In July 2021, internal rivalries within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) saw major dramatic developments when Bafel Talabani ousted his co-leader, Lahur Sheikh Jangi, and declared himself the party's sole leader.
The Roots of the Conflict
The rivalry over the leadership of the PUK has been inevitable since the death of the party's charismatic leader, Jalal Talabani. Since then, no figure capable of filling the void left by the man has ever emerged, and several leaders in the Talabani family rose to prominence, which resulted in an uneasy arrangement at the party conference in February 2020, when it was decided to elect Lahur Sheikh Jangi Talabani, nephew of Jalal Talabani and Bafel Talabani, the eldest son of Jalal Talabani, as co-leaders of the party. Before that, Lahur was the head of the party's intelligence service and counter-terrorism force, and thus effectively controlled the security arms of the party. Lahur objected to the arrangement at the time because, in practice, he won the party elections and the votes he obtained exceeded those given to Bafel, but other wings in the party did not trust him and his ambitions to take the position alone. It was also very difficult to exclude the immediate family of Jalal Talabani, with which the party's name and history are associated. At the time, the two leaders agreed that Lahur would handle the security affairs of the party while Bafel would handle the political affairs.
However, Lahur's power continued to grow. In addition to his control, through people close to him, of the two most important security agencies affiliated with the party, the Intelligence and Information Service (Zanyari) and the counter-terrorism force that was established by Lahur after 2003 in cooperation with the American forces, he also expanded his control to include many companies and businesses, as well as engaging in cross-border smuggling activities. Also, he has recently started expanding his media influence by establishing a television station called (iPlus).
Accordingly, it became clear that Lahur was on his way to becoming, in practice, the real, influential and powerful leader on the ground. This, howoever, provoked the immediate Talabani family, Hero Ahmed, the wife of Jalal Talabani and the daughter of the historical Kurdish leader, Ibrahim Ahmed, and her sons Bafel and Qubad Talabani - the latter is the deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan region. Tensions between Bafel and Lahur escalated further after the Talabani family spread information that a person close to Lahur had planted a spy in Bafel's house, and that an attempt to kill the latter with poison had taken place. Subsequently, Bafel made a decision to change the heads of the Zanyari unit and the anti-terrorist force, and sent his brother Qubad, accompanied by Jaafar Mustafa, the vice president of the Kurdistan region, to patronize an official ceremony for the new head of Zanyari assuming his position in the Kalaujin region, northeast of Sulaymaniyah, where the party headquarters and its apparatus are located. But Muhammad Talabani, the head of the unit and a figure close to Lahur, refused to hand over his duties, as tension reached the point where the forces of the two sides readied for military engagement.
But Bafel, supported by other wings of the party, put Muhammad Talabani under arrest for several days, during which the leadership of the two agencies was transferred to the officials whom Bafel appointed with the support of the party's peshmerga and most of its leaders, which effectively stripped Lahur of his basic elements of strength. After that, Bafel announced that he had become the sole leader of the party, in what seemed as a soft coup against the decisions taken at the party's latest congress. Many companies and institutions associated with Lahur Talabani were seized, including the television station that was under construction.
Lahur Ousted: Reactions
The overthrow of Lahur Sheikh Jangi was supported by Qubad Talabani and Jaafar Mustafa - the latter oversees a force of the party's fighters. The KDP also welcomed the move, driven by intense hostility between the leaders of the two parties, specifically between Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan region, and Lahur Talabani. Lahur had led a campaign to assert the autonomy of Sulaymaniyah from Erbil, and to curtail the dominance of the KDP over the region's affairs, and had communicated directly with the federal government in Baghdad. He was also coordinating with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has clashed with KDP on more than one occasion recently.
While reports indicated that Lahur left Sulaymaniyah to an unknown location, he issued statements on social media platforms in which he stressed that the PUK will remain united and that he rejects any use of force "among the party's sons". He also announced that he was ready for any investigation into the accusations leveled against him in connection with his involvement in illegal smuggling and trade. Lahur referred to domestic and foreign "conspiracies" being hatched against him, alluding to a Turkish role in the coup against him. Of course, Turkey is happy to see Lahur overthrown because of his relations with the "PKK", but it is unlikely for Ankara to have had played a major role in what happened, given the limited influence it wields in Sulaymaniyah, compared to Iran’s. It has been also reported that an Iranian intelligence delegation visited Sulaymaniyah to mediate between the PUK rivals and to prevent internal fighting between the Lahur and Bafel groups.
It remains unclear whether the Iranians are working to undermine Lahur Talabani, or if they prefer some form of power distribution within the PUK. However, a report by American journalists a few months ago linked the anti-terror force headed by Lahur to the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, noting that a number of members of this force participated in monitoring Soleimani after he landed at Baghdad airport, something which Lahur and those close to him quickly denied. Bafel's wing may have used this issue to persuade the Iranians to abandon Lahur. Also, Bafel and Qubad, especially the latter, have good relations with the Americans and the West due to their Western education and Qubad's residence in Washington as a representative of the Kurdistan region for several years.
Outcomes and Trajcetories
By the end of last July, it seemed that the immediate Talabani family had succeeded in imposing a fait accompli and had weakened Lahur Sheikh Jangi to the maximum. This may lead to a new rapprochement between the "PUK" and the "KDP", or at least reduce tension between the two parties. However, this is not likely to put an end to the PUK’s problems, not only because the current division has affected different wings within the larger Talabani family and the security services, but also because the party still faces major problems in defining its path and establishing its legitimacy, which is being questioned from time to time by new movements in Sulaymaniyah.
EPC | 22 Sep 2021
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