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With Shake-up in Kurdish Party, Iran's Influence in Iraqi Kurdistan Gets a Boost

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Bafel Talabani, president of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Bafel Talabani, president of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Credit: Screenshot from Al Jazeera English YouTube
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Bafel Talabani is not one of those leaders whose portraits appear on international magazine covers. He is neither a president nor a prime minister, or even a noted warrior, but he is one of those activists who generate the butterfly effect. His movements, even if not felt, can lead to unexpected shakeups.

Until the beginning of this month he was joint chairman, alongside his cousin Lahur Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the family political party established by his father, Jalal Talabani. This month, Bafel seized control of the party and named himself its sole president.

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“Party” is a reductive definition of an organization that controls the eastern section of the Kurdish region of Iraq. Bafel has a military force at his disposal and owns the only gas field operating in northern Iraq, in addition to oil fields that produce 10 percent of the oil produced in Kurdistan. The organization has close foreign and commercial relations with Iran, its neighbor – not for ideological reasons, but rather economic ones – and chooses it political partners in the Iraqi parliament and government accordingly.

To outsiders, Kurdistan looks like a homogeneous, pro-Western region with close ties to a series of American governments. But you don’t need a microscope to detect the deep disagreements, sometimes violent rivalries and gaps between parts of the region and within each of its parts. After a long and bloody civil war, which took place in the 1990s between Talabani loyalists and supporters of the rival Barzani family, it was agreed with great effort to establish unified government institutions that would manage the two parts of Iraqi Kurdistan and to divide jobs in a way that would benefit both sides financially.

But the agreed-upon political structure did not eliminate the political rivalry between the Talabanis and the Barzanis. Because this is a region of families. The president of the Kurdistan autonomous region in Iraq is Nechirvan Barzani, nephew of Massoud Barzani, who was president of the region until 2017, and the grandson of Mustafa Barzani, the legendary leader of the Iraqi Kurds. The region's prime minister is Masrour Barzani, the son of Massoud Barzani. A parallel family line manages the eastern part of the region. The party leader, as mentioned, is Bafel Talabani. His brother, Qubad, is the region’s deputy prime minister. His cousin, Lahur, was the head of eastern Kurdistan’s intelligence services. (There is a parallel agency that operates in the west.)

The problem is that Lahur, who was just “deposed” by Bafel, is a longtime, loyal ally of the U.S. government and intelligence agencies. He was a key figure in the Kurdish struggle against the Islamic State group and a vehement opponent of Iranian and Turkish involvement in the Kurdish region. Turkey is hostile to him because he forged the ties between the U.S. administration and Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey considers a terror group and an ally of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, against which Turkey is conducting a war to the death. The ties between Iran and Lahur are good, but Iran prefers Bafel because it believes he will be easier to deal with.

Iraqi Kurds holding light their torches ahead of walking up a mountain in the town of Akra, 500 km north of Baghdad, March 2015.Credit: AFP

The prevailing assumption in the Kurdish region is that Bafel’s takeover of the party is the fruit of joint planning and assistance from Iran and Turkey, which are looking to entrench their influence in the eastern part of Kurdistan and thus also influence the results of the Iraqi general election scheduled for October.

Indeed, shortly after Bafel seized control of the party leadership, he appointed Salman Amin and Wahad Halabji as head of the local intelligence service and head of the counterterrorism unit, respectively. Both have been active in the Kurdish Islamic movement and have close ties with Iranian intelligence. These appointments could indicate that the leadership of eastern Kurdistan is seeking to closely coordinate with Iran, which from now until the election will focus on strengthening the pro-Iranian bloc in the Iraqi parliament.

Last month, a delegation headed by Bafel Talabani visited Baghdad to meet with the leaders of Shi’ite parties and examine the option of forming joint political blocs. The head of the PUK faction (Talabani’s party) in parliament, Ala Talabani, declared that “the al-Fatah bloc is the party closest to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.” The Iraqi al-Fatah bloc is made up of pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties and is headed by Hadi al-Amiri, the political leader of the Shi’ite militias, which the American forces attacked recently in response to attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq.

It seems as if this pro-Iranian stance is a counter-response to the cooperation evolving between Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on the one hand and the Barzanis and separatist leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who opposes the involvement of the United States, Turkey or Iran in Iraq, on the other. Ten days ago, al-Sadr announced that he and his men, who had done well in previous elections, would not contend in the October election. There’s no certainty he’ll stick to that decision, but Tehran is already calculating how to exploit the void he might leave and what role its Kurdish allies can play in filling it.

With the U.S. administration in no rush to formulate its policy on the Iraqi and Syrian front, and while Washington thinks that Bafel, Lahur and Qubad are names of heroes in bandit stories, Joe Biden may discover that he has been hoodwinked.

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