The Future of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish Independence Referendum, Women’s Rights, and What Happened under ISIS in Iraq

The Future of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish Independence Referendum, Women’s Rights, and What Happened under ISIS in Iraq
(Sarwah Abdulwahed Qadir, September 13, 2017)

Transcript available below

Watch her speaker playlist

About the speaker

In 2014, Sarwah won a seat in the Iraqi Parliament as a member of the Goran (Change) party. Defending women’s rights and democracy in Kurdistan and the Iraqi Parliament, Sarwah recently became the head of the Goran party bloc in parliament. She will talk about the Kurdish independence referendum, women’s rights, and suffering under ISIS.


Robert R. Reilly:


As you know, our speaker tonight, Sarwah Abdulwahed Qadir, is going to speak on the future of Iraqi Kurdistan, women’s rights and what happened under ISIS in Iraq.

However, I’m going to cede the privilege of introducing Sarwah to an old friend of mine, Entifadh Qanbar, who I’ve known for many years, who is himself an Iraqi. He’s an Iraqi Army veteran. He was also a veteran of Saddam Hussein’s prisons. I first met Entifadh in his capacity as the Washington director of the Iraqi National Congress. Now those of you who worked on this issue will know that that was the group that had pulled together so many sectors of Iraqi society, planning for what we had all hoped then would be a better future for Iraq.

So I will surrender the floor now to Entifadh with the introduction. He will also be helping with the translation for Sarwah’s introduction. I will say one thing about her of which I’m very proud. We both are veterans of the Voice of America because Sarwah has a rich background as a journalist. Entifadh?


Entifadh Qanbar:

Good evening. Thank you, Bob. I’ve known you now for a decade and a half. And me and Bob were working on the liberation of Iraq in 2003, the good old days. Some of the things turned to be bad. Some of [the] things turned to be good. One of the goods we have a young woman who is a member of Parliament of Iraq. By the way the Iraqi Parliament 25% are women. And she’s a voice of civil society Iraq and a voice of a secular Iraq and she’s a very active and rising star in the Iraqi Parliament. Sarwah – I have known when she was the- she was the Voice of America and Al Hurra correspondent in Kurdistan. She was my colleague.

Every time I go to Erbil I- We are bringing Sarwah through a foundation that I have started recently. My wife, Hiba, is also a member of this foundation, and we have people in Iraq also. The foundation is called Future Foundation. We are trying to build bridges between Iraqi secular and Iraqi civil politicians, non-Islamist, there’s underline to come to Washington, meet and connect to the American people, to the U.S. government, to the U.S. Congress and to empower the seculars in Iraq versus the Islamists, who believe they have basically destroyed the dream of democracy in Iraq, not totally but for a big part of it.

So my first client per se is Sarwah. We invited her, she came to Washington, and we are honored to have her, and you are going to see a flow of Iraqi politicians coming. We are, at the same time, simultaneously convening a conference in Iraq of more than 105 parties of secular and civil parties, non-Islamist, again, to empower parties, including Dr. Iyad Allawi, who Bob knows very well. He was the Prime Minister of Iraq and now he is the Vice President of Iraq. And by the way, my wife Hiba works as an advisor to the Vice President of Iraq, Dr. Iyad Allawi.

So I’m honored to have Sarwah here and I hope she will give you an important perspective. You know Kurdistan now is going through a very, very dangerous and critical juncture. There is supposed to be a on the 25th of this month a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan. It is not independence. It is a referendum on independence.

Sarwah belongs to a party which is Gorran, which was basically established a few years ago and it is a rising party. It has gained huge popularity among young men and women in Kurdistan, and she is one of those people who are opposing this referendum, so she is going to focus a good portion of her presentation on why she is opposing this referendum and why she thinks this referendum is not timed in a wise way.

And I would just like to also emphasize that the opinions and the things that Sarwah is going to mention tonight have nothing to do with the opinions and political ideas of the Future Foundation, though her comments represent herself and her party. Welcome, Sarwah.

Sarwah Qadir:

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me here. I am very delighted to be with you and I hope I can explain and convey to you the ideas of the Kurdish people in Iraq. I am going to start with what is going on in the Kurdish area of Iraq. First of all, I would like to talk about the Goran, the change movement, which started in 2009. I am honored to be one of the leaders of this movement.

The Goran movement was established in 2009 after twenty-one years of ruling divided by two parties in Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). We have the honor to be established as an opposition party. The purpose of establishing the party was first to fight and stop corruption.

After twenty-six years of autonomous ruling government in Kurdistan, we still have an almost independent economy and army. We are also still facing very difficult problems in Kurdistan. We do not know, for example, how much the revenue of oil in Kurdistan is getting. It is estimated that Kurdistan is exporting one million barrels of oil per day, but unfortunately we do not have an account for how much money this is generating, and if it is going to the Treasury.

The parliament has been disassembled or disbanded for two years, and the parliament was supposed to legislate a law to regulate the presidency of Kurdistan, but unfortunately before the parliament was able to legislate this law, the parliament was dissolved. The Kurdish Democratic Party, the KDP, is ruling Kurdistan with an iron fist and this party is led by President Masud Barzani, who basically dismantled the parliament two years ago against the rules of democracy.

The political situation in Iraqi Kurdistan is very tense. There have been attempts to try to soften or solve some of the differences, which have not been successful. There have been attempts to reinstate the parliament, specifically to legislate a law for the presidency, to empower the parliament again and make it functional and to legislate a law for the presidency. Unfortunately, this is facing resistance because the president would like to extend his term for another two years, which has [already] been extended four years in the past, and we do not think this is appropriate.

The international community has helped Iraq and the Iraqi people to fight ISIS, and we fought ISIS fiercely and successfully. And the United States helped us, and the international community helped us to fight ISIS. We were hoping that the United States will help us to have more democratic measures and rules in Kurdistan rather than having what is happening now.

The doors of the parliament were shut and this is illegal. The parliament was elected by the people for the people. Unfortunately, all of our institutions in Kurdistan are not national institutions, they belong to the two parties. We do not have a national army, we do not have a national, judicial system. We do not have a national security or intelligence [service]. It all belongs to the two parties.

We were hoping to have all parties participate in the parliament as they were representatives of those elected by the people to participate in a political process [in] which everything has to be transparent and discussed. For example, we know nothing about the foreign relations of the Kurdish government. We have no knowledge whatsoever of the oil revenues or the oil policy. More importantly, we have no idea or input into the relation between Irbil and Baghdad. Sometimes it gets tense, sometimes it gets [better]. We do not know why it was getting bad [or] why it was getting good, so we think the parliament should be actively engaged in such important decisions.

There is no institutionalized process in Kurdistan. For example, the relation between Irbil and Baghdad is not institutionalized. Rather, it is on a personal, temporal level. And for example, if a Kurdish corrupt minister was fired in Baghdad, the Kurdish government will act in revenge, which is not equivalent to the scale of the event, but rather as a revenge for expelling a Kurdish minister without looking at the circumstances of his corruption or the circumstances which led to his firing.

The human rights issue in Kurdistan is at its lowest point. Journalists are killed, chased, [and] kidnapped. Freedom of speech is very much under control. In Baghdad, I am not exaggerating if I tell you [that] despite the existence of militias in Baghdad, and the availability of weapons for everybody in Baghdad, I am not exaggerating if I say the journalists’ situation in Baghdad is better than Kurdistan.

The situation post-ISIS is getting much worse because during the fight with ISIS, the government was busy fighting ISIS, and now after ISIS, the government is trying to create all types of problems to engage the people with other problems, so they can continue to rule the way they are [ruling].

We have asked to postpone the referendum from the beginning. Not only does Baghdad oppose this referendum, but all regional countries neighboring Kurdistan oppose this referendum, and the United States itself opposes this referendum. The referendum is being pushed very strongly by the ruling KDP, and some parts of the PUK are standing with the KDP in favor of this referendum.

This tension in disputed areas is becoming very dangerous and the situation is very dangerous. During Saddam’s [rule], if Saddam tried to assault us, we would carry out our weapons, and defend our people against Saddam. Now, we have lost our partners from our brothers in the Arabs and Turkmen, Christians in disputed areas, and we are standing against all the people, even those who were our partners in the past.

Even in the Iraqi Constitution, which was written after 2003, Clause 140 talks in detail about how to transition in disputed areas in such a way that there has to be a referendum in these areas, and there has to be unanimous agreement on a referendum on Kurdish separation or a referendum on where those disputed areas should go. It should not go either way by force or by fighting.

The Iranians are opposing this referendum. The United States informed us two days ago that if you have the Iranian-backed Shia militias with the support of Iran attacking those disputed areas, the United States is not going to stand with the Kurdish government in this fight, and this is very dangerous if it happens. The Iraqi federal government also issued a statement, [warning that] conducting a referendum in disputed areas will lead to very complicated and dangerous consequences.

If this referendum occurs in disputed areas, that will give the Iranians an opportunity to attack those areas through their militias, and that will be a disaster for the Kurds and for all these areas. Also, there are many Turkish military bases in Kurdistan, which can probably move militarily against these areas to attack these areas, so this could become a very dangerous war in these areas. And [this] could give the Iranians an opportunity to attack and take over these areas through their proxies in Iraq. The Kurdish Region will become a theater for a fight between Turkey and Iran, and the destiny and the safety of five million Kurdish people will be in danger.

In Baghdad, unfortunately, there is a huge amount of corruption, and this corruption is caused by Islamist parties, which are sharing power and sharing the wealth of this corruption. We are optimistic and looking forward for secular and non-Islamist parties to win the next elections, but we also are cautious that even those non-Islamist parties may conduct [themselves poorly] or [engage in] corruption. Corruption in post-ISIS Iraq, in Baghdad, is more dangerous than ISIS itself. The end of ISIS is opening a big door for corruption in Iraq. We were able to defeat ISIS through the support of the international community and the United States, and with the heroism of the Iraqi Army, the Peshmerga, and the Iraqi police. That is how we were able to defeat ISIS, but corruption became very dangerous, and it has penetrated all aspects of the Iraqi state and all its institutions.

We need the help of the international community and the United States to fight corruption in all of Iraq, including Kurdistan. And we need major support to bring back the looted money from Iraq that was put in banks outside of Iraq. Billions of dollars have been looted and smuggled outside of Iraq in the Kurdish Region through the two major parties or through the Islamist parties in Baghdad.

The current head of the Iraqi government is dealing with the situation with some degree of wisdom, internationally and internally. Unfortunately, the party which the Prime Minister of Iraq belongs to, the Dawah Party, has a proven track record of governing Iraq in a very bad way, and he basically did a lot of assaults against the Sunnis, and the Kurds, and the rest of the Iraqi people. I think Prime Minister Abadi is getting some support and advice from outside Iraq, and he is trying his best to make it through this situation. We are very much worried that when Abadi goes, somebody will come from his party, and worsen the situation. As we said, we had a bad experience from before because these Islamist parties are not believers in democracy, and they are believers in central rule and hard, iron-fisted rule.

It was very unfortunate and unfair [that] the resolution yesterday voted on in the Iraqi Parliament, which basically authorized, and instead of Prime Minister they used the language of General Commander of the Armed Forces, which is basically, unfortunately, again, they are ringing the bell of war against the Kurds. Challenges are very dangerous after ISIS, specifically as I said with the corruption, and the problem of the disputed areas. I do not know if you know about the dispute between the central government and the Kurdish government here, like Kirkuk, for example. And also, there is a big challenge for the return of millions of refugees, which were expelled by force by ISIS from their areas. Considering the fact that their areas are basically demolished or obliterated. I think after the drop in the oil prices, Iraq does not have the funds or the money to reconstruct these areas, and I think Iraq is very much in need [of] the international community’s support in that regard.

The situation for women is very bad psychologically, whether they were under the control of ISIS, [in which case] they suffered a lot, enslaved and treated badly, or those even outside ISIS’ [caliphate], who were living in camps, which does not represent the best way of living, so the situation for women is very bad. Because of the lack of security, and the ISIS war, and the camps, and the refugee problems, kids have suffered the most. There is a huge spike in the percentage of illiteracy in Iraq. Kids cannot go to school mostly because of the control of armed militias or armed groups outside of the government in vast areas. Any questions?


Audience member:

Thank you very much for coming here and speaking here to us. I was a part of the coalition in its final days. I have two questions if I may. First, Netanyahu the other day has endorsed the referendum. Why do you think that is, what is the background on that? The other question is what do you think is the probability of Kurdistan’s two armies once again turning against each other, and what policies on the part of the United States and Western powers might help prevent that?

Sarwah Qadir:

l think considering the Israeli government made an official statement that this is not the policy of the government, this is an opinion of the Prime Minister, of the head of the state. He is the policy maker. Second, considering the animosity of Baghdad and Iran toward Israel, I do not think voicing out Israeli support to the Kurdish independence will be in favor of the Kurdish people. As long as they are sharing the wealth, the two parties, and there is mutual interest in sharing the wealth and looting the wealth, there is no possibility of infighting at this time. They have made a deal amongst themselves to divide the wealth, and they have no problem beyond that. I think the United States could do much better [in] supporting democracy and democratic institutions in Kurdistan, not to support a single party or a single person. I think a democratic Kurdistan, a thriving Kurdistan, would be much more useful to the United States than a failing dictatorship [in] Kurdistan.

Professor Michael M. Gunter:

Hello, I am Professor Michael M. Gunter, Tennessee Technological University. I have two quick questions. Number one, do you think the referendum is for real independence or is it a bargaining tool to use between KRG and Baghdad? And number two, how come Iran is more opposed to this referendum than Turkey?

Sarwah Qadir:

The ruling KDP made it very clear that they are not intending to separate from Iraq or to have independence after the referendum. The real reason behind this referendum is to give President Masoud Barzani a negotiating edge with Baghdad, and also legitimize his extension of power. He is power now illegitimately, and he wants to use this referendum to legitimize his presence in power. I think there is a covert deal between the Turkish government and the Kurdish government, that this referendum is not going to lead to independence, but there are fiery statements [issued] by the Turkish government on disputed areas, specifically Kirkuk.

Gail Weiss:

Hi, my name is Gail Weiss. For maybe a little bit more basic level news than some of the advanced level questions, to clarify, is the struggle in the Kurdish area more an economic one because of the oil resources or that sort of thing or is it more of a religious one or just simply [a] corrupt power grab?

Sarwah Qadir:

As far as [my] Party, the Gorran Party, their difference with the government is with regard to how to govern Kurdistan, what are the administrative requirements to govern Kurdistan properly, what are the fundamentals of democracy and how to implement them, and also how to divide the wealth, and how to distribute the wealth between the government and the people.

Michael Albin:

My name is Michael Albin. I am a friend and a fan of the [Westminster] Institute. My question has to do with the Kurdish parties and factions in the neighboring countries, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. How do they view the referendum? Are they supportive or not?

Sarwah Qadir:

The PKK made it clear that they are not in favor of the referendum. The Syrian Kurds made it clear [in] statements that they are not in favor of the referendum. Kurdish Iranian parties’ opinions [on the referendum] are not really known because they are probably getting killed.

Audience member:

Thank you very much for this presentation. Every time we discuss the referendum, there is a time issue, that is, if I may, this is not the proper time, so my question to you [is] does the Change Movement feel that there is a time for such a referendum? My comment is do you not see the Kurdistan Region possibly an open, and frank, and transparent dialogue with the central government to resolve issues as far as the hydrocarbon revenue sharing agreements and all that? Thank you.

Sarwah Qadir:

On the issue of the referendum, I would say it has to be postponed to another to-be-determined date, an unknown date because we have to have the proper circumstances, and most importantly, the circumstance of an agreement, a mutual agreement, Baghdad and Irbil. This is not a small matter. The separation of Kurdistan, the separation from an acknowledged state in the international community, [would] change Iraq to a different situation, so I would strongly recommend that there should be some sort of agreement of this separation from Baghdad. And also, we have to have wide support [from] the international community for this separation before we go through this process.

Salah Piroty:

My name is Salah from VOA Kurdish Service. I have a quick question. What is the Gorran’s latest position on the referendum? Has the Gorran participated or not?

Sarwah Qadir:

They are not going to participate in this process now, but if the two parties go ahead with this referendum, they will have another situation, another opinion.

Audience member:

Thank you. Welcome to DC. On behalf of my colleague, the Ambassador at the [Iraqi] Embassy. My question is do you think the Kurdish Parliament will convene next week on Friday, and is it possible that the Kurdish Parliament will make a decision regarding the referendum, whether yes or no? Thank you.

Sarwah Qadir:

The [Kurdish] Parliament will convene tomorrow, which is Friday, and the Americans have advised us or asked us to participate in this session. The Gorran Party has certain conditions, which if complied with, they will participate in this [parliamentary] session. [My] opinion is that as [we, the Gorran Party], was not part of instating the referendum date or whatever, [so we] should not be part of changing the date, and the changing of the date should be done by those who started the process of the referendum, not by Gorran, but it is possible Gorran will go to this session and be part of the postponement.

Robert R. Reilly:

If I might ask a question, to what extent have Iraqi Kurds been integrated in any of the national institutions of Iraq? Are there Kurds in the Iraqi National Army, Police Force, Air Force or are they all in the Peshmerga? Also, is there a Kurdish presence in the country’s administration, the administrative structures of the national government of Iraq?

Sarwah Qadir:

There are Kurdish battalions in the Army. There are Kurdish police, specifically in the disputed areas. There are Kurds in the [Iraqi] Parliament. In the Iraqi Parliament, there are 65 Kurds out of 328 Parliamentarians. And there is also in the upper positions of the government, like ministers or the President of Iraq is a Kurd from the PUK [party], but if you ask me if there is a balance, there is no balance in power for the Sunnis and for the Kurds. And the deep government – something we have been talking about in Washington recently – the deep government is in the hands of the Islamic Shia parties.

Max Gross:

Yes, my name is Max Gross. You speak excellent Arabic. I would even say pretty Arabic, but I am told, and this is just an informational question, that students in Kurdish schools are not studying Arabic these days, and a generation is emerging that does not know Arabic. What are the implications of this if it is true?

Sarwah Qadir:

This has very bad consequences. I went to school, to the University of Baghdad, and I studied in Baghdad. And there is extreme segregation now between the Kurds and the Arabs in Iraq. There is no mixing whatsoever. Even the refugees, Arab refugees who came to Kurdistan after ISIS were forced to learn Kurdish to speak to the Kurdish people, not the other way around. Unfortunately, under Saddam’s bloody, brutal dictatorship, there was more mixing than the segregation we see today.

Audience member:

My name is Muhammad [unintelligible] [and I am] from Voice of America. You said that you should reach an agreement on Kirkuk before they hold the referendum. Do you think Iraq and the Kurdish Region [unintelligible] there has been a long history, like there have been a lot of conflicts over Kirkuk, and it is not something [that is] easy [to resolve]. At the same time, you are saying that it is better to postpone the referendum. Do you think it is easy to reach an agreement on Kirkuk? Is it possible?

Sarwah Qadir:

I think we have no other way other than dialogue, and I think if we continue the dialogue [for] many, many years, it is better than having one Kurdish or one Iraqi citizen killed [over this dispute]. In politics, there is nothing that is impossible. And if we continue this dialogue for a hundred years, it is better than fighting because fighting is not going to solve this problem.

Audience member:

You can wait one hundred years, but not have a referendum. If it does not happen, you will not [unintelligible] a referendum?

Sarwah Qadir:

If a referendum happens, then the Arabs will take Kirkuk, and we will not be able to see it anymore, and all of the things we have gained from the fighting, and the struggle, and the martyrs of the Kurds over hundreds of years we will lose because of this referendum. Qasem Soleimani is now in Kirkuk.

Audience member:

Just a quick question, I promise. Thank you, Sarwah. My first question is everybody is talking about [unintelligible] talking about the referendum that was held in 2005 during the Iraqi general election. 98.8% of the Kurds supported yes, they supported [unintelligible] from Iraq. Do you think in this referendum, Kurds are going to get the same right or wrong, and why? My second question, actually, is a kind of a comment rather than a question. In general, you talked about the KDP, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, that is headed by Masoud Barzani, and you blamed, in general, everything on him. What about the other Kurdish political groups, [unintelligible], Islamic Union, Islamic [unintelligible], and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan? Do you not think they have to be blamed, too? Thank you.

Sarwah Qadir:

The last referendum was conducted by a minister, and this minister [oversaw] that referendum with a great degree of transparency. International organizations supervised and monitored this referendum. The Higher Commission for Elections conducted this referendum, and in fact, the current parties, which are for the referendum, opposed that referendum, and that minister was punished and fired because of his move to conduct this referendum. It is my opinion that the current referendum will gain below 60 percent, and most important, the participation of the Kurdish people is going to be very low because after twenty-six years of bad economic [conditions, the] lack of electricity, lack of services, the restrictions on movement between Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, people from Sulaymaniyah cannot go to Erbil, I think, unfortunately, that has killed the nationalistic spirit inside the Kurdish people, and the nationalist feelings of the Kurdish people has retreated dramatically because of the situation.

I agree with you. We all carry the burden of corruption and mismanagement of Kurdistan, but this goes in a proportional way, proportional to the power grip of each party. The KDP has a major power share. The President of Kurdistan is from the KDP. The Prime Minister, the head of the government, the Prime Minister of Kurdistan, is from the KDP. The Minister of Oil is from the KDP. The head of Intelligence is from [the] KDP. The head of national security is from the KDP. And also, the Minister of the Interior is from the KDP. And for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, also they have major corruption in Sulaymaniyah. For us, the Gorran, our participation in this government did not exceed one year and four months, so how could we take the burden and the consequences of this bad situation in Kurdistan?

I admit to you that we, the parties, the Gorran, kept our silence, and we have not spoken enough against the expansion of the power of the KDP, and we are going to see the consequences. What we need today is a revolution to change the situation in Kurdistan.

Robert R. Reilly:

If I can ask the last question, since ISIS or Daesh was a manifestation of an underlying political problem in Iraq between the Sunni and the Shia, since that underlying problem has not been solved, do you think it will manifest itself again in a different, violent form or has a lesson been learned?

Sarwah Qadir:

It is unfortunate [that] there continues to be infringement [of the rights] of the Sunnis. Sunnis held power for many decades. Then, they were expelled from power. And the infringement and the discrimination against the Sunnis became a reason for the growth of ISIS in their own areas, and unfortunately, this infringement and this discrimination is continuing today. And in my opinion, a lesson has not yet been learned from that, and I feel that history is going to repeat itself, and the only way to solve it is to have power shared between the Sunnis and the Shia [in] the best [interest] of the country.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you very much.