Former government spokesman tapped as KRG foreign relations head

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Article Summary
A diplomat loyal to the Barzani family has been chosen as head of the KRG's Department of Foreign Relations.

Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) formally announced today that Safeen Dizayee, the former spokesman of the KRG, will serve as the head of its Department of Foreign Relations — in other words, as its de facto foreign minister.

Dizayee, a prominent member of former President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), is counted among the rare people who are trusted by the Barzanis as being loyal to the family rather than to a given influential individual within it. Dizayee is the son of Muhsin Dizayee, a scion of the eponymous tribe and one of Barzani’s closest advisers. Western diplomats have lauded Safeen Dizayee variously as reliable, discreet, gracious, humorous and open-minded. “He is a good diplomat and his English is perfect, and he speaks Arabic, Turkish and Farsi, which is a pretty good asset to have,” said a Western diplomat who worked with Dizayee. "He has deep experience and relationships in the region and beyond."

Dizayee’s appointment follows the establishment of a new Cabinet by the region’s new prime minister, Masrour Barzani. 

He replaced virtually all the Cabinet members in the previous government run by his predecessor, cousin and brother-in-law, Nechirvan Barzani, with new and relatively unknown faces. They include members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the second largest party in the Kurdistan Region after the KDP, as well as of the smaller Change movement. Minority Yazidis, Turkmens and women made it into the cabinet as well. Barzani was elected by parliament as the new president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Both have said repairing ties with Baghdad is their priority. 

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The new president is believed to have pushed hard for his long-serving energy minister, Ashti Hawrami, to stay in the Cabinet but has reportedly faced fierce resistance. Hawrami is credited with building the KRG’s oil and gas business from scratch and has unparalleled institutional knowledge of what is the de facto Kurdish statelet’s main source of income. But he has also been dogged by allegations of corruption. In an apparent compromise, Hawrami is staying on as energy advisor to the prime minister.

The UK-educated and famously tightlipped Dizayee has stepped into the foreign affairs role at a critical time as KRG authorities deepen their probe into the July 17 killing of Osman Kose, a Turkish official who was on a six-month rotation at the Turkish Consulate in Erbil and whose exact role at the mission remains unclear. 

Kose was shot by a gunman aided by two other accomplices at a trendy restaurant in one of Erbil’s most heavily guarded areas. The main suspect, identified as Mazlum Dag, an ethnic Kurd from Turkey, was arrested three days later along with another Kurd from Turkey, who was initially identified as Muhammed Bizkiz. The second man is the alleged mastermind.

Iraqi Kurdish authorities say the pair are connected to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militia that is at war against the Turkish state. Dag was said to have been working as a waiter at the Turkish Ada restaurant at Erbil’s popular Family Mall and, according to KRG officials, had traveled to PKK headquarters in the Qandil mountains bordering Iran. 

The PKK denied responsibility immediately after the shooting, but has not made any statements since.

A Turkish team is aiding with the investigation. Neither Ankara nor the Iraqi Kurdish authorities have formally accused the PKK as yet.

Commenting on the PKK’s possible motives, Ceng Sagnic, a Washington-based analyst of Kurdish affairs, told Al-Monitor, “The PKK has come under tremendous pressure from the Turkish military in recent months.” The group has long accused the KDP of collaborating with Turkey and may have staged the murder to warn off both. 

“Safety and stability are key to the KRG,” Sagnic continued, speculating that KRG authorities may be holding informal talks with the PKK to fend off further such attacks.

But the timing of the shooting is at odds with recent calls by the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to refrain from hostile acts against Turkey. And the group’s top commander in the field, Cemil Bayik, recently penned an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “Now is the moment for peace,” in which he called Ocalan “our lead negotiator.”

In any case, the affair appears to have not hurt Turkey’s close ties to the KRG as initially feared. 

The first foreign envoy to congratulate Dizayee at his new office was the Turkish consul general, Hakan Karacay.

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Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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