Intra-PUK tensions rise following Lahur Talabany’s return to politics

Tensions within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s (KRI) second-largest party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have escalated following the return of ousted party co-leader Lahur Talabany.

In late February, Talabany announced his return to the party, demanding that the party leadership, members, and supporters acknowledge him as co-leader while criticizing his cousin and PUK leader Bafel Talabani’s authoritarian rule.

Talabany’s announcement was bolstered by regional institutions recognizing his co-leadership, including the Kurdistan Regional Judicial Council and the Erbil Security Investigation Court. Since then, several controversial events within the party have revealed growing tensions.

Initially dismissive of Talabany’s announcement, PUK leader Bafel Talabani began taking action against him, individuals close to him, and those working in his office.

This shift was likely prompted by political party leaders receiving Talabany as PUK co-leader in meetings, such as Change Movement (Gorran) leader Omar Said Ali, and the large turnout at the funeral of Lahur Talabany’s mother last month, attended by figures from across the political spectrum.

Senior PUK officials who had participated in Talabany’s ouster as co-leader were also in attendance. PUK leader Bafel Talabani also eventually attended the funeral, most likely due to social and political pressure, appearing uneasy as he was welcomed by members of the Sheikh Jangi family.

After these events, tensions ramped up. Sources close to Talabany reported that PUK-owned vehicles were taken from him, his team, and political party figures close to him. Women were also targeted, with PUK leadership council member Parwin Kaka Hama having her vehicles confiscated.

Lawen Azad, Director of Communications at Talabany’s office, publicly shared her experience on social media, tweeting, “Yes, sadly 3-4 military cars with armed men pulled up beside me in the center of the city at a traffic light and demanded I get out and give back the car I was driving. Thank you to the current leadership of PUK for this wonderful display of democracy.”

In addition to the confiscation of vehicles belonging to Lahur Talabany, his associates, and his allies, a court in Sulaymaniyah has issued an arrest warrant for Talabany and his brother, Polad. The warrant, allegedly supported by Bafel Talabani, was issued after a case was reportedly filed by an individual named Aso Ahmad Ali.

Ali claimed that Polad Talabany and another individual named Rebwar Hamid Haji Ghali were involved in a plot to kidnap him, which some suggest may be related to suspicions of observing Lahur Talabany’s children. Polad posted “whoever stalks our children will be taught a lesson,” on social media but later removed the message.

Sources close to Lahur play down the arrest warrant, stating that it’s an intimidation tactic to get him to leave the party or the country. Others say the PUK leadership wants to push Talabany into setting up a rival party rather than remain a thorn in the PUK’s side.

The source added that both Lahur and Polad Talabany remain members of the Kurdistan Region Security Council and thus have immunity to arrests. Sources close to Lahur’s team also said they received no communication regarding the application of any warrants. NRT English also tried to contact PUK figures close to the current party leadership, however, they could not be reached.

In the last couple of weeks, Lahur Talabany has made additional public comments regarding intra-PUK affairs. In an interview with Iraqi satellite channel, al-Sharqiya. He blamed regional interference for his ouster and further stated that he could have used force to defend himself but did not want to “harm the cause.”

He added that his being outside PUK fold will lead to ‘disastrous’ effects, and predicted the party losing half of its parliamentary seats in the upcoming elections. In the interview, Talabany went on to say that the PUK diverted attention away from party bylaws, and has became a party that now prioritises military force over politics. The ousted co-leader added that the party under Bafel Talabani was no longer willing to engage in dialogue with him.

Bafel Talabani’s recent actions, alongside now controlling the PUK’s media organs, intelligence services (Zanyari agency), and most of the party’s armed forces, indicate an increasingly hostile approach to his party rival and cousin, Lahur.

Security figures close to Lahur Talabany, such as Murad Kani Kurdayi and Hawkar Jaff, have been killed recently, in a spate of attacks some blame on Talabani. The current PUK leader could not be reached for comment but has previously denied the allegations.

Talabani’s own allegations against Talabany include claims that Talabany’s associates poisoned him. He also says he’s cleaning up the party following years of alleged looting and racketeering under Talabany’s co-leadership and management of the intelligence services.

Bafel Talabani also now feels emboldened by verdicts issued in Baghdad, with Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission recognizing his role as sole party leader in a rejection of appeals by Lahur.

Talabany, now supported by the ‘Scorpion Force’ militia and much of the party support base, is viewed with growing paranoia by Bafel Talabani, who fears a counterattack that could end his reign in Sulaymaniyah. Numerous other militia groups in the province could potentially target Talabani, including those affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party (KSDP).

KDP deputy leader and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani’s increasing hostility towards Talabani only stokes the siege mentality taking root in the household.