The Politics of Betrayal

Massoud Barzani
Massoud Barzani; drawing by David Levine


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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.