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June 24, 2010 The Progress of the Peshmerga Forces and their role in post-2003 Iraq

Kurdishaspect.com - By Saeed Kakeyi


This paper briefly discusses the origins of the peshmerga forces from the start of the Republic of Kurdistan (also known as the Republic of Mahabad) to their contribution to the U.S.’s removal of the Iraqi government in 2003. This paper also examines why peshmerga forces involved in bringing peace to those who choose violence as a mean to achieve their interests? What are the implications of using Kurdish Peshmarga forces in enforcing peace between the warring Iraqi Arab factions? How far have they been successful in minimizing the sectarian violence? And finally, what is their legal status that makes them cooperate with the United States led Coalition Forces in building peace in Iraq?


Although previous Iraqi regimes tried to marginalize the Iraqi Kurdish population, their recent success and influence is due largely to the loyalty and patriotism of the peshmerga. Literally defined as “one who faces death,” the peshmergas are the soldiers of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The history of the peshmerga is essential to understand the history of Kurdish nationalism in Iraq. If not for the fighting spirit of the peshmerga, Kurdish hopes for recognition may have not been achievable. The first of these is the Kurdish struggle against the governments who would control the lands they inhabit; the second being the difficulty in developing a unified Kurdish community amongst what was once hundreds of tribes (McDowall: 2004, 1). Peshmerga forces would become intertwined in both of these conflicts. After receiving training in various early revolts and organization under the famous Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, it is the peshmerga that will often confront armies of the regional governments trying to achieve suzerainty over the Kurds. Also, because they recognize how precious freedom and peace are, it is the peshmerga who can help vanguards of international peacekeeping, peace-building and peace-enforcement to be culturally aware of their environments.  Origins of the Peshmerga Forces

The roots of the modern-day peshmerga may be found in the early twentieth century tribal and feudalist Kurdish revolts. The end of World War I, however, brought forth a new era in the potential for an organized Kurdish military.

Because of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916 (McDowall, 115), Kurdistan was no longer the unofficial buffer between the Ottoman and Persian Empires, but a region divided between several new nations (Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Persia). With such physical division, it became more difficult to create a Kurdish army to fight for a Kurdish nation-state.

Neither the British nor the young Kemalist Turkish government wished to see an independent Kurdistan, especially one able to defend itself (McDowall, 126). For the British, the idea of a recognized nation in southern Kurdistan deemed impractical due to the inability of the Kurds to govern themselves. The British also concerned with the prospect of oil in the Kirkuk, Kifri, and Mosul regions. The potential for a Kurdish military in northern Kurdistan was different from that in the south because of the rise of Mustafa Kemal who formed the “imaginary” Turkish nationalism based on assimilative state-nationalism. The defeat of the Kurdish uprisings inspired the Turkish government to deal with the “Kurdish problem” by enacting laws limiting both Kurdish identity and the governing ability of Sheikhs (O’Balance: 1996, 15). As the Turkish nationalist position became firmer, attacks on the democratic rights of the Kurds increased (Ghassemlou: 1965, 50).

Rise of Barzani prominence

Conflict between the Barzani tribe and the Iraqi forces began in late 1931 and continued throughout 1932. The militant Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the younger brother of the tribal leader—Sheikh Ahmad Barzani, augmented to prominence against the fledgling Iraqi military in southern Kurdistan. Learning from the faults of previous Kurdish revolts, Mustafa Barzani became increasingly aware of the need for an organized military force to coincide with Kurdish nationalism. Barzani tribe’s military strength, with its contempt for the new Iraqi nation-state and the desire for autonomy (McDowall, 290), merged with the growing nationalist-oriented Kurdish intelligentsia, Barzani sphere of influence in Iraqi Kurdistan became greater.

With the onset of World War II, Iraq was leaning toward supporting Germany. As a result, the British forces reoccupied Iraq in 1941. During this time, the Barzani tribal leadership, Ahmad and Mustafa Barzani, internally exiled in Suleimani away from their tribe and remained at odds with the Iraqi government. Thus, Barzani fled Suleimani and crossed into Iran to reunite his resettled tribesmen and lead them back to Barzan village in southern Kurdistan.

On his return, Mustafa Barzani recruited a force of 2,000 fighters to challenge the Iraqi local authorities. Throughout 1943, Barzani and his fighters seized police stations and resupplied themselves with Iraqi arms and ammunition. Barzani used these early skirmishes as tests to strengthen his command and control which led him to petition the Iraqi government for autonomy as well as the release of Kurdish prisoners, including Sheikh Ahmad Barzani (McDowall, 292).

Although the autonomy request denied, the Iraqi government did negotiate with Barzani throughout the early 1940s (McDowall, 293). These negotiations not only led to the release of his older brother, but also brought the word “Jash” into common Kurdish usage. Barzani used the term, meaning “donkey” in Kurdish, as a way to criticize Kurds who collaborated with the Iraqi government.

Knowing tribal discord and disorganization of the Kurdish populace could hinder his forces, Barzani formed the Rizgari Kurd (the Kurdish Freedom Party) in early 1945 in a bid to unify the Kurds and establish autonomy within Iraq (McDowall, 294).

By the end of September 1945, Barzani’s prominence threatened the greedy interests of other powerful Kurdish “Jash” leaders who joined the Iraqi forces, attacking the Barzani forces, uprooting them from their terrain and preventing them from further attacking Iraqi troops in the region. These “treasonous” forced Barzani to retreat from the region and cross into Iranian Kurdistan. Once there, the Barzani family and their supporters settled in various towns in the Mahabad area, joining the Kurdish liberation movement and setting the stage for establishing the Kurdistan Republic and the official creation of the Peshmerga Forces in early 1946.

Like McDowall, the author of this paper dismisses the notion of Mustafa Barzani as an ardent nationalist prior to the creation of the Kurdistan Republic. In fact, given the collectivist nature of the Kurdish society, the dominant power rested in the hands of the tribal-feudalist decision-makers. Otherwise, why Ahmad Barzani did not choose a civil nationalist Kurd instead of his brother to lead and command the Kurdish forces against Iraq? Also, if the Barzani revolts not started to increase the tribe’s regional power (McDowall, 293), then why other non-Badini tribes did not joined the Iraqi forces in bringing havoc as they did to the Badinan region of Iraqi Kurdistan?

The Republic of Kurdistan

The Republic of Kurdistan was the true birth for the Kurdish nationalist movement. This short-lived national identity marked the official creation of the Peshmerga by the Ministry of Kurdistan Forces and cemented the role of Barzani as the Minister and the Commanding General of the Kurdistan Peshmerga Forces.

In the opening years of World War II, the Soviet Union seized northwestern Iran to ensure the flow of important supplies reaching the Soviet Union from its American and British allies. Seeing a window of opportunity, the newly formed Komalay Jiyanaway Kurdistan (The Revival Society of Kurdistan - Komala), a middle-class democratic nationalist party, began to negotiate with the Soviets the idea of creating a Soviet-sponsored Kurdish republic, independent of Iran (McDowall, 240). However, the Soviets asked the visiting Kurdish leadership to abandon Komala for a Soviet style centralized political party.

In exchange for money, military training, and arms, including tanks, cannons, machine guns, and rifles, thereby ensuring autonomy from Iran (Eagleton: 1963, 44), the Kurdish leadership dissolved the Komala by creating the “Democratic Party of Kurdistan - Iran” (KDP-I). The Soviet Azarbaijan President Bagherov also warned the Kurdish leaders not to trust Barzani, whom Bagherov called “a British spy” (Eagleton, 45-46). Since the dismissal of Barzani was not an easy task to be accomplished, Qazi Mohammad, upon his return from Soviet Azarbaijan in the fall of 1945, asked Barzani and his men to join the KDP-I to which the latter had agreed (Eagleton, 56).

With Barzani’s cooperation guaranteed, Qazi Muhammad formed a Kurdish government, and raised the official Kurdish national flag. Within days, Qazi Muhammad was elected as the first Kurdish president and on 22 January 1946 the Republic of Kurdistan was born.

Besides appointing a Prime Minister with a cabinet of 13 ministers and assigning higher levels of command, Qazi Muhammad also helped to literally define the Kurdish word for soldier—peshmerga—a term meaning “one who faces death” or one willing to die for a cause.

Barzani’s professionalism combined with his national concerns, especially regarding the Iranian intentions and fearing a withdrawal of Soviet aid, forced him to deploy much of the peshmerga forces to the republic’s southern frontiers. With local support, the Kurdish forces expanded to include some 12,500 peshmergas occasionally engaging the Iranian hostile army.

However, as the Soviets withdrew from Iran and the latter’s ability grew in winning regional and western international support, the Kurdistan Republic became vulnerable. Adding to the dilemma was the withdrawal of internal support. Except for the Barzani peshmergas, most of the other tribally oriented peshmergas disbanded Mahabad. Consequently, President Qazi Muhammad signed his surrender to the Iranian authority in exchange for the safe withdrawal of Barzani’s peshmergas from Mahabad. As Barzani and his forces withdrew out of the capital of the republic on 15 December 1946, the Iranian military entered Mahabad, eliminating the one-year life of the Kurdistan Republic (Eagleton, 114).

The Barzani peshmergas were well armed in anticipation of an inevitable fight. Despite Iranian attempts to disarm the remnants of the Kurdish republic, the Barzani peshmergas were able to smuggle out 3,000 rifles, 120 machineguns, numerous hand grenades, and two 75 mm artillery cannons (Eagleton, 115).   Finally, in March 1947, the Iranian forces; armed with massive fire power, supplemented by American military experts, and joined by Kurdish tribal jash militias, attacked Barzani forces. After a heavy loses on both sides, Barzani along with some of his best peshmergas, were mysteriously able to fight their way into Iraq.

Prior to crossing the border, Barzani divided his forces into five sections defeating Iraqi police and jash forces. Almost immediately, the Iraqi government, after arresting Sheikh Ahmad Barzani and other family members, sought the surrender of Barzani (O’Balance, 34).  Knowing arresting Barzani would not be a simple task, the Iraqi military began mobilizing forces towards the Barzan region. Once the attack became imminent Barzani realized he had to flee yet again. Because both Turkish and Iranian Kurdistan could no longer be regarded as safe haven, Barzani decided to take his peshmergas to the relative security of the Soviet Union (Eagleton, 126).

The peshmerga journey to the Soviet Union began in late May 1947. Often, as the Barzani-led forces crossed into Iranian territory, they had to prepare for potential Iranian military assaults. Using their well-refined skills in cover and concealment, the peshmerga were often able to elude the Iranian military presence. On 9 June 1947, for example, the peshmerga attacked the flank of an Iraqi army column (Eagleton, 127-128). During the two-front attack, led by both Barzani and As’ad Khoshawi, the peshmerga killed hundreds of Iranian soldiers, destroyed several tanks, rendered an artillery battery ineffective, and downed an Iranian aircraft. After evading or engaging the Iranian army throughout their trip, the Barzanis, along with over 500 peshmergas and their families, crossed the Araxes River into the Soviet Union on 18 June 1947.

The period from 1945 to mid-1947 was integral to the development of the peshmerga as a recognized fighting force. No longer was the military organization confined to fighters of the Barzani tribe. The Kurdistan administration effectively merged officers and soldiers from Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan, creating a unified Kurdish force that crossed tribal lines.  The Peshmerga Forces in modern Iraq

Optimism ruled as many Iraqi Kurds found a voice in the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP).  After Barzani’s return from the Soviet Union in 1958, the peshmergas and other Barzani followers were allowed back into Iraq. Cooperation between peshmerga forces and the new republic of Iraq, headed by General Abdul-Karim Qasim who toppled the Iraqi monarchy, only served to strengthen the ties between the Kurds and the Iraqi Arabs. However, as Qasim became fearful of Barzani’s growing political and military influence, tension continued to grow between Qasim’s government and the Kurdish political, tribal, and military leaders throughout 1960.

By the end of 1961, Barzani was able to control most of Iraqi Kurdistan (McDowall, 310). The Qasim regime, disappointed with Barzani’s growing power, was looking for any reason to justify air strikes throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, including the Barzan village (O’Balance, 47). These strikes, however, only solidified Kurdish resolve, unifying the tribes and bringing Barzani officially into the conflict.

Barzani consolidated his forces and began providing a system of organization to supplement his already established peshmerga forces. Under Barzani’s lead, non-Barzani tribal forces were used to conduct guerrilla attacks on Iraqi military positions (McDowall, 310). This tactic led to the defection of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, including officers. These Kurdish deserted soldiers increased the professionalism and organization of the peshmerga forces.

By fall 1962, Barzani had nearly 20,000 troops at his command. In order to engage the Iraqi forces, the expanded peshmerga forces armed themselves with numerous arms captured from Iraqi forces. With numerous former Iraqi soldiers among the ranks, the peshmergas were able to decipher many Iraqi transmissions and provide key intelligence for Kurdish operations. Operational decisions using this intelligence were made by peshmerga commanders, including Barzani, stationed in highly-mobile, makeshift command centers.

Among the intellectual leaders of the KDP military were party secretary Ibrahim Ahmad and Jalal Talabani—the current Iraqi President. Although small units of the new “Kurdish Liberation Army” (KLA) were assigned to the intellectual leaders, the majority of the fighting forces came from regional tribes and not from urbanized Kurds (McDowall, 311).

Despite mention of the peshmerga fifteen years earlier, O’Ballance and McDowall state that the KDP’s Politburo-created KLA force was the first to be labeled “peshmerga” (O’Balance, 54 and McDowall, 311). Similar to the armed forces of the Kurdistan Republic, this peshmerga force was also willing to face death for the idea of a recognized Kurdistan. In the ranks of Talabani and Ahmad the leadership of the KLA became known as “Sarmerga” - “leading to death commander” (O’Ballance, 54).

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