Ex-intel chief Talabany warns Iraqi Kurds risk civil conflict leaving Turkey, Iran room to meddle
Ex-intel chief Talabany warns Iraqi Kurds risk civil conflict leaving Turkey, Iran room to meddle
Ousted Iraqi Kurdish Intel Chief Lahur Talabany warns of civil conflict amid escalating tensions between the main Iraqi Kurdish factions, and insists that Kurds' future lies in Iraq.
By Amberin Zaman
November 3, 2022
Iraqi Kurdistan is gripped by turbulence as it comes under mounting aggression from Iran and Turkey, and as Baghdad seeks to wrest full control of its oil and gas industry. Rampant corruption and a lack of economic opportunity are prompting a rising number of young Iraqi Kurds to flee the country. As if things were not bad enough, the two largest political parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that was founded by Iraq’s first post-war president, the late Jalal Talabani — are quarreling again over power and money, prompting worries of a resurgence of the civil conflict that convulsed the region in the mid-1990s.
The difference today is that not only are the parties at odds with each other, they are also mired in internal rivalries. Lahur Talabany, former co-chair of the PUK who led the Sulaimaniyah region’s intelligence services and the US-trained Counter Terrorism Group, was ousted by his cousins Bafel and Qubad Talabani last summer in a Byzantine power grab. It was the most overt manifestation yet of the intra-family feuds simmering in the Talabani and Barzani dynasties.
Talabany, an architect of the United States’ alliance with the Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State, is well regarded in Western circles as a clearheaded and effective partner if ruthless in his own right. Despite recent setbacks, few believe his political career is over. Many are betting on a comeback because Talabany continues to enjoy popular support in his native Sulaimaniyah.
We caught up with Talabany as he met with British officials in London this week and delivered a speech at the House of Commons Nov. 1 to a packed audience of mainly Iraqi Kurds.
In his first ever interview with the media since relinquishing power, Talabany shared his views on a wide range of issues, from the protests in Iran to continuing tensions in Yazidi-dominated Sinjar. The former spy chief also shared unique insights on the slain Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Turkey’s intelligence tsar Hakan Fidan. Here are the highlights of the interview that was lightly edited for clarity.
Al-Monitor: As a top counter intelligence official in the KRG you have worked on the Iran file for long years, you lived in Iran as a younger man, you know Iran intimately. How do you assess the ongoing protests in Iran that began in September following the death of a Kurdish woman, Zhina Amini (also known as Mahsa Amini), at the hands of the regime’s morality police? Can this lead to any substantive change in the regime and its behavior?
Talabany: There is definitely a difference between these demonstrations and the previous demonstrations. They are multi-ethnic, they are country wide, and women and youth are leading the protests. Not having a strong and united opposition that can guide the demonstrations and serve as an umbrella makes them unsustainable. If the Iranians see that this is getting out of control, they will really crack down.
Al-Monitor: But they seem to be already really cracking down and yet they are continuing.
Talabany: They are not behaving with the same brutality they did in previous protests because there are women and youngsters involved. I don’t believe the Iranians have shown all their cards yet. If they manage to keep the demonstrations going for the next few months, then there could be an opposition building. I already see among the Kurdish opposition groups, people who didn’t speak to one another are now communicating, meeting. I assume on the outside there are people reaching out to each other, Kurds to Persians, Persians to Kurds, but that depends on whether they can continue the demonstrations over an extended period. That’s key.
Al-Monitor: There are different dynamics at play here. On the one hand you have a general anger felt by a large number of Iranians towards the regime. People are demanding freedom. On the other hand, you have grievances that are specific to Iran’s Kurds. In what ways do these grievances intersect and diverge?
Talabany: There have always been grievances in Iranian Kurdistan. The Kurds have always been repressed. But the Kurds will never be able to change things on their own. So, this is a chance for everybody to come together.
Al-Monitor: So some parallels with Iraq in 1991, when the Kurds took a lead role in organizing the opposition?
Talabany: And then you saw the Shiites also taking a lead role. Underneath, there is something boiling for sure.
Al-Monitor: But the difference then was that the Americans were very much involved in the regime change effort. Do you see any potential for Western intervention in Iran if these protests continue?
Talabany: Ten months down the line, maybe. But at the moment there are nuclear negotiations going on. There is no united opposition. Who would replace the current regime in Iran? I don’t think the Americans want more chaos after what happened in Syria and Iraq. Iran is different. It will affect the whole region. There is too much at stake for everyone.
Al-Monitor: The rallying slogan for these protests is "Jin Jiyan Azadi," or “Women Life Freedom.” It was coined by followers of Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, during the fight against the Islamic State. We know the PKK is active inside Iran and has an Iranian offshoot called PEJAK. Is the PKK involved in the demonstrations? Is it mobilizing its sympathizers against the regime?
Talabany: We know there are relationships between the PEJAK and the PKK, this is known to everybody, even though the PKK denies it. PEJAK is very well organized inside Kurdish towns and villages inside Iran. They are probably the most well organized. There could be PEJAK involvement. But I am not talking about units sent from the mountains into the cities. These are people with loyalty to PEJAK who live inside Iranian Kurdistan who are taking part in the demonstrations.
Al-Monitor: So PEJAK has no clearly defined role in them per se?
Talabany: No, I don't think so.
Al-Monitor: What is the potential fallout for Iraqi Kurdistan? Iran has struck Iranian Kurdish opposition groups inside Iraqi Kurdistan sending a very strong signal that it won’t tolerate any actions to further mobilize people against the regime. How far would Iran be willing to go against these groups outside Iran?
Talabany: They have already applied a lot of pressure and I know that a team was summoned from Iraqi Kurdistan to go to Tehran. The KRG minister of interior was among them. Iranians want the disarmament of these groups and for them to be gathered in camps, away from the cities. Further down the road, they want them extradited to foreign countries in the same way that the MEK [Mujahedin-e-Khalq] was to Albania for example. It would be very sad for the KRG to go down that route and it would be difficult to actually pull off in logistical terms. But the Iranians are adamant and especially the Pasdaran [the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]. They have set a deadline for the KRG to take those steps. They are very aggressive as we’ve seen. It’s very clear the message they sent with those missile and drone attacks. And they could exploit rising tensions between the PUK and the KDP to take matters into their own hands again as the Iranian Kurdish opposition are scattered across zones controlled by both parties.
Al-Monitor: Let’s talk about those tensions. In your address in the House of Commons, you spoke of the risk of renewed civil conflict between the PUK and the KDP. What’s going on?
Talabany: There is huge disagreement on the way Kurdistan is governed. There are no more political meetings [between the two parties] taking place. Kak Qubad [Talabani] is speaking against Kak Masrour [Barzani] and Kak Qubad is speaking against Kak Masrour at the same forum. (Note: He is referring to a forum organized by the Middle East Research Institute, an Erbil based think tank that ended Nov. 2).
Look, there were always real problems between the PUK and the KDP, but I was used as a scapegoat all the time, with both sides claiming I was the problem. Once I was moved out of the way, the real problems were exposed in their fullness and people realized it was deeper than Lahur.
The PUK has always been unhappy about the way the KDP has governed and has the upper hand in everything. We identified these issues in the past, and tried to resolve them through dialogue with the KDP. But there was a team within the PUK, that was closer to the KDP, that was always trying to put the blame on the PUK. So those efforts didn’t get anywhere.
Al-Monitor: Sorry, I don’t follow, a group within the PUK put the blame on the PUK?
Talabany: Yes, led by Kak Qubad, who was close at the time with the KDP team and tried to put the blame back on the PUK. Now, finally it's coming down to his own brother [Bafel], who is also not getting along with the KDP. Kak Qubad feels like this is close to home, so he started to talk about these problems.
Al-Monitor: Can you be more specific? What are the main problems between the PUK and the KDP?
Talabany: There is a shortage of money in Sulaimaniyah at the moment. The PUK is blaming the KDP because there isn’t enough income from the borders. Apparently there was a deal done that 43% of the oil revenues would go towards the public sector employee wages for Sulaimaniyah and its regions and 57% for Erbil and Dohuk. The top up for the wages would have to come from the income that the governors raise from the borders and from revenue collected through electricity and other utilities. I think the PUK might have miscalculated things when agreeing to this deal because they feel there isn’t enough income coming in. Hundreds of projects in Sulaimaniyah have stopped because there isn’t enough money.
This was an agreement struck between Kak Masrour and Kak Qubad in the past. But Kak Masrour now realizes that the money raised at the borders on the Sulaimaniyah side is not coming to the central pool for redistribution and that much of it is unaccounted for. Kak Masrour is, therefore, saying "Well I am not willing to cover Sulaimaniyah’s expenses through the income coming from Erbil and Dohuk. The money raised in Sulaimaniyah needs to come back to the government’s pockets." This makes the PUK look very bad in the Sulaimaniyah region. Wages are being paid late, even as they are being paid on time in Erbil. This never happened in the past.
Also there was some money in the banks in Sulaimaniyah, probably over $400 million that went missing and was replaced with checks which were issued by the banks in the past as collateral to business people, who the banks owed money to. There is no money in the banks. It’s gone!
Then there’s the case of this senior intelligence officer who was blown up with his wife and kids in Erbil. The KRG Security Council investigated and held some people accountable and unfortunately some of them proved to be members of the Counter Terrorism service in Sulaimaniyah. The PUK is not happy about this and wanted the information relating to the investigation to be withheld from the public. But it was made public the night before the election of the president [of Iraq] with the alleged perpetrators appearing on television and saying who was behind the killings. The Security Council is going full throttle with charges that the killings were an act of terrorism.
Al-Monitor: Wasn’t the slain officer close to you?
Talabany: He worked for me for 20 years, yes.
Al-Monitor: Do you believe that you were being targeted through him?
Talabany: Oh definitely. He’s not the first one. I had another four guys who I lost last year, brutally murdered while they were eating in a restaurant in Raniyah. But there was no investigation even though the families demanded there be one. One of them was a police colonel and he was on duty that day. He was very close to me. He would come to my house at night for my protection. He was murdered with three of his body guards because he was close to me. They are trying to drive away people close to me, which is very difficult to do.
Al-Monitor: Why do certain members of your family oppose you so bitterly? We know the claims that you tried to poison your cousin, Bafel. Did you try to kill your cousin?
Talabany: I went to the courts with those claims. I took them to court for accusing me of poisoning Bafel. He didn’t show up in court so the judge closed the case. All the other accusations ... I took my brothers to court. I rejected all of those of accusations and it was very clear after they tried to remove me, what happened within the party, bringing Kak Qubad forward. I know the game that’s going on. But I think they did it in a horrible way. They made me look bad and they made themselves look bad and the public doesn’t believe in them. This was a naked power grab, one hundred percent, and it was done in a very nasty way.
Al-Monitor: Some people say you grew arrogant because you felt the Americans were fully behind you and that you acted in a disrespectful manner, particularly towards Massoud Barzani, who after all is the leading figure in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Talabany: I never relied on the Americans for political stuff. Never. For counter terrorism, in the fight against terrorism, of course we heavily relied on the Americans. In politics, I tried to never rely on any outside powers. Look, I think as the head of the [PUK’s intelligence agency] Zanyari and the Counter Terrorism Group I antagonized a lot of people, neighboring countries; Turkey, Iran and I might have antagonized people in the KDP including Kak Massoud to be honest with you. But I felt it was my right. The PUK was going through very difficult times. Mam Jalal [Talabani] was sick. We had internal issues. Dr. Barham [Salih] split from the PUK. During all that period, besides the tough job that I had to do in protecting the Kurdistan Region and Rojava [Kurdish controlled northeast Syria]. I carried that heavy weight of the PUK on my shoulders because at the time Kak Qubad was not involved in any political stuff. Kak Bafel was not even in the country and Bafel’s mum was sick. I was left with all the burden dealing with the PUK’s internal problems and external pressure from the KDP which saw me as a threat because I bypassed them and traveled to Rojava when they had closed the borders with Rojava.
Al-Monitor: You said you angered some of your neighbors. When IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in January 2020, there was widespread speculation that you had provided the intel that allowed them to do it and that this is what proved your own undoing.
Talabany: I totally reject it and I have rejected it in the past. These claims were part of the campaign to taint me, and to win the support of the Iranians. The Turks were already in place for this because of my support for Rojava and they wanted to make sure that the Iranians stayed on their side when it came to opposing the Syrian Kurds. Let’s be real. Does the United States really need me to provide it with intelligence on Qassem Soleimani? He flew from Beirut to Syria and from Syria to Iraq. It's beyond my reach. I totally reject these claims and I think that the Iranians realize I had nothing to do with it now, though some of them wanted to believe that it was possible at the time. I know people who have spoken to the Iranians and they know the full story. They know how it happened.
Al-Monitor: What impact has Soleimani’s departure had on regional balances? Is there a big difference?
Talabany: Oh yes! There’s a big difference. Qassem Soleimani was very familiar with the region. He knew people on an individual basis. He would come through the country, knock on people’s doors. Speak the same language. For example, Kak Massoud and Mam Jalal, he knew them for over 30 years. If he came through the region and sought a personal favor they would not be able to reject it. It’s not the same without him. The same goes for other Iraqi politicians as well. He knew them by name.
Al-Monitor: How were your relations with him?
Talabany: I met him only four times. On three of those occasions I quarreled with him. On the fourth meeting, just weeks before his death, we met at Dr. Barham’s house in Baghdad. I was very frank with him and I said "You aren’t going to like what I say." He was with [slain Iraqi Shiite militia commander] Abu Mahdi al Muhandis and Bafel was present, as were my brother, Aras, and Dr. Barham. I said "you’ve been a good friend to my uncle [Jalal Talabani] but the first time I got to know you, I was labeled a traitor amongst the Kurdish people because of what happened in Kirkuk [in 2017]. The way it was portrayed was that we helped the Shiite militias and the Iranians take Kirkuk [from the Iraqi Kurds] and you guys kept quiet about that. You were supposed to support the PUK to gain back the governorship of Kirkuk, you didn’t. You went and made a deal with Massoud Barzani and you even prevented the PUK from getting any positions in the government in Baghdad in the 2018 elections." I gave him further examples of when he stood against the PUK. I said "when Kak Barham stood for the presidency you tried to stop it from happening." Kak Barham was funny, he said, "No, no, Mr. Qassem Soleimani was supportive," and Soleimani said, “No, he is right. I was against you." Then Soleimani got up and said he was sorry to me three times and said "everything you said was right" and turned to Muhandis and said "you should go to Sulaimaniyah and mend fences with these guys." I never had a good relationship with him to be honest with you. He was pushing for Dr. Barham to be the secretary general of the PUK and for Bafel to be the deputy. I was not even in the list. That made me angry as well, for him to have the right to come and decide who becomes the secretary general of the PUK and who becomes the deputy, while I was doing all the work.
Al-Monitor: Is there a new Soleimani who comes and tells you how to run your party?
Talabany: Nobody can be the new Soleimani, just like there will never be another Mam Jalal. He’s just one of those guys who is irreplaceable.
Al-Monitor: You said the other regional neighbor that you angered is Turkey. In our earlier conversation you described how you would go to Ankara and talk to Turkey’s national intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, about developing relations with the Syrian Kurds. How did we go from those cordial visits to Ankara wanting you out of the way?
Talabany: When I got engaged in Rojava with advice from the Americans as well, I tried to keep Turkey informed of what was happening. I told them that this set of Syrian Kurds would not pose a threat to Turkey’s stability or to its national borders and that it would be better if we tried to build a relationship between the Kurds in Rojava and Ankara and look to open a border crossing between Turkey and Rojava. This was right at the beginning [of the Syrian conflict]. We made some progress. If you recall [Syrian Kurdish leader] Salih Muslim was freely going to Turkey and holding meetings with Turkish officials. Behind closed doors there were talks between the [Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units] YPG at the time and Turkish military intelligence. We made it through till the 2015 parliamentary elections in Turkey when [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan lost the elections and the [pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party] HDP was not willing to join forces with Erdogan to form a government. I remember the last time I was in Ankara I was told by Mr. Hakan Fidan it was all over and that they see these guys as an offshoot of the PKK. There’s no difference.
Al-Monitor: But why the sudden shift? It’s not like they were unaware of their links to the PKK.
Talabany: They knew who they were talking to, of course. But the HDP not participating in the government was one reason. I don’t have one hundred percent proof but I believe that the PKK is to blame for that to be honest. The PKK should have allowed, if they had any engagement with the HDP, for it to participate in the government. It was the first time the Kurds did so well in Turkish elections. We had over 80 members of parliament.
Al-Monitor: How do you know that the PKK did not allow the HDP to support Erdogan in forming a government?
Talabany: This is what everybody was saying. I believe there were meetings held between the HDP and the PKK and the PKK should have advised them to participate in the government. Since they didn’t, I assume the PKK didn’t allow them to participate in the government. I think it would have been a wiser thing for those guys to be given a chance and for the Kurds to take some ministries. They will never get another chance like this. Because that changed the dynamics of things. Look at what happened. It broke the peace talks and started the attacks on Rojava.
Al-Monitor: Do you see any chance for a reversal, with Erdogan being such a pragmatist and the Kurds holding the key to power in the next elections?
Talabany: We’ve seen Mr Erdogan go one way and go the opposite in the past. I think it’s in the interests of the Kurdish and the Turkish peoples for this to happen again. And if Kurds were given another chance and they could be the kingmakers, I would advise them from here to participate in any new government.
Al-Monitor: Would you step up and be a mediator again?
Talabany: I’ve always offered my mediation both to the Turkish government and the PKK in the past because I believe we can only achieve what we want to achieve through peace, especially as Kurds. We have no friends in the neighborhood. We are all alone. Any chance for peace, we should take it.
Al-Monitor: You had a very striking message in the House of Commons both for the Iraqi and the Syrian Kurds, saying that the Syrian Kurds’ future lies in Damascus and that of the Iraqi Kurds in Baghdad.
Talabany: I believe in that because we tried everything else and we were not successful. We tried a referendum [on Kurdish independence in 2017] and it backfired on us. We lost our major partners in the region, the friendships we built over the years. We lost the confidence of our people in the way we govern and the way we make certain decisions. I believe our future is with Iraq, whether we like it or not. This is a reality. If certain politicians want to push this nationalist idea, I totally disagree with them. I believe right now we have to be concentrating on the livelihood of our people. How can we provide better services, tackle unemployment, and provide better security and stability? I believe we can achieve that through Iraq despite the political dysfunction. We still have a parliament that is very active in Iraq and a judiciary system that is independent unlike the one in Kurdistan, unfortunately.
Al-Monitor: But it’s also a very pro-Iranian government and there was an opportunity to have something different.
Talabany: Look, the Kurds have gone along and played along because of the regional dynamics and what’s happening all around us. I think it was a wise move by everybody to participate in this government, whether it's pro-Iranian or not. Like I said, the pressure being applied from Turkey, the pressure being applied from Iran, at least the Kurds being part of the government could help ease some of this pressure.
Al-Monitor: But you lost Barham Salih. That was quite a blow.
Talabany: The PUK lost Barham Salih. I didn’t lose Barham Salih. He lost me a long time ago, unfortunately when he decided to keep quiet about all the wrongdoings in the PUK and kind of took sides with Bafel and had nothing good to say about me. He lost me. I feel like I was the one who put him in that position when Qassem Soleimani and the United States stood against him and more than half of the PUK and all of the KDP. I was the one who stood by him and fought for him till the last minute to become [Iraqi] President.
Al-Monitor: Turning to Sinjar, because Sinjar is a very particular flashpoint where an array of forces, including Iran and Turkey, are in opposition and with no clear solution in sight. What can be done to fix the problem and bring peace to Sinjar and above all to the long suffering Yazidi people?
Talabany: You know there was a Sinjar agreement between the KRG, Baghdad and the United Nations. It did not include the people living in Sinjar, the Yazidis. Trying to make a deal between Baghdad and the KRG on Sinjar without the Yazidis was a big mistake. I tried to relay this to [former Iraqi Prime Minister] Mustafa al-Khadimi. I told him "you need to engage with the people on the ground there. Don’t forget what happened in Sinjar in 2014 when the Islamic State attacked. These people are deeply wounded and they blame officials from Kurdistan for what happened and now you are trying to bring the officials from Kurdistan to have a deal on Sinjar excluding the people of Sinjar. It’s impossible to implement."
Al-Monitor: Would that mean getting the PKK involved?
Talabany: Not the PKK, the people of Sinjar. Okay, the PKK is present there because the PKK is the only one that stood in Sinjar and helped the Yazidis. We ran away as the Kurdish government and left the Yazidis on their own. Who got them out? Some PKK elements and some YPG elements stayed with the Yazidis and helped them. The PKK was willing to pull out its forces from Sinjar if the Sinjar people were included in the deal and I relayed this message to Mr. Kadhimi.
Al-Monitor: Are you referring to the Shingal Resistance Units, the YBS, that were formed with the help of the PKK? Should they have been at the table?
Talabany: Yes, who are they? Apart from a few leadership positions these are Yazidis from Sinjar. They became YBS because there was nobody else there at the time. That doesn’t mean they are PKK, that they are against Turkey, etc.
Al-Monitor: Do you think Turkey can move into Sinjar at some point as it keeps threatening to?
Talabany: The Iranian proxies in the area will make it very difficult. They are very anti-Turkey and they’ve made this very plain. But it depends on the dynamics in the region. If Iraq stabilizes politically it will be very difficult for Turkey. But if there is a security vacuum, a political vacuum, Turkey is always very good at taking advantage of these gaps.
Al-Monitor: Moving to Syria, how do you see the future of the Rojava administration and America’s commitment to the Syrian Kurds going forward?
Talabany: As I have said before, the Syrian Kurds have no future without finding a way with the Syrian government, whether it’s with [President Bashar] al-Assad or beyond Assad, their future is with Syria. No establishment will be allowed outside of the Syrian structure by the Turks because that’s suicide for Turkey, to allow another model of Iraqi Kurdistan to be built inside Syria. I know it’s difficult at the moment and that the Syrian government is not willing to negotiate but this doesn’t mean you lose hope because you have no other hope. This needs to happen while the Americans are still around. The Saudis, the Gulf countries can apply some pressure for basic Kurdish rights in Syria and offer money. Syria needs money. There are many tools that could be used to tailor this.
Al-Monitor: But aren’t the Kurds in a bit of a bind? They need Americans for leverage in their dealings with the regime, yet the Americans are against all dealings with Assad.
Talabany: I don’t think so. I’ve heard many times that the Americans have told them that they need to keep the dialogue open with the regime and to make their demands because they [the Americans] aren’t going to be around forever and they’ve been very frank about it.
Al-Monitor: Why is nothing happening then?
Talabany: I think [the commander in chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces] Mazlum Kobane is finding it very difficult with the Syrian regime at the moment. The old school Baathists, the old guard are even preventing Assad from making a deal. People like [Syria’s intelligence chief] Ali Mamlouk who are involved in the negotiations are preventing any progress.
Al-Monitor: And meanwhile Mamlouk is talking to Hakan Fidan.
Talabany: Yes, of course there are talks with Hakan Fidan. Turkey is pragmatic. They realize they have a big problem on their border. They have all those extremists that they themselves empowered there that will become a very big problem for Turkey in the future as well.
Al-Monitor: Is Hakan Fidan the new Qassem Soleimani?
Talabany: Hakan is very well educated and is very influential in the region. I think he is playing that role and you know he was very good friends with Qassem Soleimani. He admired Qassem Soleimani.
Talabany: He told me himself. He told me one time "if only Qassem Soleimani were better educated he would have led Iran."
Hakan is playing a major role for Turkey.
Al-Monitor: So last question: What lies ahead for Lahur Talabany?
Talabany: My future plan is the future of the Kurdish people in Kurdistan. I didn’t leave them behind despite everything that happened to me and all the accusations and my house being surrounded [by security forces] for four months and me being asked to leave the country. What made me stay behind is the suffering that the Kurds are enduring. I am there for the people, not for myself. I see myself turning things around for the Kurdish people, one way or the other.