Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani to step down | News | DW | 29.10.2017
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Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani to step down

President of the autonomous region of Kurdistan has told parliament he will not seek an extension after his term expires on November 1. The announcement came amid an escalating row with Baghdad over Kurdish independence.

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani on Sunday said he would step down as president of the automous region, after a controversial independence referendum backfired. 

"After November 1, I will no longer exercise my functions, and I reject any extension of my mandate," the 71-year-old Barzani said a letter to a parliamentary session in the Kurdish capital Arbil. "Changing the law on the presidency of Kurdistan or prolonging the presidential term is not acceptable."

The Kurdish leader also said he would continue to "remain a peshmerga (Kurdish fighter) among the ranks of the people of Kurdistan and I will continue to defend the achievements of the people of Kurdistan."

His powers will reportedly be redistributed between the Kurdish prime minister, parliament, and the judiciary.

A majority 70 Kurdish MPs supported the redistribution of powers, while 23 opposed, Kurdish media reported.

Barzani will still remain as the head of the High Political Council, raising questions over whether his powerful reach will really be diminished. 

Intra-Kurdish tensions

The move comes at a time when the Kurdistan region and Baghdad are at loggerheads after the region's voters overwhelming approved a non-binding independence referendum on September 25.

The referendum, and the subsequent quick loss of disputed territories to Iraqi forces over nearly two weeks, also opened up bitter intra-Kurdish disputes between rival parties.

Barzani spoke of "high treason on October 16," referring to peshmerga forces tied to his rival Kurdish Patriotic Union (PUK) withdrawing from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk after apparently reaching a bargain with the government in Baghdad. He did not mention that his KDP peshmerga also pulled out of Kirkuk and other disputed areas.  

Highlighting tensions, supporters of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) carrying sticks stormed into the parliament and attacked opposition journalists and a MP.  Local journalists also reported hearing gunfire within parliament.

Irak Demonstranten stürmen Kurden-Parlament in Erbil (Reuters/A: Lashkari)

Pro-KDP mobs stormed the regional parliament.

The mob reportedly sought to punish an opposition Gorran MP Rabun Maarouf, who said before the parliamentary session that Barzani "symbolises the failure of Kurdish politics, and the only thing left for him to do is to issue a public apology." Gorran and parts of the PUK were against holding referendum. 

The opposition Gorran, the second largest party in parliament, has led calls for Barzani to step down and formation of a "government of national salvation."

The party opposes the planned redistribution of powers, in part because they see Barzani and his KDP continuing to wield significant power under the proposed changes.

Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is the president's nephew and son-in-law. The KDP also controls the judiciary. Masoud Barzani's son, Masrour, is the head of the Kurdistan Region Security Council and controls the security apparatus. Nechirvan and Masrour are rivals, raising the prospect of an internal power struggle within the KDP. 

The region last held a presidential election in 2009, which Barzani won. His term of office expired in 2013 and was extended twice against an opposition outcry. 

Presidential and parliamentary elections were slated for November 1, but have been postponed due to the crisis with Baghdad and internal Kurdish disputes. 

Sunday's meeting of parliament was the first full session since 2015, when the KDP blocked Gorran's parliamentary speaker froom entering Arbil and shuttered the legislature.

Watch video 00:30

Barzani claims poll victory

Abandoned by allies 

Barzani also used his speech to defend the referendum and slam the United States for not supporting Kurdish ambitions. 

"Three million votes for Kurdistan independence created history and cannot be erased," he said. "Nobody stood up with us other than our mountains."

He then criticized the its longtime ally for allowing US Abrams tanks given to Iraqi forces to be used against the Kurds.

"Without the help of peshmerga, Iraqi forces could not have liberated Mosul from ISIS alone," he said, referring to the militant group's former stronghold in northern Iraq.

"Why would Washington want to punish Kurdistan?" Barzani said, adding that the Iraqi offensives since mid-October vindicated his view that Baghdad "no longer believes in Kurdish rights."

Iraq suspends military operations

On Friday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered a 24-hour suspension to military operations against Kurdish forces after Iraqi forces backed by militia swept through disputed areas in northern Iraq controlled by the Kurds since mid-2014. 

Read more: Kurdish offer to Baghdad: Freeze independence referendum results, ceasefire and dialogue

Al-Abadi said Baghdad wanted federal forces to take control of border crossings in "all disputed areas," including Fishkhabur, where an oil pipeline crosses into Turkey. The border crossing also acts as a key transit point into areas controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria. 

cw/jm (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

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