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Iraq's Barzani isolated by his drive for Kurdish independence
By Ali Choukeir
Baghdad (AFP) Oct 23, 2017

Death toll from Iraqi-Kurdish clashes reaches 31
Baghdad (AFP) Oct 22, 2017 - Iraqi federal and paramilitary forces on Sunday said they lost five men in last week's clashes with Kurdish fighters, bringing the death toll for all sides to 31.

On Friday, Iraq's central government said its forces had taken back control from the Kurds of all disputed territory in the north of the country located outside the Kurdish autonomous region.

The areas were captured as part of a sweeping operation by federal forces after a controversial Kurdish independence vote.

A statement by Iraq's Joint Operations Command said two federal forces were killed in Altun Kupri region of Kirkuk province, which was taken on Friday.

A spokesman for the Iranian-backed Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force told AFP the militia lost three of its fighters in the clashes with the Kurds.

Peshmerga commander Wasta Rassoul had on Friday said 26 Kurdish fighters were killed and 67 others wounded in last week's clashes.

Opposition calls on Iraqi Kurd leader to resign
Sulaimaniyah, Iraq (AFP) Oct 22, 2017 - Iraqi Kurdistan's main opposition party called Sunday for the autonomous region's president to resign after Baghdad seized swathes of disputed territory from Kurdish forces in response to an independence vote.

Shoresh Haji of the Goran movement, which holds 24 out of 111 seats in the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament, said Massud Barzani and his deputy Kosrat Rasul should step down.

"The Kurdistan region's president and his deputy no longer have any legitimacy and should resign," he said.

He called for the creation of a "national salvation government" to prepare for dialogue with Baghdad and organise new elections.

Iraqi Kurds on September 25 voted overwhelmingly for independence in a poll set in motion by longtime regional leader Barzani and strongly opposed by Baghdad.

Central government forces last week swept into the oil-rich Kirkuk province, restoring it and Kurdish-held parts of Nineveh and Diyala provinces to Baghdad's control.

The rapid Kurdish retreat triggered recriminations among Kurdish politicians and prompted the regional parliament to postpone presidential and legislative polls set for November 1.

Goran on Sunday demanded the dissolution of a body set up after the referendum to "manage the consequences of the ballot".

Critics fear that Barzani, who chairs the body, could use it to retain power even after he leaves his post.

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani, the driving force behind last month's independence vote, finds himself isolated at home and abroad weeks after he scored a major victory with a resounding "yes" at the polls.

He organised the September 25 referendum in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq with much fanfare, despite domestic and international objections.

But analysts say he miscalculated.

Weeks after the vote, central government forces launched a sweeping operation, reclaiming territory and oil fields in and around the disputed province of Kirkuk from Kurdish peshmerga forces.

The loss of the oil fields, which provided income that would have been critical to an independent Kurdish state, sparked recriminations among Kurds.

Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurdish member of a party long at odds with Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) who supported a UN-backed push for dialogue, said the independence referendum triggered the assault on Kirkuk.

Iraqi Kurdistan's main opposition party, Goran, has called for talks with Baghdad and demanded that Barzani and his deputy Kosrat Rasul resign, saying they "no longer have any legitimacy".

"The KDP is isolated within Kurdistan itself, in Iraq, regionally and increasingly internationally," said Kirk Sowell, analyst and publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics.

Sowell said that faced with staunch opposition both from Goran and from longtime rival the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the KDP's "only hope is that Baghdad overreaches and loses international support".

But he warned that the KDP "doesn't have much leverage left" in negotiations.

The United States, a key ally of both Baghdad and Kurdish forces in the battle against the Islamic State group, opposed the non-binding referendum, as did several nations including Iraq's neighbours Iran and Turkey.

Iraq's supreme court ruled that the vote was unconstitutional.

- 'Reopen channels of negotiations' -

Barzani, who saw a "yes" vote as a step closer towards the cherished dream of Kurdish statehood, campaigned relentlessly prior to the referendum but has since slipped out of view.

On September 26, a day after the vote, he urged Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to begin talks on the issues dividing them, but the two sides remain wide apart.

Abadi has vowed to keep Iraqi unity intact and world powers appear to support his view.

"Barzani will now have to reconsider his maximalist attitude and reopen channels of negotiation," Karim Bitar of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs told AFP.

"The United States and the entire international community, with the notable exception of Israel, remains committed and attached to Iraq's unity and territorial integrity," he said.

The son of iconic Kurdish nationalist leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani and head of the KDP since 1979, Barzani has long been the face of demands for Kurdish self-determination.

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 joined the fight for an independent Kurdistan as a teenager.

To this day he wears the garb of a peshmerga fighter: baggy khaki pants and shirt, a traditional sash and a chequered white-and-red scarf rolled around his head as a turban.

"Barzani has made strategic decisions for years based on a narrow circle of advisors, not through a democratic process," Sowell said.

"It appears... that Barzani is surrounded by people who just tell him what he wants to hear."

Many Kurds believe that two men -- former Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari and Kirkuk governor Najm Eddine Karim -- were behind Barzani's decision to hold the referendum.

- 'Misinterpreted the messages' -

Kurdish affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu said the independence vote backfired and isolated Barzani because the Kurdish leader "misinterpreted" messages from Washington and Ankara.

Barzani believed both allies would support his march towards independence and failed to read between the lines, Civiroglu said.

The United States was "very clear in supporting a united Iraq in which Kurds play a balancing role," he said.

Turkey, home to a large Kurdish minority, saw the vote as a threat to its own unity, he added.

"Barzani could not read the position of the US in regards to Iraq and misinterpreted the messages" as support for his move towards independence, he said.

"He heavily relied on good relations with Turkey."

Bitar said a "false vision of Iraq as a mere mosaic of ethnic and sectarian identities" had been reinforced since the US invasion of 2003.

"There has been a common and unfortunate tendency among many analysts and policy makers to underestimate the strength of Iraqi nationalism," he said.

"To paraphrase Mark Twain, we could say that events of the past few days indicate that reports of Iraq's death may have been greatly exaggerated."

15 Afghan army trainees killed in Kabul suicide attack: defence ministry
Kabul (AFP) Oct 21, 2017
A suicide bomber killed 15 Afghan army trainees as they were leaving their base in Kabul on Saturday, the defence ministry said, in the latest deadly attack in the capital. "This afternoon when a minibus carrying army cadets was coming out of the military academy, a suicide bomber on foot targeted them, martyring 15 and wounding four," defence ministry spokesman Dawlat Waziri told AFP. ... read more

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