Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Iraq’s north, is pushing for full independence from the conflict-ravaged country.
His nine-year rule has seen Iraqi Kurdistan flourish, with relative stability, lower perceived corruption and healthy oil revenues.
This month, Barzani asked the Kurdish parliament to set a date for a referendum on independence.
The rift between Kurdish authorities and Baghdad runs deep, with Barzani slamming the governance of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Large swathes of the country are under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which recently proclaimed the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
“We warned Maliki six months ago about what’s happening but he did not listen and these are the consequences,” Barzani reportedly told Kurdish lawmakers.
Since the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul to ISIS in early June, Kurdish fighters (Peshmerga) have seized new territory, most recently the oilfields around Kirkuk, a city that Kurds claim as their capital.
A future apart
Securing oilfields and redirecting them into Kurdistan’s own network of pipelines enables the region to further secure a future apart from Baghdad.
As the Kurdish government deals directly with oil companies independent from the central government, crude is pumped through a pipeline to Turkey’s Ceyhan port, where it is sold at knockdown prices on the world market.
Although disputes over the legality of its oil business remain, Kurdistan’s access to world markets enables it to grow an independent revenue stream from the large subsidies received from Baghdad each month.
However, while the referendum would likely result in independence, Iraq’s Kurds would face enormous challenges if they were to secede, experts say.
Their “current financial position... is very weak, and exporting oil through Ceyhan has been difficult,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at the Eurasia Group consultancy, Agence France-Presse reported.
“There is no short-term solution for the Kurds finding an alternative financing structure to what they find in Baghdad,” he added.
Additionally, the Peshmerga also have to conduct expensive campaigns to defend the borders from ISIS.
However, the relative lack of overt confrontation between ISIS and Kurdish forces is due to the former’s focus of toppling Maliki’s Shiite-led government, analysts say.
ISIS “haven’t attacked Kurdistan because they don’t want to open a second front while they battle,” Ali Khedery, a former U.S. official who served in Iraq, told Al Arabiya News.
Despite these threats, if the referendum passes, Barzani could become the first leader of a sovereign Kurdish state in recent times.
Born in 1946, Barzani was the son of a well-known Kurdish nationalist, Mustafa Barzani.
At the time of his son’s birth, Mustafa became the military chief of the short-lived Kurdish Republic of Mahabad that was declared in Iran, which was then under Soviet control.
After the Soviets pulled out later that year, Mustafa and several hundred followers fled to the Soviet Union and went to Iraq 12 years later.
Under repression from the Iraqi government, Barzani grew up in an atmosphere of Kurdish nationalism, joining the Peshmerga at the age of 16.
While on a trip to Vienna in 1979, he narrowly avoided an assassination attempt.
Shortly after the 1991 Gulf War, Western-backed Kurdish fighters battled Baghdad, though they were crushed by Saddam Hussein.
However, the central government lost control of its northern provinces, largely due to the West’s establishment of a no-fly zone above the 36th parallel.
During this time, Barzani’s position shifted from that of a rebel fighter to a political leader.
In 1994, his Kurdish Democratic Party and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan fought each other for control of the Kurdish region.
Barzani asked Saddam to help him defeat the Iran-backed PUK.
The U.S.-brokered peace treaty between the two groups split the Kurdish region.
After the 2003 invasion, the KDP and PUK established a unified regional government.
Barzani become a member and then president of the provisional Iraqi Governing Council.
In June 2005, he was elected president of Iraqi Kurdistan by its parliament, a position he has held since.