BAGHDAD — 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 Sunday 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 Sept. 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.
“Only their faces have changed,” Barzani said repeatedly of Iraq’s post-2003 central government in Baghdad while campaigning for the referendum. “Otherwise they carry the same mentality of mass killings.”
Masoud Barzani took over leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in 1979 after the death of their father, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, an iconic guerrilla commander and the party’s founder. He became president of the region in 2005 after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
While Iraq’s Kurdish region participated in the drafting of the country’s constitution after the overthrow of Saddam, relations between Baghdad and Irbil swiftly deteriorated in early 2014 under then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Maliki froze federal budget payments to the region after Irbil began unilaterally exporting oil through Turkey, a move that began to cripple the region economically. Kurdish leaders said they began the unilateral exports because Maliki had long sent the region a smaller fraction of the country’s total oil profits than they were entitled to.
Relations appeared to improve under the leadership of current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Forces from Iraq’s conventional military moved through Kurdish territory to launch the operation to retake Mosul from IS, a level of cooperation hailed by U.S.-led coalition leaders as unprecedented.
But When Barzani made clear his intention to hold the referendum, al-Abadi, backed by regional and western allies, immediately took a hard line.
Associated Press writer Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.