Historic moment as ‘Kurdish Mandela’ Barzani stands aside
The leader of Iraq's Kurds has been active on behalf of his people for five decades. His decision to step down comes after a historic referendum on full independence backfired in September
Emotions are running high in Iraqi Kurdistan, as the region’s veteran leader Masoud Barzani ends his presidential term on November 1.
Millions of Kurds have known no other leader in their lives, seeing him as a founding figure and symbol of their cause. He is to them what Nelson Mandela was to the people of South Africa, or Charles de Gaulle to the French.
Unlike a new generation of Kurdish politicians who dabble in English and appear at public functions wearing neatly-pressed western suits, the 71-year old about-to-be former president still dresses like one of his people, always in his warrior outfit — baggy camouflage pants and a checkered kufiyya wrapped around his head.
Although fluent in Arabic and well-versed in English, he insists on speaking nothing but Kurdish, and in an announcement to Parliament on Sunday, declared that his decision to step down was non-negotiable, coming after a historic referendum aimed at giving the Kurds their full independence from Iraq backfired in September.
Barzani was the main drive behind the Kurdish vote, hoping that it would finally achieve Kurdish statehood, crowning a 100-year old struggle. Instead it sparked a storm of controversy and led to Iraqi troops re-taking the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the lifeline of Iraqi Kurdistan. Taking responsibility, Barzani has resigned, dividing his presidential powers between the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches.
Some in the Middle East are drawing parallels between his move and that of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, after the latter lost the war of 1967. In a famed television address, Nasser took full blame for that defeat, resigning to make way for his vice-president, Zakariya Muhiddine. Millions took to the streets of Cairo and throughout Arab capitals, literarily begging him to reconsider. King Hussein of Jordan even remarked: “Only Abdul Nasser got us into this and only Abdul Nasser can get us out.”
Nasser yielded to popular pressure, withdrew his resignation, and died three years later. Barzani was a young man of 21 when he watched that that drama unfold 50 years ago, never imagining that he would one day stand in Nasser’s shoes.
In hindsight, many historians believe that Nasser’s 1967 resignation was a bluff aimed at redemption rather than real responsibility. It’s clear from Barzani’s position, however, that he doesn’t plan to change course, and in any case continues to enjoy tremendous respect throughout the Middle East and beyond.
Millions of Kurds have known no other leader in their lives, seeing him as a founding figure and symbol of their cause. He is to them what Nelson Mandela was to the people of South Africa, or Charles de Gaulle to the French
“I am the same Masoud Barzani,” he said to his people. “A Peshmerga (Kurdish fighter) who will continue to help my people in their struggle for independence.”
By all accounts, Barzani will remain in Erbil and will not retire, positioning himself instead as a “grandfather” of the nation, or kingmaker, molding whoever succeeds him at the helm of power, whether it’s his nephew, the current premier Nechirvan Barzani, or son and intelligence chief, Masrour Barzani.
Barzani’s career has spanned five solid decades, without a break. Nothing seemed to stick to him: no defeat, no setback, no exile. The son of veteran resistance leader Mustapha Barzani, he was born in August 1946, on the very same day that his father established the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
The family fled to the USSR in the 1950s, escaping persecution in Baghdad, then returned after a military coup toppled the Iraqi monarchy in 1958.
The young Masoud joined the Peshmerga, taking part in two Kurdish uprisings in 1962 and 1976. He then moved to the US, before traveling to Iran to raise support for his movement. On the day of his arrival, however, the US-backed Iranian monarchy was toppled and replaced by the present Islamic Republic, which was openly hostile to Kurdish nationalism. It would subsequently reach out to the Kurds to destabilize Iraq whilst refusing to grant any rights to Iranian Kurds at home.
In 1979, Barzani’s father died and the 33-year old warrior-turned-politician assumed his hereditary role in Kurdish politics and the chairmanship of the KDP. That same year, Saddam Hussein came to power in Baghdad and accelerated Iraqi suppression of Kurdish nationalism, sending Barzani into exile in Syria.
Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent US-led Gulf War resulted in the formation of the Kurdistan Regional Government. In 1992, he went to the polls in league with his lifelong friend and rival Jalal Talbani, chairman of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Together they had led the Kurdish underground resistance against Saddam and both had been guests of Damascus. Now they divided power among themselves, taking 50 seats in the newly elected Kurdish Parliament.
The national unity government collapsed in 1994, however, triggering civil war in the Kurdish territories. This resulted in two rival administrations, one led by Talbani in Suleimaniyeh and the other by Barzani in Erbil. Barzani reached out for help from Baghdad while Talbani turned to the Iranians.
They eventually reconciled in 2002 and, three years later, Barzani became president of a united Iraqi Kurdistan while Talbani was voted president of Iraq — becoming the first Kurd to assume the job.
He left office in 2014 and died in early October, while Barzani remained in power until this week, stepping down after the referendum fiasco of September 25. Their back-t0-back demise will leave a giant hole in Kurdish politics — although most predict that Barzani will still carry tremendous influence, even if he is not in the Presidential Palace.