Prospects for the Period after Talabani / Insight Kurdistan – 31-12-2012

Insight inspects the plausible scenarios for a powerful Kurdish party in the absence of its leader. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of Iraq’s most influential political parties, is arguably facing its toughest leadership challenge since its inception in the wake of its leader Jalal Talabani’s recent serious illness.

The 79-year-old Talabani, who is also the president of Iraq, was admitted to hospital in Baghdad on 17 December after he reportedly suffered a stroke. He was transferred to Germany on 20 December for further treatment amid widely-circulated reports that he was still in a coma.

Talabani, who co-founded and led the PUK since 1975, has survived decades of armed insurrection against the Iraqi regime, intra-PUK power struggles and a civil conflict with his Kurdish rival, Massoud Barzani.

While most attention is on Talabani’s absence in Iraq and the gap that he could be leaving behind, it is his own party that will bear the brunt of his abrupt absence. For it is not in the PUK’s DNA structure to cope without its founder and CEO.

Here is why: The post 1990s PUK in essence was a marriage between two powerful wings led by Jalal Talabani and his trusted deputy Nawshirwan Mustafa. But following several fateful power struggles that saw the latter’s split from the party in 2006, the PUK has been literally left standing on one leg.

But Talabani has perfected the role of a uniting force that kept the heavily polarized PUK together over the past decades and more so following Mustafa’s split. He has been seen as the lid that always managed to quell dissent from within, albeit tactfully rather than heavy-handedly.

This, nonetheless, has not been an easy task and PUK is by no means an easy party to run. Even his two deputies, Kosrat Rasul and Barham Salih, several months after their official appointment to the posts in 2010, raised a memorandum to the secretary general complaining about issues within as Talabani was busy with Iraq reconciliation efforts in Baghdad. A few months later, a letter of Barham Salih’s resignation circulated in the local press. It has been a messy business.

Possible Scenarios

For now, however, there are two possible scenarios for the PUK in its transition to the post Talabani era should the ageing leader not recover. The 

Talabani’s Deputy Kosrat Rasulparty can hold together if its many leaders could compromise and rally around one, provided he or she also gets the blessing of the PUK’s regional ally, Iran. Failing that — given the daunting task without a proper chain of command – it could easily plunge into chaos and inexorably fall apart.

But Talabani will not leave only the PUK behind. The PUK owns one of Iraq’s largest commercial corporations. Nokan Group, a consortium of 16 companies, is an Iraqi giant deeply involved in oil, construction and food industries.

Nokan can heavily influence any scenario.

Weakened PUK

Talabani’s appointment as president of Iraq was desired by many on many levels. While it was difficult for Iraqi communities to espouse a Sunni Arab president following the toppling of the former regime, a Kurd was a natural choice. And no other Kurd could fit the bill as Talabani. Both Kurdish leaders, Barzani and Talabani, who had been running the Kurdish region on a “fifty-fifty” power-sharing deal following their mid nineties civil war, needed positions with equal prestige.

It was Barzani’s luck that a deal could be struck to permanently base Talabani outside the Kurdistan Region — leaving the realm entirely for Barzani to spread his wings and those of his party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

While Talabani spent most of his time in the capital Baghdad away from the party’s heartland in the Kurdistan Region, Barzani bolstered his position and that of his party to become a stakeholder with a lion share in the PUK-KDP alliance.

This, coupled with Mustafa’s split, left the PUK completely trailing behind the KDP.

Many in the Kurdish media over the past decade urged the PUK to prepare for this day, fearing that the mayhem that may ensue in the post-Talabani transition could be costly not only for the party but for Iraqi Kurds as a whole. Talabani himself did little to help save the party after his departure. One influential Kurdish writer wrote a famous piece last year entitled, “Save the PUK from Talabani”. When Talabani was taken ill another time — a frequent occurrence in the past decade — another commentator wondered whether Talabani would follow in the footsteps of Yasser Arafat or Nelson Mandela – the ageing Palestinian leader dying without making any contingency plans despite his long illness while the South African passed on the mantle of his country’s presidency and his party when he was at the peak of his popularity.

Under any scenario, Talabani’s permanent departure will enfeeble the party further even if it manages to hold together, stripping it of its current status, the second strongest Kurdish party in Iraq.


The PUK has started life as an umbrella organization bringing together disparate ideological subgroups with their own leaders. While the ideological differences seem to have faded over the years, rivalries among the top officials have remained. In some cases, personal and regional differences have been infused with these old rivalries.

The outcome has been a decentralized party often dogged by bickering among its top brass. The dissonant groups, nonetheless, at least accepted Talabani as their leader, and he is indeed more popular than the rest. His arm within the party is referred to as the “general line”. While a complete fragmentation scenario is unlikely in the immediate term, splits of certain leaders could eventually take place.

Barham Salih for one, although a deputy leader and the PUK’s runner for the toughest government jobs, including his recent leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), his popularity within the PUK has not been yet tested. And added to that, local media have increasingly reported his poor relationship with Talabani’s wife. The urbanite and Western-educated Salih has tried to find a strong foothold through media and education initiatives. He owns his own media Talabani’s Deputy and former Kurdistan PM Dr. Barham Salih.organization, Xendan; he is the founder of the American University in Sulaimaniyah, his hometown and traditionally a PUK stronghold. He is said to enjoy considerable fame among the youths. When his reported resignation was published in the media, with it came rumours that he was planning a split.

He is also reportedly closer to Massoud Barzani than others.

Other figures within the PUK could be swayed toward the opposition Gorran (Change) Movement – founded by Nawshirwan Mustafa in 2009 and includes at least half a dozen of leading PUK veterans – if they are not happy with the new party shape. Privately-owned Awene newspaper reported that the strongest division right now within the PUK is between two camps: One wanting to move away from the KDP toward the Change Movement, and another strongly pro KDP. Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, Talabani’s wife, is reported to be the leader of the pro-Change camp.

Holding Together

Despite the presence of numerous veteran politicians in the PUK, there is no clear successor to Talabani. However, if the party manages to muddle through for some time to allow for the emergence of a strong leadership, with the help of Nokan and a great deal of compromise on the part of senior leaders, it can stay in one piece.

As the first deputy secretary-general, the 60-year Rasul is the highest ranking party official after Talabani, was therefore assigned last week to lead the PUK temporally “until Talabani’s return”.

Next in line is the 52-year-old Barham Salih, as the second deputy to the secretary general. However, it is worth recalling that neither Rasul nor Salih were elected through a direct vote at the party’s last conference in June 2010, but appointed by Talabani. Hence their real popularity in terms of numbers is debatable.

The contrast between the two could not be more striking.

Rasul, who comes from Erbil, is mostly known for his time as commander of Peshmerga forces in the insurrection years in the 1980s. He has served as the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government and Kurdistan Region vice-president. He suffers from ill health, partly as a consequence of a reported serious injury from a shell bomb in 1985.

Salih, on the hand, is one of the few senior party leaders who have not taken part in the armed insurrection against the Saddam regime as he lived in the UK and the United Stated in the 1980s and 1990s. He holds a Doctorate degree in Computer Engineering from the UK. Salih, who is from Sulaimaniyah (Sulêmani), served as prime minister of the PUK-led Sulaimaniyah administration, Iraqi deputy prime minister, and KRG premier. Various reports indicate that Salih is favoured by the US, perhaps because they see in him the type of educated man they can deal with. If true, this could work as a handicap as this might automatically make him a less preferred choice for Iran.

Last but not least, Talabani’s staunchest and longest serving ally, his wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmed. Having gained the highest delegate votes in the party’s leadership election in the 2010 conference, Ahmed forcefully rose to the top of the party pyramid within weeks. She was appointed to the party’s 16-member Political Bureau as its only female member. She is now also the head of the party’s branch in Sulaimaniyah.

The 64-year-old Ahmed is known for her involvement in the party’s media institutions, helping to found the party’s KurdSat satellite TV and Khak media institution before that. Her father, Ibrahim Ahmed, was a well-known intellectual and politician.


Iraq’s first lady Hero Ibrahim Ahmed.Although not a deputy to Talabani, her vigorous rise to politics in recent years in Talabani’s absence is not in passing. It looks more calculated. Moreover, Talabani’s son, Qubad Talabani, who represented the KRG in the past several years in the United States, has now returned to Kurdistan Region holding a ministerial position in Erbil. Talabani’s other son, Pavel, reportedly heads the PUK-run anti terror squad.

Hero’s sister, Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed, is the PUK representative to the UK.

In addition to the media, Ahmed is also reported to have access to the Nokan finances. With this considerable clout, she is certain to be the kingmaker, if not the king, or secretary general for that matter.

Iran Blessing

The PUK has historically enjoyed good relations with Iran, partly because its heartland is the Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk regions – which border Iran. This goes back to the 1980s when Iran and the PUK had a common enemy in the Saddam regime. The PUK not only received support from Tehran, but the two reportedly carried out joint military operations against the Iraqi army. These ties continued in the 1990s when Iran was the only window to the world for the Sulaimaniyah-based PUK administration — running an area known as the “green zone” with Sulaimaniyah as its capital.These ties have taken extra significance in the past few years when Barzani and Turkey, Iran’s regional archrival, found new friends in each other.

Iran’s sway over the PUK is so strong that earlier this year Talabani thwarted a no no-confidence effort against Iran-blessed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. More recently, local media reported that Iran tired to bring together Talabani and his former ally Nawshirwan Mustafa. And indeed the two met twice since September 2012 following bitter feud that resulted in the latter’s split. Economically, Iran’s multi-billion dollar trade with Iraqi Kurdistan is heavily based in the PUK’s green zone and Nokan facilitates most of it. Iranian business is there to stay and to grow. And that is a top priority for Tehran when vetting the next PUK leader.