The Kurdish leaders trust no one. Nor should anyone trust them

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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 Karkerên 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.

[1] Masoud Barzani, Al-Barzani wa al-Haraka at-Taharurya al-Kurdya. Al-Juz ath-Thalith: Thawrat Aylol, 1961-1975 (Erbil: Matbaat Al Tarbia, 2002), pp. 21-41.
[2] Pavel Sudoplatov and Anatolii Sudoplatov with Jerrold L. Schecter and Leona P. Schecter, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1994), pp. 259-64.
[3] Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive II: The KGB and the World (London: Allen Lane, 2005), p. 175.
[4] Reproduced in Vladislav M. Zubok, Spy vs. Spy: The KGB vs. the CIA, 1960-1962 (Cold War International History Project Bulletin), Fall 1994, pp. 22-33.
[5] For more about the history of the Barzani family, see Ayob Barzani, Al-Muqawama al-Kurdya wa al-Ihtilal, 1914-1958 (Geneva: Editions Orient-Realites, 2002), pp. 35-59.
[6] See, for example, "Kurdish Efforts to Recruit International Support," declassified CIA document, Mar. 29, 1972; Oles M. Smolansky with Bettie M. Smolansky, The USSR and Iraq: The Soviet Quest for Influence (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991), pp. 79-80.
[7] Smolansky, The USSR and Iraq, pp. 76-98.