BAGHDAD — The longtime president of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan said Sunday that he intends to resign, a month after he led a widely criticized referendum on independence that triggered a military response by the Iraqi government.
Masoud Barzani, whose father had been the face of the Kurdish minority's struggle in Iraq, had promised that the vote on independence from Baghdad would be a vital step in a century-long fight for self-rule. Instead, it unraveled many of the gains the Kurds had made in carving out a semiautonomous region in northern Iraq after decades of war.
Barzani, appearing on television late Sunday for the first time since the referendum, denounced the global reaction to the vote as a betrayal of the Kurdish people. He suggested that his political opponents had worked with Baghdad and the United States to stamp out a peaceful democratic exercise by Kurds seeking full autonomy.
He also urged his supporters not to despair, saying 3 million Kurdish votes for independence cannot be "erased by history."
Earlier Sunday, Barzani's intention to step down was announced in a letter addressed to the Kurdistan region's parliament. It was not clear whether he intends to leave public life altogether or remain as president while redistributing some of that office's authority to the legislature and the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government.
Barzani said he would not seek an extension of his mandate past Wednesday. Nov. 1 was the date of a planned election for president and parliament that has now been postponed indefinitely.
Late Sunday, his supporters, some holding clubs, stormed the Kurdish parliament, shouting "Barzani is our president!" and seeking to violently confront lawmakers critical of Barzani.
Analysts say Barzani's speech was ambiguous, giving him room to retain the leadership of the Kurdish Democratic Party and continue to cast a large shadow over decision-making through the party's dominance of the judiciary, security forces and parliament.
But coupled with the "colossal failure" of the referendum, Barzani's diminishing political stature promises to loosen his party's grip on Kurdish affairs in Iraq and empower politicians clamoring for dramatic reforms, said Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish political analyst with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
"Because Masoud Barzani will not be able to run for president again, it means the KDP won't be able to form the next government alone," said Chomani.
Barzani has been president since 2005 and has continued to serve in the role despite his term expiring in 2013. He engineered several extensions through parliament, roiling his opposition amid a security and financial crisis sparked by the rise of the Islamic State militant group in 2014 and the collapse of global oil prices.
Several of his Kurdish political opponents and Iraq's central government accused Barzani of staging the referendum to shore up his shaky legal hold on the presidency.
His supporters, on the other hand, consider him the only credible candidate to lead the Kurds in a long-deferred quest for self-rule.
Barzani, 71, said in his speech that he will continue to serve Kurds as a soldier of the peshmerga, the armed forces of the Kurdish region.
"Before the presidency, while president and after the presidency, I will remain Masoud Barzani, the peshmerga soldier," he said.
Mustafa Barzani, Masoud's father, led the forces in multiple uprisings against Iraqi rule dating to the 1940s and held the largely ceremonial position of commander until his death in 1979.
Barzani and his powerful family had been the primary architects of the referendum held last month. His son is the head of the security council, and his nephew is prime minister.
Voters overwhelmingly backed independence, but Barzani had been repeatedly warned by Iraq's central government, the United States, and regional powers such as Iran and Turkey that its results would not be recognized.
Barzani had pressed on even as Kurdish opposition groups expressed misgivings about the timing and scope of the vote.
Of particular concern was the provocative decision to hold the referendum in areas historically claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, including Kirkuk — an oil-producing province that peshmerga forces seized during a chaotic withdrawal of Iraqi forces in the face of an Islamic State onslaught.
Immediately after the Sept. 25 referendum, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered that all border crossings, airports and oil facilities in the Kurdish region be turned over to federal control. Iran and Turkey threatened to close their borders with the Kurdish region.
Earlier this month, Abadi ordered Iraqi forces into Kirkuk and other disputed areas. The show of force resulted in sporadic clashes that have since ceased as Iraqi and Kurdish commanders continued to negotiate Sunday over a settlement on who would control border crossings with Turkey and Syria in the northwest.
The United States did not initially oppose Abadi's military move, saying it supported Iraq's bid to impose federal control over disputed territory. It has since urged Baghdad and Kurdish authorities to set aside hostilities and resume talks on revenue sharing and borders.
Mustafa Salim contributed to this report.