NEW: Demonstrators storm Kurdish parliament building
Masoud Barzani will leave the Kurdish presidency November 1
Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani will step down as president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region as the political backlash to September’s Kurdish independence referendum continues.
Barzani’s office released a statement Sunday announcing the Kurdish leader will not extend his current term, which ends Wednesday. He will also suspend the post of the presidency, dispersing executive powers over other branches of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
“I refuse to continue as president of Kurdistan region after November 1,” Barzani’s letter said. “I will remain as Peshmerga among my brave and patriotic people of Kurdistan, I will continue working toward our nation rights and protect our achievements.”
The letter was read in front of the Kurdish Parliament in Irbil and posted on the official Kurdistan region presidency website.
Dozens of angry demonstrators stormed the Kurdish Parliament building later, demanding an apology from a Kurdish lawmaker who made a comment against Barzani and Peshmerga forces in a press conference, according to Kurdish lawmaker Siror Abdullah and an official with the media office of the Kurdish parliament, Haval Mohammed.
The protesters spent several minutes inside the building before security forces chased them out.
Video showed demonstrators running down the street in the direction of the Parliament building, with one of the demonstrators hitting a television camera that was filming the scene.
A turbulent exit
The military campaign dealt a major blow to Barzani’s independence gambit, loosening the KRG’s grip over much of the territory it had controlled until the standoff this month.
The 71-year-old leader called for a referendum on independence from Iraq despite heavy opposition from Baghdad, as well regional powerhouses Iran and Turkey. The United States, the United Kingdom and the UN Security Council also spoke out against the plebiscite.
This month, Iraqi forces wrested power over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, controlled by Iraqi Kurds since 2014. Several other areas, considered disputed between the Iraqis and the Kurds, were reclaimed by Iraqi government forces in the military advances.
Kirkuk is critical to the government coffers of both the KRG and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Kurdish forces gained control of the mutli-ethnic city after Iraqi government forces abandoned it during the ISIS offensive in 2014.
Barzani was the first President of Iraqi Kurdistan after its autonomy was constitutionally upheld by Iraq’s government in 2005. He is credited with ushering in a period of economic prosperity and fostering rapid urban development in its major cities.
That economic boom ground to a halt in 2014 when ISIS began its brutal conquest of Iraq and Syria. Shortly after the rise of the extremist group, Barzani gave his strongest-ever indication that his government would be pursuing independence.
“Iraq is obviously falling apart,” Barzani said in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
“We did not cause the collapse of Iraq. It is others who did. And we cannot remain hostages for the unknown,” he said through an interpreter.
“The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold.”
Kurdish region divided after WWI
For Kurds, statehood has been more than a century in the making. Their calls for a Kurdish nation were ignored in a 1916 British-French secret agreement, known as Sykes-Picot, that drew the boundaries of the modern-day Middle East.
In the final treaty marking the conclusion of World War I, the Allies dropped demands for an autonomous Turkish Kurdistan. Instead, the Kurdish region was divided up among several countries.
The man who brought dreams of Kurdish statehood closer to reality than ever before was born in the self-governing Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. The Republic of Mahabad, in present-day Iran, lasted for only one year, and Barzani’s father was chief of its military.
Barzani has served as president since 2005.
This year, he told Foreign Policy magazine that he wished to bring his life full circle.
“I want to die in the shadow of the flag of an Independent Kurdistan,” Barzani told Foreign Policy.
Muhammad Jambaz in Erbil and Sherko Alan and Mohammed Tawfeeq in Atlanta contributed to this report.