The Barzani Chameleon
by Kamal Said Qadir
Middle East Quarterly
On September 11, 1961, Iraqi Kurds under the leadership of Mulla
Mustafa Barzani, founder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)
and father of the current Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, rose
in rebellion against Iraq's central government. Kurds often
portray the event as spontaneous. It was not.
A declassified KGB document suggests Soviet involvement in the
Kurdish rebellion was part of a Kremlin plan to disrupt Western
interests in the Third World. The Kurds provided fertile ground
for Soviet intrigue because of Barzani's ties to Soviet
authorities. After the collapse of the Mahabad Republic in Iran,
Barzani took refuge in the Soviet Union.
On July 29, 1961, KGB chairman Alexander Shelepin suggested to
Nikita Khrushchev, the secretary general of the Soviet Communist
Party, to have Barzani (code-named Ra'is, Arabic for president)
"activate the movement of the Kurdish population of Iraq, Iran,
and Turkey for creation of an independent Kurdistan." If
successful, the rebellion could disadvantage not only the United
States and Great Britain but also U.S. allies Turkey and Iran.
After the Kurdish rebellion began, the KGB sought to further
exploit the situation:
P. [Peter] Ivashutin to the Central Committee of the Communist
Party of the Soviet Union. September 27, 1961, St.-199/10c, 3
October 1961, TsKhSD, fond 4, opis 13, delo 85, ll. 1-4.
In accord with the decision of the CC CPSU of 1 August 1961 on
the implementation of measures favouring the distraction of the
attention and forces of the USA and her allies from West Berlin,
and in view of the armed uprisings of the Kurdish tribes that
have begun in the North of Iraq to: 1) use the KGB to organize
pro-Kurdish and anti-[Abdul Karim] Kassem protests in India,
Indonesia, Afghanistan, Guinea, and other countries; 2) have the
KGB meet with Barzani to urge him to "seize the leadership of
the Kurdish movements in his hands and to lead it along the
democratic road," and to advise him to "keep a low profile in
the course of this activity so that the West did not have a
pretext to blame the USSR in meddling into the internal affairs
of Iraq"; and 3) assign the KGB to recruit and train a "special
armed detachment (500-700 men)" drawn from Kurds living in the
USSR in the event that Moscow might need to send Barzani
"various military experts (Artillerymen, radio operators,
demolition squads, etc.)" to support the Kurdish uprising.
While the Ivashutin document refers only to Barzani's
relationship with the KGB in the run-up to and wake of the 1961
rebellion, other declassified material suggests ties between the
Barzani family and Soviet authorities to have a long history. In
1973, though, the KGB severed its relationship with Barzani
after the Baath Party and Iraqi Communist Party formed a tenuous
alliance and Baghdad established close military and economic
ties with the Soviet Union. Deprived of Soviet support, Barzani
allied himself more closely with the United States, Iran, and
Israel. However, in 1975, Henry Kissinger pulled the rug out
from the Kurdish rebellion when he brokered a border and
non-interference pact between Iran and Iraq. Mulla Mustafa
Barzani took refuge in the United States where he died in 1979.
How is this episode relevant today? Switching alliances is part
of the Barzani family political culture, intertwining survival
and power with Kurdish nationalism. Between 1980 and 1988,
Masoud Barzani allied himself with Iran in its fight against
Saddam, even as the revolutionary authorities in Iran turned
their guns on Iranian Kurds. After long hostility to Turkey, in
1992, he allied with Ankara in its fight against the Kurdistan
Workers' Party (Partiya KarkerÍn Kurdistan, PKK); in 1996, he
allied with Saddam Hussein against rival Kurdish leader (and
current Iraqi president) Jalal Talabani. In the wake of Iraq's
liberation in 2003, Barzani has portrayed himself as a U.S.
ally. For how long, though, remains unclear.
Kamal Said Qadir is an Iraqi Kurdish writer based in Vienna,
Austria. He was detained by KDP security forces on October 26,
2005, for criticizing corruption within the KDP and was released
months later after an international campaign.