Shaken by a family feud, will Iraqi Kurdistan’s PUK survive?
The PUK has just emerged from a three-year leadership battle between two branches of the Talabani family. It is unlikely to be over yet, and there are local and regional ramifications to this family fight.
By Hedwig Kuijpers
August 05 2021

An intense leadership feud between Bafel Talabani and Lahur Sheikh Jangy Talabani risks splitting the PUK’s stronghold in Sulaimaniya, Iraq.

Photo Credit: The Cradle

Iraqi Kurdistan has long been in the hands of two ruling families: the Barzani clan that controls Duhok and Erbil, and the Talabanis who have made the city of Sulaimaniya their fortress. Ever since former Iraqi President and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani, also known as Mam Jalal, passed away in October 2017, Sulaimaniya has been shaken by disputes over the PUK’s main seat of power.

In 2020, the PUK leadership was divided between two co-chairs: one for Mam Jalal’s son Bafel, and the other for the son of his half-brother, his nephew Lahur Sheikh Jangy Talabani.

This pragmatic solution lasted only a few months. Today, tensions between the two rivals have risen so high that in July, Bafel Talabani launched a coup against Lahur.

A coup that seems successful. Lahur – under immense pressure – capitulated almost immediately.

The PUK’s internal power struggle

After Mam Jalal suffered a stroke in 2012, he remained largely out of the picture. Although he was considered an important symbolic leader for the PUK, in reality it was his wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmed (Hero Khan) who pulled the strings and fended off rivals. When Mam Jalal eventually passed away, the PUK’s facade of unity collapsed and a fight over the leadership role was triggered. Roughly, the party membership was, and continues to be, divided into three factions. One faction supports Lahur Sheikh Jangy; another faction supports Bafel and his sibling, Qubad; while a third faction is worried that the party has morphed into a family dynasty. To make matters worse, rumors began spreading that Hero Khan – a strong, key figure in the party – was battling dementia.

The PUK’s three driving forces inside the party had become Qubad Talabani, the current deputy prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan; Bafel Talabani; and Lahur Sheikh Jangy Talabani, head of the PUK intelligence service Zanyari, whose brother Polad Talabani heads the elite Counter-Terrorism Group unit. It was this unit that was accused of assisting US special forces in their plot to assassinate Iran’s Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and Hashd al-Shaabi Deputy Leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis.

It took the PUK three further years to organize a party congress in December 2019 and vote for a new leader.

While Lahur reportedly won that election with 150 votes, in February 2020, both Lahur and Bafel were announced winners, proceeding to jointly lead the PUK.

By promising to battle corruption and by cozying up closely to American forces, Lahur began to portray himself as the ‘lion’ of the party. Having grown up in Great Britain, he had always been ‘a friend of the West,’ and only returned to the region to work with the US-led coalition.

In doing so, Lahur had made himself unpopular with Iran, Turkey and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). He had blocked the attempts of these regional powers to target the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and had set up links between the US armed forces and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Washington’s proxy militias in Syria, which were on the US list of terrorist organizations until 2017.

Lahur’s pet project, the Counterterrorism Unit, was the ultimate asset of the US armed forces in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Lahur also relied heavily on consolidating his power as co-leader of PUK through his influence over the PUK intelligence service and Dhzi Teror unit, which he founded and ran together with US special forces.

Megan Connelly, an expert on PUK affairs, 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.”

Stage 1: PUK intelligence chiefs replaced

Bafel reluctantly shared leadership of the PUK with Lahur, but aspired to a more unitary control. To rid himself of his half-cousin, Bafel would have to ensure Lahur’s influence over these crucial units in the party structure would also be eradicated.

And so he proceeded.

In early July, according to a report by the KDP-affiliated Rudaw, rumors spread that Bafel and his brother Qubad were attempting to replace the heads of the PUK intelligence agency and counter-terrorism units.

At the same time, news appeared that the head of Zanyari Intelligence Agency Mohammed Tahseen and Ranj Sheikh Ali Talabani (Lahur’s main advisor at the same agency) were briefly arrested for defying an order to replace the PUK heads of security.

Finally, Lahur went public through his own media outlet, Zhyan, and released an interview in which he labeled recent events as a “soft coup” and an attempt to “hand over PUK and Sulaimaniya” to the KDP (PUK’s archrival), directly accusing Bafel and Qubad of treason.

The brothers were unmoved. That weekend, Bafel and Qubad proceeded to officially inaugurate two new security chiefs in Sulaimaniya. Azhi Ameen was inaugurated as the new head of the PUK intelligence agency Zanyari, ousting Lahur’s now-freed loyalist from this crucial agency.

After the inauguration ceremony, Bafel visited the Dzhi Teror headquarters wearing a military uniform, and appointed Wahab Halabjayi as the new commander of the PUK’s elite counter-terrorism forces. Lahur’s brother Polad was left packing his bags.

Stage 2: The end of co-presidency

With Lahur Sheikh Jangi Talabani’s most crucial sources of power now stripped from him, and with Sulaimaniya plunged into political chaos, Mam Jalal’s sons quickly proceeded to the next phase of their plan.

On 12 July, Bafel Talabani practically denounced the Co-Presidency by changing his position on all his official Twitter and Facebook accounts. Where previously his position was described as Co-President, he is now portrayed as “the president of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.” The PUK’s official media outlet also named Bafel Talabani president in an article that week.

Statements of other PUK officials, like Ata Serawi’s, also appeared to bolster this perception. Lahur accuses other officials – among them Bafel’s father-in-law, Mala Bakhtiar – of assisting Bafel in his coup.

Stage 3: Silencing the opposition media

Bafel began securing his newly-pronounced position as sole leader of the PUK by attempting to silence Lahur’s affiliated media channels through security force raids in Sulaimaniya. Sheikh Jafaar Sheikh Mustafa’s Golden Force was rumored as being involved in raids on some of these outlets. The same Peshmerga militia was also part of two previous Sulaimaniya shootings in which PUK forces faced each other down, resulting in several deaths and injuries.

The raids occurred at the offices of iPLUS and Zhyan News. While iPLUS had not launched yet, it was intended to be Lahur’s signature TV mouthpiece. Zhyan News, likewise, is a news website strongly affiliated with Lahur. Equipment and computers were broken, and several journalists were beaten and arrested.

ESTA media (affiliated with Bafel Talabani) quoted an anonymous PUK official saying that “any channel or media outlet that is established by PUK money will be returned to the PUK.” This indicates that Bafel intends to shutter or seize all of Lahur’s media networks.

Zhyan News called the raid a coup against Lahur Sheikh Jangy Talabani, and iPLUS directly blamed Bafel and his brother, deputy PM Qubad Talabani for the attacks.

Sulaimaniya has long been described as a safe haven for journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan, with the PUK being much more tolerant in the face of protests and dissent than the KDP, a group notorious for persecuting journalists.

Stage 4: Grab full control

In the meantime, Lahur, having lost his armed forces, seems to have capitulated.

It is unclear what has caused Lahur to give up on co-leading PUK so easily, but in a meeting between the two – in the presence of other PUK politburo members – Lahur agreed to step aside.

“Co-president Lahur Sheikh Jangi has handed over all his powers to co-chair Bafel Talabani until the bylaw is amended,” read the document published by a PUK politburo member.

This can be read as a temporary measure, lasting until the PUK’s next congress.

Stage 5: Imprison or expel

Despite expelling his half-cousin from leadership and power, Bafel seems to be not yet done.

To eliminate every threat Lahur could possibly pose to him, Bafel appears set to expel him from the Kurdistan Region. It is an indication of insecurity; Bahel likely realizes how unpopular he has made himself by engineering this confrontation.

On 27 July, Bafel issued arrest warrants for two of Lahur’s brothers: Polad (former head of counterterrorism unit) and Aso (former KRG representative to Russia), both influential men.

On 31 July, it was reported that Bafel officially requested Lahur to leave Kurdistan and to permanently concede his position within the PUK. Supporters fear Lahur will be imprisoned if he refuses to do so.

Local consequences

The reasons for this coup – power and legacy – are not hard to discern. But what might this dramatic shift in leadership mean for both the PUK and for Iraqi Kurdistan?

Clearly, it is more pragmatic for a party to have a single leader, a single view, and to march in a single direction. On the other hand, the PUK membership had granted Lahur Talabani the majority vote. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the upcoming election’s voter turnout.

It is also unclear how the power change will affect the Gorran–PUK alliance for the upcoming Iraqi elections scheduled for October 2021. If Bafel does not succeed in maintaining this alliance, or does not resort to massive fraud, Sulaimaniya risks being lost to the KDP.

For now, the PUK and Gorran have decided to settle upon Qubad Talabani – Bafel’s brother – to lead their electoral list.

It also remains to be seen if the PUK will continue to support Dr. Barham Salih for the Iraqi presidency. It is not outside the realm of possibility that either the PUK or KDP will now offer up another presidential candidate.

Regional consequences

The intra-PUK coup might trigger several consequences in the wider region, though it seems likely the biggest impact of this feud will remain local.

As stated earlier, Lahur played a part in establishing the US–YPG network, which is crucial to American forces remaining in Syria. Lahur was also actively blocking the KDP from pursuing the PKK on PUK territory. This does not mean that Bafel will sell the PKK out – at least, not as long as the PKK is useful.

Although Lahur also clearly blames the KDP for his misfortunes, the group’s official spokesperson called the coup an issue relating to the “internal affair of the brothers in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).” While it is true that Bafel and Qubad have portrayed themselves as less hostile towards the KDP, both parties are a long way from unity.

US scholars seem distressed about losing a reliable partner. An American analyst has described the events as a Turkish and Iranian backed coup, describing the events as a plot to undermine US plans in the region.

Turkey and Iran both have something to gain in this situation, but their roles have been largely exaggerated. The image being sketched of Turkey and Iran teaming up, mingling in Kurdish politics with a common goal is an impossible one. Both have used their Kurdish allies against each other on multiple occasions.

Turkey is likely hoping that a change in PUK leadership would allow their own prodigy Kurdish party, the Barzani-led KDP, to gain more control in Sulaimaniya and Iraqi Kurdistan as a whole, and thus act more in Turkey’s interests – for example, in its war against the PKK. And Turkey may not have yet forgiven Lahur for its YPG–US alliance.

Iran, on the other hand, has slightly more to gain. Though Iran may not have had a hand in this scheme, it could potentially have stopped it. The reason it has not done so is likely because they view it as an internal family affair. Both Lahur and Bafel are close to Iran, although Bafel’s mother Hero Khan has always been closer.

Of course, the accusations made against Lahur Talabani for using his elite forces and assisting the US in the assassination of general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis would also have sown deep distrust with the Iranians.

The biggest loser

So, while neither Turkey nor Iran have much to lose or gain, what is the US position on all this? Possibly, panic mode. None of his PUK predecessors has ever been as pro-US as Lahur Sheikh Jangy.

Comparing Lahur with Bafel, American Enterprise Institute (AEI) scholar Michael Rubin writes: “American officials consider Lahur, who leads the local intelligence services, to be more reliable, intelligent, and competent, and a useful interlocutor in a difficult neighborhood.”

Rubin did not mention the millions of dollars the US has invested in the Counterterrorism Group or in Dzhi Teror since 2002. These elite forces have assisted, guided and fought alongside US special forces all over Iraq, a country in which the US is increasingly losing its foothold.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of The Cradle.
Hedwig Kuijpers
Hedwig Kuijpers
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