MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The president of Iraq's Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, is stepping down after 12 years in power. The move follows the Kurdish referendum for independence last month which has had a devastating fallout. NPR's Jane Arraf is in the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil. Jane, thanks so much for speaking with us.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: So what exactly is happening in the Kurdistan region?
ARRAF: So President Barzani has submitted his resignation. He's told Parliament he'll step down by Tuesday. Now, this is a man who has staked his legacy on a referendum last month which he really believed would set Kurds on the path to independence. But instead, the Kurdish cause has been set back years. They've lost Kirkuk, the city they considered the capital of any future Kurdish state. They lost oil fields. They lost territory held since 2014.
MARTIN: So has Barzani said why he's resigning?
ARRAF: Not exactly. He gave an emotional address to the Kurdish people, but there were no apologies. He said the Iraqi government had been planning to attack them all along, even before the referendum. And he said traitors had sold Kirkuk and betrayed the Kurdish people. He didn't name names, but he meant a rival Kurdish party which has been his partner in government. And, Michel, he also singled out the United States, which he said stood by while Iranian-backed militias working with Iraqi security forces attacked the Kurds.
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MASOUD BARZANI: (Through interpreter) What also surprised us was those who are listed by the U.S. as terrorists were using American Abrams tanks against us in front of American eyes, attacking Kurdish people. This has raised a lot of questions among the Kurdish people. Did America agree with this plan to attack Kurdistan?
ARRAF: So when Saddam Hussein was trying to kill off the Kurds, the U.S. led the efforts to protect them back in '91 by leading a no-fly zone. And that move, in fact, allowed the Kurds to develop a lot of what exists here as a modern state. Barzani has been a strong partner with the U.S. in fighting Saddam Hussein's forces, al-Qaida and ISIS, so he's really felt this particularly keenly.
MARTIN: So this would seem to be a political crisis now as well. What happens now?
ARRAF: So on the ground in this standoff between Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces, there has been a temporary cease-fire. But Iraq is clear it still wants to retake territory. It's all very personal. And Barzani's resignation on the political side could actually open the door for talks with other Kurdish leaders to negotiate with Baghdad. Now, the Iraqi prime minister has demanded that the results of the referendum be annulled. The Kurds have offered to simply suspend them. Effectively, they would freeze the process of seeking independence. But that doesn't seem to be enough. And in any case, all of this has seriously weakened Kurdish aspirations for independence. And that includes Kurds in Iran and Turkey and possibly an effect that will last for generations.
MARTIN: Is there the possibility that this could become an armed conflict?
ARRAF: There is definitely a fear that this could become an armed conflict, and that's really almost a more prevalent fear than the fear that Iraqi forces will move further and attack them. Because it wasn't that long ago, in most people's memories, that Kurdish factions actually were attacking and killing each other. They managed to repair relations at the time with the help of the United States.
And the U.S. in a lot of times has been the glue that held them together. But this talk of betrayal, this talk of treason, all of this is leading to very strong passions, very strong feelings. And there is a real fear that they could go back to the dark days where Kurds weren't just fighting Iraqi forces, they were actually fighting each other.
MARTIN: That's NPR's Jane Arraf. She's in the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil. Jane, thanks so much for speaking with us.
ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.