Stepping down after 12 years in office, Masoud Barzani leaves behind a region in flux following his decision to hold a referendum on administrative independence for the KRG.
Masoud Barzani stepped down as President of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) on Wednesday as the future of the region continues to spiral into uncertainty following an independence referendum in September.
“I refuse to continue the position of president of the Region after November 1, 2017,” he said in a letter to parliament on Sunday. “And the presidential law of the Region should not be amended, nor should the term of the Regional Presidency be extended.”
Barzani had spearheaded the September 25 referendum which was opposed by Turkey, the US, and other regional powers including Iran. In the days and weeks following the vote, which resulted in a resounding “yes,” the Iraq central government started operations to retake control of territories under de facto KRG control since 2014.
On October 16, the Iraqi army took over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, without which, analysts say the establishment of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq would be impossible.
The loss of Kirkuk was the strongest blow to Barzani, who continued to defend the referendum despite regional backlash.
Barzani decided to resign from his post without waiting for elections that had been set for November 1. Elections have been delayed by eight months, due to “political, security, and technical reasons as well as the lack of a candidate.”
A leader has yet to be named, but possible names include Barzani’s nephew, Nechirvan Barzani who currently serves as prime minister, his son, Masrour Barzani, current head of intelligence of the KRG and Behram Salah, former prime minister of the KRG.
Barzani, president of the KRG since 2005, and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) since 1979 is a key figure in Kurdish politics in Iraq and beyond.
Having held the referendum, Barzani has found himself pushed into a political corner. His move has left the KRG in a political and economic turmoil.
Here’s a look at the life of the Kurdish leader leading up to his resignation this week.
Son of prominent Kurdish figure
Masoud Barzani was born on August 16, 1946 in Mahabad, capital of the short-lived Kurdish state, Republic of Mahabad, in northeastern Iran.
Among the leaders of Mahabad was Mustafa Barzani, Masoud’s father, a prominent Kurdish figure who had led several revolts against the Iraqi state, including the “Ahmet Barzani revolt” in 1931-32 and the “Barzani revolt” of 1943.
Mustafa Barzani later went to Iran, where he served as head of the armed forces of the Soviet-backed Republic of Mahabad, after whose collapse Mustafa returned to Iraq, where he became head of the main Kurdish movement the time, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
The Barzani family dominated Kurdish politics in this period. Their leadership, however, did not go unquestioned, and intra-Kurdish conflict marked much of the latter half of the 20th century.
Ideological differences within the KDP strained party relations. The Barzanis, known as being more conservative, traditionalist and tribalist-leaning were caught in a struggle with a faction that was more leftist and nationalist-leaning, headed by the late Jalal Talabani, himself a protege of Mustafa Barzani.
In 1970, Saddam Hussein, who was leader of Iraq at the time, signed a peace agreement with Mustafa Barzani, as a precautionary measure to protect his regime against any possible uprising. The deal gave significant concessions to the Kurds of northern Iraq including language and cultural rights, recognition of the Kurdish nationality in Iraq, and steps for self-governance.
However, there were serious disagreements over its implementation, and tensions over the “Arabisation of Kirkuk.” Finally, the Kurds of northern Iraq revolted once more in 1974, when the central government proposed an autonomy agreement, which Mustafa Barzani rejected, as he considered it to be a reneging of the earlier deal.
When the 1974-75 revolt against Baghdad failed, Talabani broke off from the KDP to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. The Peshmerga army also split at this time, and some joined Talabani, while others remained with the KDP.
To this day, Kurdish politics in northern Iraq remains dominated by the two families: the Barzanis in Erbil and the Talabanis in Sulaimaniyah.
Leader of the KDP
After his father’s death in 1979, Barzani took over as head of the KDP, and presided over some of the most bloody periods in Kurdish Iraq’s history.
In the early 1990s, a US-enforced no-fly zone aiming to create a safe-zone in the north of the country appeared to be the first steps towards Kurdish autonomy in the region. This was underscored by the first parliamentary elections held in the region for the Kurdistan National Assembly that saw a unity government between the KDP and the PUK.
Despite parliamentary unity, fighting between forces loyal to Barzani and those loyal to Talabani spiraled into civil war in 1993-1994. In 1996, Masoud Barzani teamed up with Saddam Hussein, who had waged a lethal campaign against Kurds just a few years prior, against Talabani.
At the end Barzani’s KDP, with the Iraqi forces, took over Erbil, and later Sulaymaniyah. Later, Talabani took back Sulaymaniyah, and claimed a new PUK-centered government there in 1997.
Both the Barzani-led KDP and Talabani-led PUK claimed jurisdiction over the Kurdish region, and the rivalry continued until a US-brokered ceasefire in 1998. In 2002, the two rival factions entered a period of rapprochement pushed forward by the US, when it became clear that Washington intended to topple Saddam.
President of the KRG
After the US’s invasion in 2003 and Saddam Hussein’s fall, Talabani and Barzani came together to govern their autonomous region, but ultimately Talabani's high profile and openness to cooperation took him to Baghdad.
Knowing that an independent Kurdish state was not likely, Talabani chose “to pursue reality over dreams” and pushed for an autonomous region with the support of the US, and was later chosen by parliament as interim president in April 2005.
Meanwhile, Barzani remained in what became the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, and became the first president of the KRG after elections in 2005. He was re-elected into office for a second four-year term in 2009, with over 70 percent of votes in his favour.
Barzani’s KDP remains the largest party in the KRG, and Barzani’s influence could be seen beyond the KRG’s borders: He had considerable sway with different Kurdish factions, including some those in Syria and Turkey.
The fight against Daesh
The KDP’s Peshmerga were one of the main fighting forces in the north against the Daesh terrorist organisation that had spread through Iraq.
A formidable force, the Peshmerga, along with US-backed Iraqi government forces, and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias fought to clear Daesh from Iraq starting from 2014, leaving constitutionally disputed areas such as Kirkuk and north of Mosul under de facto KRG rule. The KDP Peshmerga’s role in clearing Daesh from large areas of Iraq earned Barzani a position on the shortlist of TIME’s person of the year in 2014.
Questioning Barzani’s power as the president
Amid security concerns as the Peshmerga battled Daesh, Barzani was granted a two-year extension by the KRG parliament, although his post had expired in 2013.
Barzani’s extended tenure ended in August, 2015. However, he remained in office and caused a political deadlock.
The second and third largest parties of the parliament, Gorran and the PUK, whose votes are enough for a law amendment, wanted to introduce a number of bills on the presidential law, which would affect the election of the new president. KDP considered the move as an attempt to undermine Barzani.
No party presented an alternative candidate for the position, but they nonetheless refused to prolong Barzani’s mandate unless changes were made to the political system that would reduce the powers of his office. Barzani’s KDP, which is the largest and strongest in the region and therefore had most to lose, rejected that.
The political crisis worsened when the parliament closed in October, 2015 and the speaker of parliament, from Gorran, the second largest party in parliament, was barred from entering the capital city of Erbil by Barzani during the dispute.
The parliament did not go into session again until 2017, and Barzani remained as the president regardless of other parties’ opposition. In a move by Barzani, in September 2017 the parliament convened for a session approving the independence referendum.
Gorran boycotted the parliament session, as did all six MPs from the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal).
The KRG’s economic woes
The political crisis brought on by the end of Barzani’s tenure was only one of the many issues facing the KRG.
The KRG had been beset by economic problems due to the drop in oil prices, the main source of income for the region. Ramifications of falling oil prices were compounded by Baghdad’s halting of budget payments to the region in 2014. According to the New York Times, the region was nearly $20 billion in debt, and thousands of civil servants in the KRG, including the Peshmerga, had not received their full salaries in several years.
It is in this political and economic context that Barzani pushed for the independence referendum.
Although other parties did not explicitly oppose the referendum, which had widespread support among the Kurdish population, many Kurdish leaders had expressed scepticism about the referendum, citing timing issues as well as questioning Barzani's intentions.
Barzani denied that he was using the referendum to draw attention away from the region’s political and economic woes.
“Do you really believe that I would instrumentalize such a critical issue, one that concerns the fate of millions of people, after all the suffering they have endured, all the sacrifices they made, just to advance my own political future?” he said.
Instead, he cited a failed partnership with Baghdad as the reason behind the referendum. However, experts view Barzani’s push for the referendum as a pragmatic manoeuvre having more to do with internal politics.
Analysts, however, pointed to the region’s economic woes as well as Barzani’s attempts to garner support amid a decrease in the number of followers and increasing strains among the various parties in the KRG.
Barzani also pushed for the referendum, mistakenly assuming that neighbour Turkey and the US would stand behind him.
“If the current Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government does not recognize and accept an independent Kurdistan, I don't think any other government in Turkey would,” he said in an interview with Al Monitor.
However, apart from Israel, none of the KRG’s neighbours and allies supported the referendum.
The referendum also became yet another area where tensions between the KDP and PUK bubbled to the surface, as the referendum took place in territories controlled by the KRG, as well as disputed areas such as oil-rich Kirkuk, which is traditionally dominated by the PUK.
After the referendum, Iraqi troops were ordered by the country’s prime minister Haider al Abadi to take control of areas claimed by both Baghdad and the KRG, including the critical city of Kirkuk.
Barzani accused the PUK Peshmerga of “high treason” for yielding territory to the central government without a fight, though the PUK denied these allegations.
The central government continues to push the KRG-controlled territories back to their 2003 lines, which seriously undermines Barzani’s authority.
The Iraqi government is also taking control of the Habur crossing, along the Turkey-KRG border, which was the economic lifeline of the KRG. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey had agreed to open another border gate with Iraq as part of a route that would lead to the city of Tal Afar, some 40 km (25 miles) west of Mosul and home to a predominantly ethnic Turkmen population.
Barzani’s move to hold on to power in a critical time with the referendum did not pay off like he expected.
While the referendum brought together the Kurdish population of the KRG, most of whom openly expressed their desire for independence, its political and economic consequences proceeded contrary to Barzani’s expectations.
The referendum vote is not expected to lead to an independent Kurdish state anytime soon and has further isolated the region. But it led Barzani to resign as the president.
As stepping down, Barzani vowed to continue serving Kurds.
“I am the same Masoud Barzani, I am a Peshmerga and will continue to help my people in their struggle for independence,” he said.