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Iraqi–Kurdish conflict

Iraqi–Kurdish conflict

Kurdish refugees in camp sites along the Turkey-Iraq border, 1991
Date 1918[1]–2003[1]
(main phase: 1961–1991)
Location Iraqi Kurdistan
Result Kurdish victory
Kingdom of Kurdistan


Supported by:
 Iran (1980–1988)

Enforcing No-Fly Zone per UNSC Resolution 688:

Mandatory Iraq

Kingdom of Iraq



Commanders and leaders
Mahmud Barzanji

Ahmed Barzani

Mustafa Barzani
Idris Barzani
Massoud Barzani
Babakir Zebari
Jalal Talabani
Ibrahim Ahmad
Nawshirwan Mustafa
Mama Risha 
Uthman Abd-Asis
Abdullah Öcalan
Murat Karayılan
Ahmad Challabi
Aziz Muhammad
Mohsen Rezaee
Ali Sayad Shirazi
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim

John Shalikashvili
Faisal I of Iraq

Faisal II of Iraq

Abdul Karim Qasim
Abdul Salam Arif
Abdul Rahman Arif
Tahir Yahya
Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr
Saddam Hussein
Ali Hassan al-Majid
Taha Yasin
Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri
Tariq Aziz
Saddam Kamel
Qusay Hussein
Uday Hussein
Massoud Rajavi
Maryam Rajavi

Luai al-Atassi

15,000–20,000 (1962)[2][3]
6,000 (1970)[4]
50-60,000 (1974)[5]
5,000 (1980)[6]
100,000 (1991)[7]

70,000 (2003)[8]
Military of Iraq

48,000 (1969)[9]
90,000 (1974)[9]
180,000 (1978)[10]
300,000 (1980)[11]
1,000,000 (1988)[11]
382,500 (1992)[12]

424,000 (2002)[13]
Casualties and losses
139,000-320,000 killed
Millions of Kurds displaced and turned refugees

The Iraqi–Kurdish conflict consists of a series of wars and rebellions by the Kurds against the central authority of Iraq, which began shortly after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and lasting until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.[1] Some put the marking point of the conflict beginning to the attempt by Mahmud Barzanji to establish an independent Kingdom of Kurdistan,[1] while others relate to the conflict as only the post-1961 insurrection by the Barzanis.[14] The conflict lasted until the U.S. invasion to Iraq in 2003, though tensions between the Kurdish autonomy and the central Iraqi government have continued.

The first chapter of the Kurdish-Iraqi dispute followed the end of World War I and the arrival of the British forces. Mahmud Barzanji began secession attempts in 1919 and in 1922 proclaimed the short-living Kingdom of Kurdistan. Though Mahmud's insurrections were defeated, another Kurdish sheikh – Ahmed Barzani began to actively oppose the central rule of the Mandatory Iraq during the 1920s. The first of the major Barzani revolt took place in 1931, after Barzani, one of the most prominent Kurdish leaders in Northern Iraq, succeeded in defeating a number of other Kurdish tribes.[15] He ultimately failed and took refuge in Turkey. The next serious Kurdish secession attempt was made by Ahmed Barzani's younger brother – Mustafa Barzani in 1943, but the revolt failed as well, resulting in exile of Mustafa to Iran, where he participated in the attempt to form the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad.

In 1958, Mustafa Barzani and his fighters returned to Iraq from exile, and an attempt was made to negotiate a Kurdish autonomy in the north with the new Iraqi regime of Qasim. The negotiations ultimately failed and the First Iraqi–Kurdish War erupted on 11 September 1961,[14] lasting until 1970 and inflicting 75,000–105,000 casualties. Despite the attempts to resolve the conflict by providing Kurds with a recognized autonomy in North Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), the negotiations failed in 1974, resulting in resumed hostilities, known as the Second Iraqi–Kurdish War, which resulted in collapse of the Kurdish militias and reconquest of northern Iraq by Iraqi government troops. As a result, Mustafa Barzani and most of KDP leadership fled to Iran, while PUK gained power in the vacuum, leading an insurgency campaign against the central Iraqi government. Since 1976, PUK and KDP relations quickly deteriorated, reaching the climax in April 1978, when PUK troops suffered a major defeat by KDP, which had the support of Iranian and Iraqi air forces.

The conflict re-emerged as part of the Iran-Iraq War, with the Kurdish parties collaborating against Saddam Husein, and KDP also gaining military support by the Islamic Republic of Iran. By 1986, Iraqi leadership grew tired of the strengthening and non-loyal Kurdish entity in North Iraq and began a genocidal campaign, known as Al-Anfal, to oust the Kurdish fighters and take revenge on the Kurdish population – an act often described as the Kurdish genocide, with an estimated 50,000–200,000 casualties. In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, a series of uprisings shattered Iraq, but only the Kurds succeeded in achieving a status of unrecognized autonomy within one of the Iraqi no-fly zones, established by the U.S.-led coalition. In the mid-1990s, the conflict between the KDP and PUK erupted once again, resulting in a bloody civil war, which ended in 1997. The most valuable gains of the Kurds occurred between 2003 and 2005, when the Hussein regime was toppled as part of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Kurdish autonomy finally gained recognition by the new Iraqi government. Despite the mutual recognition, the relations between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi central government grew strained between 2011 and 2012 due to power sharing issues and the export of oil.


  • Early conflicts 1
    • Mahmud Barzanji (1919–1924) 1.1
    • 1931 Kurdish revolt 1.2
    • 1943 Kurdish revolt 1.3
  • Main phase 2
    • Negotiations over Kurdish autonomy (1958–1960) 2.1
    • First Iraqi–Kurdish War (1961–1970) 2.2
    • Cease-fire (1970–1974) 2.3
    • Second Iraqi–Kurdish War (1974–1975) 2.4
    • Arabization of Iraqi Kurdistan and PUK insurgency (1976–1979) 2.5
    • Kurdish rebellion during the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988) 2.6
    • Iraqi political crackdown (1988–1991) 2.7
    • Kurdish uprising (1991) 2.8
  • Later phase 3
    • Kurdish Civil War (1994–1997) 3.1
    • 2003 invasion of Iraq 3.2
  • Aftermath 4
    • 2011–2012 tensions 4.1
    • 2014 regional conflict in Iraq 4.2
  • Casualties 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Additional reading 8

Early conflicts

Mahmud Barzanji (1919–1924)

Mahmud Barzanji revolts were a series of armed uprisings against the British forces in the newly conquered Mesopotamia and later the British Mandate in Iraq. Following his first insurrection in May 1919, Sheykh Mahmud was imprisoned and eventually exiled to India for a one year period. When returning, he was once again appointed a governor, but shortly revolted again declaring himself as the ruler of the Kingdom of Kurdistan. The Kingdom of Kurdistan lasted from September 1922 – July 1924.[16] With British forces greatly exceeding his in ammunition and training, the defeat finally subdued the region to central British Iraqi rule in 1924. Sheykh Mahmud retreated into mountains, and eventually reached terms with the independent Kingdom of Iraq in 1932, over his return from the underground. Shaykh Mahmud revolts are considered the first chapter of the modern Iraqi-Kurdish conflict.

1931 Kurdish revolt

Ahmed Barzani revolt refers to the first of the major Barzani revolts, taking place in 1931 after Ahmed Barzani, one of the most prominent Kurdish leaders in Southern Kurdistan, succeeded in unifying a number of other Kurdish tribes.[15] The Barzan forces were eventually overpowered by Iraqi Army with British support, forcing the leaders of Barzan to go underground.

Ahmed Barzani was later forced to flee to Turkey, where he was held in detention and then sent to exile in the south of Iraq. Although initially a tribal dispute, the involvement of the Iraqi government inadvertently led to the growth of Shaykh Ahmad and Mulla Mustafa Barzani as prominent Kurdish leaders.[17] Throughout these early conflicts, the Barzanis consistently displayed their leadership and military prowess, providing steady opposition against the fledgling Iraqi military. It is speculated, that exile in the major cities exposed the Barzanis to the ideas of urban Kurdish nationalism.

1943 Kurdish revolt

The 1943–1945 Kurdish revolt in Iraq was a Kurdish nationalistic insurrection in the Kingdom of Iraq, during WWII. The revolt was led by Mustafa Barzani and later joined by his older brother Ahmed Barzani, the leader of the previous Kurdish revolt in the Kingdom of Iraq. The revolt, initiating in 1943, was eventually put down by the Iraqi assault in late 1945, combined with the defection of a number of Kurdish tribes. As a result, the Barzanis retreated with much of their forces into Iranian Kurdistan, joining the local Kurdish elements in establishing the Republic of Mahabad.

Main phase

Negotiations over Kurdish autonomy (1958–1960)

After the military coup by Abdul Karim Qasim in 1958, Mustafa Barzani was invited by the new Iraqi President Qasim to return from exile, and was greeted with a "hero's welcome", as a former dessident to the now abolished Iraqi monarchy. As part of the deal arranged between Qasim and Barzani, Qasim had promised to give the Kurds regional autonomy in return for Barzani's support for his policies. Meanwhile, during 1959–1960, Barzani became the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which was granted legal status in 1960.

First Iraqi–Kurdish War (1961–1970)

First Kurdish–Iraqi War[18] or Barazani Rebellion was a major event of the Iraqi–Kurdish conflict, lasting from 1961 until 1970. The struggle was led by Mustafa Barzani, in an attempt to establish independent Kurdish state in north Iraq. Throughout the 1960s, the uprising escalated into a long war, which failed to resolve despite internal power changes in Iraq. The war ended with a stalemate by 1970, resulting in between 75,000[19] to 105,000 casualties.[20] A series of Kurdish–Iraqi negotiations followed the war in an attempt to resolve the conflict.

Cease-fire (1970–1974)

A Kurdish Autonomy agreement was reached in March 1970 by the Iraqi government and the Kurds, in the aftermath of the First Kurdish-Iraqi War, for the creation of an Autonomous Region, consisting of the three Kurdish governorates and other adjacent districts that have been determined by census to have a Kurdish majority. The plan also gave Kurds representation in government bodies, to be implemented in four years.[21] For its time it was the most serious attempt to resolve the long-running Kurdish-Iraqi conflict.

Second Iraqi–Kurdish War (1974–1975)

Second Kurdish–Iraqi War was an offensive, led by Iraqi forces against rebel KDP troops of Mustafa Barzani during 1974–1975. The war came in the aftermath of the First Iraqi–Kurdish War (1961–1970), as the 1970 peace plan for Kurdish autonomy had failed to be implemented by 1974. Unlike the previous guerilla campaign, waged by Barzani, the 1974 war was an attempt for symmetric warfare against the Iraqi Army, which eventually led to the quick collapse of the Kurds, lacking advanced and heavy weaponry. The war ended with the exile of the Iraqi KDP and between 7,000–20,000 mortal casualties from both sides combined.

Arabization of Iraqi Kurdistan and PUK insurgency (1976–1979)

The Iraqi Kurdistan's mountains.[22] The PUK also faced the KDP, the KDPI, led by Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, and Iran supporting the Iraqis at various occasions. The insurgency dimmed with the 1979 Kurdish rebellion in Iran.

Kurdish rebellion during the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988)

Between 1980 and 1988, the conflict intensified as the Iran-Iraq War commenced. One of the groups targeted in particular by the Saddam regime were the Feyli Kurds, a community of Shi'ite Kurds settled in the southern area of the Zagros Mountains near Iraq's border with Iran. Saddam Hussein considered the group as 'Iranians' and began a campaign to drive the settlers out of the area as a part of his 'Arabization' policy in 1980.,[23] Saddam Hussein was severely critical of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as they aligned forces with Iran in the conflict. In 1983, to avenge this liaison, he ordered the Army to abduct as many as 8,000 men and boys from Arbil province, where the clan of Barzani Kurds was based. Massoud Barzani, the leader of the clan and the KDP, himself lost 37 members of his family to the Iraqi troops. They were reported to having been sent to Nugra Salman prison in the southern deserts of Iraq, where they were tortured. Subsequently, the remains of 512 Barzani men were discovered in a mass grave.[24] On March 16, 1988, Iraqi troops began shelling the Kurdish town of Halabja, in retaliation for an attack on Iraqi positions carried out by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the aligned Peshmerga fighters. Subsequently, the town was attacked with a mix of chemical substances such as VX (nerve agent), sarin and mustard gas (see Halabja chemical attack). Over 5,000 people are believed to have been killed in the attack, which was considered to be a part of the Al-Anfal Campaign, directed against Kurds by the Saddam regime under the command of Ali Hassan al-Majid, head of the Northern Bureau of the Ba'ath Party.[25][26]

Iraqi political crackdown (1988–1991)

Kurdish uprising (1991)

On 2 August 1990, Saddam launched a military invasion onto neighboring Shi'ite groups such as SCIRI and the Islamic Da'awa Party (see 1991 uprisings in Iraq). Meanwhile, the Kurds in the north staged their own uprising for autonomy, under the leadership of Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The Peshmerga were trained into hardened guerrillas, who managed to infiltrate the Jash, a Saddam-orientated Kurdish militia (see Jash (term) and National Defense Battalions (Iraq)). The rebels soon managed to capture the town of Ranya, Sulaimaniya and ultimately the oil center of Kirkuk. Saddam retaliated swiftly, battering Kirkuk with artillery and targeting hospitals in particular. Geographically the towns captured by the Kurdish rebels were difficult to defend as they sat on plains below mountains. The rebels were forced to retreat in the mountains, where reportedly the Iraqi helicopters threw flour of them (which was believed to be a grim legacy of the reputed powdery chemical weapons which were used by the Saddam regime during the Al-Anfal Campaign).[28]

Later phase

Kurdish Civil War (1994–1997)

The Iraqi Kurdish Civil War was a military conflict, which took place between rival Kurdish factions in Iraqi Kurdistan in the mid-1990s, most notably the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan vs. the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Over the course of the conflict, Kurdish factions from Iran and Turkey, as well as Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish forces were drawn into the fighting, with additional involvement from the American forces. Between 3,000 to 5,000 fighters and civilians were killed throughout more than 3 years of warfare.

2003 invasion of Iraq

Arriving in July 2002 to Iraqi Kurdistan, the CIA seldom worked with the peshmerga, despite their claim to be on a counterterrorism mission against Ansar al-Islam. To the disappointment of PUK peshmerga intent on destroying Ansar al-Islam, the true mission of the CIA was to acquire intelligence about the Iraqi government and military. CIA-peshmerga operations eventually went beyond the scope of intelligence gathering however, as PUK peshmerga were used to destroy key rail lines and buildings prior to the U.S. attack in March 2003.[29] Following Turkey's decision to deny any official use of its territory, the Coalition was forced to modify the planned simultaneous attack from north and south.[30] Special Operations forces from the CIA and US Army managed to build and lead the Kurdish Peshmerga into an effective force and assault for the North.

On March 20, 2003 at approximately 02:30 UTC or about 90 minutes after the lapse of the 48-hour deadline, at 05:33 local time, explosions were heard in Baghdad, signing the beginning of the U.S. led invasion. Beginning on 21 March 2003, U.S. forces launched Tomahawk missiles at selected Ansar al-Islam positions throughout the Sargat Valley. In preparation for the ground assault, nicknamed Operation Viking Hammer, American Lt. Col. Tovo divided his forces into six mixed peshmerga-Special Forces units. The peshmerga in two of these teams refused to contribute to the assault for various reasons including having lost too many personnel in previous fighting.[29] The peshmerga who did fight were once again armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and other assorted weapons.

Despite their well-armed adversaries, during the operation only 24 peshmerga were killed in the fighting, compared to an enemy body count of over 300.[29]


2011–2012 tensions

Tensions between Iraqi Kurdistan and the central Iraqi government mounted through 2011–2012 on the issues of power sharing, oil production and territorial control.[31] On April 2012, the president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region demanded that officials agree to their demands or face consequences of a secession from Baghdad by September 2012.[32]

On September 2012, Iraqi government ordered the KRG to transfer its powers over Peshmerga to the central government and the relations strained further by the formation of a new command center (Tigris Operation Command) for Iraqi forces to operate in a disputed area over which both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) claim jurisdiction.[33]

On 16 November 2012, a military clash between the Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga resulted in one person killed.[33] CNN reported that 2 people were killed (one of them an Iraqi soldier) and 10 wounded in clashes at the Tuz Khurmato town.[34]

On the night of November 19, it was reported that clashes between security forces of the central Iraqi government and the KRG forces in Tigrit left 12 Iraqi soldiers and one civilian dead, according to Doğan news agency.[35] The clash erupted when Iraqi soldiers attempted to enter northern Iraq; peshmargas tried to prevent the Iraqi soldiers from entering the area upon Barzani’s instructions.[35] There was no confirmation of the event.

On November 25, it was reported that Iraqi Kurdistan sent reinforcements to a disputed area, where its troops are "involved in a standoff with the Iraqi army", despite calls on both sides for dialogue to calm the situation.[36]

On December 11, Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, dressed in a military uniform, visited Kurdish-controlled areas of Kirkuk, a city long seen as a flashpoint for Arab-Kurdish tensions after the US military withdrawal in December 2011.[37] Following Massoud Barzani's visit of Kurdish troops stationed in the disputed area near Kirkuk, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki's party – The State of Law – issued a statement that "the visit of the President of Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani and his son wearing a military helmet to inspect the battlefronts in Kirkuk province is a 'declaration of war' on all Iraqis not only Maliki, and even on President Jalal Talabani".[38]

2014 regional conflict in Iraq

Iraqi army units fled large parts of northern Iraq in the face of attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Peshmerga forces took control of Kirkuk and other Kurdish-populated areas outside the official territory of the KRG. Officials in Baghdad were angered by the sale of tankers worth of oil transported through the Kurdish pipeline.[39]


[a].^ Iraqi–Kurdish conflict (combined casualty figure 138,800-320,100):

Mahmud Barzanji revolts (1919–1924) – unknown
Ahmed Barzani revolt (1931–1932) – hundreds killed
1943 Barzani revolt (1943–1945) – hundreds killed
First Kurdish-Iraqi War (1961–1970) – 12,000–105,000 killed.[40]
Second Kurdish-Iraqi War (1974–1975) – 9,000 killed.[41]
PUK insurgency (1976–1978)- 800 killed.
Iraqi Kurdish uprising (1982–1988) – 50,000-198,000 killed.
1991 Uprising in As Sulaymaniyah – 700-2,000 killed.
Iraqi Kurdish Civil War (1994–1997) – 3,000[42]–5,000 killed
2003 invasion of Iraq (Operation Viking Hammer) – 300 Islamists killed, at least 24 Peshmerga killed;[29] unknown number of Iraqi agents "eliminated".

See also


  1. ^ a b c d [1] "The Iraqi State and Kurdish Resistance, 1918–2003"
  2. ^ Kenneth M. Pollack, Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness 1948–91, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2002, p.157, ISBN 0-8032-3733-2
  3. ^ Page 39
  4. ^ Page 47
  5. ^ Page 48
  6. ^ Page 54
  7. ^ Page 59
  8. ^ Page 24
  9. ^ a b Al-Marashi, Ibra; Salama, Sammy (2008). "Iraq's armed forces".  
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b John Pike. "Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988)". 
  12. ^ IRAQ OVERVIEW (page 17)
  13. ^ Iraq and The Conventional Military Balance
  14. ^ a b . P.445CIVIL WARS OF THE WORLDHeo U.K. and Derouen K.
  15. ^ a b The Kurdish Minority Problem, p.11, Dec. 1948, ORE 71-48, CIA [2].
  16. ^ Prince, J. (1993), "A Kurdish State in Iraq" in Current History, January.
  17. ^ Lortz, Michael G. "Peshmerga"The Kurdish Warrior Tradition and the Importance of the , Willing to face Death: A History of Kurdish Military Forces – the Peshmerga – from the Ottoman Empire to Present-Day Iraq, 2005-10-28. Chapter 1
  18. ^ Michael G. Lortz. (Chapter 1, Introduction). The Kurdish Warrior Tradition and the Importance of the Peshmerga. pp.39-42. [3]
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ G.S. Harris, Ethnic Conflict and the Kurds, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, pp.118–120, 1977
  22. ^ Galbraith, Peter (2006), The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War without End; Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-9423-8
  23. ^ "PBS: The Fayli Kurds". 
  24. ^ "PBS: The Missing Barzanis". 
  25. ^ "PBS: Halabja". 
  26. ^ "BBC - On This Day: 16th March 1988". 
  27. ^ "PBS: The Invasion of Kuwait". 
  28. ^ "PBS: Suppression of the 1991 Uprising". 
  29. ^ a b c d Willing to face Death: A History of Kurdish Military Forces – the Peshmerga – from the Ottoman Empire to Present-Day Iraq (page 67), Michael G. Lortz
  30. ^ Operation Hotel California: The Clandestine War inside Iraq, Mike Tucker, Charles Faddis, 2008, The Lyons Press.
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^ a b
  34. ^
  35. ^ a b
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^ Al-Monitor
  39. ^ Emre, Peker (23 June 2014). "Iraqi Kurdistan Gets Around $100 Million for First Major Oil Export". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 24 June 2014. 
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^ Jordi Tejel. Syria's Kurds: history, politics and society. 2009. p.156.

Additional reading

  • Iraqi Insurgent Groups
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