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The Politics of Betrayal


I met with Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in northern Iraq in October 1991, seven months after the end of the Gulf War. Leaving him, I felt, as I later wrote, that “Iraqis could not do better than have someone like this preside over the reconstruction of a post-Saddam Iraq.” Barzani told me then that the “pain was so deep” between his group and the Saddam Hussein government, and even between his own and some of the other Iraqi opposition groups, that it would be “very difficult to cure it.”

But if we adopt the path of forgiveness, and try to open a new page, we will be living for the next generation. For our children there must be forgiveness, otherwise we are going to dive into a sea of blood.1

He meant it. Or so I believed. He did not seem to be giving a performance designed to make a public impression. Barzani had the reputation of being a straightforward, even simple, man. In his early fifties, he is a relatively young but conservative leader, steeped in his family and tribal background. He is the son of Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish struggle for national independence against the Iraqi regime in the 1960s and 1970s, who died in exile in Washington in 1979. Massoud saw three of his brothers killed by Saddam Hussein.

He was, I thought, someone who believed in time-honored Kurdish codes of honor, loyalty, and respect. Above all, he seemed a man of his word, who was constantly and painfully aware of his people’s legacy of suffering. So impressed was I by him, and by the sentiments he expressed, that as one of the original members of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a coalition of Iraqi opposition groups, I wanted to nominate him to be the head of the organization.

The founding meeting of the INC, attended by some 170 delegates, was held in October 1992, in the town of Salahaldin, which was part of northern Iraqi territory that had come under allied protection following the war and was mainly inhabited by Kurds. I suggested to some of the other delegates that the largely symbolic head of the new Iraqi opposition movement should be nominated by members of the newly elected Kurdish Parliament, then convening in the city of Erbil. If there was one man the Kurdish parliament would agree on to be their largely symbolic leader, he would most likely be Barzani.

Those were heady days. Just after the Gulf War, there had been a revolution in Iraqi politics on the 20 percent of Iraqi soil occupied by the Kurds. Internationally observed elections were held in which most of the Kurds, amounting to 20 percent of the Iraqi people, took part; a working parliament met in the city of Erbil. Those who wanted a new and different kind of Iraq, I believed, had to build on that Kurdish experience, using northern Iraq as a base from which to bring about the country’s transformation.

All the INC delegates were aware that the Barzani name had come to stand for struggle against the dictatorship in Baghdad, and the suffering under it. And so it seemed right that he would lead the transition to a dramatically new Iraqi nation. That he was not an Arab would be a central reason for nominating him. What better way to symbolize the goal of a new post-Saddam Iraq, a non-nationalist state, one that would provide guarantees protecting the rights of its most oppressed minorities?

On Friday, August 30, 1996, the same Massoud Barzani invited Saddam Hussein back into Erbil, the seat of the Kurdish parliament since 1992. His men turned their guns against their own former comrades in the Iraqi opposition. They hit from the north while Saddam stormed into Erbil from the south with 450 tanks and some 40,000 Republican Guard troops. The KDP worked closely with the Iraqi mukhabarat, the secret police, who used the information the KDP provided to conduct house-to-house searches in Erbil. The mukhabarat penetrated deep into Iraqi Kurdistan, blowing up the TV, radio, and military installations of the Iraqi opposition and arresting every Arab they could get their hands on who had taken refuge in the previously protected northern region. (Many of them were not working for the opposition.)

As I write, several hundred members of the INC are surrounded by KDP guerrillas in Salahaldin while Barzani, whom American administration officials hold responsible for their safety, decides what to do with his former comrades. His forces, augmented by Iraqi soldiers dressed as Kurds and plainclothes police, took Koysinjaq on September 8, followed by Sulaymaniyya, the last major bastion of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein in northern Iraq, while the Kurdish opposition forces have fled to bases in the mountains on the Iranian border and thousands of Kurds are seeking refuge in Iran. During the KDP’s occupation of Erbil, the building that once housed the Kurdish parliament has become the headquarters of the Ba’athi secret police.

A five-year experiment in autonomy and self-rule has thus come tumbling down. A historic opportunity for the people of Iraqi Kurdistan and for all Iraqis has been wasted. Those who hoped to change the regime in Baghdad and to do so on liberal-democratic principles have suffered a devastating blow. That is the meaning of what has been going on in northern Iraq since early September, and that remains its central meaning, no matter how many cruise missiles hit Saddam Hussein’s largely ineffective air defense system, a system which has been irrelevant to his control over the country for the last five years.

How could I have been so wrong about Massoud Barzani? Why did the Iraqi opposition reach such an impasse?

One way of thinking about what went wrong is that of “senior administration officials” of the Clinton administration who, The New York Times reports, say they have “done all they could, but were undermined by the Kurds’ competing tribal, political and economic interests, by their ancient hatreds.”2

No doubt the Kurdish leaders have a lot to answer for. In the years before the May 1992 elections in Iraqi Kurdistan, the eight parties that formed the Iraqi Kurdistan Front had presented a united opposition to Saddam Hussein. The two largest parties, in particular, Barzani’s KDP and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—today bitter enemies—cooperated very closely during the Iraqi uprising that followed the Gulf War and during the first few years of autonomous rule. Their alliance made possible the elections of 1992, and the formation of both a parliament and the council of ministers that administered the safe-haven region. The ministers had available to them aid from Western governments and from a great many private charitable organizations, which set up local projects throughout the region. Destroyed villages began to be rebuilt, local agriculture started to flourish.

When I crossed the Turkish-Iraqi border in 1991 just after the Gulf War, I had to deal with the security guards of one Kurdish organization after another to move around northern Iraq—not only Massoud Barzani’s KDP and Jalal Talabani’s PUK, but also smaller groups including Communists and socialists. When I next crossed the border in October 1992, I was met by uniformed police of the new Kurdish administration, which combined members of different factions in the same police forces, security services, and administrative offices. Armed Kurdish guerrillas had been banned in the cities by an act of parliament, and many people told me that for the first time they felt they were physically secure.

By the time of my next visit, in May 1994, that changed. My visit happened to coincide with the first outbreak of armed hostilities between the KDP and the PUK, and like many others in the INC, I tried to mediate between the two warring factions. For four weeks I traveled around the country arranging the release of KDP prisoners held by the PUK, and PUK prisoners held by the KDP. Shortly after the original outbreak of fighting, Talabani’s PUK took effective control of the city of Erbil with its population of one million people. The conflict between the two organizations has been growing nastier ever since.

The tensions between the two main Kurdish factions date back to Talabani’s split from Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s KDP during the 1970s. The hostility between them was not so much ideological as historical, sociological, and, increasingly, personal. Talabani is a skillful urban politician who has attracted young, educated Kurds, and he has built up an organization with strong connections to the Kurdish intelligentsia, particularly in the second largest Kurdish city, Sulaymaniyya, located fifty miles from the Iranian-Iraqi border. Barzani’s organization, on the other hand, is based on the rural clans of the mountainous countryside, especially those along the Iraqi-Turkish border. These were serious differences, but it was possible for both groups to smooth them over, as they did during the elections of 1992 and the years that followed.

What has been disastrous is that each group came to depend more and more on alliances with neighboring countries. The KDP first made an alliance with Turkey, then with Iran, and now with Baghdad. The PUK first made an alliance with Iran in 1995. Each claims it needed to make these alliances if it was to have the supplies, trade, physical security, and diplomatic support it required to survive. It is clear that Barzani used his position as Turkey’s principal ally in northern Iraq to weaken the power of Talabani, who, for his part, said the KDP’s monopoly of customs duties along the Iraqi-Turkish border put his own group at a disadvantage.

In making his alliance with Turkey, Barzani agreed to help curb the influence of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the organization of the Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey which, after the Gulf War, began maintaining bases in northern Iraq from which they launched terrorist attacks into Turkey. But the task of controlling the Turkish Kurds was beyond the capacity of the KDP. By early 1995 the PKK was hitting back at the KDP, killing some of its members. Barzani was forced to negotiate a truce with the PKK, which greatly upset the Turkish government, causing it to withdraw its support from the KDP.

Meanwhile the various Kurdish security forces were no longer working together. Iraqi undercover agents became active once again. In the summer of 1995 a bomb went off in Salahaldin, killing twenty-six members of the Iraqi National Congress. Following several unsuccessful mediation efforts by the Congress, the PUK turned to Iran to intervene in its dispute with the KDP. With the KDP weakened following the breakup of its alliance with Turkey, the PUK, beginning on August 17 of this year, started a military campaign, with Iranian backing, that succeeded in taking over significant amounts of territory. Feeling that he was squeezed, and having repeatedly, and futilely, appealed to the United States for support (as had the PUK before him), Barzani, in a letter dated August 22, made his devil’s pact with Saddam, inviting him into Erbil.

  1. 1

    As reported in my Cruelty and Silence, in a chapter entitled “Whither Iraq?” See Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (Norton, 1993), p. 344.

  2. 2

    The New York Times, September 5, 1996, p. A11.

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