Civil War: Iraq (1961-1975 and 1988-1994)

Jason E Strakes. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The history of many parts of the developing world has often been marred by violent conflict, but particularly intractable are those clashes that result from the arbitrary imposition of political boundaries over ethnically heterogeneous territories in the aftermath of colonialism or major power war. In some instances, the state forms that result essentially represent separate nations trapped within unitary polities. This condition neatly describes the perennial dispute between the Kurds and the minority Arab governments of Iraq. The para-state known as Kurdistan is home to roughly 25 million of the world’s Kurdish population, and yet it has only very recently gained a semblance of a representative government. Thus, its existence has been immediately intertwined with that of a country that has experienced much violent contention over competing definitions of statehood. This article examines the past and recent dynamics of the ensuing struggle.

Country Background

The physical composition of the republic of Iraq is a direct consequence of the influence and prolonged involvement of foreign powers in the region. The political geography of the modern Middle East was largely constituted by the European consignment of the territories that were left from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The British Mandate of 1921 established a new state in the Persian Gulf through the artificial fusion of the three municipalities (vilayets) of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. These in turn contained separate ethnic and religious enclaves: the predominantly Sunni minority in the central region; the majority Shi’ite population in the south; and to the north, the territories inhabited by the stateless people known as the Kurds. Although their precise origins are debated, the Kurds are reportedly descended from the Medes, a Persian diaspora with Indo-European linguistic roots. The region commonly identified as Kurdistan is a historical entity that spans five countries, also occupying part of what is now Iran, Turkey, Syria, and the former Soviet Caucasus. Kurdistan’s geographical origins can be traced to a province that was created under the Turkish Seljuk dynasty during the twelfth century (Chaliand 1994; Sim 1980, 3, 23). However, the concept of a Kurdish national identity is much more recent, dating to the nineteenth century, when the influence of European nationalism combined with periodic attempts to establish principalities separate from Ottoman control (Chaliand 1994, 26-27). As a result, the political organization of the Kurdish areas became increasingly dependent on the presence of influential sheikhs and tribal leaders (aghas). The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which effectively dissolved the Ottoman protectorates, promised to secure an independent Kurdish state but was quickly annulled by a subsequent agreement that divided the remaining territories between France and Great Britain. The area thus separated that lies within the boundaries of Iraq, or Southern Kurdistan, is a highly mountainous region of roughly 80,000 square kilometers, with sparse subsistence farming at high elevations but also fertile plains in which wheat and tobacco are primary crops. Approximately 4-5 million Kurds populate this area, although there has been much migration in past decades due to conditions of instability and economic underdevelopment.

Conflict Background

From its beginnings, the crux of the Kurdish struggle in Iraq has been the popular assertion of a national identity that has never gained the status of an internationally recognized territorial unit. As one author proffers, “[T]he Kurdish people have the unfortunate distinction of being probably the only community of over 15 million persons who has not achieved some form of national statehood, despite a struggle extending back over several decades” (Chaliand 1994, 11). Thus, although the Kurdish-Iraqi conflict is here generically identified as a civil war, it might also be classified along with other, ostensibly intrastate conflicts that are more accurately conceived as warfare between separate political identities—in effect, nations—that occupy the same territorial space and are yet inherently incompatible (Snow 1997, 117).

Yet, in contrast with the ideologically driven policy implemented in Turkey until the early 1990s, that of suppressing or eliminating a separate Kurdish identity, Kurds have not been completely disenfranchised in modern Iraqi society. Citizens of Kurdish descent have occupied elite public offices and have been allowed to communicate and receive education in their own language. However, discrimination and segmentation were certainly prevalent within Iraqi Kurdistan, as the central government sought to forcibly assimilate or suppress Kurdish practices in education and local government that suggested a discrete non-Arab polity.

The armed insurrection pursued by the Kurds in the twentieth century is therefore distinct among ethnic national liberation movements in that its goal was not actual secession but self-government within existing borders. One possible key to understanding this dispute is the manner in which the Ba’ath regime, which ruled Iraq for nearly forty years, understood the rights of the Kurdish nation as a people, not as a territory, because the notion of territory implied literal separation from Iraq. Further, these rights were privileges to be granted by the sovereign state rather than agreed upon by consensus and could thus be withdrawn if deemed necessary. At the same time, Ba’athists did not recognize the concept of a “Kurdistan” but instead saw it as a zone or region, whereas Kurds visualized Iraq as being made up of two polities: an Arab one and a Kurdish one (Gunter 2005, 76). Therefore, the conflict was not simply ethnic and political but also territorial, as it derived from a contested definition of the state and, from the regime’s perspective, the potential threat to its cohesion posed by the establishment of an autonomous national identity within the boundaries of Iraq.

The pattern of clashes between the forces of Kurdish opposition and the succession of governments in Baghdad was often cyclical, as the motivation of either side to engage in a war of attrition periodically broke down into efforts to suspend or ameliorate the conflict. This was likely a result of the essential constraints and limitations that affected both parties: Whereas Iraqi regimes have sought to remain in power and maintain control of the state, the primary objective of the Kurdish leadership was to win separate but equal status for the territories it occupied rather than to replace the existing political order as in a classical Maoist insurgency. In particular, Iraqi leaders often called for an end to war, declared amnesties, or falsely promoted the implementation of peace agreements for propaganda purposes. At the same time, Baghdad recognized that although it possessed vastly superior forces and firepower, it could not successfully end the resistance. In contrast, the willingness and ability of the Kurds to continue fighting was affected by the continual shortage of arms and necessary supplies and by the fact that Iraqi counterinsurgency operations inflicted massive casualties among the civilian population.

The historical sequence of the Iraqi-Kurdish conflict can be separated into a series of minor wars or offensives, which include both the Kurdish campaigns initiated to seize territory occupied by national military and security personnel and the Iraqi retaliatory strikes that relied heavily upon aerial bombardment as well as ground forces. These Iraqi actions often occurred in tandem with mass arrests and deportations, massacres, and other scorched-earth activities that underscored the brutality typically associated with much third-world counterinsurgency warfare. The first such skirmish took place on September 11, 1961, when guerrillas led by Sheikh Mohammed and Mustafa Barzani attacked Iraqi convoys, army posts, and police stations, ultimately gaining control of a large section of mountainous area along the Turkish border. These actions precipitated an immediate response by the Qassem regime. The Iraqi air force conducted heavy bombings of villages in the north, leaving hundreds homeless and resulting in many dead and wounded. This action demonstrated to the Kurdish rebels that they would have difficulty withstanding such sustained attacks, as adequate medical provisions were in short supply. A sequel to the initial Kurdish campaign occurred in early spring 1962, when Barzani sought to recapture the positions lost during the Iraqi retaliation. Although the guerrillas were more accustomed to the harsh environment of the mountains during the winter months, these conditions often forced Iraqi troops to withdraw, giving the rebels an element of surprise in targeting bases and convoys.

The second major Iraqi offensive, which lasted from June to October 1963, began a comprehensive mobilization of ground forces (i.e., tanks and artillery) and air strikes to recapture the frontier areas occupied by Kurdish leaders while also suppressing Kurdish bases of support in the mountains. Despite concentrated attacks, Iraqi columns became bogged down by peshmerga resistance, and the offensive gradually lost its momentum. The tactical advantage provided the Kurdish rebels by the mountain environment was demonstrated most clearly on May 11-12, 1966, when troops led by Barzani ambushed and destroyed an entire army column at Mount Handrin, forcing an end to the Iraqi onslaught and deterring Baghdad from engaging in major operations in the far north for the next two years (O’Ballance 1996, 83-84). One of the largest military excursions into the Kurdish strongholds was launched in August 1969, in which all twelve divisions of the Iraqi army were deployed to secure several strategic cities along the northeastern border with Iran. This campaign was pursued in an attempt to conclusively conquer the domestic insurgency in lieu of an expected international confrontation with Tehran. The ultimate failure of the offensive to bring the peshmerga to heel would eventually lead to the secret negotiations that resulted in the historic March 11, 1970, agreement (see “Conflict Management Efforts”).

After the breakdown and abandonment of conciliation efforts in the early part of the decade, Baghdad initiated another major assault, which lasted from April to October 1974. With the support of long-range artillery provided covertly by Iran and the United States, the Kurdish forces were able to nearly match the capabilities of the Iraqi army for the first time, leading to a virtual stalemate in which the rebels essentially held their positions rather then making headway in the conflict (O’Ballance 1996, 96-97). The first era of the Kurdish war of resistance came to an end with the collapse of Barzani’s forces following the rapid withdrawal of Iranian reinforcements in March 1975 (Chaliand 1994, 62-64). Iraqi columns penetrated far into the northern region of Kurdistan, recapturing territories that had been steadfastly occupied for nearly a decade. The resultant defeat and flight of Barzani and the surrender of his guerrilla forces was followed by a brief “hearts and minds” program, in which the Iraqi regime sought to rehabilitate Kurdistan by building homes, returning confiscated land, and incorporating Kurdish dissident figures into the central government.

Although the guerrilla resistance (albeit under different leadership) continued unabated throughout the remainder of the 1970s, the Kurdish-Iraqi struggle was surpassed by the brutal war that erupted between Iraq and Iran in the autumn of 1980. The Kurdish opposition, however, played an intimate role in a major interstate conflict because of the shared border areas and territories of Iran and Kurdistan, in which many decisive battles took place between Pasdaran (Iranian Revolutionary Guard) troops and Iraqi forces. The nature of the insurgency during this period motivated the formation of a modus vivendi between opposing Kurdish parties that established the Kurdish Front, also known as the Iraqi Kurdistan Front (IKF), with a series of smaller Kurdish political groups in 1987. The new Kurdish forces also received logistic and material support from the Khomeini regime and often fought in conjunction with the Pasdaran (Hyman 1988, 13), which led to the organization of a massive counterinsurgency campaign by the Ba’ath party in 1988 (see “Tactics”).

As is true of many aspects of the Iraqi civil wars, the revival of the Kurdish insurrection that took place following the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Persian Gulf War was fraught with ambiguity. During the Gulf conflict, some Kurdish factions, such as those led by Massoud Barzani, supported Baghdad against what was perceived as Kuwaiti deceit and Western aggression, whereas others, led by Jalal Talabani, saw the strong international opposition to the invasion as a means to rally against the Iraqi government (Rudd 2004, 22). The uprising against the regime in Baghdad was therefore galvanized only in the period following the withdrawal of Republican Guard forces from Kuwait and was instigated primarily by the earlier Shi’ite uprising in the southern provinces. The revolt was composed of Kurdish civilians as well as those Kurdish conscripts who defected from the Iraqi armed forces (Rudd 2004, 29-30). It was also largely spontaneous and did not come under the direction of Kurdish political leaders in the IKF until after it had gained control of a significant portion of Iraqi Kurdistan. Improvised attacks against army and security forces were carried out with the aid of captured arms and equipment. Local administrations were set up, and electricity and services were restored. For the first time in its history, the Kurdish movement gained widespread exposure among the general Iraqi population, with dialogues between Kurdish representatives and civilian opponents of the Baghdad regime (U.S. Senate 1991, 3). Many buildings and facilities formerly operated by the security forces were occupied and their contents seized.

However, the initial strength possessed by the uprising gradually subsided as it became overextended owing to its lack of organization; the uprising was crushed in the ensuing weeks by the surviving Republican Guard forces in a series of ferocious tank and air assaults (Rudd 2004, 30; U.S. Senate 1991, 10). The forces of the American-led coalition that had expelled Iraq from Kuwait—adhering to a policy of abstention from penetrating further into Iraq and allowing the Saddam Hussein regime to remain in power—made no move to intervene in the suppression. Between March and April 1991, more than 2 million Kurds fled into the mountainous border regions between Iraq and Turkey in a desperate attempt to escape the retaliation.

What is perhaps most tragic (although not necessarily ironic, given past experience) is that the eventual deescalation of the decades-old conflict with Baghdad in the early 1990s was quickly replaced by internal civil strife within the newly established administration of Iraqi Kurdistan. The legacy of splits and confrontations within the Kurdish movement came to the forefront in December 1993, when an attack by a pro-Iranian splinter group on a Kurdish Democratic Party base divided the leading Kurdish parties over who should lead a necessary response to the attack (Gunter 1999, 75-77). Criticism of the swift retaliation by militia attached to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan incited a series of armed confrontations between the rival factions. Violence flared again on May 1, 1994, when a land dispute escalated into prolonged battle between irregular troops allied with either wing of the Kurdish Government. Despite attempts at reconciliation through official meetings, these quarrels persisted through the end of 1994.

Sources: CIA 2006; Doyle and Sambanis 2000; Rudd 2004; estimates of civilian deaths are taken from Human Rights Watch/Middle East Watch 1995.
War: Kurdish opposition forces vs. Iraqi government
Dates: September 1961-March 1975; February 1988-December 1994
Casualties: Total battle deaths unknown; 60,000 civilian deaths from 1963-1975; 180,000-250,000 in 1988
Regime type prior to war: Military dictatorship (Karim Abdel-Qassem)
-5 in 1960 (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data— ranging from -10
[authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: Autocracy (Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party/Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti) -9 in 1995 (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data— ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: Unknown
GDP per capita 5 years after war: $2,700 (1999 est.)
Insurgents (combatants): Kurdish Democratic Party, Kurdish Revolutionary Army (peshmerga), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan
Issue: Ethnic difference, political autonomy, territory
Rebel funding: Supported briefly by Iran and the United States, obtained arms and supplies from black market and expatriate Kurdish groups.
Role of geography: Kurdish guerillas made use of mountain areas to employ hit-and-run tactics, which put Iraqi ground troops at a disadvantage in the early years of the war.
Role of resources: Control of oil reserves at Kirkuk has been repeatedly contested by the Kurds and Iraqi regimes.
Immediate outcome: Establishment of Kurdistan Regional Government and National Assembly in 1992, continued internal conflict between Kurdish parties
Outcome after 3 years: Internal conflicts between Kurdish factions continued despite efforts at reconciliation.
Role of UN: UN Security Council Resolution 688 adopted on April 5, 1991, condemned Iraqi repression of Kurds as a threat to international peace and security.
Role of regional organization: Minimal. Regional intergovernmental organizations did not recognize the Kurdish movement and regarded the war as an internal affair.
Refugees: 2 million in 1991
Prospects for peace: Uncertain. Improved relative to the past but dependent on the outcome of regime change after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003
Table 1: Civil War in Iraq

The Insurgents

One of the most significant concerns in identifying the combatants in the civil conflict in Iraq is the essential divisions that developed within the Kurdish opposition movement in the period following the 1958 revolution. This separation would have a considerable impact on the goals and strategies pursued by opposition forces in later years. Ultimately, Kurdish political objectives were often obstructed by the lack of internal cohesion on political as well as ideological levels, which led to open armed conflict within the movement itself. The differences have their roots in the tribal affiliations that form the basis of Kurdish society. The first and most prominent of the groups that made up the Kurdish resistance were the affiliates of the Barzani tribe, led by Mullah Mustafa (known also by his surname, Barzani). Barzani formed the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in 1946; this party would spearhead the resistance movement in Iraqi Kurdistan until Barzani’s eventual defeat in the mid-1970s. Although the KDP became organized on a democratic centralist model with a central committee and a politburo, Barzani based his authority largely on personal influence and tribal loyalties. His subsequent ally and of time rival Jalal Talabani represented the more ideological and modernized wing of the Kurdish cause. Early differences over the direction and leadership of the KDP led to the formation of a rival coalition between minister Ibrahim Ahmad and Talabani, who eventually lent support and assistance to the Iraqi government in carrying out actions against the Barzani-led forces. The split between the Barzani and the Talabani factions also conditioned the relationship between the Kurdish movement and external governments such as Iran. Barzani’s sons Idris and Massoud succeeded him in the leadership of the organization after his death in 1979. Talabani founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in June 1975 as an alternative wing of the Kurdish opposition, which adopted a more recognizable leftist-Marxist orientation.

As has been the case in numerous insurgencies, some elements of the indigenous Kurdish population did not support the uprising or recognize its leadership, having been largely detribalized or having resided in urban areas where they had been exposed to more modern forms of education and employment. These groups often found themselves caught between Iraqi security forces and the core Kurdish resistance movement. Mustafa Barzani was also ruthless in his policies toward hostile Kurdish tribes in the early years of the war, using isolation and terrorism to consolidate his political influence over local areas (O’Ballance 1996, 51-52). Furthermore, the Kurdish rebels had antagonistic relations with tribal affiliates of other ethnic groups, such as the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, and the Turkomen, who also populated areas of Iraqi Kurdistan.

From the beginnings of the modern Kurdish uprising in the midtwentieth century, the basic military force that carried out the armed resistance against the Iraqi state were the guerrilla fighters known by the term pershmerga, or “those willing to face death.” Later organized by the KDP central committee on a “political commissar” model, they became known officially as the Kurdish Revolutionary Army (KRA). However, the consolidation of these troops into professional battle formations was a difficult process. Although the increasing number of Kurdish deserters from the Iraqi national army eventually swelled the rebel ranks and introduced a greater degree of discipline, they were continually deprived of sufficient equipment, weapons, and ammunition, the greater part of which was obtained from captured government arsenals (O’Ballance 1973, 85-87; 1996, 55-57). In addition, they often lacked an effective means of transporting supplies in the field (i.e., logistics) or electronic communications, which hampered their ability to conduct battles across long distances. At the same time, the regular forces under the KDP were essentially held separate from the more tribal militias who answered directly to Barzani.

Iraqi counterinsurgency operations were originally the purview of the standard national armed forces, with the army high command directing ground troops, artillery, tanks, and bombers to advance on peshmerga and KDP positions. However, with the advent of the Ba’ath regime and the creation of elite units and special guards that accompanied the expansion of the security apparatus under Saddam Hussein, the suppression of the Kurdish rebellion became increasingly directed from within the Ba’ath Party itself. The various antiguerrilla campaigns pursued during the 1988-1991 period were carried out predominantly by the main Republican Guard divisions (i.e., the First and Fifth Corps) supported by auxiliary commandos and special forces troops (Human Rights Watch/Middle East 1995, 37-38).


The Kurdish region of Iraq, or Southern Kurdistan, features highly mountainous terrain with some wooded areas, as well as fertile plains fed by rivers at lower elevations. The peshmerga fighters often made use of the mountain areas to employ hit-and-run tactics, which put Iraqi ground troops at a disadvantage in the early years of the war (O’Ballance 1996, 59). However, the more mechanized, better-equipped Iraqi forces enjoyed tactical superiority in the low-lying regions.


Initially, the Kurdish insurgency manifested itself largely in traditional forms of tribal warfare, carrying out attacks with loosely organized bands of fighters. However, the increasing number of Kurdish deserters from the Iraqi national army eventually swelled the rebel ranks (totaling about 20,000 troops in 1961-1963 and 40,000 in 1970), through which they gradually became more disciplined regular forces. The tactical approach pursued by Barzani’s forces at this time emphasized disrupting Iraqi army command and control (that is, communications and intelligence) and lines of supply rather than mounting direct attacks on government-held positions (O’Ballance 1996, 51). After a brief period of abstention for fear of damaging vital assets, acts of sabotage and terrorism were eventually employed against oil pipelines as well as military installations in Kirkuk and other cities occupied by Iraqi troops.

During the early phase of the war, the Baghdad regime relied heavily on aerial bombing directed specifically at tribal areas from which the KDP (Barzani) leadership derived its loyalty. These attacks were conducted separately from ground offensives and were intended to isolate the civilian populace from the guerrilla movement. However, repeated air assaults often had the opposite of their intended effect, as they tended to galvanize and provoke local populations to join and thus strengthen the resistance.

An alternate strategy of internal subversion pursued by Baghdad was the creation of anti-Barzani militias from immediately within the Kurdish areas. These were known as the Jash— paramilitaries recruited by the Iraqi armed forces, composed of Kurdish or non-Kurdish tribes hostile to the KDP leadership. However, these were not professional forces and remained under the control of tribal authorities rather than subject to the Iraqi high command. These militias engaged in traditional acts of terrorism, such as burning crops, damaging buildings, and slaughtering livestock. The Iraqi forces also conscripted a paramilitary unit called the Saladin Force, which was composed of a mixture of Arab and Kurdish troops and was similarly deployed to counter guerrilla actions.

In the late 1980s, the Iraqi regime chose to transfer one of its most fearsome assets—chemical weapons, which it had used against Iranian troops in its eight-year war with Tehran—to the counterinsurgency campaign against the Kurdish rebels. However, it was primarily the civilian population of Kurdistan that bore the brunt of this tactic. This concentration of both conventional and supraconventional military force to quell the resistance in the north during this period was significant in its scope and its level of brutality. The policy was carried out in a series of air attacks, forced relocations, and mass executions that became known as al-Anfal, or “the Spoils.” These consisted of eight separate campaigns against several strategic regions that lasted from February to September 1988 (Human Rights Watch/Middle East 1995 ). Some of the most publicly recognized actions during this time were the air strikes at Halabjah on March 16, 1988, in which cyanide, mustard gas, and nerve gas attacks, directed at villages suspected of serving as bases of support for recently expelled Iranian forces, killed as many as 5,000 civilians. In total, an estimated 200,000 Kurds died as a result of these operations.

The intensive effort undertaken systematically to annihilate the Kurdish opposition at this time was also significant in that it was promulgated from within the ruling Ba’ath Party rather than enacted solely by the military central command. Yet, at the same time, it is arguable that the use of chemical weapons by the Iraqi regime did not represent a fundamental shift in strategy in its war against the Kurds. Rather, the Iraqi leadership resorted to a tactical measure that had already been employed in the context of a major interstate conflict. The willingness of the regime to use poison gas attacks against internal opposition to its rule brought an unprecedented halt to a thirty-year insurgency, as Kurdish forces were unable to retaliate in kind (U.S. Senate 1988, 38).

Causes of the War

The immediate background to the revolt that began in September 1961 was the burgeoning nationalist sentiment that had developed in the Kurdish territories during the period between the end of World War II, and the consolidation of Karim Abdel-Qassem’s revolutionary regime in Baghdad. The periodic agitations and minor uprisings that had taken place since the nineteenth century and persisted under the British-installed Faisal monarchy gradually developed into a recognizable movement. At the same time, the Kurds had been allowed to retain an arsenal and relatively independent status. The July 14 revolution of 1958, which overthrew the monarchy of King Faisal and established an Iraqi republic, showed great initial promise for the prospect of Kurdish self-rule. The new government declared the unity of Arabs and Kurds and enshrined the recognition of Kurdish rights in the national constitution. However, as with all modern Iraqi leaders, a primary goal was to defeat internal opposition that endangered stability and threatened coup d’état. Such is exemplary of revolutionary regimes that face both domestic and external challenges to their ability to remain in power.

This condition motivated Qassem to eliminate any potential sources of opposition, which was carried out by banning all outside political parties and interest groups, suppressing independent media, and arresting and imprisoning Kurdish representatives. Further, the president sought to counter the growing political and military influence of Mustafah Barzani by providing support to hostile tribes in the Kurdish region. Thus, when Qassem’s government reneged on the promise of greater autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan, it set in motion a pattern that would repeat itself in decades to come. The precarious nature of Iraqi statehood recurrently forced leaders to impose unitary autocratic rule as a means of consolidating their tenuous political position.


The outcome of the second era of the Kurdish-Iraqi conflict was also distinct from other civil wars in that it was resolved neither by means of the combatants reaching a mutually hurting stalemate that convinced both parties to negotiate a settlement nor by means of an externally administered arbitration process. Rather, it ended because the Saddam Hussein regime gradually abandoned its effort to forcibly assimilate Kurdistan into a unitary Iraqi polity, largely because of the constraints it faced from the UN and Allied restricted zones first imposed during the spring of 1991. The continued threat of external intervention that these containment policies posed may have convinced the Saddam Hussein regime that the possible costs of continuing its war against the Kurds far outweighed the value of the objective.

Conflict Status

In October 1991, in conjunction with an economic embargo of Kurdistan, the Iraqi central government withdrew all administration and public services from the Kurdish territories. Although this created an initial period of hardship, general elections were held in May 1992 that established the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), based in the new capital of Arbil, and a unicameral legislature, the Kurdistan National Assembly (KNA), in July of the same year (Gunter 1999, 67-68). The international community deemed these elections relatively free and fair, although the Allies indicated that they would not extend recognition to a separate Kurdish state (Ofteringer and Backer 1994, 42). A coalition government was then formed that divided power equally between the KDP and the PUK, with each party occupying 50 percent of the 150 seats in parliament.

For the first time, Kurds had achieved the long-standing goal of establishing nominally independent and representative institutions. Yet, this arrangement gradually broke down over the next three years, as the legacy of rivalry and factionalism within the Kurdish movement caused it to degenerate into open combat. The leaders of both parties failed to join the new government, instead exercising power over separate political and territorial entities with adjoining systems of patron-client relations (Leezenburg 2003, 150-51). In December 1993 and May 1994, major battles were fought between militias with ties to the opposing wings of the KRG. As of the end of 1994, the parties had returned to a state of internal civil war, despite mutual efforts at reconciliation.

Duration Tactics

The perpetuation of the Kurdish-Iraqi civil conflict over several decades was the result of an interaction between the opposing agendas, interests, and strategies pursued by both actors, rather than simply the intransigence of either side. Although Iraqi leaders were preoccupied with remaining in power and keeping the Iraqi state intact, the Kurdish elites and insurgent forces maintained their goal of autonomy rather than secession. However, these positions were often incompatible, as they required concessions or compromises to which each party was unwilling or unable to commit. Further, at the level of military confrontation, Iraqi and Kurdish forces introduced no significant tactical innovations during the first decade of the war that would have allowed either side to gain an advantage, which resulted in an ongoing stalemate (O’Ballance 1996, 91).

The second most prominent political activity that fueled the armed Kurdish opposition over several decades was the policy of internal colonialism pursued by the Ba’athist and Aref regimes in the years after the 1963 coup d’état. This practice is known more generally in Middle East politics as Arabization, or the strategy (pursued by autocratic Arab regimes) of actively assimilating non-Arab ethnicities through tactics such as the forced migration and resettlement of minorities and the repopulation of those areas by members of the dominant ethnic group. In the context of Kurdistan, these policies were directed both at suppressing activities associated with independent governance and at relocating Kurdish populations to areas that were easier for the central government to administer. Thousands of villages and homes were destroyed in the process. Districts and boundaries between provinces were often altered or redrawn to accommodate these relocations as well as to eliminate Kurdish attempts at independent jurisdiction.

External Military Intervention

Until the early 1990s, the involvement of regional governments in the Kurdish insurrection against Baghdad was minimal, the primary concern being to contain the conflict and to prevent it from spilling across contiguous borders. A principal reason for this policy of benign neglect was that the “stateless” nature of the insurgency meant that it was closely linked to the relationship between Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iran, and Syria and their host governments, and threatened to stimulate similar uprisings among dissident Kurds within those countries. During the early Cold War era, Western official opinion was particularly wary of the potential for Iraqi Kurdistan to become a tool of Soviet influence through Moscow’s sponsorship of a radical nationalist movement in a key strategic area. Syria briefly provided air and troop support to Baghdad during the era of the United Arab Republic but no substantial backing thereafter. Although the Turkish government planned to mount a joint intervention alongside Iran and Iraq, dubbed Operation Tiger, after a brief uprising in Turkish Kurdistan in 1963, it was quickly aborted when the Soviet Union sent a communiqué that warned against any aggressive action that would interfere in the internal affairs of one its regional beneficiaries. However, as Tehran’s relations with Baghdad began to sour in the mid-1960s, limited deliveries of arms were made available to the Barzani rebels, although without any public commitment to direct assistance.

One exception to this standard of noninterference was the covert military support for Barzani’s forces arranged by the United States and Iran beginning in 1972. In that year, Washington pursued an intensive bilateral engagement with the government of Shah Reza Palahvi, to foster a strong conservative bulwark against radical Arab states such as Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation concluded between Iraq and the Soviet Union in April 1972 guaranteed increased access to military assistance from Moscow and opened a possible door to greater Soviet influence in the Persian Gulf.

President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger therefore sought to take advantage of a burgeoning revolt against the Iraqi regime to weaken an apparent Eastern bloc ally in the region. In the period from 1973 to 1975, a total of $16 million in U.S. military aid was transmitted to Kurdish forces via Iran through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with some additional assistance from Israel. This arrangement was an obvious artifact of Cold War diplomacy, in which alignments of convenience were often established between state governments as means of “balancing” against the influence of one or another superpower and its allies. Thus, when the shah observed that the Kurdish-Iraqi conflict had reached a virtual stalemate, and that military aid only allowed them to sustain their resistance rather than gain a decisive advantage, the incentives for continued support dwindled. On March 5, 1975, the governments of Iraq and Iran signed the Algiers Agreement, negotiated with the assistance of Kissinger and Algerian President Houari Boumediene, which temporarily resolved the simmering dispute regarding the Shatt-al-Arab waterway and abruptly ended covert sponsorship of the Kurdish insurgency.

The primary effort at humanitarian intervention in the Kurdish-Iraqi conflict came during the crisis that unfolded during the months following the American cease-fire in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. This was known officially as Operation Provide Comfort (OPC). Following the impetus of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSC) 688, which condemned Iraqi repression in the Kurdish areas, OPC deployed a multinational force of 13,000 troops to establish “safe havens” for the refugees who had fled the massive retaliation against Kurdish towns prosecuted by Republican Guard troops and the Iraqi air force.

It is estimated that as many as 13,000 Kurdish refugees died in the attempted exodus into southern Turkey and Iran. Rather than engage Iraqi forces in combat, these troops were commissioned to delineate a security zone within which civilians and refugees in the Iraqi-Turkish border areas would be protected and provided with food, shelter, and medical support. This zone occupied a triangular, 10,000-square-kilometer space that stretched from the frontier city of Zakho in the north to Amadiyah and Dohuk in the south, and also declared a no-fly zone north of the thirty-sixth parallel, beyond which Iraqi aircraft were forbidden to pass. The refugees who had been trapped in the mountain ranges were gradually resettled within this area. The transfer of responsibility to a UN peacekeeping force was delayed both by Iraqi resistance and by the deployment of a “rapid reaction force” in southern Turkey to intervene in the case of further Iraqi attacks. These forces were eventually withdrawn by the end of October 1991.

At the same time, however, it is a common misperception that UNSC Resolution 688 provided direct authorization for Allied military intervention in northern Iraq in the name of protecting human rights. During the spring of 1991, there was significant resistance on the part of representatives of the UNSC permanent member states, particularly the United States, China, and the Soviet Union, who feared that such a ruling would invite future violations of state sovereignty. In fact, the eventual passing of 688 was largely in response to activism on the floor of the General Assembly on behalf of the Kurds by delegates of France, Iran, and Turkey (Malanczuk 1991, 119-20). The text of the resolution therefore makes no reference to Chapter VII of the UN Charter regarding the legitimate use of force or intervention in the internal affairs of a state where human rights violations present a threat to international peace and stability (Malanczuk 1991, 128).

Conflict Management Efforts

The Kurdish-Iraqi civil wars that persisted from 1961 to 1975 were interspersed with a series of cease-fires, negotiated agreements, and false guarantees of Kurdish political autonomy that also influenced the course and intensity of the conflict. These often reflected the recurrent instability in the Iraqi leadership and were therefore linked to efforts to consolidate new regimes. Although provisions that asserted the recognition of Kurdish autonomy were established in writing, the Iraqi government often failed to implement them, as the regime was unable to honestly adhere to these concessions without forfeiting the dominance of the Arab Ba’athist state. In the period after the 1963 coup that overthrew Karim Abdel-Qassem, both the Ba’athist and Aref regimes were weakly institutionalized and lacked broad popular legitimacy.

Thus, these leaderships sought to mobilize indigenous support in an effort to face off the threat to stability posed by a full-blown Kurdish insurgency. One of the earliest such efforts took place on February 12, 1964, when Colonel Aref extended a formal cease-fire after meeting with Kurdish leaders and announced that a provisional national constitution was to be introduced that would decentralize political authority in Kurdistan, although without actual reference to autonomous status. However, the new constitution promulgated on May 3, 1964, declared a pan-Arabist ideal of unity with Nasser’s Egypt, which was directly at odds with the Kurdish objective. As no actual amnesties or demobilization of forces had taken place, minor skirmishes between Iraqi troops and peshmerga continued, and open fighting had resumed by the spring of the following year.

On June 29, 1968, the civilian prime minister of the second Aref regime, Abdul Rahman al-Bazzazz, extended the Twelve Point Programme, which essentially reiterated earlier positions on implementing autonomous status for the areas of Kurdistan represented by the KDP (O’Ballance 1973, 129; 1996, 84). Although the plan did not literally introduce a cease-fire, cessation of full-fledged armed conflict prevailed for a brief period. However, any sincere or direct implementation of the agreement was nullified when Marshal Aref was deposed in the second successful Ba’athist coup on July 26, 1968.

The March 11 agreement of 1970 (known also as the Armistice Agreement) was perhaps the most significant attempt at conflict resolution pursued during the first period of the Iraqi civil war. The provisions of this agreement were distinctive in that, despite the manner of their public presentation, they were the result of a long and arduous bargaining process between representatives of the KDP and Iraqi leaders, rather than a stopgap proposal extended by the regime in an effort to reduce the pressures created by an ongoing Kurdish armed opposition. In addition, both sides showed substantial commitment to concluding a peace agreement, as both Iraqi elites and the Kurdish leadership recognized the significant political and human costs of continuing the conflict.

Most importantly, it publicly affirmed, for the first time, the existence of an autonomous Kurdish region. The resulting contract would thus serve as a standard for the extension of concessions by Iraqi leaders in the years to come. The actual peace process was concluded between the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) of the Ba’ath regime, led by President Hassan al-Bakr and then Vice President Saddam Hussein, and a reorganized KDP central committee. The fifteen articles listed in the document accompanied an amendment of the Iraqi national constitution recognizing the separate and equal status of the Kurds, and most significantly, detailed the administrative structure and function of an independent Kurdistan government, including the delegation of responsibility to members of the legislature. In addition, the final communiqués set a deadline for a complete transition to full Kurdish autonomy by March 1974.

At the same time, however, the agreement failed to resolve several fundamental issues that limited the feasibility and validity of the negotiated provisions. First, it did not establish exactly how the territorial and administrative boundaries of Kurdistan would be drawn. Second, it did not clarify the issue of Kurdish control over budget expenditure and access to government funds. Most important, it intentionally excluded the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from Kurdish jurisdiction, which implicitly demonstrated the intention of the Iraqi government to manage the parameters of the accord in its own favor (Chaliand 1994, 3; O’Ballance 1996, 92).

The gradual breakdown of cooperation that followed in the coming years proved that the treaty had provided only a temporary respite in an intractable war. Assassination attempts directed at Barzani and other KDP officials, originally suspected of being perpetrated by opposing tribes, were later attributed to the Iraqi regime. The Law on Autonomy (no. 33), which was extended on March 11, 1974, made a unilateral declaration of Kurdish political independence, which largely negated the contents of the 1970 agreement by reneging on the promise to conduct a new population census, by establishing a legislature whose members were directly appointed by Baghdad, and by continuing Arabization policies in the Kurdish region.

The second era of the Iraqi civil conflict saw similar efforts at negotiation, which largely resulted in a period of “neither war nor peace,” although the time frame was much smaller. The dialogues that took place between the Kurdish leaders and Saddam Hussein during the spring and summer of 1991 largely reiterated old positions on granting autonomous status (Laizer 1996, 31-32; O’Ballance 1996, 194-95). Yet, both the KDP and PUK leaders took a decidedly pragmatic route by publicly embracing the terms extended by the Iraqi leadership. It is plausible that they sought to take advantage of any possible deal while Hussein was seriously weakened following his defeat in the Persian Gulf War. Furthermore, they recognized that the protection provided by the Allied troops stationed in the UN-sponsored security zone would not be available indefinitely. By May 1992, these talks had reached a deadlock, and the Kurdish leadership proceeded to hold elections for a new regional government (Ofteringer and Backer 1994, 42).

The final resolution process engaged in by Kurdish leaders during the 1988-1994 period was directed at ameliorating the internal conflict between the main parties that had destabilized the new Kurdistan Regional Government. The Paris Agreement of July 22 1994 was produced by representatives of the KDP and PUK and was overseen by observers from the French government and Kurdish expatriate organizations (Gunter 1999, 77-78). The document was intended to strengthen the institutions and ministerial authority of the government while limiting the power and influence of the old opposition forces. Further, it established an agenda for the pursuit of necessary administrative reforms and restructuring civil-military relations, and it set a date for a new population census and parliamentary elections to be held by May 1995. However, the agreement was not signed as intended, owing to continued fighting in Kurdistan as well as an objection extended by the Turkish government that the establishment of an independent Kurdish regime within Iraq would incite full-scale insurgency in the Anatolia region of Turkey. Although a final strategic agreement was concluded on November 21, 1994, that formally ratified the treaty, the provisions were never implemented, for the rival factions slipped into a renewed Kurdish civil war.


The ultimate resolution of the Kurdish-Iraqi struggle and the status of the Kurdish autonomous regime will lie in the impact of its epilogue—the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, which took place in March 2003—on the future of the Iraqi political system. The Kurdish leadership has extended a proposal to make Kurdistan part of a federated Iraqi republic, thus preserving self-rule while maintaining the cohesion of the present administrative units (Gunter 2005, 74-75). The physical integrity of Iraq as a nation of diverse identities and interests is also of serious concern to the governments of neighboring countries. In particular, Turkey and Iran have long expressed steadfast opposition to the establishment of Kurdish autonomy for fear of disrupting the existing state system in the region (Gunter 1999, 111-26). Although the Iraq war eliminated a regime that had inflicted the most intense suffering on the Kurdish population, it also introduced great uncertainty and ongoing violence in the form of a complex and resilient insurgency, this time against a Shi’ite-dominated transitional government. Thus, although the Iraqi Kurds may have entered a new era of political independence, the country of Iraq continues to be torn by internal conflict.