The Platform


The stability of Iraqi Kurdistan depends on the relationship between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). It is essentially a confederacy between the two. However, since the absence of its charismatic leader, Jalal Talabani, the PUK’s authority has disintegrated, and the party is in disarray.

Lahur Talabani emerged as the de-facto leader of the PUK with a personal politics based on animosity towards the KDP—threatening Iraqi Kurdistan’s unity. Lahur has maintained good relations with the United States and has distanced himself from Iran. However, Lahur’s cousin, Bafel Talabani, ousted him, a move some liken to a coup. Nonetheless, rifts within Lahur’s entourage led to his ousting. Lahur was accused of abuse of power according to PUK leaders I spoke with.

The power struggle in the PUK began in 2012 after the passing of Jalal Talabani, Bafel’s father. As the party’s central authority crumbled, only its military and intelligence services endured. The PUK’s elite force is the Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG), and the Information Agency (IA) is the party’s intelligence service, called the Dazgay Zanyari. They came to dominate the PUK.

From the early days of the CTG, Lahur joined the CTG. Under Lahur, the CTG became a political force with its own press, media, and staff. The CTG’s popularity rose during the conflict with the Islamic State. Despite sharing a long border with the group, Iraqi Kurdistan was relatively secure.

Lahur became IA’s director in 2013 and began controlling the PUK. Previous directors usually shunned politics. A member of the PUK leadership told me that “Lahur deposed the PUK members and placed members of the IA and the CTG in their stead.” Lahur’s faction relied solely on the CTG and the IA to rule. The group smuggled goods through the border with Iran.

However, Bafel Talabani was a threat to Lahur’s power because Lahur lacked what Bafel had: his father’s legitimacy. Lahur, a former businessman with little military training, built a cult of personality around himself and excluded most of the old PUK establishment. His political views were formed within the security and intelligence apparatuses that led him to equate compromise with failure.

On the other hand, Bafel has gone through military training and joined the CTG in its early days. He maintains close relations with the PUK establishment and has good relations with the United States, Iran, Iraq’s central government, and the KDP. After consolidating his power, Lahur held the PUK 4th congress and managed to garner most of the votes and Lahur and Bafel became co-presidents even though Bafel lacked substantial authority. Lahur’s opponents called the 4th congress illegitimate.

However, Lahur’s supporters called him a reformer for bringing new people into the party. Although Lahur consolidated his power, the struggle became more intense.

Lahur was left powerless when Bafel sacked the leadership of the CTG and the IA and changed their directors. “The reason for deposing Lahur was an abuse of power,” a CTG commander told me. “The IA was used for mass surveillance and attempted to poison co-president Bafel.” Later a spy working for the IA was arrested in Bafel’s home.

A rift among Lahur’s core supporters led to his defeat. A member of the CTG specified that “there were serious disputes between the IA’s top advisor, Sirwan Talabani and Wahab Halabjay, former CTG head of operations…Lahur lent his support to the IA.” This further politicized the CTG and the IA and brought them directly into the power struggle. When Bafel took over the headquarters of the CTG and the IA, their loyalty switched from Lahur to him. Lahur couldn’t personalize the CTG and the IA. Later Halabjay, now promoted to CTG commander, stated “his problems with Sirwan have been solved thanks to President Bafel.” This assured Bafel’s authority over the CTG and the IA.

Lahur’s faction accused Turkey of plotting against them. However, Turkey doesn’t possess real influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, even though Lahur assisted the PKK. On the other hand, the House of Talabani has traditionally called for a united Iraqi Kurdistan that could potentially limit outside influence. PKK-PUK relations date back to the 1980s. Assisting the PKK helps the PUK to balance the KDP and halt Turkish expansion southward. Moreover, the CTG and the IA that led to Lahur’s collapse were already purged of any pro-KDP members under Lahur. Therefore, the KDP and Turkey won’t benefit from a centralized PUK even though they are obliged to collaborate.

A secured and strong Iraqi Kurdistan comes with unity among the region’s security forces. Lahur’s opposition to the KDP impeded this. A united KDP-PUK Peshmerga is the key to a powerful Iraqi Kurdistan. Even though Iran and Turkey oppose a destabilized Iraqi Kurdistan, they wouldn’t be fond of a united PUK-KDP military and Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC). The IA and the CTG officially operate in the framework of the KRSC. Lahur isolated the IA and the CTG from KRSC. However, the incumbent directors are approved by the council.

With Lahur gone, hopes for a united Iraqi Kurdistan have been revived. For Iraqi Kurdistan, it relies on American forces. To host American forces, Iraqi Kurdistan has to balance relations between the United States and Iran and not antagonize one at the expense of the other. A united Iraqi Kurdistan could guarantee the security of one of the most persecuted regions in the world.

Farhang Faraydoon Namdar is a researcher and journalist covering the Middle East and International Affairs. His work has been published in the Jerusalem Post, The National Interest, and various Kurdish magazines. He was the former Editor in Chief of the Birst Newspaper. He has translated books and articles including Fukuyama’s 'State Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century' into Kurdish. Currently, he is a researcher at the Kurdistan Conflict and Crisis Research Center (KCCRC) focusing on International Relations.