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 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.

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

This Issue

October 17, 1996