Newly Re-elected PUK Leader to Visit Washington DC, Despite Close Ties with Iran and Current Tensions

Bafel uses his close ties with Tehran to negotiate separately with Baghdad and Iran’s proxies for privileged treatment for his home base of Sulaimani.
From left to right: Qais al-Khazali, Bafel Talabani, and Rayan al-Kildani (Photo: PUK Media)
From left to right: Qais al-Khazali, Bafel Talabani, and Rayan al-Kildani (Photo: PUK Media)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Newly re-elected as President of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Bafel Talabani, the elder son of the late Jalal Talabani, the PUK’s founder, is about to make his first trip to Washington.

His visit comes as U.S. tensions with Iran have reached new heights. The Biden administration came into office seeking to renew the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord and otherwise improve ties with Tehran. But that effort has pretty much failed.

That failure has been driven by several factors. Initially, they involved Iran’s support for Russia in its war with Ukraine. But an even stronger factor has recently emerged.

Iran’s long-standing support for Hamas, in light of its brutal Oct. 7 assault on Israel during a major Jewish holiday, has touched a raw nerve. The attack caught Israel’s much-vaunted military and intelligence apparatus off guard. It has promoted renewed, bipartisan Congressional pressure on the administration to take a tough stance on Iran.

Thus, it would not seem an auspicious time for someone with close ties to Iran to visit Washington, particularly as Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have just renewed their efforts to attack U.S. forces there.

Read More: US troops intercept drone attacks on Iraqi airbase

The PUK’s Fifth Party Congress

The geographical base of the PUK lies in the east of the Kurdistan Region, including the city of Sulaimani, and it borders Iran. Thus, the PUK has always been susceptible to Iranian influence.

But that has reached new heights under Bafel Talabani. His close ties with Iran were on full display at the PUK’s fifth Party Congress, which was held from Sept. 27 to Oct. 1, and which re-elected him president.

Five dubious individuals attended that conference. Three were Iranian officials, while two were Iraqi figures with close ties to Iran. Notably, both of the Iraqis are under U.S. sanctions.

Bafel sat in the front row of the Party Congress between Qais al-Khazali and Rayan Kaldani. Bafel’s friendly ties with them were underscored by the fact that he actually held their hands during the conference.

Qais al-Khazali

Khazali has been involved in attacking troops of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, going back to 2006. It was then that he became head of the Iranian-backed “Special Groups.”

In January 2007, Qais and his brother Laith helped lead an attack on an Iraqi government compound in Karbala. The assault killed five U.S. soldiers. Two months later, Qais and Laith were captured in a raid by British forces. But Khazali’s group, Asa’b Ahl al-Haq (AAH—the League of the Righteous), later captured a British soldier, and in early 2010, the two Khazalis were released in a prisoner exchange.

In 2019, AAH was involved in violently suppressing peaceful Iraqi protests, and the Obama administration sanctioned the Khazali brothers, along with the AAH.

As a Dec. 6, 2019, Treasury Department statement announcing those sanctions explained, Qais and Laith Khazali were among “three leaders of Iran-backed militias in Iraq that opened fire on peaceful protests, killing dozens of innocent civilians.”

“Iran’s attempts to suppress the legitimate demands of the Iraqi people for reform of their government through the slaughter of peaceful demonstrators is appalling,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin stated.

Rayan al-Kildani

Kildani is a Chaldean Catholic who leads the 50th Brigade, also known as the Babylon Movement. Based in northern Iraq, it is part of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces.

Supposedly, the 50th Brigade represents Christians in the north. But that is not really so. The members of the 50th Brigade “have been recruited from Shia Muslim communities in southern Iraq with the goal of dominating Iraq's strategic Nineveh Plains region,” Michael Knights, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explained.

In July 2019, Washington sanctioned Kildani for serious human rights abuses. “In May 2018, a video circulated among Iraqi human rights civil society organizations in which Kildani cut off the ear of a handcuffed detainee,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in announcing the sanctions.

It also explained that the 50th Brigade was “the primary impediment to the return of internally displaced persons to the Nineveh Plain.”

In addition, as the Treasury Department stated, “The 50th Brigade has systematically looted homes in Batnaya, which is struggling to recover from ISIS’s brutal rule.” while “the local population has accused the group of intimidation, extortion, and harassment of women.”

Iranian Officials

Three significant Iranian officials also attended the PUK Party Congress. They include Hassan Danaeifar, who was Iran’s ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2017. He was also an officer in the Quds Force, considered as the external operations branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

A second Iranian official, known as Mizgirian, was also in attendance. Mizgirian, too, is from the Quds Force and is in charge of Iran’s file on the Kurds in Iraq.

Mohammad Mahmoudian was the third Iranian official in attendance at the PUK Party Congress. Mahmoudian is Iran’s Consul General in Sulaimani, having been appointed to the position in April.

Finally, one might note Bafel’s direct dealings with even more senior Iranian figures. On Sept. 11, he met with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Tehran. Their discussion likely focused on a Sept. 19 deadline that Iran had given to disarm and relocate Iranian Kurdish groups.

PUK leader Bafel Talebani (left) with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian
PUK leader Bafel Talebani (left) with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (Photo: PUK Media)

From a Kurdish perspective, Bafel’s going at it alone has not worked out well. The Kurdistan Region has thrived when the two major parties, the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have worked together to create a viable Kurdistan Regional Government.

Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani attended the PUK Congress in Sulaimani and stressed the importance of unity among the Region’s political parties. "The strength and survival of all of us lies in unity and solidarity; the contrary leads to the loss and weakness of the Kurdistan Region," he said.

All the achievements and progress of the Kurdish people and the KRG have resulted from that unity. But now Bafel undermines those achievements. He uses his close ties with Tehran to negotiate separately with Baghdad and with Iran’s proxies in order to receive special, privileged treatment for his home base of Sulaimani.

Such an attitude and the actions that follow do serious harm to the Kurdish people.