On the Kurdish Referendum in Iraq

By Yossi Schwartz (The Internationalist Socialist League – Israel / Occupied Palestine), 13.10.2017, http://the-isleague.com/

Between 25 and 35 million Kurds live in the mountainous region on the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They are the fourth-largest national group in the Middle East, but they have never been able to form a permanent nation state.

In Iraq alone about 5 million Kurds live; and they dream of an independent state. As an oppressed nation they have the right to self determination, but under their reactionary leadership they will never be able to secure authentic independence because not only Iraq, Iran and Turkey oppose it, but so does US imperialism.

The Kurdish region has been occupied by many nations: Ancient Persia, Alexander the Great, Muslim Arabs in the 7th Century, Seljuk Turks in the 11th, Mongols in the 13th Century, Turkey in the 16th Century and most recently, the United States in its 2003 invasion of Iraq. After WWI, following The War, British and French imperialists promised a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. However, imperialists, as usual, ignore their promises.

The Kurds after World War II

During WWII the Soviet Stalinists helped to establish a republic in Northern Iran – the Republic of Mahabad. However, in spite of a declaration of Azi Muhammad, the chairman of the republic; that his party the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) was not a communist party, the US imperialists sided with Iran that crushed the fledgling republic.

On December 15th, 1946, Iranian forces captured Mahabad. Iran closed down the Kurdish printing press, banned the teaching of the Kurdish language and burned Kurdish books. On March 31, 1947, Azi Muhammad was hanged in Mahabad on counts of treason. The leadership of the KDP passed to Mustafa of the Barzani tribe that lives mostly in Iraq.

In October 1958, Mustafa Barzani returned to Northern Iraq, and began to struggle for an autonomous Kurdish region. The first major uprising under Barzani was in 1931, and it failed. The next revolt was led by Ahmed Barzani’s younger brother Mustafa Barzani in 1943, but it also failed and Barazani was exiled to Iran, where he participated in an attempt to form the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad.

In 1958, Mustafa Barzani returned to Iraq and he attempted to negotiate a Kurdish autonomy in the north of Iraq with General Qasim, Because of this negotiation, army officers among them Abed as-Salām ʿĀrif led a coup in February 1963, which overthrew the government and killed Qāsim himself.

A Kurdish Autonomy agreement was reached in March 1970 by the Iraqi government and the Kurds. However, this autonomy was crushed in a new war between the Kurds led by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Iraqi army in 1975. The PUK was led by Jalal Talabani’s while Massoud Barzani’s was the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party. These two parties were rivals and the conflict between them led to a civil war in 1994.

Iran supported the KDP against the PUK, while Talabani formed an alliance with Iran, against the KDP, Massoud Barzani made a pact with Saddam Hussein. The latter sent the Iraqi Republican Guard and attacked the PUK-held city of Erbil, which was captured by the Iraqi army with KDP forces. Iraqi troops executed 700 captured fighters of the PUK.

Talabani retreated to Iran, where he formed an alliance with the PKK against the KDP which was backed by Turkey. In September 1998, Barzani and Talabani signed the U.S.-mediated Agreement that established a formal peace treaty among the two parties, The US promised to defend the Kurdish autonomy against Saddam Hussein. The US however, never saw the Kurds as a partner, but as something to be used and thrown away, despite any promises to the contrary.

Israel and the Iraqi-Kurdish Leadership – an Alliance of Reactionaries

Israel has been a player and has a long history of support for the reactionary factions in the leadership of the Iraqi Kurds, especially the ones that rely on the imperialist states with a vain hope that they will help the Kurds gain independence.

The initial success of the Iraqi Kurds in the struggle against the Baghdad regime attracted the attention of the Israeli special services which regarded them as efficient allies in their struggle against Syria and Iraq, Israel’s most consistent adversaries in the region. That is why by the end of 1950s, with respect to the Kurdish minorities in Arab states, Israel pursued the policy later referred to as the “peripheral strategy.” (1)

By the end of 1950s and in the early 1960s Israel became the principal source of weapons, supplies and training for the Kurds in their struggle against the government. By various estimates, thousands of Mossad agents and instructors of the Israeli army resided in the Kurdish-populated regions of Iraq at the time and conducted undercover operations.

Various arms supplies for the Iraqi Kurds actively continued in 1965-1975. The Parastin, the intelligence service of the Kurdish Democratic Party, was also established with Mossad’s support in the late 1960s. The operations conducted by the Israeli intelligence agency in Northern Iraq were of particular significance for Israel because the Iraqi Kurds were being pounded not only by the Iraqi troops, but also by the regular army of Syria, another Arab state ruled by the Baath party. (2)

According to a former senior Mossad official, Eliezer Tsafrir, Israel had military advisers at the headquarters of Mulla Mustafa Barzani in 1963-1975, trained and supplied the Kurdish units with firearms, field and anti-aircraft artillery. The US also participated in this campaign. Israel spent tens of millions of dollars on the support for the Kurds, supplying them via Iran, which pursued its own goals in Iraq and had close ties with Israel up until 1979. (3)

In the mid 1960s and 70s, Israel cooperated with Iran, then a U.S. ally under the Shah, to fight against its Arab enemies – Iraq, Syria and Egypt. As part of the cooperation the Mossad sent Lt. Colonel Tzuri Sagi to develop plans for and build up a Kurdish army to fight Iraqi troops in northern Iraq. Tzuri Sagi was also responsible for the Israeli assassination attempts against Saddam Hussein. His Kurdish cooperation partner was the leader of the Barzani clan, Mullah Mustafa Barzani. The Kurdish army the Israelis created is now known as Peshmerga. The son of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Masoud Barzani, is now the president of the Kurdish region of Iraq.

New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi reported from the ground in her twitter:

“A common refrain I hear is that the Iraqi army ran when ISIS overran Mosul, whereas the Kurds stood their ground. Sadly that’s not true. One of the areas that was under the control of Kurdish troops was Mt Sinjar, home to a large share of the 500,000 Yazidis living in Iraq. According to the dozens of interviews I’ve done with Yazidi survivors of ISIS’ ensuing genocide, Kurdish troops cut and ran when ISIS came. Adding insult to injury, say community leaders, Kurdish troops disarmed Yazidis. And did not warn them of ISIS’ advance. The result: Thousands of Yazidi women were kidnapped by ISIS and systematically raped. Many I spoke to partially blamed Kurdish troops for their fate.”

Callimachi further reports that Kurdish troops prevented Yezidis from returning to their homes, meaning that their lands have been unilaterally annexed. The Kurds also occupy land and villages that belong to Assyrian Christians, already mentioned in the bible.

Another hot spot is Kirkuk. The oil rich city is an original Turkmen and Arab area. The Kurdish militias snatched it in 2014 while the Islamic State marched on to Baghdad. They now want to annex it. The Iraqi state is naturally vehemently against this and is now sending its army to the area. The Turkish government, which sees itself as the defender of all Turkmen, also threatens to intervene.

US Empty Promises

After Iraq’s defeat in Kuwait, Shi’as in Southern Iraq started a popular uprising against the Baghdad regime. The Kurds in the North joined them. Within two weeks, Saddam Hussein lost 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. However, once it was clear that the U.S. will not support the rebellion, Saddam’s forces crushed the revolt. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled into the mountains.

US President Bush, who encouraged the Kurds to rise up against the Baathist government in 1991, refused to arm the Kurds in the fight against the Iraqi army that was using aircraft to attack the Kurds.

[…] I do not want one single soldier or airman shoved into a civil war in Iraq that’s been going on for ages,” he was quoted by The New York Times on April 13, 1991. “And I’m not going to have that.”(4) Only after the rebellion was crushed did the US initiate ‘Operation Provide Comfort’ to aid the Kurd civilians running for their lives.

Kurdish militiamen in Iraq have been key American allies fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi government’s troops. However, once Mosul was captured, the US-puppet Iraqi government refused to allow the Kurds to control the city.

Thus, at the end of September 2017, people living in northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence for the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. The electoral commission said 92% of the 3.3 million Kurds and non-Kurds who cast their ballots supported secession. The announcement was made despite a last-minute appeal for the results to be voided by Iraq’s prime minister. Haider al-Abadi urged Kurds to instead engage in dialogue with Baghdad “in the framework of the constitution“.

Kurdish leaders say the “Yes” vote will give them a mandate to start negotiations on secession with the central government in Baghdad and neighboring countries. (5)

The flag-waving, including of the Zionist one, in Kurdish rallies across Iraq’s semi autonomous Kurdish enclave, is jubilant. However, the leadership’s conviction that the referendum must lead to independence seems misplaced. Every major player in the region opposes it, placing the Kurds on a collision course with neighbors and allies alike, including the United States.

The latter warns that this could ignite armed conflict with the central government in Baghdad and unleash ethnic fighting in a part of the world still roiled by the battle against Islamic State. The United Nations has also appealed for dialogue, saying it will not be “engaged in any way or form” in the referendum.

Two of Iraq’s neighbors, Turkey and Iran, concerned that the referendum could fan the flames of secessionist aspirations among their own Kurdish minorities, have stated that they are considering countermeasures. Turkey is carrying out military drills near northern Iraq, and Iran has threatened to close its border with the landlocked Kurdish enclave. (6)

In Israel the Jews of Kurdish origin celebrated the outcome of the referendum and Prime Minster Nethnayhou issued, on September 13th, a statement of support, only to then bar Israeli government comments on the Kurdish independence referendum, as it apparently irked Turkey.

Asked to comment on the referendum, one Israeli cabinet minister declined, telling Reuters on condition of anonymity: “Bibi (Netanyahu) asked us not to.” A second Israeli official confirmed the order, saying the subject was “too sensitive“. (7)

The Only Solution

While the Kurds have the right to establish a free independent Kurdistan in the areas they have a majority in, they do not have a chance of winning independence within the existing political framework. Their capitalist leadership has provided bloody proof for this during decades.

The only way they will be able to win their national freedom is in the framework of the Arab revolution that will begin again under revolutionary democratic demands. Such a revolution must lead to a workers’ revolution, that will establish the socialist federation of the Middle East, along with a free red Palestine.

The Kurdish leadership’s politics that relies on the US and Israel is a sure recipe for a failure. Furthermore, under pressure there is a good chance that Barzani will cave in. Baghdad announced that Turkey – an indispensable trade partner to the Kurdish oil – will now only deal with Iraq’s central government on oil sales. That could deprive the Kurdish region of more than 80% of its income.


(1) The Israeli-Kurdish Relations. Sergey Minasian. Published in “21-st Century”, No1, April 2007

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid

(4) http://www.rudaw.net/mobile/english/opinion/03092017

(5) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41419633

(6) http://tinyurl.com/y8y6cbds

(7) http://tinyurl.com/yddy3lee

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