Kurdistan Region PM outlines current key KRG policies at MERI Forum 2021
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani was on hand at an annual multi-panel event organized by the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) in Erbil where the leader spoke in detail about multiple pressing issues facing the autonomous region, Iraq, and the world.
MERI Forum 2021, according to the official website, “brings together decision-makers, academics and opinion-leaders to discuss a range of social, economic, and political issues.”
At the beginning of his discussion, Barzani shed light on the challenges that have faced the region since the beginning of his administration, commonly referred to as the Ninth Cabinet. These include the COVID-19 pandemic, dropping oil prices, a crippled economy, and security challenges.
“We managed to survive,” he said, “and not only to survive, but also to improve the situation in the Kurdistan Region.”
Prime Minister Barzani explained that, in addition to health and trade difficulties faced by nations the world over, some of the primary reasons for the economic crisis in the Kurdistan Region predate the coronavirus.
The causes, he said, were the federal Iraqi government's reduction of the region’s percentage of the national budget, “not paying the salaries of Kurdistan's (government) employees, the cost of war against ISIS, and (the Kurdistan Region's) hosting some 2 million IDPs (internally displaced persons) and refugees, which added an economic pressure on the region.”
Barzani also pointed out that the current federal government has in recent years reduced the region's allocation of the national budget and a failure to release already-allotted funds, most of which pay government workers' salaries.
“Six months of the salaries of Kurdistan employees were not paid,” the prime minister said, explaining that for the other six months Baghdad only paid a total of $384 million, amounting to an almost $2.3 billion shortfall of what the region is owed, plus additional amounts in 2021.
“If you add all of these numbers, we come to a number that the Iraqi government owes the employees of Kurdistan and that is $3.1 billion that they haven't paid.”
Barzani noted that his administration, through budget cuts and an aggressive reform package, has been able to implement service projects and pay salaries, remarking, “It's true that we haven't been able to pay full salaries every month, but we did pay salaries every month.”
The Kurdistan Region economy
Prime Minister Barzani said that, in partnership with the private sector, the KRG has made great strides, “especially when it comes to the food security. We want to diversify the economy. We never stopped despite all the challenges; we continue doing the program and we've built so many projects.”
Barzani talked about the privatization of many sectors and ongoing efforts to “pass a new law, which is the Public/Private Partnership, PPP. Many of the projects were done directly by the government and done by the private sector.”
“In terms of agriculture, and how we are trying to diversify the economy, all we've done - there were some government-funded projects and we've built three silos in Kalar, Erbil, and Duhok,” Barzani added, pointing out that these projects will enable the government to receive an estimated 585,000 tons of wheat from the region’s farmers.
“We have built food infrastructure through the private sector in Erbil, Duhok, and Sulaimani, with another one coming up soon in Halabja province," he listed. "Erbil alone - that food industry which is processing food, receiving wheat – has the capacity of receiving 1.2 million tons.”
“We're trying to give incentives to the farmers to produce their products even more. And in addition to this, we've been in discussion with some of our friends, neighboring countries in Europe,” he said of efforts to introduce Kurdistan Region products into markets around the globe.
Barzani mentioned that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has funded 147 projects over the past two years that could bring $8.7 billion in the sectors of tourism, industry, residential, trade, agriculture, education, health, and services.
In terms of private development, the KRG has authorized 714 projects, which is estimated to be 965 billion Iraqi dinars spent on roads, highways, agriculture, and education.
“About 1,180 kilometers of roads have been built and renovated, about 4,056 units for the low-income people have been built, and 21 projects of dams have been approved in the two years of this cabinet which can hold about 180 million cubic meters of water.”
“We have done about 72 projects in (the) electricity sector, in addition to many other projects in (the) municipality, which are about 154,” Barzani said.
When asked about the graft, the prime minister replied, "We do not say we have completely eliminated corruption, but we have reduced it to a large extent and we are working hard to combat it."
He went on to talk about the crucial topics of energy and natural resources, sharing that plans are being put into action to increase investment in the energy sector and raise the level of natural gas production, in part through a new gas pipeline.
"We seek to put most of the natural resources at the service of citizens and we deal with the file of natural resources in accordance with the law and the constitution."
Security in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region
Regarding security, Barzani emphasized that ISIS remains a serious threat to the security of not only across Iraq, but also the world.
“ISIS has not been completely defeated. They have lost a lot of territory, but they're there and they're still able to recruit people; they're still able to conduct operations against Iraqi security forces and against us. In some cases, we've seen that there have been attacks against targets and especially in disputed territories,” he said, referring to areas claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil.
The leader continued, “I would like to shed light on a very important point. ISIS is the byproduct of some of the problems. ISIS is not the main problem. Whenever you have terrorism, you have other problems that give way to terrorism to grow, and that is injustice, inequality, poverty, corruption. All of these give ISIS and other terrorist organizations (a chance) to exploit the situation to recruit more people and to be able to operate.”
Barzani stressed that, for a government to effectively reduce terrorism, it must focus on more than security operations.
“You have to go and look at the root causes that lead to the rise of terrorists and all of us have to focus on how we can end injustice; how we can provide an environment and situation where people are feeling free and comfortable to live without really looking at alternative elements or groups to retaliate against something that they don't like.”
“One of the best ways to tackle terrorism,” he explained, ”is to make sure that people do not feel that they need to collaborate with extremists in order to protect themselves.”
He addressed KRG plans to fill security gaps throughout the disputed territories in coordination with Baghdad, pointing to the continuation of efforts to form two joint brigades (comprised of the Peshmerga and the Iraqi military) to protect those areas from the threat of terrorism.
The prime minister then said, "We do not want to be part of the crises between America and Iran and the conflicting parties must respect Iraqi sovereignty and the sovereignty of the Kurdistan Region."
He also called on the Iraqi government to put an end to attacks by various militias, including the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), adding that the Kurdistan Region and Iraq are still in need of assistance from the US-led Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
“We want our relations with neighboring countries to be good, we want our relations with Iran to be normal, and our relationship with America is not at the expense of our relationship with Iran."
Regarding efforts to reform Peshmerga units so they are under a unified command instead of attached to particular political parties, Barzani explained, “We made some significant progress in the area. We are glad with what's happened, especially during this cabinet in the last couple of years. There has been some – let's say – good improvement.”
“Some units have already been integrated, especially the supporting units that belong to Unit 70 and 80 now, have accepted to come and become part of the ministry of Peshmerga.”
Turkey and PKK presence in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region
When asked about the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Barzani explained that “the presence of PKK in our territories; that’s a sensitive issue to Iraq as a violation of the Iraqi sovereignty. A foreign element coming into this country should not have been accepted, to begin with. (The) PKK did not come here as refugees; they came here and presented themselves as alternatives to the legitimate institutions that have been elected by people to run and govern those areas.”
He stressed that at least 800 villages haven't received crucial reconstruction and services due to the ongoing conflict between Turkey and the PKK.
“The presence of PKK, especially with the ongoing conflict with Turkey, has been the reason that dragged Turkey into this area,” Barzani said, adding, “So, the PKK could have done all of us a favor to have left and not given any reason for the ongoing conflicts.”
“We are paying the price. Our civilian people are paying for this ongoing conflict. We hope that, at some point, the territorial integrity of this region be respected and for the PKK to leave us alone. There will be no reason for Turkish intervention.”
About the Sinjar (Shingal) Agreement, a deal reached just over a year ago by the federal and regional governments to bring security and normalcy to the area, Barzani said that militias including the PKK and PMF are “illegal forces” that “must leave Sinjar.”
He demanded that the people of Sinjar be allowed to take charge of their own security, expressing his regret that the agreement has not yet been implemented as it should, especially since PKK and outlaw groups have imposed their control over the area. He asked, rhetorically, “What is the PKK in Shingal?”
Barzani stressed that the “PKK should leave, and leave the people alone,” pointing out that in the recent national election, the PKK prevented in whole or in part, local candidates from campaigning.
“We are encouraging the federal government to take actions to make sure that the only legitimate institutions, whether administrative or security forces, be present there and that the Sinjar Agreement should be implemented as soon as possible.”
Freedom of the press
The Prime Minister spoke in glowing terms of KRG support for press freedom, claiming that the government does not seek to limit the work of the media and “can never influence or interfere in judicial affairs.”