• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Politics of Betrayal

Contrary to the statements of the anonymous officials cited in The New York Times, the United States, which, with the help of British and French aircraft, was still conducting overflights of the safe-haven region, has been largely absent while all this was going on. Junior administration officials had been following events and meeting with the various parties involved, hoping they would mend their differences, but these officials were ineffectual. I am sure that some of them concluded that they were observing irrational behavior arising from hopelessly entangled “ancient hatreds.” In any case their hands were tied, because at the top levels of the State Department and White House, the main preoccupation is with the Arab-Israeli “peace process” and, in particular, with bringing Syria into negotiations. Iraq could wait.

American neglect of the situation in the north and particularly the increasingly ugly conflict between Barzani and Talabani are both part of the collapse of the postwar arrangements by which the US sought merely to contain Saddam Hussein instead of actively trying to overthrow him. All the important issues in the current conflict go back to the unfinished business of the Gulf War, and the obsession of two administrations with containment, as opposed to a policy aimed at replacing the regime in Baghdad.

The Kurdish safe-haven region in northern Iraq had two years of peaceful cooperation among different Kurdish factions, but it was never a workable political unit. The Kurdish parliament had hardly any resources with which to pay salaries, much less initiate much-needed projects for development and reconstruction. It was entirely dependent on Western handouts, which were never to be counted on. The Kurdish autonomous region was affected by two sets of sanctions—the worldwide sanctions on Iraq and the sanctions imposed on the northern region by Baghdad. Its parliament and ministries could never be more than a transitional arrangement, but a transition to what?

Time passed and nothing happened. No one with any authority in Washington wanted to talk either about the future of Iraq or about establishing a secure and economically workable entity in the north. Good intentions expressed in Washington and London and the work of relief and aid agencies, mainly private ones, could not turn a region of four million people into either a Kurdish country or the beginnings of a new Iraqi regime. Having set up the Kurdish entity, the allied coalition never gave it either the economic or the political support it needed to survive. As the parliament’s ability to deliver services and organize a more productive economy dwindled, and as the allied coalition that had fought the Gulf War began to fall apart, power reverted to the militias of Barzani and Talabani. They, at least, had the guns with which to scramble for whatever financial resources and scraps of territory they could take over.

Nor did the Western allies give adequate support to the efforts of the opposition forces, both Kurd and Arab, to use northern Iraq as a base from which to bring about the downfall of the regime in Baghdad. In March 1995, for example, approximately one thousand soldiers of Saddam Hussein defected, with their officers and weapons, to the Iraqi National Congress. The men were thin, hungry, and cold; they had not had a decent meal in weeks. But the United States, which has since sent forty-four cruise missiles, each costing a million dollars, into southern Iraq, decided it could not afford the approximately $250,000 it would have required to provide the soldiers with food and blankets for a year. The soldiers might have been kept together as a potential force, but they were soon dispersed.

Saddam Hussein moved into this deteriorating situation with the military audacity he has displayed in all his showdowns with the West. Not that he is any stronger militarily than he was before the Gulf War. The very effective sanctions have seen to that. His newfound strength is derived from the shambles of the policy of containment. And this time, the political strategy and timing of the Iraqi President were shrewdly calculated. He now could say he was, after all, merely intervening inside his own territory to help his Kurdish friends in the KDP. And they could say they invited him in only to curb and “contain” Iranian influence in northern Iraq, something the US and its allies would surely approve of.


To understand Barzani’s betrayal of his former comrades in the Iraqi National Congress, we must also consider what went wrong with the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein. In October 1992, at that historic four-day meeting in Salahaldin, when the issue of the leadership of the INC was being discussed, Barzani turned down my suggestion that the recently elected Kurdish parliament nominate the leader of the INC. One of his senior advisors asked me to discuss this matter with him privately before I brought it up on the conference floor, where a negative vote would have been an embarrassment to everyone.

I remember well how he smiled when I argued that there were advantages in the Kurdish parliament being seen as the launching ground for political change throughout Iraq. Many Arabs at the conference, I said, were willing to trust Barzani personally, which was certainly true. The Kurds had a historic opportunity to be the catalyst for a new Iraqi state. If they then still wanted political independence, they could eventually take it on terms that were bound to be far more favorable to them than anything obtained through more blood.

Barzani was friendly to me, largely, I suspect, because of the film I had made on Saddam Hussein’s murderous campaign of 1987 and 1988, in which the same army that Barzani later invited into Erbil systematically killed at least one hundred thousand non-combatant Kurds. He listened courteously as I talked more and more enthusiastically about the possibilities of a Kurdish-led Iraqi opposition. He then spoke, thanking me for what I had done for the Kurds; but he made it clear, with a gesture, that he couldn’t accept the idea of the idea of the Kurdish parliament taking a leading part in opposing Saddam Hussein. It was simply out of the question for me to make any proposal to that effect from the floor of the conference. No reasons, no explanations.

The point of the story is that Barzani found the idea unimaginable, not impractical. He was a Kurdish leader, not a potential leader of the entire country of Iraq. Moreover, he was a very particular kind of Kurdish leader, one who was unable to see the larger interest of Iraqi Kurds outside the parochial concerns of his own tribal and family alliances, built up from his father’s time over many decades of struggle against the Iraqi state, a struggle based in the mountains of Kurdistan. That is where the young Barzani had been formed. Unlike his archrival, Talabani, he is a shy and reclusive man who feels uneasy outside his own milieu, the world of “the Barzani Kurds.” After the Gulf War he had to be dragged, reluctantly, by Ahmad Chalabi, who became the president of the executive council of the INC, to visit Western countries in order to press the cause of the opposition.

Ironically these were some of the qualities that I had found endearing in the man. I was sick of the sloganeering and empty Arab nationalist rhetoric of the likes of Saddam Hussein. Here, I thought, was a genuine leader, with a loyal following. If only men like him could be won over. Iraqi democrats would have a foothold upon which to build a pluralist polity in Iraq, a polity in which there would be room for Shi’ites, and Kurds, and radicals and technocrats, and many others, to take part in a democratic political process. What I failed to see was that this Kurdish leader had accepted the “Arabness” of the state of Iraq on Saddam Hussein’s own terms: accepted, that is, that there was no alternative to an exclusionist, dictatorial Arab nationalism. He could not see beyond it anymore than the Iraqi dictator ever did.

Before the Iraqi Army attacked the city of Erbil on August 31, it passed through the township of Gushtapa, originally a “resettlement” camp for Kurdish followers of Barzani’s father, from the Babinan region in northern Iraq, who had been relocated after their defeat in the Kurdish revolt of 1974 and 1975. The Ba’ath party functionaries had made an example of the Barzani Kurds, forcibly resettling them in deplorable conditions. Out of an original population of fifty thousand people, some twenty or thirty thousand still lived in Gushtapa when I visited the camp in 1991.

I was told then what happened in 1983, when Barzan al Takriti, later to become Iraq’s representative at the United Nations (attending meetings of the UN Human Rights Commission), along with Saddam’s half-brother, Watban, led a special force of police and army units to round up several thousand men in the camps. An eyewitness told me that these men had been taken southward in a truck convoy and were last seen on the outskirts of Baghdad. They then “simply disappeared.” Kurdish organizations and human rights groups have since compiled several thousand of their names and turned them over to the UN.

The army put up barbed wire around the camp, and the remaining inhabitants were treated brutally, Electricity was cut off, and contact with the outside world forbidden. Soldiers would take potshots at jerry cans of water carried by the women. It was clear to me that some women had been taken advantage of sexually by army and Ba’ath party men. The babies and children younger than nine years old I saw running around could not possibly have had Kurdish fathers. Gushtapa began to supply prostitutes to the city of Erbil.

Some of Barzani’s men who were abroad, or in the hills, and escaped the killing campaigns began to renounce their ties with the inhabitants of Gushtapa. They were, they said, “ashamed”; the honor of the Barzanis had been stained. The revenge of Saddam’s Ba’ath on the proud Barzani clan, which had led the Kurdish national liberation movement in Iraq, seemed complete. As I walked around the camp, and the word spread that I was there, women and children began pouring out of their houses. At that moment, with the crowds pressing around me, as I later wrote, “I felt a deep, inexpressible shame that I was born an Iraqi.”3

Such feelings were among those that impelled me to try to nominate Massoud Barzani to be the leader of the Iraqi National Congress in 1992. That he would be the man to stand for Iraqi hopes and aspirations was a futile dream, just as futile as Gushtapa’s brief years of liberation following the Gulf War. Upon entering Gushtapa this September, Saddam’s troops encountered resistance from a force of several hundred members of the INC who were based there, many of them Arab exiles from Baghdad and southern Iraq. These opponents of Saddam were making a stand because the INC had been led to believe that the US administration would not let Saddam’s troops enter Erbil. Before the INC force was overpowered twenty-two people were killed. The commander of the INC unit, Ali Haydar, was wounded and flown off to Baghdad to die, we can be certain, a horrible death. The other members of the force withdrew, except for ninety-six men who were captured and summarily shot in front of a group of villagers hastily assembled by the army for the purpose of observing the killing—a group made up of the Barzani women and children of Gushtapa.


In its hostility to everything that is not part of its own apparatus of power, the Ba’athist state has bought about a frightening retreat of Iraqis from public life into the suffocating embrace of smaller and smaller units of identity—tribe, religious sect, clan, family, personal self-interest. Saddam Hussein stands out precisely because, however vicious, he is not primarily a narrowly sectarian leader. He sees himself as the leader of all Iraqis, and he invents and reinvents his enemies from all the human material that is at his disposal (including members of his own family, as is shown by the saga of his son-in-law, who defected last year, was lured back, and was killed). Periodically he finds it necessary to reshuffle the deck and start all over again. In so doing, Saddam and his closest associates inculcate in their victims the very ethos that he lives and rules by. For a quarter of a century, the polity has been built on distrust, suspicion, conspiracy, and betrayal—values that people sense they must absorb if they are to survive. Virtually every Iraqi, whether in the opposition or outside it, carries the marks of that victimization deep inside him or her.

The depth of the process of atomization is shown not just by Barzani’s actions but by the experience of the INC itself since 1990. In October 1992, after Massoud Barzani refused to be nominated, the INC elected a triumvirate made up of a Shi’i Arab, a Sunni Arab (an army officer), and a Kurd. In other words, it too reflects the divisions that have become so deeply entrenched in this tragic society as a result of years of dictatorship. Groups with the most parochial interests have moved in and out of the INC without paying any attention to the platform calling for a unified effort which the organization adopted in 1992. This is not to say that the INC has not included some deeply committed Iraqis, such as the president of the executive council, Mr. Ahmad Chaldabi, who have worked tirelessly for what it stands for. To judge from the number of assassination attempts Mr. Chaldabi has survived since 1992, the regime itself must consider him the most talented figure in the opposition. Now in exile in London, he has risked his life repeatedly trying to stop Kurdish infighting and build a combined opposition in northern Iraq. By and large, however, such efforts have not been appreciated by Iraqis as the various factions and different politicians have sniped, attacked, and complained about one another without being able to unite behind any leader.

Mr. Barzani is not all that different from such contentious and self-interested politicians, many of whom remained in the INC while impeding its work. He turns out to be a small-minded and unimaginative man, who had a lot more to lose than they do. In the interests of protecting his diminishing fiefdom, he decided that Saddam Hussein is entrenched for the long term and is therefore a safer bet than empty Western promises.

For all its faults however, the INC has recognized, and taken as its point of departure, the diversity of the people of Iraq. No other opposition group did this before 1991, and it represented a new element in Iraqi politics. That is why I still support it. This is not a group of CIA agents, as some journalists are alleging today. It is a genuine expression of the best and the worst in the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein. Nor does it trouble me that the INC has received backing from the West.4 Such support was both necessary and inadequate, as events have proved, for the task of unseating the dictatorship. What the tragedy now unfolding in northern Iraq shows, however, is that the Iraqi opposition in general still lacks the very element that Saddam Hussein’s terror has so successfully created for him: a commitment to a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts, a commitment, in other words, to a convincing idea of Iraq.

September 19, 1996

  1. 3

    Cruelty and Silence, pp. 161–162.

  2. 4

    As have other Iraqi opposition groups like the Iraqi National Accord, a member of the original coalition of organizations that made up the INC. The members of the National Accord are former Ba’thists and army officers. Their aim is to bring about political change in Iraq by means of an army coup.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print