On February 18, Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani met with officials from his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) who were threatening to leave the party. According to the Iraqi paper Azzaman, Talabani held a conference with Kosrat Rassoul, the Vice President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Secretary General of the PUK, the head of the Kurdish Alliance Barham Salih, and four members of the PUK headquarters Omar Sayid Ali, Othman Hajji Mahmoud, Jalal Johar, and Mustafa Sayid Qadr. All of them were threatening to resign from the PUK unless their demands were met. They wanted Talabani to create more democratic processes within the PUK and Kurdistan, commit to fighting corruption, and talk with dissident Nishurwan Mustafa. Before the meeting, protests were held in Sulaymaniya and Irbil in support of both sides.
The dissident wanted Talabani to hold discussions with former PUK leader Nishurwan Mustafa to try to convince him to become involved in the party again. Mustafa helped form the PUK back in 1975 with Jalal Talabani. Mustafa was the Deputy Secretary General of the party until December 2006. That’s when Talabani pushed him out. Since then he has increasingly criticized the KRG for all kinds of wrongs ranging from autocratic rule, corruption, a lack of services, failing to improve the economy and standard of living, and trying to control business in the region. He might also be forming his own party to run in the upcoming Kurdish elections. Mustafa has been able to voice these critiques through his media company, Wusha, that has its own newspapers, TV station, and website. The PUK leadership has not taken these statements kindly. In December 2008 for example, they expelled several members in England who were followers of Mustafa. The officials called for Talabani to resign due to corruption.
The PUK officials also wanted graft, bribes, and the lack of democratic practices tackled. It’s been said that both the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, take bribes for contracts in the region. Nepotism is another issue. The KRG inherited two cement factories built by Baghdad when they gained their de facto autonomy after the Gulf War. One was taken over by the PUK, the other by Talabani’s wife. There are also reports that construction contracts are given out to relatives of high officials. 50% of the jobs in Kurdistan come from the regional government. Many of those are handed out as a form of patronage to party officials, or to members of the Talabani and Barzani families. The PUK has also tried to clamp down on dissent. In April 2008 Talabani banned any party member from publicly criticizing the KRG. Journalists have been harassed for reporting on corruption in the government. Intellectuals and human rights groups have charged the Kurdish security forces of arresting their members when they speak out against the authorities.
Coming right before parliamentary elections in Kurdistan, scheduled for May 2009, President Talabani could not ignore this threat to party unity. After his meeting with the dissidents in Baghdad he agreed to all of their demands. He said that there would be more transparency in KRG spending, some officials would be replaced, and he would initiative talks with Mustafa and ask him to come back to the party. One of Rassoul or Salih’s deputies would also take over the PUK’s intelligence agency. The PUK and KDP have had carte blanch rule in Kurdistan since the 1990s. Since then criticism of their leadership has slowly grown. It took the threat of dividing the PUK to finally make one of the two Kurdish leaders to address it. It will be interesting to see how many of these reforms are followed through with.
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