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Kurdish President Steps Down


The president of Iraq's Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, says he's stepping down after 12 years in power. The move follows a Kurdish referendum on independence, which has destabilized this already volatile region. For more, we're joined by NPR's Jane Arraf. She's in the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil.

Good morning.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Jane, this is an important development. Can you explain to us why?

ARRAF: Yes. Well, as you know, Barzani is part of the landscape here. And while he does have a lot of very fierce critics, you know, a lot of people here see him - a lot of his supporters see him as a father figure. So he launched on this path to pursue a process of independence. And despite warnings not to do it, Kurds went to the polls last month, and they voted in favor of supporting independence.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain to us what the repercussions have been from that very key referendum.

ARRAF: So one of the things - one of the immediate things was the Iraqi government declared it an illegal referendum, and it moved to try to isolate the Kurds. It did that by closing the international airspace. But then the hammer really came down, and it sent Iraqi troops into territory that the Kurds had controlled since 2014. So you'll remember that when ISIS came in and surrounded areas around Kirkuk and other places and were threatening northern Iraq, the Iraqi army collapsed. It disappeared, and Kurdish forces moved in. So last week and the week before that, Iraqi forces started moving, and they pushed out Kurdish forces. They now have control of Kirkuk, which the Kurds thought of as their capital. They have control of some of the oil fields, and they're moving to take control of the borders that the Kurds have also controlled. So it's a devastating blow to Kurdish aspirations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The United States has also warned the Kurds that they did not want them to hold that vote because it could weaken the fight against ISIS. Have we seen any evidence that that's true?

ARRAF: Well, this fight against ISIS, which has been going on for quite a long time, is now really in its final stages. But the fear really is that after this ISIS, there could be another form of ISIS or something else. And it really needs an integrated, united security force and an integrated country to respond to that. So that's why the U.S. had been counseling the Kurds, who are a very, very strong and staunch ally, not to hold the referendum. They thought it would destabilize things. And, indeed, it has.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were at Parliament today. What did you see there?

ARRAF: So at Parliament, where Barzani simply sent a letter saying he was not going to be president anymore - and they needed to sort out where his powers would go. There was just basically a shoving match outside of Parliament. Now, it was declared a closed session, so journalists weren't allowed inside. But one of the opposition parliamentarians came out. And some of the party journalists loyal to Barzani decided that he was being disrespectful. And they started shoving, and he retreated indoors. So that's just a small indication of the fallout this has had.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Where does that leave the Kurds?

ARRAF: Really, it's a whole new ballgame. The borders are shifting. The political landscape is shifting. It's really an earthquake in almost every sense of the word.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Jane Arraf in the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil. Thank you so much.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.