By Ali Choukeir
Baghdad (AFP) Oct 29, 2017
President Massud Barzani, who said Sunday he was stepping down, founded Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region but was also responsible for sparking its gravest crisis with his drive for independence.
The son of iconic Kurdish nationalist leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani and the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) since 1979, the 71-year-old joined the fight for an independent Kurdistan as a teenager.
Born on August 16, 1946 in Mahabad, capital of a Kurdish republic declared by his father amid unrest in Iran following World War II, Barzani's dream of independence was also shattered by his own actions.
His mistake was organising a referendum on independence, held on September 25 despite warnings from Baghdad which branded the move unconstitutional and advice from world powers keen on Iraqi unity.
Weeks after the vote, central government forces launched a sweeping operation, reclaiming territory and oilfields in and around the disputed province of Kirkuk from Kurdish peshmerga forces.
The loss of the oilfields, which provided income that would have been critical to an independent Kurdish state, sparked internal recriminations.
His detractors called for him to quit and the Kurdish parliament stripped him of his powers and met Sunday to redistribute these among the legislative, executive and judicial authorities.
- Pragmatic and stubborn -
Round-faced and sporting a small moustache, the "lord of the mountain" as he is often known, is usually seen wearing the garb of a peshmerga fighter: baggy khaki pants and shirt, a traditional sash and a chequered red and white scarf rolled around his head as a turban.
He is considered to be both pragmatic and stubborn.
His demand for self-rule within all historically Kurdish-populated areas of Iraq put him on a collision course with the Arab-led government in Baghdad and frustrated international powers.
One Western diplomat who asked Barzani to postpone the independence vote was flatly told: "No, I can't do it. I have a window of opportunity which will not happen again.
"Baghdad is still weak but is getting stronger, and then it will be too late," Barzani told the diplomat.
"I cannot go back and I believe that the countries which are advising me against holding the referendum will back me later."
That was his mistake.
Barzani "misinterpreted" the messages of his allies, particularly the United States and Ankara, according to Kurdish affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu.
Failing to read between the lines led not only to the isolation of the Kurds but also to the isolation of Barzani's KDP, a formidable body founded in 1946.
Barzani had headed the KDP since 1978, taking over the leadership from his father.
For decades he was at odds with the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party of Iraq's late president Jalal Talabani.
- Kurdish rivalries -
During the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war, both parties sided with Tehran.
That partnership came at a heavy price and brought down retribution from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In 1987, Saddam launched the Anfal campaign which saw nearly 180,000 Kurds killed and more than 3,000 villages destroyed.
The Saddam regime's policy of "Arabisation" forced thousands of Kurds to leave their homes, to be replaced by Arabs.
Baghdad also used chemical weapons against the village of Halabja, killing 5,000 people.
After the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait, the Kurds won de facto autonomy when Western powers intervened to protect them from Saddam.
The United States and its allies set up no-fly zones in southern Iraq and the northern, Kurdish-majority region.
In 1992 the Iraqi Kurds elected a parliament and set up a government. The KDP controlled the north of the region up to the Turkish border while the PUK controlled the southeast, up to the Iranian border.
Their political honeymoon was short-lived, and in 1994 the PUK and the KDP fought a near civil war over the distribution of the territory's resources and taxes imposed by the KDP on border traffic with Turkey.
Barzani turned to his nemesis Saddam for help to push back Talabani's forces.
The episode prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to chide Barzani recently, saying that pact was a "blot" that had tarnished his reputation.
Barzani and Talabani buried the hatchet in 2003 as the Kurds allied with American troops in the war to overthrow Saddam.
After his ouster, the Kurds unified their administration, with Arbil in northern Iraq as the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In 2005, Barzani was appointed president by the Kurdish parliament and in 2009 elected with 69.6 percent of the votes in Kurdistan's first presidential election.
His mandate expired in 2013 but was extended for two years and then continued in the chaos that followed the Islamic State group's sweeping offensive across Iraq in 2014.
Weeks of tension between Iraq and its Kurds
Here are the key developments:
- Millions vote -
Despite weeks of threats and warnings, the non-binding vote goes ahead on September 25 with more than 12,000 polling stations opening for 5.3 million registered voters.
It is held in the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan -- Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk -- as well as in disputed border areas such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
Baghdad says the vote is "illegal" and the United States warns it will increase instability.
Neighbouring Turkey, concerned the vote could stoke separatist aspirations among its own Kurdish minority, warns the Iraqi Kurds they will face sanctions.
Iran, which has similar fears, has already announced it is stopping all flights to and from Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on September 26 gives authorities in Kurdistan 72 hours to hand the central government control of airports, warning he will otherwise ban international flights to and from the region.
- A massive 'yes' -
The official results released on September 27 show that more than 92 percent of voters back statehood. Turnout is over 72 percent.
Barzani says there will be no immediate declaration of independence, but calls for negotiations.
Abadi demands that the vote be annulled. "We will never hold talks based on the results of the referendum," he says. "We will impose Iraqi law in the entire region of Kurdistan."
- Flights cut -
Baghdad cuts the Kurdish region's direct air links with the outside world indefinitely on September 29.
The United States says it does not recognise the referendum and its result which "lacks legitimacy".
On October 2, Iranian and Iraqi forces conduct joint military exercises near the border with the Kurdistan region.
Iran embargoes trade in fuel products with Iraqi Kurdistan.
An Iraqi court on October 11 orders the arrest of the chairman and two other members of the commission that organised the independence referendum.
- Soldiers deployed -
Kurdish peshmerga forces on October 12 block roads from Iraqi Kurdistan to Iraq's second city Mosul in response to an increase in deployments and movements of Iraqi forces near the front line.
Abadi denies an attack is imminent, vowing to "preserve the unity of our country".
But on October 13, the Iraqi army launches an operation to take Kurdish-held positions around the provincial capital of Kirkuk, which has a Kurdish majority and took part in the contested referendum.
A senior Kurdish official says thousands of heavily armed fighters have been deployed to resist the offensive "at any cost". He calls for international intervention.
October 15: The Kurds ignore a looming deadline set by Baghdad for their forces to surrender positions they took during the fightback against jihadists.
The following day, Iraqi forces take control of the city of Kirkuk as well as key military sites and an oilfield.
The capture of more key oilfields in the disputed province on October 17 dashes Kurdish hopes of creating a viable independent state. Abadi says the referendum is "a thing of the past".
October 29: Iraqi and Kurdish forces agree on a deal for federal forces to deploy at Fishkhabur, a key border post on oil export pipelines to Turkey.
- Conciliatory signals -
October 18: Iraqi Kurdistan postpones presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November 1.
The Kurdistan Regional Government says on October 19 that it is open to talks with Baghdad. The next day, Iraqi forces retake control of the last sector of Kirkuk province.
October 22: Iraqi Kurdistan's main opposition party calls for Barzani to resign.
October 24: Kurdish parliament postpones legislative elections for eight months, and an MP says the Barzani presidency's functions have been frozen.
October 25: Iraqi Kurdish leaders offer to freeze the outcome of the independence vote, but Abadi says he will accept only its reversal.
October 29: Barzani tells parliament in a letter he is stepping down as president of the autonomous Kurdish region from November 1.
Arbil, Iraq (AFP) Oct 28, 2017
Parliament in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region said it will meet Sunday to redistribute the powers of president Massud Barzani who is facing pressure to quit after last month's independence vote. A statement from Barzani will be read out at the meeting which is set to open at 1100 GMT, parliament said on Saturday. On Tuesday, parliament decided to freeze the activities of Barzani, his vi ... read more
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