Tens of thousands of Kurds took to the streets of Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan in recent days, protesting declining living standards and corruption. The demonstrations began as students protested both living expenses and declining entitlements. Ordinary Kurds joined them in solidarity in the major town controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). PUK security forces reportedly fired on the crowds. Reports from neighboring towns suggest the protests have spread. Meanwhile, as Americans and Europeans focus address the migrant crisis on the Belarus-Poland border because of its implications for NATO, few ask why migrants from the nominally peaceful and affluent Iraqi Kurdish regions would risk their lives to flee their home.
The current protests may pass as the Iraqi Kurdish police state mobilizes, but Iraqis, Kurds, and their allies should suffer no illusion: These protests amount to the death throes of the PUK, one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s two major political parties.
An Iraqi Kurdish Political Primer
In 1975, Jalal Talabani broke away from the Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to form the PUK. Perhaps he harbored selfish ambition, but the cause of the split was more broadly ideological: The KDP claimed to speak on behalf of all Kurds but the Barzanis were unwilling to subordinate their tribalism in their quest for Kurdish empowerment. In addition, the Barzanis—especially Mulla Mustafa’s son Masoud—was willing to strike deals and even ally himself with Iraq’s Baathist dictator in exchange for supremacy among his Kurdish rivals. The split was not amicable but, the absence of any real power on either side made that irrelevant.
Ironically, Saddam Hussein changed that irrelevancy. In 1990, he ordered a surprise attack on Kuwait. The United States led a multinational coalition that liberated Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush first released Iraqi POWs, including those from Saddam’s elite Republican Guards, and then called upon the Iraqi people to rise up. They did, but the Republican Guards coalesced to put down the rebellion. As Saddam’s forces moved north to reconsolidate control over the country, the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Turkey agreed to create a safe-haven reinforced by an UN-sanctioned no fly zone, to stave off a refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands of Kurds moved toward snow-covered mountain passes to escape what they feared would be inevitable retribution if not genocide. After all, just three years previously, Saddam’s regime had used chemical weapons against the Kurds in the so-called Anfal campaign. It was into these safe-havens that Barzani and Talabani returned to re-establish their authority.
Saddam responded by withdrawing his administrators in the belief that Kurds would be unable to self-govern and would beg his forces to return to avoid chaos or starvation. It was a miscalculation. In 1991, the Kurds held elections, with the KDP and PUK splitting the vote almost evenly. Barzani and Talabani agreed to share power: Wherever there was a KDP official, his deputy would be PUK and vice versa. This worked well for three years until fighting erupted over revenue sharing at the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing with Turkey. There followed a three year civil war which bifurcated the region. The KDP controlled Duhok and Erbil, having expelled the PUK from the latter with the help of Saddam and his Republican Guards, while the PUK controlled Sulaimani. When I first traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan more than two decades ago, the KDP’s intelligence service required registration and passes to travel across no-man’s land to PUK territory. For much of the next decade, the two parties maintained parallel but separate administrations. Masoud Barzani, who took the KDP’s helm after his father died of cancer, ruled KDP territory, while Talabani presided over the PUK. Each side maintained their own parliament, cabinet, and security forces. Even after the government merged in the name of party unity, in practice, each party maintained its own militia and intelligence service. Kurds lionize the Peshmerga, but today they are every bit as much militias as the Popular Mobilization Units among Shi’ite parties.
Between the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the 2003 Iraq War, the character of the parties diverged significantly. The KDP doubled down on tribalism. Barzani ruled as a dictator from a former Saddam-era mountain top compound, though his son Masrour and nephew Nechirvan held trappings of office, and his uncle Hoshyar Zebari remained a top advisor. Talabani and his wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, meanwhile, dominated the PUK and its treasury, though the party was in practice more a meritocracy and attracted progressives like Barham Salih, who today is Iraq’s president.
The 2003 war was both a blessing and a curse for Iraqi Kurds. It was a blessing because it rid them of the threat of Saddam Hussein and ended the region’s isolation. No longer would foreign visitors to the region need to choose from between two bad options: Either a flight to Diyarbakir, a four-hour drive to the border and then to hope Turkish border guards were in a good mood; or bribing Syrian secret police, risking life on a rickety Ilyushin ferrying passengers from Damascus to Qamishli, and a two-hour taxi ride, capped off by a small motor boat across the Euphrates.
The curse was in Iraqi Kurdistan’s lack of capacity. Tribalism does not meld well with a modern economy. Tens of billions of dollars flowed into Kurdish coffers. The Barzanis sought to dominate business in their zone. They treated public coffers as private slush funds and viewed contracts as optional suggestions that the judiciary they dominated would never enforce. Most of the windfall disappeared, its whereabouts unknown to the present day even as civil servant salaries remain years in arrears. The parallels between the behavior of Masrour and Saddam’s sons escape no one.
The PUK at first maintained the pretense of being an ideological party rather than family corporation, but Talabani began making changes in order to ensure a lion’s share of the resources. He elevated his two sons—Bafil [Pavel] and Qubad—and appointed first his brother-in-law Mohammad Sabir and then Qubad to be representative in Washington. When the Coalition Provisional Authority asked each party to nominate candidates for a coalition cabinet, Talabani sent Latif Rashid, the husband of his wife’s sister, to Baghdad.
Talabani died in 2017, several years after suffering a stroke. His wife Hero is still alive, but is unwell, reportedly suffering from both her pre-existing bipolar disorder and, more recently, Alzheimer’s disease. As Talabani ailed, he moved to ensure their sons’ succession. Qubad, both articulate and affable but neither clever nor as charismatic as his father, moved to Erbil to serve as Masrour’s deputy. Bafil, who inherited his mother’s temperament and instability, returned from an exile initially imposed by his father because of his excessive violence and poor decisions to become co-chair of the PUK alongside his cousin Lahur Talabani.
The decision to promote family over principle led to a major split in the PUK. Just as Talabani once abandoned Barzani’s movement, Talabani’s former deputy Noshirwan Mustafa left the PUK to form Gorran [“Change”] to pursue the meritocracy that Talabani abandoned in favor of nepotism. At first, Gorran succeeded in shaking up politics, though it suffered from the vote fraud in which both KDP and PUK engage, but as Noshirwan battled cancer, he too betrayed principle in favor of nepotism, leaving party property and resources to his sons rather than party activists. In effect, the balloon burst, and the region’s best hope for reform collapsed.
Will the PUK go the way of Gorran?
The PUK now faces the fate of Gorran. This past summer, the PUK weathered a party coup with both local and international dimensions. On its surface, Bafil and Qubad’s ouster of Lahur appeared a family matter. Certainly, the Talabanis face internal rivalries just as the Barzanis do. Behind the scenes, though, there was an external dimension: While Masrour approaches Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a yes-man, Lahur repeatedly stood up to Erdoğan. Two weeks before the coup, Erdoğan passed word that Lahur should consider his days numbered. Around the same time, Masrour sent great uncle Hoshyar Zebari and KDP political secretary Fadhil Mirani to Tehran to get permission of Iranian intelligence, and to strike a deal in which Bafil and Qubad would empower pro-Iranian deputies to replace Lahur.
Publicly, Bafil and Qubad justify the coup against Lahur in his corruption and abuse of power. The corruption angle is cynical, given Talabani’s sons’ penchant for self-enrichment on the public dime. Rather than end gasoline smuggling from Iran, for example, Bafil and Qubad imply diverted the profits to their own accounts. It is true that Lahur’s brothers abused their power and behaved poorly though, again, Jalal Talabani exiled Bafil because he was guilty of the same crimes. Lahur should have cleaned house but, in terms of competence, comparing Bafil to Lahur is equivalent to comparing a fry cook at McDonalds to a chef at a Michelin three-star restaurant.
Again, Lahur should answer for anemic reforms, but Bafil is not the answer Kurds wanted, nor do Sulaimani residents have patience for Qubad after so many years of failed promises, sycophancy to Masrour, and a tin ear to Kurdish society. Ridiculing Qubad in the streets of Sulaymani is a popular sport, akin to how Americans once made fun of Dan Quayle. The new PUK leadership may in part explain the protests now, but the problem the PUK faces is deeper.
The PUK implosion comes against the backdrop of the maneuvering to form a new Iraqi government in Baghdad. Since Iraq became an electoral democracy, however flawed, the PUK has held the Iraqi presidency. The intra-Kurdish reasoning for this initially was Barzani’s desire to rid Kurdistan of his chief rival. With Talabani in Baghdad, Barzani could claim to be the sole Kurdish nationalist figure and could try to expand his own influence in traditional PUK areas. That dynamic held after Talabani’s death as first Fuad Masum and then Barham Salih took the presidency. Talabani and Barham were both hyper-competent, while Masum was the political equivalent of petrified wood. Still, the prominence—and resources the presidency provided—bolstered the PUK.
Today, Barzani’s calculation has changed. He sees the opportunity created by continued PUK infighting to deliver a deathblow to his rivals. While Barham has brought prestige to both the Kurds and Iraq—think his visit to Queen Elizabeth II or the Pope’s historic visit to Iraq—Barzani now seeks to replace him with either Hoshyar Zebari or his consigliere (and current foreign minister) Fuad Hussein. This would be a disaster for Iraq as both men act not as Iraqi nationalists who seek the best for their country, but rather as subordinates to a Kurdish tribal chief. Zebari is the favorite, but the stink of corruption has followed his career since his days double-billing locals and party leaders for his activities in London. The PUK would not recover as its prestige and ability for patronage faded away. While Barham has avoided interfering much in Erbil, neither Hoshyar nor Fuad would have the same discipline with regard to Sulaymani. Both would use their new position to pursue policies to accelerate the PUK’s demise, whether by maneuvering Iraqi mechanisms or greenlighting Turkish patrons to move against their Kurdish rivals.
Bafil and Qubad may think they can win the family civil war but, at best, they will win a Pyrrhic victory. Masrour meanwhile may believe he can simply absorb Sulaymani. He will try, but does not understand culturally how different Sulaymani residents are. Put in an American context, it would be like a backwoods West Virginian clan leader trying to take over Berkeley, California. The trickle of Kurds heading to Belarus would turn into a deluge. The PUK may die, but its death will not bring peace, prosperity, or unity.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).