Masrour Barzani set to be next prime minister of Kurdish region in Iraq

Nechirvan Barzani, who has served as Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, was nominated for President

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December 3, 2018 13:09
Iraqi Kurdish security chief Masrour Barzani, casts his vote, during parliamentary elections in the

Iraqi Kurdish security chief Masrour Barzani, casts his vote, during parliamentary elections in the semi-autonomous region, on the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq September 30, 2018. . (photo credit: REUTERS/AZAD LASHKARIG)

 
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Nechirvan Barzani, who has served as Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, was nominated for President of the region on Monday. Masrour Barzani, the head of the regional security council was also nominated as Prime Minister, a position he will likely receive because his political party is the largest in the KRG. The transition is important for the Kurdish autonomous region as it seeks to reach out to countries in the region and improve its economic standing and stability.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party held a meeting in Erbil, the capital of the KRG, on Sunday to nominate members for the leadership of the region. They are seeking to form a government and cabinet after the September 30 elections. “The KDP, which came first in the 30 September elections, has nominated Masrour Barzani as a candidate for the Prime Minister of the region. The Kurdistan region’s parliament will pass the nominee of the ruling party to form the next cabinet in the coming weeks,” said Ceng Sagnic, Coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.

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The nomination of Nechirvan Barzani for the presidency could take more time to be approved as the region’s presidency was thrown into chaos after a historic independence referendum last September. In the wake of the referendum in 2017 the Iraqi central government sent tanks into Kirkuk, taking the city from the Kurdish Peshmerga who had defended it from Islamic State since 2014. This caused a crises in the Kurdish region as Masoud Barzani, the President, stepped down and Iraq closed the KRG’s airports. A year later the region is back on track. Economically it is performing well, exporting oil and signing agreements. Masoud Barzani made a historic trip to Baghdad in late November and Masrour Barzani went to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.  The other large Kurdish parties in the region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Gorran, are expected to seek high positions in the new government and come to terms with the KDP nominations.

Sagnic says that the changes may result in reduced powers for the new presidency but that overall it bodes well for the Kurds. “The KDP has been strengthened by the referendum and the fall of Kirkuk as the ruling party that stood and advocated Kurdish nationalism, it indicates that it is not possible to challenge Kurdish nationalism in the region.” The Kurds were criticized by the US and neighboring states, such as Turkey and Iran, for pursuing the referendum, however the KDP, which pushed for the vote, performed well in this years local elections. “The election victory of the KDP and party’s success at convincing other parties to reopen the parliament and the nominations shows that the KDP was strengthened,” says Sagnic.

Nachirvan Barzani, the candidate for the presidency, is known as a smooth and competent manager of the region’s affairs. Barzani, who was born in 1966 in Barzan in the Kurdish region, is the grandson of Kurdistan Democratic Party founder Mustafa Barzani and nephew of the former President of the KRG Masoud Barzani. Nechirvan Barzani was forced to flee northern Iraq in 1975 during the reign of terror of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime. He lived in Iran and became a senior leader in the region after it was freed from Saddam’s grasp in the wake of the First Gulf War. As Prime Minister from 1999 to 2012 he was a firm hand during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and helped forge the economy of the KRG, making it the most successful area in Iraq.


Masrour Barzani, the nominee for Prime Minister to replace Nechirvan, was born in 1969 and studied in the United States. His expertise has been in the security of the Kurdish region, which has made it the safest area in Iraq, free from the terror attacks and sectarian violence of other parts of the country. “He has been known for his diplomatic skills. Even though he comes from a security background he has taken an active role in relations with western governments. We have seen him visiting the US and holding talks. In diplomatic arena the premiership or Masrour will provide diplomatic standing,” says Sagnic.

The change in the leadership of the region may appear like a reshuffling of porfolios among the KDP and its leading family, but it represents a handover of power to a younger generation in the post-referendum era. It also represents continuity as both the Barzanis now slated for continued leadership have been central to the region’s politics and development for decades.

The Kurdistan region faces several challenges. Iran seeks to play a role in the region and attempts by Iranian intelligence to penetrate northern Iraq and monitor dissidents have been a constant threat. In September Iran fired ballistic missiles at Koya in the KRG to target Iranian Kurdish opposition groups. In addition Turkey maintains bases in the Kurdish region where it is fighting against the Kurdistan Workers Party. The KRG also is seeking negotiations regarding Sinjar and Kirkuk, two disputed regions that were wrested from KRG control last year. There are 300,000 Yazidis living in IDP camps in the Kurdish region that want to return to Sinjar but have been prevented due to road closures. Baghdad has not been able to resolve the issue. In Kirkuk local officials have been accused of trying to push Kurds out of villages and of allowing security to deteriorate.

To shore up its relations the KRG leadership has been holding frequent meetings with western and regional officials. Masrour Barzani met the EU Counter-Terror Coordinate Gilles de Kerchove and the US ambassador to Iraq in late November. He also travelled to Baghdad with Masoud Barzani, his father, to discuss Baghdad-Erbil relations. A high level Swedish delegation also visited the KRG and the KRG has been reaching out to the Gulf states for financing and support in reconstruction. This is important because after the defeat of ISIS the Kurdish region wants to repair its economy. It faces hurdles in having a bloated public sector and it is also trying to push through a massive reform of its local armed forces, the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga have been divided between the leading KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the second largest party in the region. For more than a decade there has been a push to integrate the units and free them from party affiliation.  Once the new cabinet is formed and a new President appointed, the region might be able to proceed with these economic and military reforms. However the past has shown that reforms that are seen to undermine traditional patronage structures and the entrenched status quo do not come easily. This is especially true because the region has had to respond to other crises such as the rise of ISIS. If extremism can be kept in check in the rest of Iraq, and financial support materializes from the west and the Gulf, the KRG will be entering a new era.

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