In 1991, as hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled northward from Iraqi troops seeking vengeance for a failed uprising, lightly armed peshmerga under Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), fought off an armoured division in the Kore Valley just north of Saladin. Burned-out tanks and half-tracks littered the spot for years and were eventually turned into a monument as Kore entered the mythology of Kurdish resistance.
Barzani’s decision to stand down after 12 years as president of the autonomous Kurdish region could reflect the end of an era in Kurdish politics. The announcement came weeks after the death of Jalal Talabani, leader of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The politics of loyalty and clan, developed in the years of struggle against the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein, have proved less effective in building a peaceful, stable Kurdistan.
Barzani’s legal term as president expired in 2015. The independence referendum he called for September 25 yielded a strong “yes” vote but brought universal condemnation, except for Israel. This was followed by the ignominy of Iraqi forces retaking Kirkuk on October 16, cutting off the Kurds from approximately half their oil revenue.
“All Barzani did was not to ask parliament to extend his term for a third time,” said Salam Abdulrahman, head of political science at the University of Human Development in Sulaimaniyah. “This was due both to local pressure and the catastrophic referendum, which immediately produced international isolation.”
Exactly what happened in Kirkuk, absorbed by the Kurds while fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014, remains a mystery. In his resignation letter, Barzani said the Kurds would have held Kirkuk without an “unexpected betrayal,” a reference to the PUK. “The PUK denies this,” said Abdulrahman. “They say their forces were outgunned and outnumbered and so in order not to shed further blood decided to withdraw.”
Some speculate that with the PUK divided, Paval Talabani, son of the late leader but without a formal party or government position, took the initiative in coordinating a withdrawal with PUK commanders and Baghdad. It saved lives and undermined an independence project associated with the KDP.
The outcome has the Kurds in political retreat. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is insisting that Iraq’s federal authorities control all international entry points in and out of the Kurdish region, including airports, and that Kurdish peshmerga should be under federal control or reduced in size. Baghdad has banned two Kurdish television stations.
The situation remains delicate. Iraqi military officials and their Kurdish counterparts are in talks under the auspices of the United States in Faysh Khabur, near Syria — designed to prevent confrontation. Kurdish officials warn of the build-up of Iraqi troops and Shia militias after clashes at Altun Kupri, north of Kirkuk and Kurdish media accused government-backed militias of killing Arkan Sharifi, a Kurdish cameraman and primary school teacher, in Daquq, south of Kirkuk.
The Kurds face two crises: One in leadership and coordination and the other in their relationship with Baghdad. On the former, Barzani’s letter raised as many questions as it answered.
“I ask parliament to meet to fill the vacancy in power, to fulfil the mission and to assume the powers of the presidency of Kurdistan,” he said. Barzani pledged he would “remain a peshmerga among the ranks of the people of Kurdistan.”
This suggests Barzani will stay on as KDP leader, with members of his family and clan in power and in control of patronage. Eventually, he may be succeeded as KDP leader by either his nephew Nechirvan, KRG prime minister, or his own son Masrour, KRG security chief. In the meantime, Masoud Barzani will direct the high political council, a shadowy new body set up after the referendum.
Kurdish politics are nonetheless in a flux. A near riot at the parliament after Barzani’s letter was read out, attacks on opposition offices and media outlets and the postponement of November’s elections for president and parliament suggest matters will not be resolved peacefully.
Reformist parties are challenging the KDP-PUK duopoly that has carved up posts and resources since autonomy in 1991. The Gorran Movement, which has built support among young people since its founding in 2009, has decried the “destruction of our whole legislative establishment.” Newey Nwe (“New Generation”), a group established by television mogul and businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid, campaigned for a “no for now” in the referendum and has decried “Barzani’s dictatorship.”
The opposition’s argument is that the Kurds cannot defend their autonomy without involving the people in establishing a new leadership based on consensus and legal norms. With Abadi triumphant and the KRG struggling to pay employees, Kurdish leaders could instead turn on each other in a struggle to shore up their fiefdoms.
Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.
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