A man sews an Iraqi Kurdish flag that will bear a portrait of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani. Photo: AFP / Safin Hamed
A man sews an Iraqi Kurdish flag that will bear a portrait of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani. Photo: AFP / Safin Hamed

When they carved out of the Iraqi nation a breakaway state after the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds boasted that they were going to become everything that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was not. They were a democracy, after all, amidst a neighborhood of military regimes, and an open economy shining among centralized and controlled socialist economies. They were also young and fresh, within a family of Arab nations that were as old as history itself.

Much of that hope was dashed as Kurdistan morphed into a security state – less repressive than Saddam’s Iraq, no doubt, but not much different from Arab regimes elsewhere, especially when it came to freedom of expression. 

Over the weekend, the Barzani dynasty, which has dominated Iraqi Kurdish political life for the past century, consolidated its hold on the modern state.

It was announced on Sunday that Masrour, the son of ex-president Masoud Barzani, would become the next prime minister, while another Barzani, Nechirvan, would rise to the presidency.

A family affair

No family is better known to three generations of Iraqi Kurds than the Barzanis. They are the only constants in a rapidly changing region, where newcomers are emerging fast throughout the Middle East, replacing politicians who have been in power since the 1960s.

The powerful Barzani dynasty was founded by Mullah Mustafa, the inspirational leader of the Kurdish revolution against the central government in Baghdad, from the mid-1930s until his death in March 1979. He is the grandfather of the prime minister and president, and father of the former president Masoud. His father, grandfather, and brother were executed by the Ottomans at the turn of the 20th century for harboring separatist ambitions.

Mullah Mustafa Barzani worked with anybody willing to support his cause, from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. He also dabbled with both the Iranians and the Syrians, ending up in exile near Tehran and dying at a US hospital weeks after the Iranian revolution.

The new Kurdish president is 52 and has served in the family party’s political bureau since 1989. Six years later, he became deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan region, assuming the premiership from 2006 to 2009, and then again from 2012 until 2018. During the interim period, another Kurdish politician named Barham Salih served as prime minister and has been the new president of the Iraqi Republic since last October. Nechirvan played a vital role during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, putting his full weight behind the toppling of Saddam.

Mullah Mustafa Barzani worked with anybody willing to support his cause, from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to US secretary of state Henry Kissinger

His cousin Masrour, 49, presently serves as chancellor of the Kurdish Security Council, overseeing military intelligence and the security apparatus, a position assumed during the presidency of his father, Masoud Barzani. He joined the Kurdish military resistance, known as the peshmerga, at the age of 16, and took part in a 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein. He was schooled in Iran and completed his undergraduate studies at the American University in Washington DC. During the past few years, he gained prominence for his strategic role in the fight against ISIS, advising on counter-terrorism strategies both in Iraq and Kurdish-held parts of Syria.

The decision was announced on Sunday in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, after a parliamentary election concluded in September, where the Barzani family’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) won 45 seats, just 11 short of an absolute majority.

Masoud’s rule comes full circle

The consolidation of power by the younger Barzanis can be seen as sweet revenge for the aging Masoud, who stepped down as president last year after a controversial statehood referendum was held in Iraqi Kurdistan that sparked off a military confrontation with the authorities in Baghdad.

Masoud was born in August 1946, coincidentally on the very same day that his father established the KDP, making him the same age as the family’s political party. He lived with his father in the former USSR during the 1950s and took part in two military uprisings against Baghdad, in 1962 and 1976.

The Kurdistan Regional Government was formed in 1992, shortly after of the US-led war for the liberation of Kuwait greatly weakened Saddam’s grip over the country. Power rotated between and his long-time compatriot Jalal Talbani, another historical figure who chaired the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). He and Barzani had both led the Kurdish underground against Saddam from their temporary exiles in Iraq and Syria. Each of them took 50 seats in the first Kurdish parliament.

A civil war in the Kurdish territories erupted in the mid-1990s, resulting in two rival administrations, one led by Talbani in Suleimanieh and another by Barzani in Erbil. They eventually reconciled in 2002, with Barzani becoming president of a united Kurdistan and Talabani becoming president of post-Saddam Iraq. Talbani left office in 2014 and died in October 2017, leaving behind a giant hole in Kurdish politics – deepened and made all the more worrying by Barzani’s departure in September of the same year.

Taking blame for misreading the geopolitical landscape – and for believing that the Trump administration would support Kurdish statehood – Barzani resigned in the wake of the referendum.

The resignation was hailed as brave and historic, the first in a region where presidents either die in office, are assassinated or toppled after decades in power. Now that his son and nephew are fully in control of the state, many are wondering how the dynasty will operate as power is bequeathed – democratically – from one generation to the next.

Challenges ahead

Masoud Barzani’s son is now prime minister, while his nephew is president of the semi-autonomous state. The family legacy is well preserved, and so is their hereditary role in Kurdish politics. First on their agenda will be repairing relations with the central government in Iraq, which has been strained since the 2017 independence vote. At the time, Iraq shut its borders with Kurdistan, laying siege to its tiny neighbor and closing down its airports. With the support of Shiite militias, the Iraqi army re-took the strategic city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds had snatched after they liberated it from ISIS, claiming that it was part of “historic Kurdistan.”

Relations thawed after the election of Adel Abdul Mehdi as prime minister last October. He is a good friend of the Kurds and served as the representative of his political party in Kurdistan in the 1990s. He also has an excellent working relationship with Iraq’s Kurdish president, Barham Salih, a long-time associate of the Barzanis. Baghdad recently waived heavy tariffs on goods traveling to Kurdistan and welcomed Masoud Barzani for a landmark visit, receiving him with a red carpet.

The Barzani cousins have to live up to a promise they made to their people to hold a referendum vote on the future of Kirkuk, to see whether its people want to remain part of Iraq or to be annexed by Kurdistan. According to the constitution, that vote should have happened 11 years ago. 

Some lawmakers are demanding the reduction of presidential powers and the empowering of the premiership instead, something that if pursued seriously, might lead to friction between the Barzani cousins. If it doesn’t, they need to join forces in the fight against remaining pockets of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria – a task that Masrour Barzani will probably lead, due to his expertise in counter-terrorism.

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