With the exception of the moderate Ba’athist President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr (1963, 1968-1979), every major strongman or strongly positioned Iraqi leader has met a gruesome end.
From Faisal II who was deposed and executed during the 14 July Revolution of 1958 to his republican successor Abd al-Karim Qasim who was killed during the pro-Ba’athist Ramadan revolution in 1963 and more recently, the violent execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006: being a powerful leader in Iraq, has in modern history, usually correlated with a cataclysmic demise.
Today’s government in Baghdad is surprisingly collective, some would say to a fault. Rather than a single strong leader, there are several key individuals each whom answer to various political bases. But this does not mean Iraq itself is free of strongman rule.
Ironically, the place in Iraq that western mainstream media often paints as the most ‘democratic’ part of Iraq, is in reality, the most dictatorial. This is the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.
Ever since the fall of the short lived Soviet ally Republic of Mahabad, a Kurdish state established in post-war Iran in 1946, the Barzani family have been the leading rulers of Iraqi Kurds. Masoud Barzani, the current ruler of Iraqi Kurds whose formal decree expired in 2015, is the son of Mustafa Barzani who was the de-facto leader of Iraqi Kurds from 1946 up to to his death in 1979.
While Mustafa returned to Iraq from exile in the USSR in 1958, he again fled in 1974, this time to pre-revolutionary Iran, after rejecting Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr’s proposed Kurdish autonomy agreement. After Mustafa’s death, the current Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani took charge of his father’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
However, beginning in 1975, a more left-leaning Kurdish faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan became a leading force of Kurdish agitation in Iraq. One of the primary figures in the (PUK) was Jalal Talabani, who became Iraq’s President in 2005. His Presidency ended in 2015, while his death took place in early October of 2017.
In spite of the PUK’s increased success over the years, after the 1990 Gulf War, Masoud Barzani returned from Iran to Iraq. While Barzani had good relations with both Pahlavi Iran and early Islamic Revolutionary Iran, this arrangement was merely one of convenience. Barzani’s Kurdish militants sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, in the hopes of weakening Saddam Hussein’s Presidency of Iraq.
During the 1990s, the Barzani clan strengthened its control over Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. It was at this time that Kurdish regions in northern Iraq gained considerable autonomy even during the last full decade of Saddam Hussein’s Presidency in Baghdad. Since the illegal US/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, an autonomous Kurdish region was formally established according to Iraq’s 2005 constitution, a document largely written by the US with input from mostly Shi’a Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds, including the PUK’s Jalal Talabani.
While most figures in post-2003 Baghdad, de-facto accepted the primacy of the Barzani clan in post-Ba’athist Iraqi politics (in respect of Kurdish regions), many have grown increasingly unhappy with Barzani’s autocratic rule which PUK figures have criticised as heavy-handed and dictatorial, dating back to the 1970s.
With both Baghdad and Kurdish spokesmen calling for de-escalation after Iraq’s bloodless re-establishment of authority in Kurdish occupied Kirkuk, the one sore point in the situation is the figure of Barzani himself.
It was Barzani’s decision not to allow Kirkuk to be returned to Iraqi authorities after ISIS was largely defeated in northern Iraq. This is crucial as Kirkuk has never been part of any legally defined Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq.
Furthermore, in holding a secession referendum before the penultimate defeat of ISIS and doing so with the inclusion of Kirkuk on a map of a would-be Kurdish state, Barzani showed his dictatorial tendencies and Iraq felt both angered and betrayed.
Even under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurds enjoyed levels of autonomy that are globally unique among a self-defined nationalistic minority. This is especially unique when one considered that the origin of Kurds is that of nomads. Nowhere for example, are the Romani people (often called Gypsies) given such specific autonomy, let alone in an oil rich region.
Throughout all of this, Iraq has acted fully within the framework of national and international law. What’s more is that Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, has issued multiple calls for calm, stating that Iraqi troops and volunteer Popular Mobilisation Forces, have no desire to fire on Kurdish Pershmerga militias. Al-Abadi even stated that he hoped Peshmerga would cooperate in helping Iraq to restore its legal authority in northern regions.
While the Battle of Kirkuk has revealed a unity among Iraqis that had not been seen in decades, with Sunni and Shi’a Arabs as well as Sunni Turkomen rallying behind the Iraqi flag, the same battle has exposed disunity among Kurdish groups. In Barzani’s capital of Erbil, fingers are being pointed internally, while Kurds have adopted the standard US-Israeli propaganda line which blames Iran for any and all misery which befalls Iraq.
Slandering Shi’a Iraqi regulars as well as Shi’a Popular Mobilisation Forces as ‘Iranian’ is also a tactic that was used by ISIS in Iraq. Furthermore, in Syria, ISIS, al-Qaeda and the FSA referred to all of their secular, Shi’a, Druze and Christian opponents as “Iranians”.
I have previously written that the crisis in Iraq, caused by overzealous Kurdish leaders, Barzani in particular, has been an opening salvo in a US-Israeli proxy war against Iran. Because the US in particular, is well aware that a war on Iran in Iran would be a suicide mission, Washington has merely pivoted from a strategy of using Takfiri jihadists to attempt and undermine Iran’s position in Iraq and Syria, to one where the US is allying with Kurds to do so.
In respect of Syria, there is a very real possibility that the US will continue to illegally occupy Syria and will do so while working with local Kurds, in an attempt to achieve the next best thing (from the warped perspective of Washington and Tel Aviv) to regime change: the Balkanisation of Syria.
In Iraq, something similar has been attempted in respect of Israel’s public backing of Kurdish secession and Tel Aviv’s strong support for the Barzani regime. However, in both cases, the biggest stumbling bloc to this policy aimed and harming Arab territorial unity and Iran’s alliances in the Arab world, ironically comes from grudging NATO member Turkey.
Turkey has vowed to oppose any would-be Kurdish state wherever it may arise, including both Iraq and Syria. With both Turkey, Iran and Iraq vowing to physically and economically cut off a Kurdish statelet in Iraq, something that would amount to little more than a ‘Barzanistan’ having no source of revenue or even basic supplies, the US would ostensibly need to fight its technical Iraqi ally, its fledgling ally that is Turkey, as well as Iran, in order to establish a Kurdish state in Iraq. This, even by wily American standards, is a ‘mission impossible’.
While desperately trying to foment Kurdish unity in order to disrupt the burgeoning alliance between Iraq, Iran and Syria, with the added component of a separate alliance in the works between Iran, Turkey and Iraq, the United States has ultimately only strengthened both alliances many fold.
When Takfiri terrorists are decisively defeated in Syria, it is still not beyond the realm of the possible, that Damascus and Ankara too could put aside their enmity, in order to contain nationalistic Kurds and in doing so, fusing each of the aforementioned alliances. Here, the US could therefore find itself confronted by two insurmountable roadblocks in both Iraq and Syria.
In spite of public statements from the US calling for de-escalation between ‘two allies’, the Iraqi government and the Kurdish regime in northern Iraq, I personally have little doubt that actors in the US military, CIA and also of course, actors in Israel, have encouraged an intransigent attitude among the Barzani regime. However, in failing to realise the logistical difficulties facing the US and Israel in bolstering such a position, Barzani has undermined his own interests and instead destroyed the legitimacy of his own regime, even among many of his followers.
While the US has been tactful in calling for calm, Barzani took the bait without realising that there may be no light at the end of the tunnel. This is not the first time a leader in Iraq, took the Americans on their word without exploring the more nuanced realities on the ground. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein was strongly supported by the US during his war on Iran. Furthermore, it later emerged that April Gillespie, a diplomat in the administration of George H.W. Bush, told Saddam that the US would not militarily oppose Iraq’s intervention in Kuwait. The promise was just one of many US broken promises in respect of Iraq.
In this sense, Barzani found himself in a position of mistaking what many assume to be covert signs of US support, for a genuine promise of more meaningful action in favour of the Kurds. With Barzani’s star now in tatters, in spite of what his powerful propaganda machine tells the world, Barzani may be yet another strongman in Iraq to fall in what could be deeply grim circumstances. If Barzani has any ounce of self-preservation, he ought to simply resign, knowing that prolonging his leadership cannot have a happy ending at this point in time.
In this sense, Barzani, in taking American statements at face value, failed to understand something about American policies in the Middle East that was once articulated by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser:
“The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make the rest of us wonder at the possibility that we might be missing something”.