The news from Kurdistan is sad and grim. On both sides of the Iran-Iraq border, the central governments have been carrying out violent campaigns to bring the Kurdish districts under control and to wipe out the peshmergas (guerrilla fighters) of the various Kurdish organizations. This entails direct military clashes as well as reprisals against the civilian population. Numerous villages have been destroyed, either by their own government’s forces or in bombings by the neighboring country’s air force or artillery. Summary executions are commonplace.

The Gulf War, initially fought in the south, gradually spread to the north, from Khuzistan to Qasr-i Shirin in southern Kurdistan and finally, in the summer and autumn of 1983, as far as the northernmost part of the common border. The Iranian army at last took control of the border area that had been held by the peshmergas of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI). Aided by the seasoned em>peshmergas of the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), now led by Mustafa Barzani’s sons, Iranian troops entered Iraqi Kurdistan at two points, which they have occupied ever since. Iraq responded by sending more troops into Kurdistan as well, and by stepping up its recruitment of paramilitary units among the Kurdish tribes.

Control of territory and population became even more crucial on both sides than it had been before the war. In Iraq, severe repression alternated with attempts to co-opt parts of the Kurdish movement; the Iranian regime has been altogether more uncompromising. Both parts of Kurdistan are subject to an economic blockade, meant to hit the guerrilla groups but hurting especially the common village population. In the fall of 1985, Iraq opened its latest offensive to destroy the social bases of the Kurdish resistance. Troops arrested masses of suspected sympathizers in the towns and, according to Amnesty International, killed at least 300 civilians. [1] Among those arrested were at least 300 children between the ages of 10 and 14, many of whom were allegedly tortured. [2] Refugees report that many Kurdish villages in districts far removed from the front have been recently destroyed. Villagers are forced to live under permanent military surveillance in huge camps, under appalling conditions, along with tens of thousands of earlier deportees.

Eager though both Iran and Iraq are to pacify their own Kurds, each has an obvious interest in keeping alive the Kurdish resistance in the neighboring country. Iran has given quite substantial support to Barzani’s sons and their Iraqi KDP, and to a few ostensibly Islamic groups of Iraqi Kurds. Iraq has given money, logistical support and arms to the two major organizations of Iran—the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and the Komala, a smaller, radical left organization.

These alliances have contributed to further division among the Kurds. The Iraqi KDP, which has long had bases in northern Iranian Kurdistan, engaged in several minor clashes with the KDPI after the Iranian revolution, and in 1982 these Iraqi Kurds assisted the Iranian army in expelling Iranian Kurds from strategic positions near the Turkish border. Inside Iraq, there have been clashes between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Barzani’s long-time rival Jalal Talabani. For several years now, the PUK has also been feuding with the smaller Socialist Party of (Iraqi) Kurdistan (SPKI) and the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), who cooperate with the KDP in a joint front. In Iran, the KDPI and the Komala have declared war on each other and are contesting control of certain districts. Another measure of the lack of unity among the Kurds is that both the Iraqi and the Iranian governments have been able to recruit considerable numbers of Kurds, usually tribal-based, to fight on the government side against the nationalist organizations.

In the early 1970s, the situation seemed quite different: the Kurds had one (almost) undisputed leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, who had united virtually all nationalist Kurds of Iraq under his leadership, and also largely subordinated Kurdish activity in Iran, Turkey and Syria to the interests of the struggle in Iraq. Kurds of Iraq, Turkey and Syria lent logistic and financial support; small numbers of them even joined the struggle in Iraq; and Barzani kept them from engaging in open rebellion against their own central governments, knowing that he could only take on the Iraqi government as long as Turkey and Iran would not cut off his supply lines.

The real extent of Barzani’s dependence on Iran, from the late 1960s on, became clear only when he was suddenly sold out by the shah in March 1975. The entire movement collapsed within a matter of weeks. There is still great resentment against Barzani and his closest advisers, both among the Iraqi Kurds who started asking themselves too late what they had really been fighting for, and among those of Iran and Turkey, who accused Barzani of collusion with the SAVAK and the MIT (the Iranian and Turkish state security and intelligence organizations). At least some of the present conflicts among the Kurds have their roots in the Barzani period and in the struggle between ambitious leaders for succession to Barzani’s unique position. To some extent also, these conflicts are inherent in the nature of Kurdish society, where local and regional loyalties and enmities are slow to give way to national or class solidarity.

Conflicting Social Bases

Kurdish nationalism had its roots in two distinct social strata. The first was the urban educated classes. These were people aware of modern political ideologies who witnessed the development of Arab and Turkish nationalism into vigorous political movements. They were eager for a political role of their own. The second base was the tribal milieu, resentful of and resistant to increasing government interference. These two strata are not isolated from one another: many urban intellectuals originate from families of tribal chieftains, while most tribesmen have by now been exposed to the modern political ideas of nationalism, participatory democracy and socialism. The parties led by urban intellectuals have always been painfully aware that without the support of the tribes they would remain powerless; one of the most frequent accusations leveled against party leaders is that of “tribalism.”

Nevertheless, it has always been easy to recognize the tribal and the urban-intellectual poles within the Kurdish movement. Their perceptions, their political ideas and the nature of their nationalism have remained rather different from one another, and they have often been at political loggerheads. Most tribes resent interference in their affairs by a political party as much as that by the government. The frequent feuds and power conflicts between rival chieftains make it almost impossible to have the tribes cooperate towards some distant and abstract political objective. One chieftain’s joining the movement often led to his rivals’ remaining aloof or even opposing it.

The Kurdish nationalists in Iraq always faced at least equal numbers of Kurdish tribesmen fighting on the government side (thus receiving arms and money and maintaining a degree of independence from outside interference). Urban politicians, on the other hand, have at times turned against the mainstream of the Kurdish movement and reached agreements with the central governments under pretexts that were unintelligible and unacceptable to the tribesmen. Both groups suspect the other of inherent tendencies to betrayal–and both have a few convincing instances to cite.

There is yet another dividing line in Kurdish society. However much the nationalists prefer to ignore or minimize its importance, it continues to be a major factor in the Kurds’ disunity and political rivalries. These are the linguistic and more generally cultural differences between the speakers of the northern (Kurmanji) and the southern (Sorani) dialects. [3] The Kurmanji dialects are spoken by the Kurds of Turkey and Syria, in Bahdinan (the northernmost part of Iraqi Kurdistan), and in the districts west of Lake Urumiya in Iran. Further south, dialects of the Sorani group are spoken, giving way in the southernmost part of Kurdistan, around Khaniqin and Kermanshah, to still other dialects.

Among the Kurmanji speakers, tribal relations are much more in evidence than in the Sorani-speaking districts (although they are certainly not absent there). Most of the important Kurdish towns of Iraq and Iran are located in the Sorani-speaking zone, and during the past century most intellectual discourse among the Kurds has been in Sorani. This is largely due to the fact that Iraq was the only country where it was possible to publish books, journals and newspapers in Kurdish (subject to the same censorship as Arabic writing). In Turkey this has been absolutely forbidden; Kurmanji remained undeveloped except for a few publications in exile. In Iran and Iraq, the Sorani-speaking parts are both economically and culturally more advanced than the mountainous Kurmanji-speaking districts, and the people of these two zones tend to entertain the mutual prejudices common in such situations: the “Soran” often find the “Kurmanj” primitive and fanatical in religious affairs, but they acknowledge their fighting prowess; the “Kurmanj” often see the “Soran” as unmanly, unreliable and culturally arrogant.

Two Poles

In Iraq, the district of Barzan (in Bahdinan) and the city of Sulaimaniyya have long served as the two poles of the Kurdish movement—one highly tribal, in the heart of the Kurmanji-speaking area; the other the center of Sorani urban culture. (In Iran, the tribal area west of Urumiya and the town of Mahabad comprise similar opposites.) [4] Iraq’s Kurdish political parties emerged in or around Sulaimaniyya, and the city produced a disproportionate number of party activists.

Mullah Mustafa Barzani was born into a family of religious leaders that wielded a great influence among the tribes of Barzan and its surroundings. From an early age, he had often led his family’s followers in fights against rival tribes and against the British (later Arab) government of Iraq when it started interfering in regional affairs. Although Barzani was (indirectly) one of the founders of Iraq’s KDP and officially its president, Barzani and the party represented in the early 1960s different, almost opposite, wings of the Kurdish movement. Barzani finally subdued the other tribes and KDP as well; he and his sons on the one hand, and his chief rival Talabani on the other, have for the past twenty years represented the opposite poles in the Kurdish movement. Barzani often had the support of urban, educated Sorani-speakers, while Talabani has always had to depend on tribal support as well. At the same time, the young urban population of the Sorani-speaking districts has always been more attracted by Talabani’s radical and progressive political pronouncements than by Barzani’s simple and pragmatic nationalism, while Talabani never gained a foothold in Kurmanji-speaking Bahdinan.

At present the political spheres of influence are neatly divided: Talabani’s PUK controls almost all the Sorani-speaking districts; Bahdinan is firmly in the hands of Barzani’s sons Idris and Mas‘ud and their KDP. [5] Other groups can only be active in Iraqi Kurdistan with the consent of either of these two parties. In Iran, the same polarization exists, although it is less important there. The Iraqi KDP has long had bases and camps in the Kurmanji-speaking, tribal north of Iranian Kurdistan. [6] Iranian Kurds have repeatedly accused Idris Barzani of trying to foment anti-Soran feeling among the tribes there in order to break them apart from the KDPI, which initially had a strong position in these Kurmanji-speaking districts. A few young members of the tribal elite supported the KDPI; most of the powerful chieftains preferred to keep aloof, but some of them took the side of the Barzanis when the first clashes between the (Iraqi) KDP and the KDPI took place in 1980 and 1981. In 1982 the KDP, supported by the Iranian army and revolutionary guards, succeeded in driving the KDPI’s peshmergas from these districts, with at least the passive support of the local tribes. The army took formal control, but in practice the tribes remain almost independent, as long as they acknowledge Tehran’s authority.

Class Contradictions

The more radical Kurdish organizations, such as the Iranian and the Iraqi Komala, tend to present the differences and conflicts within the Kurdish movement in terms of class conflict. They perceive themselves as the vanguard of the proletariat and the poor peasantry. The Iraqi KDP, in their view, is an unashamedly feudal organization and the KDPI is an alliance of the urban bourgeoisie and the tribal-feudal elite. This view is at first sight convincing, even if it does not correspond with these organizations’ self-perception. The (Iraqi) KDP finds its support almost exclusively in the tribal milieu now, and has been courting landowning chieftains both in Iraq and in Iran; most of the cadres of the KDPI belong to the urban middle classes—teachers, officials, traders—while a few belong to the tribal or landowning elite. The party has been careful not to alienate the tribes.

But the composition of a party’s leadership does not by itself show which class that party represents. The vast majority of leading members of all Kurdish organizations originates from either the tribal and landed elites or from the (relatively) educated urban middle class. As opponents of the (Iranian) Komala were quick to point out, several of its leaders do in fact have “feudal” backgrounds. Even a party’s program may be misleading as to its class position; the only clear criterion is its attitude in cases of actual class conflict. In this respect, all parties can quote at least a few cases where they opposed “feudal” and tribal chieftains—usually those who sided with the central government against the Kurdish movement. On the other hand, most if not all the parties also happily welcomed the support of “patriotic” chieftains.

The struggle against the central governments and strengthening of nationalist sentiment among the Kurdish population have tended to cover up the existing class contradictions. In Iraqi Kurdistan there were many violent clashes between landless peasants and landlords during the 1950s; in 1959 many landlords were even forced to flee the country. Such conflicts became extremely rare after the Kurdish war had started in 1961.

Something similar could be seen in Iran after the revolution. When the central government’s effective authority fell away in the first months of 1979, many former landlords tried to reassume control of the lands that had been taken away from them in the shah’s land reform. Some expelled peasants; others tried to collect their old feudal dues. Peasants then received support from young educated people from the towns, who found here the sort of cause that they were looking for in their revolutionary fervor. Various left organizations, including the Komala and the People’s Feda‘i, tried to organize peasants to expel the landlords from the region; the KDPI prevented tribal chieftains near Mahabad from taking feudal dues. In the Urumiya and Marivan districts, the landlords successfully invoked the support of the (pro-government) Islamic committees and initially also of revolutionary guards (Pasdaran) against these “communists.” According to the leftists, military units loyal to the Barzanis also intervened on the landlords’ side. [7]

In the summer of 1979, when these conflicts were sharpest, the class divide seemed to coincide with that between supporters and opponents of the central government. In the course of the fighting in the following months, the radical left groups could not defend the peasants whom they had at first organized and incited to more radical action against the landlords. The peasants had to suffer the reprisals alone. As a result, the Komala and other radical groups lost popular support.

The KDPI had been more circumspect: it never frontally attacked tribal chieftains and landlords, and did not organize the peasants for class action. It tried to enlist the support of peasants and landlords for its nationalist political objectives, but when necessary protected the former against incursions by the latter. The Pasdaran, on the other hand, who generally held populist ideas and were motivated against economic exploitation, stopped blindly supporting the landlords against the peasants and more selectively turned against leftists and Kurdish nationalists. In 1980, there were already far fewer landlord-peasant conflicts than in the previous year, and the alliances on both sides were much less clear-cut. I am not aware of any violent class conflicts in the following years, when the war between the central government and the Kurdish movement was in full swing.

Guerrilla War in Iraq, 1976-1985

After the collapse of the Kurdish movement in 1975, the Iraqi government embarked upon a two-pronged policy of coopting large numbers of Kurds and simultaneously implementing drastic measures to strike against any revival of Kurdish hostilities. The government-created “autonomous region” comprised only a part of Iraqi Kurdistan, though it was favored with many economic development projects that benefitted a large part of the population. At the same time however, the “Arabization” of the oil-rich districts of Kirkuk and Khaniqin, as well as some areas in the northwest (Shaikhan and Sinjar) continued: Kurds were deported, and Arab peasants, some of them allegedly from Egypt, settled in their stead. [8]

In 1976, the government started evacuating a zone 10 to 20 kilometers wide, all along the Iraq-Iran border. Villages were entirely destroyed, and their inhabitants forced to live in new settlements near the cities. In the north, too, government forces destroyed many villages, cutting down fruit trees and filling water wells with concrete. This repression and evacuation affected not only rebellious villages, like those of the Barzan district, but also some tribes which had always fought on the government side, against Barzani. They, too, were forced to leave their villages. Most deportees were given money, and for some the move may even have meant an economic improvement. [9] Still, most villagers resented their deportation; here and there they tried to resist. This instigated the early resumption of guerrilla warfare. Students from Sulaimaniyya belonging to the clandestine Komala joined such militant peasants in attacks against army units sent to destroy villages.

Meanwhile, several Kurdish organizations were being established abroad. The Komala joined the PUK as one of its three components. In 1977, the PUK established its headquarters in Kurdistan, and so did a part of the KDP. Both organizations initially had only several hundred peshmergas, but they were highly mobile and able to carry out hit-and-run attacks at great distances from their headquarters. As soon as word spread of a new guerrilla movement, former peshmergas who lived abroad or who were frustrated after they had accepted Baghdad’s amnesty in 1975 made their way to Kurdistan and joined the movements. Most of those who joined belonged to the groups directly affected by the deportations or other repressive measures.

Most other Kurds doubted the wisdom of armed struggle in this phase, since the small guerrilla groups could at best be a nuisance to the government. Even when, in 1978, the Iraqi Communist Party was forced to leave the ruling National Front and allied itself with the Kurdish opposition, its chances of success did not appreciably increase. A violent fight between the two Kurdish organizations, which wiped out large parts of the PUK, caused a further loss of morale. Moreoever, the very significant economic growth of the late 1970s, a result of the oil boom, conciliated many Kurds who did not directly experience government repression. The guerrilla groups found that they could not count on the mass support that they had hoped for.

This was the situation on the eve of the Gulf War, which brought many changes. The major military operations in the south forced the Iraqi army to relinquish its close control of Kurdistan. Many of the Kurds who had been deported to southern Iraq were allowed to return to Kurdistan, where they were housed in camps. Thousands of them escaped from there to the zones controlled by the Kurdish parties. Iran stepped up its military and financial support of the KDP and other guerrilla groups. Actual guerrilla activity, however, remained at a low level.

The various parties had greater freedom of movement and found it easier to establish contacts with the civilian population than before, but their competition for control of land and people became increasingly violent. The ICP and the SPKI initially had bases in the same valley as the PUK, with which they cooperated. After they formed a National Democratic Front with the rival KDP, though, their relations with the PUK rapidly deteriorated. The PUK ultimately expelled them from the entire Sorani-speaking area.

When the Gulf War reached Kurdistan in 1983 the KDP took part in the Iranian offensive, virtually as the Iranian army’s scouts. The PUK declared it would resist this invasion. The offensive forced the PUK out of its headquarters on the border, and deeper into Iraq. The following year, Talabani went to the negotiating table in Baghdad.

Until the 1983 offensive, Baghdad’s policies had been conciliatory. Faced with mass desertions by its Kurdish soldiers in January 1983, it amnestied the deserters and ruled that the Kurds could serve in the army corps stationed in the relatively quiet north instead of in the dangerous south. At the same time, it entered secret negotiations with all Kurdish organizations. [10]

After the offensive, it took severe reprisals, especially against those associated with the Barzanis. Eight thousand men, originally from villages in the Barzan region but then living in the camps of Qushtapa and Diyana, were driven off to an unknown destination and nothing has been heard from them since. Similarly, relatives of Barzani who lived in Baghdad (and had been cooperating with the government) disappeared. Military presence in Kurdistan was stepped up, and actions against the guerrillas were carried out more systematically and with greater ruthlessness, especially after the negotiations with the PUK had broken down. Meanwhile, unprecedented numbers of tribesmen were recruited into irregular regiments designed to protect their districts against Iranian invasion as well as against the nationalist Kurdish groups. Recent visitors to Iraqi Kurdistan estimated the number of these irregulars at 150,000 or even more. When these measures, and the economic blockade, did not sufficiently affect the guerrilla groups, the government had recourse once more to reprisals against civilians.

Iranian Kurdistan Since the Revolution

The sudden eruption of nationalism among the Iranian Kurds in 1979 came as a surprise, even to many of the Kurds themselves. Until then, discontent was directed against the shah, his imperial alliances and his nouveaux-riches clientele. The outburst of Kurdish nationalism after the revolution certainly contrasts with the absence of similar movements among the neighboring Azeris and the Arabs of the southwest. This cannot simply be ascribed to most Kurds’ being Sunni Muslims. It is true that the Kurds of Kermanshah, most of them Shi‘a, keep aloof from the Kurdish movement or even actively oppose it. But in 1946, when religion played no role at all, they also opted for the central government rather than the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. There were sectarian clashes in some mixed (Sunni-Shi’i) Kurdish villages in 1979, but they were short-lived and not repeated since. Sunni sentiment has been of minor importance in the Kurds’ attitude towards the new Islamic Republic. [11]

An explanation of the difference between the response of the Kurds and Iran’s other ethnic minorities lies in the way political organizations and leaders channeled popular revolutionary sentiment during and immediately after the revolution. In most parts of Iran, religious and socialist revolutionaries of all ideological shades directed their efforts towards obtaining influence in the central institutions of the state. They engaged in tactical alliances with, or made concessions to, the heterogeneous power block around Khomeini. In Kurdistan, uniquely, there were two organizations with a history and a social base that from the very beginning demanded autonomy for their region and put the central government’s institutions on a secondary plane.

During most of 1979, these organizations could freely organize the population and broadcast their political ideas. The regime’s first offensives only had the effect of strengthening the Kurds&rsuqo; nationalism and separatism. Another factor is that the Iranian Kurds had witnessed the Kurdish movement in Iraq and had received hundreds of thousands of refugees after the collapse of that movement in 1975. Barzani himself was generally disliked because of his collaboration with the shah’s regime, but events in Iraq nevertheless stimulated the national awareness of Iran’s Kurds as well.

This did not mean direct Iraqi Kurdish influence. The Kurds of Iran are as much Iranians as they are Kurds, and in the political ideas current in the early 1980s there is little influence from the Iraqi Kurds. Even the Kurdish words for such concepts as “autonomy” are different in Iran and Iraq. The development of political discourse in Iranian Kurdistan was mainly the work of the KDPI and the Komala.

In the revolutionary year of 1978, there were large demonstrations in most of the Kurdish towns, and these were not noticeably different from those elsewhere in Iran. The demonstrators demanded the liberation of political prisoners, basic civil liberties and the like. There were no specifically Kurdish demands. But the religious aspect, so prominent elsewhere, was lacking here. In June 1978, the burial of an old KDPI leader who had only recently been released after 25 years in prison turned into a large anti-government demonstration with vague nationalist overtones, but throughout that year the demand of autonomy, so fundamental later, was not yet heard. After the fall of the Pahlavi regime, in February 1979, representatives of various political groups from all over Kurdistan met and formulated eight demands which they sent to the provisional government. One of these referred to self-determination for all Iran’s people, within a federal state. Most of the other points concerned social and economic justice and revolutionary democracy.

The vagueness of these demands, and the frequent changes in their formulation during the following months, reflected the amorphous and fluid political situation in Kurdistan in those days. There was a proliferation of political groups, Kurdish as well as all-Iranian, most of them richer in enthusiasm than in experience. Only the KDPI had a clear political program (dating from its third congress in 1973), but it had a shortage of good cadres and therefore could not yet dominate the discussion. In these circumstances, Izzaddin Husayni, a charismatic mullah from Mahabad, emerged as the recognized spokesman for the Kurds. He had excellent contacts with the radical left youth groups, had a reputation as a nationalist, and was acceptable to the more conservative segments of society because of his religious legitimation.

Complications and Clashes

The negotiations between the Kurds and the central government were initially thwarted by the multiplicity of power centers on both sides. The situation was further complicated by the presence, immediately behind the Iraqi and Turkish borders, of unknown numbers of partisans of the ancien regime led by notorious generals (such as Palizban, Uvayssi and Aryana) who tried to destabilize the new regime by carrying out raids into Iran. The Kurdish organizations were suspected, incorrectly it would seem, of collusion with these royalists. Moreover, all sorts of local conflicts suddenly assumed much wider importance when the parties to these conflicts allied themselves with the central government or with (a faction of) the Kurdish movement. In the spring and summer of 1979, several of these local conflicts led to violent clashes between Kurdish and pro-government forces. The first large military offensive against the Kurds, in August 1979, was triggered by such a local clash in the town of Paveh.

The KDPI and, to a lesser extent, the Komala rapidly built networks of party branches and recruited party members and peshmergas, whom they gave political education and military training. In the context of the heated political discussions of the spring and summer of 1979, their conceptions of autonomy and popular sovereignty gained wide acceptance. After the first government offensive in August 1979, the KDPI emerged as the dominant political (and military) force in Kurdistan, and in the following years it further consolidated this position.

The strength of the Kurdish resistance to the summer offensive of 1979 forced the government to reopen negotiations and offer, as a concession to the demand of autonomy, a form of administrative decentralization. [12] This was the most far-reaching offer ever made to the Kurds, but the KDPI rejected it as insufficient. It did guarantee certain cultural rights, such as the free use of Kurdish (and other minority languages), but did not recognize the Kurds as a nation. Also, the proposed decentralization was likely to cut Kurdistan into a number of districts, each including many non-Kurdish regions as well.

A major stumbling block in all negotiations has been the Islamic regime’s consistent refusal to speak in terms of national rights. But this was not the only reason why the KDPI rejected the proposal. Izzaddin Husayni, with his radical supporters and the Komala, refused even to negotiate with the government, which they denounced as reactionary and more dictatorial than the shah’s, and the majority of the Kurdish population seemed to support this attitude. With a conciliatory posture, the KDPI would risk losing a part of its popular support to the more radical groups. Moreover, the proposal originated with the “liberal” wing of the regime, and people expected that the more fundamentalist factions would later not feel bound by it. Finally, the Kurds underestimated the strength of the regime, believing that it would either fall or could be forced to make further concessions.

It is not clear whether Iraq influenced the KDPI’s rejection of the government’s offer (and other proposals in the following year). When the pro-Tudeh wing of the KDPI broke away a few months later, it accused Qasimlu of close contacts with the Baghdad regime, but did not produce any evidence that party policies were affected by this. When Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, the KDPI proposed to Tehran a ceasefire and offered to fight the invader, provided Tehran gave in to its basic demands. There was no response. In fact, the government stepped up its military operations against the Kurds along with those on the Iraqi front. Since the beginning of the Gulf War, the KDPI has become even more dependent on Iraq. But unlike the Iraqi KDP, it appears to have guarded its independence in its major policy decisions.

As compared with the first year after the revolution, the situation is much less complex now. Only one of the original power centers in Tehran is left, the one least likely to make concessions to the Kurds. On the Kurdish side, the KDPI is clearly the major power. Early in 1982 it joined the National Resistance Council, formed the preceding year by Bani Sadr and Mas‘ud Rajavi of the People’s Mujahidin Organization after their escape from Iran to France. Bani Sadr was at last willing to give in to the KDPI’s demand of autonomy. This coincided with a shift in the party’s long-term objectives: the new program adopted at the Fifth Party Congress (December 1981) called for the overthrow of the Khomeini regime before even referring to any specifically Kurdish demands. Until 1983, the KDPI had permanent control of vast areas in Kurdistan, and functioned there as a government—constructing roads, building houses, organizing schools and hospitals, even administering a court of law with an experienced and professional judge. A major Iranian offensive in the summer of 1983, in which the Iraqi KDP took active part, ended this experience. KDPI headquarters are now across the Iraqi border.

There are no “liberated areas” in Iran any more, but the peshmergas still penetrate deep into Iran and stay there for weeks or even months on end, supported by the villagers and townspeople. As in Iraq, the Kurds can be a considerable nuisance to the government, but they do not pose a real threat. The KDPI’s partners in the National Resistance Council never became the formidable force they once promised to be. This is probably why the party reversed its position again. In the summer of 1984, recognizing that the Islamic regime had at least the passive support of the majority of Iran’s population, the KDPI signaled its readiness to negotiate. The negotiations were broken off in an early stage, ostensibly because the Kurds insisted on autonomy. (The government replied that there is no basis for this in the Quran.) Nevertheless, the KDPI left the National Resistance Council, which objected to its negotiating with the government at all. Shortly thereafter, in January 1985, the Komala and the KDPI declared war on one another. The KDPI clearly had the upper hand. Cynics (there are many among the Kurds) believe that this is the prelude to a new round of negotiations, between the only two forces in Iran that have been able to consolidate themselves. [13]

Religion and Politics

Most Kurdish villagers are intensely pious but usually tolerant of other opinions. Many urban Kurds have very liberal religious ideas. Religious-political organizations have not been numerically important during the past decade, but Tehran’s persistent efforts to create and/or reinforce them require some comment.

The Shi‘i Kurds of the Kermanshah region, who kept aloof from the Kurdish movement, have provided considerable numbers of “Muslim peshmergas” to help the government fight the nationalist and leftist Kurds. There are, to my knowledge, no specifically Kurdish Shi‘i organizations, but in the largely Sunni Kurdish town of Sanandaj, the first year of the revolution saw the emergence of a Sunni religious organization as the political rival of the Komala. Its leader, Muftizade, a graduate from al-Azhar in Cairo, had a program of Islam, cultural rights, administrative decentralization and anti-communism. His ideas were close to Bani Sadr’s, and his was the only organization of Iranian Kurds willing to cooperate with the central government, indicating that Sunni-Shi‘i differences were not the cause of the Kurds’ opposition to the Islamic regime. After the first central government offensive, which cost Sanandaj many casualties, Muftizade and his followers had to leave town to escape the wrath of the vast majority of the population. They have not been able to play a significant role since, especially after the fall of Bani Sadr.

Izzaddin Husayni, who had been designated as the Kurds’ spokesman, was also a cleric, but that was hardly the reason for his popularity. He found his strongest support among the radical left groups. His role was eclipsed when the KDPI and the Komala consolidated their party organizations.

Since the beginning of the Gulf War, Iran has attempted to set up explicitly Muslim organizations among the Iraqi Kurds, but with little success. The (Iran-sponsored) Supreme Council of Islamic Resistance in Iraq has only one Kurdish member, “Shaikh” Muhammad Najib Barzinji. Notwithstanding the occasional appearance of his photograph in the fundamentalist press as the “leader of the Kurdish Muslim warriors,” he is but a simple village imam, without followers.

Only slightly more substantial was the “Kurdish Muslim Army” established in 1980 by Abbas Shabak, a former associate of Jalal Talabani. Shabak had established good contacts in Tehran; he received money and arms with which to recruit peshmergas among the still-numerous Iraqi Kurdish refugees living in Iran. In its best days, this group could boast over a thousand armed men. The PUK tolerated their operations in its territory but apparently infiltrated them; in 1982 or 1983, after the PUK captured all its arms, the Kurdish Muslim Army rapidly disintegrated.

Iran’s most reliable ally among the Iraqi Kurds has always been the KDP. This is not an Islamic organization; moreover, it cooperates with the Iraqi Communist Party. The search for more Islamic allies therefore continued. In the summer of 1985, Idris and Mas‘ud Barzani’s cousin, Muhammad Khalid, the present shaikh of Barzan, [14] appeared on the scene and proclaimed himself “Kurdish Hizballah.” He entered northeastern Iraq with a large body of men, aided by Iranian troops. He sent ultimatums to the ICP and the SPKI headquarters, urging them to immediately evacuate the “sacred soil of Barzan.” Both took the threat rather seriously, although by November the shaikh had not yet reached Barzan. Muhammad Khalid is reportedly well-armed, and his men are recruited from among Iraqi Kurdish refugees in Iran who are most loyal to his family. He represents a otentially formidable force in the Bahdinan area.

Turkey’s Role

In May 1983, Turkish troops crossed into Iraq, ostensibly to capture Kurdish activists from Turkish Kurdistan who had found refuge in the districts controlled by the KDP. Baghdad acknowledged that it had permitted a Turkish military operation of limited scope to hunt down “smugglers” and “terrorists.” If this was the only aim of the intervention, it was not very successful: after a few clashes with peshmergas, the Turkish troops halted their advance. The peshmergas (of the KDP and the SPKI) avoided major confrontations, but refused to extradite Turkish Kurds. The Turkish troops finally withdrew without having captured a single person. [15]

This intervention was a part of Turkey’s attempts to improve coordination and cooperation with its neighbors in suppressing Kurdish nationalism. By agreement with Iraq, the armies of both countries can cross into each other’s territories to track down Kurdish guerrilla fighters. Turkey has failed to reach a similar agreement with Iran so far. Iran carefully guards its territorial sovereignty and is wary of other uses that might be made of such an agreement. There are, after all, American military installations in eastern Turkey, and Iranian royalist counterrevolutionaries have been welcome there too.

Turkey considers the Kurdish movements of Iraq and Iran as threats to its own security in several ways. In the 1960s and 1970s, the guerrilla struggle in Iraq and later in Iran strongly affected the national awareness of the Kurds of Turkey as well. Groups in Turkish Kurdistan organized support for the Kurdish parties in Iraq and Iran. In this way they became better acquainted with the situation in the other parts of Kurdistan. After the September 1980 military coup in Turkey, many cadres of the Kurdish organizations there fled to Iranian or Iraqi Kurdistan and remained in contact with their supporters in Turkey from across the border. The Worker’s Party of Kurdistan (PKK) even established military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, under the protective umbrella of the KDP. Since August 1984, the PKK has been carrying out spectacular guerrilla activities in Turkey’s eastern provinces. [16]

The PKK was probably the major target of Turkey’s invasion into Iraq, even though it had then not yet started its armed actions in Turkey. In October 1984, Turkish newspapers wrote about an imminent new invasion in Iraq, and throughout the summer of 1985 troops were concentrated in the border area again. There never was a second invasion, but the threat had its effects: Turkish trucks were no longer held up by the PKK on the Cizre-Mosul-Baghdad road, the oil pipeline from Mosul to Iskenderun (vital to both Turkey and Iraq) was not cut, and in the late summer of 1985 the KDP prevented the PKK from carrying out further raids into Turkey from its territory.

It is unlikely that Turkey is sufficiently satisfied with these successes. The (very limited) guerrilla warfare carried on by the PKK in eastern Turkey is only one of its worries. It is Kurdish national awareness as such that Turkey’s rulers perceive as a threat to their country’s territorial integrity; and they are committed to the eradication of this national awareness, and of everything suggesting a separate Kurdish identity. Turkey will continue to persecute ruthlessly all its own Kurdish nationalists, and will persist in its efforts to coordinate operations against the Kurds with Iraq and Iran. Unlike Iran and Iraq, who have thus far tried to use each other’s Kurds as tactical allies in their conflicts, Turkey has a perceived interest in the suppression of all Kurdish movements in its neighbor countries.

One of the effects of the Gulf War has been the increased role of the opposing governments in providing logistic and financial support to the Iraqi KDP and the KDPI. This, and the fighting in Kurdistan, made it possible for these organizations to consolidate their positions at the expense of smaller and more radical rival groups. The process was clearest in Iraq. After the outbreak of the Gulf War, many villagers and townspeople fled from the government-controlled areas to the zones held by the Kurdish organizations. Only those organizations with both territorial control and financial resources to support these new arrivals could profit from their presence. The KDP, supported by Iran, and the PUK, then supported by Syria and Libya, in this way accrued more reinforcements than the SPKI and the ICP. The KDP soon controlled large areas near the Turkish border and could attract many of the peasants who had previously been deported from those zones, thus recreating a normal economic life there and giving its guerrilla a stronger base.

Further south, the zones actually controlled by the Kurdish movements were much smaller: until 1983, the PUK shared control with the SPKI and the ICP. Most Kurds deplored the PUK’s violent attack on the headquarters of these parties, but it did have the desired effect. The PUK firmly established its superiority and attracted new supporters, while the weaker party’s losses were much more serious than the military defeat alone. This is illustrated by current estimates of the Iraqi Kurdish parties’ military strength. [17] In 1981, the KDP had some 2000 peshmergas in Iraq, the SPKI and the ICP also around 2000 each, and the PUK some 3000; by 1985, the KDP’s forces had grown to 6000, the SPKI’s had dwindled to less than a thousand, the ICP’s to just over a thousand, while the PUK could boast 5000 armed men. The PUK owed its growth to a large extent to its violent competition with its rivals, a tribal style of politics that was initially alien to this organization. It is not clear whether the PUK now has outside financial support. Syria seems at present to support the KDP instead, since the PUK had broken with Damascus in order to negotiate with Baghdad. To some extent it can finance itself with local contributions and taxation, especially surcharges on smuggling, but these sources of revenue are probably dwindling under the present wartime conditions. If it does not find a foreign sponsor, the PUK will soon have to demobilize its peshmergas, which will further strengthen the KDP.

The KDP depends even more on the Islamic Republic than Barzani ever depended on the shah. Mas‘ud and Idris Barzani perceive an identity of interest with the Tehran government. The KDP is the only Kurdish organization that agrees with Iran’s determination to continue the war until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. This is also why they give crucial military support to Iranian offensives in northern Iraq, even if this means that they have to relinquish control of parts of Iraqi Kurdistan to the Iranian army. This unconditional support earns the KDP sufficient financial support to recruit large numbers of peshmergas and sophisticated weaponry. The offensives towards Sulaimaniyya and Kirkuk (in the autumn of 1983 and most recently in February 1986) gave the KDP a foothold in Sorani-speaking territory. It hopes to reduce its single serious rival, the PUK, with Iranian support.

In strictly military terms, the KDP is in the best position among the Iraqi Kurdish groups, and it continues reinforcing itself. [18] This recalls the position it had under Mustafa Barzani in the late 1960s. Barzani then could reach the most promising peace agreement the Kurds ever concluded with any government. It seems highly unlikely that his sons will be able to repeat that achievement. [19]

Further Reading

On the history of the various Kurdish political formations: Chris Kutschera, Le mouvement national kurde (Paris: Flammarion, 1979). A survey of all Kurdish organizations as of 1983-84 (not without some factual mistakes): Christiane More, Les Kurdes d'aujourdhui. Mouvement national et partis politiques (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1984). The best (though inadequate) treatment in English is Gerard Chaliand, ed., People Without a Country (London: Zed Press, 1980).


[1] Amnesty International, Urgent Action Appeal UA 363/85, December 20, 1985.
[2] Ibid, UA 09/86, January 20,1986.
[3] These are the names most frequently used for the two major dialect groups, but they are, strictly speaking, misnomers. There is no agreement among Kurds or scholars on the terms to be used. Apart from these two groups, there are still other dialects spoken in Kurdistan, and all these linguistic differences have at one time or another had political consequences. See my Agha, Shaikh and State [revised edition] (Berlin, 1986), Sections I.f and II.l.
[4] See van Bruinessen, “Kurdish Tribes and the State of Iran: the Case of Simko’s Revolt,” in Richard Tapper, ed., The Conflict of Tribe and State in Iran and Afghanistan (London and New York, 1983), pp.364-400.
[5] By “control” I do not mean that there are “liberated areas” militarily controlled by Kurdish organizations, as existed in Iraqi Kurdistan until 1975 and in Iran from 1979 to 1983. In fact, the government holds all the towns, and can send patrols wherever it wishes. The peshmergas can, however, move around freely in their respective areas and prevent rival groups from operating there.
[6] From the late 1960s on, Barzani’s men had been coming and going through this area; several villages and camps had been assigned for refugees and for military liaison, and many Kurds from Bahdinan had continued living in the area (in the camp of Ziva and the town of Ushnuviya) after 1975. The Barzanis’ connection with Ushnuviya goes back even further: in 1945 Mullah Mustafa Barzani took refuge here with well over a thousand men and their families; some of these apparently never went back to Iraq.
[7] Some of these conflicts were widely reported in the Iranian press; on Marivan see, for instance, Ayandagan, August 4, 1979, and the Komala’s news bulletin (Khabarnama-yi Komala) of that period; on Urumiya: Sazman-i Paykar, Mubarazat-i dihqani dar Urumiyah (1979); on the Mahabad region: A. Stein, Iran: Neue Diktatur oder Fruhling der Freiheit? (Hamburg: 1979), pp.19-39; Iran ve Iran Kürdistani devrimi. (TKSP Yayinlari, 1981), pp.22-26.
[8] In November 1975, an Iraqi official spokesman said that approximately 50,000 Kurds had been sent to the southern districts of Nasriya and Diwaniya (The Times [London], November 27, 1975). Iraq grants citizenship to all Arabs and encourages their immigration. According to unofficial Egyptian estimates, there were over two million Egyptians living in Iraq in 1985. Most of them are workers, but quite a few also are peasants and have been granted land tenure.
[9] For interesting observations on this resettlement, by an anthropologist working in a development project, see Leszek Dziegiel, Rural Community of Contemporary Iraqi Kurdistan Facing Modernization (Krakow: Agricultural Academy, 1981). According to Kurdish sources, by 1983 over 20,000 Kurdish villages and hamlets had been destroyed and over 616,000 Kurds had been deported to central and southern Iraq (Pesh Merga, published in Sweden by the KDP, nos. 16/17, 1983). These figures may be inflated, but the Iraqi government itself admitted the deportation of 28,000 families (around 150,000 persons) from the border zone in two summer months in 1978 alone (al-Thawra, September 18,1978).
[10] Secret negotiations with the KDP, the SPKI and the PUK took place from the summer of 1982 on. Mahmud Osman of the SPKI, who visited Baghdad then, later said that he had been requested to provide proof that his party really controlled the area it claimed, which he interpreted as an exhortation to attack rival groups. He sees the PUK’s attack against the ICP and SPKI headquarters as dictated by a similar request. This is only one of the many complot theories current among Kurds as explanations of the conflict.
[11] Martin van Bruinessen, “Nationalisms and religioser Konflikt: der kurdische Widerstand im Iran,” in Kurt Greussing, ed., Religion und Politik im Iran (Frankfurt am Main, 1981).
[12] Rough translation of the proposal, and Qasimlu’s first reaction, in Le Monde, December 18, 1979. The text of the Kurdish counter-proposal to then-president Bani Sadr, made a week later, in Les nouvelles du Kurdistan Iranien, May 1980 (published in France by the KDPI). Negotiations, frequently interrupted, went on during the first half of 1980, without tangible result. See also Fred Halliday’s interviews with Qasimlu in MERIP Reports #98 (July-August 1981), and with Izzaddin Husayni in MERIP Reports #113 (March-April 1983).
[13] The methods of consolidation have been very different though. The KDPI has never attempted to physically eliminate its rivals, and allowed all organizations to be active in the zones it controlled, provided they did not work against it. The war with the Komala is the only exception, and to all appearances the initiative here was with the Komala.
[14] Both Idris and Mas‘ud have married daughters of Shaikh Muhammad Khalid; many therefore believe that the shaikh’s action was not without the connivance of the KDP leaders. On Muhammad Khalid and the other shaikhs of Barzan, see also my Agha, Shaikh and State, Appendix to Ch.IV.
[15] This is according to all my Iraqi and Turkish Kurdish informants. According to press reports of May 30, 1983, the Iraqi ambassador in Ankara claimed that the Turkish troops had captured 1500 to 2000 “separatists,” but this claim was apparently unfounded.
[16] A forthcoming issue of MERIP Middle East Report will include my separate discussion of the PKK campaign in Turkish Kurdistan.
[17] Based on interviews with well-informed Iraqi and Turkish Kurds. My informants’ figures varied widely, depending on the areas they had travelled in and on their political sympathies, but they agreed on the relative strengths and the trends indicated by these figures.
[18] See the reports by the only two journalists who recently visited KDP-held districts, Chris Kutschera in Le Monde, November 3-4, 1985, and Gwynne Roberts in the Financial Times, January 7 and 8, 1986. Both have visited Kurdistan many times before, which makes their reports more interesting. Roberts, always sympathetic to the Barzanis, paints a picture that is altogether too rosy; Kutschera is more realistic about the prospects of the KDP’s struggle, and shows how dependent it has become on Iran.
[19] Most of the information on which this article is based was gathered during various visits to Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan in the years 1974-1980, and in numerous interviews with Kurds who have travelled there in the following years, including members of all mentioned as well as several unmentioned organizations.

How to cite this article:

Martin Van Bruinessen "The Kurds Between Iran and Iraq," Middle East Report 141 (July/August 1986).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This