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CCT Strategic Studies Institute 

U.S. Army War College 


AD-A242 441 


THE KURDS^AND THEIR AGAS: 
An Assessment of the Situation 
in Northern Iraq 


ol 


Stephen C. Pelletiere 


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The Kurds and Their Agas: An Assessment of the Situation in Northern Iraq - Unclassified 


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Operation Provide Comfort; Kurds; Kurdistan; Turkey; Iran 


19. ABSTRACT (Continue on reverse if necessary and identify by block number) 

In the bloody aftermath of Operation Desert Storm hundreds of thousands of Kurds left 
their homes in northern Iraq seeking refuge in Turkey and Iran, It fell to the U.S. military 
to coax them back and protect those who feared for their safety. Operation Provide Comfort 
has now been succeeded by Provide Comfort II, with the U.S. military still heavily involved. 
This report documents the recent history of the Kurds, and gives a rundown on the power 
relations among the various groups in Kurdish society. At the same time, it warns our 
officers of possible dangers growing out of their mission, and suggests Chat the overall 
problem of the Kurds is much more explosive than the benign accounts appearing in the media 
would lead one to believe. 


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THE KURDS AND THEIR AGAS: 
An Assessment of the Situation 
in Northern Iraq 


Stephen C. Pelletiere 


! 


91-15742 

V ■_ 



September 16,1991 


lll-S 


The views expressed in this report are those of the author and dn nnt 

Armt^Sl'position of the Department of the 
Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. 


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♦ha »h ' 1 . 5050. Comments also may be conveved directiv tn 

the author by calling commerical (717)245-3234 or AUTOVON 242-32^. 



FOREWORD 


In the bloody aftermath of Operation Desert Storm 
hundreds of thousands of Kurds left their homes in northern 
Iraq seeking refuge in Turkey and Iran. It fell to the U.S, military 
to coax them back and protect those who feared for their safety. 
Operation Provide Comfort has now been succeeded by 
Provide Comfort II, with the U.S. military still heavily involved. 

This report documents the recent history of the Kurds, and 
gives a rundown on the power relations among the various 
groups in Kurdish society. At the same time, it warns our 
officers of possible dangers growing out of their mission, and 
suggests that the overall problem of the Kurds is much more 
explosive than the benign accounts appearing in the media 
would lead one to believe. 



KARL W. ROBINSON 

Colonel, U.S. Army 

Director, Strategic Studies Institute 








BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 
OF THE AUTHOR 


DR. STEPHEN C. PELLETIERE is a National Security 
Affairs Analyst at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War 
College. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the 
University of California, Berkeley, in 1978. He is the author of 
the books, The Kurds: An Unstable Element in the Persian 
Gulf, and soon to be published Chaos in a Vacuum: The 
Iran-lraq War. Additionally, he is coauthor of the Strategic 
Studies Institute reports, Iraqi Power and U.S. Security in the 
Middle East and Lessons Learned: The Iran-lraq War. 



SUMMARY 


This study about the Kurds attempts to show that the United 
States, by becoming involved with these people, is running an 
enormous risk. The individuals directing U.S. policy on the 
issue apparently misperceive the nature of Kurdish society, 
and this is potentially a dangerous situation. 

The Kurds are prone to violence.^ Only a firm hand can 
restrain their wilder spirits and at present there is no such 
responsible authority to guide them. The leaders they have 
are mostly feudal lords, so-called agas^ who are primarily 
interested in smuggling and exploiting the miskin,^ landless 
Kurdish peasants. 

The agas now are attempting to ingratiate themselves with 
the U.S. military in the hope that the American presence, or 
threat thereof, will open up the area to their illegal operations. 
Disappointed, they could cease cooperating with us, or worse 
turn hostile. 

There exists alongside the agas another category of 
leaders, politicians like Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani. 
The influence of this latter group is overrated by U.S. 
policymakers, and even more by the media which has 
portrayed them as men of the people. In fact, whatever 
influence they may have had, has long been lost. 

An active political movement did formerly exist among the 
Kurds, attempting to institute land reforms in the Kurdish area. 
That movement expired in the mid-1960s. Mulla Mustafa 
Barzani—Massoud’s father—killed it by handing it over to the 
agas. 

Today the movement survives on assistance from interests 
seeking to topple Iraq’s present leadership. In effect, the 
movement’s leaders function as paymasters between the 
foreigners and the Kurdish fighters, the so-called pesh merga."^ 

The study concludes with an assessment of the current 
negotiations among Barzani, Talabani and Saddam Husayn, 


V 



and warns that—on the basis of what has so far been 
revealed—^the U. S. military could become involved with the 
Kurds for some time to come. 




Sevtot UNiM 


Turkn 



Figure 1. Traditional Kurdistan Area 







THE KURDS AND THEIR AGAS 


Introduction. 

Within the Middle East the Kurds have the reputation of 
being desperate characters, inveterate disturbers of the peace, 
and not at all reliable to deal with. On three occasions since 
World War II they have caused major disruptions in the region, 
one of which threatened world stability.® 

Yet figures within the Administration and Congress make 
them out to be victims, an odd designation for a people who 
are probably among the greatest victimizers in history. The 
Kurds—at the behest of Sultan Abdul Hamid in the late 19th 
century—slaughtered the Armenians.® They similarly 
massacred the Assyrian Christians in the 1920s.^ Their record 
going back centuries is replete with such atrocities. 

To be sure, the Kurds are not always the aggressors. They 
frequently have been aggressed against, principally by the 
Greeks,® the Mongols, the Turks, the Persians and most 
recently by the Arabs. By and large, however, they have 
managed to repulse such assaults, usually by their own 
prowess. 

Why, then, are these people—who have proved so resolute 
over so many years—now perceived to be in need of 
international protection? And why is the remedy that is being 
promoted for them one that is patently unworkable? The 
British seem to be maneuvering toward establishment of an 
independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq,® a way, they 
apparently believe, of removing the Kurds from the grip of their 
enemies, the Ba'thists.’® 

Such an entity would have to be administered by the Kurds, 
which is an impossibility. The very qualities that have enabled 
the Kurds to survive for centuries make it virtually certain they 
cannot rule themselves. The Kurds, as a group, are 
ungovernable, even by leaders they themselves have chosen. 
Thus all of this current agitation for Kurdish "statehood" must 
be seen to be misguided. 


1 


This study assumes that such wrong views as this need to 
be corrected, if we are to avoid future dangerous 
entanglements and, hopefully, disentangle ourselves from this 
present involvement. The audience for the study is the U.S. 
military, which at present is personally involved with the Kurds, 
and most needful of advice. Since it is a military-oriented 
study, it says nothing about the human rights implications of 
the problem. We focus almost exclusively on security related 
matters. In the section that follows, for instance, we examine 
the careers of Mulla Mustafa Barzani and Jalal Talabani, two 
men who more than any others have led the fight of the Kurds 
against the Ba’thists. They devised the tactics the movement 
employs and they also set the goals to which it aspires. 

In the third section we examine the agas, whom we believe 
are the real powers among the Kurds. We discuss the basis 
of the agas' power, and their attitudes toward the central 
government and toward land reform, the latter, in our view, 
being the crucial problem affecting Kurdish society. 

Next we discuss the recent revolt of the Kurds after the 
Kuwait invasion. This episode was badly reported in the 
media, with the result that months afterward it is difficult to sort 
out what actually occurred. Yet it is essential to gain 
understanding, inasmuch as it throws considerable light on the 
resolution of the Kurdish question. 

The fifth section deals with the negotiations currently taking 
place between the Kurdish political leaders and Saddam 
Husayn’s government. If reporting of the revolt was badly 
handled, media coverage of the negotiations has been far 
worse. The media has treated the talks as though they were 
of no consequence, and has taken the position that nothing is 
likely to come of them. On the contrary, we believe the 
negotiations are being conducted in earnest and any outcome 
is possible. 

After that we assess the overall Kurdish situation. It is our 
belief that the Kurdish "national" movement is deadlocked, if 
indeed it is not moribund. And we explain what the 
consequences of this may be for U.S. policy. 


2 



Finally we take up the future involvement of the United 
States and the Kurds, and here we make some specific 
suggestions as to how best to proceed. 

In putting this study together, I relied on my own long 
experience with the Kurds. I was one of the first newsmen in 
the 1960s to journey to Kurdistan to interview Mulla Mustafa 
Barzani, a trip that many journalists have taken since.As I 
was one of the first to investigate the movement, I feel I have 
more perspective on it than most—a great deal that reporters 
writing today take for granted, I long ago began to question. 
As a result, I have relied upon my personal expertise and 
experience as lenses through which to filter recent events. 
Media reports have been useful to the extent that they provide 
the factual basis for analysis, and classified sources have 
provided additional facts and some useful political analysis. 

Finally, in this study, I deal almost exclusively with the 
movement in Iraq. There was a politically active group working 
for Kurdish rights in Iran, but it was destroyed by Massoud 
Barzani and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in the early 1980s 
(see below). A Turkish-Kurdish party also is struggling to make 
its way; however it is small, and not at all influential. At any 
rate, the U.S. military is mainly going to be dealing with the Iraqi 
Kurds, and so it seems correct to focus on them. 

Background to a Movement. 

The single most important event in recent Kurdish history 
was the appearance after World War II of Mulla Mustafa 
Barzani as an opponent of the Iraqi government. The veteran 
guerrilla chief single-handedly publicized the Kurdish cause in 
interviews with Western journalists. 

At the same time, he remained curiously closed-mouthed 
about himself, and as a consequence there is not much reliable 
information about him. We know that he was an aga. Not 
wealthy, as most agas tend to be; Mulla Mustafa’s tribe, the 
Barzanis, was small, and situated originally in one of the 
stoniest, most barren areas of Kurdistan. However wealth 
does not determine status among the Kurds. Barzani was a 
tribal chief, therefore an aga.''^ 


3 




We stress Barzani's tribal character, because, as we intend 
to develop later, this is crucial to understanding the movement. 
The Kurdish movement has come to grief largely because of 
internal tensions—tensions generated by the clash of old and 
new ideas. Barzani most definitely stood for the old ways. 

The Barzani tribe came into being in the early 19th century 
as a result of a religious revival. A local shaykh, setting himself 
up as a Sufi mystic, drew large numbers of Kurds under his 
influence, and subsequently expanded his tariqa into a tribe.^^ 

As the tribe grew, it absorbed larger and larger tracts of 
land, and in the process excited the envy of more powerful 
neighbors. Ultimately, it was forced to fight for survival against 
these neighbors, who eventually drove it into exile; thus the 
Barzanis departed Iraq en masse for Iran. 

This is another fact that needs to be underscored—that the 
tribe was dispossessed of its land. We will see that much of 
its subsequent activity is taken up with trying to get that land 
back. Even today, if we try to predict what the Barzanis will do, 
we have only to ask, how does the particular crisis with which 
they are involved relate to their land quest? 

Ordinarily, we might have supposed that the tribe, once 
dispossessed, would be scattered. And by rights it should 
have been, but for a combination of fortuitous 
circumstances—the Barzanis left Iraq in 1945, going directly 
to Iran, which at the time was undergoing extraordinary 
changes. 

The Soviets had occupied the northern half of the country 
during World War II, and under the aegis of the occupier two 
breakaway republics had formed, one of which—the so-called 
Mahabad Republic—comprised Iranian Kurds.The Barzanis 
attached themselves to this entity, defending it against 
attempts by the Shah to repossess it.’® 

Owing to strong pressure from the United States, the 
Soviets ultimately withdrew their support of the Mahabad 
Republic, bringing about its collapse.’® A number of the 
Republic’s leaders were hung by the Shah’s forces. Mulla 
Mustafa, however, refused to lay down his arms, and, leading 


4 






several hundred of his tribesmen, he trekked to the Soviet 
Union, a journey of several hundred kilometers which he 
accomplished in a matter of days.’^ 

The Barzanis stayed in Russia for 11 years. Mulla Mustafa 
became a general in the Russian army; his men attended 
Russian schools and a number married Russian women. 
They made no move to settle down permanently, and in 1958 
all but a handful announced their intent to return to Iraq. 

In 1958, conditions inside Iraq had undergone revolutionary 
change. King Faisal, the country’s ruler, had been overthrown 
in a coup and subsequently murdered, along with a number of 
his ministers. The coup leader, Abdul Karim Kassem, after 
initially espousing the cause of Arab nationalism, drifted far to 
the left, until ultimately his mainstay became the Iraqi 
Communist Party.^^ Kassem’s extreme leftist stance aroused 
sharp antagonism from Iraq’s Arab nationalist politicians, who 
conspired against him. Consequently he welcomed the offer 
of the Barzanis to repatriate, seeing them as natural allies 
along with the Communists. It is not known whether the 
Soviets instigated the Barzanis’ decision to return, but certainly 
the move produced an outcome favorable to them—Kassem 
edged closer to the Soviets after this. 

In 1963, the Ba’thists—Iraq’s current rulers—overthrew 
Kassem, after which they massacred the Communists in one 
of the more bloody purges in Middle East history. Revenging 
themselves on the Barzanis proved a less easy matter since 
they were barely accessible, tucked away in the mountain 
fastness of their tribal home. The Barzanis held out against 
the Ba’thists, and when the latter were overthrown—after only 
9 months of rule—by General Abdul Salem Aref, who also tried 
to suppress the Barzanis, the tribe stood up to these assaults 
as well. 

Finally in 1968, the Ba'thists took power a second time, 
again through a military-led coup. The principal figure in this 
second Ba’thist government was Saddam Husayn, the power 
behind Ba’thist president, Ahmad Hassen Baker. Under 
Baker, the Iraqi army resumed its vendetta against the 
Barzanis. 


5 


For months the Ba’thists hammered away at the Barzanis, 
seeking to subdue them to no avail. Finally 
Saddam—professing disgust at the inability of his army to 
conquer—unilaterally called a halt to its operations, and invited 
the Barzanis to parley. The ensuing peace talks produced the 
1970 autonomy agreement whereby the northern region of Iraq 
was declared an autonomous zone, within which the Kurds 
were to enjoy a measure of self-rule. 

Had the autonomy agreement come into being, Kurdish 
society would then have been revolutionized—^the accord 
contained a provision that land reform, promulgated earlier 
throughout central and southern Iraq by the Arab nationalists, 
would be extended to the Kurdish areas as well. This would 
have stripped the agas of their hold over the society. The 
agreement did not survive, however, in part because of the 
activities of the Shah of Iran. The Shah—wishing to weaken 
the Ba’thists—prevailed upon Mulla Mustafa to repudiate the 
autonomy agreement. He promised Barzani cash and 
weapons from the United States, which then-President Nixon 
pledged to supply through the Central Intelligence Agency.2° 

In order to preserve his tribe, Barzani returned to the 
offensive, thus recommencing what by now was seen as the 
endless war of the Kurds against the Iraqis. This time, 
however, even with the aid of the United States and the Shah, 
Barzani found that he could not withstand the Ba’thists.^^ The 
latter quickly took back all but a small portion of the territory the 
Kurds had previously conquered. By 1975 the tribe once more 
was on the verge of being driven into exile. 

At this point, Saddam made an overture to the Shah, 
offering to cede bits of Iraqi territory that the Shah coveted, on 
condition that he abandon his Kurdish surrogates. There 
appears to be no mystery why Saddam made this offer—he 
wanted to exploit the rise in oil prices following the 1973 
Arab-lsraeli War. As prices shot up, Saddam saw an 
opportunity to invest in infrastructure; continued expenditures 
for suppressing the Kurdish revolt were counterproductive. 

As for the Shah’s reasons for accepting Saddam’s offer, 
they are less clear. He certainly shared Saddam’s desire to 


6 







exploit the opportunities presented by the rise in oil prices. But, 
beyond that, he had other reasons for going along, namely, his 
policy on the Kurds was becoming more and more risky and 
he needed to change course. Once Barzani Mulla Mustafa 
failed to hold his own against the Ba’thists, the possibility then 
arose of the Iranians having to aid him directly. Were that to 
occur, the Shah’s foreign policy would be adversely affected: 
at the time he was cultivating the moderate Arab states of Saudi 
Arabia and Egypt. Open war between Tehran and Baghdad 
would be viewed, in the Arabs’ eyes, as a war of Iran against 
the Arab nation. The Shah’s opening to the moderates could 
not have survived such a perception. Hence, he grabbed at 
the opportunity to cut his involvement with the Kurds. A deal 
was struck, and the Barzani revolt expired. The Barzanis fled 
en masse to Iran, as they had done in the early 1940s, and 
there they remained until the coming of Khomeini.^^ 

For the Barzanis, their career had come full circle. They 
had begun their exile by emigrating to Iran where, in effect, they 
took service with the Soviets, supporting a break-away Iranian 
Kurdish republic against the Shah. Thirty years later they were 
back in Iran, under the Shah’s protection, having involved 
themselves in an ill-starred CIA operation to destabilize the 
regime of the Iraqi Ba’thists. 

This was a rather tragic way to end up, and certainly for 
Mulla Mustafa it was an embittering experience. He died 
shortly after this in Walter Reed Hospital, where he had been 
brought by friends in the United States. Nonetheless, Barzani 
was a success in one way—he kept his tribe together. When 
one reviews the vicissitudes that the tribe suffered, it is 
remarkable that it endured. We have to assume that Barzani 
was the cause of this. There is an irony here, however, which 
we intend to develop when we discuss the career of Jalal 
Talabani. Barzani, to preserve his tribe, had virtually wrecked 
the Kurdish movement. 

We want now to look at the activity of the Barzanis in the 
Iran-lraq War. They were a leading catalyst of that war, 
inasmuch as it was Khomeini’s decision to employ them as 
mercenaries against Iraq that in part inclined the Ba’thists to 
start the conflict. 


7 






Khomeini’s revolution was not a benign one, its primary aim 
being to export Shia Islam throughout the Middle East by 
conquest. Moreover, the clerics meant to score their first 
military success against Iraq, which has the largest Shia 
community outside Iran.^^ Had the Khomeiniists been able to 
conquer it, they then might have spread with relative ease 
throughout the Arabian peninsula. 

As a prelude to initiating war against Iraq, Khomeini in the 
late 1970s subsidized the Barzanis to undertake guerrilla raids 
into Iraqi Kurdistan. The Ba’thists warned Khomeini to desist, 
and when he did not, they in turn subsidized Iranian Kurds to 
fight Tehran, 

There are about 4 million Kurds in Iran.^** In the first days 
of the anti-Shah uprising, they joined the revolt of the clerics. 
However, once that revolt succeeded, the clerics turned on 
their erstwhile allies, sending Revolutionary Guards into the 
northwest to disarm them. The Kurds resisted, and thus 
Iranian Kurdistan became the scene of an active anti-Khomeini 
revolt. Khomeini in 1983 determined to crush this insurrection, 
and tapped as his principal agent for this Massoud Barzani, 
son of Mulla Mustafa, who had succeeded to the leadership of 
the tribe after his father’s death. As conceived, the plan called 
first for destroying the Iranian Kurds’ revolt after which 
Revolutionary Guards and the Barzanis would launch an 
invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan. Massoud saw this as a way of 
regaining his tribal land and agreed to cooperate. 

In the spring of 1983, the Barzanis, backed by Iran’s 
Revolutionary Guards, destroyed the Iranian Kurdish 
nationalist movement.^® The Iranians then commenced their 
invasion of Iraq at Hajj Umran (see Figure 2), using the 
Barzanis as the spearhead of the attack. The guerrillas, 
knowing the area intimately, outmaneuvered the Ba’thists, 
softening them up for attacks by the Revolutionary 
Guardsmen. 

The Hajj Umran engagement went on for weeks, and 
although the Iranians ultimately were repulsed, they 
nonetheless retained a sliver of Iraqi territory, which Massoud 
expected to be handed over to him. How dismayed was he, 


8 



then, when the clerics awarded it instead to the Supreme 
Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an 
Iranian-sponsored front of Iraqi dissident groups, almost all of 
which were fundamentalist Shias. 

This was a serious rebuff. To a people like the Kurds—for 
whom honor is a grave matter—the award of Hajj Umran to 
non-combatant Shias was a mortal insult. Barzani drew apart 
from his Iranian patrons to review his position. It was during 
this black period that he conceived a plan for ending his 
exclusive dependency on the Iranians. 


9 



The Syrian Connection. 

Barzani determined to form an association with Hafez Al 
Assad, the president of Syria, at the time allied with Iran against 
Iraq. A separate alliance with the Syrians, Barzani believed, 
would give him leverage against his Iranian patrons; he could 
play one off against the other. 

Syria was then sponsoring a group called the Patriotic 
National Front (JWD), made up of secular Iraqi opposition 
groups, the principal member of which was Iraq’s Communist 
Party, along with the party’s surrogate, the Kurdish Socialist 
Party (KSP). 

Syria supported Iran in its war against Iraq, but it does not 
follow that the Syrians supported the Islamic Revolution. In 
ideological terms, Syria and Iran have little in common. Syria 
is a secular state; Iran is religious. Iran’s aim—to spread 
Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle East—is 
anathema to the Syrians. Damascus particularly fears the 
creation of a puppet government in Iraq beholden to the clerics. 
To guard against this, it created the JWD, by which means it 
hoped to dominate the Iraqi opposition—at the very least to 
offset the activity of Iranian-sponsored Iraqi groups like SCIRI. 

Thus, Assad proposed that the Barzanis join the JWD, a 
move that could benefit Syria substantially, since Barzani had 
bases inside Iraq which the JWD fighters could exploit. (In the 
process of participating in the Hajj Umran invasion, he had 
penetrated deep into Iraq to set up these bases along the 
Turkish border.) 

Assad’s idea was to open up Barzani’s enclave to the 
various organizations that Damascus supported. Iraqi 
dissidents comprised most of these, but one he intended to 
install there was the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).^® The PKK 
is a terrorist organization which had been active inside Turkey 
in the 1960s. Expelled by the Turkish army, it sought refuge 
in Syria, where, in effect, it languished, unable to regain access 
to Turkish territory. 

Barzani’s enclave was a natural for the PKK fighters, 
situated as it was directly adjacent to the southeast of Turkey 


10 



where the majority of Turkey’s ten million Kurds are 
concentrated. 

Barzani agreed to sponsor the PKK, even though in so 
doing he broke a standing rule of his father; Mulla Mustafa 
regarded cooperation with Turkish dissident groups as 
unthinkable, knowing this would alienate him from the Turkish 
army.2^ long gg fy^^lla Mustafa held sway in northeast Iraq, 
he closed the border to groups like the PKK. Massoud’s 
decision to renege on his father’s pledge brought immediate 
adverse results. 

In the summer of 1984—one of the most crucial periods of 
the Iran-lraq War—PKK guerrillas conducted deep penetration 
raids into Turkey, using Barzani’s base as a staging ground. 
For several days they wreaked havoc, shooting up police posts 
and holding large numbers of Turkish villagers hostage. 

The Turkish army—as could have been expected—was 
outraged: particularly as there had been no significant guerrilla 
activity in the Kurdish region for several years. Immediately, 
the army acted, but not as Barzani—or for that matter 
Assad—might have expected. A deal was struck between 
Baghdad and Ankara whereby Ankara received permission to 
conduct hot pursuit raids against the PKK guerrillas inside Iraq. 

Now it was Iran’s turn to show consternation. It had been 
trying to rachet up activity inside the Iraqi Kurdish region, with 
the aim of turning the area into a second front against Baghdad. 
The Turkish raids frustrated this strategy.^® Periodically after 
this—whenever Kurdish depredations grew too intense—the 
Turks would sweep across the border to comb the mountains 
for guerrillas, operations that permitted Iraq to draw down 
forces in the north, thus bolstering its southern defense around 
Basrah. We regard this setback of the Iranians and the 
Barzanis as one of the more significant developments of the 
war. After this the Kurdish resistance went nowhere. Barzani 
repeatedly spoke of the great feats that he would perform as 
soon as Iran opened the second front. Veteran observers of 
the war knew, however, that no such front would materialize 
as long as the Turks kept the clamps on.^® 


11 







At the same time, however, the Barzanis were making 
some progress. They had gone from conducting fedayeen-type 
raids across the Iranian border at the outset of the war to 
operating from easily defensible bases inside the country. 
This, strategically, was an advance. 

We will now turn our attention to the other significant actor 
in the movement, Jalal Talabani. 

The Appearance of the Ideologue. 

Politically speaking, the alpha and omega of the Kurdish 
movement are Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani. Where 
Barzani represents a strong traditional, tribal current, Talabani 
embodies its more modern, ideological trend. Instead of 
functioning at the tribal level, Talabani consistently has worked 
through political organizations, the most important of which is 
the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). 

Talabani originally was Muila Mustafa’s chief lieutenant. A 
city-bred, university-educated Kurd, he had little in common 
with the veteran guerrilla fighter. Indeed, Talabani began his 
career in politics opposing Mulla Mustafa, although not literally 
so. As a student, he opposed the "agra-mentality" that Mulla 
Mustafa represented.^® 

Kurdish society, as depicted in the Western media, is 
presumably structured along tribal lines. In fact, the old 
tribalism of the Kurds was crushed long ago by the British. 
Here, we are referring to the system of fighting tribes, who 
owned their land communally. The British broke down the 
concept of communality by legally conveying all tribal property 
to the chiefs.®^ 

This made the chiefs wealthy—exceptionally so, in some 
instances—but it also changed the character of Kurdish 
society. In effect, it degenerated into a caste system. At the 
apex of the system are the agas, and supporting them are tribal 
elements who function as their guards. Together these two 
groups make up a single warrior caste.®^ 

Talabani concluded early on that as long as the agas and 
their guards dominated Kurdish life, it would remain backward. 
In cooperation with another, similarly persuaded Kurdish 


12 


leader, Ibrahim Ahmed, he strove—in the period of the 1950s 
and 1960s—to found a Kurdish political party, the KDP, which 
would enroll Kurds of all strata, including the miskin. He hoped 
to forge his party into an effective instrument for restructuring 
Kurdish society. 

The KDP’s chief attraction to the miskin was its position on 
social issues. Arab nationalist leaders like Iraq’s first 
republican president, Abdul Karim Kassem, had, by pushing 
land reform, destroyed the old aristocracy of landed wealth 
everywhere in Iraq. However, with one small exception, it had 
not affected the Kurdish areas, where the aristocratic agas held 
out against it. 

Around Sulamaniyah, where the KDP was strong, the land 
reform had penetrated, with the KDP’s blessing; this, naturally, 
alienated the party from the agas. As a consequence, the KDP 
found itself blocked from extending its influence wherever the 
agas and their partisans were entrenched. 

The party needed a strong resource, which ultimately was 
supplied by the agreement of Barzani, in the early 1960s, to 
become its president. We do not know why he took this step, 
although importuning by Kassem may have been afactor.^^ At 
any rate, the party leaders—Talabani and Ahmad—were 
pleased to have him, as Barzani’s tribesmen gave the party 
muscle it badly needed. At the same time, the party leaders 
expected Barzani to stay in the background, leaving the 
direction of affairs to them. This was a miscalculation. 

It was not long before Barzani had taken over the KDP, 
installing his fighters in various positions, in effect, packing the 
membership. Moreover, he so structured the ruling council of 
the party—the Politburo—^that the agas, who previously had 
been excluded from the party, gained some influence within 
it.3^ 


This led to a break between the original Politburo members 
and Barzani. He drove Ahmad and Talabani and their 
adherents out of Iraq to Iran, where they sought refuge.^® 
Barzani, however, kept the title of KDP president, and 
continued to portray himself as the leader of a bona fide political 
movement. In fact, after this the movement turned into a 


13 






one-man show. Barzani dominated it, and as for the KDP, it 
became a cipher. It no longer did any political work among the 
Kurdish people, although Mulla Mustafa’s lieutenants 
disguised this fact. On trips to Europe and the United States, 
they played up the deep political commitment of their leader. 
However, his commitment was virtually nil. 

Indeed, Barzani’s autocratic tendencies were given further 
play when Talabani and Ahmad went over to the side of the 
Ba’thists, leaving the Kurdish movement solely in his hands. 
The renegades actually for a time engaged in armed clashes 
with Barzani’s supporters. 

Then in 1970 Saddam came forward with his offer of an 
autonomy accord. It was obvious the Iraqi ruler was anxious 
to put the Kurdish problem behind him. In part this was 
motivated by a desire to get the economy moving. But along 
with that, he had a personal consideration of wanting to 
embarrass Iraq’s military leaders. Saddam is not a military 
man, and thus must fear a revolt of the officers against him. 
By insisting on a political solution to the Kurdish problem, he 
underscored the military’s failure. 

Since Saddam was so anxious for a solution, it made sense 
for Barzani to strike a deal quickly. And yet the Kurdish leader 
agreed to a provision whereby the agreement would not take 
effect for 4 years. This delay was regarded as necessary to 
clear up unresolved details, including a decision on the status 
of Kirkuk, a city which both sides claimed. It was agreed that 
a census would be conducted to determine the city’s ethnic 
composition.^® 

Ibrahim Ahmad blasted Barzani for agreeing to this delay. 
In Ahmad’s eyes the status of Kirkuk wasn’t worth holding up 
a deal that gave the Kurds more than they had ever obtained 
from the government. The Ba’thists were willing to concede 
that the Kurds were a people, something no Middle East state 
had ever done. 

Along with this, Baghdad was going to allow the Kurds to 
speak their own language; indeed Kurdish was to become one 
of two official languages with Arabic. A specific sum of money 
was to be allotted to rebuilding the north. A number of Kurdish 


14 






leaders were to be brought into the government. The Vice 
President of Iraq was to be a Kurd. Why, Ahmad demanded, 
with such payoffs in the offing did Barzani agree to a 4 year 
hiatus before the accord became law? 

It is our belief that Barzani was put off by a provision of the 
accord calling for the application of land reform in the Kurdish 
region.^^ Barzani could not have welcomed this provision. 
After all, he had just quarreled with and driven from the ranks 
of his party the political spirits, men like Talabani and Ahmad. 
If he now agreed to institute the land reform, he would alienate 
the agas, as well. It seems likely that he temporized, fearing to 
affix his name to a document that would revolutionize property 
relations among the Kurdish people. 

If our interpretation is correct, this explains why he 
eventually agreed to support the Shah’s scheme to resume the 
revolt. In effect, it let him off the hook. It enabled Barzani to 
avoid having to take a stand on land reform, while perpetuating 
his image as a fighter for Kurdish rights. Nonetheless by 
avoiding the issue he finished the movement off entirely. Land 
reform was the sum and substance of the Kurds’ struggle. It 
provided the focus for all the actions undertaken in their name; 
it defined the nature of Kurdish society that would come into 
being once autonomy was achieved. 

After Barzani agreed in 1974 to cooperate with the Shah 
against the Ba’thists, the intellectual current within the Kurdish 
movement died. Those activists who had remained with 
Barazani after Ahmad and Talabani departed, left now as well. 
This meant that the movement was almost purely tribal. 

With one or two exceptions, most of the activists were not 
seen again; Talabani, however, survived. He remained allied 
to Baghdad for a time, then abruptly he went back into 
opposition, forming his own party, the PUK. When the Iran-lraq 
War erupted, Talabani become a guerrilla leader, and during 
this phase briefly replaced Mulla Mustafa as the movement’s 
titular head. 

We will look now at how he did it, but first we need to put 
this particular discussion into context. 


15 




The 1983 Agreement. 

Barzani’s territory, as we have noted, lay along Iraq’s 
northern border with Turkey, whereas Talabani’s area lay 
farther south, around Sulamaniyah in the mountains 
separating Iraq from Iran. This became a factor of importance 
when Iran launched its invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1983.^® 

The Iranians had the option of including Talabani in their 
plan; however they spurned this, probably because they saw 
him as unacceptably secular, and also as too much of a leftist.^® 
But it is also likely that Massoud Barzani blackballed his 
father’s old enemy. 

In any event, after Hajj Umran the Iranians in rapid 
succession conducted a number of other invasions of Iraqi 
Kurdistan, one of these adjacent to Talabani’s area. This put 
the latter in a quandary—he did not want to support the 
Iranians, who had scorned him. Neither, however, did he wish 
to side with Baghdad, against whom he was fighting. Talabani 
warned the Iranians to stay out of his territory, and when they 
ignored his warning—and attacked near Penjwin—he ordered 
his forces to fight back. 

This brought Saddam into the picture. The Iraqi leader 
approached Talabani with an offer to resurrect the old 
autonomy agreement, if Talabani would aid Iraq in helping to 
repel the invasion. The series of invasions had occurred at an 
awkward time for the Ba’thists—they had not yet fully mobilized 
and needed all the fighters they could get.‘*° 

Talabani agreed, and a deal was struck whereby he 
became Saddam’s "governor" in northern Iraq, with the 
responsibility of guarding the area, which he proposed to do 
with PUK fighters and whatever other Kurds he could recruit. 
In the meantime, Saddam agreed to exempt Kurds from the 
draft, an inducement to join Talabani. Finally, Saddam and 
Talabani together were to work out an autonomy arrangement 
for all of the Kurds. Had this agreement materialized it would 
have meant a great deal, not only for the Kurds but for Iraq as 
well. Like its predecessor, however, it was stillborn, although 
the reasons for this are somewhat obscure. Talabani appears 
to have fallen victim to intrigues. At the time, a number of 


16 




powerful agas had sided with the Ba'thists, being nominally 
allied with them against the Iranians.'*^ These pro-Iraqi Kurdish 
leaders—called the fursan —were not pleased to have 
Talabani emerge as a power broker in their midst, one who 
could deal directly with Saddam.'*^ In the first place, they 
remembered Talabani from his student days, as an opponent 
of the "aga-mentality." Along with this they regarded him as a 
johnny-come-lately, whom they did not want muscling in on 
their territory. Sometime in 1984 the agas arranged the 
assassination of one of Talabani’s top lieutenants. This had 
the effect of discrediting him, as he subsequently proved 
incapable of avenging the act. The Kurds—who are 
extraordinarily sensitive to matters of honor—refused after that 
to pay him deference. 

For months Talabani hung on in a kind of limbo, on the run 
in the mountainous north country, and finally—after fighting 
erupted between the remnant of his forces and Iraq’s regular 
army—he went back to the opposition. Ultimately, Talabani 
allied himself with Masoud Barzani, although it is not clear what 
he brought to their partnership: his group, the PUK, was 
virtually defunct by now. 

Agas and Pesh Mergas. 

With the breakup of Talabani’s PUK, the Kurdish movement 
lost its last authentic political party.'*^ (We have already shown 
that the KDP ceased to function as a bona fide party in the 
1960s, when Mulla Mustafa co-opted it.) This raises an 
interesting conjecture—if there were no political parties in the 
movement, how could there have been a movement at all? It 
seems to us that there was not. 

But why was there so much anti-Saddam activity among 
the Kurds? Who were all these pesh mergas, dedicated 
guerrilla fighters, who, the press maintains, were risking their 
lives for Kurdistan? We want now to look at this particular 
phenomenon. 

When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the Iraqi leaders believed 
that this would be a war of short duration. They were not 
prepared for the stubborn resistance they encountered, 
primarily from the hastily formed Iranian Revolutionary Guards 


17 





units. Once the leaders came to concede that the war could 
not be ended quickly, they set about to mobilize. They 
instituted the draft, with little opposition in the southern, Arab, 
areas of the country; the Shias were willing to support their 
country. However, the northern Kurds disdained this option. 

In the first place this meant leaving their beloved mountains 
to fight in the flat desertland of the south, a region they 
detested. But also they would have to take orders. To be 
ordered about by fellow Kurds was bad enough, but to submit 
to the will of a Baghdadi or a Maslawi unthinkable, and so 
the Kurds ran away to the mountains in droves to join the 
guerrillas. By this time the Barzanis—who had been living out 
the early days of the war in Iran—had returned to set up bases 
inside the country, and Talabani, too, had returned from 
Damascus where he had been in exile to set up a base of his 
own. Memberships in the KDP and PUK soared, buoyed by 
an infusion of draft dodgers. And it was in this way that the 
Kurdish revolt revived. 

After Talabani’s loss of influence following the 
assassination, however, the situation changed. The agas 
decided to capitalize on the agreement he had made whereby 
the Kurds would take over the north’s defenses. They 
approached Saddam with an offer to set up National Defense 
Battalions. Practically speaking these were paramilitary 
groups made up of the agas and their personal body guards, 
who undertook not only to fight the Iranians, but as well to 
suppress the Barzanis and PUK elements.'*'* 

In effect, the battalions—or josh, as the guerrillas derisively 
called them—were similar to the Black and Tans in Ireland, 
who aided the British against the IRA.'*^ The agas mustered 
the battalions, but it was Ba’thist money—tunneled through the 
apas—that ed the members’ pay. 

Saddam went along with this arrangement because, in a 
manner of speaking, he had given up on the Kurds; in his mind 
he was making the best of a bad thing. Unable to draft them, 
he was willing to adopt the legal fiction that they were 
government fighters; they "guarded" the north. The agas, 
however, were not content to leave it at this. They sought to 


18 





further aggrandize themselves by wrangling lucrative contracts 
to build roads and forts throughout the region. As the agas’ 
wealth increased, they drew more and more followers to their 
side, many of them former guerrillas, that is, ex-pesh mergas. 

This had the effect, naturally, of shrinking the guerrilla 
forces. Indeed, we may say that the mass of Kurds, from this 
point forward, supported Iraq in the war. To be sure it was a 
passive support—for example, the battalions refused to serve 
outside the Kurdish area, which meant that the Ba’thists still 
had to face the problem of manning the southern front with only 
limited numbers of troops. Nonetheless, by refusing to go over 
to the side of Iran, and by resisting Iranian incursions, the Kurds 
enabled Baghdad to stay in the fight. 

In effect, the agas, by acting as they did, marginalized the 
Kurdish opposition. The Barzanis and PUK now had no claim 
to be leading an authentic revolt. They were reduced to the 
status of mercenaries, assisting the Iranians against the Iraqi 
people, among whom were their own Kurdish brothers. 

Given this state of affairs, it seems pointless to talk about 
a movement of Kurdish national liberation. Had the Kurds 
wanted to carve out a state for themselves, the time to have 
done so was 1984 when the Ba’th was struggling to survive.By 
agreeing to take the Ba’thists’ pay, the Kurdish leaders 
squandered the best opportunity they were ever likely to get. 

One could argue that the agas behaved stupidly, that they 
did not know where their true interests lay, and that they did 
themselves irreparable harm. We don’t believe this to be true; 
they knew what they were doing. They created a situation 
where they could operate in their old, lawless ways, and in 
which the central government was actually forced to subsidize 
them. 

Exploiting disordered conditions, they grew wealthy 
building forts and roads; they expanded their private militias at 
government expense and they escalated their smuggling 
operations, a simple matter once the governing authority had 
departed from the region. What possible need would the agas 
have for a state? The less organized Kurdish life, the better 





off they were. This is a point that we will take up further in a 
subsequent section. 

The Recent Revolt. 

We want now to discuss what went on in northern Iraq 
immediately after the end of Operation Desert Storm, when 
apparently all of the Kurds revolted against the Saddam 
government. Was this not a genuine uprising? 

Something certainly did occur in the north after Desert 
Storm, although precisely what will take time to sort out. It 
appears the Kurds responded to what they perceived to be an 
appeal from the United States. It has been alleged that during 
Desert Storm, the CIA set up clandestine transmitters in Riyadh 
from which it called for a Kurdish revolt against Saddam.^® The 
Kurds responded, with a will. 

After all, these people—with their tradition of war 
fighting—were used to receiving such appeals. The Kurds, as 
mercenaries, have fought for the Shah of Persia, the Ottoman 
Sultan, and even, as we have just seen, the Ba’thists. Why not 
the Americans? A clear-cut appeal from the United States, the 
greatest superpower on earth (indeed the only one after the 
Soviet Union’s humiliating collapse), would be a hard 
proposition to resist. And so virtually overnight the Kurds took 
up arms, and seized all of the major cities of 
Kurdistan—something they had been unable to accomplish 
throughout the entire Iran-lraq war. And then, just as quickly, 
they abandoned them, and set off on an unprecedented mass 
exodus to the Turkish border. What happened here? 

It seems likely that the United States, in the eyes of the 
Kurds, was seen to waffle. After first unequivocally appealing 
for a revolt, Washington refused to prevent the Iraqis from 
using their helicopters to put it down.'*^ This failure to intervene 
confused the Kurds, who now were unsure whether they had 
a deal or not. Fleeing in disarray before the onslaught of the 
hated Republican Guards, they gave up the whole of Kurdistan 
to their enemies, with the result that the Iraqis accomplished 
what would ordinarily have been deemed impossible—they 
plucked victory from the jaws of certain defeat. 





We submit that a sequence like this could not have occurred 
with any other people than the Kurds—a situation where the 
population, seemingly unified one minute, dissolves into chaos 
the next. The whole episode, we feel, can be explained on the 
basis of tribalism. The tribalist Kurds reacted to events in an 
instinctive fashion. They perceived that the Ba’thist 
government was on the point of collapse, and so turned their 
backs on it—a simple matter, as they had no firm attachment 
to it anyway. At the same time, the Americans—whom they 
believed were about to take over--were appealing for their 
allegiance. At once they acted, and just as speedily they took 
to their heels when it appeared that they had miscalculated.'*® 

Negotiating With Saddam. 

After the debacle of the mass exodus and its sequel. 
Operation Provide Comfort, the Western media—particularly 
television—undertook extended coverage of the plight of the 
Kurds. In the process of so doing, it promoted Barzani and 
Talabani as Kurdish spokesmen. Consequently, the 
announcement by these two that they would negotiate an 
autonomy agreement with Saddam caused great 
consternation. 

To the media, this was an appalling step to have taken. 
Saddam has been so demonized, it is inconceivable to many 
that anyone would sit down with him. This, we feel, is unfair. 
Over the course of years Kurds have negotiated with much 
more uncouth characters than Saddam. By the same token, 
Arab leaders have had to deal with many boorish 
Kurds—which is merely to say that transactions have gone on 
between the two peoples for centuries, under worse conditions 
than those that presently obtain. 

We are too close to the negotiations to make much out of 
them. We will, however, comment on one or two aspects 
because we think they illuminate the situation of the Kurds in 
general. The most startling development has been the 
apparent willingness of Barzani to cut a deal with his erstwhile 
nemesis Saddam Husayn. Almost from the first he has shown 
himself amenable to making concessions. Indeed, it appears 
that Barzani is prepared to participate in a condominium 





arrangement whereby he and the Ba’thist security forces share 
policing of the north. Under such an arrangement the 
Barzanis, presumably, would be supplied with small arms by 
the Ba'thists. 

Interestingly, Talabani has opposed this scheme and has 
tied up the talks by refusing to concede on points that Barzani 
had already agreed to. Talabani apparently foresees the 
possibility that he will lose out by having Barzani conclude a 
separate peace.'^® In effect, Barzani would become Saddam's 
"governor" in the north—^the same deal that Talabani agreed 
to in 1983. However, unlike Talabani, Barzani would not have 
to fear being victimized by the agas; Barzani has his tribe to 
depend upon. The Barzanis, were they supplied with weapons 
from Baghdad, could easily hold their own against the agas. 
To protect his stake, therefore, Talabani appears to have 
seized on the issue of Kirkuk, the same issue that Barzani had 
allowed to scuttle the autonomy agreement in the early 1970s. 
He has insisted that this area be included in the autonomous 
zone, a point which Baghdad refuses to concede. 

Here, too, it seems obvious what is going on. If Talabani 
is unable to deal with Baghdad, he must ally himself with other 
interests. The obvious candidates are the Coalition forces, in 
particular the British, French and Dutch. The British have been 
most forward in insisting that some arrangement be made to 
protect the Kurds. They were clearly upset by the willingness 
of the Kurdish leaders to talk with Saddam. It is our belief that 
Talabani has made an approach to them, and this explains his 
obstinate insistence on including Kirkuk. In effect, he is 
maneuvering to hand over Kirkuk to the coalition.®® 

With Kirkuk included in the autonomous zone, the coalition 
would then have a club to wield against the Ba’thists. 
Whenever they balked at coalition demands, the latter could 
threaten to detach the zone from Iraqi sovereignty, making it a 
ward of the United Nations. Were this to occur, Iraq would lose 
one of its richest oil fields. However, with Kirkuk left out of the 
zone, there is not much of value to detach—except some 
apparently resource-bare mountains and a lot of unruly 
Kurds.®’ 


22 



The insistence of Talabani, therefore, that Kirkuk be 
included is tied to his need for coalition backing. It has nothing 
to do with promoting autonomy—indeed it could be argued that 
it violates the spirit of autonomy. It is a way of sweetening the 
pot for his supposititious patrons. 

There is no way, however, that the Ba’thists will give on this 
point. They see what is contemplated: they are not about to 
surrender the entire north of the country to the coalition, and 
so they have dug in their heels on the proposal. The British 
appear already to have anticipated this result, and have 
prepared an alternate, fall-back position. They have wangled 
an enclave in southeastern Turkey on the Iraqi border, manned 
by a mix of coalition units (see Figure 3). 

Anyone who is a student of guerrilla warfare knows that 
guerrillas cannot survive without a friendly border at their 
backs. Presently the Kurds are vulnerable in this regard 
because the Turks want nothing to do with them. Indeed, only 
the adroit political maneuvering of Premier Ozal has kept the 
Turkish military in line on this issue. The European-controlled 
enclave offsets this deficiency by, in effect, supplying backup 



23 





troops drawn from the coalition. They stand poised to enter 
Iraq, if the Ba’thists do anything of which the coalition 
disapproves. 

There is a hitch, however—the enclave has to be supplied 
through Turkish territory, a narrow corridor from Iskander in the 
north to the Iraqi border, and the Turkish General Staff can 
easily cut this supply line. A single ambush by the PKK against 
a Turkish patrol and the generals can call off the whole deal.^^ 
So it comes down to this—^to exercise influence over Iraq the 
coalition must be able to protect the Kurds, which it cannot do 
unless it has access to the Iraqi Kurdish area. A 
coalition-controlled enclave solves the problem of access, but 
cannot function without the concurrence of Turkey's General 
Staff. Given the attitude of Turkey’s generals toward the 
Kurds, a lasting agreement is unlikely. The whole proposition 
seems to be very tenuous. 

An Assessment. 

We are now in a position to assess the Kurdish movement 
in general terms. (See Figure 4.) We regard it as one of stunted 
development. It cannot progress past its present stage 


1 

2 

3 

4 

1945-64 

1964-75 

1975-88 

1988-^ 


1. Period of Politburo Control of KDP 

2. Period of Control of KDP by Mulla Mustafa Barzani 

3. Period of Massoud Barzani-Jalal Talabani Rivalry 

4. Period of Aga Domination 


Figure 4. The Movement in Iraq. 


24 



because no substantial link exists between it and the Kurdish 
people. 

Up to roughly 1964, such a link did exist, inasmuch as the 
KDP, the principal organ of the movement, had a political 
agenda which dealt with important social questions affecting 
Kurdish society. Further, inasmuch as the Kurds' concerns 
were vaguely on track with the Ba’thists,’ they might hope for 
a reconciliation between the parties. 

But now there is no such hope. A movement that is almost 
purely tribal cannot be reconciled to the Ba’th, which remains 
committed to socialism and to an economy directed from 
above. The agas are set on maintaining their quasi-feudal 
style of life, in which not only is there no central control, there 
is no control whatsoever, their ideal being pure anarchy. In 
effect, Iraq is now two states, operating in different centuries. 

The losers in the arrangement are the miskin, who now 
have no one looking out for them. They have been scanted on 
educational benefits, health reforms, and everything else the 
Ba’th gave Iraqis when it was confident of its hold on power. 
Assuming that the agas continue to consolidate their hold over 
Kurdish society, the miskin must now look forward to continued 
ill treatment: they will go on being serfs.®^ 

Thus, as we see it, the Kurdish movement—so extolled by 
the media—primarily serves the interests of the feudal lords 
and those foreigners seeking to break the power of the Ba’th. 
The movement’s main constituency is the warrior caste of 
agas, with their body guards, and financially it is supported by 
foreigners trying to bring down Saddam Husayn. The Kurdish 
chiefs today are doing no differently than Kurds have done for 
centuries, i.e., serving foreign interests as mercenaries for pay. 
They are hired guns; and hired guns do not a movement 
make.®'* 

At the same time, the situation could be about to take an 
ironic turn. The agas, in responding to the appeals of the 
United States to revolt against Saddam, burnt their bridges with 
the central government. It now seems that Barzani has jumped 
into the spot they vacated. It appears he is offering to supplant 
them as the government’s mainstay in the north. For Baghdad, 


25 


the arrangement is not without appeal. In the first place, were 
Barzani to come over to its side, this would greatly embarrass 
all those pro-Kurdish elements in the West who have hailed 
him as the spokesman of Kurdish liberation. It would be hard 
for the Israelis and British and French and all the rest of the 
supporters of Kurdish nationalism to carry on, if the leader of 
the movement had cut a deal with the West’s archenemy, 
Saddam. In the muddled atmosphere of Iraqi politics, it is 
difficult to know if this is what actually has transpired. The 
negotiations between Saddam and the Kurdish Front are still 
going on (as of this writing) and anything could occur. Indeed, 
aU the sides could turn on a dime, without warning. 

"’^his brings us to the final issue we want to discuss, the 
question of U.S. involvement with the Kurds. 

United States and the Kurds. 

U. S. military leaders need to be aware that the strategic 
environment in northern Iraq is supercharged. For all their 
ingratiating ways, the Kurdish agas are hardly benign fellows. 
They have a self-interested awareness of what they would like 
to achieve from Operation Provide Comfort II, and that 
outcome almost certainly does not square with the announced 
intent of the Bush administration. 

The agas want to take over the north, and ultimately to 
create an independent Kurdistan. They are not much 
interested in the legal status of this entity, as long as they have 
control over it. Having gained control, they will indulge 
themselves to the utmost degree. They will run guns into the 
area, which they will turn over to their partisans, and after that 
the agas will seek to settle old scores, thus the intertribal 
feuding will recommence. 

The spectacle of northern Iraq in flames is certain to 
unsettle the Turks, who are extremely apprehensive about their 
own restive Kurdish population erupting. The Turks will then 
be tempted to "fill the power vacuum" in northern Iraq, militarily. 
If this occurs, we can expect a counterstroke from the Iranians, 
who fear the extension of NATO’s authority into their sphere of 
interest. The United States doesn’t need these headaches. 


26 


After World War I the British, in an attempt to secure the oil 
region of Kirkuk for themselves brokered the cause of a certain 
Shaykh Mahmud, a tough Kurdish agfa.®® After supporting him 
against the Turks—who were then masters of what is today 
Iraqi Kurdistan—Britain ultimately dumped Mahmud, finding 
him absolutely uncontrollable. 

In effect, Mahmud bit the hand that fed him. He proclaimed 
himself "King of Kurdistan" and sought to drive the British out 
of his realm. We would submit that the United States today is 
about to repeat history. 

To be sure, the administration may decide to continue 
granting support, and then, of course, the U.S. military will back 
the President. But Army leaders should be apprised that' this 
is a most dangerous situation we have become involved in, 
one that should be approached with extreme caution. It is not 
as benign as the media and some in Congress are making it 
out to be. 

ENDNOTES 

1. By this we mean that the Kurds have a long tradition that extols 
martial prowess. Over the centuries their regular activity has been to serve 
as mercenaries in the armies of the Middle East and southern Caucasus. 
When not so engaged, they have supported themselves by smuggling and 
various forms of banditry. This preoccupation with violence shows up in all 
areas of Kurdish life. A oft-heard saying of the Kurds—"Kurdish children 
are born to be slaughtered"—reflects this situation. 

2. Aga, from the Arabic, "lord, master, sir." The agasare, in effect, clan 
elders. Formerly their status depended upon martial prowess. After 
property law changes, described below, they became more on the order of 
rural gentry, the community’s interlocutors with the central government. 
Some are quite wealthy (see note 12 below). As may be imagined the agas 
are traditional in their outlook, not to say backward. 

3. M/'skin, Arabic, "poor, miserable, beggar, humble, submissive, 
servile." Under the caste system that prevails in Kurdistan these people 
are the lowest order of society. In appearance, they are a breed apart from 
the warrior caste, primarily made up of the agas and the pesh merga, whom 
we will discuss below. For a discussion of the miskin see my book. The 
Kurds: An Unstable Element in the Gulf, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 
1984; also Hannah Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary 
Movements of Iraq, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978. 


27 





4. Probably no phenomenon in Kurdish life is more misunderstood than 
that of the pesh merga. The media has made them out to be dedicated 
resistance fighters (the term translates as "one who is prepared to die"), 
and refers to all Kurds who fight against the Ba’thists as such. In fact, the 
term as originally used in the 1960s referred specifically to politically 
committed individuals who were members of the Kurdish Democratic Party 
(KDP). Thus, ideological commitment was the hallmark of the original pesh 
merga. In this study we intend to show that, commitment of this sort having 
virtually disappeared among the Kurds, the term pesh merga no longer has 
much relevance. 

5. The three occasions to which we refer are the Kurds' involvement 
with the Mahabad Republic after World War II, which provoked a 
confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, also the 
Kurds’ participation in the Shah’s conspiracy to topple the Ba’thists in 1975, 
and finally Operation Provide Comfort. 

6. The Sultan organized the Kurds into a paramilitary force called the 
Hamadiya Cavalry, which he then set upon the Armenians. For a 
discussion see The Encyclopaedia Britannica, New York; Encyclopaedia 
Britannica Co,, 1911, s.v. "Kurds." 

7. The slaughter of the Assyrians was carried out by the Kurdish chief 
Aga Simko, For details of this episode and the one above see The Kurds: 
An Unstable Element in the Gulf; also Hasan Arfa, The Kurds, London: 
Oxford University Press, 1966. 

8. One of the earliest (400 8C) references to a people believed to be 
the Kurds appears in Xenephon's Anabasis. He claims that a tribe, the 
Karduchoi, assaulted the Greeks as they withdrew from Persia. The attack 
occurred in the Zagros Mountains, the Kurds’ traditional home. This fact, 
plus the similarity of names, may indicate that these were indeed the 
ancestors of the present-day Kurds. 

9. See ""Europeans Call for Kurdish Enclave in Iraq," The New York 
Times, April 9,1991. 

10. The ruling party in Iraq. For a discussion of the recent history of 
the Ba’th see Stephen C. Pelletiere, Douglas V. Johnson II, and Leif R. 
Rosenberger, Iraqi Power and U.S. Security in the Middle East, Carlisle 
Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 1990; also Phebe Marr, The 
Modern History of Iraq, Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 1985. 

11. The involvement of the Western media with the Kurds goes back 
to the early 1960s when The New York Times reporter Dana Adams 
Schmidt visited Mulla Mustafa Barzani in northern Iraq and wrote a series 
of articles for The Times, which he later expanded into a book. Journey 
Among Brave Men, Boston; Little Brown & Co., 1964. After Schmidt, a 


28 









whole parade of journalists made the trip to northern Iraq, myself included 
(I went in 1964 for The Milwaukee Journal). All of these journalists, without 
exception, treated the story as an adventure yarn, with political overtones. 
As we shall show below, the media treatment of the Kurds’ political struggle 
is simplistic. 

12. In a closed society such as Iraq it is difficult to Know the wealth of 
specific groups. We can gain some idea of the agas’financial situation, 
however, from media interviews conducted with them during Operation 
Provide Comfort. See The Washington Postoi April 17,1981, in which an 
aga (who describes himself as being "in the agricultural business") boasts 
of owning one of the largest mansions in Zahko ("with four large gardens"); 
also see The Washington Post of April 7, 1991, in which another "tribal 
leader" claims to own 120 villages. 

13. The Kurds are attracted to Sufiism, two major orders of which, the 
Naqshbandi and Qadiri, are to be found among them. Tariqas are lodges 
in which the devotees assemble. Sufiism, as the reader may be aware, is 
a way of worshiping under Islam. The majority of Kurds are Sunnis: 
Sunniism is a sect. 

14. The Allies in World War II occupied Iran in order to facilitate the 
movement of supplies to the Soviet Union. The Soviets took over the north 
of the country and the British the south. The then-Shah of Iran, Reza, was 
deposed and sent into exile in South Africa where he died. Supposedly, 
this was done because of his pro-Axis sympathies. After the war had 
ended, the British withdrew from their zone, however the Soviets remained 
in occupation, claiming that the break-away republics were in need of 
protection. 

15. The republic was the creation of a number of city-bred Kurds from 
Mahabad—a few intellectuals, some upper class landowners, and a 
prominent religious leader. These men were no match for the Shah’s army 
(this was Shah Mohammad Reza, Reza’s son, whom the Allies had put on 
the throne after Reza was deposed). Thus when the Barzanis appeared, 
they were welcomed by the republic’s leaders, and by the Russians, as well. 
The latter had no desire to use Soviet troops against the Shah’s forces. For 
an account of the short-lived republic, and Barzani’s role in the affair, see 
William Eagleton Jr., The Kurdish Republic of 1946, London; Oxford 
University Press, 1963. 

16. The United States, under Truman, allegedly threatened to use the 
atom bomb against the Soviets if they didn’t get out. Some scholars cite 
this confrontation as the beginning of the cold war. 

17. This journey has become part of the lore of Kurdistan. It is 
comparable to the brilliant retreat of the American Indian Chief Joseph of 


29 


the Perce Nez to Canada, or—although not on such a grand scale—the 
already mentioned retreat of the 10,000 Greeks under Xenephon. 

18. For an account of Barzani’s stay in Russia see Dana Adams 
Schmidt’s Journey Among Brave Men. 

19. The Communist Party during the period of the 1940s and 1950s 
wielded considerable power in Iraq. For details see Hanna Batatu, The Old 
Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements of Iraq. 

20. The Shah persuaded Nixon that the Ba’th was a dangerous client 
of the Soviets by means of which would they would take over the Persian 
Gulf. For details of the involvement of the Shah and CIA with the Kurds see 
the House Select Committee on Intelligence report (the Pike report) 
published in The Village Voice, February 23, 1976; also Phebe Marr The 
Modern History of Iraq, and Edmund Ghareeb The Kurdish Question in Iraq, 
Syracuse, NY; The Syracuse University Press, 1981. Also see The 
Washington Post, April 3,1991. 

21. Aid from the United States was not substantial, merely about $16 
million worth of arms which the Israelis supplied from their stores. The latter 
were then reimbursed by Washington. 

22. For a discussion of this episode see The Kurdish Question In Iraq. 

23. The population of Iraq is close to 18 million, and 55 percent of this 
is Arab Shia. Another quarter are Arab Sunnis and the rest by-and-large 
are Kurds. Moreover, Iraq’s army throughout the war was 65 percent Shia, 
a condition to a degree occasioned by the fact that the Kurds for the most 
part refused to serve. 

24. Population figures on the Kurds are unreliable because all of the 
countries where they dwell tend to undercount their numbers. We believe 
there are about 10 million in Turkey, 4 million in Iran, 2 1/2 million in Iraq, 
500,000 in Syria, and 50,000 in Russia. 

25. The movement was headed by Abdur Rahman Qassemlu, an 
Iranian Kurdish landowner who had backed Mossedeq, the Iranian premier 
overthrown in 1953. Qassemlu fled to the Eastern bloc and for awhile was 
an economist under Dubchek in Czechoslovakia. He returned to Iran when 
the Khomeini revolt erupted. After his movement was destroyed by the 
Barzanis and Revolutionary Guards, Qassemlu returned to Europe where 
he was assassinated by Iranian agents. For details see The Kurds: An 
Unstable Element in the Gulf. 

26. Assad was involved in a feud with the Turks at this time over water 
from the Euphrates Rivers. The Turks were building a huge dam that would 
reduce Syria's supply of water from the river, against which Assad had 


30 


protested bitterly but to no avail. For a history of the PKK, and Syria’s feud 
with the Turks see Michael M. Gunter’s The Kurds in Turkey, Boulder, CO: 
Westview Press, 1990. 

27. The Turkish Army inherited its strong distaste for the Kurds from 
Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, who salvaged modern Turkey from the 
wreckage of the old Ottoman Empire. To do so he had to surrender 
practically all of the Empire’s former possessions, but he resolutely retained 
the whole of ti ,e Anatolian peninsula. When the British tried to carve up 
that remnant—by inciting the Turkish Kurds to revolt—Ataturk foiled them 
by ruthlessly crushing the Kurdish rebels. 

28. Given Assad’s reputation for political astuteness, it’s hard to see 
why he didn't anticipate this result. To be sure, he may have meant to do 
just this, that is block the Iranians from opening a second front, knowing 
that, if they did so, they would probably defeat Iraq and convert it into an 
Islamic Republic. This, however, is pretty Machiavellian. 

29. In addition, to its scarcely veiled threat to enter the war on Iraq’s 
side, Turkey could always bring the Iranians to heel by threatening to close 
its borders to Iranian imports. Rigorous enforcement of customs 
regulations invariably produced enormous traffic jams backing up trucks for 
miles from the border. 

30. Jalal Talabani matured politically during the 1940s and 1950s, 
when the Middle East—and particularly its Arab and Iranian 
components—was turning left. Nationalist leaders like Gamal Abdul 
Nasser set the style for young Middle Eastern radicals to emulate. Such 
men were resolutely opposed to landed wealth, and espoused the cause 
of the people. Hence, the KDP in its early days was quite radical, calling 
for a total restructuring of Kurdish society. 

31. In fact, the old tribal system first came under attack in the last days 
of the Ottoman Empire. When the Sultans decided to reorganize their 
military, they found they no longer needed Kurdish cavalry, and therefore 
instituted private property as a means of settling the Kurds on the land where 
they could more easily press them into service as infantry. The British 
carried the process further by legally transferring to the agas control of all 
tribal property. 

32. The bodyguards of the agas were called pesh mala; so obviously 
the term—much used today—of pesh merga derives from it. For details on 
this phenomenon of bodyguards in Iraq see Batatu’s discussion of the 
hushiyyah in The Old Social Classes and Revolutionary Movements in Iraq. 

33. Kassem wanted to institutionalize his hold over the Kurdish 
community by placing Barzani, whom he felt was disposed toward him, in 
the position of KDP president. 


31 




34. Barzani reorganized the Politburo along functional lines, and in the 
process created a category of membership for "the tribes." The agas filled 
this quota. 

35. I interviewed Talabani and Ahmad in 1964, when I went to 
Kurdistan. The two were living temporarily in Tehran under protection of 
the Shah, after Barzani had driven them out of Iraq. For details of this see 
my book, The Kurds: An Unstable Element in the Gulf. 

36. Despite all the fuss about Kirkuk, the real sticking point has always 
been over how the autonomous zone would be administered. I stress this 
because an incorrect impression has been created that Kirkuk is the only 
matter of importance. If one traces the history of the autonomy talks (and 
the idea did not originate with the Ba’th; previous Iraqi regimes had grappled 
with it), one sees that the two sides consistently have failed to agree on 
administration—it is a key point because whoever administers the area can 
say how social legislation is to be applied. 

37. During my interview with Ahmad in Tehran he told me that Barzani 
was "a man of the tribes"; that he only cared for his tribe, and thus dreaded 
land reform which would break down the old tribal way of life. See The 
Kurds: An Unstable Element In the Gulf. 

38. This area was also the locale of one of three passes through the 
Zagros Mountains, which added to its strategic importance for the Ba’thists. 

39. After he had split with Saddam and gone back into opposition, 
Talabani for awhile advertised himself as a Maoist. He told me that, 
although he approved of the Communists’ organizing tactics, he was not a 
party member, but rather an intellectual Marxist. Conversely, the Barzanis 
have always been careful to burnish their religious credentials, which has 
stood them in good stead with the Iranians. Recall, that the tribe was 
founded by a Sufi mystic. 

40. For a discussion of the Ba’thists’ mobilization problems see Iraqi 
Power and U.S. Security in the Middle East. 

41. We say nominally because the agas’ support seems to have been 
of a passive variety, that is they merely undertook not to go over to the side 
of Iran. If the Iraqis wanted them to fight actively, they had to pay extra for 
this. 


42. Fursan, Arabic for "cavalry.” It refers to the official title of the group, 
the "Salahadin Cavalry." Salahadin, of course, was the Kurdish warrior who 
defeated the Crusaders. 

43. The question of just who made up the core membership of the PUK 
is an interesting one. There is evidence its mainstay comprised Fayaii 


32 



Kurds. The Fayali are unique in that they are practically the only Shias 
among the Kurds. Driven out of Iran by the Shah, they took refuge in Iraq, 
only to be proscribed in turn by the Ba’thists. Thus, like the Barzanis, they 
are landless. It would be significant, if the only two real fighting groups 
within the Kurdish political movement were, in a sense, outcasts. 

44. See The New York Times, April 27, 1991, for discussion of the 
status of the ages, in which the claim is made that they were formerly 
"owned" by Saddam Husayn. 

45. Josh, Kurdish "little donkey," a pun on "horseman" or "cavalryman," 
the Arabic title of the pro-government Kurds. 

46. See The New York Times, April 16, 1991, "Radio Linked to CIA 
Urges Iraqis to Overthrow Saddam Husayn," also The Washington Post, 
April 7 and 9, 1991. 

47. See The New York Times, April 30, 1991 "Bush Refuscc to Back 
Rebels." 

48. This is precisely the sort of behavior one would expect from 
mercenaries. Moreover, the Kurds have several times in their history been 
betrayed in this way. After World War I, they backed the British, who 
ultimately withdrew from their area, turning it back over to the Turks, who 
promptly wreaked vengeance on the Kurds for having turned their coats. 
With a background like this, it is natural the apparent betrayal of the United 
States would cause a stampede. 

49. There is strong motivation for Barzani to do just this—it’s a way of 
getting his tribal territory back. At present the tribe is in limbo. If Saddam 
agrees to take them on, with the result that the Barzanis and Ba’thists 
together supervise the north, the tribe will cut quite a swath there. If one 
looks at press reports of the deal that Barzani is seeking to conclude with 
Saddam, it does appear something like this is in the works. (The 
Washington Post, May 19,1991.) It calls for an amnesty: the return of all 
Kurds to their villages: rescindment of laws punishing Kurds who fought 
against the government: and the incorporation of Kurdish guerrillas into the 
Iraqi army. 

50. It is perhaps significant that all of the players in the coalition force 
manning the enclave are former holders of oil concessions in Iraq which the 
Ba’thists nationalized—the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands 
and Italy. 

51. Support for this theory is found in The Washington Post, April 1, 
1991, where the Kurdish leaders talk of a "marriage made in heaven." Say 
the leaders to the Americans—"we have the oil and want democracy: you 
have democracy and want oil." 


33 






52. Since this was written, the Turks have done just that. Declaring a 
buffer zone along the border, they descended on the Kurdish "bases," 
wiping out several, which they claimed were used by the PKK. 

53. For details of harsh treatment inflicted on the miskin by the pesh 
merga see news coverage of Operation Provide Comfort. For example. 
The Washington Post, April 29, 1991 {"pesh merge prevent Kurds from 
returning to their homes"); The Washington Post, April 30,1991 ("Marines 
say guerrillas are pirates, straight out bandits"); and The Washington Post, 
May 1,1991 ("guerrillas confiscate cars"); also The New York Times, April 
30,1991 {“pesh merga discriminate against Christians"). 

54. In this connection, it is interesting to compare the names of the 
Kurdish force that Sultan Hamid created to suppress the Armenians and 
that which the Ba’thists organized—^the Hamadiya Cavalry, vice the 
Salahadin Cavalry. Both are the Fursan. It would appear the Kurds have 
been involved in such practices for decades, if not centuries. 

55. For details of this episode see C. J. Edmonds, Kurds, Turks and 
Arabs, London: Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1925. 


34 


U.S. ARMY WAR COLLEGE 


Commandant 

Major General William A. Stofft 


STRATEGIC STUDIES INSTITUTE 


Director 

Colonel Karl W. Robinson 


Author 

Stephen C. Pelletiere 


Editor 

Mrs. Marianne P. Cowling 


Secretary 

Ms. Patricia A. Bonneau 


****** 





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