Barzani tells Kurdish parliament he will stand down on November 1

Iraqi Kurd president's decision comes amid backlash over independence referendum

President of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Masoud Barzani’s current term was set to expire in four days. Jim Watson / AFP Photo
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Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani on Sunday confirmed his intention to stand down as president of the semi-autonomous region when his term ends this week.

"After November 1, I will no longer exercise my functions, and I reject any extension of my mandate," Mr Barzani said in a letter read out to the regional parliament in Erbil,

The decision comes weeks after a Kurdish independence referendum championed by the veteran leader backfired and triggered a Iraqi military offensive that has pushed Kurdish peshmerga forces out of disputed areas claimed by the Kurds and the government in Baghdad.

The Kurdish parliament was due to discuss Mr Barzani's proposal that his powers be divided among the government, parliament and judiciary.

The Kurdish region was to have held presidential and parliamentary election on November 1 but they were postponed indefinitely last week amid the escalating regional crisis. A new date has yet to be decided.

Critics say the September 25 independence referendum, orchestrated by the 71-year-old president in the face of opposition from Baghdad and international allies, has weakened the position of Iraq's Kurds despite an overwhelming "yes" vote.

The central government retook the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds had held since 2014 and regard as both their spiritual homeland and a key source of revenue for their would-be independent state, in a military offensive on October 16.

Other Kurdish-held areas outside the autonomous region were also seized with days, transforming the balance of power in the north of the country and putting tremendous pressure on Mr Barzani to step aside as the decades-old dream of Kurdish independence faded.

The Kurdish government's offer to suspend its independence push and resolve the crisis through talks was rejected last week by prime minister Haider Al Abadi, who demanded that Kurds declare their independence referendum void.

"We won't accept anything but its cancellation and the respect of the constitution," Mr Al Abadi said during a visit to Tehran, a key ally of the Iraqi government.

The United States, which has armed and trained Kurdish forces to fight ISIL after the extremist group seized large areas of northern and western Iraq in June 2014, has urged talks between Baghdad and Erbil. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said last week that he was "disappointed that the parties have been unable to reach an entirely peaceful resolution" and that he had encouraged Mr Al Abadi to accept the Kurdish government's "overtures for talks on the basis of the Iraqi constitution".

Mr Barzani is expected to address the Kurdish people before leaving office, marking the end of a storied career as a driving force for Kurdish autonomy.

He was elected president by the Kurdish parliament in 2005, and won nearly 70 per cent of the vote in Kurdistan's first direct presidential election in 2009. His term of office was to expire in 2013 but was extended by parliament.

Mr Barzani said earlier this year that he did not intend to stand in the November election, but had been widely expected to seek another term. His son Masrour is now expected to be in the running to replace him when elections are held next.

Born in 1946, soon after his legendary father, Mulla Mustafa, founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party to fight for Iraqi Kurds' rights, Mr Barzani fought in the peshmerga for decades. He has led the party since 1979 and became a central figure in the drive to create an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Mr Barzani said in his letter to parliament that he would "remain a peshmerga" and "continue to defend the achievements of the people of Kurdistan".

Meanwhile, Iraqi and peshmerga commanders reached an agreement on Sunday for the Baghdad government to deploy federal forces at a crucial border crossing in Iraqi Kurdistan, a government source told Agence France-Presse.

The deal follows talks that began after Mr Al Abadi on Saturday ordered a suspension of a government offensive to take the Fishkhabur crossing, where Kurdish and Iraqi oil export pipelines cross into Turkey.

Mr Al Abadi said he ordered the truce to "allow a joint technical committee to work on the deployment of federal Iraqi forces in all disputed areas, including Fishkhabur, and the international border".

"This should prevent bloodshed between the children of the same country," he said.