Under Iraq’s constitutional timeline, the parliament in Baghdad must select its president by October 3. The post, which has traditionally gone to a Kurd since the fall of the Baathist regime, is largely a race between two leading candidates – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)’s Barham Salih, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) nominee Fuad Hussein.
Speaking to Rudaw in Baghdad this week, Hussein discussed his nomination, the advancement of Kurdish rights inside federal Iraq, and the implementation of the Iraqi constitution. He also discussed Iraq’s regional and international relations, its lopsided economy, and the spirit of coexistence Iraq must foster to end its cycle of sectarian violence.
Rudaw: The Kurds often believe that Iraq’s president and the presidency as a whole haven’t really done that much for them, so why is there such intense competition for the post now?
Fuad Hussein: If we look at the powers of the president through the constitution some people think it is a ceremonial post, but in reality that is not the case. Article 66 states it clearly that executive powers in Iraq lie with two branches. One is the president and one the council of ministers. If this constitutional article is honored, which should be honored, it will then offer a lot and impact the political situation in both Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. In that case the president will protect the constitution and together with the other branches of the government they will make sure the constitution is implemented. And if the constitution is implemented there will be great benefits for Kurdistan Region.
There were other KDP names said to be possible nominees, but how did it come about that Barzani nominated only you for this post?
It’s true that there were other names, mainly circulating in the media, and I was one of them. But the political leadership of the KDP had given Mr. Barzani the power to choose a nominee and he chose me, which in the end has to be one nominee only. It was an honor for me. He explained it in his statement why he picked me. And if you want further details you’ll have to ask him.
Will his support for you increase your chances?
His support and that of the KDP and the people of Kurdistan will naturally be a great strength and it already is. His connections and influence in Baghdad is great. My own relations with political leaders in Iraq also has its own influence. But at the end of the day you become the representative of the people of Kurdistan for this post which, keep in mind, in an Iraqi position and not Kurdish. You’ll have to serve all the peoples of Iraq including the people of the Kurdistan Region.
How did Barzani tell you that you had been chosen as a candidate and what was your reaction?
Well, I already felt it was coming when I saw my name in among the names of possible candidates and once I saw that I didn’t think it unlikely. It was decided a few days ago and Mr. Barzani himself contacted me and I went and saw him. Mr. Masrour was present, too. In the meeting they brought up this subject and told me why they supported my candidacy for president.
What was the reaction of those close to you, including your Christian wife who may very well become Iraq’s first lady?
She knows my life and knows I’ve grown up with it and that this cause has been a part of me. She was happy to see how the Kurdish leaders see and value me at this stage. So it’s naturally an honor for me and my family.
The KDP criticized the PUK for making its own nomination unilaterally and now the PUK points the same finger of blame at the KDP. How is this going to turn out?
I happened to be in the last meeting between the KDP and PUK on this very topic attended as well by many senior leaders. We had a long discussion about how this post should this time around be given to another party. There was also an evaluation of the presidency and his work. We also talked about the period the presidency was in PUK hands and today’s political reality of Iraq in order to see how we could retain a strong presence in Iraq in order to help the situation of all Iraqis including the Kurds. The discussions were long and Mr. Nechirvan Barzani [head of the KDP delegation] told them straightforwardly that the KDP had election wins and wanted this post this time.
They [PUK delegation] said they would meet and get back to us the next day. They didn’t meet and they didn’t get in touch. They met three days later and announced that Mr. Barham Salih had rejoined the PUK and that he was their nominee. It was a surprise. We expected to hear back from them about the KDP proposal only.
There was no talk of two candidates in that meeting?
No, not at all. They went away with the idea of meeting and letting us know their position on the KDP proposal. But that reply never came.
What would have happened if this post had stayed with the PUK, just for the sake of keeping Kurdish unity in Baghdad?
That’s a topic of discussion in the Kurdish and Iraqi political arena. But we could also flip the question and say why should this post be for the PUK only? Is it written in the constitution? No. It’s like a common law that says this post goes to the Kurds. A particular party held it for three terms and now another party with more seats in the Iraqi parliament feels like it has the right to have that post.
You’re known as an independent politician and you have treated all parties that way. Even when you were the Kurdish president’s chief of staff no one ever said you were KDP. Having said that, did you meet and consult other Kurdish parties before heading out to Baghdad?
My focus is all for the Kurdish cause and I haven’t had party affiliations for a long time. I’ve worked hard for the Kurdish cause and for democracy in Iraq. And the KDP had long told everyone that this time the post of president is theirs and that they would have their own candidate for it. I’m also aware that two months ago Mr. Barzani had brought up this issue in a meeting with Mr. Kosrat [Rasul Ali] and said that the post should go to the KDP – although no names were mentioned then.
It is said that in the end the MPs will take a vote on finalizing this matter.
That is the correct mechanism. I’ve always been at the service of my people’s cause and our unity. I’m not happy to see divisions in Kurdistan over a topic like this. So I think the Kurdish MPs in the Iraqi parliament who represent various forces come together and choose one of the candidates. Whichever candidate is chosen he will be the nominee of the Kurdistan Region and will get to serve in the post. That’s the best mechanism.
This is a method that was used four years ago. Even the Arab parties welcome this idea as they are in a tough spot now. This mechanism will show Kurdish unity here and the chosen candidate will then represent all Kurdish parties present in Baghdad.
As an independent political figure you have kept your neutrality and once even mediated between Kurdish parties during their civil war. How would you keep this stance in Kurdistan and Iraq once you become president?
My own political experience tells me that one has to look at facts from different angles especially in politics. If you want to keep a balance you have to examine the reality from different viewpoints and that means telling all sides the truth and being mindful of the reality, too. When I got away from party politics I started to see things differently. For example if one side has eighty percent of the truth then it means someone else has the other twenty percent. So you will have to keep a balance between these.
In Iraq it is the same, but even more intricate. We have Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds and Turkmen and Christians. One has to find a balance between these and through the constitution of course which gives everyone their rights. These communities must be given their rights and their representatives well treated. You will have to keep the same distance to all.
You are here in Baghdad for meetings. Who do you think is important to persuade that you are working for unity in Iraq in order to increase your own chances?
I strongly believe in unity and an umbrella that will gather all. I believe in bringing people together not creating divisions. That’s my character. And I think everyone is important to talk to. Whoever is in the political process matters. All must gather and work under one umbrella, each one according to their position and powers, of course. And that’s the job of the president.
Perhaps this character is shaped by your upbringing in Khanaqin, which is a multicultural city and there are Shiites and Sunnis with intermarriages between them and great harmony. How could you take that culture to an Iraq that is deeply mired in sectarianism?
You mentioned Khanaqin, which was a city of multi-cultures and religions and which I hope is still there. We had Muslims, Christians, and Kakeis. We had Shiites and Sunnis, Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. They all lived together peacefully. Coexistence is a philosophy. You will all get to keep your religious or ethnic identity but live with and tolerate each other. When I came to Baghdad in 1967 Baghdad was the same. It had a culture of coexistence. There about one million Kurds in Baghdad. It had all the ethnic and religious groups living here side by side. Later on when I took to the Kurdish mountains as a Peshmerga I saw the same thing there, too. It is the same in Europe. So we have to know that each side see the truth differently and it is all the truth.
How would you take that idea to the presidency?
In Iraq we have all those ethnic and religious groups and if they cannot sit down and live together it then means they will continue killing and spilling each other’s blood forever. If you want to see coexistence you will have to change the whole philosophy, education, the culture, mosque sermons must be different, the media has to play a role. It’s all about education. The situation is such now that each one is going back to and clinging on their religious identity. It is okay to hold on to your religious or ethnic identity, the problem is when you do not tolerate others. Tolerance is the solution.
But in Iraq the religious Marjaa, of the Shiites I mean, have far-reaching influence. How could you take that away from them?
In this country are there religious, political and legal Marjaa. The religious Marjaa has a morale role which has a great impact on politics and the reality on the ground. Therefore you have deal with these Marjaas positively. They have to be respected and worked with. Why? Because they have an influence on politics and if you don’t work with them you will become isolated politically. It is the job of the president to work with all these internal forces so that he creates an atmosphere where all could live together.
In Kurdistan Barzani is seen as a political Marjaa and here you have religious Marjaas. What will you do to keep both sides in tow?
My culture will show me the way on how to deal with these issues. I grew up in an environment where every human being, every culture and religion must be respected. That philosophy must be translated into politics in this country. We have no other solution. We have to talk to all political, religious or whatever other influential figure or Marjaa is out there and say, “Do we really want to live together in this country? If yes, then what is the way forward?”
Do you think that is possible?
Yes, I think so. If we have institutions, partnership, joint decision-making, if we can decide together on what is important for this country all through the constitution of course, then we can definitely live together.
The Americans still believe that Iraqis could work things out and live together and for that perhaps you are their ideal man, being a Kurd, a Shiite, an independent and sympathetic to all sides. Is there any word from the Americans?
The Americans have an influence in this country, but at the end of the day a candidate represents his own people and works for them. Also Iraq is not an isolated island without any foreign influence. What the Americans think is another matter. What I think is that when I win the trust of parliament then we will have to translate these ideas into action because there isn’t really any other solution. The democratic process that is there must be expanded and deepened, respect for other groups must become a culture, there must be real partnership in all institutions, which means decisions are made jointly in that case. If those steps are taken they will guarantee a pluralistic country.
But you didn’t tell us what the Americans think at this stage?
The Americans are naturally looking from the point of view of their own interests and they have long been here in Iraq and have direct influence. They want a stable government in Iraq, a government they could talk to and help Iraq within the framework of international law.
Another party with great influence in Iraq, or hegemony as they say, is Iran. How would you as president deal with Iran?
Iraq and Kurdistan together have about 1,200km of border with Iran. Geography obliges you to have good ties with your neighbors. Culturally Iran and Iraq are also intertwined. And since 2003, this is the reality, Iran has increased influence in Iraq. In this case you have two options before you. Either you say I don’t want to have anything to do with that and ignore the reality or you come to terms with it and deal it wisely and positively. Try to turn that influence into a positive influence. We have to work to create social balance domestically between Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and others. Regional balance between Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and the Gulf states as well as an international balance between these countries and the west especially the US.
Speaking of regional balance, Saudi Arabia for instance is concerned about Iraq becoming a hostile Iranian base. How would you handle that issue?
I don’t think it’s in Iran’s best interest to turn Iraq into a base against Saudi Arabia. I don’t think Iraq’s best interests lie in being against its neighbors either. If you look at the past thirty to forty years of Iraq’s history you will see that it had some serious issues with its neighbors. Iraq fought with Iran for eight years then followed by the invasion of Kuwait. Iraq was always in trouble with its neighbors and this must end. Iraq must become a normal country and not pose a threat to any country. Saddam Hussein’s regime was a threat to everyone at home, killing Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis and still threatening other countries, too. A strong and democratic Iraq would not be a threat to them.
How do you plan to use the diplomatic and political connections you have built over the years to serve Iraqis and Kurds as president?
All those ties whether political or diplomatic must be used for the people of Iraq and mainly for the economy. Iraq’s economy must be diversified. It is totally reliant on oil and we saw a few years ago how it affects the economy when the price of oil goes down. This must not continue and we must build a new economy alongside the oil economy. To build that you will need other countries because Iraq’s old and new infrastructure is all gone and you need other countries to come and help you. One of the issues that creates problems in Iraq today is unemployment. We must create an environment where we can help people economically and as a result have stability and peace.
The job of the president is to preserve the constitution and make sure that it’s honored and implemented. If you become president will you be able to help the Kurds and ensure their constitutional rights are met?
The constitution must be translated into actions. Violating the constitution does not only mean doing something against the constitution. Not implementing the constitution is a violation of the constitution in itself. If I become president my job is to not only protect the constitution but it would also be to implement it fully through all state institutions.
Previous presidents were blamed for failing to implement the constitution especially with regards to Article 140. Now many think that implementing that is like a fanciful dream. Would you be able to address that issue and Article?
Article 140 is a legal bond and it is in the meantime a roadmap to a solution. Its implementation is tied to a number of factors one of them being the balance of power. And power to me doesn’t only mean having armed forces and guns. To me power means being part of the decision-making process. Now, the Kurdish leadership has decided to come and get involved in Baghdad politics full scale and this means being part of the decision making. Once you make decisions you will then see the implementation of any particular constitutional articles that have to do with Kurds and one of them is Article 140.
Speaking of Article 140 we have to talk about Kirkuk, too. Since October last year there is a unique situation in Kirkuk. How will you deal with that?
The first thing is how to normalize and pacify the situation in Kirkuk. The second is when to enforce Article 140. The sooner it is done the better because it is a constitutional issue and one must accept its results. If it is not resolved within two years then one has to think of the situation of Kirkuk differently and try to see how it could be helped especially in terms of administration and security. Kirkuk is still at risk because ISIS is in its nearby villages. All Iraqi and Kurdish forces must work together and guarantee security and stability. The other issue is the administration. Right now it is a big problem and must be solved.
Another issue is that of federalism in Iraq which is in the constitution but most Iraqi parties don’t believe in it. What will you do to make sure it is reflected on the ground?
The constitution talks about federalism and how groups of people or provinces can organize their own affairs and it leaves it to the people to decide. If people and provinces demand this you can’t reject it because it is a constitutional issue. We have to create federal institutions. One thing is to form a federal assembly which is also constitutional. When a law is passed by the parliament there must be alongside it an assembly. The same with the federal court which is very important. And if provinces asked for further federalism there are legal ways to tackle it.
Can Iraq be a federal state when in fact it has only one autonomous region?
If we establish the federal assembly we will have to know if the Kurdistan Region will be in it as a region or as a province. Constitutionally it has to join as a Region. But then we have Article 140 which is about undecided areas. Without even solving Article 140 Kurdistan Region can still join the assembly as it is. Other provinces can join as provinces.
Will that assembly not take away from the president’s powers?
On the contrary it will help the president. First of all, the assembly will be representing the different provinces. The number of members should be agreed on as well as the powers and duties of the assembly which examining laws, rejecting laws, demanding revision of laws, and in the end it will all go back to the president. Also we have to know how the Kurds will deal with this, will they have veto powers or no? Or will Basra have veto powers if they didn’t like a particular law? We have to know these details before we write the charter of the assembly.