Masrour Barzani, grandson of the man seen as the founder of the Kurdish national movement, says he wants to change 'the mentality of people whom we live with to accept the Kurds as equals. We don't want to be above, but we don't want to be below any other nation.'
Iraq's Kurds content to wait for their state
ERBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN // Masrour Barzani, the son of the President of the Kurdistan Region, says he eventually wants to hold his father's position as the elected leader of Iraqi Kurds.
"I have my own ambitions," Mr Barzani said of becoming president of the region and leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). "I want to work for my people however I can."
If he does, Mr Barzani will continue a tradition that began with his grandfather, Mustafa Barzani, over half a century ago. Mustafa Barzani was the president of the KDP and his military campaigns for independence have led many Kurds to consider him the founder of the Kurdish national movement.
After Mustafa's death in 1979, his son, Massoud, now 64, succeeded his father and in 2005, the National Assembly chose him as the president of the semiautonomous region in the north of Iraq. Kurds confirmed the family's popularity in 2009 when Massoud was elected with more than 69 per cent of the vote.
"I will do it if my people want that, but I would never impose myself," said Masrour Barzani, 42. He made the comments in Erbil last week during an exclusive interview with The National to discuss the challenges facing Kurds in Iraq and throughout the region.
Mr Barzani is a former member of the Kurdish military and a graduate of American University in Washington, DC. He is a leading member of the KDP and chief of the Kurdistan Region Security Protection Agency.
He said he hopes the Kurds one day will have their own independent state.
"If I tell you that you can find a Kurd that doesn't have a dream of having his own state, I think I wouldn't be telling you the truth," he said. "And I think the Kurds deserve to have their own independent state, like any other nation."
"There are 40-plus million Kurds living in the world. Why wouldn't they have their own country?" he asked.
He said he wants to change "the mentality of people whom we live with to accept the Kurds as equals. We don't want to be above, but we don't want to be below any other nation."
The vast geographic region inhabited by Kurds he said, is surrounded by countries that have an interest in keeping it divided - the Turks, the Persians and the Arabs. Mr Barzani said they talk about the region "as if the Kurds don't even exist".
He said an independent Kurdish state "cannot survive unless we come to an understanding with one or more of our neighbours".
Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria all have large Kurdish minorities. Mr Barzani said authorities in those countries "are all looking at what is happening in Iraqi Kurdistan very carefully" to determine if their Kurds will press for more autonomy. He said that because the countries have oppressed Kurds over the years "they're very sensitive of any success the Kurds could have anywhere".
"We have to maintain the balance of keeping good relations with the neighbouring countries, but also trying to prosper and move ahead," he said.
The Iraqi Kurdistan region's security, economy and internal politics are under the control of the local government, while the federal government in Baghdad is responsible for Iraq's military, financial and foreign policies.
Iraqi Kurds "are happy with what we have right now", he said. Pressing for complete independence now would be a mistake, he said.
"If, for instance, tomorrow we declare independence and nobody in the world wants to deal with us, what good would that do?"
The region has an abundance of natural resources, Mr Barzani said. "We have [minerals], we have gas, we have - you name it," he said, but if nobody wants to do business with an independent Kurdistan, then it will not survive. "We don't want to be isolated; we don't want to live here without being a part of the international community."
Mr Barzani said that if the Kurds were patient and diplomatic, they stood a better chance of reaching their goals. "We think what we can accomplish peacefully; it can never be accomplished by using violence. And as the Kurds, we have always tried to refrain from conducting terrorist activities."
Even during the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's campaign of mass murder against the Kurds, Mr Barzani said, they did not resort to terrorism. "We don't believe that innocent civilians should become the target, because we are victims. We know what being a victim means."
Mr Barzani said every country in the region "has oppressed the Kurds in a unique, creative way". Turkey prevented Kurds from using their native surnames and language. Iran has kept Kurds out of high positions in government. Syria had the "ridiculous" policy of denying its Kurdish residents citizenship, until the recent protests erupted.
"It's changing in Turkey. It's definitely changing here in Iraq, and we hope it can change elsewhere too," he said. Kurds will feel that they are treated equally when they can go to their own schools, speak Kurdish without fear of being imprisoned, take any position in government and freely run in elections.
Mr Barzani said the world was not yet ready for an independent Kurdistan but "I think we are doing our part and now it is the turn of the international community to respond to its conscience and say, 'OK, maybe we are wrong, maybe the Kurds deserve more.'"