Divisions in Kurdish ranks drag up civil war-era memories

Divisions in Kurdish ranks drag up civil war-era memories
5 min read
30 October, 2017
Analysis: Baghdad's recent re-taking of Kirkuk came after a deal to withdraw Kurdish fighters loyal to one political faction, writes Paul Iddon.
Iraqi Kurdistan is still reeling from the loss of Kirkuk province [AFP]
The Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan are still reeling from the swift loss to Iraq of Kirkuk province.

It will likely take years to determine exactly what happened on that fateful day of October 16. Many believe that the dramatic fall was made possible in large part due to the decisions of a faction within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) which allegedly accepted an Iran-brokered deal with Iraq to vacate the city without a fight.

If this is true it will be yet another example of classic divide-and-rule tactics being used by the regional powers against Iraqi Kurdistan. 

Severed lines

On the eve of the October 16 takeover, an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRCG) commander close to the commander of the extraterritorial Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, reportedly met PUK leaders and threatened a lethal three-prong attack on Kirkuk that would overwhelm Peshmerga positions.

The PUK leadership around Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the widow of former PUK leader Jalal Talabani, then reportedly agreed to a deal with Baghdad, brokered by the IRGC, to withdraw.

Ahead of the withdrawal they didn't inform the PUK's own Kosrat Rasul Ali, the deputy leader of the party and Vice President of Iraqi Kurdistan, resulting in PUK Peshmerga under his command getting killed during the clashes which ensued before the withdrawal.
What really deepens the wound is some apostates abandoned the PUK's doctrine without returning to our party's leadership and become the invader's assistant to obtain some personal, temporary gains

Nor did they inform Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, also of the PUK. Shortly after calling on Kirkuk's people to join the fight against the Iraqi attack, he had to flee the city for Erbil, upon realizing he had no support from his own party's Peshmerga. Rasul would later speak of "apostates" within the PUK.

"What really deepens the wound is some apostates abandoned the PUK's doctrine without returning to our party's leadership and become the invader's assistant to obtain some personal, temporary gains," an embittered Rasul declared.

Karim has since summed up the situation as his hometown being occupied by the Iraqi army and the Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces militia with the help of the PUK's powerful Lahur Talabani, the director of one of Iraqi Kurdistan's two intelligence services. 


In return for hastily withdrawing some tens-of-thousands of Peshmerga from Kirkuk, the PUK, which has essentially been running the region since June 2014, reportedly expect some compensation.

Iran previously closed the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, which immediately affected the city of Sulaimania just a few days before the attack, and reopened it again this week.

Baghdad may soon pay the salaries of its Sulaimania's cash-strapped government employees, including those of the PUK Peshmerga. Sulaimani International Airport may also soon reopen, while Erbil International Airport remains closed off by Baghdad to international flights.

Iraqi pro-government forces seized Kirkuk earlier in October,
a huge blow to Kurdish nationalist aspirations [AFP]

Before Kirkuk's fall, Bafel Talabani gave a televised statement calling for "unconditional negotiation with Baghdad using the constitutional law", which he pointed out was written by his late father, Jalal Talabani, and even offered to dissolve the Kirkuk Provincial Council and remove Governor Karim.

In retrospect this may have been an early indicator, or warning, of the alleged deal for complete withdrawal. 

The manner in which the PUK faction made the deal appears on the surface to be carefully calculated to humiliate the KDP and further solidify the new de-facto ruling faction around Talabani, excluding people like Karim and Rasul, who strongly backed the September 25 independence referendum these PUK officials argue was a mistake.

This comes after a year of internal disputes within the PUK saw long-time member Barham Salih's rivalry with Hero effectively split the party into two factions, one centred around Hero and the other around Salih and Rasul.

Just last month Salih formed his own political entity and may well resign from the PUK in the foreseeable future. 

Deeper wounds

These recent tensions also bring back bitter Kurdish memories of the civil war in the mid-1990s when the KDP and PUK fought each other and ruled two separate administrations - the PUK Green Zone of eastern Iraqi Kurdistan, Sulaimania and Halabja, and the KDP Yellow Zone of the west, Erbil and Duhok.

That war was initially waged over resources and valuable trade routes as the UN sanctions on Iraq, which included Kurdistan, coupled with an embargo from Baghdad itself, starved the region.

The KDP taxed a black market petrol trade Baghdad had through their territory to Turkey. After the PUK increasingly began to rely on support from Iran to get the upper hand in the civil war, Barzani first called on the US for assistance.

Having subsequently received no promises of any assistance from the Clinton administration, he made a deal with Saddam, who sent 30,000 troops to wrest control over Erbil in August 1996 from the PUK and give it to the KDP.

Barzani's political rivals would for years condemn him for working with Saddam. Barzani in turn justified the action as a matter of necessity on his part given the PUK's increased cooperation with Iran against his party. 

Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside

The PUK's Aras Talabani revisited this kind of rhetoric as recently as 2010 in a pro-PUK weekly - which raised eyebrows given it was years after the KDP and PUK formed a joint unified administration in 2006 and such antagonistic civil war era rhetoric had long been dropped in favour of forging a unified and stronger Kurdistan.

Now, with this alleged deal with both Baghdad and Tehran, the emergent ruling faction of the PUK around the Talabani family is thought to have played a major role in repeating the classic and historic divide-and-rule tactics used by the regional powers against the Kurds to keep them weak and divided.

Interestingly, just after Barzani's brief collusion with Saddam against the PUK 21 years ago, none other than Najmaldin Karim criticised the Kurdish leader by using a famous quote from John F Kennedy, which may well have highly significant relevance today: "Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon