Week of political turmoil, power play rocks Sulaymaniyah: what happened within the PUK?

20-07-2021 07:37

PEREGRAF- Surkew Mohammed

Sulaymaniyah’s ruling party was embroiled in a difficult week of tension due to the political turmoil that erupted between the co-presidents of the party, a state of instability and fear engulfed the province, and as a result, one of the co-presidents was forced out of his position.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), an influential party in the Kurdistan Region and an essential part of the government, was shaken up on July 8. Its members, supporters and officials of the party spent several days in shock until July 15 when power was fully handed over from Lahur Sheikh Jangi to his co-president and cousin Bafel Talabani, but has Sheikh Jangi’s era come to an end?

The eruption of conflict, unparalleled to any other conflict in the history of the party, was with the family of Jalal Talabani, who consider themselves owners of the PUK. 

Bafel, Mam Jalal’s oldest son and his cousin Sheikh Jangi had a fallout - both have been co-presidents of the party for one year and a half. Their altercation is nothing new, but a few reasons led to its eruption, even though this party has the Iraqi parliamentary election coming up, and it has its own influence and the presidential post of Iraq has been the party since the fall of the Ba’ath regime.

PEREGRAF has spoken to eight sources close to Bafel Talabani and Lahur Sheikh Jangi for this investigative report, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

The foreshock

Weeks before tensions between the two co-leaders exacerbated, a fight broke out between Zanyari agency, a Kurdish intelligence agency affiliated with the PUK, and counter-terrorism forces due to investigations launched into drug trafficking, which was advantageous pinpoint of change for Talabani.

According to sources, an official from the Zanyari Agency visited the anti-terrorism office of the PUK for the "investigation into the drug trade after several people have been arrested in connection to that, after that quarrel then fight breaks out and a counter-terrorism officer shoots an official from Zanyari agency in the leg."

Fingers of accusation are pointed at a few people in counter-terrorism who were allegedly involved, although it is yet not clear who is behind it or if arrests have been made.

After the fight, Sheikh Jangi and Talabani interfere to calm and resolve the situation. Each of them visits the office of counter-terrorism separately. 

"During Mr. Lahur's visit, there was an uproar between him and counter-terrorism officials. They said their names were being misused by others, by whom they meant his relatives and close associates."

"Then Bafel Talabani visits the counter-terrorism office and scolds them for their people are involved in drug trafficking. Counter-terrorism officials affirm that the agency's name is being misused it’s not in their power," for which he had given a few examples.

After these talks, Bafel Talabani immediately issued an order, "From now on you will move under my command and will not take orders from anyone else." Then Wahab Halabjayi was made counter-terrorism commander who was close to Talabani, replacing Lahur’s brother Polad Sheikh Jangi.

This is where tensions between the two co-chairs escalated. Over the course of one year of their co-leadership, a number of other issues between them remained unresolved.

After controlling the counter-terrorism, Talabani decided to replace the head of Zanyari intelligence agency, who was close to Sheikh Jangi, but the agency's head held out against the decision and was not willing to implement it.

The shock

PUK members and supporters were shocked when news of using force to resolve a dispute between the party's co-leaders were published in the media on the evening of July 8.

Bafel Talabani made strong moves to bring about change in the PUK’s Zanyari agency, detaining several of its officials for about 24 hours. Among them was Mohammad Tahseen Talabani, head of the agency who was close to his rival, along with one of Sheikh Jangi’s nephews. Talabani later made Azhi Amin the head of Zanyari agency - his affiliate.

Talabani's eldest son took security and intelligence forces off of his cousin’s hands but he didn’t stop there. In a flurry of moves which seems to have been premeditated, he took over Sheikh Jangi’s companies, media outlets and wealth, and put them under his control, saying they were party property.

During those days, Sheikh Jangi remained silent which was even "strange" to people close to him, considering he was known as PUK’s most popular leader in the media and on social media, he had the most statements compared to the other officials in the party, but why did he choose silence for an issue that he and his people call a "coup d'etat"?  

The party’s co-leaders met twice during the shakeup days, but no agreement was reached. Talabani had told Sheikh Jangi "I will get rid of the co-leadership system, I will become the president myself. You have to resign and leave the country."

"I will rescind the current leadership and politburo and establish a new one that is 30 to 40 people, not like the leadership now that is 121 people," Talabani had also said. 

In response Sheikh Jangi had told him, "I do not accept this. You have waged a coup d'etat against me. You have to bring these requests up to the meeting with the leadership or the politburo and work for them through the party, not the way you want it now."

Following these speeches and rebuke by his rival cousin, Talabani becomes more outraged and takes over the party and Sheikh Jangi’s media outlets.

On July 12, Talabani introduced himself as the "president" of the PUK and unilaterally overthrew the co-president system.

The day after, Talabani once again uses force to control iPlus, a media channel owned by Sheikh Jangi that was supposed to launch soon.

"There was a large number of armed men, some of them masked, they raided us without identifying themselves, they broke our cameras and belongings, detained all of us in a hallway and took phones away from some of us, then they released us and stayed there themselves," a journalist who was present at the time of the incident told PEREGRAF.

Talabani faced strong criticism from journalists and rights organizations because of this crackdown on that media outlet.

In response to the criticism, media outlets close to Bafel Talabani announced the force was sent by him, and it was published through a senior source in the party that "the channel is property of the PUK and it will go back to the PUK, any media or channel created with PUK money is the property of the party and should be returned - that step has been taken within that framework."

Sheikh Jangi was accused of many things during those days by PUK media outlets. One of the accusations was "putting a spy in Mam Jalal’s house to hit PUK’s interests," but that news was later removed from their media outlets. 

With these series of changes Talabani took control over the party’s influential divisions. Some say, with those steps he "broke Lahur’s pride" to save himself from the economic, security and public precedence Sheikh Jangi had built for himself over the past few years.

The dispute between the two cousins is not only on a partisan level, but some have also boiled down to personal issues, and some of the most dangerous incidents have been debated, "such as attempts to poison Bafel Talabani and destroy him in different ways," Talabani has told officials in a meeting. However, Sheikh Jangi and his close associates have strongly denied the allegations.

This tension brought Iraq’s President Barham Salih, as well as American and Iranian sides on board for mediation, but none of them could bring the two co-leaders to an agreement. The reciprocated message from all sides was to resolve their disputes through dialogue and refrain from using violence and forces.

Lahur Sheikh Jangi was left unsupported as most of the PUK leadership who had previously supported him shifted alliance to Talabani - with only a few remaining, and the US and Iran were not among them.

America is concerned about smuggling in the Sulemaniyah airport under Lahur’s reign. "The United States is concerned about the smuggling of gold and the exportation of large sums of money through the Sulaymaniyah airport, of which Lahur had control over. America thinks those are done with, and in the interest of the Iranians, and  for that they have issued a warning for it to be stopped."

The Iranians were, since the beginning of their disputes, split into two groups - one supporting Lahur the other Bafel. "The [Iranian] intelligence, in the beginning, were close to Mam Jalal’s family and a group of [Islamic Revolutionary] Guard Corps, who have prominent roles in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, had closer ties to Lahur, but when it comes down to a conclusive point, Iran supports Mam Jalal’s family and they are the priority, they did that in this situation as well."

On July 8, Bahram Salih returned from Baghdad to Sulaymaniyah, sources said, "Bafel Talabani has sent him a message to make up his mind whether he supports him or Lahur. He has made up his mind and did not back Lahur. Bafel had asked Barham Salih to return from Baghdad." This is while Salih used to have strong ties with Lahur, who had a key role in making Salih become the president of Iraq.

The aftershock

The party and the cousins were at sixes and sevens for a week, but July 15 was a promising day. On that day, Talabani and Sheikh Jangi hashed things out in the politburo meeting, Lahur agreed to transfer all his power to Bafel.

Sheikh Jangi met with the families of the martyrs of the PUK on that day, declaring that what was happening within the party was "Turkey's and Kurdistan Democratic Party’s [KDP] plan" noting that both sides had remarked Lahur would not be around anymore.

"Khamis Khanjar in a meeting with me and Bafel told us Erdogan had said Lahur is finished within the next two weeks," Lahur stated in the meeting, which Lahur said was because of his relations and to the Kurdish-led northeast Syria (Rojava), especially in sending weapons and military assistance in the fight against Islamic State. 

Khanjar is the Secretary-General of the Arab Project and the head of Azm Coalition. He visited Sulaymaniyah on June 24 and met with the two co-chairs in Dabashan, PUK’s main headquarters.

Sheikh Jangi believes that the KDP has interfered in the current situation his party is in now. Lahur remarked in the meeting that some time ago a group of people had called on Masoud Barzani, the president of the KDP, to resolve their issues with the PUK and mend their relations with Lahur.

"Barzani had told them, a week before August 31, 1996, a group of old men visited me and had the same request, to resolve issues with the PUK. I told them at the time to wait another week and I will answer you, I am saying the same thing for this request, wait another 10 days and I will answer you" Lahur retold this at the meeting.

What happened on August 31, 1996, was that the KDP expelled the PUK from Erbil with the help of the Ba'ath regime and took over the Kurdistan Region.

Sheikh Jangi also talks about his dislike for the co-leadership responsibility during the same meeting, which PEREGRAF obtained voice recordings of.

"At Congress, Mr. Bahram said, 'Let me be the chairman and Mr. Bafel the co-chair,’ I said we are familiar with Mam Jalal’s experience, when Mam Jalal went to Baghdad the party went downhill … you are going to Baghdad, and Mr. Bafel might not be able to perform the duties alone, let me be the deputy, I will help him," said Sheikh Jangi.

"They didn’t let me, they said one deputy or seven. I asked how seven deputies are possible? I got mad and said I will nominate myself, there were a lot of talks when my votes increased… I said I will not leave the son of Mam Jalal behind, I grabbed his [Bafel’s] hand and said and you will be the co-chair, he said how do you do that, I said why wouldn’t I do that, we will bring PUK back up … now I have nothing in my heart against him."

His remarks at the meeting coincided with a visit by Bafel Talabani to his father’s resting place, after which he issued a strong statement, directed at Sheikh Jangi.

"We made the right decision against the lawbreakers. The security forces were used for party purposes … smuggling, ransom taking, threats and spying was made an agenda," said Talabani in the statement.

Due to the constant tension between Lahur and KDP, especially with Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, his position in the PUK appeared as opposition in the beginning when the cabinet had just formed, and that has a number of times caused rows with Qubad Talabani, who is the Deputy Prime Minister. 

Part of Sheikh Jangi’s popularity was gained through his opposition to the KDP. That’s why he and his close allies think the situation they're in now has the KDP's hand in it and that they have used Talabani’s accusations as an excuse for what is happening, calling it a "plan bigger than the PUK."

The KDP has officially denied the allegations that the internal issues in the PUK have anything to do with them. Mala Bakhtyar, a member of the PUK’s high council who has good ties with the KDP, has said, "of course this incident is to KDP’s liking - KDP and other parties, except for Gorran (Change), will benefit from it, but the KDP isn’t involved in the incident."

The PUK politburo met for the first time on July 15 to discuss the week’s events, the meeting was decisive, Sheikh Jangi signed to hand over all his power to Talabani until the amendment of the party’s internal affairs.

The current situation and the measures taken by Bafel Talabani has shaken up the PUK. Now most of the party seniors support Mam Jalal’s family, especially the elders, because they think Sheikh Jangi has neglected them during PUK’s last congress in December 2019.

After this political upheaval, Lahur Sheikh Jangi will leave the PUK for Talabani's family and will give up leadership of the PUK-Gorran alliance for Iraq’s upcoming elections.

Those who have spoken with him and have read into the issue, don’t think that the Lahur era is over, especially as "the love that he has gained among the PUK supporters," but they say that he needs time to plan for the future and rise up again.

Sheikh Jangi on July 19 said he had temporarily transferred his power to his rival, coinciding with Talabani changing his status back to "co-president" understatements and on social media.

The road Talabani is taking is not without bumps and potholes, considering that the party’s forces have been divided among the officials and most of the officials are owners of businesses and wealth with their own special interests. These will overlap in a lot of ways with PUK’s interests, and controlling them might not be easy.