KDP-PUK Relations: Regional Developments and Changes

07 March 2012
A- A A+

While riots and protests are erupting across the Middle East, it is noteworthy to focus on the political congestion and changes in the Kurdish government cabinet in Iraq. In spite of all the developments in Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) still continues to govern in line with the “strategic agreement” signed in 2005 between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)

and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The political instability in Iraq has become more apparent since the withdrawal of American forces in 2011 and later with the issuance of a warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi’s arrest by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. After Barham Ahmad Salih, founder of the sixth KRG cabinet, resigned in 2009 as part of the strategic alliance between KDP and PUK, KDP Vice President (and Massoud Barzani’s nephew) Nechirvan Barzani was appointed to form the new cabinet. At this point, the following significant questions seek answers in this new period: How is the opposition party going to react? Whether the process of forming a new cabinet is going to create a political crisis? Wkat kind of a political route is the new cabinet going to follow, especially given Turkey and other developments in the region? Aside from these questions, this article is also going to try to analyze how Erbil, which has a plenty of issues with Baghdad, like Kirkuk, will act during this new period.

KDP-PUK Strategic Alliance


KDP, headed by the Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani and PUK, headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, have had long disputes over leadership and revenue linked to the Habur border gate. Issues regarding the division of revenue from the gate have even resulted in physical confrontations amongst the two parties. As a consequence of these clashes, the two Kurdish parties signed the “Washington Agreement” as a result of a September 1998 joint initiative proposed by the U.S. and Turkey. The agreement installed the current two-headed government system in northern Iraq. In the aftermath, KRG, whose rule consists of three provinces, found itself divided into two under the leadership of Barzani and Talabani, therefore leaving the province of Sulaymaniyah to PUK, and the provinces of Erbil and Dohuk to the KDP administration. This division was strictly enforced to the extent that party members were forbidden from visiting provinces outside of their parties’ control. However, the balance of power in the region changed with the invasion of Iraq, and the clashes between these two Kurdish parties have been transformed into a “strategic alliance.” The continuation of such armed conflicts between two internal factions (PUK and KDP) in northern Iraq during the invasion would have been considered as destructive to Iraqi Kurds’ interests in the region. Therefore, Talabani and Barzani agreed to unify the two northern administrations in 2005 in order to help Kurds benefit from the post-Saddam changes and developments in Iraq. The fundamental principles of the strategic alliance signed between KDP and PUK are as follows:

1. Both of the parties will participate in the elections with a unified list, either nationally or provincially.


2. As part of the agreement, the assignment of duties in the KRG will be shared by the two parties (KDP-PUK) and both parties will support each others’ members in not only Erbil but also Baghdad. Moreover, the PUK and KDP parties will share power in the cabinet for four years, with each party holding the prime ministerial position and controlling the cabinet for two years each. Under exceptional circumstances, this two-year period can be extended to four years only if the two parties agree on an extension. For instance, northern Iraq’s President Nechirvan Barzani continued governing after his term ended upon the request of PUK leader Jelal Talabani.

Evaluating the strategic agreement between the KDP and PUK, it can be seen that the dynamics of the country changed with the American invasion. Had the two northern political entities not united and nor committed to a cease-fire, the inclusion of Kurdish language in the Iraqi constitution may not have happened, in addition to the Kurdish Regional Government not attaining federal status within the country.

The KDP-PUK agreement has greatly benefitted the future of Iraqi Kurds.  Beyond this aspect, it is certainly clear that both parties have had subsequent gains, as listed below. 

• It is apparent that the KDP-PUK strategic alliance has resolved the leadership clash between Talabani and Barzani.

In addition, the fact that KDP supported Talabani’s presidency can be seen as a strategic tactic towards Talabani and his party. In that respect, two significant results occurred when Talabani became the Iraqi President and Barzani became the KRG’s leader. First, it was considered that Talabani and his party’s influence in northern Iraq became relatively weaker than previous periods due to since Kurdish populations began viewing Talabani as the leader of not only Kurds but also all Iraqis. On the other hand, Barzani has been regarded as not only the leader of Kurds in Iraq, but also Kurdish communities elsewhere. As the first ethnic Kurd to be the President of the Iraqi government, Talabani received a positive reaction from Kurds in Iraq and the region. However, his support began to waver among Kurdish citizens in northern Iraq, especially those supporting his party. The separations in Talabani’s party in the aftermath of his election for presidency prove the validity of this evaluation. 

• All the opposition parties in northern Iraq have become stronger, which is thought to have primarily stemmed from the lack of authority caused by the KDP-PUK rivalry. If KDP and PUK hadn’t ended the disagreement, it would have been a strategic mistake. Moreover, these two parties could have lost the provinces of Erbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniyah (which officially form a region) as a result of the rivalry between them. Since neither Talabani nor Barzani was willing to face such a risk, both of them had to accept the strategic agreement. Additionally, regional and international powers had a great impact on the strategic alliance agreement.

The developments previously mentioned show that the agreement between KDP-PUK holds great significance for the future of the region and the internal dynamics within Kurdish society. In this way, Talabani and Barzani are ensured to be appointed to many important posts within the Presidency, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Army in the Baghdad government as well. In other words, the cooperation of Barzani and Talabani during the course of political processes in Iraq helped fulfill most of the Kurds’ demands and allowed for a greater facilitation of regional activities.

Nechirvan Barzani’s Quest to Set Up a Government and Recent Developments

After the U.S. invasion, it is possible to observe political, economic, social, military, and unitary state structural changes not only in Iraq but also throughout the Middle East. This can be seen in the fact that Iraq, in the process, was converted into a federal state structure after the invasion. As a consequence of the new federal system in the country, the structure of northern Iraq gradually began to change. In this process, KDP and PUK faced serious opposition in reaching the strategic agreement. On one hand, it is claimed that the existence and growth of this opposition group in the region has challenged both of the parties. On the other hand, it can be said that the emergence of the Gorran (Change) movement, led by Nawshirwan Mustafa (who left the PUK and is seen as the representative of the new opposition group), enforced the two parties (PUK-KDP) to come closer together. The separation of Gorran movement from PUK caused KDP to gain power. Therefore, it can be said that the opposition initiated by the Gorran movement did not weaken, but on the contrary, strengthened KDP.

The Gorran movement won 25 out of 111 Kurdish parliamentary seats in the northern Iraq election on July 25, 2009 could be interpreted within this framework. (1) Following this election, PUK was in charge of forming the government in accordance with the strategic agreement signed between PUK-KDP. After PUK leader Barham Ahmed Salih completed his two year term in office, it was then KDP’s turn to again set up the cabinet. Thus, Salih presented his resignation to Massoud Barzani on February 2nd 2012. (2) Consequently, Nechirvan Barzani, KDP’s Vice President, started negotiations with the opposition groups under the purpose of establishing the seventh cabinet of the Kurdish regional government. However, after Barzani’s negotiations, the opposition group announced that they were not going to participate in the new cabinet, which is accepted as an important development in terms of the political process in the region. Rejecting the option to participate in the northern Iraqi government may result in parties losing considerable support among their voting bases. This is due to the fact that since 1991, the Kurdish people of northern Iraq have grown frustrated with the apportioning of governance between two ruling parties and their respective leaders. In addition, Iraq’s Kurdish society’s growing support for any opposition group willing to challenge KDP-PUK’s dominance over the resources and gains of the region should not be underestimated. The most concrete example of this case can be seen in the support for the Gorran movement during the parliamentary election on July 25th 2009, only six months after the emergence of the new movement. Maintaining governance and exerting dominance in today’s Arab societies has become increasingly difficult in the changing post-Arab spring environment, not excluding Iraqi Kurds. The protests that took place in Sulaymaniyah on February 17th 2010 especially enforced the regional administrators to make reforms in many areas. (3) For this reason, Iraqi people think that the only avenue of escape from KDP-PUK domination is through supporting a strong opposition. Therefore, if the opposition that they have been supporting does not get an active role in the new cabinet, this may cause for less election participation, resulting in a serious loss of votes.

If the Kurdish Regional Government is evaluated in light of these circumstances, while the U.S. is withdrawing their forces from Iraq and Baghdad’s regime undergoing a crisis, the efforts to set up a new government in northern Iraq may bring about a number of significant developments in the region. Especially given that Maliki has issued arrest warrants for Sunni Arab politicians on terrorism charges, the situation has become an addition to the existing problems between Baghdad and Erbil. A careful analysis of the situation shows that KRG’s move to reshape the cabinet in spite of the political crisis in Iraq proves that the KRG is not troubled with the political uncertainities outside of the Kurdish region. Therefore, the KRG conveys the message that it has reached the capability to overcome numerous political conflicts, within the parties and the region. This situation is important in order to allay fear among the Kurdish society in the region.



The Baghdad-Erbil Corridor


Following the crisis after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, a vast number of developments took place between Baghdad and Erbil. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki held (Sunni Arab) Vice President Tarik al-Hashimi accountable for the car bomb explosion near the parliament building on November 28th 2011. Subsequently, al-Maliki ordered a warrant for al-Hashimi’s arrest and banned him from travelling abroad. The warrant led al-Hashimi to take refuge in the Sulaymaniyah province of Iraq, as a guest of Iraq’s (Kurdish) President Jelal Talabani and KRG leader Massoud Barzani. (4) When al-Maliki urged Kurds to bring al-Hashimi to justice, this became the starting point of the al-Hashimi crisis.


        The reasons of KRG’s stance on the al-Hashimi crisis can be listed as below:

a) The KRG has been in conflict with Sunni Arabs and other politicians over various subjects since 2003. Serious problems have been observed between Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Mosul, Salahaddin, and Diyale provinces. These problems especially outraged Sunni Arabs in those provinces when some of the accused were arrested for charges of terrorism, and then sent to Sulaymaniyah and Akra prisons in northern Iraq. Further, they faced difficulties entering the Erbil and Sulaymaniyah provinces. There are two factors for the basis of KRG’s invitation to host al-Hashimi as a guest. By taking on a protective role over al-Hashimi and collaborating with Sunni Arab politicians, they initially wanted to change the image they have created in Sunni Arab public opinion since the invasion. The other reason can be said of KRG attempting to create a new strategic pressure on the Iraqi administration through Sunni Arabs over the contentious issues with the Maliki government.

b) KRG intends to convey the message to the Maliki government that they are liable to form a new power relation in the event that their demands are not met to their satisfaction during Iraq’s political process. 

c) The Kurdish government has been proposing suggestions for “National Dialogue” conferences. If the main purpose of these conferences is to maintain a politically and socially unified Iraq, then they are vital for the future of Iraq. But when examined closely, these conferences mostly do not go beyond political negotiations and this exhibits the fact that they could not make a single contribution to the future of Iraq and its political stability. Therefore, KRG is almost making every effort to turn political conflicts in Iraq into an opportunity. On the other hand, through these conferences, KRG intends to conduct negotiations with Baghdad over issues such as disputed territories between Baghdad and KRG (Mosul, Kirkuk, Diyale, and Selahaddin), the allocation of funds from Iraq’s natural resources, and laws pertaining to natural gas and petroleum. Today, the scattered and weak Iraqi government has been gaining more significance in terms of resolving the issues with the KRG. Consequently, the issue of al-Hashimi is seen as a great opportunity for negotiations over resolving the conflicts between KRG and Baghdad.

Given these factors, the notion that Kurdish government is protecting Sunni Arab politicians or their representatives developed after the al-Hashimi crisis. Even if cooperation possibilities between Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arabs emerge, past tensions may complicate any advancement towards a possible cooperation. Although Kurds have agreed with Sunni Arab politicians over some diplomatic issues against the Maliki government, it should not be forgotten that the implementation of these issues in the society may bring on more difficulties. The reason behind KRG’s stance towards al-Hashimi is to bring a number of shelved questions back onto the agenda.


The Impact of the Government of Nechirvan Barzani on Turkey and the Middle East

After KRG Prime Minister Barham Ahmet Salih (PUK member) resigned, the seventh government was announced to be formed by Nechirvan Barzani from KDP, who exhibited his attempt to set up the government by his visits to the opposition group. While these developments are taking place in the region, the question of what type of policy the Barzani government intends to follow with countries in the region (especially with Turkey and Iran) comes to mind. Given the fact that the Salih government was scarcely involved in disputes with  regional countries, it is not entirely difficult to foresee how Nechirvan Barzani will shape relations with regional countries. Barzani was appointed by his uncle and father-in-law Massoud Barzani, so as to put the diplomatic relations of northern Iraq on a solid footing, and to get in touch with Turkey and Iran, which are important players in terms of the future of the region. So far, Nechirvan Barzani has often visited Turkey as the representative of both KRG and the KDP party due to PKK terrorist organization attacks. Also, in many of his speeches, Barzani has mentioned his belief about the importance of improving the diplomatic and economic relations with Ankara. At the same time, Barzani wanted to have a similar relationship to that of Ankara with Tehran. Thus, it is possible to say that the Nechirvan Barzani government is expected to follow a moderate policy towards the developments in Iraq and the Middle East.

If examined closely, Iraqi Kurdish officials have been recently conducting relations with countries in the region by means of dialogue. Behind this new development, there are two underlying reasons. The first one is the emergence and increasing effect of a serious opposition to Talabani and Barzani within the Kurdish community and political groups in northern Iraq. The second one is the desire to maintain good relations with countries such as Turkey, in the event that a possible clash between Arabs and Kurds should arise in the future. In other words, Iraqi Kurdish officials have realized that Kurds in the present conjuncture in the Middle East won’t be able to solely determine their own future without any regional collaboration. Therefore, the Kurds give the impression that they are trying to build their future with regional cooperation and therefore they implement strategies towards this direction. Due to such a strategy, the KRG may support Turkey’s policies in the context of the fight against terrorism and take concrete steps related to the PKK terrorist organization. Neither Barzani nor Talabani will support Turkey’s military actions in northern Iraq against PKK with their own Pershmerga forces. Both of the Kurdish leaders are not only interested in the issue of Kurds in Iraq, but they have been following policies which favor all regional Kurds in their respective countries. Thus, none of the Kurdish leaders want to continue the notion that Kurds are clashing with one another, as exhibited in the 1990s. The KRG is developing medium and long-term relationships by avoiding emotion-fueled rhetoric and disputable actions with the regional countries. In this context, KRG wants to draw the Gulf States, in particular, Turkish, Iranian, and Arab-origin capital to northern Iraq.



The Issue of Kirkuk and Turkmen-Kurd Relations

After the invasion of Iraq, Kurds started flooding into the city of Kirkuk, which is mostly populated with Turkmens. This has been recognized as a turning point in terms of Turkmen-Kurdish political relations. These two ethnic groups, who had both fought against the Saddam Hussein government for years, turned out to be rivals upon the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The KRG’s claims of Kirkuk as a Kurdish province and the placement of 600,000 Kurds within government positions and Turkmen districts offended the Turkmen society. Moreover, when the Iraqi Turkmen Front’s (ITF) offices in Erbil were seized and the ITF was later excluded from the political process in the region, Turkmen in northern Iraq became powerless. Later, the addition of Article 140 in the Iraqi Constitution brought Turkmens and Kurds to the verge of conflict. According to Article 140, Kirkuk, one of the disputed territories, was going to be tied to KRG with the following three steps: normalization of relations, a population census, and a referendum. However, this article became time-barred as of December 31th 2007.



It can be said that these developments which took place after the invasion seem to have erupted, with Kurds’ attempts to take control over the Turkmen districts. In spite of being the third largest ethnic group after Arabs and Kurds in Iraq, Turkmens were excluded from Iraq’s political process after the invasion. There are two major reasons behind this exclusion, with the first being related to the yet-to-be passed March 1st Resolution. The second reason is the fact that Turkmens have not had political experience or military power in Iraq. Given this aspect, it is possible to say that the diplomatic developments between Erbil and Ankara determine Kurdish-Turkmen relations. Turkmens’ relations with both Baghdad and Erbil are closely tied to the developments in the Ankara-Baghdad-Erbil triangle. As Turkey’s relationship with the KRG began to develop, it is seen that Turkmen-Kurd relations have accordingly started to return to normal levels. To illustrate this point, ITF executive member Hasan Turan was elected as the president of Kirkuk City Assembly on March 28th 2011 and ITF’s offices in Erbil were re-opened in September of 2011.



From this perspective, the most significant problem between the KRG and ITF is the status of Kirkuk, and the confiscation of Turkmen lands by Kurds who were brought in from the north. Apart from these key issues, it is possible to state that there are no other serious issues between Kurds and Turkmens. Also, it is useful to mention that Turkmens have the right to apply for the positions of deputy regional administrator and deputy prime minister (provided that Turkmen rights are fully protected) since they are the second largest ethnic group in northern Iraq and third largest ethnic group nationally. In this sense, the KRG needs to include Turkmens in the political process in northern Iraq so as to make peace and gain its legitimacy in the region. In order to fulfill these goals, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani should improve relations with the ITF and relinquish his claim of Kirkuk being a Kurdish city in the forthcoming period. KRG should give Turkmens in the region a portion of the 17% of natural resources revenue that derives from northern Iraq, and the KRG should also accept that Turkmens have the right to access these resources. Furthermore, the status of Turkmen parties which collaborate with KDP and PUK should be revised and relations should be improved with ITF and other parties or institutions actively supporting the issue of Turkmens. It can be expected that Kurd-Turkmen relations will improve in a positive way on the condition that all of these concrete steps are taken.




As the Middle East is witnessing a drastic change, developments both nationally and regionally in northern Iraq call for attention, with Nechirvan Barzani’s attempts to form the 7th government in the KRG on one hand, and the government crisis between Baghdad and Erbil that have overburdened the Kurdish government on the other hand. These issues must be resolved as soon as possible so as to ensure that PUK-KDP win the September 2012 election. Besides, it is possible to say that the KDP-PUK strategic agreement and the change in the cabinet will both play significant roles in the forthcoming election. The next government to be formed by Nechirvan Barzani is likely to put in a great deal of effort in order to eradicate the problems that the people of northern Iraq have so far encountered. In this aspect, it can be said of the opposition in the region that their active involvement in the 7th government may be beneficial as well.



Accordingly, the seventh government is expected to remove set limitations by effectively terminating the quota for Turkmens and improving diplomatic relations with the ITF through their re-opened office in Erbil. It should be noted that Turkmens make up a significant part of the population in northern Iraq; thus they should seek their rights in the government as expected. For this reason, the Turkmen-Kurd relations should be established in parallel with the power balances in the region and proceed freely from Ankara-Erbil relations. Hence, it is of great use to include all Turkmen parties in all of the developments in northern Iraq, especially the ITF. Otherwise, it seems evident that Turkmens, being a reality of the region, are prone to face assimilation in near future.



However, the attitude of the Nechirvan Barzani government unfortunately does not seem to promise any changes in regards to the issue of Kirkuk. The major factor lies behind the fact that Kurdish leaders’ talks and actions concerning the issue of Kirkuk only address the Kurdish people. However, the issue of Kirkuk has now become an issue of the Middle East and even international society. In line with this view, soon after the developments in Syria, the Kurdish government began to operate by organizing the scattered Kurdish opposition groups in the region in order to form a structure similar to the one in Iraq. Iraqi Kurdish authorities are now aware of the need to improve diplomatic relations with both the regional countries in which Kurds hold a significant presence and political parties in the Baghdad government. Finally, this development sparks a positive sign for the future of Turkmen-Kurd relations.




(1) “.إعلان النتائج النهائية لانتخابات برلمان ورئيس إقليم كوردستان”

[Final Results for the Elections of the Parliament and President of the Kurdistan Region].

The Iraqi Democratic Union.

(2) “.الرئيس بارزاني يوافق على استقالة الدكتور برهم صالح من رئاسة الحكومة”

[President Barzani Accepts the Resignation of KRG Prime Minister Barham Ahmed Salih].

The Official Website of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

February 2, 2012.

(3) Ahmad, Zanko.“.عام الازمات في اقليم كردستان…2011”

[Iraqi Kurdistan 2011: A Year of Demonstration and Political Debate]

Niqash: Briefings from Inside and Across Iraq. Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. December 29, 2011.

Accessed February 1, 2012.

(4) “.الهاشمي انتقل إلى اربيل.. بحماية البارزاني”

[Al-Hashimi Moved to Erbil Under Protection of Barzani] Al-Riyadh.

February, 2012.

Back to Top