Kurdish moderate Barham Saleh elected Iraq president

Former chief of staff Fuad Hussein trounced in first national poll following ill-fated Kurdish independence referendum

Newly elected Iraqi President Kurdish Barham Saleh (C) walks at the parliament in Baghdad on October 2, 2018.  (AFP PHOTO / Karim AMMAR)
Newly elected Iraqi President Kurdish Barham Saleh (C) walks at the parliament in Baghdad on October 2, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Karim AMMAR)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AFP) — Moderate Kurdish candidate Barham Saleh swept to the post of president of Iraq Tuesday evening in a parliamentary vote pitting Kurdish heavyweights against each other for the first time following an ill-fated independence referendum.

Saleh routed his main rival Fuad Hussein with 219 votes to 22, dealing a blow to Hussein’s main backer, former Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani who was the architect of the September 2017 poll.

The new president instructed former vice president Adel Abdel Mahdi, a veteran of Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein, to form a government.

Tuesday’s poll follows a weekend parliamentary election in the Kurdish autonomous region, mired in economic crisis and still in shock from the fallout of the plebiscite which sparked a punishing response from Baghdad.

An Iraqi Kurd casts his ballot during parliamentary elections in Irbil, Iraq, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Salar Salim)

The largely ceremonial role of president has been reserved for the Kurds since Iraq’s first multi-party elections in 2005, two years after the US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam.

Under a tacit accord between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK would hold the federal presidency and the KDP the post of Iraqi Kurdistan’s president. But the Iraqi Kurdish presidency has been left vacant since KDP leader Massud Barzani’s mandate ended following the September 2017 referendum that he championed — setting up a showdown in Baghdad.

The vote for an Iraqi president was scheduled for Monday before being postponed due to the lack of a quorum.

In a first round of polling Tuesday, neither Saleh nor Hussein won the two-thirds vote necessary to win outright, forcing a second round.

Referendum fallout

The independence vote last year saw more than 92 percent of Kurds back secession, but the federal government rejected the poll as “illegal.”

Baghdad then imposed economic penalties and sent federal troops to push Kurdish forces out of oil fields in the disputed Kirkuk province that were vital for the autonomous region’s economy.

Barzani had backed for president Fuad Hussein, his 72-year-old former chief of staff and veteran of the opposition to Saddam.

Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), shows his ink-stained index finger after casting his ballot for the parliamentary election at a polling station in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, on September 30, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED)

But the post went to Saleh, a 58-year-old moderate who has served both as Iraqi deputy premier and Kurdish prime minister. He was part of an interim authority put in place by the United States following the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam.

He later became deputy prime minister under Nuri al-Maliki then returned to the Kurdish regional capital Arbil in 2009 to become head of the Kurdistan government.

For senior PUK official Khaled Shouani, it was important to put forward a “moderate” candidate for president who would be “accepted by all” and push to repair ties between Baghdad and the Kurdish region.

The new president’s tendency to push for consensus would also satisfy both the United States and the PUK’s traditional ally Iran, the two main international powers in Iraq, Shouani said.

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