Challenges facing the PUK: A Policy Debate with Bafel Talabani

The Political System and State-Building in Iraq

  • Bafel Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
  • Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, President of the Middle East Research Institute (Moderator)

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen started the discussion by asking Bafel Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), about the new vision adopted by his party. The PUK has accumulated 32 years of experience in governing the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and 20 years of sharing power in the new Iraq, but it is not a secret that in recent years, the PUK’s vision and strategy for state-building in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq are not clear.

Bafel Talabani replied: The PUK has a very special history, full of struggle and martyrdom. Our program is: the first thing that is important to us is to maintain our unity, but why? Our goal is to do our best to serve our nation, the Kurdish nation in general. I think this [PUK] leadership has a very good selection of experienced people and young people to learn from each other. Another goal of the PUK is to build cadres. I want to explain here that we have been able to build a strong team over the past two years, work together and make decisions together. There was a lot of strange talk about the [Party] Congress, but Mr. Omar Sheikh Mous said that this is the first time we have had such an orderly Congress. All the items were discussed, the structure of the party was discussed. I think we can take our party forward and modernize it. Our main goal is to serve the people.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: We have heard the word “serve the people” numerous times and it is a generic term. We want to know how you translate these words and views into practice. What are you doing in terms of a roadmap and what is in the PUK’s program?

Bafel Talabani: Let’s start with the simple things. Do you know what the salary situation is like at the moment? What is the situation in the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad? We may not be able to provide enough salaries for our nation at the moment, but there are many other things we can do. We can at least protect the security and dignity of the people. We want to put a lot of emphasis on the courts. We must make the judges and the courts completely independent, free from partisanship. Fortunately, it is the case in Sulaymaniyah. We want it to be even stronger. May Sulaymaniyah become a paradise for different opinions, for writers and all activists. We want people to express all their opinions openly. We must ask ourselves why all this money has come and gone. Saddam has disappeared from Kurdistan since 1991. Why do we not have electricity? Why do we not have enough water? Why are our youth fleeing this country? Let us not forget the issue of women and youth. We want to create a think tank for women and youth. You can help us in this regard. They often say that Kurdistan is rich in oil and gas, but I say that Kurdistan is rich in good and educated youth. We must provide them with job opportunities. I am with the PUK in our next five-year program. One of the tasks is to provide job opportunities for university graduates. This cannot be done by the PUK alone. This is done through the government. Through the government we can serve the people more. We need a partner who agrees with us and provides beautiful programs. The Kurdish parties want to serve the people. I want to emphasize Kurdishness. We must be able to express our opinion in Iraq and everywhere.

Here, Dlawer Ala’Aldeen stressed that Kurdishness is different from being Kurdistani (Kurdistanism), because in Kurdistan we have many communities with religions and sects, Kurdistani means that we must accommodate all nations and religions. Kurdistanism is more important for stability and coexistence. We are sure you have a program in that.

Bafel Talabani said: Of course I agree with you and yes it is in our program. Thank you for explaining it better than me.

“We must translate our words into practice because we understand the views they present within the framework of strategy and comprehensiveness, but when it comes to translation, it requires a roadmap and continuous work. The institutions within the PUK must be empowered from their places and each must be given its own tasks and duties.

“I want the PUK to become a modern party based on talent. I have asked our cadres about talented people, who should be the right person for their place. We must make changes in the party normal, so the congress must be held on time. Mr. Gubad and his team have done a successful job. One of the reasons for the success of the congress was that 16,000 cadres had discussed its provisions. We must bring new blood into the party and new women into the party. Why don’t people vote for us? Not to us, but to all parties. People are tired of the old policies and ask us to do different things. We need change and we must prove that what we can do is legal, institutional, respectful and free for everyone and free. An ugly caricature was made about Mam Jalal. I was with Dr. Khasraw. Mam Jalal called me and said that the doctor was aware of the ugly caricatures they were making about us. We have to create that atmosphere. Yes, he said you have to protect that man.

Dilawar Alaaddin asked the question of the PUK congress and pointed to the comments of the people that when writing the rules and distribution of powers, powers are absolutely concentrated in the hands of the PUK president. The ruling party with a strong leader can use these powers, can do great things with them, but at the same time is likely to keep power outside the institutions of governance, which is the biggest problem in Kurdistan, Iraq and the region. The KRG parliament has been weakened. It is true that the leaders may like it and not see it as weakened. The region has suffered in this regard. Leaders have often been outside the executive branch, and when they enter this ruling branch, they do not enter parliament. They will not receive anything other than the executive and leadership authorities. If decision-making power is outside the state institutions and these shortcomings continue, will they strengthen the government?

In response, Bafel Talabani said: When I talked about strengthening the institutions, I meant that we have done something within the PUK, we have a council called the support council, its work is very important. In one sense, as important as leadership, they are observers. We will create several commissions to follow up on our work. This is like a mini-parliament whose job is to monitor the work of the leadership.

The smallest thing we can do for our nation is to hold elections as soon as possible. We as the PUK do not intend to do that. We want to have a coalition government. We are very loyal partners. Now most of us in our party agree. We have a lot of discussions. We must do something to strengthen our government this time. How can that be done? I should not use the government to strengthen the PUK, I should not use anyone else to strengthen his own party. We do not want to weaken the government or be unilateral and replace the government. We want to serve the people for the development of the country like European countries, because today a young person does not accept us.

Dilawar Alaaddin spoke about strengthening the government’s governance system and stressed that this can not be done overnight, but a trend that can be taken in that direction, then recovery will be created, investments will come to bring foreign money to spend and invest in the country Don’t worry about what happens to them next. We must transfer powers to the institutions of governance. He then asked that the biggest political problem in the region is unity inside and outside the region. Does the PUK have a plan for the future?

Bafel Talabani replied: Let me reveal a secret in the party, we intend to send a delegation to all parties in Kurdistan, try to start with new ideas and a new program to explain to them. Let’s make a serious effort with all parties. We hope it will be accepted with the intention we intend.

“We are all talking about it. We are all sitting here to talk about it,” he said. I am pleased with this initiative. He then turned to Iraq, noting that the PUK, along with other parties, has representatives in Baghdad and political alliances there, which are expected to become an important part of decision-making. Use power to serve the people of Kurdistan and Iraq. Baghdad to embrace the region and both sides should be involved. But the Baghdad front needs unity. The Kurdish people are concerned that when there are great opportunities in Baghdad, where great things can be done, there is division in the region. Opponents are taking advantage of this opportunity, and no one is exempt. Dilawar Alaaddin asked how in your view, how do you make the platform in Baghdad to serve the great cause of the state and the country of the rule of law?

“We as the PUK can serve Kurdistan from Baghdad, but it would be much better if we were together,” Talabani said. We should go to Baghdad together with all Kurdish parties and be united to demand the rights of the Kurdish people in Baghdad. It will be better and the government delegation will be stronger. We have examples where we have been able to work together on several issues, for example, the government delegation led by Mr. Masrour, whom I liked very much and was very brave when he went to Baghdad. Some parties did not like it, then with Mr. Qubad, after we convinced them that the people needed it. We were able to work together. Unfortunately, we can make this congress, this new leadership, what we intend to do, and visit the parties to sit down with them and see where we can agree… Kurdistan parties first, but then to Baghdad. Our visits continue and we will try with all parties on the issue of coalition. We don’t want to choose with one group, but we want to have good relations with everyone. It is better to serve. The PUK has been able to revive itself. Two years ago, it did not have the weight it needed in Baghdad, but now, with our communications and our honesty, what we mean is that it has been an essential part of building this relationship. Kurdish parties must work together. If our relationship is not good with one party, it can be repaired and vice versa. This requires a reset of our relationships.

“You mentioned that you are trying like Kurdistan, but it is clear that you have different investments,” he said. Your relationship has focused on several aspects, such as the coordination aspect, which has been strengthening for some time, especially with the governors. But of course, with the vision you are talking about now, where there is power, you have to attract it, because if the exploitation is with one side, it cannot have that effect to serve the cause.

“We have contacts with many parties in Baghdad, but we will not talk about it to the media,” Talabani said.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: : Now that these crises have arisen, Baghdad has become more important to us. The decisions of the Federal Court and the suspension of oil exportation that have made it difficult to send the salaries, people are anxious and believe that the PUK is one of the drivers that want Baghdad to deal directly with Sulaimaniyah for salary payments, despite our federal system. Is this true?

Bafel Talabani: We can do that now. We have included a clause in the budget law that Sulaimaniyah can fulfill its obligations and receive salaries directly from Baghdad, if any party failed to fulfill their obligations. That is not our goal, but it was a guarantee for the people of Sulaymaniyah if they had problems or were hard done by. Our goal is to protect the Region that was created with the blood of the martyrs of the PUK and other parties. We should not be short-sighted. If we separate Sulaymaniyah, it will receive salaries from Baghdad for several months and not from any other party. But what will happen after that? Could we bring together all the people and parties in Kurdistan? No. We must work together. I am as concerned about Zakho and Duhok as I am about Sulaimaniyah. I want to set up a program with Dana Gas to increase the gas so that we can have electricity in Duhok for 24 hours. The simplest thing is electricity. In Mogadishu, when they removed Mohammed Farah Adid, they had 24-hour electricity after nine months.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: The issue of the law and the inclusion of this article is questionable. What people want to make sure is that the split in the administration do not deepen so that Iraq treats Sulaimaniyah as a separate province, we must prevent this.

Bafel Talabani: We don’t want that either.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: People want when you have an entity, a Parliament and a government, even if there are two administrations below them, but functional, people do not worry about where salaries are paid or not paid, they do their job automatically, as we discussed.
Bafel Talabani: The item included in the budget is for the possibilities, we must think about everything, the best and worst situation. We should not only think about tomorrow, we must think about 5 to 10 years. But I repeat, the last thing the PUK wants to think about is two administrations, but an administration that belongs to everyone and governs everyone and looks at the whole of Kurdistan with the same eyes.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: I am happy to hear these words, and it is an assurance to the people that whatever we do, should not be at the expense of the future of the region. Let’s talk about foreign relations. Whether we like it or not, every party in Iraq has its own foreign relations. In recent years, there has been an opinion that you have good relations with the United States and bad relations with Turkey. How do you define relations with Iran? What will happen to those relations with Iran, the United States and Turkey?

Bafel Talabani: We have a border with Iran of several hundred kilometers. We have relations with Iran as a party. Kurds have fled to Iran several times. We have long relations with them. I don’t think there is any other party in Kurdistan that has such good relations with the Americans. We have good relations with all European countries. This is the policy of Mam Jalal who went to Tehran and from there to Washington. We have visited the UK in the past few months, then we went to Tehran, and in a few days we will go to the United States. This is the party’s policy. We have very good relations with the United States. This is the old policy of the PUK. Our goal is to strengthen the Bureau of Relations. Mr Qubad and I used to run it informally, but this time there are young people to help the number one person who cannot do it alone. We have to rebuild a team for him. Our goal is to get along with everyone.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: We have several Americans and several European ambassadors with us. They helped us stabilize Kurdistan.
Bafel Talabani: They are still advising us on unity and some of them are here. We thank them, but our problem is that we do not listen to them.
Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: They have been here since the war against ISIS. They see our victims, but they have been asking us to have a national force that will honor the name of the Peshmerga and become a national force under the control of the government? You have to start with yourself. Let’s see what your vision is. This cannot be done with prayers, hopes and long-term promises, but with practical steps, because this has become an immediate priority. What is your vision and what are your plans as the PUK to unite the Peshmerga forces? We should also have the answer of our allies.

Bafel Talabani: Let me start with the Seventy Force. We have not waited for foreign brothers and sisters. We have reformed the Seventy Force, reorganized the brigades and put young people in the special brigade. The PUK forces have been mobilized. There was a time when so-and-so had forces. Now there are PUK forces. Our special forces, anti-terrorism forces and commandos have reached a level that everyone likes. But our goal is to unite the forces of the 70 and 80. We have reorganized our brigades and forces within the 70 Force. We have worked hard for that. I am concerned about the process that is stuck. It is stuck on something very simple. We have not been able to appoint an acting Peshmerga minister so far. I don’t know why. But our programs are moving forward, we have relations with each other, but unfortunately this has become a political problem, and the goal was to stay away from politics.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: But when you say that these forces belong to the PUK, it means that they are outside the government.

Bafel Talabani: We want to be open with each other, so the strength of the PUK is the strength of the PUK.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: These phrases dilute down and not used among other parties. For the sake of time, let’s go to Turkey.

Bafel Talabani: I will not go to Turkey!

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: Why don’t you go? I would like you to go to Turkey. As you said, Iran is a strategic neighbor. Friendship with all these neighbors will bring abut Kurdistan’s revival. The PUK’s situation with Turkey is not good now, as evidenced by the recent attacks on the Kurdistan Region. At the same time, we must admit that the issue of the PUK’s relationship with the PKK is one of Turkey’s excuses.

Bafel Talabani: No, it is just an excuse.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: Whether it is an excuse or not, we are talking about this relationship here. How will you improve it and move it forward? For everyone, the relationship must be successful. Tell us your vision.

Bafel Talabani: Our problem with Turkey is difficult to solve. I can’t go to Turkey. Turkey martyred three heroes of the fight against ISIS, my friends, in Arbat for no reason. We want to improve our relations with Turkey. Our problem is that we have different opinions and we want to improve them. In Rojava, we see the situation differently, we see it one way and they see it another way. We have nothing to do with the PKK as it is said. There are several parties in Sulaimaniyah that are being complained about for closing down. I went to Baghdad and spoke with Faiq Zedan. Do these parties have a license? Can one party go and close down another party that has a license? he says no. Why doesn’t the Iraqi government close them down? Why should I close them down? Regarding the closure of the northern Kurdish parties in Sulaymaniyah, they have permission in Baghdad as parties, we cannot expel them. Let them make an agreement with Baghdad. There are institutions in Sulaimaniyah, they say these are the PKK. I don’t know if these are PKK or not. But they are all official and have licences. Some of them have licences from Erbil.

We can solve our problems through dialogue with Turkey. Kurds are stubborn and we will not do things under pressure. We like to resolve things through dialogue. I’m sure there’s something in the middle. We have to unite, but what if they’re not willing to sit down and talk? We are ready for any dialogue, to solve any problem, we can help them to solve the PKK issue. The PKK can help them. Four years ago, Mr. Massoud (Barzani) thanked them in the fight against ISIS in Makhmur. I was there myself, the United States was there, and another country was there. We want to agree. It was the PUK that improved the PKK’s relations with Turkey. It was Mr. Mam Jalal who improved the relations between the PKK and the KDP. We can, just as Mam Jalal helped them and put out the fire, we are ready with Turkey. But there are some things that we cannot implement. Mam Jalal did not do it, why should we?

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: You used the word dialogue and finding a middle ground. There is nothing that cannot be resolved through dialogue. Such words are expected from the local authorities and from neighboring countries.
Bafel Talabani: I don’t like threats. Why should there be threats? We don’t want to have problems with any country, but we don’t dialogue with pressure, threats and lies. That’s not dialogue. That process is wrong, how does the war machine work with a country where you are not in war?

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: Finally, what would you like to say?

Bafel Talabani: The PUK is on the rise and the PUK wants elections as soon as possible. Therefore, the PUK wants elections to better serve our nation, especially the youth. In terms of security, law enforcement and freedom, I can assure you that there will be changes day by day in the areas where we can have an impact. I repeat, we are ready to open a new chapter with every party in Iraq, and especially in Kurdistan, with a new policy. We hope that the parties will be ready for this. We must apologize to our nation. We have allowed personal and party problems to create an atmosphere that we have not been able to serve them properly. Special thanks to all our foreign friends who have gone crazy with us, but don’t worry, we will try to fix the situation. Thank you and others for giving me the opportunity to express my opinion.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: Thank you and those present here, intellectuals whose profession is to exchange ideas, in the service of nation-building and state-building. Our job is to create an environment for mixing with decision makers, and beautiful things will come out of it. So we do it equally with everyone. Thank you for the time you gave us and for coming and giving people clarity, for your spirit and for your candor.


MERI Forum 2023

Addressing Iraq’s Immediate Priorities
10 & 11 October, 2023

Session 9: The Political System and State-Building in Iraq (B)

Session Video

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