The following is a transcript of the press conference held today in Erbil by the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Barbara Leaf.
Questions posed by local Kurdish reporters have been slightly modified for clarity due to issues with the audio.
Barbara Leaf: Welcome everybody. I’m really glad to have the opportunity to talk to the Kurdish Press Corps today. I’ve had five days in Iraq. It’s been a really productive, interesting visit this time. I was last in Iraq in September last year when things were a little bit on the boil in terms of government formation, or shall we say, lack of government formation, and a host of other issues that had the waters churning a bit.
Barbara Leaf: What I would say is coming back this time, I found a really good environment, a good atmosphere in Baghdad and in Erbil, and more surprisingly, still, the government officials I spoke with in Baghdad all had good things to say about Erbil, and the government officials I spoke to up here all had good things to say about Baghdad. So, I really found that both surprising but also really encouraging. I’d be happy to go into the details of some of the issues that we discussed and other aspects of the visit in terms of your questions.
Reporter: How did you see KRG’s handover of its oil to Baghdad and the recent agreement made between the two governments?
Barbara Leaf: So, I wouldn’t call it a handover; I would call it a very good, sound agreement negotiated between Baghdad and Erbil. And it’s one that we support; we think it’s good for the people of Iraq from south to north. And I would just say we hope very much to see the resumption of oil exports through the Turkish pipeline very soon.
Reporter: We appreciate this opportunity. My question is about, as you know, that there are many concerns in Kurdistan, especially between the KDP and PUK. So, what is the importance of these problems for the US?
Barbara Leaf: So, look, we are concerned about the divisions in the Kurdish House when those divisions undermine the interests of the Kurdish people and they undermine security here. And if that situation isn’t good for the Kurdistan region, it’s not good for all of Iraq and therefore it’s not good for the United States. Look in our country, we have frequent fights and spats and conflicts between our parties, but the job of political leaders is to sit down and work them out and find a compromise. And to think always of the interest of the people over the interests of the party.
So, I had the opportunity to speak to all of our friends up here and I offered them our best advice and I’m encouraging them to sit down, set aside what issues they can’t agree on right now, work through all the others and get back to the work of the people.
Reporter: During a meeting of the anti-Islamic State (IS) global coalition forces in Sulaymaniyah airport, the airport was attacked. Then the airport was banned from accessing Turkish airspace. Has there been any investigations into the matter and what do you have to say about it?
Barbara Leaf: Of course, we were very disturbed by the attack and we would always be concerned about an attack that put the lives of our service members at risk or indeed civilians around them, and we call on all of Iraq’s neighbors to fully respect its sovereignty.
Reporter: My question is that during this visit, have you told the Kurdistan Region officials that if they postpone the regional parliamentary elections, US sanctions would be re-imposed, those which were on them but then removed?
Barbara Leaf: It is not for the United States to punish parties or leaders of the IKR, but it is very clear that the Kurdish people want elections and indeed, we do support the holding of elections before the end of the year. I think there are still some outstanding issues to be resolved among the parties about the terms and format of the elections, but the elections themselves are quite important to hold.
Reporter: How would the US deal with the Kurdistan Region if the elections, which are already postponed, would be postponed again?
Barbara Leaf: Well, again, they’re gonna have to answer to their people; the people want an election, and that is the most powerful pressure that they should respond to.
Reporter: What is the role of the US in the outstanding issues between Baghdad and Erbil?
Barbara Leaf: You know, I’ve been coming to Iraq for 13 years, almost 15 years, and over the course of years, there have been periods of terrible acrimony and conflict between Baghdad and Erbil, almost armed conflict. There have been periods of really high-tension periods when there was almost no dialogue, almost no contact between Baghdad and Erbil. Al-hamdulilah, that is not the case right now, and it’s a huge improvement. We will always lend our good offices, our support to dialogue and encourage it from both sides, but fortunately, that is already happening right now.
Reporter: Is there a threat to the entity of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq?
Barbara Leaf: The principal threat right now is what I referred to earlier: divisions within the Kurdish house. The Kurdistan Region has really everything it takes to be a thriving, economically, politically stable, great security. Yes, it has to do with pressures from the neighbors. But again, unity of purpose, unity of effort to work together in concert in the interest of the Kurdish people is the key to success, and it is the key to keeping the Kurdistan region resilient and successful.
And I don’t mean a one-party region; I don’t mean a unity of thinking because, frankly, you want diversity of views and perspectives and political parties and elements to make up this environment. But there is not a division… there is not a unity of effort right now. That’s what’s lacking, and that’s what puts things at risk.
Reporter: What are the biggest threats to the minorities in Iraq, and what is the US role in helping the minorities go back to the areas in the disputed territories?
Barbara Leaf: We will always be strong advocates for and supporters of all of these communities. But first and foremost, responsibility for the safe and secure return of these members, these traumatized members of these fragile communities, the first and foremost responsibility lies with the government of Iraq. I’ve worked in other countries to assist in the return of IDPs, and it is very tough work, and success depends first and foremost on security that those who want to return to their villages and their communities feel safe when they get there. Across Ninewa and in Sinjar, the Christian communities, the Yazidis do not feel safe in large part to return. This is what I heard from members of these communities, and this is a point that I discussed with officials in Baghdad. We do want to see the Sinjar Agreement fully implemented, and frankly, there are just too many of these armed groups running around these areas who are putting, and the PKK, who are putting these communities at risk, so really, I would like to see the federal government take the situation in hand.
Reporter: What is your stance on restricting the freedom of the press and increasing the number of arrests of journalists?
Barbara Leaf: Every one of you sitting around this table plays a critical role in that space which, as you say, is shrinking; it has been shrinking for the last several years. I’d like that space… I want to see that space expand, and the factors that are leading to this, the pressure, the censorship, the intimidation, and so forth, we’ve documented all of this in our annual human rights reports each year. A free and independent press, alongside an independent judiciary, plays a sacred role in any democratic society.
And that’s to educate and advocate on behalf of the public and to shine a light on government and act as a prod so that government does its job and does it better.
So, I congratulate you all and thank you all for the work that you are doing here, in what is often very difficult circumstances.
Reporter: The Kurdish officials often say that the US does not treat the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as a strategic partner but as a group within Iraq. How do you see your relations with the IKR and the Kurdish people here?
Barbara Leaf: Well, look, I think everyone in this room knows that we have had a long and really historic relationship with the Kurdish people and its leaders over decades.
And we’ve always said we’ve long said that a strong and vibrant Kurdistan region within a federal, united Iraq is the best source of security, stability, and future prosperity for everyone within that space.
We have had shared values and shared sacrifices over the decades, and I see our ability to constantly expand the sectors of cooperation, that there’s always room to grow.