SULAIMANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurdistan’s veteran leader Masoud Barzani will not extend his presidential term beyond Nov. 1, a Kurdish government official said on Saturday.
His decision came just weeks after a referendum on Kurdish independence backfired and triggered a crisis for Iraq’s Kurds who had been enjoying a period of unprecedented autonomy.
A plan to divide up the president’s powers was outlined in a letter Barzani sent to the Kurdish parliament on Saturday, the official told Reuters. The plan asks parliament to distribute the president’s powers among the government, parliament and judiciary.
Barzani’s current term was set to expire in four days, the same date that presidential and parliamentary elections were due to be held. However, those elections were delayed indefinitely last week, amidst an escalating regional crisis.
Critics say the Sept. 25 independence referendum, orchestrated and championed by the 71-year-old Barzani, has left a bleak outlook for Iraq’s Kurds.
Less than four weeks after Kurds in the region voted overwhelmingly to break away from Iraq, the central government launched a military offensive to wrest back the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds regard as both their spiritual homeland, and a key source of revenue for their would-be independent state. It was one of several retaliatory measures taken by Baghdad, which vehemently opposed the referendum.
In a matter of days the Iraqi government has transformed the balance of power in the north of the country, exerting tremendous pressure on Barzani to step aside and wrecking decades-old dreams of Kurdish independence. Iraqi forces have continued to advance on all Kurdish-held territory outside the autonomous region’s borders.
Iraq’s prime minister demanded on Thursday that Kurds declare their independence referendum void, rejecting the Kurdish autonomous region’s offer to suspend its independence push to resolve a crisis through talks.
Earlier this year, Barzani said he did not intend to stand in the November elections. However, prior to the referendum, few expected he would stick to his promise.
Barzani has held the office of the presidency since 2005. The region last held a presidential election in 2009, in which Barzani won. His term of office expired in 2013 and was extended twice.
The president is expected to address his people before his term formally expires, marking the end of a storied career.
Barzani was born in 1946, soon after his legendary father, Mulla Mustafa, founded a party to fight for the rights of Iraq’s Kurds. After decades spent fighting with the Peshmerga, Barzani became a central figure in the drive to create an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq, after Saddam Hussein was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Barzani’s letter will be discussed by parliament on Sunday, though the government official said it was unclear whether ministers would need to vote the plan into action during the session.
(This version of the story corrects paragraph 7 to read “...of Kurdish independence.”)
Reporting by Raya Jalabi; editing by John Stonestreet and Stephen Powell