Cousins in command seal family rule over Iraq Kurds: analysts

Maya Gebeily
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His nephew is president, his son now prime minister of Iraq's autonomus Kurdish region but longtime leader Masoud Barzani is expected to remain the real power in the land

His nephew is president, his son now prime minister of Iraq's autonomus Kurdish region but longtime leader Masoud Barzani is expected to remain the real power in the land (AFP Photo/SAFIN HAMED)

Baghdad (AFP) - The succession of two powerful cousins to the top government posts in Iraqi Kurdistan has sealed the Barzani family's "monarchic" rule over the autonomous region, analysts say.

With his son and nephew at the helm, veteran leader Masoud Barzani is expected to remain the region's "real boss," despite no longer holding a formal government position.

On Tuesday, the region's parliament named Masoud's eldest son Masrour Barzani, 50, as the region's new premier after seven years as its top security official.

He succeeds his 52-year-old cousin Nechirvan -- sworn in as president the previous day.

Their party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), was founded by the cousins' storied grandfather Mustafa -- and while the clan's domination of the KDP was long apparent, their rise through democratic means clinches its control over public institutions.

"The Barzanis were already strong enough within the KRG, but now they are becoming even stronger," said Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

"They know it is not possible in Iraq and the Kurdistan region to legally establish a monarchy, but they have established one practically," he told AFP.

Iraqi Kurdistan has been split for decades between the KDP and its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

In October 2017, the KDP spearheaded a controversial independence referendum that prompted Baghdad to reoccupy large swathes of Kurdish-held territory and led to Masoud's resignation as president.

But a year later, the party made a resounding comeback in regional elections, winning 45 of the 111-seat Kurdish parliament.

It could therefore comfortably elect Nechirvan as president in late May despite a PUK boycott, and Masrour's nomination sailed through a few weeks later.

- The 'real boss' -

With the cousins in command, analysts expect the KRG's decision-making process -- and the policies themselves -- will be increasingly influenced by family politics.

Megan Connelly, a doctoral candidate at the State University of New York and analyst on Kurdish affairs, said the grandiose Barzani family home would rival government bodies as the centre of gravity for policymaking.

"The assertion of Barzani headquarters as this alternative institution is becoming quite apparent right now," she said.

As a result, Connelly told AFP, the presidency as an independent institution would "definitely be weaker, and Nechirvan will struggle to step out of Masoud's shadow."

Indeed, the first speech after Nechirvan's swearing-in on Monday did not go to the new president but to his uncle, Masoud.

And in a March interview with Al-Monitor, Nechirvan admitted Masoud remained "the real boss," describing him as "the one person who cannot be removed from the scene".

The elder Barzani would also likely have a role mediating any dispute between his son and nephew.

"Nechirvan and Masrour Barzani will remain united in the face of external challenges facing their family and the KDP," said Chomani.

"However, their internal conflicts over power and resources, as well as monopoly of the market, will intensify."

- 'One, big, warring family' -

The phenomenon of family rule is not limited to the KDP, with the PUK, too, dominated by the Talabani family.

One of its founders, Jalal Talabani, served as federal president of Iraq from 2006 to 2014 and his son, Qubad, served as the KRG's deputy premier and could return for another term.

The Barzanis and Talabanis have been bitter rivals for decades, fighting a civil war in the mid-1990s that left thousands dead before Masoud and Jalal signed a peace agreement.

Now, said Connelly, the older generations "sit across the table and they bring their sons and their grandsons. This is almost one, big, warring family."

The familiarity has sparked bitterness among opposition parties, including the New Generation movement, founded in 2018 to channel public anger at the region's elite.

"Bringing Masrour as PM is the final step towards establishing family rule in Kurdistan through democratic means," said Sarkawt Shamsaddin, a New Generation MP in Iraq's federal parliament.

He told AFP the muted public reaction showed residents were "demoralised."

"They are tired of KRG politics, party politics and polarisation. The situation has been normalised, which is really dangerous," said Shamsaddin.

In the short term, the formalisation of family rule would likely stymie opposition parties' attempts at affecting change, he said.

But it may sow the seeds of long-term activism if party members unhappy with the domination of a single clan splinter off into new factions.

"This is how I think change will come," said Shamsaddin.