GIS Special Topical Studies
Iraq War 2003: Background, Lessons and Follow-On

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June 17, 2004

Iraq’s Kurdish Leaders, With Iranian Support and No US Understanding, Seem Set to Break Up Iraq

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS.1 On June 1, 2004, behind the newly-presented Interim Government of Iraq and the optimistic speeches by the aspirant leaders, there hung the specter of the crisis to come: namely, the map of the future Iraq as a federation comprised of three entities.

Iraq’s internal boundaries were drawn specifically in order to divide the country into three parts each dominated by one of the country’s three main ethnic groups but with a mixed population so that the entity would not have a distinct character. Thus, these internal borders do not satisfy the most basic needs of the bulk of the Iraqi population, a population which has been withdrawing into very pronounced ethno-religious self-identities in reaction to the hardships during the past decades and particularly the post-invasion chaos.

Most traumatic was the reaction of the Kurds, who have long considered themselves the closest allies of the US, but at the same time have remained xenophobic and mistrusting of the occupation forces. The Kurdish leadership saw in the boundaries of the northern entity a confirmation of their worst fears. For example, the northern entity does not include the vast areas of Iraq’s north-western desert which is inhabited by Kurdish villages and the nomadic Shamar tribes (Sunni Arabs). The area was given to the predominantly-Sunni central entity in reward for Ghazi al-Yawar’s — himself a member of the Shamar — agreement to become the interim president. As well, the northern entity does include the eastern Sunni Arab tribes along the Iraq-Iran border and the eastern approaches to Baghdad, tribes which are inherently fiercely anti-Kurdish and which contributed the élite forces used by former Pres. Saddam Hussein to fight and massacre the Kurds since the 1960s. The Kurdish leadership knows that these tribes will never accept Kurdish rule and their presence in the northern entity is a recipe for endless fratricidal fighting.

The Kurdish élite was not surprised by the US betrayal. A couple of weeks beforehand, in mid-May 2004, Jalal Talabani, head of the Talabani tribe and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), had a very unpleasant meeting with a very senior US official in Baghdad in which he was warned explicitly not to pursue the quest for a distinct Kurdish entity within the new Iraq and threatened with dire consequences if the Kurds persisted in this endeavor. The US official accused the Kurds of threatening the stability of Iraq by intentionally sponsoring the return of Kurdish refugees to their ancestral homes and villages in the Mosul area to the south-west as well as in the Kirkuk, Makhmur and Khanakin areas to the south-east. The US official stressed that these population moves must stop immediately because the Kurds were already threatening the predominance of the local Sunni Arabs. Jalal Talabani’s protestations that the US has long supported, and even financially contributed to, the Kurdish effort to reverse the legacy of ethnic cleansing during the Saddam Hussein era was ignored by the US official.

Talabani realized that the US would not permit the emergence of a cohesive Kurdish entity in northern Iraq because it might threaten the ascent of the new Sunni élite which the Bush Administration, the UN mediator Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi and the Arab League’s Amr Mussa are now courting as the key to the leadership of the new Iraq.

Tehran, which has long maintained close relations with the Kurdish leadership, quickly capitalized on the new crisis.

The significant Iranian gambit did not take place in a vacuum. In contrast with the vacillating US position, Iranian senior officials have been advocating the division of Iraq along the real ethno-religious lines since early 2004. In several meetings with Talabani and Mas’ud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), senior Iranian emissaries have articulated Tehran’s vision of a divided Iraq and promised support for all ethnic and religious leaders striving to restore the indigenous ethno-religious character of Iraq. In late May 2004, in the wake of Talabani’s encounter with the senior US official, a delegation of very senior Iranian intelligence officials arrived in Kurdistan for a series of meetings with Talabani and the leadership of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Barzani and the leadership of the KDP, as well as other Kurdish and Islamist parties active in northern Iraq. Stressing they were speaking on behalf of the highest authorities in Tehran, the Iranian officials openly raised the issue of “the partitioning of Iraq into three [independent] regions” in aftermath of the June 30, 2004, hand-over of sovereignty. The Iranian emissaries stressed that Tehran “is in favor of the partition of Iraq into three regions, namely Kurdish, Shi’ite and Sunni [states]” and that Tehran is convinced that “that is the best remedy for Iraq’s problem”. Tehran is convinced, the emissaries emphasized, that once independent, “among those three regions, the Kurdish and the Shi’ite [states] would become two regional friends of Iran”.

The Iranian emissaries promised extensive help for the Kurds if they strove to dismember Iraq and establish a genuinely independent Kurdistan.

At first, both Kurdish leaders were understanding, supportive, but non-committal. They were still reluctant to directly confront the US. However, by late May 2004, as the structure of the Interim Government and power structure of independent Iraq were being defined on the basis of the US and UN plans, the Kurds grew increasingly disillusioned. Moreover, the political disenfranchising of the Kurds was coming on top of what the Kurds consider as financial discrimination in the distribution of seized oil-for-food funds and reconstruction funds. Therefore, on June 1, 2004, in the aftermath of the presentation in Baghdad of the interim leadership of Iraq, Talabani and Barzani sent a confidential letter to US Pres. George W. Bush warning of the dire ramifications of the new Iraq. It was a bitter expression of the Kurds’ disillusionment with the US.

Talabani and Barzani wrote: “America has no better friend than the people of Kurdistan. A year ago, our Peshmerga forces fought side by side with the American forces for the liberation of Iraq, taking more casualties than any other US-led force. Today, Kurdistan remains the only secure and safe part of Iraq. No coalition soldier has been killed in any area controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.” They noted that the legal mandating that the two senior-most position in Iraq — the President and Prime Minister — be Arab stood in contradiction to the US promises of a non-sectarian democratic Iraq. “The people of Kurdistan will no longer accept second class citizenship in Iraq,” they stressed. “We had hoped the new Iraq would be different for the Kurdish people. [However,] ever since liberation, we have detected a bias against Kurdistan from the American authorities for reasons that we cannot comprehend.”

The Kurds demanded a series of specific undertakings and guarantees from the US including the reversal of the enduring Arabization of formerly Kurdish areas, Kurdish control and management of Iraq’s northern oilfields, and as statement by the US and the UN that “Kurds are eligible for the posts of prime minister and president,” or, if that was impossible, “that Kurdistan be compensated with a disproportionate share of relevant ministries in the interim government.” Barzani and Talabani warned that if these demands were not met by June 30, 2004, “the Kurdistan Regional Government will have no choice but to refrain from participating in the central government and institutions, take part in the national elections and bar representatives of the central government from Kurdistan.”

In other words, the Kurds will opt for the breaking-up of Iraq.

The letter of Barzani and Talabani was not an idle threat, because the xenophobic and mistrusting Kurds have been amassing weapons since early 2004 in anticipation of a crisis. The intense Kurdish rearmament drive included the acquisition of dozens of  T-72 tanks and artillery pieces from Syria at extremely low prices. The Syrians were eager to arm the Iraqi Kurds, despite mounting troubles with their own Kurdish population, because Damascus had long realized that the eruption of the Kurdish violence would destroy the only bastion of genuinely pro-US posture in Iraq. Subsequently, Damascus is convinced, there would be no escape from a US defeat and withdrawal.

Having gained their de facto independence in the early 1990s, and with a looming Turkish threat, the Kurds were not going to sacrifice their gains and unique status on the altar of Washington’s aspirations for a unified Iraq. Since the US and the UN have shown no inclination meet the demands of Barzani and Talabani, or even demonstrate some understanding, and with the partition of Iraq into the artificial and debilitating sub-sections looming, the eruption of a new Kurdish crisis — this time with active support from Iran — is only a question of time. By then, the entire Iraq would be engulfed by unprecedented flames.

Ultimately, however, the main reason for the intensity of the terrorism and fratricidal fighting will be the US insensitivity to the indigenous aspirations of most Iraqis and the grassroots population dynamics when imposing the “new Iraq” on the reluctant and emaciated Iraqis. Before embarking on its latest “nation building” adventure, Washington should have learned from the bitter legacy of dividing nations through the drawing of artificial borders. From the enduring instability and fighting following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the fratricidal wars throughout the former Yugoslavia, to the genocidal conflicts in Rwanda-Burundi-Congo, the West’s insistence on imposing state boundaries against the wishes and aspirations of the local people has resulted in torrents of blood. With Iraq already engulfed in a bitter and bloody intifada, it is difficult to fathom the Bush Administration’s insistence on exacerbating an already explosive situation by attempting to force the people of Iraq into territorial frameworks which contradict their own national and historic aspirations.


1. Yossef Bodansky’s new book, The Secret History of the Iraq War, which was published on June 15, 2004, by Regan Books division of HarperCollins [ISBN: 0-06-073679-8. Hardcover, 570pp. $27.95] deals extensively with the Kurdish issue in the Iraq war.