Dec 19, 2012 | 11:27 GMT

4 mins read

Imbalance of Power in Iraqi Kurdistan

Imbalance of Power in Iraqi Kurdistan
Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

A looming leadership change in one of Iraqi Kurdistan's leading factions could upset the region's balance of power and destabilize relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad. The matter has arisen in the wake of a stroke reportedly suffered on Dec. 17 by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, scion of the Talabani clan and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. According to reports, Talabani is in a coma and could be near death or permanently incapacitated.

Coming just a few months before Kurdish provincial and parliamentary elections, a change in leadership could derail the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's efforts to restore parity with its rival faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani. It could also weaken Iran's influence in the Kurdish north and reduce Iraqi Kurdistan's reliance on Turkey while benefiting Syrian Kurds. 

Talabani has been the driving force behind the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan for decades, including during the Kurdish civil war. He has been a key mediator between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments, especially between Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Talabani also has strong ties with Iranian leaders and has leveraged those relationships to maintain his party's place relative to Barzani's party.

The health of Talabani, 79, has been in decline for years due to chronic cardiac problems, and questions of succession have arisen repeatedly. Still, he has played a critical role in preserving Kurdish unity, and his clan retains strong support in Kurdistan's southern Suryani-speaking areas, with its base in urban Sulaymaniyah.

Possible Successors

Talabani has reportedly been grooming his son Qubad, the Kurds' representative in Washington, as his successor in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Though involved in the Kurdish political scene, Qubad would likely face serious challenges as party leader due to the fact that he has lived most of his life in the United Kingdom and the United States and does not have the local support base of other potential successors.

Barham Salih, a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan deputy secretary-general, is also said to be vying for the top spot. Salih has previously been Kurdish prime minister and a deputy prime minister of Iraq. He has actively sought the support of the United States and Talabani's main foreign ally, Iran. Kosrat Rasul Ali, a former peshmerga turned politician who serves as vice president of the Talabani-controlled areas of Kurdistan and as deputy secretary-general of the party, is also reportedly seeking the post.

Of the three, Salih is the most senior and the one with the strongest international links. However, that does not mean he has the widest support base at home. It is unclear whether a power struggle will erupt over the succession, but if it did, it could create an opportunity for Talabani's historical rival, Barzani. More interestingly, it could open another fissure within Kurdish clan politics.

Impact on 2013 Elections

The Goran Movement, led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, is a splinter faction of Talabani's group. Also a Suryani-speaking party, it is well-positioned to peel away support from an internally fracturing Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Kurdish parliamentary and provincial elections are scheduled for June 2013, a perfect opportunity for Goran to challenge Talabani's weakened group.

Even if Goran makes headway in the upcoming polls, it will still be too small and weak to challenge Barzani's leadership of Kurdistan overall — at least for the foreseeable future. Barzani's group is the stronger both politically and financially, and with the backing of Turkey and the United States — however conditional — Barzani's faction has exploited the declining status of Talabani's group to strengthen its own position in Arbil and in the region. Barzani himself is 66, but given his good health, a succession crisis within his party is not an immediate concern. The strengthening of Barzani's group relative to Talabani's will mean greater strains for Arbil-Baghdad relations, since Baghdad has relied on Talabani and his group to balance against Barzani's influence.

International Implications

Iran has been expecting Talabani's demise for many years and has been preparing for a post-Talabani scenario. It will try to sustain its influence in Kurdistan by supporting the post-Talabani Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Goran as well as working with Barzani.

From the Turkish point of view, Kurdish Iraq will become even more complex. A stronger Barzani would mean he has less need for close cooperation with Ankara, potentially undermining Turkish efforts to establish a foothold in northern Iraq from which it could manage its own Kurdish separatist threat. Barzani would still need Turkey's help in the long term for alternate energy routes, balancing against Baghdad and other investment, but he would not be as dependent without a strong rival party in the region.

Syrian Kurdish groups also stand to benefit from an empowered Barzani. The Kurdish president has been the main ally of the Kurds in Syria because of its geographic proximity.

The future political landscape of Iraqi Kurdistan remains uncertain, but it is apparent that the era of Barzani-Talabani rivalry, which has long dominated Kurdish politics in northern Iraq, is coming to a close. What comes next will affect the Kurds and the myriad external actors invested in the outcome.

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