How the United States and Iraq tried, but failed, to disband the Kurdish Peshmerga

by Paul Iddon.

Coming Monday, September 25, 2017, the Iraqi Kurds will hold a referendum on the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan and the adjoining disputed territories (see also Patrick Truffer, “The Kurds in Iraq: Is Their Pursuit of Autonomy a Cause of Conflict?“,, 14.08.2017). History shows that the Kurds had time and time again to stand up for themselves — even with the United States. Moreover, on two separate occasions in the last 14 years the US and Iraq attempted to either disband the Peshmerga or take command and control over it from the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in traditional uniforms take part in a march to support the independence referendum in Erbil on September 13.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in traditional uniforms take part in a march to support the independence referendum in Erbil on September 13.

Kissinger’s betrayal and Bremer’s incompetence
Perhaps the most interesting, and least known, of these two episodes took place in 2003 when Paul Bremer headed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which briefly governed Iraq during the immediate post-regime change transitional period. Bremer’s controversial decision to disband the entire Iraqi Army and putting 350,000-400,000 former Iraqi soldiers out of work is retrospectively viewed as one of the major blunders of the Iraq War (for a contrary view see: L. Paul Bremer and Malcolm McConnell, “My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope“, 2007, p. 267).

Bremer also set his sights on the Peshmerga during his time as kingmaker in Iraq [1]. These hardened Kurdish fighters had fought several Iraqi regimes over the course of the 20th century using guerrilla tactics from their mountain sanctuaries. The Kurds welcomed the American-led invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein given his systematic mass-murder of over 182,000 of them in the infamous Anfal campaign of the 1980s. They also gave their support in creating a federal Iraq which included their region, autonomous since the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. One issue they would never waver on, however, was the status of the Peshmerga which had long fought in defense of their region against hostile regimes in Baghdad.

At least 50,000 of the militia belonged to the Kurdish Peshmerga who had fought alongside the Coalition to defeat Saddam. Because Kurdistan faced new security threats, especially from terrorists infiltrating from Iran and Syria, we did not expect and did not want to disband the Peshmerga completely. Rather, our aim was to bring a large number of them under the control of the national and Kurdistan regional governments, while retiring or retraining the rest. — L. Paul Bremer and Malcolm McConnell, “My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope“, 2007, p. 272.

According to the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, Bremer sought to encourage him to disband the Peshmerga. He argued that this needed to happen given the fact he could not feasibly convince Shiite militias in the south to disband while the Kurds retained their own armed forces (see also: James Dobbins et al, “Occupying Iraq: A History of the Coalition Provisional Authority“, Rand Corporation, 2009, p. 316). Bremer therefore asserted that the continued presence of the Peshmerga as a locally-controlled armed force constituted a “red line”. “I told him if it is a red line for you once, it is ten times more a red line for me”, Barzani recently recalled. “I stood up and said ‘I am going back to Kurdistan. If you are a man, come and disband the Peshmerga'”.

Kissinger bears the main responsibility for the disaster which befell the Kurdish people after 1975. In 1993, I was in Washington, and he asked to meet me, but I refused.For me, he is enemy number one. I will never forget what the Kurds had to pay as a result of his stances, maneuvers, and the deals he made without taking into consideration the suffering these caused. — Masoud Barzani in Hussein Askary, “The Tragic Modern History of the Kurds“, Executive Intelligence Review 31, no. 26 (2 July 2004): 64f.

Interestingly Bremer was a Kissinger protégé. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger betrayed the Kurdish insurgency against Baghdad in the Second Kurdish-Iraq War in the early to mid-1970s, which the US, along with the Shah of Iran and Israel, were covertly arming and supporting [2] (CIA’s covert action with the Kurds were revealed in the Pike House Committee Report investigating the CIA, for details see: Michael Gunter, “Mulla Mustafa Barzani and the Kurdish Rebellion in Iraq: The Intelligence Factor“, International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence 7, no. 4 (1994): 465–474). Barzani’s father Mullah Mustafa Barzani led that revolt and had to flee to Iran. Kissinger later dismissed that monumental Kurdish defeat by declaring: “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work” (“The CIA Report the President Doesn’t Want You to Read“, The Village Voice 21, no. 7, 16 February 1976, p. 71, 85).

To add further insult to injury when Bremer headed the CPA he once seriously asked Barzani, upon seeing a portrait of his father, “Who’s that?” (Peter W. Galbraith, “The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End”, Simon&Schuster, 2006, p 148).

Bremer ultimately backed down and the Peshmerga remained in place. Iraqi Kurdistan remained relatively secure and stable throughout the Iraq War and required no US military presence to secure it. Had Bremer gotten his way the Kurds may well have felt subjected to a repeat of the 1975 betrayal if the Iraqi Army failed to protect their region, as it did when the terrorist organization “Islamic State” (ISIS) rose to worldwide infamy as a result of its genocidal rampage across Northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.

Iraq's outgoing overseer Paul Bremer chats with head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Massoud Barzani (L), during his Kurdish visit on June 22, 2004 in Erbil.

Iraq’s outgoing overseer Paul Bremer chats with head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Massoud Barzani (L), during his Kurdish visit on June 22, 2004 in Erbil.

Al-Maliki’s inflexibility
After the Americans pulled out all their forces from Iraq in December 2011 the status of the Peshmerga would again come into question.

In November 2012 then Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that the Kurdistan Regional Government were in violation of “the constitution by controlling the weapons left behind by the former Iraqi army, including tanks, artillery and rocket launchers, while the other federal [entities] are getting armed with light weapons”. The Peshmerga captured some old Soviet-made armor from the arsenal of Saddam’s crumbling army in 2003, the only real armor they’ve had to date.

Maliki also sent the Iraqi Army to Kurdistan’s frontiers and said they had every right to enter the major Kurdish cities of Erbil and Sulaimani if they chose to. Likewise, he sent the Iraqi Army to Kirkuk, a disputed territory between Baghdad and Erbil, and said Baghdad had every right to send regular forces anywhere in Iraq, including any part of Kurdistan. “The federal army has the right to have a presence in Basra or Zakho, and no one has the right to prevent it constitutionally,” Maliki said, referring to the southern Iraqi oil city and the northwestern Kurdish border-city.

Column of ex-Iraqi Army Peshmerga T-55 tanks.

Column of ex-Iraqi Army Peshmerga T-55 tanks.

The Peshmerga responded by declaring that: “we will not allow the Iraqi Army to approach one inch inside Kurdistan territories from al-Khabour to Khanaqin.” Furthermore, the Kurds disparaged the very idea of having the Peshmerga placed under the control of the Iraqi Army, describing it as “an illusion and pure fantasy.

Tense standoffs ensued and Maliki ultimately completely failed to take command and control over the Peshmerga away from Erbil. ISIS militants would soon thereafter overrun Mosul. The Iraqi Army infamously fled ahead of the militants’ advance and the Peshmerga seized a historic chance to gain full control over Kirkuk, often called the “Kurdish Jerusalem” in light of its immense importance to Kurdish nationalists. The US fired the opening shots of its ongoing war against ISIS when the group massacred the Yezidi people of Sinjar and threatened Erbil. Early in the war, with the Iraqi Army in disarray, the US provided air support to the Peshmerga who successfully prevented ISIS from seizing any additional territories.

Retrospectively it’s clear that had Maliki gotten his way less than two years beforehand Kirkuk, with its vast oil reserves, and the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan may well have fallen to ISIS. Instead the Peshmerga afflicted several setbacks against the militants with US support, defending a 1,000 km front and securing territories which allowed the Iraqi Army, in April 2016, to begin building up their forces around Mosul. Cooperation between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga on the eve of the Battle of Mosul on October 2016 was certainly historic.

While Barzani is now adamant about holding a referendum on independence he has affirmed that military cooperation against common threats will continue between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga, as well as support to Maliki’s much more moderate and conciliatory successor Haider al-Abadi.

April 2015 graduation ceremony of Peshmerga soldiers outside Iraqi Kurdistan's capital Erbil.

April 2015 graduation ceremony of Peshmerga soldiers outside Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil.

[1] Bremer’s position was aptly described as the “most powerful foreign post held by any American since General Douglas MacArthur in Japan” after its Second World War defeat (Carmel Borg and Michael Grech, “Pedagogy, Politics and Philosophy of Peace: Interrogating Peace and Peacemaking“, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017, p 67).
[2] “Paramilitary support by the CIA to the Kurdish rebellion against the Iraqi government from 1972 to 1975, which cost some $16 million, was initiated at the request of the Shah of Iran, then engaged in a border dispute with Iraq. Once the Iraqis agreed to a settlement favorable to Iran, the Shah had the support to the Kurds cut off. The rebellion collapsed, over 200,000 Kurds became refugees, and neither Iran nor the US set up adequate refugee assistance.” — Gregory Andrade Diamond, “Gregory Andrade Diamond, The Unexpurgated Pike Report: Report of the House Select Committee on Intelligence“, 1976, 1992, p. xiii).

This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Iraq, Paul Iddon, Security Policy.

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