Reporting from Baghdad — Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan regional government in northern Iraq, was feeling triumphant. The onetime Kurdish fighter against Saddam Hussein's regime had hosted three days of talks and pushed through a deal Wednesday meant to end Iraq's eight-month political stalemate and form a stable government that could rule until elections planned for 2014. Even if the arrangement breaks down before a full government is seated — the secular Iraqiya bloc walked out of a parliamentary session Thursday, suggesting the difficult road ahead — Barzani will be remembered for his efforts to end the impasse. In an interview Thursday with The Times, Barzani made clear his insistence that the power-sharing agreement be honored by all sides, including by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who retains his post under the deal despite the fears of many that he is seeking to monopolize power.
Did you expect the deal last night on naming a government?
I had hoped we would succeed in our efforts. In fact, the developments that happened last night were … beyond my expectations.
How long did you think it would take?
I expected some of the key issues would not be sorted out or finalized decisively. The good thing was last night and the previous night some of these key issues were sorted out.
Which issues are settled now clearly, with no ambiguity?
There are a number of very complicated issues that have been there for five or six years and have not been sorted out: the issue of accountability and justice, the issue of balance, the issue of consensus, the issue of partnership in the government, the issue of the three presidencies. … These had all become problems, but it was good we were able to sort them out.
Is it fair to say that you and the Kurdistan Alliance were the kingmakers of Iraqi politics, that there is a government today because of the Kurdistan Alliance?
Our fate and destiny is with that of Iraq. The Kurdistan region is part of Iraq. It doesn't work for us if we say let's do well in Kurdistan and let what happens in Baghdad happen. That's not a true approach, and that's not a sound policy. … Therefore, we tried seriously to solve the problems in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq together. And, of course, we do not want to exploit our position and our situation in a way to gain achievements for the Kurds alone. We want to gain achievements for the Kurds and Kurdistan region, but also for all of Iraq. And we feel proud that the Kurds have been able to play this role.
What was a key moment in the negotiations that helped to convince Iraqiya [which won the largest number of parliamentary seats in March elections but could not leverage that to gain the prime minister post] to join?
There was a lot of sensitivity and lack of trust or mistrust among many of the colleagues. So we did our best either to eliminate the lack of trust …or at least to minimize it. … We played and acted as guarantors so that no sides will step back from the pledges that they have made.
Was there a key meeting with [Iraqiya leader Iyad] Allawi and Maliki in the last days that tipped the balance?
I have spent time talking to them one on one and privately, and I felt there was a desire from both to get out of the crisis. … Maybe each saw the situation a different way, each had a fear in a way, and we tried to allay the fears, and also to work together.
You warned in early 2009 that Maliki risked drifting toward authoritarianism and not honoring his commitment and friendship to the Kurds. What restored your confidence in Maliki, so that you could do business with him again?
There is no doubt that the last four years were a rich experience for us, for Prime Minister Maliki, for [Maliki's] Dawa party, for our party and for all the other parties involved in the political process. So a fact was known to all of us, to everyone, that with confrontation and challenges the situation in Iraq will deteriorate. We have to find common ground, and common points that bring us together and we have to work together.
What gives you confidence that the prime minister has learned as well? Is it his acceptance of Iraqi Kurdistan's position papers [19 points that look to limit the powers of the prime minister's office, to promote power-sharing and to resolve outstanding issues regarding Iraqi Kurdistan's semi-autonomy]?
A number of reasons: our conversation with him, the 19-point paper, the program or agenda of the government, the bylaws and statutes of the council of ministers, the bylaws of the parliament, the practices of the parliament, the basis of partnership, the balance of governance. So these all make sure the process goes the right way.
Do you want U.S. [military] forces to stay in Iraq after 2011, when the country's current security agreement expires? Is that important for Iraqi Kurdistan?
Of course, this issue has to be studied thoroughly, and based on the requirements of the circumstances on that day after. When the time has come, based on that, the federal government has to decide upon it. I've always stated that we are for friendly and continued relations with the United States, but not necessarily that that relationship is confined only to the presence of their troops on the ground.
So it is not as crucial an issue as it was in the past when you had said you wanted U.S. bases in the north.
The crucial point is for the relationship to continue. Instead of having combat troops, we could have experts to train the Iraqi forces, so the relationship could change, and the same with the [Kurdish] peshmerga forces — to train the [Kurdish] forces.
Do you want that personally as the head of the Kurdistan regional government?
I certainIy would welcome and like our forces to be trained, to be equipped and to be helped.