From new book Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda

How the U.S. Used Iraq's Kurds: A History of Repeated Betrayal

by Larry Everest

Revolutionary Worker #1226, January 25, 2004, posted at

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, the U.S. government and media spoke glowingly of the two Iraqi Kurdish forces--the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masood Barzani. And no wonder!

In the northern Kurdish regions of Iraq, these two major Kurdish parties, who are rivals and control different territories, put tens of thousands of their peshmerga troops at the disposal of the U.S. invaders. U.S. commandos and CIA forces were dropped in and essentially led the Kurdish troops in defeating the Iraqi government forces in the north. Not a single U.S. soldier died in this "northern front."

Before the war, these two forces had developed zones in the north that were essentially independent of Iraq's Baghdad government. The U.S. had created a northern "no fly zone" after the first Gulf war, and the U.S. air forces over the north prevented Saddam Hussein's government from exercising power there. When the U.S. invaded again in 2003, these same Kurdish forces joined in--hoping that the destruction of Saddam Hussein's central government would give them increased power, both in some future central government and in the form of a semi-independent Kurdish state carved out of northern Iraq.

However, now, as the U.S. occupation authorities are trying to hammer together some stable pro-U.S. order in Iraq, the demands and hopes of the Kurdish people of the north have been starting to clash in many ways with the interests of U.S. domination.

Powerful Forces Oppose Kurdish National Rights

The mountainous region of the Kurdish people, known as Kurdistan, has not had its own government in modern times. Kurdish people are ruled by the different governments in the region--there are sizable Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Kurds make up some 20 percent of Iraq's population living mainly in the mountainous northern 17 percent of Iraq's 438,446 square kilometers. (See the sidebar on "How the Kurds Were Denied a State")

Kurdish people have been oppressed in many ways by various governments and feudal landlords--often in extremely brutal ways--including denial of basic cultural and political rights.

It is widely discussed in the U.S. media how the Saddam Hussein government brutalized and massacred the Kurdish people to suppress their struggle for independence (though it is not discussed how he did this as an ally of the U.S!). In some similar ways, the government of Turkey--U.S.'s close NATO ally to the north of Iraq--has waged an intense, genocidal war for more than a decade against the Kurdish people in southeastern Turkey.

Imperialist control of this region has meant, over and over, the suppression of Kurdish national aspirations. And there is powerful opposition today in Baghdad, Washington, DC, and in Turkey's government to any attempt by the Kurdish parties to gain control of the northern Iraqi oilfields, which stretch on the borders of Kurdish areas near the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. These vast underground oilfields represent about 40 percent of Iraq's reserves.

Both the U.S. and Turkish governments fear that Kurdish control of the northern oilfields would finance an independent army and government--that would make it harder for the U.S. to hold together and dominate Iraq as a multinational state.

Turkey's government fears that a separate Kurdish rule in northern Iraq will reignite the Kurdish struggle within Turkey (i.e. within northern Kurdistan) by giving Kurdish fighters and other forces a sanctuary across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The U.S. government, military and CIA may have made some promises to prominent Kurdish politicians, but they definitely do not want the slightest power to fall into the hands of the Kurdish masses.

On paper, the main Iraqi Kurdish parties have promised the U.S. that they will not declare independence for their northern regions and that they would remain within a federated Iraq. The PUK leader, Jalal Talabani, has even served as temporary president of the "Iraqi Governing Council" --the U.S. puppet government-in-formation.

Repeatedly, the U.S. has wanted to bring thousands of Turkish government troops across the border into Iraq to help with the occupation--but this has been sharply opposed by Kurdish forces who believe the Turkish government intends to take over the northern oilfields for itself, using the troops and militia that Turkey has built up among Iraqis Turkmen nationality. Kurdish forces initially took the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul during the U.S. invasion, but they were quickly ordered by the U.S. to withdraw to their rural strongholds.

In short, the U.S. for years encouraged Kurdish aspiration for autonomy and armed the Kurdish peshmerga, and then used them to take over northern Iraq. Now, as the U.S. seeks to consolidate its control over all of Iraq and surrounding countries, the U.S. is putting great pressure on its Kurdish allies to give up any moves toward greater autonomy or toward control of the northern oil. In addition, the U.S. is expected to demand the eventual disarmament of Kurdish armed forces through the merger of their peshmerga into a new U.S.-controlled Iraqi army.

The U.S. was never going to distribute "liberation" like bags of rice to the oppressed people in Iraq and the region. New York Times columnist William Safire reports (January 14) that the U.S. colonial administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, "told Kurdish leaders brusquely last week to forget the past U.S. autonomy policy and get with the unity program."

While leading pro-U.S. forces among the Kurds are aspiring to power within a future Iraqi puppet government, the interests of the people, including the masses of Kurdish people, are clashing with U.S. plans for dominating this whole strategic region.

This is part of a long, familiar pattern. Whenever the U.S. has wanted to undermine a government in Iraq or Iran, it has encouraged and armed Kurdish separatist forces. And then it has built up those pliant conservative forces among the Kurds willing to fight for the U.S. against a central government.

Then, the moment the U.S. no longer needed to destabilize the central government, it has shown itself quite willing to betray its former Kurdish allies.

In the following excerpt from Chapter 3 of his new book, Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda , RW writer Larry Everest sketches how the U.S. government has used and then betrayed the Kurdish people before.


To hear the Bush II administration tell it, Iraq's Kurds could have no better friends than their self- proclaimed allies in Washington. Bush and company repeatedly denounced the Hussein regime's "persecution of its civilian population, including Shi'a, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomans and others," as Bush put it before the United Nations in September 2002, and argued that war, conquest, and regime change were needed to assure Kurdish freedoms.

The proponents of the 2003 war never saw fit, of course, to mention the actual, sordid record of Washington's manipulation and betrayal of the Kurds during the 1970s, which we delve into below. That history not only makes U.S. promises ring hollow and hypocritical, but casts Washington's true intentions toward the Kurds in a starkly different light.

In 1972, Nixon, Kissinger and Iran's Shah also came up with a cynical plan to deal with its concerns in the Persian Gulf: encouraging an insurgency by Iraq's Kurds in order to weaken Baghdad. In May, Nixon and Kissinger visited Moscow and promised that the U.S. would join the Soviets to "promote conditions in which all countries will live in peace and security and will not be subject to outside interference." Seymour Hersh, a long-time investigative journalist for The New York Times and later the New Yorker , writes in his biography of Kissinger that "The next day, Nixon and Kissinger flew to Tehran and made a secret commitment to the Shah to clandestinely supply arms to the Kurdish rebel faction inside Soviet-supported Iraq...." The goal, Kissinger later explained, was for the Shah to "keep Iraq occupied by supporting the Kurdish rebellion within Iraq, and maintain a large army near the frontier."

Since Iraq's creation by the British, its Kurdish population has suffered systematic discrimination and oppression. Much of Iraq's oil flows from fields around Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet Iraqi Kurds saw few benefits from Iraq's petroleum wealth and had no voice in its oil policy. Kurdistan remained undeveloped, with fewer industries, roads, schools, and hospitals than the rest of Iraq. Kurds were discriminated against in government employment and had little control over even their local affairs.

Following the Ba'ath takeover in 1968, the new regime promised Kurds that their lot would improve. Iraq's new 1970 constitution recognized "the national rights of the Kurdish People and the legitimate rights of all minorities within the unity of Iraq." A 1974 "Law for Autonomy in the Area of Kurdistan" promised that Kurdish would be an official language, used in Kurdish schools. These actions marked Iraq's broadest official recognition of Kurdish identity and rights. (In contrast, neighboring Iran and Turkey, then staunch U.S. allies, have never even formally recognized the Kurds as a distinct nationality, let alone promised them national rights.)

However, during negotiations in 1971 between the Ba'ath regime and Kurdish representatives, it became clear that the key issues of Kurdish control of local security forces, receiving a fair portion of Iraq's oil income, and sharing national power were not on the table. The Ba'ath also began encouraging Iraqi Arabs to move to Kurdistan and attempted to assassinate Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani. Barzani, who had been in contact with the U.S. and the Shah (and perhaps Israel) since the early 1960s, turned to them once again for help against Baghdad. Barzani even promised the Washington Post that if the U.S. backed the Kurdish struggle, "we are ready to do what goes with American policy in this area if America will protect us from the wolves. If support were strong enough, we could control the Kirkuk field and give it to an American company to operate."

The Kissinger-Shah plan went into effect in 1972. Iran and the U.S. encouraged the Kurds to rise against Baghdad and provided them millions of dollars in weapons, logistical support, and funds. Over the next 3 years, $16 million in CIA money was given to Iraq's Kurds and Iran provided the Kurds with some 90 percent of their weapons, including advanced artillery.

The U.S. goal, however, was neither victory nor self-determination for Iraqi Kurds. The CIA feared such a strategy "would have the effect of prolonging the insurgency, thereby encouraging separatist aspirations and possibly providing to the Soviet Union an opportunity to create difficulties" for U.S. allies Turkey and Iran. A Congressional investigation of CIA activities, headed by New York Congressman Otis Pike, concluded that "none of the nations who were aiding [the Kurds] seriously desired that they realize their objective of an autonomous state." Rather, the U.S. and the Shah sought to weaken Iraq and deplete its energies. According to CIA memos and cables, they viewed the Kurds as "a card to play" against Iraq, and "a uniquely useful tool for weakening [Iraq's] potential for international adventurism."

To this end, Iran instituted "draconian controls" on its military assistance and never gave the Kurds more than three days worth of ammunition in order to deny them the freedom of action needed for victory. At one point in 1973, Kissinger personally intervened to halt a planned Kurdish offensive for fear it would succeed and complicate U.S. machinations in the wake of the October Arab-Israeli War. The Pike investigation concluded:

The president, Dr. Kissinger, and the Shah hoped that our clients would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally's [Iran's] neighbouring country. The policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting.

"Ours Was a Cynical Enterprise"

By 1975, the Kurdish insurgency posed the gravest threat the Ba'ath Regime had yet faced. Some 45,000 Kurdish guerrillas, aided by two Iranian divisions, had pinned down 80 percent of Iraq's 100,000 troops, severely straining Iraq's economy and military. Kissinger and the Shah wanted neither all-out war, nor the collapse of the Iraqi regime. Rather, they sought to force Iraq to curb its anti- Israeli Arab nationalism and to pry it from its Soviet patrons, demonstrating to others in the region that being a Soviet client didn't pay. The Shah also wanted to prove that Iran was the Gulf's strongest power and a reliable regional gendarme for the U.S., as well as to renegotiate the Sa'dabad Pact of 1937, which had given control of the entire Shatt al Arab waterway between the two countries to Iraq.

The Shah planned to abandon the Kurds "the minute he came to an agreement with his enemy over border disputes," one CIA memo noted. Eight hours after Iraq did agree to U.S.-Iranian terms, which were formalized in the Algiers Agreement of March 1975, the Shah and the U.S. cut off aid -- including food -- and closed Iran's border, cutting off Kurdish lines of retreat.

The Kurds had no idea that they were about to be abandoned. But Iraq knew, and the next day it launched an all-out, "search-and-destroy" attack. The Kurds, who had been led to believe that the U.S. was acting as a "guarantor" against betrayal by the Shah, were taken by complete surprise. Deprived of Iranian support, Kurdish forces were quickly decimated and between 150,000 and 300,000 Kurds were forced to flee into Iran.

The U.S. coldly betrayed its erstwhile Kurdish "allies," but even then, as the Pike Commission sardonically noted, "The cynicism of the U.S. and its ally had not yet completely run its course." Barzani had written to Kissinger, pleading desperately for help. Kissinger didn't bother replying.

Washington then "refused to extend humanitarian assistance to the thousands of refugees created by the abrupt termination of military aid," the Pike Commission reported. One CIA cable acknowledged, "[O]ur ally [Iran] was later to forcibly return over 40,000 of the refugees and the United States government refused to admit even one refugee into the United States by way of political asylum even though they qualified for such admittance."

The U.S.-Iranian covert campaign further poisoned relations between Baghdad and Iraq's Kurds. The Pike Commission concluded that if the U.S. and the Shah hadn't encouraged the insurgency, the Kurds "may have reached an accommodation with the central government, thus gaining at least a measure of autonomy while avoiding further bloodshed. Instead, our clients [the Kurds] fought on, sustaining thousands of casualties and 200,000 refugees."

Baghdad also retaliated with a massive pacification campaign: some 250,000 Kurds were forcibly relocated to central and southern Iraq, while many Arab Iraqis were forced to move to traditionally Kurdish areas.

In what became an infamous remark, Kissinger dismissed the Pike Commission's concerns: "Covert action," he said, "should not be confused with missionary work." Nonetheless, the Commission concluded, "Even in this context of covert operations, ours was a cynical enterprise."

It is important to note here that as these events were taking place (beginning in September 1973), Kissinger's top aide was General Brent Scowcroft, who would later become National Security Advisor under Bush, Sr. and an architect of the 1991 Persian Gulf war on Iraq.

It is also important to note that if the U.S. government had had its way, the Pike Commission's damning exposures would have never seen the light of day. First, the House of Representatives voted not to release the document. Then, when CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr obtained a leaked copy and gave it to the Village Voice , he was promptly fired by CBS and threatened with contempt of Congress for refusing to reveal his sources. A new Director of Central Intelligence had just been appointed when this attempted cover-up took place. His name was George H.W. Bush.