It was a great story. Lahur Talabani was the south London boy who brought the fight to Islamic State in his native Kurdistan, playing a leading role in intelligence and counterterrorism. A staunch Kurdish nationalist, he called out the corrupt elites and stuck his neck out for his fellow Kurds in Syria and Turkey.
At least, that was the image. Lahur was feted by the rank and file of his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party he led with Surrey-raised cousin Bafel Talabani. In the city of Sulaymaniyah, the PUK's power base in eastern Kurdistan, he wielded this star power on social media. But it all fell apart when team Bafel started lobbing accusations of smuggling, extortion and spying at him – to name some of the milder claims.
Now Lahur's home is surrounded by armed men, with checkpoints set up in the surrounding neighbourhood. His media outlets, apparently a must-have for all leading politicians here, have been shuttered. He "temporarily" handed all power to his cousin – to no avail. Under pressure to leave the country, he has sought recourse in the courts, professing a possibly misguided faith in the independence of Kurdistan's judiciary on his Facebook page.
This unseemly bust-up in the filthy rich political clan, second in power only to the mighty Barzanis, who control the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), would have locals on the edge of their seats, were they not preoccupied with more pressing matters – such as rampant poverty, power outages and this summer's acute water shortages. This, in a region pumping out about half a million barrels of oil a day.
With neighbouring Turkey and Iran taking an interest, there could be more to this than meets the eye. But the consensus seems to be that it's merely a spat between two power-hungry cousins slugging it out for supremacy, following the death of party granddaddy Jalal Talabani – Lahur's uncle and Bafel's dad.
“One side will want to be more powerful than the other,” says Renad Mansour, of London-based think tank Chatham House. “Many were surprised to see it escalate in public, rather than negotiated behind closed doors.”
Nature abhors a vacuum. Certainly, it seems that Jalal, a paradoxical figure who founded the PUK in the mid-1970s, later going on to serve as Iraq's president between 2005 and 2014, held the party together through sheer heft of personality. Affectionately known as "Mam Jalal" (Uncle Jalal), this one-time mountain warrior was a master of hardnosed realpolitik, cutting deals with everyone from Saddam Hussein to Ayatollah Khomeini and both Bush presidents – as noted in a 2007 New Yorker profile.
Such imponderables are the stuff of Iraqi Kurdish politics, the region ruled by two mutually mistrustful ruling clans, hemmed in by sharp-elbowed neighbours like Iran, Turkey and, indeed, the rump of Iraq. But the cult-like appeal of the Talabanis and the Barzanis, hogging the region's resources and contracts, commanding their own respective security forces, is wearing thin. Amidst the clamour for change, Lahur's tweets have struck a chord among PUK grassroots who still want to believe.
Given his alleged sideline in smuggling all manner of commodities over the Iran-Iraq border, even sources otherwise sympathetic to Lahur’s plight believe he’s far from clean. But he knows how to work social media, recapturing the core sensibilities of the PUK, established by the Leninist Jalal as a socially progressive alternative to the tribal conservatism of the KDP.
That era may be long gone, but supporters lap up the anti-KDP content from outlets like the Zhyan News Network, which is indirectly affiliated with Lahur. Ditto the outspoken criticism of the KDP’s kowtowing to Turkey, a devil’s pact allowing the latter to use its territories in western Kurdistan to bomb Kurdish insurgents.
The rivalry between the cousins came to the fore at the 2019 PUK congress. Bafel, by all accounts a bit of a hothead, was not amused when his cousin beat him in a leadership vote. Now ostensibly in sole charge of the party, he and his brother Qubad, along with much of the PUK's powerful old guard, have been moving closer to the dominant KDP. Qubad is currently serving as deputy to Kurdistan's prime minister Masrour Barzani, whose authoritarian bent has not endeared him to the population.
Many believe that Bafel's mother, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, has been calling the shots from her mansion high in the hills of Sulaymaniyah. Hero, also a former guerrilla, whose father Ibrahim Ahmad is considered the PUK's ideological father, has clout. Though reportedly suffering from dementia, she still sets the party line on Facebook. Bafel, she says, is "the real heir of Mam".
Having positioned himself as a Jalal 2.0, Lahur now finds himself isolated. In truth, all that social media traction didn’t amount to much in the end. “I’ve always seen him as a paper tiger,” says Abdulla Hawez, a Kurdish affairs analyst. “He’s a very ambitious man, but he did it without consolidating power. He was trying to show he is very powerful, but it turned out that really he’s not.”
Behind the scenes, the feud has served Turkey and Iran well. Turkey’s interests, assured by the KDP’s uncontested dominance, are secure. And Bafel has kept Iran on side, purging intelligence and counterterrorism of Lahur loyalists, appointing two new heads with close links to Tehran.
The conflict between the two cousins intensified last week, when the PUK declared that Lahur would be leaving the country, not returning until after Iraq’s elections, scheduled for October. A source in Lahur’s executive office told The Irish Times: “There is no legal basis for asking a citizen of this country to leave.”
This week, the PUK announced that the US and Iran have been mediating talks between the two cousins.