Masoud Barzani succeeded his father, the Kurdish nationalist leader Mustafa Barzani, as the leader of the KDP in 1979. Working closely with his brother Idris Barzani until Idris's death, Barzani and various other Kurdish groups fought the forces of the Iraqi government in Baghdad during the Iran–Iraq War. For much of this time, the Kurdish leadership was exiled to Iran.
Barzani was born in Iranian Kurdistan, during the short-lived Republic of Mahabad.
A major result of Saddam Hussein's defeat in the Gulf War (1991) and Operation Provide Comfort was the ultimate establishment of Kurdish control over their traditional homeland in northern Iraq, known as Iraqi Kurdistan and "South Kurdistan". Just a few months after the creation of the autonomous zone, free elections (a first in Iraq) were held in 1992. The two main Kurdish parties, namely Barzani's KDP and the Jalal Talabani-led Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), split the vote, and subsequently split the government ministries evenly. In May 1994, however, fighting broke out between the Peshmerga of the PUK and of KDP. On August 31, 1996 Barzani called on the assistance of Saddam Hussein's regime to help him combat the PUK, which was receiving Iranian assistance. With the aid of the Iraqi army, the KDP drove the PUK from Iraqi Kurdistan's major cities. The PUK eventually regrouped and retook Suleimani and parts of Hawler province. An end to the civil war was brokered in 1998 in the Washington Peace Accords, leaving the Kurdish zone divided between the KDP in the Northwest and PUK in the Southeast. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the KDP and PUK have gradually established a unified regional government. Barzani became a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and was the president of the council in April 2004. He was elected as the President of Iraqi Kurdistan by the Parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2005.
In his presidency Barzani has established several institutions in the Kurdistan Region to develop its emerging democracy, strengthen alliances and improve the decision-making process. In January 2007 he established the Kurdistan Presidency Council, which includes the Deputy President (Mr Kosrat Rasul Ali), the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the Kurdistan National Assembly, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister and the Chief of Staff of the Presidency of the Kurdistan Region.
In February 2011, Barzani received the Atlantic Award from the Italian Atlantic Committee and the Italian Delegation to NATO Parliamentary Assembly, for his role in promoting peace, stability, and religious tolerance in the region. During the same visit Pope Benedict XVI received Barzani and paid tribute to the President for his role in providing refuge and assistance to the fleeing Christians. The Atlantic Award is annually conferred to prominent international figures for their role in promoting peace, stability and religious tolerance in their regions.
As President of the Kurdistan Region, Barzani has made official visits to several countries including: meeting with US President George W. Bush at the White House (25 October 2005), UK Prime Minister Tony Blair at Downing Street (31 October 2005), The Pope at the Vatican (14 November 2005), Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi in Rome (13 November 2005), King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh (13 March 2007) and King Abdullah of Jordan in Amman (19 March 2007).
In July 2009, in the first direct elections for the presidency of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Masoud Barzani was reelected as president by a popular ballot, receiving 69.6% of the votes. The elections were closely monitored by international observers and the Iraqi Electoral Commission. In August 2013, after the expiration of his 8-year term, the parliament extended his presidency for another two years, and he has continued in the role even beyond this extension.
Masoud Barzani was one of the eight candidates shortlisted in the Time magazine's 2014 Person of the Year, for his efforts to push for Kurdish independence with the ongoing fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Members of the Barzani family allegedly control a large number of commercial enterprises in Iraqi Kurdistan, with a gross value of several billion dollars, although no evidence of such ownership by Masoud Barzani himself exists. While accusations of corruption against both the KDP-Barzanis and the PUK-Talabanis are often levied by both Kurdish sources and international observers like Michael Rubin, President Barzani on several occasions has denied involvement in any commercial enterprises.
Insufficient financial transparency in the region serves to both exacerbate the accusations and hamper efforts to find any evidence of malfeasance. In July 2010 the opposition paper Rozhnama accused the Barzani-led KDP of pocketing large sums from illegal oil-smuggling. While an opaque financial system may conceal corruption, it may also serve to provide the Kurdistan Regional Government with the necessary cover to spend money on strategic but otherwise embarrassing necessities—whether the purchase of weapons in case of a showdown with Baghdad, aid to Syrian Kurdish groups preparing for a showdown with the Free Syrian Army, or similar initiatives .
In May 2010 the journalist Sardasht Osman was killed after criticising the Barzani family. In December 2005, Kamal Qadir, a Kurdish legal scholar with Austrian citizenship, was arrested in Iraqi Kurdistan for a series of articles criticizing Barzani's government and family. He was charged with defamation and sentenced to thirty years' imprisonment. He was released in 2006 following international pressure from Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and the government of Austria.
Barzani was born in Mahabad, Iran, during the rule of the Republic of Mahabad. He has five sons (one of them Masrour Barzani) and three daughters. Sirwan Barzani is a nephew of his.
Masoud Barzani have announced that the northern territory of Iraq will hold an independence referendum on September 25 2017.