Less than five years ago, the US-led coalition against Saddam Hussein established a “safe haven” in Iraqi Kurdistan following Iraq’s brutal suppression of an uprising against the regime during March-April 1991. The mood among the majority of Iraqi Kurds was highly optimistic: A certain measure of self-rule had been forced on the central government in Baghdad, a goal for which they had been fighting for almost half a century.

The two major Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, seemed serious about fulfilling the dreams of their compatriot Kurds, who had been told that the foreign enemies had prevented them from having an independent state. With the enemy gone, the Kurds organized the first-ever democratic election of a Kurdish parliament, approved a law defining a federal relationship between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, and adopted plans to revive the economy and social services in the region.

Unfortunately, Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign of emptying the countryside and completely destroying more than 4,000 villages during the 1980s, UN sanctions against Iraq, and Baghdad’s sanctions against Kurdistan had already taken their toll on the economic base of Kurdistan. Kurds have only their labor power to offer as mercenaries for the warlords, who claimed to be leaders of a national liberation movement. The honeymoon between the two Kurdish parties lasted no more than two years. Two rounds of heavy fighting between the two parties, at the end of 1993 and the beginning of 1995, led to a de facto partition of Iraqi Kurdistan into two statelets.

When heavy military clashes erupted in Iraqi Kurdistan this summer, many Kurds feared this would be more than just a third round. The tense political atmosphere in Kurdistan led many to anticipate a full-scale civil war. The PUK’s dependence on the Iranians and the KDP’s contacts with the Iraqi regime were open secrets. Boasting of their ability to play one country against the other, the Kurdish leaders failed to realize that, or did not want to admit that, they were the pawns in a game already beyond their control.

Black September

The situation had been deteriorating for some time. The mandate of Kurdistan’s first elected parliament had ended in September 1995. Its seats had been equally divided between the two major parties. Both Talabani and Barzani conceded privately that the 50-50 deal had been strongly supported by Washington, which thought that such an outcome would at least preserve some social peace.

The Kurdish cabinet embodied the same division. Apart from a few ministerial posts given to Islamists and Communists, a minister from one of the two big parties chose his vice minister from the other party. As relations deteriorated and tensions rose, this produced total paralysis.

The crisis that exploded in 1996 began in 1994 when Barzani’s KDP refused to hand over to the Kurdish government customs revenues from the Turkish-Iraqi border point. These revenues, estimated at $35 million annually and the chief source of Kurdish government revenues, were collected at the Ibrahim al-Khalil checkpoint near Zakho, a KDP stronghold. The KDP argued that they were retaliating for the “disappearance” of some $19 million from the coffers of the Central Bank of Kurdistan, under the direction of the PUK. Following several bouts of fighting between May 1994 and July 1995, Barzani’s party controlled around one third of Iraqi Kurdistan’s territory and population. The PUK’s two thirds included the major cities of Erbil and Suleimaniya, leaving Barzani with only Dohuk and the less developed western part of the region. The KDP, though, still controlled the lucrative checkpoints along the Turkish border.

At the time, international, regional and local mediators convinced both parties to negotiate. As a first step, they urged the two parties to authorize their respective delegates to the parliament to vote for an exceptional amendment that would extend the parliamentary term until September 1996.

During the 18 months that Talabani’s PUK controlled Erbil, each party consolidated power over its zone of influence, cleansing from it those suspected of being sympathetic to the other party, erecting borders and checkpoints and establishing customs points for each of the two entities. These measures compounded already severe social, economic and political problems. In all major Kurdish cities, hotels, public buildings and camps are cramped with awara (aliens) — Kurds seeking refuge from, or deported by, the rival party, living on meager aid from their respective parties or recruited and sent to the front lines to face their “fraternal enemy,” leaving their families behind as awara.

Under these circumstances, the Parastin and Zanyari, the security and intelligence apparatuses of the KDP and the PUK respectively, gained the upper hand in their respective zones, each with its own prisons as well as interrogation centers. Although the Kurds have by no means replicated the reign of terror under Saddam Hussein, the grip of their own enforcement organizations has grown considerably. Stories were rampant of youths being beaten for wearing yellow shirts in Talabani’s zone or green shirts in Barzani’s zone, the colors of the KDP and the PUK respectively.

The Road to Disaster

When I visited Iraqi Kurdistan this August, a prominent PUK figure spoke with me frankly about his party’s plans. “We are not going to wait forever. The mediation efforts have led to nothing. Whether or not the KDP wants to maintain the status quo, we do not. Our people must see a functioning administration, a functioning parliament.” Did that mean holding elections in each region, formalizing separate zones? “The partition is a fact. We should not be blamed for that;” he replied.

“We do not think that a solution can be reached by force,” Muhammad Mahmoud ‘Abd al-Rahman, number two in the KDP, told me. What if the other party, controlling two thirds of Kurdistan, held elections in its region and established its government? “We will not let Erbil be used to blackmail us. We will call upon the Kurdish people to fight any faction that dares to betray our nation and partition it,” ‘Abd al-Rahman replied. Is that a call for war? “The people will decide what to do.”

Economic changes in Kurdistan have been very uneven. The western Bahdinan region witnessed a relative economic boom during the 1970s and 1980s, thanks to high demand for its agricultural products, the flourishing summer resorts and the expansion of its capital, Dohuk. Surani Kurds in the east refer to their western brethren enviously as “Kuwaiti Kurds.” Even within the eastern region of Suran, there are deep historical divisions. Suleimaniya, a city only 200 years old, has been a hotbed of Kurdish nationalism and culture, while in the ancient and bigger Erbil, old Kurds still prefer to speak Turkish at home. Perhaps this is why Dohuk saw less guerrilla activity against the Iraqi regime in the 1980s. Suran, by contrast, was a battlefield during the Iran-Iraq war, in addition to being the base area of the partisan movement and hence the target for Baghdad’s horrible retribution. Throughout the 1980s, a systematic campaign by the Iraqi regime had eradicated Suran’s agricultural capacity. Thousands of villages were depopulated and wiped out according to Human Rights Watch. The Anfal campaign of the Iraqi army in 1988 led to the deaths of some 180,000 Kurds.

A secret Iraqi government decree, captured during the 1991 popular revolt, stressed the need to increase the weight of Bahdini deputies “elected” to the rubber-stamp Kurdish Legislative Council. The structures of the leading bodies of the two major Kurdish parties reflect the divisions within Kurdish society. Of the 11 politburo members of the PUK, five are from Suleimaniya and three from Koi Sanjaq. Out of five other major non-politburo major policymakers in the PUK, four are from Suleimaniya. Although the KDP’s structure is more diversified, and real decision-making lies with the Barzani family council, the relative weight of the Bahdini Kurds is much greater than other.

While Kurds have shown great unity during their fights against Iraqi government, once the specter of a threat from Baghdad seems remote, the inner cleavages in Kurdish society come to the surface. Early in 1996, PUK troops ambushed a motorcade carrying leaders of a small, financially dependent party, the Labor Party for the Independence of Kurdistan, because they were suspected of making overtures to the KDP. Last June, the KDP attacked the village of Kalkin, killing a prominent chief of the Sorchi tribe and plundering the village after the KDP had intercepted wireless calls to PUK headquarters from the son of the village shaikh. Mamust Amin, who dared to challenge the Talabani family on their right to expel the village peasants, was not formally arrested by the Zanyari. A few days after a peasant demonstration raised the slogan “We can combat the aghas, but not the parties,” his friends found his maimed corpse.

Farsat Ahmed, the acting minister of interior, insisted that the official security apparatus is under strict discipline to obey and execute the laws, citing several examples to make his point. He confirmed, however, that his office had no authority over the two parties’ security apparatuses. “Our methods are different from those used by the PUK,” he claimed. “Tribal and humanitarian factors check our practices. Yes, we did arrest some members of the PUK during the fights, but that was aimed at saving them from revenge. Look at what they did in their occupied areas.”

Indeed, many witnesses, some of whom had been harassed, tortured or imprisoned by one of the two parties, confirmed that while the Parastin, the KDP security body headed by Karim Sanjari, may use more naive and barbaric methods, it is the Zanyari, directed by PUK politburo member Umar Fattah, that pursues a systematic policy of intimidation and surveillance. The aim of both parties was to secure a firm grip before the decisive battle.

Arm Twisting

The PUK complained that although it controlled the greater share of Iraqi Kurdistan, the KDP was in a better geostrategic and economic position. Indeed, the only external outlet for the PUK links its areas with Iran. Turkey had a lucrative trade with Iraqi Kurdistan and through it with the rest of Iraq. The PUK complained that its gains from smuggling with Iran were trivial by comparison. Moreover, while the KDP controls the border areas with Syria and Turkey, it has a pocket of territory adjacent to the Iranian border which it also uses for smuggling.

With the de facto partitioning of Kurdistan, each faction found the means to maximize its gains. Along the “internal borders” separating the region of the KDP from that of the PUK, each party established new customs points. Rather than strangling the PUK, the KDP preferred to receive import tax from the Turkish side as well as an “export” tax when the merchandise left to the PUK-controlled region. In tum, the PUK extracted an “import” tax when the same merchandise entered from the rival region, plus an export tax when goods were smuggled into Iran. In between, naturally, ordinary Kurds faced scores of checkpoints, each zone trying to extract its share of bribes, duties and taxes.

Bloody Neighbors

The neighbors of Iraqi Kurdistan have never disguised their interests in capitalizing on the region’s vulnerability. Turkish incursions to hit the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers” Party in Turkey) have become routine. The KDP finally had to swallow its pan-Kurdish slogans and agree to settle PKK members and their families in three camps near Peshder, a KDP-controlled area far from the Turkish border, and to forbid anti-Turkish operations from Iraqi territory.

Iran, looking for strategic and ideological zones of influence in Iraq, relied initially on the Kurdish Islamic parties, which it created and supported in collaboration with its archenemy, Saudi Arabia. Thus Kurdistan, which had never had “Islamic” political parties throughout its modem history, added to its “pluralistic” structure the Islamic Union (Yagirto Islami), an offshoot of the Muslim Brothers, and the Hizballah-styled Islamic Movement in Kurdistan.

The Iranian role, however, goes beyond this. Unlike Turkey, which had to deal with Iraqi Kurds only after the Gulf war, Iran, since the days of the Shah, has frequently played the Iraqi Kurdish card to gain regional influence. During the past few years, Iran played one party against the other, and entered later as a mediator. Recently the PUK tried to take advantage of Iran’s regional isolation. This culminated in this summer’s scandalous collaboration when Iranian forces marched openly through the PUK- and Iranian-controlled area and attacked a base of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDPI) that had been protected by the PUK itself, near Koi Sanjaq, 60 kilometers from the Iranian border. The Iranian force was led by Mohammed Ja’afari Sahrawardi, assistant chief of the Qods Force, Iran’s “rapid deployment” unit which has at times deployed small bands in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

The Iranians claimed they had moved in retaliation against an earlier attack by the KDPI from Iraqi territory. The PUK issued an internal directive to its cadres claiming that it had been taken by surprise and could not prevent the attack against the KDPI, until then one of their closest allies. The communique added that, after the alleged KDPI attack, the Iranians closed the borders with the Talabani-controlled region, costing the PUK some $2.2 million in less than a month. The cost-benefit analysis gave the KDP an excellent argument to show that the PUK was making as much as they were from their trade outlet with Turkey, and would have to submit an appropriate balance sheet in any prospective negotiations.

Two days after the Iranian withdrawal from Iraq, some 2,000 Kurds demonstrated in the streets of Suleimaniya, a PUK stronghold, denouncing the Iranian invasion and “those who facilitated it.” Despite some harassment from the Zanyari, the demonstration was followed by a petition organized by the Suleimaniya Women’s Federation to the same effect, collecting some 4,000 signatures in three days. In my meetings with militants and cadres from the PUK, four took out their membership cards and trampled them under foot to express their humiliation and indignation. Whatever the extent of Kurdish collaboration with the Iranians, the latter had been keeping a high profile prior to the Iraqi invasion of Erbil. In two public statements, on August 28 and 30, Mohammed Jawad Larijani, the senior adviser to the Iranian National Security Council, stressed that stability can not be achieved in Kurdistan, or in the Asian republics of the former USSR, without an active Iranian role in both regions.

Arabs and Americans

The PUK, which used to brag about its pragmatism and capacity to forge good relations even with the devil, has suffered a great loss of credibility among its traditional allies. Syria, which had opened its gates to the PUK since 1976 when the latter resumed its armed struggle against the Baathist regime in Iraq, recently seemed to tilt towards the KDP. Barzani was received almost as a head of state in Damascus a few months ago, and even attended rallies organized by Syrian Kurds. Given the sensitivity of the Syrians towards anything that might arouse the national sentiments among the Kurdish population, this was a generous gesture.

As for Baghdad, since the beginning of the civil war in Kurdistan in 1994, both the KDP and the PUK accuse each other of receiving aid from the butcher of the Kurdish people. Impartial observers have noticed new brands of heavy weaponry in the hands of both parties. It was almost certain that Saddam Hussein has supplied both parties with the means to perpetuate the civil war between the Kurds. In private talks, senior Kurdish cadres acknowledged this, adding that they are aware of the sinister plans of the dictator but that they would exploit him to achieve their own. goals. Masoud Barzani, the main recipient of Iraqi arms over the last year, constantly reminded his audience that it was Saddam Hussein who massacred some 8,000 members of the Barzani family in the mid-1980s, in addition to raping thousands of KDP women, many of whom now work as prostitutes in Kurdistan. “I may try to make use of his moves, but this is far from pardoning him or his regime,” he declared.

Despite such gestures as renaming the ‘Ayn Kawa Square in Erbil after Francois Mitterand, anti-Western sentiments are running high among Kurds of all kinds. This change in mood sharply contrasts with that which prevailed after the launching of Operation Provide Comfort in 1991. Then photographs of President George Bush adorned the windshields of KDP and PUK jeeps. The vast majority of coffee shops, restaurants and hotels in Kurdistan used to hang postcards showing a young blonde woman dressed in peshmerga (partisan) garb and carrying a Kalashnikov. No one I asked could tell me who that woman was, or when she had joined the partisan movement, but all of them swore that she was an American who “fought with us.”

Today, all traces of George Bush and the blonde peshmerga have disappeared. Ordinary Kurds say that if the West really cared, they would have forced a settlement on Kurdish parties. Other more sophisticated Kurds put their argument within an analysis of American strategy towards Iraq: “The Americans are preparing for the post-Saddam era. They know that whoever comes after him will be too weak to force a peaceful marriage between Arabs and a united Iraqi Kurdistan. A divided Kurdish front would enable the new ruler to deal with the Kurdish question more easily.”

While the western region of Bahdinan, under Masoud’s rule, was totally sympathetic with the KDP, the same could not be said about the more sophisticated and less tribal eastern region of Suran. While the sympathies of Arbil’s population were with the KDP, the communists and the PUK, on a descending scale, Suleimaniya was overwhelmingly pro-PUK. The Islamists have made gains, thanks to the widespread disappointment with the two major parties, and to the generous pay they provide to their recruits.

Not a Rainbow Coalition

Popular disenchantment with the Kurdish nationalist parties, has taken several forms. Several smaller nationalist parties had already merged themselves with one of the two big parties or disappeared altogether. Others tried to gain some maneuvering space for themselves from the relative balance of power between the two parties. There has been a slight rise in the popularity of the PKK among the Iraqi Kurds. This party, mainly a nationalist party of Turkish Kurds, has established an Iraqi front, the National Democratic Kurdistani Movement, led by Mohammed Saleh Amedi, with one office in Erbil but no military camps. It is impossible to make an estimate of their Iraqi membership. When I asked to meet several young cadre, whom I had met in 1991 as ex-prisoners in Saddam’s jails, or as communists and even Islamists, I was told that they had joined the PKK and are in one of its camps in Iraq.

The Kurdistani Communist Party, until now only a branch of the Iraqi Communist Party, has traditionally enjoyed respect and popularity in both parts of northern Iraq. It has no organized militias today, apart from the few guards at their several headquarters. Despite its chronic financial problems, however, there is evidence that it still commands a reasonable degree of popularity. In March 1995, there had been rumors of an imminent attack by Saddam’s forces against Kurdistan. Within two hours, a wireless call for mobilization by the party to its sympathizers and members brought some 3,500 men and women asking the party for arms, which it could not afford to provide. While Communism has lost some of its appeal to the youth in Kurdistan as elsewhere, its persisting popularity can be seen in the rise of many new organizations in Kurdistan, notably the Iraqi Workers Communist Party.

Kurdistan’s Quart d’Heure?

The Iraqi intervention on behalf of one of the two warring Kurdish parties marked a decisive shift in the course of events in the region. As Iraqi forces made their way into Kurdistan, they plundered public buildings and those belonging to non-Kurdish opposition parties. They conducted house-to-house arrests for those suspected of opposing Saddam’s regime. As for pro-PUK Kurds, the task was left for the KDP militias, who despite declarations of amnesty and a return to peaceful life, have committed atrocities against their rivals. PUK members, in their turn, carried out several bombings in the KDP-controlled areas, especially in Suleimaniya. When, in October 1996, the PUK regained some territory in its counterattack, it committed the same acts of execution and torture. Taking advantage of the situation, Saddam announced that he would withdraw his armed forces, but left hundreds of intelligence personnel behind.

One important outcome of this episode has been that the Kurdish parties in Iraq have been forced back to where they started in their fight for autonomy — trying to reach a settlement with Baghdad, rather than forcing a unilateral solution backed by the US. Moreover, the myth that the US can act independently of the regional powers to impose a solution has been dealt a fatal blow. Unfortunately, ordinary Kurds were the ones to pay the heavy price of America’s dual containment strategy toward Iraq and Iran.

How to cite this article:

Joost Hiltermann "The Destruction of Iraqi Kurdistan," Middle East Report 201 (Winter 1996).

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.


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