A death in the Talibani family brings more questions about Iraqi-Kurdistan's fate

A death in the Talibani family brings more questions about Iraqi-Kurdistan's fate
Comment: Veteran Kurdish statesman Jalal Talabani's death comes as the Iraqi-Kurdistan region moves one step closer to independence, but still with many of the same divisions, writes Gareth Browne.
5 min read
04 Oct, 2017
Talabani played a seismic role in Kurdish politics [Anadolu]
They called him Mam Jalal - "Uncle Jalal". When Saddam Hussein decided to pardon every Kurd in Iraq, he made a specific exception for Jalal Talabani, such the thorn in the dictator's side he was. Prior to 2003, it would have been unthinkable for him to have held office in Iraq. Then in 2005, he became president and Iraq's first non-Arab head of state.

Jalal Talabani was made in the mountains of Sulaymaniyah, where he led the guerilla fight against the government of Abd al-Karim Qasim, and later Saddam's Baathists. Fluent in five languages, he was an eloquent diplomat and ambassador for the Kurdish cause. As Ben Van Heuvelen, editor-in-chief of Iraq Oil Report told The Atlantic: He was "the rare politician who could talk to anybody even in a heated crisis". He was as comfortable in the negotiating rooms - and among presidents and political foes - as he was on the battlefields alongside his Peshmerga fighting force.

Talabani was pivotal in the 1975 foundation of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - one of Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) main political parties - and his family continue to dominate it to this day. His son Qubad serves as the KRG's deputy prime minister. His wife, Hero, is perhaps the most powerful woman in Iraq, whilst his nephew Lahur leads the Kurdish Zanyari intelligence agency.

Death in the family

Jalal Talabani's death today is a critical moment in the developing history of the Kurds, and the PUK always knew this day would come. Talabani has been largely incapacitated since suffering a stroke in 2012, and though technically remaining leader of the party over the past five years, much of the heavy lifting has been carried out by his family - but there are competing visions.

He was as comfortable in the negotiating rooms - and among presidents and political foes - as he was on the battlefields alongside his Peshmerga

His wife, Hero Talabani, was undoubtedly the strongest influence over the past five years. She is intent on preserving the party in her late husband's image, but reports suggest she too is now in poor health. In theory, the party should have been long prepared for Talibani's passing, but the truth is - despite five years notice - they aren't. As Kurdish journalist Kamal Chomani told The New Arab: "PUK leaders have been ashamed to talk about [the party] post-Talabani, and none were able to talk about his position while he was still alive."

During Talabani's final five years, the party's power base has dwindled - a lack of leadership undoubtedly a prime factor. The formation of Omar Said Ali's Gorran Party in 2009 also hit the PUK in its heartland of Sulaymaniyah. The lack of leadership was again evident in the run up to last week's independence referendum - many in the PUK were reluctant to support what to them seemed like a vote on the future of President Masoud Barzani. But as analyst Kirk Sowell noted on Twitter the "PUK was too weak to resist the nationalist drive".

Father figure

Even in the final days of campaigning, rumours were rife that the PUK might come out opposing the vote. In the end it didn't happen, but the party appeared weak none-the-less and ended up reluctant cheerleaders for a KDP project. Just today, Hero Talabani told al-Sumaria News that the referendum was a mistake, and one that Kurds would pay the price for.

The question now turns to who will take over the PUK's official leadership, and with the KRG suffering a regional blockade and Kurdish nationalist sentiment as high as it has ever been, the timing could not be more critical. A fledgling PUK will see Masoud Barzani mould the Kurdish independence movement entirely in his shape - the PUK will be written out of Kurdish history.

Qubad's effort to rid the government payroll of thousands of 'ghost workers' - he calls himself 'The Ghost Buster'.

Hero is a proponent of the PUK's alliance with Iran, seeing the relationship as a bulwark to Turkish support for Masoud Barzani's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) - the PUK's fierce rivals. Jalal's second son, Qubad - brought up and educated in Surrey - can be seen to represent a more liberal stance. His pet project as the KRG's deputy prime minister has been an anti-corruption drive, and an effort to rid the government payroll of thousands of "ghost workers" - he calls himself "The Ghost Buster".

Qubad is also seen as far less tribal than many of the political elite in the KRG, as a senior KDP insider told The New Arab: "We have a lot of respect for him, he puts the Kurds before party

With Jalal's death, the Talabani family's grip over the party has slipped, but it remains strong. Others will likely challenge, and attempt to steer the party away from the Talabani's grip. Kosrat Rasul Ali - a former KRG prime minister and Peshmerga commander with shrapnel still lodged in his body - represents the most high-profile of those potential challengers. But the Talabani name is symbolic amongst Kurds, it is synonymous with sacrifice, and derivation from that might spell the end of the PUK as a force in Kurdish politics at a time when the KDP are tightening their ownership of the independence cause.

Only time will tell whether the next generation of Talabani's will live up to the expectations of Mam Jalal.

Gareth Browne is a freelance reporter formerly based in Erbil. He has been reporting from the front lines in the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group and recently visited Baghdad to study the legacy of the US-led invasion. 

Follow him on Twitter: @BrowneGareth

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.