The first -- and brief -- experiment in Kurdish self-rule took
place in Iran, where Kurdish nationalism had been relatively
quiet during the first half of the 20th century. In 1946, Kurds
in northern Iran took advantage of the postwar power vacuum
to declare independence from Teheran. The Mahabad Republic,
founded by Qazi Muhammad, survived only with support from the
Soviet Union and military assistance from Iraqi Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani out
of Iraq. But less than a year after the republic was founded,
Iranian troops overran it. Barzani fled to the Soviet Union;
Muhammad and other leaders were captured and publicly hanged.
Kurdish fighters attempted to establish
an independent homeland in Iran in 1946, but their success
was only temporary. (photo: Mahmud Efendi, courtesy www.akaKURDISTAN.com)
Barzani, who was now head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party
(KDP), had become the most prominent Kurdish nationalist. In
1958, he returned to Iraq, where he led a campaign against a
succession of governments in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein, whose
Ba'ath Party seized power in 1968, set up an autonomous area
for the Kurds. But the region excluded the city of Kirkuk, "the
Kurdish Jerusalem," and Barzani's peshmerga guerrillas
took up arms once again. The response of Saddam's government
was brutal: Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled their homes
as Iraqi forces razed villages and murdered civilians.
The CIA, the Shah and Saddam
The Iraqi Kurds held out with assistance from Iran, Israel
and the United States, which had sent CIA agents to arm and
train the peshmerga.
But these alliances proved to be fragile. In 1975, Saddam agreed
to settle a border dispute with Iran if the Shah of Iran would
cut off his support for the Kurdish fighters. The Nixon administration,
which had seen the Kurds as a buffer to both the Iraqis and the
Soviets, also withdrew its aid. Saddam's army regained control
of northern Iraq, continuing its campaign of ethnic cleansing
and massive human rights abuses.
In 1946 Archibald Roosevelt, a United
States intelligence officer, was one of the few Westerners
to reach Mahabad, capital of the newly formed Kurdish republic.
(photo: Library of Congress)
A congressional report later concluded that the United States
and the Shah had not wanted the Kurds to succeed. The Kurds were
never aware that they were being used as pawns in a geopolitical
game. "Even in the context of covert operations, ours was a cynical
enterprise," the report concluded. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger
was unremorseful about what many Kurds saw as betrayal: "Covert
action should not be confused with missionary work."
Kurdish rebel chief Mustafa Barzani fought
against the British, Iranians and Iraqis for four decades. He is shown
here in 1963, with his personal bodyguards in a village in Northern Iraq that he
used as his temporary headquarters. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Deeply disheartened, Barzani went into exile in the United
States. Before his death in 1979, he wondered plaintively, "Have
the Kurdish people committed such crimes that every nation in
the world should be against them?"
NEXT: 1978-1992: Atrocity,
Genocide and Land
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