ERBIL (Dispatches) – Two years after a failed independence bid plunged Iraq’s Kurdistan Region into months of instability, the new regional prime minister said his priority was strengthening ties with Baghdad, signaling dreams of self-rule should be put on hold.
Masrour Barzani, sworn in as regional prime minister on Wednesday, told Reuters in an exclusive interview that under his leadership, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s focus would be to establish a "strong and constructive” relationship with Baghdad, leaving the question of independence aside for now.
"This (independence referendum) happened in the past and it’s a reflection of the enduring aspiration of a nation,” said Barzani, speaking at his palace in the hillside village of Salaheddine, near regional capital Erbil.
"However, the focus of my government will be how to build a stronger relationship and partnership with Baghdad,” he said, adding he would look to fix "those issues that were actually keeping us apart.”
The independence bid was led by Barzani’s father Masoud, who stepped down as Kurdish president in 2017 after the referendum backfired and prompted a military offensive from Baghdad.
At stake for the new premier are long-running disputes over independent oil exports, revenue sharing, security, and territory which have plagued ties between Erbil and Baghdad since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Barzani was instrumental in orchestrating the September 2017 referendum, which was held over the objections of Baghdad and regional powers. It was seen as the culmination of years of oppositional politics by the semi-autonomous region.
The backlash was swift, threatening to undo the years of unprecedented autonomy the region had enjoyed. Relations eventually improved, cemented by a change of government in both capitals.