Kurdistan Region gets new President

Nechirvan Barzani has been a central figure in the region since the late 1990s and is credited with its economic success.

By
May 29, 2019 19:40
3 minute read.
Iraqi Kurds wave flags of Iraqi Kurdistan during a demonstration

Iraqi Kurds wave flags of Iraqi Kurdistan during a demonstration. (photo credit: SAFIN HAMED / AFP)

The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq has a new president: Nechirvan Barzani – a nephew of former president Masoud Barzani – was elected on Tuesday.

Barzani is known for his economic acumen and also his role in smoothing relations with the Kurdish region’s neighbors after the 2017 independence referendum.

Born in 1966, Barzani had been the prime minister of the region several times in the last 20 years. He comes from a leading family of the Kurdistan Democratic Party – his father and grandfather were both famous fighters for Kurdish rights.

According to a biography on the KRG’s official website, he was forced to flee Iraq in the 1970s during Saddam Hussein’s persecution and genocide of Kurds. He lived in Iran and later returned when Kurds were able to eject Iraqi forces from parts of northern Iraq.

Barzani was first appointed prime minister in 1999 while in his 30s. With only a brief period not at the helm, he was prime minister from 1999 to 2009, and then again from 2012 until 2019. He has guided the region through its intense economic development, and also through the chaos and hardship of the war against Islamic State. This was a period of austerity, and Barzani faced many hurdles from 2014 to 2017 to keep the region afloat.

Before ISIS attacked the Kurdish region in August 2014, the area was enjoying times of prosperity and booming tourism. Yet the war changed much of that, sending hundreds of thousands of men to the frontlines as Peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdish region, to defend it against extremists.

In the fall of 2017, the region also held an independence referendum, over objections from Baghdad, Iran, Turkey and even the US and UN. Although a vast majority voted for independence, the region was isolated by Baghdad and its airports closed. Baghdad sent tanks into Kirkuk and retook oil fields that the KRG had been administering.

Since October 2017, when the region reached a low point in its relations with neighbors and Baghdad, Barzani has worked to repair ties, successfully guiding the Kurdish region between difficult challenges that it faces in relations with Iran and Turkey, its powerful neighbors.

Turkey is involved in increasing operations against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, and Iran also fired missiles against Kurdish dissidents in Koya in the fall of 2018.

Baghdad also sought to force the region to reduce the number of civil servants on its payroll. The US and UK have encouraged the region to reform its Peshmerga and end the divisions that have resulted in Peshmerga units being loyal to either the KDP or the second largest political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KDP also faced a test in trying to push its own candidates for ministries in Baghdad, and to encourage Iraq to select one of its own as president. Instead the PUK’s Barham Salih became president of Iraq in the fall of 2018.

Barzani also must wrestle with the difficulties posed by US-Iran tensions. In January, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif came to Erbil to meet with Barzani and his cousin Masrour Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Security Council. Masrour will likely become the new prime minister of the region.

Public congratulations and support for Barzani’s election has come from the US State Department, Turkey’s foreign minister and others. Now his challenge will be to continue the reforms – economic and security achievements that have made the Kurdistan region one of the safest areas in the region, and a destination for capital investment and tourism after the defeat of Islamic State.


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