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In His Father’s Shadow

Massoud Barzani as a young rebel
The president of Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani

Massoud Barzani came into the world in unique circumstances. He was born on 16 August 1946 in the short-lived, Soviet-backed Mahabad Republic, a by-product of the British and Soviet partition of Iran during the Second World War. Massoud’s father, General Mulla Mustafa Barzani, was the head of the fledgling republic’s military at the time and was eventually forced to flee to the Soviet Union after Moscow withdrew its support for the Kurds in late 1946 under heavy pressure from the United States. Meanwhile, Massoud returned to Iraq, where he lived with an uncle and continued his primary education.

On 14 July 1958, just before Massoud turned twelve, a group of military officers overthrew the Hashemite monarchy, thereby paving the way for his family’s return to Iraq. But before long, Iraq’s leader, Abdel Karim Qasim, and his father had a falling out and the Barzani family returned to the north.

In the summer of 1961, fighting broke out in northern Iraq as Massoud’s father settled old scores with neighboring tribes, whom Qasim had been secretly supporting. Then, on 11 September, a group of Kurdish militants attacked an army column, leading Qasim to order a widespread bombing campaign against the north, which included Mulla Mustafa’s home town, Barzan. Before long, the entire north of Iraq was in revolt and had rallied to Mulla Mustafa’s banner. The revolt would last until March 1975.

At the time the revolt broke out, Massoud had just turned fifteen. But before long, he and his older brother, Idris, began to take on more important roles and positions of influence

At the time the revolt broke out, Massoud had just turned fifteen. But before long, he and his older brother, Idris, began to take on more important roles and positions of influence within the Kurdish leadership. According to CIA documents, by 1972 Massoud had been put in charge of Kurdish intelligence, which was established in 1968 with the help of Iran’s Organization of Intelligence and National Security (SAVAK). From June 1972 onwards, the CIA, SAVAK, and Mossad worked with Kurdish intelligence to funnel arms and financial aid to the Kurdish rebels, who were fighting a brutal war against the Soviet-backed Ba’athist regime. But when the Shah of Iran cut a deal with Saddam Hussein to sell out the Kurds in March 1975 with the signing of the Algiers Accord, which brought the war to its tragic conclusion. Afterward, Massoud fled with his father into exile in Iran and then on to the United States, where Mulla Mustafa eventually died of cancer in 1979.

Massoud Barzani as a young rebel

Following his father’s death, Massoud returned to Iraq with his father’s body and resumed his life as a leading Kurdish nationalist. Throughout much of the Iran-Iraq War, Massoud’s role in the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) was secondary to that of his brother, but this changed in January 1987 when Idris died unexpectedly of a heart attack, leading Massoud to assume control of the party. It was during the first few years as leader that Saddam unleashed the horrific Anfal campaign, which confirmed to Massoud just how brutal the Iraqi regime could be.

When the Kurdish struggle entered the 1990s, it took on a renewed meaning in Washington as the Clinton administration began plotting Saddam’s downfall. Since the Kurds were a natural ally against the Iraqi regime, it made sense that the CIA developed close contacts with Massoud and his arch-nemesis, Jalal Talabani, another Kurdish nationalist who had fought on and off alongside Mulla Mustafa during the Kurdish Revolt and formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1975 as a counterforce to the KDP. Following Iraq’s expulsion from Kuwait and the subsequent uprisings in the Kurdish north and Shi’a south, the regime sought to negotiate a new autonomy agreement with Massoud and Talabani.

According to David McDowall’s book, A Modern History of the Kurds, Saddam found it much easier to negotiate with Massoud because he “dreaded a return to war,” whereas Talabani was much more aggressive and familiar with Saddam’s ruthless negotiating tactics. Indeed, Mulla Mustafa’s right hand man, Mahmoud Othman, once described Massoud as “too soft.” But this was understandable when considering the horrific events Massoud had witnessed in his short life: the betrayal of his father by Iran, the dishonorable treatment his father received at the hands of the CIA while undergoing cancer treatment in the US, the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War, the massacres at Halabja and the Anfal campaign that followed, and the failure of the US to come to the Kurds’ aid during the 1991 uprising. If Massoud could achieve his father’s dream of autonomy by negotiating with Saddam, then so be it.

In April 1991, following the Gulf War and the subsequent Shia and Kurdish uprisings, the US commenced Operation Provide Comfort which provided a protective no-fly zone above Iraqi Kurdistan. Thanks to US protection, the Kurds were able to implement their own form of autonomy based on an agreement between Mulla Mustafa and Saddam dating back to March 1970. Elections were held in May 1992 with the purpose of forming the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), leading to a dead heat between Massoud, who got 48 percent of the vote, and Talabani, who won 45 percent. The distribution of parliamentary seats were along similar lines, with the KDP winning 45 percent of the vote and PUK taking 43.6 percent. While the KDP was technically the winner outright, the results were so close together that both parties agreed to a power-sharing deal that would inevitably sow the seeds of a future conflict.

After two years of escalating rivalry between the two parties, largely over how revenue was to be allocated, fighting broke out in May 1994 over a land dispute between a KDP member and a PUK-backed farmer. By the end of August over 1,000 were dead, leading the US to intervene and broker a ceasefire, but fighting broke out again in December 1994, leading to 500 more people being killed. Again the US intervened in April 1995 and brokered a ceasefire, which too would not last. Kurdistan was descending into civil war, which was precisely what Saddam wanted.

The enduring peace between Massoud and Talabani was further cemented in October 2002, in the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq, when both leaders reconvened the Kurdish parliament and apologized to the families of the victims who had died during the civil war.

According to Quil Lawrence’s book, Invisible Nation, as the rivalry between Massoud and Talabani grew, both sides looked for allies, while the US was caught in the middle with its own disparate interests. In the summer of 1996, with Iranian backing, Talabani routed the KDP army, known as the Peshmerga (‘those who face death’), and seized Erbil. This led to an astonishing turn of events. Since 1994, Massoud had been secretly negotiating an autonomy deal with Baghdad. When Talabani turned to Iran for assistance, the need for advanced weapons pushed Massoud further into Saddam’s arms. Then, in late-August 1996, facing almost certain defeat at Talabani’s hands, Massoud invited 40,000 Iraqi troops into Erbil. It was a shocking betrayal of Kurdish ideals, especially since nearly 8,000 of Massoud’s relatives had been killed on Saddam’s orders.

By turning to Saddam, Massoud also betrayed the CIA, with Kenneth M. Pollack, a CIA veteran and senior advisor on the Middle East to Clinton, commenting, “We had no clue. We felt absolutely blindsided by [the betrayal].” But the shocking turn of events also gave the US greater impetus to find some sort of accommodation between the KDP and PUK, and in October 1996 the US urged both sides to accept a ceasefire, which both sides accepted after the Clinton administration sweetened the deal by offering Massoud and Talabani an $11 million bribe each. While fighting would break out periodically over the next two years, in August 1998 the US finally convinced both sides to set aside their grievances and agree to a comprehensive peace, which has lasted to this day.

The enduring peace between Massoud and Talabani was further cemented in October 2002, in the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq, when both leaders reconvened the Kurdish parliament and apologized to the families of the victims who had died during the civil war.

In the aftermath of the US invasion in 2003, Massoud and Talabani again found common ground in building Kurdistan into a place of tranquility, security, and economic prosperity, while the rest of Iraq turned against itself in a frenzy of sectarian bloodletting. The balance between the two rivals was struck in a clever manner: Massoud was elected president of the KRG by a parliamentary vote in 2006, while Talabani became president of Iraq in 2005. This balance was further reinforced 2009 when Massoud was elected president by popular ballot in Kurdistan, while Talabani was reelected president in the Iraqi general election in November 2010.

After four decades of internecine strife, it was only the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 that allowed Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani to find common purpose in creating a safe, autonomous enclave for the Kurdish people. Certainly the peaceful tranquility that the Kurdish region has endured since the late 1990s is the direct result of these two powerhouses getting along, though decades of animosity are hard to bury. While there are growing tensions in Kurdistan about the dominance, corruption, and nepotism of the Barzani and Talabani families, it is hard to say what will happen when the octogenarian Talabani passes on. Will the Barzani family continue to assert its dominance over the region, or will a more open, democratic, non-nepotistic system emerge? It is hard to say for certain, but there is no question that Massoud Barzani will play a leading role in shaping the path that Iraqi Kurdistan takes.

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Bryan R. Gibson
Bryan R. Gibson is a PhD candidate in International History at the London School of Economics and author of Covert Relationship: American Foreign Policy, Intelligence and the Iran–Iraq War.

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