BEIRUT

Middle East

Iraq’s new President Masoum: a warrior and an intellectual

Fuad Masum, the new president of Iraq and a veteran Kurdish politician, speaks during a press conference in Baghdad on July 24, 2014, after he was elected by an overwhelming majority in the Parliament. AFP PHOTO / ALI AL-SAADI

IRBIL, Iraq: Quiet and bookish, Iraq’s President-elect Fouad Masoum is different from jocular incumbent Jalal Talabani, but sharp political skills forged in the long battle for Kurdish self-determination are common to both.

Masoum, an ethnic Kurd, fought a rebel war alongside childhood friend Talabani for a separate Kurdish homeland, and in 1992 became the first prime minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

Something of a political pioneer, Masoum was also the speaker of the first parliament to be formed after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Yet diminutive and bespectacled Masoum is not an obvious fighter or risk taker.

“He’s quiet and a deep thinker, that’s his personality. He thinks before he speaks,” his brother Khodr Masoum, head of Kurdistan’s Koysinjaq university, told AFP.

“He’s quiet during talks and negotiations. Courteous.”

Born in 1938 to a religious family in a village near the town of Halabja, Masoum studied Islamic Sciences at Cairo’s Azhar university.

Eventually gaining a doctorate, he came back to Iraq to teach at the University of Basra.

“He’s always reading. All different types, history, politics. He likes Arabic literature a lot,” Khodr Masoum said.

Masoum got his first taste of politics with the Iraqi Communist Party, before moving to join the Kurdistan Democratic Party in 1964, then led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, father of current Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani.

Between 1973 and 1975 he was the party’s representative in Cairo.

But eventually the KDP would split, after Masoum’s friend Talabani fell out with Barzani – the start of a long and deadly internecine feud among Iraqi Kurds.

Talabani went on to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and in 1976 Masoum joined him as a founding member.

The pair would wage an armed struggle in the northern mountains against Saddam Hussein’s forces, an unlikely path for a soft spoken academic. Yet his ability to fight and think has served the married father of three daughters well. His supporters hope he can bring those skills to bear on Iraq’s dangerously divided political arena.

“He listens to the opinion of others, and doesn’t force his on you,” Khodr Masoum said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 25, 2014, on page 8.

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