Turkish raids raise Iraqi Kurdish leadership stakes

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Baghdad (AFP) - Turkey's air strikes in Iraqi Kurdistan have increased the pressure on regional president Massud Barzani, who is a key player in the US-led anti-jihadist war but faces an uncertain political future.

Barzani, the 68-year-old leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has been at the helm of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region for 10 years.

His term was extended for two years in 2013 and expires on August 19.

Barzani argues his leadership is crucial to the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group but the other parties in Kurdistan seem to agree they will not give him another free ride.

"The KDP has asked us to extend the president's term again but we have rejected this and it is now necessary to find a solution," said Imad Ahmed, a political bureau member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The PUK of former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani is the KDP's historic rival but the relatively recently founded Gorran (Change) party has six more seats with 24.

Together with Islamist parties, they control 59 of the 111 seats in the Kurdish regional parliament that elects the president.

"If it were a stable democratic system, they would just vote him out of office. But it's not," said Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based political risk analyst who is the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics.

Barzani and his clan hold several key positions that give him control, for example, of the intelligence service and key media outlets.

With no solution in sight as the clock ticks down to the deadline, Kurdistan's main factions are entering a phase of intense negotiations.

The air campaign Ankara launched inside Iraq against its own Kurdish rebels late last month has left Barzani in an uncomfortable position.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is outlawed in Turkey and has long had mountain bases on the Iraqi side the border but the flare-up prompted Barzani's office to ask the rebels to take their struggle elsewhere.

"It's really bad timing... It's an impossible position because ordinary Kurds all support the PKK and Barzani can't be perceived as being anti-PKK," Sowell said.

Yet the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Barzani's party are inextricably tied to Turkey.

- Interim period -

The Turkish government and Turkish companies have invested billions in the autonomous Kurdish region.

The KRG also needs Turkey to export oil -- virtually its only source of revenue -- through the port of Ceyhan.

"They're like an economic colony of Turkey," Sowell said.

The Barzanis are Kurmanji-speaking Kurds, the same northern dialect used in PKK areas, and their relationship has often been one of rivalry.

Barzani's KDP was criticised for failing to protect the Yazidi minority during a major IS onslaught a year ago, while the PKK and its Syrian sister party are widely seen as the Yazidis' saviours.

The PUK draws its support from Sorani-speaking Kurds from the south of the autonomous region and has close ties with Iran.

But while the KDP's domestic rivals have tried to gain traction from Barzani's contradictions, analyst Michael Knights argued Kurdish parties had displayed a strong ability to compartmentalise issues.

"The Turkey-PKK clash has been used by the PUK and Gorran to critique the Barzanis but only in an opportunistic, tactical way," said Knights, of the Washington Institute.

Gorran and the PUK want a more parliamentary system curbing the president's powers while Barzani wants the president to be elected through a popular vote.

"Precisely because there is a security crisis, a financial crisis, a services crisis, and now these border tensions and strikes on Kurdish villages, we need to find a solution to the presidency issue," Imad Ahmed said.

"But the PUK is trying to approach this by looking for consensus... It would not make sense to add another problem," he said.

However Abdulrazaq Ali, spokesman of the Gorran party, said the only thing all the parties might agree on in the next few days is to disagree for a little longer.

"Because of the KDP party's stubborn stance on our demands, it is possible we will not solve this issue through consensus," he said.

"I think that when Barzani's term ends on August 20, he will enter a phase of interim presidency until the constitution is amended or early elections produce a replacement," Ali said.