Barham Salih

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President of Iraq

You are Barham Salih, President of Iraq.

You are perhaps the most important man in Iraq. While you do not hold the highest elected office, or control the greatest amount of money, you are an extremely important person in the future of your country and, indeed, the entire region.

Born in 1960 in the city of Sulaymaniyah, you were active in the Kurdish national liberation movement since your teens, having become a charter member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by your mentor, Jalal al-Talabani, when the organization first came in existence in 1976 (Note that the Kurds are an ethnic group, thought to number as many as 45 million people, living in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Kurds have no homeland of their own, though as of 2018 they controlled an autonomous region of Northern Iraq). You were arrested by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government in 1979, and after you were freed from prison you completed high school and then fled to the United Kingdom, where you ultimately earned a doctorate in computer engineering.

You returned to Iraq in the early 1990’s, and in 1992, Jalal Talabani sent you to the United States to head the PUK office in Washington, and over the next decade you established strong relationships with western politicians, diplomats and journalists. You returned to Iraq in 2002 to become Prime Minister of the eastern part of the Kurdish autonomous region, and you later served as Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq. In 2007, you founded the American University in Sulaymaniyah, an English-language, liberal arts university that has flourished to this day, with students from across the region attending.

Meanwhile, your longtime ally, Talabani, was chosen in 2006 to be the Iraqi President, the first non-Arab President of Iraq. This reflected an agreement reached by Iraq’s Parliament whereby the President would be a Kurd, the Speaker of the House a Sunni Muslim, and the Prime Minister a Shi’a Muslim. You held a number of cabinet-level positions in the early 2000’s, and served from 2009-2011 as Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan before relinquishing your position, as part of a political agreement, to the leader of an opposing party. You rather famously opposed the non-binding 2017 referendum on Kurdish independence, which passed overwhelmingly, advocating for building strong relationships with the central government in Baghdad, and fearing that such political moves would have the opposite effect.

In 2018, in a result that surprised many outside the region, a slate of candidates led a man who had long been regarded in the west as a terrorist, Moqtada al-Sadr, won the parliamentary elections. The Moqtada al-Sadr of 2018 was a consensus-builder, though, and he kept a promise he’d made not to take political office himself. He chose to name you President, and to let you officially name Adel Abdul Mahdi as Iraq’s Prime Minister. It was understood that he chose you because of the unique position you had carved out, as someone who got along well with, and was acceptable to both the United States and Iran. Over and beyond the reputation you had secured while you were stationed in Washington, you maintained relationships with Iranian leaders over the years, often traveling to Iran to attend to state or party business.

As the President of Iraq, you do not have much formal power. You may issue pardons and ratify treaties, and you are also the ceremonial head of the armed forces. Your true power is as the symbol of the Iraqi people. The President of Iraq represents the goals and aspirations of his people, and is the personification of those people. His duty is to represent the civic body of Iraq to the world. To achieve this goal, the President is often seen working with the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister to craft and deliver a message to the world that represents the goals of the Iraqi nation. Unlike the Foreign Minister who normally deals with politicians in other nations, the President targets a much larger audience. He attempts to deliver a message to the people of the world in an effort to influence public opinion in different nations. This means using press releases and dealing directly with the media.

Iraq is a nation torn by violence and instability, and such instability generally dissuades foreign investors from starting new businesses within such a nation. It is the President's job to deliver a message that Iraq is on the mend, to downplay outsider concerns, and to encourage positive outside contributions to Iraq. He is, in effect, the salesman of Iraq to the world.

You are also the champion of Iraqi goals abroad. It is your duty to convey to the world the goals of Iraq in foreign policy and to explain why these goals should be the goals for the entire world. While the Foreign Minister will negotiate the finer points of these goals with other diplomats, the President should be seen trying to move the opinion of the peoples of the world toward an Iraqi point of view. By doing this, you strengthen the position of the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister. With world support behind a position, it is much easier to convince other nations to agree to it.

You are regarded as something of a transformational figure. Some of this reputation comes from 2002, when you narrowly avoided being assassinated by an extremist (three of your bodyguards were killed), but then refused to sign the death warrant for your would-be killer. You have been highly critical of the Iraqi government, accusing it of being rife with corruption and division, yet you are clearly a believer in a united Iraq, and you have taken political risks on behalf of Iraqi union. As the President, you are a consensus builder. You should see your goal as communicating Iraq's goals to the people of the world. It is, in fact, your duty to appeal to the world to support the goals of Iraq and to support the stability of Iraq itself.

President Salih, you have a huge task ahead of you. However, you have decades of experience in fighting against seemingly impossible odds. Through you, there remains the possibility that the Kurdish and Iraqi people will be truly united together. The Kurds now have a stronger voice in government and a chance to influence governmental policy. This means that they also have a vested interest in seeing the government remain strong and united. Given the political, economic and military struggles rocking your homeland, such support is both welcome and sorely needed. For the first time in your life, the Kurdish people are in a position where they can influence their own fate through participation in government and not through violent revolution. This means that you have a vested interest in seeing this government succeed. Allowing outsiders to out maneuver Iraqi interests is not an option, and neither is allowing Iraq to tear itself apart.

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