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Family feuds among Iraq’s Kurdish leaders embolden Iran

Iraqi Kurdish leaders are at each other’s throats instead of closing ranks as Iran rains cross-border missile and drone attacks on the region and threatens a ground invasion.

SULAIMANIYAH/ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — With its aura of relative calm and Western-friendly vibes, Iraqi Kurdistan was for decades hailed as the other Iraq. Today, Iraqi Kurdistan is under assault. Since early this year, Iran has carried out a series of cross-border missile and drone attacks against the Kurdish region, targeting its capital, Erbil, and more recently Iranian-Kurdish militias, which Tehran blames for the mass protests that have rocked the country since the Sept. 16 death in police custody of Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini. Dozens of people including women and children have died in the strikes, which prompted at least one international carrier to temporarily halt service to Erbil. Iran is now threatening a ground invasion should the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) continue to ignore its demands to disarm and intern those groups, something Iraqi Kurdish officials say is impossible for them to do.

Faced with such adversity, Kurdish leaders ought to be closing ranks. Instead, they are at each other’s throats, spinning a web of intrigue that would make Machiavelli blush.

The squabbles have left the region’s estimated five million Kurds ever more disaffected as they struggle to make ends meet, with a steady stream risking their lives to get to Europe through illegal means.

Bestoon Saied, a vendor in Sulaimaniyah’s main bazaar, summed up the feelings aired in multiple street interviews in three cities, telling Al-Monitor, “I don’t believe in any of the parties, none of them. They are all corrupt.”

Tensions took a bloody turn when Hawkar Jaff, a senior intelligence officer, was blown up on Oct. 7 by a bomb planted in his car in Erbil. The murder prompted warnings of a return to the fratricidal war that raged between the region’s two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its weaker rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), in the early 1990s.

“I hope it’s an aberration but I think the crisis could escalate. Hawkar’s killing could be the first domino,” said Bilal Wahab, Nathan and Esther K. Wagner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

While such fears may sound exaggerated, there is little doubt that the crisis is among the worst and most intractable in recent years. For one, it weakens the Iraqi Kurds vis-a-vis newly appointed Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani's government, with which they are tentatively hopeful of negotiating a new oil and gas law and their share of the Iraqi budget.

Over the past year, Baghdad has been tightening the screws on Erbil, threatening to take oil companies operating in the Kurdish region to court.

Analysts warn that leaving the disputes unresolved could give Iran greater leverage over Iraqi Kurdistan just as Turkey sets up more military bases deep inside its northern borders in its ongoing war against Kurdistan Workers Party militants.

“What is possible is that the KRG might just unfold — for example, if Iran were to do a land incursion and they were welcomed by the Shia militias on the Iraqi side,” Wahab observed. “If Iranian and Turkish attacks and the threat of an Iranian land invasion were not enough to create unity of purpose ın the KRG, then what would?"

The other and potentially more likely outcome is a harder division of Kurdistan between the affluent “yellow” KDP-held zone to the north, where Turkey largely prevails, and the poorer “green” PUK-held one to the south, dominated by Iran, putting a further damper on dreams of an independent Kurdistan.

Bafel Talabani, the brashly candid PUK leader who grew up in south London and was trained by the French Foreign Legion and British Special Forces, hinted as much in a recent interview with Iraq Oil Report. The failure of the two sides to resolve their differences could lead to “different solutions,” he said, “all the way from amicable divorce to just the old tribal, ‘I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you’ three times in the mirror or whatever it is.”

Officials on both sides say only American mediation can end their quarrels, just as it did in the mid-1990s. But Iraq has slipped down the list of US priorities and even further since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. Alina Romanowski, the US ambassador to Baghdad, has been urging the sides for calm but little beyond.

Some 30 years since the Kurds established their fledgling state under US protection, the Kurdistan Region remains separated by checkpoints manned by armed Peshmerga affiliated with the respective parties. “It’s like entering another country, it’s so embarrassing. It’s like there is no one Kurdistan,” said Mustafa, who is studying nursing in Sulaimaniyah. The KDP and the PUK have “armies and weapons, you can’t change them through votes. In the last election [in 2019] my family, my friends, nobody voted. What’s the use?” he sighed.

With its uneven surfaces, poor signage and unexpected bends, the road connecting Erbil to Sulaimaniyah remains practically unchanged from when this correspondent first traveled on it some 30 years ago. The contrast with the gleaming highways connecting the main cities in the KDP-held area speaks volumes about the inequities between the sides. Then, as today, the differences between the two parties were spurred by a fight for money and power.

Most of the money remains concentrated in KDP hands. This is because the area’s main source of income, oil, is pumped through a pipeline that runs to Turkey through KDP-controlled territory, generating some $500 million that is used to pay public workers’ salaries. The PUK has long insisted that it is being denied its fair share.

Blurring lines

In the past, the lines separating Iraq’s Kurdish adversaries were straightforward: The KDP led by Masoud Barzani versus the PUK led by the late Jalal Talabani, who went on to become modern Iraq’s first president. Today, the configuration of assorted antagonists is harder to decipher, with the Barzanis and the Talabanis locked in bitter power struggles not just against each other but among themselves, primarily over succession.

On the Barzani side, the president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the KDP leader’s nephew and son-in-law, Nechirvan, is immersed in a turf war with the former’s eldest son, Masrour.

The simmering rivalry burst into the open — though it is only ever discussed in private — when Masrour succeeded Nechirvan as the KRG’s prime minister in 2019. (Insiders from both parties interviewed for this article refused to be identified by name in order to speak freely.) Masrour has since been chipping away at the influence of Nechirvan, replacing numerous government figures with loyalists.

Opinion on the 53-year-old politician is divided. A close observer of the Barzanis said, “Masrour operates on trust first and capacity later. He is replacing Nechirvan’s patronage network with his own.”

“He is a more effective chief executive officer than this place has ever seen,” countered a source with insider knowledge of the reforms Masrour has embarked on since taking office.

Western consultancies have been enlisted to build capacity and rationalize expenditures, improve efficiency and transparency through, among other things, the digitalization of services, banking reform and better procurement practices. Their impact is beginning to be felt, albeit slowly. However corruption remains rife and opportunities for small and medium businesses are few and far between.

Yet, “Taxes on the rich and family businesses are up, public expenditure is down and sham contracts have been nixed,” the insider source told Al-Monitor. Those paying higher taxes are said to include Barzani-owned entities.

Masrour further consolidated his hold during the KDP’s most recent congress in early November, when he was elevated to the number-two spot he now shares with Nechirvan. Several members of his own circle were appointed to the party’s executive, known as the political bureau, some say at Nechirvan’s expense. “Kak Masrour came on top of this. He solidified his position,” said a KDP source who also declined to be identified.

Others say Masoud Barzani ensured that his son did not grab all the power to avert further conflict within the party.

Nechirvan, whose mother was from Sulaimaniyah, the PUK’s stronghold, was long seen as a bridge between the rival regions as well as an easygoing and efficient partner for Western and regional governments and businesses. “Everybody loves Nechirvan,” said a Western diplomat speaking anonymously to Al-Monitor. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is among his biggest fans. 

Masrour, who was educated in the United States and is often described as the brightest among the Barzani brothers, is seen as inflexible and prickly. (Few know that in private settings, Masrour loves to crack jokes.) Those attributes are said to have put him at odds with Bafel and his brother, Qubad, the deputy prime minister and a close Nechirvan ally who is similarly diplomatic and accommodating.

“There is no rational analysis for why these tensions inside the KRG are rising,” noted Wahab. “It is primarily because these are people who don’t get along. This is a rivalry between two princes, Masrour and Bafel, neither of whom is used to compromise. Bafel is not the sort of malleable creature people thought he’d be,” Wahab added.

Poisoned chalice

Even before the pair began facing off, initially over who should become Iraq’s next president, a position reserved for the Kurds, Bafel cleared his own path to uncontested power over the PUK last November. Aided by Nechirvan, he ousted his cousin Lahur as co-chair of the party and fired his intelligence chiefs in a bloodless coup.  

The Lahur camp insists that Jaff, who defected to the KDP following Lahur’s ejection, was murdered under Bafel’s orders. KRG authorities, ostensibly with Masrour’s blessing, issued arrest warrants for PUK counterintelligence officers said to be involved in the crime, fueling further tensions between the sides.

Bafel denies any involvement and has accused Lahur of seeking to kill him by getting his men to lace his orange juice with Dioxin, a heart medication. “They wanted it to look like a drug overdose,” a senior PUK source told Al-Monitor. Lahur told Al-Monitor in a recent interview that he made no such attempt.

Enter Azhi Amin, the savvy former head of the external relations unit of PUK intelligence called the Zanyari, which used to be overseen by Lahur. In the wake of Lahur’s overthrow Amin was promoted to become Zanyari’s boss only to be fired seven months later. During an interview, his first ever with any journalist, Amin said, “For a few months Bafel was under pressure by a neighboring country to remove me from power and he finally did.” Though he won’t say so openly he was probably referring to Iran, with which Bafel is said to enjoy close ties. When Iraqi government forces and Iran-backed Shiite militias wrested control of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces in the wake of the KDP-engineered referendum on Kurdish independence in 2017, many pointed fingers at Bafel.

“For the past 20 years, I have worked with Western countries, including the United States, to decrease the hegemony of Iran in the Kurdish region and Iraq,” Amin told Al-Monitor over tea in one of his villas in Erbil. Its floors were covered with exquisite Iranian carpets. “We have captured dozens if not hundreds of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officers and agents who have tried to destabilize the Kurdish region.”

“Prime Minister Masrour Barzani wants to establish a united government that rules the whole region equally. However, there are some mafia groups in Sulaimaniyah who oppose this process,” Amin added.

In an interview with Al-Monitor in Erbil, Qubad stoutly rebuffed Amin’s claims. “Azhi was a good operative but he wasn’t a good head of Zanyari. He was chaotic and very combustible. He also started to militarize the service, which was against its mandate as an intelligence organization.” The “final straw,” Qubad added, “was him conflating his personal and business interests with issues related to land and properties owned by the agency.”

As his relations with the Talabani brothers went south, Amin effectively defected to the KDP, allegedly bringing sensitive information with him. Amin flatly denies the claim. “I am professional intelligence; my priority is protecting intelligence and my sources,” he told Al-Monitor.

High noon in Erbil

In October, PUK security forces raided the homes of his four wives and mother in Sulaimaniyah. Amin is then said to have then threatened Qubad and his family in a phone call. Amin denies this as well. “I said to him that Kurdistan cannot be a Switzerland for either you or for me,” he told Al-Monitor. He did not elaborate.

On Oct. 25, Darbaz Rasool, the son of a leading PUK figure, gathered his men around Qubad’s villa on the outskirts of Erbil fearing an attack by Amin on the younger Talabani’s wife and two children. Amin arrived at the scene with a few of his own men. He says it was to assure them he meant no harm. It was an inflection point.

Qubad stopped attending cabinet meetings. Pressed to respond as to why, Talabani would only say, “I don’t want to address this publicly. This is an issue I’ve raised internally and I will deal with it one way or another internally.”

Qubad is said to be expecting a telephone call from Masrour over the affair. “The fact that neither the prime minister nor the interior minister ever contacted Qubad after threats were made against him by Azhi Amin has left him disappointed and angry,” a PUK source close to Qubad said.

Another grievance is revenue sharing. Bafel told Iraq Oil Report that “for some strange reason, instead of [like] every other country in the world — where all the border money, all the tax money goes into a pot and then it’s divided — that’s not what’s happening here.” Talabani added, “You don’t expect Birmingham to look after Birmingham, and everybody else puts their money together. … Unfortunately, it’s beginning to look, frankly, like a financial sanction.”

Qubad and Bafel are also said to be angered at how the investigation of Jaff’s killing is being conducted, especially over the warrants issued for the PUK security officials’ arrests.

Qubad insists he is “not difficult to work with,” and most people familiar with him concur. He told Al-Monitor, “In the last cabinet Nechirvan had my back, and I had his. We survived so many crises together. We were a team back then.”

As for his brother, Qubad said, “Bafel is very strategic and very smart. He doesn’t get enough credit for it. He’s got a temper, though. What Bafel doesn’t tolerate is someone strong-arming him.”

Bafel recently thwarted the KRG’s plans to build new gas pipelines by preventing the Iraqi Kurdish KAR Group, which got the contract to build them and is known to be close to the KDP, from accessing territory in the PUK zone. The pipelines are planned to eventually carry gas to Turkey and onward for export to Europe. Bafel contended that KAR was “given” the contract and not “awarded" it.

Just how far the sides push things is anybody’s guess. Mohammed A. Salih, a Kurdish affairs analyst, contended, “Despite the heated rhetoric, there is a willingness on both sides to contain the tensions and prevent them from getting out of control.”

“There is also much at stake for both parties, most importantly their survival as powerful actors with large business interests,” he said.

With general elections expected to be held by September 2023 at the latest, the sides can ill afford to further alienate the public by paralyzing the government in ways that make daily life even harder. “The power balance in Kurdistan is also tied to broader geopolitical realities and equations, and this means certain power boundaries will not be easily disturbed," Salih told Al-Monitor. That is certainly how the older generation of Barzanis and Talabanis would have seen things. In any event, it will take more than a phone call to sort out the mess.

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