The leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq has announced he is stepping down as president, just five weeks after an independence referendum that was supposed to consolidate his party’s grip on power. 

In a televised speech given in Irbil’s parliament on Sunday evening, an ashen-looking Masoud Barzani said he would not seek a new term after the crisis sparked by last month’s referendum on independence from Baghdad. 

“Three million votes for Kurdistan independence created history and cannot be erased,” Mr Barzani said, bitterly accusing his political rivals of “treason” for giving up the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk to central government troops in the fighting sparked by the 25 September vote. 

As MPs discussed the request for his powers to be dissolved dozens of his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) supporters stormed the building, attacking politicians from opposition parties and journalists until police arrived at the scene. A rival party’s office and affiliated television station were also targeted by rioting. Witnesses reported the use of sticks, clubs and gunfire.

Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, speaking from Baghdad, appealed for calm and respect for the law in the northern region on Monday. 

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Mr Abadi signalled that Baghdad would press home its advantage after taking back control of territories that had been disputed with the Kurds. He appeared pleased with the security forces’ quick victory over Kurdish Peshmerga in Kirkuk and emphasised that the central state will now seek to control all of Iraq’s borders, as well as its oil pipelines. 

Such changes will effectively end the Kurdish experiment with self-governance and any dreams of economic independence from Baghdad. 

For the Kurds, the situation five weeks on from the 25 September referendum – which returned a result 93 per cent in favour of splitting from the central government – is a bleak one. The KRG’s international airspace has been closed and the Kurds have lost nearly half of the territory they have controlled since the war against Isis began. 

The region has become increasingly isolated as neighbouring Turkey threatened the use of military force and Ankara as well as Tehran closed their borders to the land-locked area. 

Mr Barzani’s political rivals have accused him of staging the referendum as a gamble designed to secure a mandate for a third term in office. His current term in office ends next week. 

Despite his resignation on Sunday, the former president – who has been at the forefront of Kurdish independence efforts for decades and the KRG president for 12 years – is expected to remain a senior political figure. Presidential elections due in November have been indefinitely postponed.

“We call on all Kurdish parties to support the KRG as it works to resolve pending issues over the remainder of its term and prepare for elections in 2018,” a statement commending Mr Barzani’s decision from the US State Department said. Baghdad and the KRG must “work urgently to resolve pending issues under the Iraqi constitution,” spokesperson Heather Nauert added.



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