Iraqi Kurdish leader Barzani resigns after independence vote backfires

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said he would give up his position as president on Nov. 1, after an independence referendum he championed backfired and triggered a regional crisis.

There was high drama at the Kurdish parliament, which was stormed by armed protesters, as it met to approve the veteran leader’s resignation as Kurdish president. Some MPs were barricaded in their offices on Sunday evening.

In a televised address, his first since Iraqi forces launched a surprise offensive to recapture Kurdish-held territory on Oct. 16, Barzani confirmed that he would not extend his presidential term after Nov. 1 “under any conditions.”

“I am the same Masoud Barzani, I am a Peshmerga [Kurdish fighter] and will continue to help my people in their struggle for independence,” said Barzani, who has campaigned for Kurdish self-determination for nearly four decades.

The address followed a letter he sent to parliament in which he asked members to take measures to fill the resulting power vacuum.

The region’s parliament met in the Kurdish capital Erbil on Sunday to discuss the letter. A majority of 70 Kurdish MPs voted to accept Barzani’s request and 23 opposed it, Kurdish TV channels Rudaw and Kurdistan 24 said.

Demonstrators, some carrying clubs and guns, stormed the parliament building as the session was in progress. Gunshots were heard. Some protesters outside the building said they wanted to “punish” MPs who they said had “insulted” Barzani. Some attacked journalists at the scene.

A Kurdish official had told Reuters on Saturday that Barzani had decided to hand over the presidency without waiting for elections that had been set for Nov. 1 but which have now been delayed by eight months.

The region, which had enjoyed unprecedented autonomy for years, has been in turmoil since the independence referendum a month ago prompted military and economic retaliation from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.

Iraq Kurdish referendum

Barzani speaks to reporters during a press conference in Erbil, Iraq, in this Sept. 24 file photo, taken just before the referendum. (Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press)

In his address, Barzani vigorously defended his decision to hold the Sept. 25 referendum. “Three million votes for Kurdistan independence created history and cannot be erased,” he said.

The vote was overwhelmingly for independence and triggered the military action by the Baghdad government and threats from neighbouring Turkey and Iran.

He added that the Iraqi attack on Kirkuk and other Kurdish held territory vindicated his position that Baghdad no longer believed in federalism and instead wanted to curtail Kurdish rights.

Criticizes U.S.

Barzani condemned the United States for failing to back the Kurds. “We tried to stop bloodshed but the Iraqi forces and Popular Mobilization Front [Shia militias] kept advancing, using U.S. weapons,” he said. “Our people should now question whether the U.S. was aware of Iraq’s attack and why they did not prevent it.”

Barzani has been criticized by Kurdish opponents for the loss of the city of Kirkuk, oil-rich and considered by many Kurds to be their spiritual home. His resignation could help facilitate a reconciliation between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraq’s central government, whose retaliatory measures since the referendum have transformed the balance of power in the north.

Barzani has led the KRG since it was established in 2005. His second term expired in 2013, but was extended without elections as ISIS militants swept across vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria in their fight for an Islamist state.

U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces, Iranian-backed paramilitary groups, and Kurdish fighters fought alongside each other to defeat ISIS. But the alliance has faltered since the militants were largely defeated in the country. After the Kurdish 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.

Al-Abadi also wants to take control of the border crossings between the Kurdish region and Turkey, Iran and Syria, including one through which an oil export pipeline crosses into Turkey, carrying Iraqi and Kurdish crude oil. The fall of Kirkuk — a multi-ethnic city which lies outside the KRG’s official boundaries — to Iraqi forces on Oct. 16 was a major symbolic and financial blow to the Kurds’ independence drive because it halved the region’s oil export revenue.

In his resignation speech, Barzani placed the blame elsewhere for the city’s loss. He said followers of rival Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who died in early October, had been guilty of “high treason” for handing over the oil city of Kirkuk to Iraqi forces without a fight two weeks ago.

Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga started a second round of talks on Sunday to resolve a conflict over control of the Kurdistan region’s border crossings, Iraqi state TV said. A first round was held on Friday and Saturday, with al-Abadi ordering a 24-hour suspension on Friday of military operations against Kurdish forces.

He demanded on Thursday that the Kurds declare their referendum void, rejecting the KRG offer to suspend its independence push to resolve a crisis through talks, saying in a statement: “We won’t accept anything but its cancellation and the respect of the constitution.”

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

CBC | World News