ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani said Wednesday that Kurdish forces would not withdraw from lands they reclaimed from ISIS before the start of the Mosul operation last month, explaining that this was agreed with the United States and Iraqi government.
Speaking in the town of Bashiqa, which was liberated by the Peshmerga in the first week of this month, Barzani warned human rights organizations that have recently accused Kurdish forces of demolishing homes in some liberated areas that those who cooperated with ISIS have no place among the Kurds, while all others are warmly embraced.
“Different ethnic and religious groups living together is the kind of Kurdistan we want,” the Kurdish president said in a speech to Peshmerga commanders. “Every individual regardless of their beliefs is free to live in Kurdistan and we are proud of it,” he added.
“Mullahs calling for prayer, Church bells ringing and Yezidis worshiping in their temples is what we want and what we will keep,” he said. “These are new times. ISIS is facing defeat.”
Since ISIS swept across Iraq in June 2014, taking over Mosul and other territories left undefended by fleeing Iraqi forces, the Peshmerga have pushed the militants out of many of those territories, mainly in so-called “disputed areas” that were claimed by both the federal government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Kurdistan authorities have said that the Peshmerga have reclaimed some 90 percent of Kurdish lands that were in dispute, and Barzani said Wednesday that those lands shall remain under the KRG’s control.
“We have a deal with America, between the Pentagon and the Peshmerga ministry — and with the Iraqi government — that the defense lines before the Mosul operation are non-negotiable,” Barzani declared. “Our only goal is to protect the security of people in these areas and for the Peshmerga to back it. We will never ever again let you be displaced and you can count on us for that,” he said in comments directed at Iraq’s Kurds. “Almost all Kurdish areas have been cleared of ISIS terrorists.”
Responding to some internal criticism over why Peshmerga forces have been losing lives fighting for Mosul – which belongs to the federal government – Barzani explained that Kurdistan could not be safe unless nearby Mosul was free from ISIS.
“My answer to those who say ‘what do we have to do with Mosul?’ I say Kurdistan will not be safe as long as there are terrorists in Mosul,” the president said. “For the security and stability of the Kurdistan Region and its people it’s important that the Peshmerga take part in the liberation of Mosul operation. Before ISIS, 300,000 Kurds were living in Mosul. How can we turn our backs on them?” he asked.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by US-led coalition forces, began the offensive to liberate Mosul on Oct. 17. Iraqi forces are now inside the city, where they have reportedly cleared up about a third of its east bank on the Tigris River. Before the offensive, it was decided that only Iraqi forces would enter Mosul, and that the Peshmerga, who were tasked with liberating towns and villages around Mosul, would stay out of the city itself.
There have been some recent reports by human rights groups accusing Peshmerga forces of not allowing all people to return to their homes, or demolishing some non-Kurdish homes in areas liberated from ISIS during the offensive.
While not addressing to those reports directly, Barzani warned that anyone who cooperated with ISIS would not be allowed to return to lands liberated with Peshmerga lives.
“In this region that has been liberated, sadly some people welcomed ISIS and guided and supported them and became accomplice in their crimes. Now that ISIS is being defeated, not a single one of those people is allowed to come back to a land Peshmerga have liberated with their blood,” Barzani said. “Those who assaulted our women, no matter where in the world they may live, we will never forgive them and will avenge.”
He added that, “those who were with ISIS and supported it, are our enemy, whether they are Kurds, Arabs or Turkmen, and we will treat them the same as ISIS. That is our policy and let organizations that are concerned with human rights know that.”
He noted that Kurdistan has embraced hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced from other parts of Iraq – more than 1.6 million by the last official count.
“If our policy was attacking others and displacing them why would we open our arms and hearts to more than 1.5 million refugees?” Barzani asked.
“We do not accept harming any innocent people. Those who did not accept the rule of ISIS and left their places and sought shelter in Kurdistan are our brothers and sisters and more than welcome. We will protect them without discrimination,” he explained. “We respect those organizations and their work but they must also be fair.”
Striking a defiant tone, he added: “If they talk about people who supported ISIS and that they should be able to return to their homes, that will never happen and they will have the same fate as ISIS’s, let them say what they may. “Our policy is clear and we make no compromise on the security and stability of the Kurdistan Region with anyone.”
He warned that, even though ISIS is in retreat from Mosul and is nearing defeat in Iraq, Kurdistan cannot become complacent.
“We don’t know what will come to us after ISIS. We cannot say ISIS is gone and let’s relax now. This kind of challenge and threat will always be there. Therefore we should do for the Peshmerga several times more than what we ever did in the past — better organize ourselves, upgrade our weapons, improve our training and be ready for any threat.”
Commenting on a Kurdish independence referendum that he had announced more than two years ago but which became derailed by the ISIS blitzkrieg across Iraq, Barzani said that the Kurdish independence was non-negotiable.
“Some people say where is the independence, where is the referendum? And I say that independence is a natural right of our people and we will not give up on it under any circumstances or pressure,” the president said.
“But I have also always said that this is a process that should take place in peace and without violence. It must be done through dialogue,” he added.
“On my last trip to Baghdad I raised this issue and I spoke about it very openly. And it is pleasing to know that there was a response and once there is a response, it is a way to reach an outcome. If we cannot be good partners, then let us be good neighbors and brothers. We should never again go through yet another phase of war and bloodshed. I suggest this in order to avoid further bloodshed and bigger problems,” said Barzani, who has maneuvered through many of the serious rows between the KRG and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
“If we reach an understanding with Baghdad then there may not even be a need for referendum, and even if there is the need, it will be a lot easier and more recognized and we will get better support from the outside world,” the Kurdish president said. “If we don’t reach an understanding, then we will go ahead with our referendum.”
[This article was originally published on Rudaw and reproduced here with permission].