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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 23 May 2018

Barzani steps aside, but problems abound across the political spectrum

The future is far from clear in Erbil and Baghdad, writes Mina Al-Oraibi

Masoud Barzani. Safin Hamed / AFP
Masoud Barzani. Safin Hamed / AFP

Twelve years after he was appointed the first president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Masoud Barzani is to leave his position on Wednesday. Although Mr Barzani would not want you to think he is stepping down, rather that he refuses an extension of his term. While it remains to be seen what the impact of his stepping down has on his powers in Erbil, the end of the all-powerful position of president of Kurdistan Region is in sight. For over a decade, the presidency in Baghdad was ceremonial, while the presidency in Kurdistan region was a decision-making mechanism. While Erbil was able to make swift decisions with one party in sole control, Baghdad had to contend with the messiness of multiple parties, power-sharing and striving for consensual politics. Ironically, both positions were held by two rivals, Mr Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Talabani passed away last month, revered as a politician who sought to strengthen Iraq’s federal system, while Mr Barzani today fights for his political life after declaring the time was right for Kurdistan’s independence.

Mr Barzani assumed the role of president of the Kurdistan Region in 2005 and gradually consolidated his power - in patronage, military strength and money. The position of president is one that he in large part created and through it expanded his control. His term expired in August 2015, yet his political strength has allowed him to maintain his position. There was little his opponents could do about it. His external relations, especially with the United States and Turkey, gave him further leverage inside Iraq.

However, having overplayed his hand by calling the Kurdistan referendum in September, Mr Barzani lost clout with international interlocutors, and among some supporters who had believed he would in the end deliver independence, despite Iraqi, regional and international rejection. A herculean task that would have been impossible to pull off. And as the Iraqi government reacted, with strong support from regional allies and the United States, Mr Barzani found himself isolated.

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Given the heated climate in Iraq, and the mistake of calling for the independence referendum despite international and Iraqi refusal, some have dismissed Mr Barzani and predict his demise. It would be premature to do so. From his ascension as leader of KDP in 1979 to today, Mr Barzani has faced numerous crises, and yet has always managed to re-emerge stronger than before.

In a statement issued by the KRG presidency, Mr Barzani said he “refused to accept the parliamentary extension and will therefore, step down at the President of the Kurdistan region”. The danger Iraq faces is that some of its most influential figures are not in official positions and yet wield great power. Mr Barzani leaves the office of the president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and yet remains leader of his party with immense wealth and thousands of armed men ready to heed his call. Similarly, Iraq’s former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki was meant to be sidelined after years of wielding the greatest power in the country. Yet today he has great power through Iranian support, militias and vast wealth gleaned off corrupt practices. And today one of the most decisive political operators is the leader of the Sadr movement, Moqtada Al Sadr who doesn’t hold an official position. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani holds great sway through his religious authority. Iraq’s future cannot be dictated by those who are not accountable in the political system, but it is today a real threat to the fragile political structure.

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In an interview with The Independent, Iraq’s prime minister has said that he can end Kurdistan’s autonomous rule. That would be a fatal blow, as the federal system of Iraq is one that has buy in from all sides, despite the clear disagreements over its implementation. Mr Barzani’s challenge now will be to protect the Kurdistan region and enable Kurdish leaders to work on a solution with Baghdad.

The Iraqi government would be short-sighted to believe it can reimpose its power over the Kurdistan Region – nor should it want to. The Kurdistan region’s autonomous status can be amended to be in line with Iraq’s constitution. Baghdad must also be responsible for its Kurdish citizens. Beyond retaking border posts, the Iraqi federal government must assume its role as protector and supporter of all its citizens, including the Kurdish ones. This will be a great challenge, as scepticism towards Baghdad is high and a younger generation has rarely even seen the country’s capital or felt allegiance to it. To win them over, there are clear needed steps, including paying salaries of public sector workers, ensuring the protection of borders and speaking directly to Kurdish concerns.