Clashes around parliament as Iraqi Kurdish leader steps down

Demonstrators gather in the streets in support of Kurdish president Masoud Barzani in Duhok, Iraq. (Reuters) Related News

Clashes raged in front of Irbil’s parliament building after the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, dissolved his powers as president today just over a month after a controversial independence referendum he spearheaded sparked a deep regional crisis.

An Associated Press team witnessed dozens of protesters attacking the building, parliamentarians and journalists as Barzani addressed the Kurdish region in his first televised speech since the referendum’s fallout turned violent earlier this month.

Downcast, the long-time Kurdish leader blamed the central government in Baghdad for the regional crisis that followed the independence vote.

“They (Baghdad) used the referendum as an excuse. Their bad intentions were very clear from a long time ago,” he said.

“Without the peshmerga the Iraqi army would never have been able to liberate the city of Mosul,” he continued, referring to Iraqi Kurdish fighters.

“We thought that the international community would reward the peshmerga and the people of Kurdistan in return. They would respect the blood of the martyrs.”

Barzani instructed parliament to distribute his presidential powers between the Kurdish prime minister, Parliament and the judiciary. He also informed parliament that he will not seek an extension of his term which is set to expire Nov. 1, but Barzani’s senior assistant, Hemin Hawrami said the move did not mean the Kurdish leader was “stepping down.”

Barzani “will stay in Kurdish politics and lead the high political council,” but on Nov. 1st he will no longer be president of the region, Hawrami said.

Kurdish presidential elections scheduled to be held in November have been postponed indefinitely. Hawrami added that no political party submitted candidates to run against Barzani.

The referendum on support for independence held in September has since left the region increasingly isolated.

Despite warnings from Baghdad, the United States, Turkey, Iran, the United Nations and others, the vote was held on September 25 in the three provinces that make up the autonomous Kurdish zone as well as in disputed territories claimed by Baghdad, but at the time held by Kurdish forces.

Within weeks, the referendum proved to be extraordinarily costly. The region lost nearly half of the territory that had been comfortably under Kurdish control for years, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

The region’s airspace was closed to international commercial flights, Turkey threatened the use of military force and both Iran and Turkey threatened to close border crossings vital to the land-locked region.

In Irbil’s Bazar where families thronged the streets and fireworks filled the skies during the days leading up to and following the vote the mood slowly began to sour earlier this month after Iraqi troops led by Baghdad retook the long disputed and oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“There was no benefit from it at all (the referendum). What can I say?” Abdullah Hassan, an Irbil resident said inside the bazar that rings the city’s ancient citadel. Masoud Barzani held the referendum “for his own pride. It was so he could stay in power. What else can it be?”

Barzani’s term expired in August 2015, after which he prevented parliament from meeting for two years, a move many of his political opponents saw as a cynical attempt to hold onto power.

As Iraq’s military crumbled in the face of Islamic State group advances in 2014, Kurdish forces took control of Kirkuk. Described as the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan,” by some of the region’s leaders, control of the city and its oil reserves was marked as a significant achievement.

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