Kurdish history: Leaders’ greed trumps nationalism

Article Highlights

  • Mullah Mustafa is memorialized as a fierce nationalist despite often subordinating Kurdish nationalism to personal power

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  • In 1991, the Kurds finally received their chance at real autonomy, which by 1996 erupted into full-fledged civil war

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  • Both KDP and PUK sought to embrace the Americans from whom they believed they could extract the greatest rewards.

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June 1 marked the 37th anniversary of the founding of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). While Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masud Barzani graciously congratulated PUK leader Talabani, bad blood between the two families and their parties is long, deep, and persistent.

The schism predates the PUK’s birth; historian David McDowall, whose A Modern History of the Kurds, remains the desktop reference for Kurdish history, details the development of factionalism in the KDP in the wake of the Mahabad Republic’s collapse.

The PUK was born out of the collapse of the Kurdish rebellion in 1975. While Kurds today castigate Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the Algiers Accord he brokered between Baghdad and Tehran, contemporaries spread blame more widely. While the KDP today memorializes Mullah Mustafa as a fierce nationalist, the truth is that Masud’s father often subordinated Kurdish nationalism to personal power. Mullah Mustafa’s agreement with Abd al Salam Arif, a fierce Arab nationalist who served as Iraq’s president between 1963 and 1966, omitted any mention of Kurdish autonomy. If Mullah Mustafa forfeited the Kurdish nationalist objective, in Arif he won an ally who threatened to turn Baghdad’s power against anyone who would challenge Barzani. Mullah Mustafa even accepted weaponry from Arif to use against Kurdish competitors.

Talabani and Ibrahim Ahmed were no less corrupted than Mullah Mustafa. When Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr seized power in 1968, both embraced the Baathists with whom they shared socialist roots. Talabani sang the Baath’s praises in the press three months after the revolution. He called the Baath “the first ruling Arab political party…to extend its hand to the Kurdish people directly, sincerely, and hopefully.” It was their turn to become tools of outside forces as they sacrificed Kurdish nationalism for personal power. While Talabani accepted Baghdad’s patronage, Barzani sought Tehran’s which was enough to keep him on top.

In 1975, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger effectively pulled the rug out from beneath Barzani. Mullah Mustafa, with young Masud in tow, fled to Iran. Ibrahim Ahmed disappeared to London, but his daughter and Talabani moved to Syria where, with Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad’s patronage, he formed the PUK.  The division simply continued the pattern in which Kurdistan’s neighbors compromised its leaders and used them as proxies willing to subvert broader Kurdish interests to ambition and greed.

Divisions continued through Saddam Hussein’s rule and even during the Anfal, as neighboring states used Kurdish leaders’ greed and venality to transform Kurdish parties into proxies in a larger war. Masud Barzani, who succeeded his father upon Mullah Mustafa’s death, had sided with Iranian leaders during the Iran-Iraq War, not simply out of animosity toward Baghdad, but also because the Iranian army was seeking to eliminate his rivals in the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran. Talabani, meanwhile, sought a ceasefire with Baghdad in order to protect the PUK rear while he sought to consolidate control in Kurdistan at the Barzanis’ expense. While both PUK and KDP condemn the Anfal, had Kurds displayed unity at the time, Saddam’s government would have been far less successful with its ethnic cleansing campaign.

In 1991, the Kurds finally received their chance at real autonomy. After a close election, the PUK and KDP and both parties affiliates decided to divide power along near even lines. However, money and a quest for power again got in the way. In 1994, the power sharing deal began to fray and full-fledged civil war erupted between the PUK and KDP. This culminated in 1996, when Barzani invited Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guards into Erbil to root out PUK elements that now were supported by Iran. Saddam may have harbored genocidal hatred to the Kurds and deployed chemical weapons against civilians, but Barzani believed his quest for power trumped such concerns. Talabani likewise hardly batted an eye at allying himself with “Hanging Judge” Sadegh Khalkhali’s brethren.

In the wake of the civil war, the Barzani’s—especially Nechirvan, as records captured during Operation Iraqi Freedom suggest—continued business ties with Saddam. They found themselves increasingly at odds with Turkey, however, which often attacked KDP territory as the Turkish Army sought to battle the PKK. While Talabani was no friend of the PKK, he grew closer to Turkey. After all, as a senior PUK official explained to me while I taught at the University of Sulaymani, the KDP controlled the entire length of the Iraqi-Turkish border, so whenever Turkish troops invaded Kurdistan, they would strike Barzani first.

When the U.S. forces occupied Iraq, Kurdish parties repositioned themselves. Both KDP and PUK sought to embrace the Americans from whom they believed they could extract the greatest rewards. In this, Barzani was more successful. As the KDP co-opted U.S. forces, some in the PUK again sought to reach out to Iran. It was in this context that Bafel Talabani found himself in such trouble as, according to sources in Washington, he reportedly assisted Iranian operatives who sought to kill Americans in Mosul. The PUK likewise decided it no longer needed Turkey. Qubad Talabani bragged that it was PUK intelligence that led to the July 2003 incident in which the members of the 173rd Airborne captured and hooded a Turkish Special Forces unit alleged to be planning assassinations in either Sulaymani or Kirkuk.

Today, Kurdistan is booming. Oil is flowing and foreign direct investment continues to pour in. Never before have the financial stakes been so high. The revenues from the Ibrahim Khalil customs post over which Barzani and Talabani fought the Kurdish civil war pale in comparison to the stakes from oil contracts. Barzani’s arguments with Maliki have less to do with principle than with cash. After all, if principle mattered, Barzani would think twice about allying himself with apologists for the Baath Party or, for that matter, Muqtada al-Sadr. That Talabani refuses to jump onto the Barzani bandwagon on this issue and instead sides with Baghdad is simply a continuation of the pattern of foreign powers using Kurdish leaders as proxy members in an outside battle.

The looming crisis for Kurdistan is not about leadership in Baghdad, however. While Western and Korean businesses dot the landscape in Kurdistan, the two economic powerhouses in Kurdistan today are Iran and Turkey. According to a recent interview in Hawler, the Iranian consul in Erbil placed Iranian trade with Kurdistan at $7 billion. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Trade Minister Sinan Chalabi put Kurdstan-Turkish trade at $8.4 billion in 2011. While the Iranian government initially welcomed the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), there is no doubt that Erdoğan’s confidence, sectarianism, and international involvement now antagonizes Tehran. Whereas Barzani has embraced Turkey, PUK officials like Kosrat Rasul have cast their lot with the Iranian interests — irrespective of Rasul’s own past grievances with Iran. Partisans in Turkey and Iran do not hesitate to play the decades-old Kurdish factional game.

Not all battle lines are yet drawn. While Nechirvan is involved personally in many Turkish projects, he also enriches himself immensely by smuggling oil to Iran. Unless Kurdish authorities are willing to divorce governance from personal business interests, however, the Turkish-Iranian dispute will likely reinforce old divisions. Kurds may blame their ills on division among four countries but the responsibility too often is with their leaders—Mullah Mustafa, Ibrahim Ahmed, Jalal Talabani, and Masud Barzani—who allowed self-interest and greed to undermine the broader Kurdish project.

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