Intra-PUK power struggle erupts: Bafel Talabani versus Lahur Talabani

On Tuesday evening, security forces in Sulaimani raided media outlets affiliated to Lahur Sheikh Jangi Talabani (iPLUS, a TV that was not on air yet) and Zhyan News (a news website). The raid was a clear confirmation of the tensions between Bafel Talabani and Lahur Talabani within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that erupted publicly since last Thursday.

Esta media (affiliated to Bafel Talabani) quoted an anonymous PUK official that “any channel or media outlet that is established by the PUK’s money will be returned to the PUK”. Zhyan news, an outlet affiliated to Lahur Talabani, called the raid a coup against Lahur Talabani. iPLUS itself directly blamed Bafel Talabani and DPM Qubad Talabani.

Last Thursday, rumours spread that Bafel Talabani and his brother Qubad Talabani, the deputy PM of the Kurdistan Region, were trying to change the heads of the PUK’s intelligence agency and counter-terrorism units, Rudaw (KDP outlet) reported. There were also rumours that the head of Zanyari Intelligence Agency Mohammed Tahseen and Ranj Sheikh Ali (Talabani) who’s Lahur’s advisor at the agency, were allegedly briefly arrested for defying the order to change the PUK’s security heads. Pro-Lahur media called the incident a ‘soft coup’. The rumours were confirmed on Sunday when the brothers officially inaugurated the two new chiefs in Sulaimani, the Rudaw report added.

PUK co-chair Bafel Talabani and DPM Qubad Talabani appoint the new head of CTG Wahab Halabjayi (Photo: Eji Omer)

Esta (affiliated to Bafel Talabani) confirmed that the deputy PM appointed Azhi Amin as the new head of PUK’s intelligence agency (information agency, Zanyari in Kurdish). Moreover, PUK media confirmed that Wahab Halabjayi was appointed as head of the Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG), an elite counter-terrorism unit. The previous heads, according to Rudaw, were closely affiliated to Lahur Talabany, including his brother Polad who was head of the counter-terror unit. Lahur Talabani became the co-chair of the PUK in February 2020, along with his cousin Bafel Talabani, following years of wrangling within the party over who would succeed the late Jalal Talabani, who died in 2017. The power of the wife of Talabani, Hero Talabani, has also decreased, with some claiming she is suffering from ill-health. Lahur was the incumbent head of the PUK’s counterterrorism forces and the nephew of Jalal Talabani, who served as Iraq’s president from 2005 to 2014. Bafel is the late president’s son. There are also rumours that Bafel Talabani will become the sole PUK-president and on social media accounts Balf Talabani changed his Facebook and Twitter profiles to the ‘president of the PUK’. Expert Megan Connelly, a Non-Resident Fellow at IRIS, tweeted that “Lahur’s confrontational style has been met with concern and frustration by many powerful figures in the politburo who feel that the new Co-Presidency has unfairly encroached on their financial and political autonomy and authority.” Therefore, Lahur might have incurred the anger of senior PUK figures such as Kosrat Rasul Ali, Sheikh Jafaar, Mahmoud Zangawi, Ata Sarawi (who showed support for Bafel) and Mala Bakhtiar, Mustafa Chawrash (of which some have their own military forces within the Peshmerga, or are senior commanders). Pro-Lahur media also accused VP’s Sheikh Jafaar’s Golden Force for being involved in the raid on Tuesday.

So far, it’s not clear what the position of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is and how it will affect KDP-PUK relations. KDP’s official spokesperson, Mahmoud Muhammad, called it an issue that is the “internal affair of the brothers in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).” Lahur Talabani apparently blamed the KDP and a regional country for the ‘coup’.

However, although the KDP blamed both Lahur Talabani and Bafel Talabani for ‘betraying’ them during the events in October 2017 after the independence referendum, when Iraqi and Iran-backed forces took disputed territories, including Kirkuk from the Peshmerga forces, Bafel Talabani in general has a better relation with the KDP. For instance, Bafel Talabani spoke at University of Kurdistan Hewler (UKH) in May, where president Nechirvan Barzani was also present (the university was founded by Nechirvan Barzani). Moreover, Qubad Talabani, always had a better relation with the KDP, than Lahur Talabani, working as a deputy under first Nechirvan Barzani, and now PM Masrour Barzani. Qubad Talabani reportedly backed Bafel Talabani, his brother, in the current dispute with Lahur Talabani. Therefore, the KDP could favor the power change within the PUK. Especially since there had been no meetings between the KDP leadership with Lahur Talabani in the recent past. However, Bafel Talabani in the past had similar positions towards the KDP as Lahur Talabani.

The power change could also affect the Gorran-PUK alliance for the upcoming Iraqi elections scheduled for October. Unless Bafel Talabani continues the alliance with Gorran.

It could also affect the future of the Iraqi presidency after the Iraqi elections. In 2018, there was fierce competition between Dr. Barham Salih (who left his own opposition party he formed in 2017, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, to rejoin the PUK in 2018 to become Iraqi president) and Fuad Hussein (backed by the KDP). Barham at the time was supported by both Lahur and Bafel Talabani, although Hero Talabani opposed this. In the end, Barham became the Iraqi president. It remains to be seen if PUK will continue to support Dr. Barham Salih in the future for the Iraqi presidency. It’s possible that the KDP will come with an alternative candidate for Barham Salih in the future (after the Iraq elections), or that the PUK under Bafel will pick someone else for the Iraqi presidency. It’s also still unclear if Barham Salih wants to remain Iraqi president, or look for a different future, although most likely he would like to stay as Iraqi president.

It also remains to be seen what kind of affect the power struggle will have on the relationship between the PUK and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Lahur Talabani. In my new book with Michael Knights, we wrote that the “CTG (under Lahur Talabani) had been actively developing communications with the YPG since February 2014.” (page 37). Lahur’s media outlet also published a video about the good relations between his forces and Rojava (YPG).

No matter what the outcome is of the current dispute, its likely to have an effect on intra-Kurdish, Iraqi politics and possibly also regional politics.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg is the coauthor of the recently published book The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts.

*Note: the article was quickly written to give an overview on the recent events in Slemani and could be updated to reflect the situation more accurately (or to correct grammar and/or spelling mistakes).

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Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Jamestown Analyst & freelance journalist based in Kurdistan vvanwilgenburg @gmail.co m