* President's stroke opens dangerous power vacuum
* Shots show potential for violence between Kurdish groups
* Turkey, Iran jostle for influence
By Isabel Coles
SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq, April 29 Celebratory gunfire
broke out in Iraq's Kurdish north as the octogenarian was shown
on television raising an ink-stained finger after casting his
vote thousands of miles away in Germany.
The man was Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his silent
appearance at an early ballot for the election due at home on
Wednesday was the first footage of him since he suffered a
stroke late in 2012 and was flown abroad for medical treatment.
In Sulaimaniyah, capital of the province of the same name
where his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is headquartered,
cars blared their horns and people, some wearing T-shirts
printed with Talabani's face, danced on the streets.
Cause for festivities may be short-lived. Wednesday's
election marks a new round in an internal power struggle that
risks turning violent and skewing the balance of power in
Kurdistan between influential neighbours Iran and Turkey.
The parliamentary vote is being contested as bitterly within
each of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian constituencies as between
them -- if not more so.
Among the Kurds, long at odds with Baghdad and in charge of
their own quasi-state in the north of the country, rivalries
have prevented the formation of a government more than seven
months after elections in the oil-rich enclave.
This election, amounts, for them, to a referendum on
Talabani's PUK, left rudderless and internally riven without the
ailing statesman, known affectionately as "dear uncle".
The PUK's fading star has upset the region's time-worn
political order, raising concerns about stability, particularly
in Sulaimaniyah province, which Talabani's party has controlled
since Kurdistan gained autonomy more than three decades ago.
Last week, gunmen waving the PUK's green flag drove past a
branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) on Sulaimaniyah's
main street and opened fire. The mayor said "dark hands" were
behind the incident, in which there were no casualties.
Member of parliament Ari Harsin later stood guard at the
scene with a machine gun slung over his shoulder. "I took up
arms because no-one is in charge of Suleimaniyah," he said in a
television interview. "I am defending democracy".
The shooting took place just days after an agreement was
signed to finally form a new cabinet that would sideline the
PUK, which has shared power with the KDP for almost a decade but
fell to third place at the polls last September.
It was overtaken by opposition party Gorran (Change), which
grew out of a former wing of the PUK and quickly gained
popularity among Kurds fed up with the corruption of the
region's traditional ruling elites.
In this election, the PUK is hoping to regain stature
through Kirkuk - an ethnically mixed city where the party enjoys
support outside the formal boundary of Kurdistan. That would
give the PUK much-needed leverage in ongoing negotiations over
"They lost the (local) election and they must accept it,"
said the head of Gorran's electoral list Aram Sheikh Mohammed at
the party's hilltop headquarters in Suleimaniyah, from an office
that commands a view of the mountains surrounding the city.
"The PUK needs to wake up: they are still in a deep sleep".
Formed at a cafe in the Syrian capital Damascus in 1975, the
PUK gathered disparate left-leaning Kurdish groups under its
umbrella as an alternative to the KDP, which revolves around the
Barzani tribe and dominates the region's other two provinces.
With no clear chain of command, cracks in the PUK have
widened and the party is now incapacitated by competition
between different factions, one of which is led by the wife of
its infirm leader. But talk of its demise may be premature.
In Sulaimaniyah, the PUK's financial and military muscle is
still unrivalled. The party has its own security apparatus,
"peshmerga" fighting force, and a vast network of patronage
built around a business empire that includes fuel trading and
Faced with being left out in the cold, some members of the
PUK have made veiled threats, reminding people they owe
allegiance to political parties over and above the institutions
of the relatively young Kurdish regional government.
But if the PUK's patronage system begins to unwind,
loyalties could shift. Several members of the PUK have already
jumped ship and joined the KDP in recent weeks.
"It's never going to simply slide away into nothing
quietly," said Gareth Stansfield, Senior Associate Fellow at the
Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
"It could change with more defections from the party to
others; it could see some form of reunion with Gorran, as seemed
to be happening before Talabani's illness; or it could fail
catastrophically, and by that I mean a decline into conflict."
The acid test may be provincial elections, to be held this
week alongside the Iraqi national vote, but in Kurdistan alone,
and for the first time since the birth of Gorran, which could
come out on top.
"It's difficult to envisage how they will behave," said a
source close to decision-makers in all three main parties. "I
don't think any party wants to go as far as confrontation."
For now, they are waging war through the media. PUK outlets
have sought to smear Gorran's candidate for governor by
publishing poems he wrote for a newspaper of the Baath party of
deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, who presided over the mass
killing of Kurds in the 1980s.
But many worry there is a potential for conflict in a region
where many men own firearms and the older generation fought a
guerilla war against Saddam's forces before turning their
weapons on each other.
"Kurds don't point fingers, we point guns," the head of
Kurdistan's security council Masrour Barzani told a U.S.
diplomat in 2009 during a discussion about elections, according
to a cable released by anti-secrecy site Wikileaks.
Officials in the KDP are worried about the PUK's implosion
at a time when insurgents are gaining ground in the rest of
Iraq, and across the border in Syria, warning that security in
Suleimaniyah is a "red line".
A rare bombing in the regional capital Arbil days after the
election in September has been followed by several smaller
attacks in Sulaimaniyah. Sticky bombs were attached to the
vehicles of two officers and an explosive device was detonated
outside the house of a colonel.
The head of the security services in Sulaimaniyah took
umbrage at the suggestion the province was not secure, and said
his men had recently managed to thwart an attack by militants
from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The PUK's health is also of concern for Iran, which shares a
long border with Suleimaniyah province and has historically been
close to Talabani and his party, counteracting Turkey's growing
influence over the KDP.
"Iran is very, very concerned about the future of the PUK,"
said a senior KDP official on condition of anonymity. "Talabani
is out of the picture, but the PUK has some institutions Iran
As early as 2008, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani
fretted about PUK succession, predicting "chaos" could follow
Talabani's exit and create opportunities for Iran to meddle more
in Sulaimaniyah, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released
Since the September election, PUK leaders have gone to
Tehran for talks, and Iranian officials have visited Kurdistan
to lobby on behalf of the ailing party and preserve its own
interests in the region.
"It's a dangerous neighbourhood," said another KDP source
who declined to be named. "They (our detractors) can easily
destabilise us, especially if we are not united".
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)