In September, Iraqi Kurd leader Masoud Barzani insisted on holding a referendum on independence despite warnings from allies and neighbors alike of the destabilizing nature of the move. The referendum rallied Kurds and reinvigorated Barzani as their leader — at least for a short period. After the Iraqi army pushed the Kurds out of Kirkuk without any objection from the US, Barzani abruptly resigned over the weekend, and pledged to end his career as a Peshmerga fighter on the front lines:
Just over a month since Iraq’s Kurdish north voted to declare independence, setting in motion a disastrous series of events for the region, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has told local lawmakers he intends to step down.
“I refuse to continue in the position of president of the region after November 1,” Barzani said in a letter delivered to the regional Parliament, according to Reuters. “I will continue serving Kurdistan as a Peshmerga [Kurdish soldier].”
It will now fall to local lawmakers — who approved Barzani’s resignation Sunday — to determine how to redistribute his authorities after his term expires Wednesday. As NPR’s Jane Arraf notes, elections were originally scheduled for that date but were delayed until next year amid the recent turmoil.
How serious is Barzani? If Barzani hoped to use the move to assert his popular support and force the parliament into an open rebellion against Baghdad, he miscalculated. Instead, they voted to ratify his resignation, creating a leadership vacuum in the executive just as pressure from Iraq, Iran, and Turkey reach its zenith.
Still, Barzani isn’t without significant popular support, even after the setbacks over the last five weeks. The mood outside the regional parliament looked ominous as Barzani’s supporters turned out in force:
Thousands of Kurds protested outside the regional parliament in Irbil on October 30 in support of Masoud Barzani, who had announced he was stepping down as regional president in a televised address the day before.
Barzani defended the independence referendum which culminated in a Baghdad-backed offensive to retake control of what had been a largely autonomous region. He said the result of the vote could “never be erased.”
At one point, a handful of protesters broke through the lines and began to assault lawmakers and journalists, reports the Voice of America. Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi pledged to protect the rights of Kurds while the political situation stabilizes, but that may not be very comforting to the Kurds given Abadi’s reliance on Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias:
Abadi said Monday he is closely following the developments in the Kurdistan region and the attacks on the headquarters of the parties “as well as the media and attempts to cause chaos and disturbances in Irbil and Dahuk.”
He said the central government in Baghdad wants to establish safe conditions in all of the country’s provinces and to protect the interests of every citizen.
Abadi still refuses to negotiate with the Kurds on the basis of the referendum, which Abadi considers illegal. Barzani’s resignation and the loss of Kirkuk and surrounding territories might convince the parliament to put aside that plebiscite, but that would carry significant risk as well. It won 92% of the vote and stirred up hopes among the Kurds that independence was in reach. Having the parliament surrender those hopes by annulling the referendum as Abadi demands will likely result in even bigger demonstrations and chaos, which could provoke even further military responses from Abadi for the sake of “safety.”
This situation could get very bad indeed. Watch out for any more militia movement toward Iraqi Kurdistan, and for the State Department to start interceding with both sides for cooperation.