Category Archives: Iraq-Kurds

Sinjar’s bittersweet victory

Sinjar’s bittersweet victory

Retaking Sinjar from the Islamic State group is a triumph for Iraq, but its seizure by the Kurds could also be a setback for the country, writes Salah Nasrawi

Things couldn’t have gone much better for the embattled president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, who faces an on-going revolt by opposition parties and civil society groups for refusing to step down and hold presidential elections despite the end of his term in office in August.

A joint Kurdish force on Friday took control of the strategic town of Sinjar in northern Iraq with the help of US-led coalition airstrikes after more than 15 months of its seizure by the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Barzani rushed to declare victory for “liberating” Sinjar, alleging that the town, part of the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, had been retaken solely by the Kurdistan Region Government’s (KRG) forces.

“Sinjar has been liberated by the Peshmergas,” Barzani boasted, using the Kurdish name for the fighters. He said the town, like dozens of others taken back from IS, would remain forever under the KRG’s red, white, green and yellow banner.

“Other than the Kurdistan flag, we do not accept any other flag rising over Sinjar,” Barzani vowed in a video from atop a hill overlooking the city whose name has been changed by Kurds to Shengal.

But celebrating the annexation of Sinjar, underlined by Barzani’s bragging, may not be as good as it looks. By declaring the liberation of Sinjar, a contested town which is traditionally populated by the Yazidi religious minority, Barzani may have overplayed his hand while he is being challenged by the Shia-led Iraqi government in Baghdad and his Kurdish rivals.

Shia Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi reacted angrily to the announcement and insisted that the Iraqi flag should be raised above the town, while Shia groups demanded that Sinjar be placed back under the central government’s control.

Meanwhile, Barzani has been facing tough opposition to his leadership at home. The main Kurdish parties have challenged his legitimacy as KRG president after he refused to hold elections to choose a new president following the expiration of his second term in office.

Barzani has also refused to step down, triggering a political crisis that has paralysed the government and regional parliament. The dispute culminated in late October when the KRG unilaterally removed four ministers from the Gorran (Change) Party from their posts and replaced them with Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) loyalists.

Barzani’s KDP security forces also barred the speaker of the parliament, a senior Gorran member, from entering Erbil, the region’s capital, in a move slammed by opposition parties as illegal.

Barzani’s swift declaration of triumph in Sinjar could be an unrealistic self-assessment by an embattled leader who is trying to reestablish himself as a Kurdish national hero.

Analysts have noted that Barzani has been trapped by his own ambitions and attempts to stay strong, and Sinjar’s capture could do little to overcome his woes by substituting IS or his political adversaries for building a unified and democratic Kurdistan.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, Sinjar, home to the biggest Yazidi community in Iraq and hosting some of its most scared shrines, has been a flashpoint for ethnic and religious disputes.

The Yazidis are a religious minority that descends from some of the region’s most ancient roots. Though most of the nearly half a million Yazidis in Iraq speak a kind of a Kurdish dialect they remain members of a distinctive religion.

While some Iraqi Yazidis consider themselves to be Kurds, others, like the more than a million Yazidis in Russia, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Iran who do not identify themselves with ethnicities in these countries, refuse to be identified with the Kurds, who are also predominantly Sunni Muslims.

Over the centuries, the Yazidis have been persecuted by their Muslim neighbours who see them as non-believers. In recent years, Yazidis have been slaughtered by fanatics in Iraq, including Kurds, who have used trucks laden with explosives and driven them into their towns.

Sinjar has been a hotbed for inter-Kurdish rivalry since the conflict in Syria started some five years ago. Several Kurdish factions have been seeking dominance of the strategic town which lies on the border with Syria and Turkey.

While Barzani’s Peshmerga forces have long been dominant in towns and villages neighbouring Sinjar, they have been contested by fighters from the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey which is vying for influence across Kurdish areas in Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Following the capture of Sinjar by IS militants in summer 2014, the PKK helped to find a representative political body for displaced Yazidis and established a Yazidi force to fight against IS militants and to police Yazidi areas.

This force, considered as the most organised, is believed to have played a key role in the fight to take back Sinjar from IS militants.

Other Yazidis have independently formed a voluntary military force known as the Sinjar Defence Units. In April, KDP security forces briefly detained a leader of this group on charges of setting up an illegal military force before releasing him for fear of a backlash.

Yazidis from all over the world have joined these groups in the fight against IS.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the KDP’s main rival in the autonomous Region, has also been expanding its organisations in Sinjar. Its members are working closely with the PKK, other Kurdish groups and Yazidi forces to challenge Barzani’s control of this vital area.

Sinjar is situated in territories often called “disputed territories” by the KRG. Since the war to push back IS militants began last year, Kurdish Peshmergas have seized several towns and cities, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

KRG officials said the newly acquired territories would remain under the jurisdiction of the Kurdish Government and would not be returned to the Baghdad government. The territorial conflict between the Kurds and the Baghdad government is highly contentious and may trigger a war because both sides consider the land a core interest.

The recapture of Sinjar from IS comes amid rising tensions between the Kurdish Peshmergas and Shia paramilitary forces in other parts of the so-called disputed areas.

On Thursday, violence in Tuz Khurmatu, a town about 175 km north of Baghdad, left at least 16 people dead, including five civilians. The fighting turned the mostly Turkomen-populated town into a battlefield and cut a strategic road linking Baghdad to Kirkuk.

The clashes began when fighters from a Turkomen-Shia armed group tried to ram a checkpoint in the town manned by Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Most of the Tuz Khurmatu population are Shias, though they are also ethnically Turkomen. They have been resisting Kurdish attempts to impose control over their town for some time.

Though the fighting stopped after mediation by top politicians, Shia militias said they had been sending reinforcements to the town and threatened to “protect” Tuz Khurmatu against what they described as “the barbaric attacks by the Kurdish Peshmergas.”

Barzani’s grip on power remains strong, but this and many other flashpoints should serve as a reminder that he needs to learn the limit of his strength and that he cannot capitalise on the chaos in Iraq to stay forever as the leader of the Kurds and advance his own agenda.

The recapture of Sinjar has dominated headlines and raised expectations that IS will now be driven from other cities in Iraq. But Barzani’s unwavering determination to keep the territories under KRG control has raised red flags in Baghdad and other capitals in the region.

While Al-Abadi has publicly voiced concerns about raising the Kurdish flag in Sinjar, other Shia politicians have warned of the Kurdish use of the standoff to expand control over huge swathes of land taken back from IS.

Qais Al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq militia, warned that the Shias would “liberate” Sinjar from the Kurds. “Sinjar is an Iraqi town which has changed from the Daesh occupation to another occupation,” Al-Khazali said, using the Arabic name for IS.

“We will take back the town,” he vowed.

These and other clashing interests speak volumes about the challenges Iraq now faces, and territorial disputes have a strong possibility of developing into wars.

Last week, Barzani told a delegation from Sulaimaniyah pushing for reconciliation that a Kurdish state could have been declared had the Region’s political parties avoided the current crisis over his presidency.

This overstatement might have been designed to strike a nationalistic chord, but going too far in exploiting Iraq’s chaos to serve a personal agenda will have far-reaching consequences, including the failure to eliminate IS threats to both the Kurds and the Baghdad government.

This article first appeared  in Al-Ahram Weekly on November 19, 2015

Kurdistan drama worsens

Kurdistan drama worsens

The gap between the Kurdistan region’s president and his opponents may be too great to bridge, writes Salah Nasrawi

Talks over a deal to end the crisis over the election of a new leader to replace the embattled Kurdistan regional President Masoud Barzani broke down yet again last week, raising the stakes in the volatile semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq.

Violence erupted in several towns after the collapse of talks aimed at breaking the impasse between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and four of the region’s main political groups. Protesters set the KDP’s offices ablaze and demanded that Barzani leave office.

On 8 October, after nearly five hours of negotiations in Sulaimaniya, talks that had been billed as a last attempt to close the gap between Barzani’s KDP and its opponents came to a halt. Those opposed to Barzani are refusing to renew the president’s tenure.

Barzani’s last term in office, which ended in July 2013, was extended by two years by the Kurdish parliament on the grounds that the region was not ready to elect a new president. Despite restrictions by Kurdistan’s laws on a third term, Barzani refused to step down after his tenure ended on 19 August.

The Kurdistan government crisis started when four parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Gorran (Change) Movement, Kurdistan Islamic Union and Kurdistan Islamic League — rejected a decree by Barzani setting 20 August as the date of a direct national ballot to elect the region’s president. They argued that the move was unconstitutional.

They insisted that Barzani abide by the region’s draft constitution, which limits the presidency to two terms, and called for a vote by members of the Kurdistan parliament to choose a new president in line with the region’s legislation.

Barzani, however, has rebuffed the opposition and decided to cling to power. Representatives of the political factions who have been meeting since August have failed to resolve the conflict.

Officials said the failure of the last-ditch talks show that the differences between the KDP and representatives of the four opposition groups are irreconcilable. Opposition groups want to see Kurdistan ruled by a parliamentary system and not by the current presidential system which gives the president enormous power.

On Saturday, Rabon Tawfiq of the Gorran Movement told local media that the KDP has backed down on “concessions” made earlier by its delegates on Barzani’s presidency. Tawfiq did not elaborate but said the KDP still insists that the region’s president be elected directly by the public and remain supreme commander of the armed forces with the final word on security issues.

Among other preconditions, which the opposition groups have vehemently rejected, was giving the president overall power to veto legislation by the parliament, Tawfiq said.

Other officials said the KDP representatives turned down a proposal by the opposition that a new election law should explicitly state that the president of the Kurdistan region should ask the bloc that has a majority of members of parliament to form the regional government.

They told local media that Barzani insists on the current system, which allows the president to appoint a prime minister from the party that wins the largest number of seats in the elections. The KDP, which is in control of two of the three main provinces in Kurdistan, has often won the largest number of seats in regional elections.

The collapse of the talks has created fears that the crisis in the Kurdistan presidential elections could enter a perilous new phase that could push the region into further chaos.

Within hours of breaking the news of the failure of the negotiations, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in cities across the Kurdistan region to denounce the deadlock.

In Sulaimaniyah, the power base of the PUK and Gorran Movement, protesters clashed with police in front of the hotel where the negotiators were staying. On Friday, demonstrators in the city of Qalatdizeh attacked a KDP office and set it on fire. Two people were killed and five others were wounded in clashes with office guards.

The protests continued throughout the week, with demonstrators shouting slogans that Barzani should leave office and attacking and torching several offices of the KDP in the Sulaimaniyah province.

In retaliation, KDP supporters attacked Gorran Movement offices in the Kurdistan regional capital of Erbil and in Dohuk, both of which are under the control of Barzani’s party.

Meanwhile, the bickering has polarised Kurdish politics and compounded an economic crisis triggered by drops in revenues caused by the cost of battling the Islamic State (IS) terror group and low oil prices.

Many in Kurdistan blame the financial crisis, which has pushed the region to the verge of bankruptcy, on Barzani’s administration. In addition to the power struggle, the government has been fraught with corruption, cronyism and inefficiency.

Many civil servants have not been paid for three months, and thousands of private-sector businesses have remained closed because of the financial crunch.

High unemployment and poverty have driven thousands of young Iraqi Kurds to leave Kurdistan in recent years, seeking asylum in Australia, Europe and the United States.

Once hailed by the Western media as a flourishing oasis of democracy and peace in the war-torn and sectarian-divided Iraq, Kurdistan has increasingly been moving towards autocracy.

Criticism has been mounting over Barzani’s heavy-handed rule and his family’s monopoly on power in the region. The opposition says that the Barzani family is corrupt and that it uses the security forces to crack down on political opponents.

Many analysts believe that by refusing to negotiate the terms of the presidential elections in good faith and prolonging the electoral crisis, Barzani plans to stay in office for an unlimited period and probably for life.

Speculation is high that Barzani is promoting his eldest son, Masrour Barzani, as his successor. Masrour, who leads the intelligence service, already wields enormous power. His nephew and son-in-law, Nechirvan Barzani, is the KDP deputy chairman and the region’s prime minister.

Other members of the Barzani family have also been dominant in the region’s politics and economy.

In April, Ali Hama Saleh, a Gorran Movement member of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional parliament, wrote that thousands of loyalists and cronies have been receiving pensions and salaries from the government without being eligible for the payments.

Writing in Al-Mashhad Al-Akheer (The Last Scene) newspaper this week, Kurdish opposition writer Georges Kolizadah accused Barzani of pushing the region “towards total collapse.”

“Barzani is the main culprit behind this accumulation of problems and the cause of driving the Kurdish people into these dangerous problems,” he wrote.

Kolizadah said the region’s economy and finance systems are on the verge of collapse. He said that corruption, graft, the embezzlement of government property, the control of oil revenues and the real estate sector, and inefficiency in government are the causes behind Kurdistan’s political and economic crises.

Critics have accused Barzani’s administration of stifling free expression, the independent media and the democratic process in the region. Last week, the international human rights group Human Rights Watch accused the KDP’s intelligence service of “stamping on peaceful dissent.”

It accused the Kurdish authorities of detaining activist Esa Barzani “solely due to his peaceful criticism of the ruling party” and said Barzani has been in detention since 14 August after he had posted pictures in support of rival Kurdish leaders Abdullah Öcalan and Jalal Talabani.

On Monday, the crisis took a sharp turn when Nechirvan Barzani removed four ministers from his cabinet and the speaker of the parliament was barred from entering the capital. The dramatic steps were seen as an escalation that threatens to destabilise the region.

In a statement, the Gorran Movement described the move as a “political coup” and accused Barzani’s KDP of trying to instigate “a civil war” in the region.

As this article went to press, the Kurdistan political crisis has entered uncharted territory, with no signs of attempts being made to stop the decline.

With the presidential elections stalemated, the government dysfunctional, the parliament suspended and violent protests on the streets, Kurdistan’s unrest is just starting and the region’s crisis is set to worsen.

This article first published in Al Ahram Weekly on Oct. 15, 2015

Kurdish dreams in peril

Kurdish dreams in peril

 Iraqi Kurdistan regional president Masoud Barzani’s ambitions to stay in power are proving costly for the Iraqi Kurds, writes Salah Nasrawi

 Last month the embattled president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani set 20 August as the date for a direct national ballot to elect the Region’s president, only one day before his tenure comes to an end.

The decree was Barzani’s latest move on Kurdistan’s complicated political chessboard to outmanoeuvre opponents of his endeavour to win a new term in office despite restrictions by the Region’s draft constitution.

The main Kurdish political parties immediately rebuffed Barzani’s move as unconstitutional and insisted on a vote by members of the Kurdistan parliament in line with the Region’s legislation. 

The Independent Election Commission, the constitutional organ entitled to arrange and supervise balloting, also snubbed Barzani’s decision to hold the election without its approval.

Negotiations to end the dispute have thus far been deadlocked, raising speculation about how the incumbent president will act in order to avoid a governmental crisis in the autonomous Region that is already embroiled in a conflict with the Iraqi capital Baghdad and a fight with the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

At the centre of the controversy is Barzani’s desire to remain president despite legal and constitutional limits. The opposition argues that Barzani should leave office when his term ends on 19 August in order to pave the way for the parliament to choose a new president.

The row, touching the core of the Kurdistan Region’s fragile political system, has put its nascent democracy to its biggest test yet. If it is left unsolved, it will have dramatic repercussions on the Region’s stability and the political future of the Iraqi Kurds.

At the heart of crisis lies the failure of the Kurdish movement in Iraq to build a genuine union after it carved out self-rule status following the defeat of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War and his withdrawal from the Kurdish-populated north of Iraq.

Together, the two main political groups, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by veteran nationalist Jalal Talabani, formed an administration to run Iraqi Kurdistan.

But what had been envisaged as a consensual democracy has been replaced in effect by a deeply incoherent system of power-sharing between the Region’s two main political groups, which have effectively turned Kurdistan into a shared autocracy.

In May 1992 the Iraqi Kurds held their first election to choose representatives for a legislative council. The aim was to form an administration to provide public services and to meet the basic needs of the population after Saddam’s retreat.

Having failed to achieve a majority in the Kurdistan National Assembly and form a government, the KDP and the PUK agreed to share power by dividing the seats in the government equally among themselves.

But instead of strengthening the emerging semi-autonomous Region, the process, which became known as a 50-50 deal between Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK, started to tear apart.

Gradually, the alliance started to deteriorate as the two parties fought over resources and government revenues and each of them remained entrenched in territories under its control, refusing to integrate into the union.

By 1996, the KDP, supported by Saddam’s republican guard, stormed Erbil, the Kurdish capital which was under PUK control, and claimed jurisdiction over the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan. Hundreds of their members were killed in fighting over territory and political clout.

While Barzani maintained his Party’s grip on most of Iraqi Kurdistan, PUK forces remained concentrated around the town of Sulaymaniya close to the Iranian border.

It was only after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled the Saddam regime that the KDP-PUL coalition imposed its control over the new administration in Kurdistan, which was declared a federal region by Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution.

Nevertheless, the power-sharing system soon proved to be dysfunctional. There are multiple reasons behind the agreement’s failure, including the traditional competition over power and resources and the heavy-handed rule both parties have imposed on the Region.

The underlining reason, however, was the rise of Gorran, or the Change Movement, in 2009 on a platform of political reform and combating corruption.

In the 2013 election, the group, whose leaders had split from the PUK, won the second largest number of seats in the parliament, altering the political landscape in the Region.

At the top of Gorran’s demands was to change the political system into a parliamentary one in which the prime minister would become the head of the government and the role of the president would be ceremonial.

Gorran soon succeeded in pushing for a draft constitution for the Region that curtails presidential powers and an election law that imposes a two-term limit for presidential tenure in office.

Barzani, 69, has led the KDP since the death of his eldest brother Idris in 1987. Idris succeeded their father, the nationalist Kurdish leader Moustafa Barzani, as commander of the Peshmerga forces in the guerrilla war against Baghdad.

Barzani was elected by the parliament as president of the Kurdistan Region for a four-year term in 2005. In 2009, he was re-elected by the general public according to a law passed by his Party’s majority in the parliament. The opposition have since contested the law, which they say violates Kurdistan’s draft constitution.

Under his rule, the government turned into a presidential system. The president is the head of the Kurdistan Region and wields huge powers, including commander of the military and security forces. The prime minister, who is appointed by parliament, runs many of the day-to-day duties of the cabinet.

Barzani’s last term in office, due to end in July 2013, was extended by two years by the Kurdish parliament on the grounds that the Region was not ready to elect a new president.

Growing speculation suggests that Barzani plans to stay president for life, and he has been promoting his eldest son, Masrour Barzani, as his successor. Masrour, who leads the intelligence service, already wields enormous power. His nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is the KDP’s deputy chairman and the Region’s prime minister.

Other members of the Barzani family have also been dominant in the Region’s politics and economy.

Talabani, who served two terms as Iraq’s president after the US-led invasion in 2003 before falling sick, is also reportedly priming his 37-year-old son Qubad Talabani to take the reins.

Qubad was named a deputy prime minister in the government formed after the 2013 election. Talabani’s other son Bafel runs the Party’s intelligence department while other family members run a number of Party-affiliated organisations and businesses.

Barzani’s attempt to stay in power now seems beyond serious doubt. Everything he has done in recent weeks in relation to the presidential election crisis appears designed to buy time in order to outmanoeuvre the opposition groups into accepting his re-running for the post.

In the past, Barzani succeeded in stifling dissent either by buying off opponents or by playing for high stakes, knowing that the opposition groups were too weak to stop him from pursuing another term in office despite his long stay in power.

Barzani has been trying to settle the dispute outside the parliament in order to avoid public embarrassment. Last week, he called on the political parties to resolve the issue through “consensus,” warning the opposition that failure would “make the political and legal dispute more complicated.”

On 23 June, KDP members walked out of a parliamentary session held to discuss a bill that limited his powers. The Party’s spokesmen later accused the speaker of the parliament, Youssif Mohamed who is from Gorran faction, of inviting an Iranian diplomat to the crucial session. KDP officials have alluded to Iran’s support for the opposition in attempts to dislodge Barzani.

There is a profound sense of anxiety that the crisis of Kurdistan’s presidential election is now pushing the Region into stormy political waters.

With further escalation of the tension in the already politically fragile Middle East, there are concerns that without a peaceful resolution of the crisis Kurdistan will enter a new and unprecedented phase of uncertainty.

In a last-ditch bid to defuse the crisis Barzani sent his nephew and the Region’s prime minister Nechirvan Barzani to meet PUK and Gorran leaders to negotiate a two-year extension to his term in office.

Kurdistan has been struggling with conflicts that have led the Region to the brink of an exit from Iraq and all-out war with IS. As the expiration of Barzani’s tenure fast approaches, both sides may feel the need to stop the posturing and focus on salvaging the situation.

Yet, a sustainable solution to the Kurdistan government crisis seems in doubt unless there is a lasting deal on the political reforms demanded by the opposition.

For a traditional leader who has been using populism for political expediency, accepting a constitution and an election law that put limits on both his powers and his terms in office seems far-fetched.

For the opposition, a parliamentary political system that gives them a real voice is the only means to end the monopoly of power and wealth by Barzani’s KDP. If the opposition makes concessions on its demands, it will be discredited and weakened.




End of democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan?

End of democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan?

The fate of Masoud Barzani’s presidency has put the nascent democracy of Iraqi Kurdistan to its biggest test yet, writes Salah Nasrawi

Ali Hama Saleh, a member of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Parliament for Gorran, or the Movement for Change, seems to have followed the wrong path in defending his party’s platform of reform. He has chosen to defy Kurdistan’s strongman, Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, who is making a bid to cling to power, by criticising his foot-dragging in giving the autonomous region a constitution.

Last month, Saleh wrote an open letter to Barzani whose Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and family members have dominated Kurdish politics for more than half a century, urging him to quickly fix the “presidency problem through dialogue between political groups.”

“Delay,” he wrote on his Facebook page, “will result in dire consequences.”

The reform-minded lawmaker and anti-graft campaigner also blasted the Region’s government led by Barzani’s nephew and son-in-law Nechirvan Barzani for widespread corruption and the mismanagement of financial affairs.

In his post, Saleh detailed the waste of billions of dollars received from the Baghdad government’s budgetary allocations over 12 years, revenues from selling oil from the Kurdish Region, local taxes and loans from foreign banks.

Thousands of loyalists and cronies had been receiving pensions and salaries from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) without being eligible for payments, while the government had claimed it did not have enough cash to pay the salaries of its civil servants, Saleh wrote.

“Who is responsible for the financial situation of Kurdistan, and why has it reached this stage,” he asked.

In a nascent democracy critical views by an MP would be tolerated, but not in Iraqi Kurdistan where Saleh’s call has provoked a strong response from Barzani’s supporters who have sought to punish him for crossing a red line by challenging Kurdistan’s leader.

When Saleh attended the parliament a few days later the wolves were circling waiting for him. Two KDP members attacked Saleh as he tried to step into the session.

As the assembly erupted in protest, members dragged the assailants out of the chaotic hall. Speaker Youssef Mohamed also ordered the session suspended, fearing an outbreak of skirmishes between rival members.

But the assault on Saleh soon resonated across Kurdistan, renewing a debate about Kurdish democracy, a much-trumpeted achievement since the autonomous region was established as a federal region of Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003.

Almost 12 years later that cherished narrative of Kurdish democracy is giving way to frustration and disillusionment among Iraqi Kurds who have been watching their government turning into another Middle Eastern autocracy.

The brawl in the Kurdish parliament has underlined how an iron fist is being used to silence opposition groups seeking reform. But it has also thrown Barzani’s controversial presidency wide open as he maneuvers to stay in power despite legal and constitutional restraints.

The wrangle over Barzani’s presidency has intensified ahead of the end of his term in office this summer amid demands by the opposition for a constitution for the Kurdish Region which sets out the rules for the election of the president of Kurdistan by the Region’s parliament.

The document, drafted in 2009, has never been put to public referendum for ratification after Barzani declined to sign it. It states that the president of the Kurdistan Region “may be re-elected for a second term on the date this constitution enters into force.”

The opposition argues that the draft constitution was rushed through by the parliament at the time by a caretaker government controlled by the KDP and the PUK, another Kurdish party, which share power in the region.

According to the opposition some of the constitution’s articles were changed within a matter of days and presented for endorsement by the parliament when one third of its members were not present.

It also claims that among the articles that were changed were those that made the Iraqi Kurdistan Region a presidential system, whereas the original document drafted by a special committee had stated that the region enjoyed “a parliamentary political system”.

Under the controversial draft constitution, the president wields absolute power, including the power to declare a state of emergency, issue decrees that have the force of law, dissolve the parliament and dismiss ministers.

Now the opposition wants the constitution to be sent back to the parliament to amend items related to the president’s power and reinforce the assembly’s powers, including its right to elect the president.

Barzani was first elected for a four-year term in 2005 by the parliament. In 2009, he was re-elected by a public election according to a law that stipulated that Iraqi Kurdistan’s president be directly elected by the people.

The opposition says that law contradicted the draft constitution and insists that Barzani has now served the two terms allowed in the document.

However, Barzani’s supporters argue that the term limits are not retrospective, so Barzani is eligible for re-election.

Nevertheless, when Barzani completed his two terms in office in July 2013, the parliament passed a law extending his tenure for two years. The move, pushed through by the KDP and its coalition partner the PUK, was rejected by the opposition parties and prompted fist-fights and the throwing of water bottles in the parliament.

Many of Barzani’s critics believe his insistence on holding a referendum has more to do with his autocratic tendencies and his intention to stay in power than it does with any concern for democratic politics.

To stave off a deeper confrontation over Barzani’s presidency, the region’s parliamentary speaker has started discussions with the main political groups to find the best way out of its worst political standoff since 2003.

But the crisis talks have remained inconclusive.

While the PUK’s Deputy Secretary-General Kusrat Rasoul said his party, which has 18 seats in parliament, needs more time to make a decision on “such a critical issue,” Gorran Party leader Nawshirwan Mustafa said his movement, which has 24 seats in parliament, still wants the election of the region’s president to be held by the parliament.

He also reiterated his movement’s demand for the ratification of the draft constitution.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union, the fourth-largest group in the parliament with 10 seats, has so far refrained from taking a public stance on the crisis. But Ali Bapir, leader of the Islamic Group in Kurdistan, which has six seats in parliament, said his party would support another extension for Barzani if other factions backed the move.

Barzani, who on Sunday chaired a meeting of KDP leaders to discuss the crisis, has remained tight-lipped about the controversy. Following the meeting, a statement said the party leadership had made an “appropriate decision” but did not give details.

Insiders say Barzani may be trying to settle the dispute outside the parliament in order to avoid further wrangling and public embarrassment.

In the past, Barzani succeeded in stifling dissent either by buying off opponents or by playing for high stakes, knowing that the opposition groups were too weak to stop him from pursuing such a course of action.

Iraqi Kurdistan has long been dubbed an oasis of democracy, political stability and economic growth in violence-torn Iraq. With a multi-party electoral system that allows Kurds to go out and vote their leaders into power, technically the region is a democracy, though it has been a far from functioning one.

Many analysts believe that attempts by Barzani to stay in office through outmaneuvering the opposition and violating legal and constitutional limitations will turn democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan into farce.

The region’s latest political crisis also comes at a crucial time for Iraqi Kurds who face formidable challenges, including the war with the Islamic State (IS) terror group and a financial crunch that has forced it to suspend its ambitious plans to become a haven for business.

In an interview with the American PBS TV channel recently, Barzani acknowledged that the war with IS had delayed the Kurdish bid for independence from the rest of Iraq, a goal he has been vehemently pursuing.