Intra-Kurdish Disputes in Northern Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 9

The long struggle for ultimate power in northern Iraq between Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—a contest that led to a bloody civil war between the two as recently as the mid-1990s and even saw Barzani call upon Saddam Hussein for help in 1996—has largely found a unique Kurdish solution of unity through division [1]. This seeming legerdemain has been accomplished in two separate ways: 1) the establishment of a not completely unified Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in May 2006; and 2) a division of power between Barzani as president of the KRG and Talabani as president of Iraq.

On May 7, 2006, the KDP and PUK announced the establishment of a not quite unified, unified government that consists of a KDP prime minister, Nechirvan Idris Barzani, the nephew of Massoud Barzani; a PUK deputy prime minister, Omar Fatah; 13 ministries headed by the KDP and 14 by the PUK. (In addition, Islamists were granted three ministries, while the Turkmen and Assyrians were granted one each.) What is not quite unified about this unified government is that four major ministries remain divided between the KDP and the PUK: Interior, Finance, Justice and Peshmerga (Defense). In other words, these four key ministries in effect remain as separate as they did when there were still two separate KRGs—the KDP-administered one in Irbil and the PUK-administered one in Sulaymaniyah. A truly unified KRG, of course, would have only one minister for each position. Given the divisions between the KDP and PUK, the quasi-federal arrangements institutionalized by having two separate KRGs in the past and remnants of this situation in the new unified KRG may serve the Iraqi Kurds better than a forced unified government [2].

In the meantime, the lingering divisions within the KRG also suggest an even more serious question: can the KRG really become an independent actor, or will it remain basically a front for the KDP and PUK? For now, it is clear that the two parties still hold the ultimate power [3]. Massoud Barzani’s decision to accept the presidency of the KRG, however, may be a positive sign for its future. Earlier, during the 1990s, both Barzani and Talabani declined to participate formally in the KRG, leaving its key posts to their lieutenants, and thus signaling that the real power still lay within the parties.

The second way the Iraqi Kurds have seemingly found unity through division is by ceding Massoud Barzani the presidency of the KRG while his longtime rival, Jalal Talabani, has assumed the largely ceremonial presidency of Iraq. Thus, the Barzani-Talabani rivalry has been potentially grafted partially onto the dynamics for power between the KRG and the Iraqi government. So far, this ironic division of power has worked. Qubad Talabany, the KRG representative in the United States and the son of Jalal Talabani, emphasizes this by telling others that Barzani is his boss [4].

Despite this unique Kurdish unity through division that has been achieved, intra-Kurdish disputes continue. In early April, for example, Barzani caused a major furor when remarks he had made two months earlier about the KRG possibly interfering in major Turkish cities if Ankara interfered in the status of Kirkuk forced Talabani, as president of Iraq, to criticize Barzani and apologize to Turkey (Financial Times, April 9). The ensuing three-way exchange between the leaders of Turkey, Iraq and the KRG also drew in the United States, which criticized Barzani for his “unhelpful” remarks. At the time, the upcoming Turkish presidential elections in May (which have now been cast into doubt), to be followed by parliamentary elections in November, probably caused Turkish leaders to compete with each other for retorting in the most aggressive manner possible to Barzani’s perceived threats [5].

For their part, Barzani’s spokesmen claimed that their leader’s comments concerning Turkey had been quoted out of context. In addition, Barzani’s remarks could be partially explained as mere posturing to maintain his own Kurdish base. The danger, of course, is that what began as mere rhetoric on both Turkey’s and the KRG’s part could escalate into more serious actions. Historically, Barzani has had better relations with Turkey than has Talabani. This has changed, however, since Talabani became president of Iraq, which to Turkey is a perfectly acceptable entity. On the other hand, Turkey refuses to recognize Barzani as the president of the KRG, feeling that to do so would encourage the KRG to move more quickly toward independence.

Continuing Problems

Despite (or maybe because of) the existence of a unified KRG, the only way to get ahead in the KRG is to enjoy the patronage of either the KDP or the PUK. Many object to this state of affairs, especially the youth. The riot in Halabja on March 17, 2006 aptly demonstrated this situation (Terrorism Monitor, March 15). Illustrating the depth of continuing intra-Kurdish disputes in the KRG, the rioters actually destroyed the museum dedicated to the memory of the chemical attack on Halabja 20 years earlier. Moreover, on August 13, 2006, hundreds of disgruntled youth from across the KRG demonstrated in Sulaymaniyah, the second largest city in the KRG. They demanded an end to corruption and added that the majority of the people were suffering from shortages of fuel and electricity. “Why do political parties and most government officials enjoy a luxurious life and are able to afford everything, while we are deprived of the basic and essential necessities?” demanded one demonstrator. Shortly afterward, more than 2,000 people protested for basic services such as fuel and electricity in Chamchamal, just southwest of Sulaymaniyah. The security forces arrested at least 45 people in this second demonstration (Soma [Irbil], August 25-September 7, 2006).

Human rights advocates have expressed concerns about flagrant abuses involving critics of the KDP and PUK. Kamal Said Qadir, an Austrian national of Kurdish origin, was imprisoned in October 2005 for allegedly defaming KDP leaders such as Massoud Barzani. High school teacher Hawez Hawezi also ran afoul of PUK authorities for defaming their leaders [6]. More recently, a new report claimed that KDP security forces kidnapped and tortured the journalist Nabaz Goran, a writer for the independent weekly Hawlati, after he wrote critical articles about corruption in the Barzani family (National Review Online, April 10). Commenting upon the overall situation, Time magazine went so far as to characterize the Kurdistan region as “a veritable police state, where the Asyeesh—the military security—has a house in each neighborhood of major cities, and where the Parastin secret police monitors phone conversations and keeps tabs on who attends Friday prayers” [7].

KRG officials have responded that such security measures are necessary to keep the Kurdistan region free from jihadi and resistance cells, which are plaguing the south, from infiltrating the north [8]. Massoud Barzani himself declared that while “civilians have the right to criticize the establishments and institutions of the Kurdistan Regional Government for the current shortcomings…they should also remember that these establishments are there to serve them and it takes time to completely overcome existing problems” (The Globe, July 22, 2006). Barzani has a valid point considering the security prevalent throughout most of the KRG, as contrasted to the bloody situation to the south.

Considerable popular dissatisfaction also exists over the KRG’s perceived compromises with the Baghdad government. Ultimate among these grievances is the desire for Kurdish independence. Unofficial referendums in February 2004 and again in January 2005 almost unanimously called for Kurdish independence. The KRG has opposed independence as premature and therefore dangerous given the virtually universal opposition of Turkey, Iran, Syria, the United States and the Iraqi Arabs [9].

Kirkuk presents a related problem. An earlier article in Terrorism Monitor argued that it “will be a big political victory for whichever Kurdish group [KDP or PUK] brings it into the Kurdish region…[but] it will also upset the balance of the North” between the two parties that at present is even (Terrorism Monitor, March 15). Much more problematic, however, is the danger in annexing Kirkuk—the KRG might be committing a fatal mistake by also annexing the unwanted civil war in the south, which heretofore has been kept out of the Kurdish region in part because of its Kurdish homogeneity. Multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian Kirkuk would likely alter this formula for peace. Because of its emotional pull, however, the KRG seems determined to proceed with its plans to force a referendum that, if actually held, would probably bring the city under its purview by the end of 2007 [10]. Given the continuing instability throughout Arab Iraq and the hostility of regional actors such as Turkey, it seems possible that the referendum on Kirkuk might be postponed.


Historically, of the two major parties, the KDP is supposedly more conservative, traditional, nationalistic, tribally-based and centered in the northwestern Kurmanji (Bahdinani)-speaking area of Iraqi Kurdistan. The PUK, on the other hand, is supposedly more progressive (even socialistically inclined), less tribally-based and centered in the southeastern Sorani-speaking area of Iraqi Kurdistan. In addition, the Barzani power base was originally built in part upon its Naqshbandi Sufi roots, while Talabani’s power base was originally made up of adherents of the rival Qadiri order. To some extent, these differences, although real, were always exaggerated. Today, they have clearly narrowed. The competition presently between the two parties stems mostly from the sheer inertia of the past and is to a large extent simply over power and the patronage rewards it grants [11].


1. Much of the background material gathered for this article was during the author’s most recent trip to the KRG in September 2006.

2. Gareth R.V. Stansfield, “Governing Kurdistan: The Strengths of Division,” The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq, ed. by Brendan O’Leary et al., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005, pp. 195-218.

3. Author interview with Norshirwan Mustafa Amin, the number-two leader of the PUK at the time, Sulaymaniyah, KRG, September 2006.

4. Author interview with Qubad Talabany, Washington, D.C., April 12, 2007. Qubad Talabany spells his surname with a “y” at the end in contrast to his father.

5. As of May 2007, the Turkish elections have seemingly been rescheduled due to acrimony regarding the presidential election between the ruling AK party of Prime Minister Recip Erdogan and the secularists.

6. Amnesty International, “Prosecutions Threaten Freedom of Expression in Kurdistan-Northern Iraq,” March 29, 2006.

7. Andrew Lee Butters, “Trouble in Kurdistan,” Time, March 21, 2006. Based on the author’s own personal observations during two recent trips to the KRG as well as numerous interviews—including those with Mohammed Khosnaw Sadik, the president of Salahaddin University (Irbil) and Abbas Vali, the president of the University of Kurdistan—he considers the Time magazine contention exaggerated.

8. Author interview with Fuad Hussein, Massoud Barzani’s chief of staff, Irbil, KRG, September 2006.

9. Author interview with Mohammed Ihsan, KRG minister of regions outside the KRG, Irbil, KRG, September 2006.

10. Author interview with Khaled Salih, official spokesman for the KRG, Irbil, KRG, September 2006.

11. Author interviews with Hiwa Othman, media advisor in the Office of the Iraqi President, and Botan Othman, director-general of information technology for the KRG Council of Ministers, Irbil, KRG, September 2006.