Kurdistan Regional Government
FRI, 19 APR 2019 06:11 Erbil, GMT +3

Profile of Masoud Barzani, a life in the service of Kurdistan

THU, 27 SEP 2012 12:50 | L'essentiel

By Pierre Le Beller, L'essentiel des relations internationales

With his family origins and his personal history, the President of the Regional Government embodies the Kurds’ continuing fight for autonomy. Twenty years after the beginnings of Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, Masoud Barzani presides over the destiny of a region characterised by major economic and social advances and by exceptional ethnic and religious tolerance.

Masoud Barzani’s origins are indivisibly entwined with the clan from the Barzan valley, one of the most beautiful parts of Iraqi. It was in the magnificent landscapes of this mountainous region that several centuries of the Barzani clan’s history were written, including Kurdistan’s fight for autonomy.

The decisive influence of the Barzani clan and family over the region began in the early years of the 19th century, when Tajaddin, a Barzan tribal chief, joined the Naqshbandi tariqa, one of the main Sufi orders of the dominant Shafi’ite branch of Islam in Kurdistan. By linking the destiny of his tribe with the tariqa, the Barzan clan began to enjoy significant moral and political authority over the region’s population, and in the early 20th century registered the formal support of several mountain tribes (particularly the Dolmari, Muzuri, Sherwani, Baroji and Nizari tribes). This widening of the clan’s influence enabled the Barzani family to advocate Kurdish autonomy, often against the advice of the mullahs of the tariqa.

In 1914, Sheikh Abdul Salam, uncle of Masoud Barzani, who led a series of revolts against the Sublime Porte, was summoned to Mosul to negotiate a ceasefire with the envoys of the Sultan who was making preparations for the First World War. The trap snapped shut on the Barzani delegation: Sheikh Abdul Salam and his men were publically hanged. Ahmed, the Sheikh’s younger brother, rallied the Kurdish tribes and organised a series of revolts in Iraqi Kurdistan after the war, sealing the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

Thus the region rose up in 1919, 1922, 1931 and 1932 under the leadership of Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, self-proclaimed sovereign of the Kingdom of Kurdistan, and of Sheikh Ahmed Barzani. When the latter was defeated and forced into exile by the Anglo-Iraqis, it was the turn of the youngest son, Mulla Mustafa to lead the clan.

For half a century, Masoud Barzani’s father embodied the resistance of the Kurds way beyond the current national borders of Iraq. He transformed the clan into a modern political force and its supporters into hardened and determined fighters. A brilliant diplomat, Mustafa Barzani succeeded in forging alliances with regional and international superpowers and enabled his Peshmergas to stand up to modern armies. Today, Masoud Barzani follows with a real proudness the path drawn by the former leaders of the Barzan clan.

In the name of the father

During many decades of fighting for the autonomy of Kurdistan, it was only during a few rare periods that an embryonic State was administered by Kurds. In the aftermath of World War I, the short-lived republics of Kurdistan in Anatolia (Republic of Ararat) and in the Soviet Union (Kurdistan Uyezd and Kurdistan Okrug) or Mahmud Barzanji’s Kingdom of Kurdistan in Iraq only existed in theory and did not have sufficient time or resources to create viable institutions.

Masoud Barzani was nevertheless born in an independent Kurdistan, a historic anomaly enabled by the context of the aftermath of World War II. A Kurdish Republic in which his father – promoted to General – had become the chief military authority. The Republic of Mahabad, where the President of the KRG was born, was created in January 1946 by Mustafa Barzani and Qazi Muhammad, the founder of the first Kurdish Democratic Party in Iran, with the support of Joseph Stalin.

Perhaps as a sign of what was to come, the date of Masoud Barzani’s birth in this independent Kurdistan co-led by his father and Qazi Muhammad coincided with the creation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which became at that moment the spearhead of the Iraqi Kurdistan political movement. When General Barzani died in 1979, the leadership of the KDP was handed, quite naturally, to his son Masoud, then aged 33, assisted by his elder brother Idris.

The young Masoud Barzani received as his legacy his father’s political training, as well as a charge to promote and defend the Iraqi Kurds’ national fight for autonomy. His father and illustrious uncles also handed down to the youngster, trained at the heart of the KDP, the charisma and political and diplomatic talents of the Barzani clan leaders, as well as the secular dream of constituting a free Kurdistan. He also inherited a Kurdish army movement riven by a number of internal hostilities, particularly one which for over thirty years opposed supporters of the KDP and the KPU, led by Jalal Talabani, the current President of the Republic of Iraq.

In the face of Saddam’s brutal folly

When Masoud Barzani took over the leadership of the KDP, the regional and international situation was extremely fragile for the Kurdish movement. The Soviet Union, the movement’s protective superpower, was preparing to invade Afghanistan, thereby shattering the policy of détente between East and West which had been in place for the previous decade. In the Middle East, the understanding that had existed between Baghdad and Tehran since the 1975 Algiers Agreement silenced vague attempts at separatism from the Kurds in Iraq and Iran. The KDP thus felt the full force of repression from both Saddam and the Shah, characterised by multiple arrests of Kurdish leaders and by large-scale deportations of Kurdish people to Southern Iraq and Eastern Iran.

At the same time, the creation of the more socialist KPU in 1976 presented the KDP with significant competition in terms of the leadership and representation of the Iraqi Kurdistan national movement to major world powers and the non-aligned bloc.

The situation changed radically in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and of the start of the first Gulf War between Ba’athist Iraq and theocratic Iran. The Iran-Iraq war was, for Kurds from both countries, the start of a period of discord and tragedy, the worst of which was without doubt the poison gas attack on the population of Halabja in 1988.

During the conflict, the KPU became closer to Tehran, facilitating Iranian incursions in Iraqi Kurdistan and going so far as to playing the role of auxiliary against armed groups from Iranian Kurdistan allied with Baghdad. In May 1987, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani came together to announce the creation of the Kurdistan Front, a formal alliance between the KPD, the KPU and several armed Kurdish groups against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Before the al-Anfal Campaign, the two groups thereby controlled the majority of Iraqi Kurdistan.

In the aftermath of the massacres perpetrated against Iraqi Kurds, Masoud Barzani, stood up in front of Saddam’s folly and led the peshmergas to new battlefields. In Xwa Kurk, they heroically defeated the Iraqi forces from July to August 1988. The memory of this historical battle is now celebrated every year in Kurdistan.

For Masoud Barzani, the uprising of Iraqi Kurds after Operation Desert Storm was however the final chapter in a litany of tragedies for his people during the 20th century. Saddam’s brutal repression in the spring of 1991, which followed the insurrection of the Kurds from the North and the Shi’ites of the South, convinced the United States and their allies to create a security zone and an air exclusion zone, which enabled Iraqi Kurdistan to break free de facto from the tyrannical authority of Baghdad.

Friends in Paris and Washington

For Masoud Barzani, this was an opportunity to forge sincere and lasting friendships with Washington and Paris, particularly with Danielle Mitterrand, who became the main spokesperson for Iraqi Kurds abroad. As François Mitterrand’s wife, she voiced her support of the Iraqi Kurds after the Anfal and used the issue of Kurdish refugees to convince her husband and his counterparts in other major world powers to protect Kurdistan. When Danielle Mitterrand died in 2012, President Barzani paid a vibrant tribute to the memory of the former French first lady: “For the first time, the Kurds felt that there was someone in Europe of compassion and influence, who valued and supported us, who informed and raised awareness of the pain and suffering of our people,” declared Masoud Barzani on 14 July in Erbil. At his first meeting with François Mitterrand in 1992, Masoud Barzani was given the following assurance by the French President: “To the people of Kurdistan, say that they have a friend in France, and as long as I am in this role, I and the French nation will support you”. At the United Nations, the issue of Iranian Kurdish refugees was brought before the Security Council by France in April 1991, an initiative that led to the adoption of Resolution 688. At this time, Masoud Barzani found in George H. Bush support that would be decisive for the Kurdish cause, without which Operation Provide Comfort would never have happened. Masoud Barzani’s friendship with President Bush, forged in the early 1990s also played a key role when the latter’s son launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, with the support of peshmerga forces in Kurdistan to secure the Northern zone.

With the honours of a Head of State

However, before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 opened up the country to a great extent, Kurdistan underwent several years of distress and discord. The civil war that tore the country apart from 1994 to 1998 weakened Kurdish society considerably but did not undermine the institutions that guaranteed autonomy in the areas that constitute the Kurdistan Autonomous Region. Nor did it end with foreign intervention which could have ruined all hope of a self-governing Kurdistan for a long time. At the end of the conflict, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani arrived at a “Peace of the Brave” agreement in the hope of creating a brighter future for their countries. The reconciliation of the two champions of the Kurdish cause hailed the arrival of a period of political calm and economic reconstruction in Kurdistan.

On a political level, the peace agreement enabled the strengthening of the democratic and liberal institutions established in 1992 and the Region gradually became a refuge for Chaldeo-Assyrian and Turkmen minorities from Northern Iraq.

The American intervention in Iraq in the spring of 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by George W. Bush’s troops was, for Masoud Barzani and all pro-Kurdish movements, a kind of “divine surprise”, which enabled the autonomous region to open up, to establish its legal existence and to strengthen its diplomatic network. Kurdistan thus suffered neither from the instability and chaos caused by the US invasion in the rest of Iraq, nor from the destructive effects of the collapse of the Iraqi state following the overthrow of Saddam. In the aftermath of George W. Bush’s intervention, Masoud Barzani attended the Council of the Iraqi Interim Government, of which he was President in 2004. In June of the following year, the Parliament of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region elected him President of the KRG and at the end of the year he was received at the White House, at 10 Downing Street, at the Palazzo Chigi and at the Vatican with all the honours of a Head of State. Confirmed as President by elections with direct universal suffrage in 2009, Masoud Barzani began a series of major economic, political and social changes in order to make the Kurdistan Autonomous Region a model of stability and dynamism.

Kurdistan ready for self-determination

After his election by the people of Kurdistan, President Barzani set new priorities for his mandate, namely to open up the Autonomous Region, expand foreign partnerships and diversify the country’s economy, all the while openly defying the authority of Baghdad and the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. This is all the more the case given that the status of the disputed areas around Kirkuk, still unresolved, is poisoning relations between Erbil and Baghdad in a context of acute controversy over the signing of oil contracts between major foreign companies already operating in Iraq. Using the dynamism and attractiveness of the Autonomous Region, President Barzani intends to continue the development of infrastructure and partnerships in order to break further away from the domination of Baghdad.
The crisis situation between the federated region and the federal government of Baghdad began in 2008 due to important tensions between Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmergas in the region of Khanaqin. In this life-size game of chess between Baghdad and Erbil which began in 2010, a radical change of diplomatic direction was made when Turkey changed dramatically its policy towards Erbil, forging a new strategic alliance between Erbil and Ankara. Turkey – which hopes to profit from the resources and economic potential of Iraqi Kurdistan, whilst staying a step ahead of the PKK, some of whose base camps are located on Autonomous Region territory – has thus, in just a few years, become the KRG’s main commercial partner and an influential ally in the showdown between President Barzani and the Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Maliki.

In late July 2012, President Barzani reminded his people and all Iraqis that: “I am committed to my responsibility to protect the interests of Kurdistan, of Iraq and of the democratic process. I also feel responsible for protecting the freedom and integrity of the citizens of Kurdistan and I am proud of this duty, in the hope that each of us directs our energies and our power to guide our nation along the path of peace, stability, freedom and a better life.” During an interview with the Qatari television channel Al Jazeera, the KRG President added that the question of independence for Kurdistan was “a natural right of the people”, in that the self-determination of Kurdistan would be a possible exit should the deep-rooted disputes with Baghdad persist.

Keen to “preserve the independence of Kurdistan within Iraq”, President Barzani appears ready to proceed past the point of no return that his father and uncles were never able to approach. Inspired by the recent recognition from new states such as Kosovo and Southern Sudan, President Barzani recently declared “in the course of the last decade, major changes have taken place in the world offering many people freedom… I would not be surprised to see something similar happen in our region”.