ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to hear now from the man who for 12 years presided over a semi-autonomous Kurdistan region known as the most stable and prosperous part of Iraq. In September, Masoud Barzani pushed through a referendum for independence, and it backfired. Many of the gains the Kurdish region had made were reversed, so much so that Barzani resigned. Well, today he spoke with NPR's Jane Arraf for his first sit-down interview since the referendum and his decision to leave office.
MASOUD BARZANI: (Speaking Kurdish).
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: In spite of everything his region has lost, Masoud Barzani says he has no regrets. Barzani, who is 71, stepped down as president of the Kurdistan Regional Government last week. Kurds thought their September referendum would set them on the path to independence from Iraq. Instead, it sent them hurtling down a cliff.
In just a few days, Iraqi troops with Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary forces took back oil fields and the city Kurds thought of as a future capital, Kirkuk. They used U.S. tanks supplied to Iraqi forces to do it. Barzani says through a senior adviser acting as his interpreter that he was shocked to see Americans doing nothing to stop it.
BARZANI: (Through interpreter) They were using the American weapons, Abram (ph) tanks and the others that the American government gave it to the Iraqi army to use them in the fight against ISIS. But they used it against the people, and the Americans stayed silent. That was not expected as well.
ARRAF: We're in his palatial offices at a resort named after the Kurdish conqueror Salah ad-Din. Two weeks ago, in the fallout of the referendum, Barzani stepped down as president. But he still presides over Kurdistan's dominant political party. His supporters consider him a father of the modern-day Kurdistan region. Since 2003, Barzani and the Kurds have been one of the closest allies of the U.S. government. He thinks that might need to change.
BARZANI: (Through interpreter) You know, I can say we have - we are going to have a very serious revising of the relationship.
ARRAF: The U.S. says it doesn't want to see Iraq split into pieces. It warned the Kurds not to hold the referendum now. Other countries fear an independent Kurdistan could destabilize the region. Now, Barzani suggests, maybe the Russians could become better friends than the U.S. He points out that Kurdish fighters, often unpaid and under-equipped, fought and died battling al-Qaida and then ISIS.
BARZANI: (Through interpreter) Absolutely this is not going to leave a positive impact on the public opinion in Kurdistan because the love, the hope and the trust that the people have in the U.S. has declined and is decreasing day after day.
ARRAF: Like his father, Mustafa Barzani, Masoud was a legendary Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters who took refuge in the mountains to battle Iraqi forces. He's been fighting all his life one way or another for a Kurdish homeland. The referendum was to have been his legacy. But the Kurds are now surrounded by hostile military forces. Iraq is taking back control of international borders the Kurds have overseen since 2003. There's no money to pay for salaries or even keep the lights on. But Barzani is unapologetic.
So you still feel clearly then that it was worth it.
BARZANI: (Through interpreter) Of course. I am very proud of the result. I am very proud that we have given that opportunity to the Kurdistani people to express their vote, and I am not regretting on that.
ARRAF: He says he still believes a Kurdish state is inevitable. A lot of the young generation are not Peshmerga. But Barzani says they're warriors, and they will work for independence. Jane Arraf, NPR News, in Masif Salahaddin in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
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