Kurdish leader says he will step down in wake of failed bid for independence from Iraq


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Masoud Barzani, the longtime president of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan, on Sept. 24, 2017. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

The longtime president of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan said Sunday that he intends to resign, a month after he led a widely criticized referendum on independence that triggered a military response by the Iraqi government.

Masoud Barzani, whose father had been the face of the Kurdish minority’s struggle in Iraq, had promised that the vote would be a vital step in a century-long fight for self-rule. Instead, it unraveled many of the gains the Kurds had made in carving out a semiautonomous region in northern Iraq after decades of war.

Barzani’s intention to step down was announced in a letter addressed to the Kurdistan region’s parliament on Sunday. It was not clear whether Barzani intends to leave public life or whether his resignation would simply curtail his powers and redistribute authority to the legislature and the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government.

Barzani and his powerful family had been the primary architects of a referendum held last month on independence from Iraq. Voters overwhelmingly approved of the move, but Barzani has been repeatedly warned by Iraq’s central government, the United States and regional powers like Iran and Turkey that its results would not be recognized.

Barzani pressed on, even as Kurdish opposition groups expressed misgivings about the timing and scope of the vote.

Of particular concern was the provocative decision to hold the referendum in areas historically disputed between Baghdad and the Kurds, includingKirkuk — an oil-rich province that Kurdish peshmerga forces seized during a chaotic withdrawal of Iraqi forces in the face of an Islamic State onslaught.

Immediately after the Sept. 25 referendum, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered that all border crossings, airports and oil facilities in the Kurdish region be turned over to federal control. Iran and Turkey threatened to close their borders with the Kurdish region.

Earlier this month, Abadi ordered Iraqi forces into Kirkuk and other disputed areas. The show of force resulted in sporadic clashes that have since ceased as Iraqi and Kurdish commanders continued to negotiate Sunday over a settlement on who would control border crossings with Turkey and Syria in the northwest.

The United States did not initially oppose Abadi’s military move, saying it supported Iraq’s bid to impose federal control over disputed territory. It has since urged Baghdad and Kurdish authorities to set aside hostilities and resume talks on revenue-sharing and borders.

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