On Friday, Kurdistan 24 spoke with Safeen Dizayee, Head of the Foreign Relations Department of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), at the end of his week-long visit to Washington, his first such trip in that capacity. This is part one of the interview.
WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Dizayee met with a large number of US officials: at the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill. “Quite a busy schedule” is how he described his week.
The situation in Iraq – where widespread protests have continued for nearly two months – was a prominent subject in his discussions with US officials.
The Iraqi Constitution
Some Iraqi protestors are demanding changes to Iraq’s constitution, but Dizayee warned against any hasty move, explaining that the constitution was not the reason for the lack of basic services—a central complaint of the protestors.
“Sadly, we have heard that some political leaders and groups” are advocating “for a totally new constitution,” Dizayee said.
“There has to be some explanation and clarity” before making any changes. “The constitution has not been properly implemented,” he stated. “It has been violated.”
“There is no specific part of the constitution,” he continued, that “prevents the government from providing water, health, and education services, so the constitution is not at fault.” Rather, it is a failure of the government.
“There is a mechanism for amending the constitution,” Dizayee explained, and “certain reforms” could “better the lives of Iraqis and promote democracy further.” If so, “we will support it.”
But some of those calling for constitutional change seem to “feel Kurdistan and the people of Kurdistan have too many rights—which are stipulated in the constitution.”
In 2004, as Iraq’s constitution was being drafted, Dizayee explained, the Kurdish leadership pressed for including mention of Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities to ensure that they enjoyed political and civil liberties.
Thus, the rights of all minorities, and not just the Kurds, could be threatened by ill-considered changes to Iraq’s constitution. The danger, in a nutshell, is that the Sunni Arab dictatorship of Saddam Hussein could be replaced by a Shia dictatorship.
US officials with whom Dizayee met saw the situation similarly, he said. “We felt that they share our concerns.”
Religious Tolerance in the Kurdistan Region
The Trump administration is worried about the dangers to dwindling Christian populations in Iraq and Syria, and Dizayee discussed that with US officials, including Amb. Sam Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.
US officials “expressed appreciation for what the KRG has done,” Dizayee said, as he affirmed, “It is out of conviction that we have this open heart, open-door policy.”
Kurdistan is “a sanctuary for all,” whether religious or ethnic groups, he continued. US officials “are very much supportive of our position, and there may be some programs in the future” on which “we can cooperate together.”
In fact, the first thing that Dizayee did upon arriving in the US was travel to Detroit, where he met not only Kurds but the Yezidi and Chaldean communities, including the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce.
“I was extremely impressed by the set-up they have for themselves, the sense of belonging, and strong bond they have for each other,” Dizayee said.
“We discussed way and means” by which “some of the business leaders could come to Kurdistan” to explore how they might make investments to create “job opportunities for the Christians in Kurdistan who have fled from the Nineveh Plains to Erbil and other areas,” he explained.
“Unfortunately, many of them are considering migration, so hopefully with the prospect of a better life and business and job opportunities, they will stay” and be “an important part of our society.”
Insecurity in Northern Iraq hinders Reconstruction, return of Displaced Persons
The Kurdistan Region still hosts over one million refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the fight against the so-called Islamic State. Additionally, over the past month, more people have fled to Kurdistan, as a result of the Turkish offensive in northeast Syria.
Some efforts have been made to start a reconstruction program for those areas of northern Iraq that have been liberated from the control of the terrorist organization. The most notable attempt was the donors’ conference in Kuwait in early 2018.
However, “it hasn’t taken off,” Dizayee said. “There is no plan of action,” while there is a lack of “stability and security” which “hinders the implementation” of “programs for reconstruction.” In addition, many areas are under the control of militias, contributing to the lack of security.
“As long as stability and security do not prevail, it will be very difficult to have a comprehensive plan of rebuilding and reconstruction,” Dizayee explained.
Indeed, Amb. Brownback told Kurdistan 24 much the same several months ago. Although the US and other governments are providing substantial aid to the Nineveh Plains, “it won’t be sustainable in the long term or grow until the security issue is dealt with,” and “that’s the one we’re still lacking—a robust security answer to the problem,” Brownback said.
Dizayee explained the difficulties in hosting the IDPs and refugees. Initially, in 2014, as the onslaught of the Islamic State began, some two million people fled to the Kurdistan Region—“a 30 percent increase in our population.”
“It was a huge burden, at a time when our budget was cut by Baghdad, and we had a 1,000-kilometer front line in the war against ISIS,” he added.
But “obviously, we did not turn these people away,” he affirmed. The refugees included Christians and Yezidis, as well as Sunni Arabs—from Mosul, Tikrit, Salahuddin, and Anbar provinces.
The number of IDPs has “halved, by now,” Dizayee said. But there is still a significant number of people who have sought refuge in the Kurdistan Region: 850,000 Iraqi IDPs and some 250,000 Syrians, with 17,000 new arrivals over the past month, as a result of the fighting there.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany