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Iraqi Kurdish leader faces a delicate balancing act

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq elected a new president, Nechirvan Barzani, on Tuesday, filling a position left vacant for almost 18 months following the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum.

Barzani won the votes of 68 of the 81 members present in the 111-seat chamber. His election followed a deal between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) on the formation of a new KRG government.

The 52-year-old is the nephew and son-in-law of the previous president, Masoud Barzani, who occupied the office from the creation of the KRG in 2005 until late 2017, when he quit following an independence referendum that backfired, drawing opposition from Baghdad, Turkey, Iran, the US and UN.

The incoming president is expected to be sworn in by June 10. He will then ask his cousin and brother-in-law Masrour Barzani, the KRG’s security chief, to form a new government.

Before Barzani’s election as leader, the president’s powers were divided between the prime minister, Parliament and the judiciary in a makeshift arrangement.

The KRG — the only regionally and internationally recognized Kurdish entity — has represented the autonomous region since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraqi Kurds manage their own affairs in northern Iraq, have their own army — the Peshmerga — and pursue their own foreign policy. The Barzani family have dominated Iraqi Kurdish politics through the KDP for generations.

The new president has been a central figure in the region since the late 1990s and is credited not only with its economic success, but also its developing relations with regional countries.

Barzani is known for his economic acumen and is considered the main architect of the close working relationship with Ankara on trade, energy and security. He has also played a significant role in smoothing relations with the KRG’s neighbors, Iran and Turkey, following the 2017 independence referendum.

Meanwhile, the KDP has served as a counterbalance to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization, by allowing Turkey to establish military bases to monitor PKK activities.

The KRG election was closely followed by regional countries. Soon after the vote, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and the US State Department congratulated Barzani on his victory.

The KRG’s economy depends mainly on oil exports, and has suffered severely due to the referendum crisis. Barzani’s challenge will be to push on with economic and security reforms that have made the region relatively prosperous and safe in the past two decades. Since the referendum, Irbil and Baghdad have been at odds over the distribution of resources, control over oil and disputed territory — a dispute that has also affected neighboring Turkey.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi visited Turkey this week and met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss bilateral issues and the fight against terrorism. Turkey, which had frosty relations with Baghdad just a year ago, and strained relations with the KRG due to the referendum, is today trying to walk a thin line between the two parties. In the past decade, Ankara has played a major role in helping the KRG develop its economic and financial infrastructure.

For Turkey, being on good terms with both sides is important. In the past, having better relations with the KRG at the expense of Baghdad left Ankara facing many challenges. Iraq fell under the influence of Iran, becoming a route for Tehran to expand its regional power.

Ankara fears that any instability in Iraq — a key trading route for oil — will create a vacuum that the terrorist PKK will not hesitate to fill. In the week of Barzani’s election, Turkey conducted cross-border operations in northern Iraq, where the PKK has hideouts used to launch attacks on Turkey. The fight against the PKK was one of the major topics on Erdogan and Abdul Mahdi’s agenda since it is a major security concern for both countries.

The challenges facing the KRG leave it with no option but to normalize relations with Turkey and Iraq, with some media reports suggesting new and more extensive oil and gas agreements in the near future.

What lessons KRG leaders have drawn from the referendum — and whether such an attempt will be repeated in the future — remain open to question.

However, at the end of the day, landlocked KRG needs revenue and friendly relations with its neighbors, and must be able to walk a thin line to keep the balance of power in the region. For the new president, that means a heavy diplomatic and economic agenda.