By Mick Krever, CNN
Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani gave his strongest-ever indication on Monday that his region would seek formal independence from the rest of Iraq.
“Iraq is obviously falling apart,” he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview. “And it’s obvious that the federal or central government has lost control over everything. Everything is collapsing – the army, the troops, the police.”
“We did not cause the collapse of Iraq. It is others who did. And we cannot remain hostages for the unknown,” he said through an interpreter.
“The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold.”
Iraqi Kurdish independence has long been a goal, and the region has had autonomy from Baghdad for more than two decades, but they have never before said they would actually pursue that dream.
But the latest crisis, in which Sunni extremists have captured a large swath of Iraqi territory on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan, seems to have pushed the Kurds over the edge.
“Now we are living [in] a new Iraq, which is different completely from the Iraq that we always knew, the Iraq that we lived in ten days or two weeks ago.”
“After the recent events in Iraq, it has been proved that the Kurdish people should seize the opportunity now – the Kurdistan people should now determine their future.”
Barzani said that he would make that case to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry when they meet in Erbil Tuesday; America is a close Kurdish ally, but opposes independence for the region.
“I will ask him, ‘How long shall the Kurdish people remain like this?’ The Kurdish people is the one who is supposed to determine their destiny and no one else.”
Fractious relations with Baghdad
A reconciliation, Barzani said, could be possible “if there was understanding between Shias and Sunnis, and if there is a guarantee of a true partnership in the authority.”
“But the situation has been very complicated. And the one who’s responsible for what happened must step down.”
Amanpour asked if Barzani meant Prime Minister al-Maliki.
“Of course. He is the general commander of the army. He builds the army on the ground of personal loyalty to him, not loyalty to the whole country. And he monopolizes authority and power. He led the military, and this is the result.”
Iraqi Kurdistan has long had a fractious relationship with Baghdad; the region has had autonomy from the rest of Iraq for more than two decades.
Kurdistan even has its own military forces, the Peshmerga, which are now busy fighting ISIS extremists; next to the Iraqi military, which has looked awkward and unprofessional defending the country, the Peshmerga seems remarkably skilled.
Amanpour asked Barzani whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had asked for Kurdish military support.
“The prime minister has not asked us. On the contrary, he rejected every offer to assist.”
Indeed, Barzani said, he warned al-Maliki about the impending ISIS threat long before they toppled the major Iraqi city of Mosul, near the Iraqi Kurdish border.
“I did warn Mr. Prime Minister not only a couple of days, but a few months before the fall of Mosul. I did warn him but he did not take the warning seriously. And I have many witnesses to that effect that I did warn him.”
Not everything that has happened, he told Amanpour, was done by ISIS; but because the extremists have the organization and the resources, they are seizing upon general discontent with al-Maliki.
“People in those areas found that the opportunity was there to revolt against that wrongful policy.”
“That is the public anger. And it’s important to distinguish between what are legitimate rights and what terrorists are trying to accomplish.”
The United States, ‘a true friend’
Iraqi Kurdistan and the United States have a close relationship, cemented by the American no-fly zone enforced over the region during the 1990s to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein.
When Barzani meets with Secretary of State Kerry on Tuesday, he will no doubt be hoping that that relationship – and America’s investment in Iraqi Kurdistan – will help convince Kerry of the need for independence.
“The United States has been a true friend and we Kurds have shown that we deserve that friendship.”
“The success of the region of Kurdistan was the only success that resulted from American policies.”
“And the United States has given opportunity to all Iraqis to build a modern, democratic state; pluralistic state; federal state. But, unfortunately, the others were not able to seize the same opportunity.”
Amanpour asked Barzani whether he thought the 300 military advisers the U.S. is sending to Iraq “can change the balance of power on the ground?”
“I do not believe so. I do not believe that this will change the balance of power. And this issue cannot be resolved by military means.”
“It’s a political issue that has to be dealt with politically. And after that, a military resolution can be easier to accomplish if there was a political agreement and political power.”
An uncertain future for Kirkuk
In defending Iraqi Kurdistan from ISIS, Barzani may also have seized on an opportunity. The Peshmerga have recently taken control of Kirkuk, an oil-rich region that the Kurds consider to be an integral part of their territory.
“We never had any doubt at any time that Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan,” he said.
The Iraqi constitution sets out a very specific process whereby the future of Kirkuk – whether in Kurdistan or the rest of the country – should be determined, involving a census of the area and then a referendum.
“For the last ten years, we have been waiting to have that article applied, but we haven’t seen any seriousness from the central government. And since we have new developments in Iraq now, this is what brought about the new situation with Kirkuk coming back to Kurdistan.”
“We haven’t done this referendum yet, but we will do and we will respect the opinion of the citizens even if they refuse to have Kurdistan as an independent state.”
“Do you feel,” Amanpour asked, “that your life’s work is about to be accomplished?”
“I really hope this is the case,” he said.