Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)
Not long after the establishment of the Iranian KDP in Mahabad, Iraqi Kurds, at the instigation of Mullah Mustafa Barzani (then in Iran himself), established an Iraqi KDP. Most of the founding members were intellectuals and army officers from the town of Sulaimaniyya, the chief center of Kurdish nationalism. In the 1950s, Barzani’s closest associates lost control of the party to Ibrahim Ahmad, a Sulaimaniyya lawyer who long exerted a major influence on the Kurdish movement in Iraq (and continues to do so indirectly as the political mentor and father-in-law of Jalal Talabani). The faction loyal to Barzani for several years existed as a separate organization; it had closer contacts with the Iraqi communists than the “official” KDP. In 1957 the two factions reunited.

After ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim’s coup in 1958, the KDP was legalized and Barzani was allowed to return from his exile in the Soviet Union. A few years previously, he had been made honorary president of the party (Talabani conveyed this news during a visit to Eastern Europe in 1955). Soon after his return Barzani began to interfere rather high-handedly in party affairs. Initially his relations with Ibrahim Ahmad’s faction seemed good; he broke with his erstwhile supporters, who were then close to the communists.

In the following years, especially after the first armed clashes between the Kurds and the Baghdad government in September 1961, there were repeated conflicts between Barzani and the politburo (i.e., Secretary-General Ibrahim Ahmad), both of whom saw themselves as the rightful leader of the Kurdish movement and expected the other to obey their policy decisions. The rivalry came to a head in 1964, when Barzani signed a cease-fire agreement with the government without even notifying the politburo. The latter immediately held a conference condemning and virtually expelling Barzani. Barzani declared this conference null and void, and convened a party congress that was dominated by his supporters. Barzani had the Ibrahim Ahmad faction expelled, and a new politburo of Barzani loyalists elected. One of the members of the new politburo was Mahmud Osman, a physician from Sulaimaniyya, who remained one of Barzani’s closest collaborators until 1975.

The old politburo, meanwhile, still had headquarters and an armed force in southern Kurdistan (Mawet); peshmergas loyal to Barzani attacked them and drove them across the Iranian border, where they were given asylum. The politburo had reportedly been in contact with the Iranian authorities as early as 1962; this incident seems to have provided the occasion for Tehran to bet on Barzani instead. In 1965, Talabani and his fighting men sought a conciliation with Barzani and returned to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Around the same time, the Kurds started receiving modern armaments in significant quantities. Iranian involvement increased steadily, and this support helped Barzani to further consolidate his control of the Kurdish movement. Talabani saw himself reduced to insignificance, which is probably the major reason why he broke away again, branding Barzani as tribal, feudal and reactionary. Not able to hold his own against Barzani’s superior forces, and in spite of his popularity among the Sorani-speaking townspeople, he concluded a deal with the Baghdad government allowing him control of the Sulaimaniyya-Kirkuk districts. On many occasions, his peshmergas fought side by side with the Iraqi army against Barzani supporters in this area, which earned Talabani the odium of being a traitor. (Ibrahim Ahmad meanwhile had remained behind in Tehran, and later moved to Baghdad, which lent further credibility to the accusations against his faction.)

In March 1970, after protracted negotiations, the Baghdad government concluded a peace agreement with Barzani, giving in to many Kurdish demands, including autonomy. Ibrahim Ahmad and Jalal Talabani had lost their usefulness to the government, and had little choice but humbly returning to the KDP fold once again. They refrained from openly criticizing Barzani until the collapse of the movement in March 1975.

1972 was an important watershed. Through the shah, Barzani established contact with Washington and the KDP started receiving covert CIA support. This no doubt influenced Barzani’s decision to reject the severely curtailed autonomy law promulgated by Baghdad in 1974. A few leading members of the KDP (among them Aziz Aqrawi and ‘Hashim Aqrawi) broke with Barzani and went over to the government, establishing their own Baghdad-based KDP, which always remained a paper organization only. [1] After the collapse of 1975, Barzani and the KDP leadership, with the exception of Salah Yusufi, who surrendered to Baghdad, took refuge in Iran. The party was disbanded.

Barzani withdrew from politics, and the struggle for succession started. Barzani’s long-time confidant, Mahmud Osman, broke with him. Osman went to Europe and published a vehement attack on Barzani and his sons. He established his own party, at first called KDP/Preparatory Committee, then the United Socialist Party of Kurdistan, and finally merging with other groups into the Socialist Party of Kurdistan in Iraq (SPKI). Jalal Talabani, who had been Barzani's representative in Damascus, set out organizing his own Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) there. In Iran, Barzani’s sons Mas‘ud and Idris joined hands with another close collaborator of their father, “Sami” (Muhammad Mahmud ‘Abd ul-Rahman) and established the KDP/Provisional Command (Qiyada Muvaqqata). This organization attracted those who felt a strong personal commitment to the Barzani family; the majority of its supporters were from the northernmost Kurmanji-speaking part of Iraqi Kurdistan, while the PUK and Mahmud Osman found their support almost exclusively in the Sorani-speaking parts.

In the autumn of 1976, “Sami” led a group of peshmergas back into the Turkish-Iraqi border area, with at least tacit approval from Tehran. Essential logistic support was given by a related organization in Turkish Kurdistan which then was very influential among the tribes as well as the small-town youth of the border districts. A very bloody clash with the PUK in the spring of 1978, and internal conflicts (between “Sami” and Idris Barzani) weakened the Provisional Command, which retired to Iran. Most of its armed men remained in Ushnuviya and some villages further north—the area where the Barzanis had lived in the time of the Mahabad Republic and that had been their major foreign base in the early 1970s. At a congress in the autumn of 1979, the conflict between Idris Barzani and “Sami” came to a head. “Sami,” who had tried to cultivate a progressive image, and saw the presence of the authoritarian and extremely conservative Idris as an obstacle, chose to leave the party and soon established his own Democratic People’s Party of Kurdistan.

At the 1979 congress, the party assumed again the old KDP name. It is led by the two Barzani brothers and has no other leader of significance. Barzani’s notoriety among Iranian Kurds caused several clashes between the latter and the KDP forces. The Barzanis entered an ever closer alliance and cooperation with the Islamic Republic and locally with some powerful, conservative tribal chieftains. In 1981 they assisted Tehran in driving the KDPI's forces from the districts along the Turkish border; in 1983 they assisted in taking Haj Omran (Iraq) and part of the Pijder valley. Since then, they have resumed guerrilla fighting in northern Iraq, but to a large extent in coordination with the Iranian army.

Since November 1980, the KDP has been a member of the Democratic National Front, together with the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and the SPKI. It also has special relations with the Shi‘i resistance movement, al-Da‘wa. It calls itself anti-imperialist and uses, like all other Iraqi Kurdish organizations, Marxist phraseology. It perceives an identity of interest between the Islamic regime of Iran and the Kurds of Iraq.


Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)
Soon after the collapse of Barzani’s movement in March 1975, Jalal Talabani, who had remained loyal to Barzani during the last years but had kept a very low profile, contacted Kurds who had been able to reach Europe or Syria and Lebanon and set out to build a new political organization. In June 1976, the establishment of the PUK was announced from Damascus, consisting of three different groups or tendencies: the Komala, which claimed to be Marxist-Leninist and consisted mainly of (ex-)students; the Socialist Movement of Kurdistan, a vaguely progressive formation; and the “General Line,” personal followers of Jalal Talabani. The two other groups also incorporated old Talabani-followers, and both later split into factions critical of and loyal to Talabani, (the Socialist Movement split in 1979, and Komala in 1985).

Talabani’s control of the PUK has been almost absolute, both because many of its members do admire him and because the organization’s structure facilitates his control. The Komala (not to be confused with the party of the same name in Iran) had apparently existed clandestinely from at least the early 1970s; in mid-1976 it was the only organization that had members inside Iraqi Kurdistan, in the Sulaimaniyya region. Later that year, when the Iraqi government started the deportation of Kurdish villagers from the border regions, it was members of the Komala who joined those peasants resisting deportation and initiated the first guerrilla actions since the collapse.

This gave Talabani a propagandistic edge over his rivals, and it must have prompted the Barzanis to send men into Iraq, too. Although in early 1977 there had been overtures towards cooperation between the KDP and the PUK, their rivalry was soon in full swing. In the autumn of 1977, the PUK moved its headquarters from Damascus to Iraqi Kurdistan. Arms and other supplies, however, had to come from Syria by way of Turkey. For the PUK, too, Kurdish organizations in Turkey provided useful logistic support. The roads to Iraq, however, were largely controlled by the KDP, which had little incentive for letting goods through for Talabani.

In the spring of 1978, Talabani sent his best fighters to the Turkish border region in order to “clear the supply route” (as the PUK called it) or to “destroy our headquarters” (as the KDP expressed it). The PUK’s 800 men, who did not know the terrain, took a terrible beating at the hands of the KDP. Many of them were killed, some 300 driven into the hands of the Iraqi army or arrested by the Turks; some of the commanders were taken prisoner and later executed by the KDP. It took the PUK a long time to recover from this blow. This unfortunate incident was also cited as one of the major reasons why, less than a year later, the majority of the Socialist Movement (whose best commanders had been taken prisoner and were later killed) broke away from the PUK. They joined Mahmud Osman’s group, with whom they formed the Socialist Party of Kurdistan-Iraq (SPKI).

In the 1980s, Talabani succeeded in gradually re-establishing his authority throughout the Sorani-speaking districts. His popularity in neighboring Iran increased as well. In 1979 he had established good relations with and gave some support to the Iranian Komala; his PUK and the KDPI maintained mutually cautious relations, their leaders not entirely trusting each other. In 1981, Talabani offered Qasimlu’s KDPI support when the latter was under attack from the Barzanis, and their relations gradually improved. When Iran’s troops, supported by the Barzanis, attacked Iraqi Kurdistan in 1983, the PUK declared it would fight the invaders. At the same time, the PUK engaged in bloody clashes with the SPKI and ICP, who were in a common front with the Barzanis.

It was almost predictable that Talabani would enter negotiations with the Baghdad government again. Qasimlu had been the initial go-between. Two new alliances, cross-cutting the political borders, seemed to be in the making: the Tehran-KDP-SPKI-ICP axis and the Baghdad-KDPI-PUK axis.

Talabani’s opponents spoke of treason and of a repetition of the events of 1966; his supporters of the concessions the government had promised to make to the Kurds, among them a drastic revision of the 1974 autonomy law. In early 1985, the negotiations, which had dragged on for over a year, finally broke down, and hostilities between the government and the PUK resumed. The brutal operations by government troops against the civilian population last autumn took place mainly in and near PUK-controlled territory.

The PUK does not seem to have important foreign relations at present; in the past it received some support from Syria and probably also Libya, but both these sources seem to have been cut off. Following the resumption of hostilities with the government, the PUK seems to be able to send its wounded to hospitals in Iran. It is unlikely that Iran provides any more active support than this; it prefers to work through Kurdish organizations on whose loyalty it can count. Among the Kurdish organizations, the PUK has the best contacts with the KDPI in Iran and the Socialist Party of Turkish Kurdistan (TKSP), with which it has issued several joint political statements during the past year.

The PUK as such has no explicit political program; its components, the Komala and the “Revolutionaries” (in which the remains of the Socialist Movement and the “General Line” have merged) do, but in the movement’s actual policies pragmatic considerations and tactical maneuvers seem always to override abstract principles. The PUK has always spoken of autonomy for all of Iraqi Kurdistan and democracy for Iraq as its dual objectives; in 1985 an official PUK publication allegedly written by Talabani himself for the first time changed the objective to national self-determination, which implies the possibility of secession from Iraq.


Socialist Party of Kurdistan-Iraq (SPKI)
Barzani’s long-time associate, Mahmud Osman, had broken with the Barzani family and established his own organization, the “Preparatory Committee of the KDP.” Based in Damascus originally (1977), he moved to Kurdistan, to an area close to the PUK headquarters, in 1978. Relations with Talabani were correct though never cordial. As a result of the bloody fight between the PUK and the KDP in 1978, and discontent with Talabani’s style of leadership in general, in the spring of 1979 Rasul Mamand, the chief commander and politician within the Socialist Movement, broke away from Talabani and joined Mahmud Osman, taking the majority of his organization with him. They called their joint movement the United Socialist Party of Kurdistan; at its first congress in 1981, it changed its name to Socialist Party of Kurdistan-Iraq. A small third group also joined: Kurds who had broken with Barzani in 1973 or 1974 and joined the Iraqi government but were now seriously disaffected.

In 1980 the party joined a “national democratic” resistance front consisting of the Iraqi Communist Party, the PUK and some minor groups. Because of the enmity between the KDP and the PUK, it was impossible to have both organizations in the same front; the ICP and the SPKI therefore made a second, similar front with the KDP. The PUK felt double-crossed; its relations with the SPKI and the ICP kept deteriorating, especially when growing numbers of KDP peshmergas came and joined guerrilla operations with the SPKI and ICP in and near PUK- controlled areas. In May 1983, PUK peshmergas attacked the headquarters of the SPKI and of the ICP, killing many prominent members of both. Since then, there have been intermittent fights between the PUK and the SPKI, in which hundreds were killed on both sides. The SPKI lost most of its territory to the PUK. Its present (end of 1985) headquarters are in the extreme northeastern corner of Iraq, and their position is quite precarious. The party seems dependent on the KDP’s goodwill and Iran’s tolerance.

The SPKI’s program is kept in the vaguest terms: it is progressive and anti-imperialist, and aims at autonomy for (Iraqi) Kurdistan and democracy for Iraq. It does not receive substantial foreign support; between its two partners, the KDP and the ICP, it has become increasingly insignificant.


Iraqi Communist Party (ICP)
From 1972 until 1978, the ICP had taken part in the ruling National Front in Baghdad. Mass arrests and execution of party cadres and members in 1978 forced the party into opposition and underground. Some members of the central committee fled abroad; others went to Kurdistan, where the ICP has always had many supporters (especially in the Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyya districts). They established their headquarters next to Talabani’s, in the strip of no-man’s-land between Iran and Iraq, and tried to organize a wide opposition front. When their attempts to bring the PUK and the KDP together failed, they established separate fronts with each of them.

The relations between the ICP and the PUK were strained from the beginning; the ambitions of each to be the dominating force in a broad anti-government coalition undoubtedly played a part, and so did the ICP’s wish to establish close cooperation with the KDP (then believed to have excellent relations with al-Da‘wa). The relations reached their nadir in May 1983, when PUK forces attacked the ICP headquarters and killed several members of the central committee and many party cadres. The ICP is not a Kurdish party, but Kurds are well represented on all levels; its armed men are almost exclusively Kurds (there are some 1,000 peshmergas, dispersed over various parts of Kurdistan). The party sees the struggle in Kurdistan as marginal to its chief political struggle in Iraq, but it does recognize the importance of the Kurdish problem, which it believes should be solved by granting the Kurds the right of self-determination. In actual practice, the ICP’s attitude to the Kurds has fluctuated considerably.


[1] These two persons are not related, as their names might suggest; both hail from the town of Aqra. ‘Hashim became the president of the pseudo-parliament of the autonomous zone and is now a minister; Aziz fled from Baghdad in 1980 and joined the Socialist Party of Kurdistan.

How to cite this article:

Martin Van Bruinessen "Major Kurdish Organizations in Iraq," Middle East Report 141 (July/August 1986).

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