. And there are Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Iran and Syria, as well.

Prime Minister Salih, welcome back.

BARHAM SALIH: Thanks, Robert. Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: U.S. forces have helped stabilize relations among Iraqis, Kurds and its Sunnis and Shiite Arabs. Who is going to assume that role when the U.S. is out?

SALIH: Well, the onus of responsibility will be on us even more. And the Iraqi political leadership will have to really shoulder this responsibility. And we need to do better and fill in any void left by the U.S. troops as they leave.

SIEGEL: We're talking about a few weeks from now. You have to do better. Are Iraqi forces up to the job?

SALIH: We are concerned, certainly about air force and the airspace, that Iraqi defenses could be vulnerable. I was in Baghdad a week ago. I met with colleagues in the Iraqi federal government and I think we want to still rely on assistance from the United States, use engagement. But at the same time, we have to recognize that the Iraqi political leadership will have to be up to the task.

SIEGEL: Oil raises a basic question of federalism versus centralism. There's oil in the north of Iraq, as well as elsewhere in the country. Do you still not have an understanding with the central government in Baghdad, as to whether the Kurdistan Regional Government controls what's under the ground?

SALIH: The constitution is clear. Undiscovered oil fields are a purview of the regional government. And that is why we went into developing our oil infrastructure. We have invited international companies to help us uncovered that vast potential in Kurdistan.

This is, I agree, is a subject of dispute with the federal government, or specifically with the ministry of oil in Baghdad. But we have agreed recently with Prime Minister Maliki that a draft law will be submitted to parliament by end of year because...

SIEGEL: In fairness, I've been asking you about this for years.

SALIH: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: And still – there's still no resolution for pretty basic question.

SALIH: But there is one fundamental fact that is important. We are producing oil and the oil is being pumped through the Iraqi pipeline. And the revenues are deposited in the Iraqi central treasury, and this is being redistributed for all of the people of Iraq. We need a legislation. We need a legal framework that will regulate this.

But at the end of the day, I believe that the - the era of centralized management of oil resources and statist policy is over.

SIEGEL: Prime Minister Barham Salih, I'd like you to try to explain something to Americans, as best as we can get it. The Kurdistan Regional Government enjoys some autonomy from the central government of Iraq in Baghdad. I want you to explain, what is it? Is it like Texas is to the United States? Is it like French-speaking Quebec to Canada? How do you describe the relationship you enjoy?

SALIH: Some people described us as like the Texans of Iraq. But I would say like the United States in general, you have a federal system of government. The relation between states and the federal government goes through different phases...

SIEGEL: But Texas that control armed people going across the border from Mexico. That's a national responsibility. Here, there's something more at work.

SALIH: No, absolutely. No, at the same time, Iraqis security capabilities are not developed enough in order to control the borders. It's like the United States in some ways. We are asserting statehood rights. The federal government has certain responsibilities delineated in the constitution. And we are trying to make sure that our self-government is respected.

And we are also trying, in Kurdistan, to lead the way for the rest of Iraq, by creating a more vibrant, more dynamic economy, more free-market based, and that way to attract investment and make Kurdistan a gateway to the rest of the Iraqi market.

SIEGEL: Is the U.S. leaving too soon?

SALIH: There was an intense debate inside Iraq. We in Kurdistan were hoping that there will be residual force staying behind. But other compatriots of ours in Baghdad saw it differently, and the Iraqi government and, for that matter, the U.S. administration, have come to the conclusion to honor the 2008 security pact between Iraq and the United States, by which the forces would be leaving by the end of this year.

I hope that this is the beginning of a new relationship of the United States with the new Iraq. And helping Iraq shore up its democratic foundations, I think, is important for the rest of the world.

SIEGEL: Are you concerned about a resurgence of intersectarian or inter-ethnic violence in Iraq with the U.S. leaving?

SALIH: I am. Living in Iraq, living in the Middle East, you always have to be concerned. And I say this is a challenge, the new environment in Iraq. But we have to be up to the challenge and we have to step up to that challenge. And I hope all of us understand the need for greater political unity and working together.

I'm not going to be merely idealistic and say things will be fine. I'm sure that we will be tested and this is the moment that we need to show leadership in the country.

SIEGEL: Well, Prime Minister Salih, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

SALIH: Thank you for having me

SIEGEL: Barham Salih is prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the north of Iraq.

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