The clash of two cities: Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and the future of Iraq’s Kurdistan

The most successful Kurdish political experiment in West Asia is unravelling due to increasing divisions between the KDP and PUK, the two biggest political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraq’s Kurds, as with other mainly Iranic populations across western and southern Asia, are busy preparing to celebrate Nowruz on March 21, the Persian new year which marks the beginning of Spring.

But this year’s festivities will be marred by a conflict raging between political and military forces in the city of Sulaymaniyah – stronghold of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – and between Sulaymaniyah and Erbil – stronghold of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP ). To complicate matters further, Iraq’s central government in Baghdad has been drawn into this conflict with the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
These fiery disputes have burned through the patience and loyalties of Iraqi Kurds, who have watched their political representatives lock horns over virtually everything: the relationship with Baghdad, oil production and revenues, the public sector salary crisis, the conflict between Turkey and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants, and disunity within the region’s vital institutions in their respective strongholds.

Kurdish internal ‘division and discontent’

Last February, an opinion poll conducted by Erbil-based research firm Sheekar Research, which is funded by the US National Endowment for Democracy, revealed that just over half of respondents (50.7 percent) believe they would be better off if the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was dissolved and central authority from Baghdad was re-established.

The reasons cited by polls participants were the KRG’s deteriorating financial and service conditions, general administrative failure, and widespread corruption. In the PUK’s stronghold,, 64 percent of respondent supported dissolving the Kurdish administration, and 59 percent said they would not participate in demonstrations urged against the federal government in Baghdad.

The survey polled 1,000 people across Iraqi Kurdistan, and included a high proportion of the region’s government employees.

Respondents were also asked about how they view recent decisions by the federal supreme court against the KRG. Last February, the Baghdad court ruled that Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil and gas law was unconstitutional, which threw its contracts with international oil companies into legal jeopardy.

A plurality of survey respondents (46 percent) viewed the court’s decision as “illegal” and “issued against” Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet, most respondents either supported (10 percent) or expressed neutrality (42 percent) over the rulings, as they felt the court was primarily punishing the KDP and PUK.

The survey also asked who shoulders the responsibility for the KRG’s apparent weakness in Baghdad. A fifth of respondents (21 percent) blamed the KDP and the PUK, while a further 47 percent blamed all Kurdish political parties – including the ruling duopoly and opposition groups. One-third of respondents were unsure.

The poll, published by the semi-official Iraqi newspaper Al-Sabah and other Iraqi and Arab newspapers, led to an escalation of tension between Baghdad and the KRG. Iraqi government Spokesman Basim al-Awwadi called the Al-Sabah report an ‘opinion piece’ that did not represent Baghdad’s view.

However, the head of the Kurdish opposition New Generation Movement (NGM) bloc, Sarwa Abdel Wahed, confirmed in a television interview that the federal government had been subjected to significant pressure from Kurdistan to retract the poll and apologize for its publication.

Power struggle within the PUK

Since the late 1970s, Sulaymaniyah has been a political and military stronghold for the PUK, which had been founded by former Iraqi president (2005-2014) Jalal Talabani in 1975. After Jalal’s death in 2017, his wife Hero Ibrahim assumed party leadership for three years before that position became violently contested between his son Bafel Talabani (head of Kurdistan’s counter-terrorism affairs) and his nephew Lahur Jangi Talabani (heads one of Kurdistan’s two intelligence services).

In February 2020, the PUK’s leadership council elected both men as co-chairs of the party. The partnership did not last long. An assassination attempt against Bafel and two party leaders ended in accusations against Lahur for the poisonings.

In July 2021, Bafel ousted Lahur from the co-presidency, stripped him of his posts, dismissed officials loyal to him, and had Sulaymaniyah’s judiciary issue an arrest warrant for him and his two brothers.

But Lahur’s popularity among the region’s security and military institutions was something Bafel had not yet addressed, and security tensions broke out in the city. Violent clashes between the two parties erupted repeatedly, culminating, most notably, in the assassination of Officer Hawkar Al-Jaf in Erbil on July 10, 2022. Meanwhile, accusations against Lahur for planning assassination plots and establishing armed groups continued.

The most recent political agitation took place on 14 March, when KDP sources announced an assassination attempt against Wesi Barzani, the youngest son of its former president Massoud Barzani, the single most influential figure in the KRG. The KDP accused Bafel Talabani of the attack because Erbil backs his cousin Lahur in their conflict.

Since the outbreak of the PUK’s war of succession, the KDP in Erbil – its historical partner in governing the Kurdish region – has supported Lahur Talabani. This unvoiced loyalty was demonstrated by KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani – after the killing of Officer Al-Jaf – when he demanded pro-Bafel security service leaders be arrested in Sulaymaniyah. Furthermore, Erbil’s judicial authority has supported Lahur’s appeal against the procedures that led to his dismissal from the PUK’s co-chairmanship.

Bipartisan disputes

The succession dispute, however, is by no means the only major impediment in the relationship between Iraqi Kurdistan’s two most important cities and political parties. They also have acute differences over the KRG’s election law and the falsification of voter data, which has led to the postponement of the region’s parliamentary elections for over a year.

The two parties also differ on their relationship with the PKK in Qandil mountains and the Kurdish, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria. The PUK supports the activities of the PKK, while a Turkish-KDP alliance to siphon off Iraqi oil has the Barzanis at odds with the PKK, designated by Ankara as a Kurdish terrorist group.

The dispute between the two parties further intensified over the selection of a candidate for Iraq’s presidency (which is reserved for a Kurd) after the country’s 2021 elections. The position has been filled by either Jalal Talabani, Fuad Masum, or Barham Salih since 2003 – all PUK politicos – in exchange for KDP candidates being assigned the presidency of the Kurdistan region.

On October 13, 2022, Iraq’s parliament elected Abdul Latif Rashid as president of the republic after a bitter struggle with the KDP’s Masoud Barzani, who tried to nominate his uncle Hoshyar Zebari, a former foreign minister (2004-2014) and the regional interior minister, Rebar Ahmed Barzani.

As a result of these differences, KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani – younger brother of Bafel – and his party’s ministers boycotted the meetings of the regional government. Baghdad is now trying to heal the rift between Sulaymaniyah and Erbil by increasing the Kurdistan region’s share of state revenues and finding a solution to the unlawful sale of Iraqi oil by the KRG.

In this context, Baghdad has referred a draft law to Iraq’s parliament to create the Halabja Governorate in Kurdistan. This will increase the number of governorates in the KRG to four (Erbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniyah), will lead to greater financial allocations for the Kurdistan region in the federal budget, and strike a more equitable budget balance between the two parties.

Can Kurdistan ever be united?

Keeping the Kurdistan region united and cohesive is a major US objective in Iraq, and is repeatedly emphasized by Washington. Efforts are currently underway to find a solution to the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil over the KRG’s unlawful sale of Iraqi oil outside of central government authority. In both 2022 and 2023, the Federal Court issued decisions obligating the KRG to hand over oil revenues to Baghdad, and invalidating the unlawful oil and gas law in force in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The political agreement which was struck to form the government of Iraq’s current Prime Minister Muhammad Shia al-Sudani, includes the enactment of a federal law that regulates the process of extracting and selling oil and gas; the implementation of the constitution’s Article 140 (determining the administrative authority over disputed Iraqi areas); resolving the issue of internally displaced people (900 thousand are displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan); and the implementation of the 2020 “Sinjar AgreementSinjar Agreement” between Erbil and Baghdad to remove the PKK from the Sinjar district in the Nineveh Governorate.

The prime minister’s visit to Erbil this week was an effort to resolve outstanding issues and bridge gaps between competing Kurdish agendas. Sudani met with officials from the two rival parties and the opposition NGP to gain approval for the federal general budget for the years 2023, 2024, and 2025, before referring the bill to Parliament.

Sudani aspires to strengthen his position as prime minister by satisfying all parties, including those in the KRG, whose political parties collectively represent 59 of Iraq’s 329 parliamentary seats. He has moved quickly. On 13 March, Sudani announced an agreement to end the dispute over the oil revenues – on the same day the KRG’s Ministry of Finance received 400 billion dinars (around $274 million) from Baghdad to pay government employee salaries.

While the agreement details are still “unclear,” political sources say its most prominent breakthrough appears to be the payment of KRG oil revenues into the Iraqi financial system, via a designated account in the Iraqi Trade Bank. This will – for now at least – allow Baghdad to see, but not touch, KRG energy revenues.

According to the sources, these measures come in response to conditions set by the US in advance of Sudani’s scheduled visit to Washington in the next few days.

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