"> Kurds of the other Iraq: From internal fighting to power brokering in Baghdad


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June 27, 2010 Kurds of the other Iraq: From internal fighting to power brokering in Baghdad

Kurdishaspect.com - By Saeed Kakeyi


This paper will provide a brief historical account for the causes of the Kurdish internal fighting in Iraq. Then, it will analyze the internal and the external factors that prevented further bloodshed; and, it will evaluates the economic and political tools used to bring success to the negotiations between the two main antagonists: Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Also, this paper will expand its argument by focusing on confidence building measures that led to massive constitutional rights earned by Kurds in the post-2003 Iraq War. Finally, the paper explores peace-building measures taken by Kurdish elites to win local, regional and international recognitions to stay and live in peace within the fragile nation-state of Iraq.


Despite of some minor socio-ideological indifferences, most of the ethno-factional strives are constrained by similar factors that shape the analogous goals of the rivaling parties. The Kurdish struggle in Iraq for a recognized identity, notwithstanding its postcolonial forty five years long factional impediments, is the case study for this paper.

Argumentatively, both parties—the KDP and the PUK—are trying to achieve a nation-state identity which the Kurds have been deprived off since the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Though implicated with harsh geopolitics of the Middle East, the Kurdish struggle, in post-Cold War era, has been capable of greatly influencing the political effects of the region, especially in Iraq. Kurdish political elites have been at work to achieve an acceptable solution for the identity related demands of their fervent population on the one hand, and on the other, to fulfill the role of power brokering required to balance the power struggles between the dominant antagonist actors of the post-2003 Iraq situation. Materializing such a complex task is not a flawless combination of performance; especially, recognizing the deep-rooted impediments of distrust, power struggle and suspicions that run high among the secondary and lower Kurdish political leadership titles. Therefore, to understand how the Kurdish leadership is managing such an intellectual puzzle, one has to respond to questions as to whether there is new information that the field of conflict management is unaware of; or is there a challenge or support for a particular theory or approach for conflict resolution. Yet, to answer this and other related questions, the discourse requires analytical evaluations of the strengths and weaknesses of the economic, political, military, and cultural factors that are highlighted by many scholars as the main causes for conflict. Within this framework for analysis, the intra- and extra-Kurdish conflict within Iraq will be used to illustrate some critical elements of the Kurdish “puzzle” set to be the main question for this paper. In conclusion, this paper explains that the underlying “national interest” is the dynamics that bound the Kurdish political elites together in their bids for greater identity recognition.  

Kurdish national identity and the challenges of statehood

The collectivist nature of Kurdish society and the intra-regional dynamics (e.g. Badinan, Soran, Goran and Garmiyan) in the Iraqi part of Kurdistan historically combined to weaken Kurdish national identity (also known as Kurdayetî—Kurdishness). This localism or regionalism combined with tribal loyalties dates back to the early sixteen century emergence of semi-independent Kurdish dynasties established on the fringes of great empires; The Ottoman to the west, and the Safavid then Qajar to the east of Kurdistan—a twelve century Seljuk name for Kurdish homeland (McDowall: 2004, 35).

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire because of World War I, the victorious British and French colonials divided Kurdistan across four new nation-states of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The nature of political space in each of these countries created differing accounts of factional history and status that in turn impacted the opportunities for political action for Kurdish nationalists (Gurr: 1993, 125). For example, unlike in the other parts of divided Kurdistan, the political space for the Kurds in Iraq was undecided. This political uncertainty in turn created an ambivalent relation between the religious and the tribal-feudalist decision-makers, with each group promoting limited regional nationalism aimed at consolidating their economic, regionalized political and socio-religious powers.

However, more than their religious contenders, Kurdish tribal-feudalists played negatively in marginalizing nationalist sentiments. Parallel to that, this socio-political apparatus was instrumental in weakening the effectiveness of the young intellectual decision-makers who were trying to mimic the regional communism to lead Kurdish grassroots. Literatures of the latter and self-interests of the formers encouraged the central governments of Iraq and regional neighbors to segregate the Kurds further and to turn their struggle into an intra-Kurdish conflict.

At four decisive moments in the history of the Kurds in Iraq; the 1918-1922 attempts at independence, the September 1961 Revolt for autonomy, the 1975 split of the Kurdish movement, and the creation of the semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 1992, factional fighting destined their aspirations.

On 7 November 1918, the British and French had jointly declared their goal of liberation for the Kurds, “who have for so long been oppressed by the Turks, and the setting up of national governments and administrations that shall derive their authority from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the indigenous populations” (Cited by McDowall: 2004, 163). The appointing of Sheikh Mahmudi Hafid as ruler of the Suleimania Province by the British was understood that British recognition of his status would grant him legitimate authority to govern over Southern (Iraqi) Kurdistan. However, because of the combinations of economic, geographic, religious, and clannish factors, Kurds in Iraq were not able to halt their disunity. Positional power politics were among the main reasons for the colonial British to abandon its initial ideas for an independent Kurdish state. In fact, the intra-Kurdish and the extra-Kurdo-Iraqi discords bolstered voices from London advocating for abandonment of a Kurdish nation-building. According to McDowall, there was a disagreement between Britain’s policymakers advocating the principles of self-determination with “the possibility of running a quasi-colony without the expense” and the British colonial practitioners who considered self-determination to be “fancy notions…all very well for vague statements of intent” (McDowall: 2004, 163). Consequently, the British practice in Iraq was restrained. Aside from disengaging with its Kurdish nation-building, Britain’s Iraq state-building project had turned into the construction of a “quasi-state,” one which bore the appearance of a de jure national polity but whose institutions were in fact a façade built in order to allow Britain to disengage” (Dodge: 2003, 10).

The creation of a “quasi-state” in Iraq became the focal point for the pioneers of Kurdish nationalism to celebrate the birth of the Kurdish nationalist movement. However, Kurdish nationalism was not truly tested until the establishment of the Republic of Kurdistan (also known as the Republic of Mahabad in Iran).

In the opening years of World War II and while Iran was occupied by the Soviet Union, Kurds in Iran and Iraq saw a window of opportunity. The newly formed Komalay Jiyanaway Kurdistan (The Revival Society of Kurdistan - Komala), a middle-class democratic nationalist party founded in Eastern (Iranian) Kurdistan, began to negotiate with the Soviets the idea of creating a Soviet-sponsored Kurdish republic, independent of Iran (McDowall: 2004, 240). However, the Soviets asked the Kurdish leadership to abandon Komala for a Soviet style centralized political party.

In exchange for money, military training, and arms, thereby ensuring autonomy from Iran (Eagleton: 1963, 44), the Kurdish leadership dissolved the Komala by creating the “Democratic Party of Kurdistan - Iran” (KDP-I) in order to proclaim and govern the Republic of Kurdistan as of 22 January 1946.

This short-lived national identity marked the official creation of the Peshmerga by the Ministry of Kurdistan Forces and cemented the role of the legendary Iraqi Kurdish leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, as the Minister and the Commanding General of the Kurdistan Peshmerga Forces. It is worthy to mention that the Soviets warned the Iranian Kurdish leaders not to trust Barzani; however, Qazi Mohammad—the grand father of Kurdish nationalism, asked Barzani and his men to join the KDP-I to which the latter had agreed (Eagleton: 1963, 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. Besides appointing a Prime Minister with a cabinet of 13 ministers and assigning higher levels of command, Qazi Muhammad also helped in defining the Kurdish word for soldier—peshmerga—a term meaning “one who faces death.”

Barzani’s professionalism combined with his national concern, 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 clannish peshmergas disbanded their posts; forcing Qazi Muhammad to sign 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 on 15 December 1946, the Iranian military entered Mahabad, eliminating the one-year life of the Kurdistan Republic (Eagleton: 1963, 114).

Finally, in March 1947, the Iranian forces, supplemented by American military experts and joined by Kurdish tribal militias, attacked Barzani forces who were able to fight their way into Iraq. Once joint Iran and Iraq attacks became imminent, Barzani had to flee yet again; but this time, to the relative security of the Soviet Union (Eagleton: 1963, 126).

The period from 1945 to mid-1947 was integral to the development of Kurdish nationalism and its military might. 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. Optimism ruled as many Iraqi Kurds found a voice in the KDP-I.

After Barzani’s return from the Soviet Union in 1958, the urban nationalists, who founded their own Iraqi KDP in 1946, lobbied for the return of their peshmergas 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 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: 2004, 310). He consolidated his forces and began providing a system of organization to supplement his established peshmerga forces. Under Barzani’s lead, non-Barzani tribal forces were used to conduct guerrilla attacks on Iraqi military positions (McDowall: 2004, 310).

In brief, during the September 1961 Revolt which lasted until 1975, governing Arab Sunni-chauvinism; Kurdish internal splits; and the obstructionist policies of regional neighbors and Cold War rivalry consistently undermined the resolution of the Kurdish identity issue in Iraq. Baghdad’s Kurdish policies “were not real attempts to open political space, but rather time-gaining tactics to help consolidate power” (Natalia: 2005a, 58).

Repeatedly, the breach between the symbolic offers and the leadership’s motivation and capacity to carry out tangible policy changes would challenge the relationship and compromise would once again swing towards hostility (O’Ballance: 1973, 169).

Beyond competing Arab and Kurdish nationalisms, the internal KDP clash in the mid 1960s pitted the traditional players of Kurdish nationalism against the urban-led intelligentsia of Ibrahim Ahmad and Jalal Talabani. The intra-KDP clash was fundamentally an ideological harsh dispute between the tribal-feudalism and the secular Marxism over the issue of land reform introduced by Qasim regime with the full backings of the Kurdo-Arab progressive socialists (McDowall: 2004, 311).

The actions of Abdul-Salam Arif, who overthrew Qasim in February 1963, fed these dynamics. In an effort to consolidate his power, Arif sought to weaken the Kurdish movement by signing a peace declaration with Barzani who bypassed his KDP’s politburo approval. As a result, the KDP politburo led by Ahmed-Talabani wing broke-up with Barzani and stuck deals with Baghdad then Tehran to fight Barzani’s KDP tribal wing. Thus the September 1961 Revolt against the governments of Baghdad not only proved ineffective; rather, it caused deep-rooted animosities and mistrust amongst the wings of the KDP. Moreover, because of the intra-KDP hostilities and Barzani’s despotism over the Kurdish movement, the 1970 Autonomy Declaration—signed between Barzani and the revisionist Baath Arab Socialist Party regaining power in Baghdad in July 1968—destined not to be put in effect in 1974 and bring catastrophic end of the hopes of Kurdish self-governance in 1975.

Space does not permit a thorough examination of the reasons for the split in 1975, but a few remarks are required for context. The social structure of the Kurds is usually characterized as split between tribal hierarchies and urban classes. As mentioned before, the KDP is characterized as the party of tribal-feudalist leaders and the PUK—founded by Talabani after the regional agreement between Iran and Iraq and the consequent American betrayal of the Kurds in 1975 —as the party of urban socialists. The KDP does indeed pay more rhetorical service to tradition while the PUK has been a staunch advocate of redistribution and modernization (van Bruinessen: 1986, 16; McDowall: 2004, 343). To some extent, this lends credibility to the idea that the two parties represent alternative visions of the Kurdish nation: Traditionalism vs. Constructivism. The competition between the two visions has been violent in nature and proved deadly on numerous accounts. For example, many Kurds consider the KDP-PUK war of 1994-1998 as “the war of national humiliation,” fought in tri-proxy for Iran, Turkey and Iraq. The preconditions for the war between KDP and PUK included among other things, deep-rooted primordial hate between the two antagonists, greed and struggle over scarce resources, negative international aid efforts, and regional interferences. Also, it had much in common with earlier periods of discord in Kurdistan, and the consequences—the failures to secure the goals of Kurds in Iraq—were the same.

With the end of the Iran-Iraq (1980-1988) war, Saddam regime began its Anfal Campaign against Kurdish civilians. Anfal was intended to break the power of the two parties through a systematic genocidal assault on their forces and their rural populations. Some 4,000 villages and 100 towns were destroyed, some with chemical weapons, including the infamous massacre in the town of Halabja on 16 March 1988 that left over 5,000 dead (Middle East Watch 1993). After Anfal, and in an effort to keep the resistance alive, the KDP and PUK changed their military tactics from holding the enemy at frontlines to guerilla warfare (McDowall: 2004, 368-9).

Intra-Kurdish conflict in the post-Cold War era

The international situation was confusing; immediately after the end of the Cold War, Iraq invaded Kuwait on 1 August 1990 bringing the Kurdish resistance an interval as Iraqi military units departing Iraqi Kurdistan to build up south. Upon the victory of US-led Coalition forces on 28 February 1991, the Kurds, like much of the rest of the country, rose in revolt responding belatedly to US President George H. W. Bush’s call on Iraqis to take matters into their hands against Saddam regime. The KDP and PUK harnessed the mass rising. They captured numerous cities from early March, culminating in the liberation of Kirkuk on the eve of Newroz—the March 21st Kurdish new year celebrations. However, as the American help turned out to be a mere propaganda, Saddam took the chance to brutally suppress the uprising generating an enormous refugee exodus towards the Iranian and Turkish borders. On 5 April, UN Security Council Resolution 688 demanded that Hussein allow humanitarian assistance to reach Iraqi Kurdistan (McDowall: 2004, 373). Safe haven for refugees was established in Badinan region in that month. Kurds were protected by Coalition forces based in Turkey and, provisionally, in Iraqi Kurdistan, and by a no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel that lasted until the US liberation of Iraq in 2003.

Hussein, however, was unable to reach an agreement with the Kurdish leadership. Admitting that the Kurds indeed controlled much of Iraqi Kurdistan, he withdrew his forces and entire administrative capacity from the region. The KDP and the PUK suddenly found themselves obliged to govern and administer the entire Kurdish region of Iraq.

In an effort to achieve domestic legitimacy, Kurdish leadership offered general amnesty to the tribal leaders and their armed men who collaborated in the past with Saddam regime against their own Kurdish national interests; semi-truth commissions were formed pardoning most of the Kurdish Ba’athists in exchange for their cooperation with the new Kurdish political reality; organized elections in 1992; a bind and a subsequent power-sharing protocol between the KDP and PUK (O’Leary: 2002, 19) resulted in materializing a “unique” Kurdish identity. Incredibly, all Kurds, including their parties did not differ over the political future of their emerging state within the “quasi-state” of Iraq. However, despite the parties’ willingness to cooperation, and despite promises to unify their troops (McDowall 2004:352), neither side took concrete steps towards institutional unification. Each, instead, focused on its own regional sphere of influence: the KDP in the far north Badinan region and the PUK in the Soran and Garmiyan regions in central and south of Iraqi Kurdistan. Semi-state resources and institutions remained divided; however, the two parties’ asymmetric access to revenue intensified competition. The KDP controlled the strategic Ibrahim Khalil border crossing with Turkey. The PUK managed almost all of Kurdistan’s light trade with Iran in comparison.

The international aid program exacerbated the tension over revenue in several ways. First, the absence of a long-term development plan combined with the injection of humanitarian aid contributed to the emergence of an underground economy controlled by networks of traditional families and entrepreneurs, both deeply connected to the political parties. Second, in this new economic landscape accelerating disparity came about between those who organized to profit from the new sources of income and the majority who still lived in abject poverty. Third, the aid community further fragmented the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan by creating price differentials between different regions, which in turn set off internal rivalries and power struggles among entrepreneurial elements of the KDP and PUK. As Natali concludes, “[r]ather than trying to strengthen intra-Kurdish unity, donor agencies and foreign governments encouraged fragmentation by treating the two main [Kurdish] leaders…as individual party leaders” (Natali: 2005b, 8).

Complicating the situation further, the KDP secretly negotiated with Saddam’s regime to remove the PUK from Erbil—the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The KDP fought alongside Iraqi government forces and repelled the PUK from Erbil on 31st August 1996 and much of Soran region. With Iranian support, the PUK recovered its controlled territories except for Erbil. In good terms with the KDP and Saddam regime for economic and its national security reasons, Turkey forced a ceasefire line between the Kurdish antagonists held and served as the de facto partition of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The parties extended the ceasefire several times and conducted talks in Ankara from November 1996 until July 1997. Citing the KDP-Turkish alliance, Talabani broke off negotiations in July; and soon after, the PUK and KDP began fighting once more, while Iran increased its support for the PUK and brought Syria into this coalition as well (Bengio:  2000, 387-9).

The Washington Agreement

Fearing the situation may develop into a regional crisis, the United States prevailed upon both parties to cease fire in autumn 1997 and to come to Washington to negotiate a peace accord. This was concluded in September 1998. From that point onwards the two parties retained control of well-defined sections of Iraqi Kurdistan in a period of cold peace. Though the Washington Agreement included provisions for combining state institutions into a single administration (‘Washington Agreement’ 1998:194-5), these were not implemented (Bengio: 2001b, 279).

There was little reason for either party to implement the power-sharing provisions. A unified government had proven vulnerable to regional spoilers and to a mutually exhausting conflict. Though the United States encouraged the Kurds to unify and join in opposition to Hussein, the separate de facto autonomy the parties now enjoyed, and Saddam’s desire to keep the Kurdish front quiet while he was facing down the late 1990s crisis over weapons inspections (Bengio: 2001a, 302), meant that there was not much left for the KDP and PUK to accomplish by guns, especially when formal independence was, in the eyes of the Turkish and Iranian authorities, out of the question. Each party instead focused on rebuilding and reconstructing semi-democratic institutions within its own region. In addition, aside from the spirit of the Washington Agreement which encouraged alliance behavior and confidence building measures, the US sponsorship of cooperative negotiations between the parties, meant a critical recognition for their state-like statuses that were marginalized by their regional patrons. Furthermore, in the lead-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the Kurdish leadership recognized its alliance with the United States would be a key factor in reducing the regional spoilers’ effects in the shift from conflict to cooperation.

Alliance, legitimized autonomy and power brokering

Mindful of the persisting geopolitical constraints on its actions, the Kurdish political elites adopted a fine perceptive and realistic strategy whose primary interest is to preserve the de facto autonomy of Kurdistan region within Iraq. To secure this vital interest, Kurdish leadership made a calculated decision to participate fully in the OIF, support the US nation-building project in Iraq, and work to hasten the political and economic development of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Consequently, the Kurdistan region was recognized as a legal entity of a federal Iraq by the permanent constitution, adopted in the October 2005 referendum. The provisions of the constitution served to internationally legitimize Kurdistan’s significant self-rule. While achieving these rights cooperatively, the KDP-PUK leaders have been acting as effective powerbrokers between the contending Arab Shiite-Sunni powerful players on the one hand, and becoming instrumental in interpreting US policymakers’ objectives in Iraq, on the other hand. Also, they have been vocal in convincing their people to “prefer continued stability and growth rather than economic decline or conflict for the cause of independent statehood” (Natali: 2005b, 26).

As the most trusted allies of the United States, the Kurdish leaders volunteered their Peshmerga Forces—now Kurdish regional guards—to conduct numerous joint operations with the US-led Coalition Forces fighting the insurgency in Iraq and relatively stabilizing the deteriorated security situation in and around Baghdad. Then, domestically, Kurdish leaders signed two memorandums of understanding in 2007. The first was on August 16th between the KDP-PUK alliance and the two dominant Shiite political powers; the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) and the Al-Dawa Party. However, the second memorandum signed on December 24th was between the KDP-PUK alliance and the powerful Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP). The purpose of these two memorandums is to bring the Shiites and the Sunnis closer and keep them engaged in the national reconciliation process on the one hand, and get them aligned for the upcoming October 2008 provincial elections.

If any, these Kurdish political maneuverings proved to be positive steps in the right direction. The Iranian direct support of the radical Al-Sadir trend is momentarily at all-time low. Similarly, IIP is no longer infiltrated by the terrorist Al-Qaeda elements. Regionally though, Iraqi Kurds have been able to resist the Turkish coercive diplomacy combined with military power. In fact, Kurdish diplomacy turned the long anticipated Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan—in pursue of the fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of Turkey—to a humiliated withdrawal of Turkish forces from Kurdistan region in February 2008.


This paper has provided the reasons for the on again off again fighting between the two Kurdish parties. In doing so it has provided evidence that alliance and cooperation are two useful means of an integrated political framework for understanding unity and fragmentation in nationalist movements in the Iraqi Kurdish case. The framework highlighted the importance of the coordination of particular interests in nationalism and resource mobilization, with a particular focus on national resources and foreign allies.

Reference: 1. Bengio, Ofra. (2000). ‘Iraq’. Middle East Contemporary Survey 21: 372-409. 2. Bengio, Ofra. (2001a). ‘Iraq’. Middle East Contemporary Survey 22: 286-320. 3. Bengio, Ofra. 2001b. ‘Iraq’. Middle East Contemporary Survey 23: 262-294. 4. Dodge, Toby. (2003). Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and History Denied. New York: Columbia University Press. 5. Eagleton, William Jr. (1963). The Kurdish Republic of 1946. Oxford University Press. 6. Entessar, Nader. (1992). Kurdish Ethnonationalism. Boulder: Lynne Rienner. 7. Gurr, Ted R. (1993). Minorities at Risk: A Global View of Ethno-Political Conflict. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press. 8. McDowall, David. (2004). A Modern History of the Kurds. 3rd ed. London: I.B. Tauris. 9. Middle East Watch. (1993). Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds. London: Human Rights Watch. 10. Natali, Denise. (2005a). ‘The Spoils of Peace in Iraqi Kurdistan’. Middle East Studies Association Conference. 11. Natali, Denise. (2005b). The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 12. O’Ballance, Edgar. (1973). The Kurdish Revolt 1961-1970. London: Faber and Faber. 13. O’Leary, Carole A. (2002). ‘The Kurds of Iraq: Recent History, Future Prospects’ Middle East Review of International Affairs 6(4): 17-29. 14. Van Bruinessen, Martin. (1986). ‘The Kurds between Iran and Iraq’. MERIP Middle East Report 141: 14-27. 15. Washington Agreement between the KDP and the PUK leaders. Retrieved on 10 May, 2008 from: http://www.kurdistanica.com/english/legal/papers/doc-0001.html

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