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 The Progress of the Peshmerga Forces and their role in post-2003 Iraq

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The Progress of the Peshmerga Forces and their role in post-2003 Iraq  24.6.2010  
By Saeed Kakeyi

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June 24, 2010


This paper briefly discusses the origins of the peshmerga forces from the start of the Republic of Kurdistan (also known as the Republic of Mahabad) to their contribution to the U.S.’s removal of the Iraqi government in 2003. This paper also examines why peshmerga forces involved in bringing peace to those who choose violence as a mean to achieve their interests? What are the implications of using Kurdish Peshmarga forces in enforcing peace between the warring Iraqi Arab factions? How far have they been successful in minimizing the sectarian violence? And finally, what is their legal status that makes them cooperate with the United States led Coalition Forces in building peace in Iraq?


Although previous Iraqi regimes tried to marginalize the Iraqi Kurdish population, their recent success and influence is due largely to the loyalty and patriotism of the peshmerga.           

Saeed Kakeyi
Literally defined as “one who faces death,” the peshmergas are the soldiers of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The history of the peshmerga is essential to understand the history of Kurdish nationalism in Iraq. If not for the fighting spirit of the peshmerga, Kurdish hopes for recognition may have not been achievable. The first of these is the Kurdish struggle against the governments who would control the lands they inhabit; the second being the difficulty in developing a unified Kurdish community amongst what was once hundreds of tribes (McDowall: 2004, 1). Peshmerga forces would become intertwined in both of these conflicts. After receiving training in various early revolts and organization under the famous Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, it is the peshmerga that will often confront armies of the regional governments trying to achieve suzerainty over the Kurds. Also, because they recognize how precious freedom and peace are, it is the peshmerga who can help vanguards of international peacekeeping, peace-building and peace-enforcement to be culturally aware of their environments.

Origins of the Peshmerga Forces

The roots of the modern-day peshmerga may be found in the early twentieth century tribal and feudalist Kurdish revolts. The end of World War I, however, brought forth a new era in the potential for an organized Kurdish military.

Because of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916 (McDowall, 115), Kurdistan was no longer the unofficial buffer between the Ottoman and Persian Empires, but a region divided between several new nations (Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Persia). With such physical division, it became more difficult to create a Kurdish army to fight for a Kurdish nation-state.

Neither the British nor the young Kemalist Turkish government wished to see an independent Kurdistan, especially one able to defend itself (McDowall, 126). For the British, the idea of a recognized nation in southern Kurdistan deemed impractical due to the inability of the Kurds to govern themselves. The British also concerned with the prospect of oil in the Kirkuk, Kifri, and Mosul regions. The potential for a Kurdish military in northern Kurdistan was different from that in the south because of the rise of Mustafa Kemal who formed the “imaginary” Turkish nationalism based on assimilative state-nationalism.

The defeat of the Kurdish uprisings inspired the Turkish government to deal with the “Kurdish problem” by enacting laws limiting both Kurdish identity and the governing ability of Sheikhs (O’Balance: 1996, 15). As the Turkish nationalist position became firmer, attacks on the democratic rights of the Kurds increased (Ghassemlou: 1965, 50).

Rise of Barzani prominence

Conflict between the Barzani tribe and the Iraqi forces began in late 1931 and continued throughout 1932. The militant Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the younger brother of the tribal leader—Sheikh Ahmad Barzani, augmented to prominence against the fledgling Iraqi military in southern Kurdistan. Learning from the faults of previous Kurdish revolts, Mustafa Barzani became increasingly aware of the need for an organized military force to coincide with Kurdish nationalism. Barzani tribe’s military strength, with its contempt for the new Iraqi nation-state and the desire for autonomy (McDowall, 290), merged with the growing nationalist-oriented Kurdish intelligentsia, Barzani sphere of influence in Iraqi Kurdistan became greater.

With the onset of World War II, Iraq was leaning toward supporting Germany. As a result, the British forces reoccupied Iraq in 1941. During this time, the Barzani tribal leadership, Ahmad and Mustafa Barzani, internally exiled in Suleimani away from their tribe and remained at odds with the Iraqi government. Thus, Barzani fled Suleimani and crossed into Iran to reunite his resettled tribesmen and lead them back to Barzan village in southern Kurdistan.

On his return, Mustafa Barzani recruited a force of 2,000 fighters to challenge the Iraqi local authorities. Throughout 1943, Barzani and his fighters seized police stations and resupplied themselves with Iraqi arms and ammunition. Barzani used these early skirmishes as tests to strengthen his command and control which led him to petition the Iraqi government for autonomy as well as the release of Kurdish prisoners, including Sheikh Ahmad Barzani (McDowall, 292).

Although the autonomy request denied, the Iraqi government did negotiate with Barzani throughout the early 1940s (McDowall, 293). These negotiations not only led to the release of his older brother, but also brought the word “Jash” into common Kurdish usage. Barzani used the term, meaning “donkey” in Kurdish, as a way to criticize Kurds who collaborated with the Iraqi government.

Knowing tribal discord and disorganization of the Kurdish populace could hinder his forces, Barzani formed the Rizgari Kurd (the Kurdish Freedom Party) in early 1945 in a bid to unify the Kurds and establish autonomy within Iraq (McDowall, 294).

By the end of September 1945, Barzani’s prominence threatened the greedy interests of other powerful Kurdish “Jash” leaders who joined the Iraqi forces, attacking the Barzani forces, uprooting them from their terrain and preventing them from further attacking Iraqi troops in the region. These “treasonous” forced Barzani to retreat from the region and cross into Iranian Kurdistan. Once there, the Barzani family and their supporters settled in various towns in the Mahabad area, joining the Kurdish liberation movement and setting the stage for establishing the Kurdistan Republic and the official creation of the Peshmerga Forces in early 1946.

Like McDowall, the author of this paper dismisses the notion of Mustafa Barzani as an ardent nationalist prior to the creation of the Kurdistan Republic. In fact, given the collectivist nature of the Kurdish society, the dominant power rested in the hands of the tribal-feudalist decision-makers. Otherwise, why Ahmad Barzani did not choose a civil nationalist Kurd instead of his brother to lead and command the Kurdish forces against Iraq? Also, if the Barzani revolts not started to increase the tribe’s regional power (McDowall, 293), then why other non-Badini tribes did not joined the Iraqi forces in bringing havoc as they did to the Badinan region of Iraqi Kurdistan?

The Republic of Kurdistan

The Republic of Kurdistan was the true birth for the Kurdish nationalist movement. This short-lived national identity marked the official creation of the Peshmerga by the Ministry of Kurdistan Forces and cemented the role of Barzani as the Minister and the Commanding General of the Kurdistan Peshmerga Forces.

In the opening years of World War II, the Soviet Union seized northwestern Iran to ensure the flow of important supplies reaching the Soviet Union from its American and British allies. Seeing a window of opportunity, the newly formed Komalay Jiyanaway Kurdistan (The Revival Society of Kurdistan - Komala), a middle-class democratic nationalist party, began to negotiate with the Soviets the idea of creating a Soviet-sponsored Kurdish republic, independent of Iran (McDowall, 240). However, the Soviets asked the visiting Kurdish leadership to abandon Komala for a Soviet style centralized political party.

In exchange for money, military training, and arms, including tanks, cannons, machine guns, and rifles, thereby ensuring autonomy from Iran (Eagleton: 1963, 44), the Kurdish leadership dissolved the Komala by creating the “Democratic Party of Kurdistan - Iran” (KDP-I). The Soviet Azarbaijan President Bagherov also warned the Kurdish leaders not to trust Barzani, whom Bagherov called “a British spy” (Eagleton, 45-46). Since the dismissal of Barzani was not an easy task to be accomplished, Qazi Mohammad, upon his return from Soviet Azarbaijan in the fall of 1945, asked Barzani and his men to join the KDP-I to which the latter had agreed (Eagleton, 56).

With Barzani’s cooperation guaranteed, Qazi Muhammad formed a Kurdish government, and raised the official Kurdish national flag. Within days, Qazi Muhammad was elected as the first Kurdish president and on 22 January 1946 the Republic of Kurdistan was born.

Besides appointing a Prime Minister with a cabinet of 13 ministers and assigning higher levels of command, Qazi Muhammad also helped to literally define the Kurdish word for soldier—peshmerga—a term meaning “one who faces death” or one willing to die for a cause.

Barzani’s professionalism combined with his national concerns, especially regarding the Iranian intentions and fearing a withdrawal of Soviet aid, forced him to deploy much of the peshmerga forces to the republic’s southern frontiers. With local support, the Kurdish forces expanded to include some 12,500 peshmergas occasionally engaging the Iranian hostile army.

However, as the Soviets withdrew from Iran and the latter’s ability grew in winning regional and western international support, the Kurdistan Republic became vulnerable. Adding to the dilemma was the withdrawal of internal support. Except for the Barzani peshmergas, most of the other tribally oriented peshmergas disbanded Mahabad. Consequently, President Qazi Muhammad signed his surrender to the Iranian authority in exchange for the safe withdrawal of Barzani’s peshmergas from Mahabad. As Barzani and his forces withdrew out of the capital of the republic on 15 December 1946, the Iranian military entered Mahabad, eliminating the one-year life of the Kurdistan Republic (Eagleton, 114).

The Barzani peshmergas were well armed in anticipation of an inevitable fight. Despite Iranian attempts to disarm the remnants of the Kurdish republic, the Barzani peshmergas were able to smuggle out 3,000 rifles, 120 machineguns, numerous hand grenades, and two 75 mm artillery cannons (Eagleton, 115).

Finally, in March 1947, the Iranian forces; armed with massive fire power, supplemented by American military experts, and joined by Kurdish tribal jash militias, attacked Barzani forces. After a heavy loses on both sides, Barzani along with some of his best peshmergas, were mysteriously able to fight their way into Iraq.

Prior to crossing the border, Barzani divided his forces into five sections defeating Iraqi police and jash forces. Almost immediately, the Iraqi government, after arresting Sheikh Ahmad Barzani and other family members, sought the surrender of Barzani (O’Balance, 34). Knowing arresting Barzani would not be a simple task, the Iraqi military began mobilizing forces towards the Barzan region. Once the attack became imminent Barzani realized he had to flee yet again. Because both Turkish and Iranian Kurdistan could no longer be regarded as safe haven, Barzani decided to take his peshmergas to the relative security of the Soviet Union (Eagleton, 126).

The peshmerga journey to the Soviet Union began in late May 1947. Often, as the Barzani-led forces crossed into Iranian territory, they had to prepare for potential Iranian military assaults. Using their well-refined skills in cover and concealment, the peshmerga were often able to elude the Iranian military presence. On 9 June 1947, for example, the peshmerga attacked the flank of an Iraqi army column (Eagleton, 127-128). During the two-front attack, led by both Barzani and As’ad Khoshawi,
www.ekurd.netthe peshmerga killed hundreds of Iranian soldiers, destroyed several tanks, rendered an artillery battery ineffective, and downed an Iranian aircraft. After evading or engaging the Iranian army throughout their trip, the Barzanis, along with over 500 peshmergas and their families, crossed the Araxes River into the Soviet Union on 18 June 1947.

The period from 1945 to mid-1947 was integral to the development of the peshmerga as a recognized fighting force. No longer was the military organization confined to fighters of the Barzani tribe. The Kurdistan administration effectively merged officers and soldiers from Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan, creating a unified Kurdish force that crossed tribal lines.

The Peshmerga Forces in modern Iraq |

Optimism ruled as many Iraqi Kurds found a voice in the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP). After Barzani’s return from the Soviet Union in 1958, the peshmergas and other Barzani followers were allowed back into Iraq. Cooperation between peshmerga forces and the new republic of Iraq, headed by General Abdul-Karim Qasim who toppled the Iraqi monarchy, only served to strengthen the ties between the Kurds and the Iraqi Arabs. However, as Qasim became fearful of Barzani’s growing political and military influence, tension continued to grow between Qasim’s government and the Kurdish political, tribal, and military leaders throughout 1960.

By the end of 1961, Barzani was able to control most of Iraqi Kurdistan (McDowall, 310). The Qasim regime, disappointed with Barzani’s growing power, was looking for any reason to justify air strikes throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, including the Barzan village (O’Balance, 47). These strikes, however, only solidified Kurdish resolve, unifying the tribes and bringing Barzani officially into the conflict.

Barzani consolidated his forces and began providing a system of organization to supplement his already established peshmerga forces. Under Barzani’s lead, non-Barzani tribal forces were used to conduct guerrilla attacks on Iraqi military positions (McDowall, 310). This tactic led to the defection of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, including officers. These Kurdish deserted soldiers increased the professionalism and organization of the peshmerga forces.

By fall 1962, Barzani had nearly 20,000 troops at his command. In order to engage the Iraqi forces, the expanded peshmerga forces armed themselves with numerous arms captured from Iraqi forces. With numerous former Iraqi soldiers among the ranks, the peshmergas were able to decipher many Iraqi transmissions and provide key intelligence for Kurdish operations. Operational decisions using this intelligence were made by peshmerga commanders, including Barzani, stationed in highly-mobile, makeshift command centers.

Among the intellectual leaders of the KDP military were party secretary Ibrahim Ahmad and Jalal Talabani—the current Iraqi President. Although small units of the new “Kurdish Liberation Army” (KLA) were assigned to the intellectual leaders, the majority of the fighting forces came from regional tribes and not from urbanized Kurds (McDowall, 311).

Despite mention of the peshmerga fifteen years earlier, O’Ballance and McDowall state that the KDP’s Politburo-created KLA force was the first to be labeled “peshmerga” (O’Balance, 54 and McDowall, 311). Similar to the armed forces of the Kurdistan Republic, this peshmerga force was also willing to face death for the idea of a recognized Kurdistan. In the ranks of Talabani and Ahmad the leadership of the KLA became known as “Sarmerga” - “leading to death commander” (O’Ballance, 54).

By 1963, the numerous battles and skirmishes between both the Barzani and KDP’s Politburo-led peshmergas and the Iraqi military had become a stalemate. The peshmerga forces kept control of Iraqi Kurdistan and the Qasim regime refused to grant Kurdish autonomy. Qasim was eventually overthrown by pan-Arab Baathists led by Abd al Salaam Arif (McDowall, 312-313). Under Arif, the pattern of Iraqi assaults and peshmerga guerrilla counter-assaults lasted throughout the decade.

Because of the peshmerga forces, negotiation became the only Iraqi means to victory. During several rounds of cease-fire negotiations, the Iraqi government frequently called for the disbandment of the peshmergas prior to the granting of autonomy. Barzani believed dismissing the military force was “putting the cart before the horse”, knowing the peshmerga presence was essential to the Kurdish cause and could not be disbanded before the Kurdish people achieved their goals and objectives.

Accordingly, peshmerga was no longer the title of Kurdish soldier confined to the followers of Barzani. The decision by the KDP’s Politburo to label their fighters as peshmergas not only increased the size of the force, but also instilled a growing level of pride in membership. Unfortunately, the ideological rift between Barzani and KDP’s Politburo would also grow, forcing the peshmergas to choose what type of Kurdistan they were willing to die for.

The split between the Peshmerga Forces

Aware of Barzani’s prominence among Kurds, the KDP’s Politburo appointed Barzani as the “honorary president” while he was still in exile. After his return to Iraq in 1958, Barzani’s attempts to overreach the authority of his position irritated Ahmad and eventually Talabani (Izady: 1992, 212). Mounting rifts between the leaders occurred during the numerous Kurdish-Iraq ceasefire negotiations as Barzani emphasized his own goals over those of the KDP. A similar disagreement occurred prior to a 1964 ceasefire as Barzani negotiated directly with President Arif, ignoring the KDP’s Politburo body completely (Gunter: 1996, 228). As a result of Barzani’s agreements with the Arif regime, Ahmad grew to resent Barzani, claiming all Barzani orders should be ignored by the peshmerga forces because Barzani exceeded his competence as the president of the KDP. Despite Ahmad’s claims, peshmerga loyalty remained with Barzani.

Barzani used his loyal military to force Ahmad, Talabani, and 4,000 of their peshmergas into Iran in July 1964. However, Talabani and his peshmergas, although still at odds with Barzani leadership, returned to Iraq after the resumption of the conflict in 1965, hoping to contribute to the overall cause of Kurdish autonomy. Unable to reconcile their differences and still attempting to fight the war however, both Talabani and Barzani vied for the favor of the revolving Iraqi government. Barzani, once he consolidated his KDP power, became the lead for negotiations with the Arif government. Even with Baathist support, the Ahmad-Talabani faction was unable to defeat Barzani and his peshmergas (O’Ballance, 88-89).

In late 1969, the reformed Baath party began to negotiate with Barzani in an attempt to finally end the decade-long conflict. As Saddam Hussein, Baath Party Deputy Chairman of the Regional Command Council, met with Barzani in Kurdistan, Ahmad and Talabani were left with little choice but to return under Barzani’s leadership (Gunter, 229). The Iraqi government, knowing they could not convince Barzani to disband his military, agreed to create “The Border Guard Forces” composed primarily of peshmerga veterans. Although Barzani hoped for 10,000 peshmergas to remain active, the Baath party allowed only 6,000.

Although armed conflict was minimal from 1970 to 1974, tension between the Iraqi government and the Kurds continued unabated. Additional Kurdish political demands and an attempt on Barzani’s life served to drastically increase hostility (McDowall, 332).

By 1973, Kurdish discouragement was solidified as the Iraqi regime entered into a strategic alliance with the former Soviet Union. Knowing conflict was forthcoming; Barzani consolidated the peshmerga forces and continued to recruit more for a larger force and better equipped than ever before (McDowall, 332-333).

Barzani, on the advice of Iranian, American and Israeli advisers, drastically reorganized his force. Earlier guerrilla tactics were abandoned and the peshmerga were re-assigned into completely conventional units. Believing international military support would continue throughout the conflict, Barzani ordered these units to face the Iraqi enemy head-on resulted in catastrophe.

Although the peshmerga may have downed over 100 Iraqi planes and destroyed over 150 tanks, they lacked the firepower of the Iraqis. From their more accustomed concealed positions, the peshmerga were able to engage the advancing Iraqi forces from hidden sniper positions. These tactics allowed the allowed the Kurdish military to claim a kill ratio of 20 to 30 Iraqi soldiers killed for each peshmerga death (McDowall, 333).

However, the final blow to the peshmerga forces came via the Algiers Accord, signed between Iran and Iraq in March 1975. With the termination of Iranian support, the allies of Iran also stopped supporting the Kurdish cause. In what many peshmerga veterans refer to as “American Betrayal,” the U.S. government ceased providing military and financial aid to the peshmerga. Despite their pleas, the Kurdish leadership discovered the American objective was only to weaken Iraq and prevent an attack on Iran - not to assist in achieving Kurdish rights.

Seeking to gain the upper hand, Iraqi forces attacked peshmerga positions the day after the Algiers Accord was signed. Hundreds of Kurds were killed as Iraqi forces seized previous peshmerga strongholds. The indiscriminate Iraqi assault caused over 200,000 Kurds to flee to Iran, including 30,000 peshmerga. Many remaining peshmerga gave up their weapons and surrendered to the Iraqi forces while others possibly hid their weapons, hoping to continue the fight (McDowall, 341).

Overall, the Kurdish-Iraqi War of 1974-75 nearly destroyed the peshmerga’s fighting ability and with it the entire Kurdish cause. Once proud peshmerga veterans could only watch as thousands of Kurds were relocated, villages were destroyed, and millions were forcefully integrated into Iraqi society. After over 40 years of fighting, most for the cause of Kurdish nationalism, Barzani’s last military operation was perhaps his greatest failure (McDowall, 342).

The exodus of the KDP leadership and failing health of Mustafa Barzani created a “power vacuum” in Iraqi Kurdistan. Loyal KDP members saw leadership pass to Barzani’s sons Idris and Masud (McDowall, 343). Although dissention began in the 1960s, without Barzani’s unifying presence those unhappy with the direction of the KDP began to create their own organizations. Among these splinter groups was the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) which was formed in Damascus in June 1975 and led by Jalal Talabani.

As a new emerging political power, the PUK formed a small peshmerga force dedicated to continuing as well as revitalizing the revolution by conducting numerous anti-government raids beginning in the summer of 1975 and continuing throughout 1976. As the PUK grew in popularity and its peshmerga force was expanding rapidly, Talabani returned to Kurdistan from his exile in Damascus. In 1977, in consultations with other PUK leaders, Talabani divided his peshmerga into eight harams (battalions) each in a different district of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Talabani’s PUK popularity enraged the ailing defeated Mustafa Barzani and caused further dissent with the KDP, who had no alternative but a belief in the figure of Barzani and his aforementioned two sons. Hence, the earliest major clash between KDP and PUK peshmergas occurred in the Hakkari province of Turkey—near the triangle borders of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. This clash, later indentified as the Hakkari massacre, happened in April 1978 and resulted in the mass execution of 750 PUK peshmergas, including their commander Ali Askari who was sent by Talabani to pick up Syrian arms supply in Turkish Kurdistan. Askari and his 800-man force was no match for the 7,500-man KDP force led by Sami Abd al Rahman (McDowall, 344-345). Thus, hatred, revenge and lust for power between the two factions escalated like never before and set the stage for complicated Kurdish internal conflict.

After Barzani’s death in 1979, the KDP quickly allied its peshmerga with the Ayatollahs of Iran. True to their alliance, the KDP peshmergas instantly began assaulting the anti-Iranian Kurdish Democratic Party (KDPI) (McDowall, 346). For Idris and Masoud Barzani, the lust for power was more important than a Kurdish alliance with the KDPI. Meanwhile, the PUK leadership, believing conflict among Kurds was detrimental to the overall cause, opposed the KDP both politically and militarily. Hence, the two parties’ peshmergas began attacking each other and lobbied for Kurdish popular support.

While again splitting Iraqi Kurdistan into north and south operational regions as they had during the 1960s war, both parties continued to benefit from the interstate war between Iran and Iraq which started in 1980 and lasted for eight years.

In 1982 Iran was able to drive much of the Iraqi forces out of its territories and launch a series of attacks into Iraq, opening fronts in both southern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. These attacks severely hampered the ability of the PUK and forced the group to move their headquarters from the Iran-Iraq border and closer to Iraqi forces. Seeking a relief from their heavy losses (McDowall, 348), the PUK leadership negotiated a ceasefire with Saddam regime on 3 January 1984.

By January 1985, Saddam’s regime, receiving ample U.S. aid and agreeing to repeated Turkish military incursions into southern Kurdistan—attempting to quell its own Kurdish threat—no longer needed PUK peshmerga assistance. Nevertheless, the PUK leadership was able to garner a better position vis-à-vis the KDP by forcing the latter to agree to a joint PUK-KDP Kurdistan National Front (KNF) in February 1987.

The formation of the KNF increased the expectations of the peshmergas. Unified under a joint command in May 1987, peshmergas of both sides were able to take advantage of Iranian military support and expand their operations, seizing military centers and towns throughout Iraqi Kurdistan (McDowall, 352).

The combined PUK-KDP-Iranian attacks enraged the Hussein regime. Commanded by illiterate Iraqi General Ali Hassan Al-Majid (also known as Chemical Ali), Iraqi forces killed or deported thousands of Kurds in order to cut off peshmerga supply lines. Moreover, by employing a “scorched earth policy” (McDowall, 353), the Iraqi military began using chemical weapons on peshmerga positions throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, including the town of Halabja (O’Ballance, 169). The chemical attacks continued as Iraqi armor and aircraft rapidly deployed to Iraqi Kurdistan, forcing thousands of Kurds to flee Iraq, including many peshmerga and their families. Overall, nearly 4,500 villages were destroyed, 1.5 million Kurds were displaced, and about 182,000 people were disappeared (McDowall, 360).

Despite the Iraqi government’s unprecedented attack on Iraqi Kurdistan, the fighting spirit of the peshmerga lived on. Still united under the KNF, both Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani understood the importance of continuing the Kurdish struggle (McDowall, 360). Therefore, both leaders reorganized their remaining few thousand peshmerga into small strike teams. The goal of these teams was to reduce Iraqi military effectiveness and “prevent Baghdad from hiding the fact of continued resistance” (McDowall, 368). With their new strategy, their peshmergas conducted several successful ambushes and attacks on vital Iraqi infrastructures until the onset of the Operation Desert Storm (ODS) in 1991.

The Peshmerga Forces during the ODS and the 1991 Kurdish Uprising

Because of the traditional international Cold War mentality and due to the influences of the Middle Eastern “Old Guard” politicians, the U.S. government declined Kurdish support. Despite their neutrality, peshmerga leadership was not stagnant following the Kuwait invasion. In accordance with the decisions of the KNF, the peshmerga expanded their covert forces in both size and scope, conducted a propaganda campaign to rekindle Kurdish nationalism, incorporated Kurdish Iraqi army deserters, and developed a cooperative network with the jash elements.

This new peshmerga-jash network allowed the peshmerga to acquire previously unattainable support, including intelligence, and forgave the jash for past their allegiances. Each of these actions benefited the peshmerga and increased their effectiveness in the weeks following the first U.S.-Iraq War.

The spirit of revolution took hold in Iraqi Kurdistan. KNF peshmerga forces, who had engaged northern Iraqi military positions several times since February 27, 1991 (McDowall, 393), came to the assistance of the jash and Kurdish populace, conducting initial occupations of towns and manning tactical positions overlooking popular-controlled areas. By 14 March, Kurdish officials controlled nearly 75% of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Led by the peshmergas and largely assisted by the jash, the Kurdish uprising reached Kirkuk on 17 March (McDowall, 371). However, peshmerga assault on Kirkuk - the “the Heart and Jerusalem of Kurdistan”- was not a lasting success. Kurdish optimism in the region was short-lived. The Iraqi government, two days later, was permitted by the victorious U.S. and its coalition forces to quickly reinstate control over it Kurdistan portion, especially the oil-rich-city of Kirkuk.

Armed with sophisticated weaponry and with no international support, the peshmergas were quickly overpowered and began to disappear. The fear of Iraqi retribution caused over 1.5 million Kurds to flee towards both Iran and Turkey (McDowall, 373). Despite the peshmerga opposition’s ability to slow down Iraqi ground forces, the Iraq air assault went unabated, attacking Kurdish refugees and causing mass confusion on the roads to the border.

Because of the “CNN Affect” and under the auspice of United Nations Resolution 688, some western nations and many international organizations came to the aid of the fleeing Kurds, providing them with basic necessities such as food and medical care. Among the lead countries assisting the Kurdish plight was the U.S., one of few who also believed that the above resolution also allowed for military protection. In total, nearly 12,000 U.S. military service members stayed in Iraq in support of Operation Provide Comfort (Lortz: 2005, 61).

Peshmergas of the KDP and the PUK played an integral role in the operations of the U.S. Special Forces and the other international groups. Despite years of betrayal and questionable alliances made the peshmergas initially suspicious, once a bond of trust was established, the peshmergas began supporting the U.S. led relief effort.

With U.S. military agreement, peshmerga units provided security for their allies and eliminated Iraqi secret agents in the area. After assisting the relief effort and winning the respect they deserved from the U.S. Army, the peshmergas were called upon to ensure the safe travel of civilians as the Kurdish populace attempted to return to their homes (Lortz, 62).

The peshmerga Forces after the Cold War |

After the return of a majority of Kurds to their cities and villages and the withdrawal of international forces in July 1991, the peshmerga again confronted Iraqi forces (McDowall, 373). As Talabani and Barzani worked in the political arena, the peshmergas stationed in Erbil and Suleimani clashed with Iraqi military units and succeeded in liberating most cities of southern Kurdistan throughout the fall of 1991.

Knowing his weakened military could not handle an all-out conflict with the peshmergas and with the international eye still on the Kurdish situation; Saddam ordered the withdrawal of his civil servants and imposed a blockade of Iraqi Kurdistan in late October 1991. During this time the only income to Iraqi Kurdistan was provided by tolls manned by peshmergas from Iraq to Turkey (O’Ballance, 196-197). On the other hand, as negotiations with Saddam’s regime proved unsuccessful,
www.ekurd.netthe KNF established its own “Kurdistan National Assembly” (KNA), a freely-elected Iraqi Kurdistan government. Among the benefits of a Kurdish government was the ability to create a unified peshmerga force of 100,000 men and eliminating the assortment of armed Kurds who had taken to the streets upon their return (McDowall, 380).

The newly-elected KNA could not hide the tension between the KDP and the PUK and their respective peshmerga forces. Thanks to the regional interferences, by the mid-1990s, peshmergas of the KDP and the PUK had once more divided Iraqi Kurdistan (McDowall, 386). The PUK, while having less manpower with only 12,000 active peshmerga and 6,000 reserves, had greater firepower, including T-54 and T-55 tanks, artillery pieces, multiple rocket launchers, 106mm recoilless rifles, light anti-aircraft machine guns, SA-7s, and 60mm, 82mm, and 120mm mortars, captured from the defeated Iraqi military forces in 1991 (Lortz, 63).

KDP and PUK leaderships continued to push their peshmergas into proxy skirmishes throughout 1995, killing hundreds and infuriating the Kurdish populace (Gunter, 235). Ceasefires were signed and broken as both sides sought regional allies to strengthen their forces.

The ability of the KDP’s marriage with the Iraqi devil was evident as Iraqi artillery “softened” PUK targets before Iraqi tanks and helicopters began their assault on PUK strong holds. The heaviest Iraqi attack occurred in Erbil in August 1996 when 3,000 lightly-armed PUK peshmergas faced 40,000 Iraqi armored soldiers backed by the KDP fighters. The Iraqi military seized Erbil and helped the KDP peshmerga to push the PUK frontlines closer to the Iranian border (Lortz, 63).

Though was too late, the Clinton administration insisted on the peshmergas to halt down their internal fights if the KDP-PUK leaderships wished to be included among continuing U.S.-sponsored Iraqi opposition groups. Unfortunately, for the Kurdish cause, the nearly decade-long “Kurdish Civil War” disheartened many Kurdish civilians, as they began to lose confidence in the political leadership of the warring factions (McDowall, 391-392).

With coercive diplomacy, the 1998 U.S. sponsored “Washington Agreement” was reached ending the internal fighting between the KDP and the PUK peshmergas. The Agreement laid-down a timetable for:

1.“October 1st 1998: The KDP begins to extend appropriate financial a quittance on monthly basis to the public service ministries in the PUK areas.

2.October 15th 1998: Timeline for repatriation of persons displaced by the former conflict. Agreement on restoration of property or compensation by responsible parties.

3.Beginning of November 1998: Joint consultations with the Government of Turkey.

4.November 1st 1998: Coordination and Cooperation of humanitarian ministries complete. Revenues contributed by KDP to the ministries flowing from KDP areas to PUK areas.

5.November 15th 1998: Progress report on repatriation, unification of ministries and revenue sharing.

6.January 1st 1997: First meeting of the interim assembly. Interim Joint Government establishes a plan to normalize Erbil, Dohuk and Suleimani.

7.April 1st 1997: Interim Joint Government establishes a plan for the organization of elections.

8.July 1st 1997: Regional elections” (Kurdistanica, 1998).

However, the international emergence of the al-Qaeda terrorist network following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. did not allow peshmerga weapons to be silent for very long. Although sporadic fighting continued with the PKK, the PUK peshmergas faced their largest threat from Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaeda-sponsored terrorist group attempted to establish itself in Iraqi Kurdistan. Led by Mulla Krekar, a Kurd of ex-communist and a strict Islamic faith, Ansar al-Islam was composed of over 500 terrorists, many of whom fled Afghanistan after the U.S. mission.

Although they were professional in their mountain-based guerrilla tactics, the PUK peshmergas had difficulty countering the terrorist methods of Ansar al-Islam. With alleged support from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, Ansar al-Islam was able to gain some PUK held rigid terrain. However, U.S. preparations to oust Saddam Hussein and with initial KDP support, the PUK peshmergas were able to manage the conflict.

The Peshmerga Forces during the Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003)

The deployment of CIA agents to Kurdistan followed by the 10th U.S. Special Forces Group (SFG) (Robinson: 2004, 296 cited in Lortz, 66) began a new era in U.S.-Kurdish relations, an era that would witness unprecedented cooperation between peshmerga forces and the most powerful military in the world (Lortz, 66). Arriving in July 2002, the CIA agents claimed to be on a counterterrorism mission against Ansar Al-Islam; a mainly Kurdish terrorist group was holding ground to the east of the Suleimani province near the Iran-Iraq border prior to the 2003 Iraq War. However, the CIA rarely worked with the peshmergas to achieve its claimed mission. According to Michael Lortz, “[T]he true mission of the CIA was to acquire intelligence about the Iraqi government and military” (Lortz, 66).

Due to their traditional practice, the CIA agents, initially, were not friendly with the peshmergas. Their method of recruiting and paying informants undermined the peshmerga’s ability to purchase black market weapons. However, when the U.S. intention of removing Saddam’s regime was confirmed, the CIA relied on peshmerga intelligence gathering; and eventually cooperated with the KDP-PUK peshmergas to destroy key Iraqi infrastructures and installations ahead of the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

In sheer peer manner, the cooperation between the peshmergas and the U.S SFG was far closer than the peshmerga-CIA relationship. Upon the arrival of the SFG in January 2003, the peshmerga became an integral part of the Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), especially in uprooting the Ansar Al-Islam from Kurdistan.

The destruction of Ansar al-Islam was beneficial to both the U.S. and Iraqi Kurdistan. For the U.S. SFG, the removal of Ansar Al-Islam, on the one hand was a token of friendship given to the Kurds, and it destroyed a vital part of the al-Qaeda network on the other hand. As for the peshmergas, the elimination of Ansar Al-Islam was critically needed to nullify any future threat to peshmerga operations during the forthcoming liberation of Iraq and beyond. As Kurdish trust and confidence in American intentions established, PUK and KDP peshmergas were chosen by the U.S. as the best regional allies and were placed under the direct command of the U.S. Army (Lortz, 66). The PUK peshmergas were commanded by U.S. Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Kenneth Tovo and the KDP peshmergas were led by fellow LTC Robert Waltemeyer (Robinson, 301 cited in Lortz, 66).

In 2003, to give extra meanings to the Newroz celebrations—the Kurdish New Year calendar beginning on 21 March—U.S. forces launched Tomahawk missiles at selected Ansar al-Islam positions throughout the Sargat Valley in the district of Sharazour. As the ground assault began, LTC Tovo led his six mixed PUK peshmerga-Special Forces units; and, within two days, the peshmerga-Special Forces teams succeeded in removing Ansar al-Islam from the Sargat Valley, killing most and forcing those who remained to flee over the Iranian border (Robinson, 302-306 cited in Lortz, 67). The KDP peshmerga-10th SFG operations involved attacking the Iraqi forces positioned along the northern part of the “Green Line”—separating Iraqi forces from the Kurdish forces (Lortz, 67).

As overwhelmed by the U.S. air strikes assaults and peshmerga artillery fire, Iraqi forces that had difficult fighting with nearly 100,000 peshmergas north and west of Mosul city, began a strategic retreat to positions closer to Kirkuk. While this was happening, eager peshmerga units began occupying the vacated Iraqi positions and lead the U.S. forces into the oil-rich provinces of Mosul and Kirkuk (Robinson, 325-26 cited in Lortz, 68).

A day after the occupation of Baghdad on 9 April, 2003, the first KDP peshmerga force entered Mosul on 10 April, engaged the Iraqi army, secured their objectives, and pulled out of the city on 12 April in accordance with the wishes of the U.S. leadership.

Though the PUK peshmergas entered and remained in Kirkuk city against the wishes of the U.S., they had a valid reason to do so. For the Kurdish leadership in Iraq, Kirkuk is the core of the Kurdish conflict with Baghdad governments and the neighboring countries. PUK argued that its presence in the city would deter any regional interference in the shaping of the upcoming Iraqi government. Therefore, securing the contested city by Kurds meant to have a better position in negotiating a new political system that Iraq needs to be governed by.

In any case, the joint Kurdistani-U.S. attacks from 21 March to 12 April 2003 defeated thirteen Iraqi divisions, prevented Iraqi forces from reinforcing their southern defenses, captured strategic airfields throughout northern Iraq (Robinson, 340 cited in Lortz, 68), and reduced the ability of the Ansar Al-Islam to terrorize the Kurdish population in Iraq.

As Lortz asserts, “[t]he Kurdish peshmerga, assisted by the U.S. military, were finally able to defeat the Iraqi military and topple its oppressive leadership. The fighting spirit of the peshmerga had succeeded in forcing a new chapter in Kurdish history - yet another era of attempted power sharing between Arabs and Kurds (Lortz, 68).

The Peshmerga Forces in the post-2003 Iraq

As the U.S. liberated Iraq from the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration, scrutinized by some powerful members of the United Nations, was forced to accept its role in Iraq as an occupying country. Accordingly, the U.S. administration established the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. With transitional responsibility, the CPA decided to reconstruct and reconstitute Iraq.

These fundamental changes created challenges and opportunities for the CPA and the U.S. forces. The challenges can be grouped into three settings: Iraqi multi-communal challenges, the nondemocratic totalitarian mindset and the postwar international legitimacy. Of the most critical challenges the CPA had to deal with was the deep-rooted Iraqi polity (Dobbins and et al.: 2003, 168).

Unfortunately, the CPA preferred dealing with the nondemocratic totalitarian challenges by dissolving the Iraqi army and implementing the ill-advised de-Ba’athification policy. The result was a rapidly growing resistance which helped nurturing and expanding the Al-Qaeda network in Iraq.

As tested during the liberation of Iraq, Kurds—politically and militarily—were ready to meet some of these challenges. Politically, Kurdish leadership engaged with most Iraqi influential figures opposing the U.S. presence. With U.S. backings, Kurdish leaders encouraged Arab Sunni leaders to participate in the new Iraqi political process. However, for the peshmergas to participate in peace-building and occasional peace-enforcement missions, the KDP and PUK leaders insisted on getting full recognition for their Kurdish forces.

Though Kurds did not get all they wanted, the CPA allowed the Kurds to retain their existing peshmerga forces in its drafted Transitional Administrative Law (TAL). Adopted by the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) in March 2004, Article 54(A) of the TAL stipulates that:

“The Kurdistan Regional Government shall continue to perform its current functions throughout the transitional period, except with regard to those issues which fall within the exclusive competence of the federal government as specified in this Law. Financing for these functions shall come from the federal government, consistent with current practice and in accordance with Article 25(E) of this Law. The Kurdistan Regional Government shall retain regional control over police forces and internal security, and it will have the right to impose taxes and fees within the Kurdistan region” (CPA, 2004).

The legal interpretation for the above mentioned sub-article provides a legitimate status for the peshmerga forces. Accordingly, the Kurdish leadership agreed to send their peshmergas to partake in operations with the Coalition Forces. Many peshmergas became border guards or were assigned to protect vital oil pipelines and others continued operations with the U.S. Special Forces. According to Lortz, nearly 7,000 peshmergas, nicknamed “Peshrambo”, were trained in commando operations and assisted in the hunt for Ansar al-Islam and other Al-Qaeda related militants (Lortz, 69).

As the TAL and its Annexes legitimized the existence of the peshmerga forces, close to 35,000 peshmergas enrolled in the Kurdish Border Guards (KBG) formations. After receiving proper training at the Qalachuwalan and Zakho military academies, scores of young and intellectual peshmergas graduated as military officers serving in the newly formed Iraqi Army. The remaining peshmergas involved in assisting the U.S. forces with interrogations, flash-checkpoints and peace-enforcement missions.

Yet, when the Iraqi anti-Kurdish elements complained of too much power has been given to the Kurdish peshmergas and asked for their disbandment, leaders of the KDP and the PUK responded with firm answers. In official statements Masoud Barzani insisted the KDP keep their peshmerga, calling them a “symbol of the resistance” (Sharp: 2005, 5-6 cited in Lortz, 71). Jalal Talabani also contributed to the idea of retaining a loyal peshmerga force by discussing initiatives that would invest in accommodations for peshmergas, including housing and a special peshmerga store.

Furthermore, in a joint letter, dated June 1, 2004, and communicated to the U.S. president George W. Bush, Masoud Barzani of the KDP and Jalal Talabani of the PUK raised concerns with some U.S. diplomats who were echoing anti-Kurdish sentiments about the peshmerga identity. Among other things, the letter states that:

“A year ago, our peshmerga forces fought side by side with the American forces for the liberation of Iraq, taking more casualties than any other US ally. Today, Kurdistan remains the only secure and stable part of Iraq. We note that, in contrast to the Arab areas of Iraq, no coalition soldier has been killed in the area controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government…US officials have demeaned the peshmerga, calling this disciplined military force that was America’s battlefield comrade in arms, ‘militia’” (Navend, 2004).

Although the peshmerga’s military status has been contested, Iraqi Arab political relations with the Kurdish leadership took a large step forward when the PUK leader Jalal Talabani was elected President of Iraq in May 2005. With Masoud Barzani elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2005, the potential to achieve the goals of generations of peshmergas became greatly enhanced.

Yet, as the new Iraqi Constitution was ratified by a referendum on 15 October 2005, peshmerga forces gained unprecedented constitutional status. The Fifth Section of Article 121 states as following:

“The Regional Government shall be responsible for all the administrative requirements of the region, particularly the establishment and organization of the internal security forces for the region such as police, security forces and guards of the region” (USIP, 2006).

According to Jabar Yawar, KRG Minister of Peshmerga Affairs, “[t]his is (the constitutional right) by far the most acceptable legal remedy for the KRG in transforming the 100,000 peshmergas into Kurdish National Guards (KNG) and effective police and security forces” (Ali, 2007).

The KRG also negotiated with the Iraqi federal government the formation of three Iraqi army brigades each with over 3,000 former peshmergas to be stationed only in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, as the sectarian violence escalated in central Iraq throughout 2006 and the first half of 2007, the Coalition Forces requested these Kurdish guards and army units to temporarily be deployed to the provinces of Baghdad, Diyala, Salahaddin, and Mosul to keep the peace and participate in civil military affairs. In fact, according to a Kurdish-Globe report, Dr. Mahmoud Al-Mash’hadani—a Sunni Arab, Chairman of the Iraqi Council of Representative, “in a closed session of the Iraqi Parliament last month…had called upon the Kurdish leadership to send Peshmerga forces to Baghdad to protect the lawmakers” (Kirkuki, 2006).

Like the Americans, Kurdish troops are a slender peacekeeping force standing between the warring Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs and to fighting insurgents. U.S. commanders consider them a critical part of the peace enforcement in Baghdad and other troubled spots of Iraq because of their fighting prowess and perceived neutrality. In May 2007, more than 2,100 peshmergas were deployed to Baghdad‘s troubled Bayya area. Then on June 14, Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported that “more than 2,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters will be sent to help achieve security in the volatile Diyala province upon the request of the Iraqi government and the Multi-National Forces” (RFI, 2007). These Kurdish soldiers have been instrumental in taking the U.S. peace enforcement troops to neighbourhoods and quarters in Iraqi urbanized centres that previously were off limits to them. Thanks to peshmerga help, present-day Iraq is 70% safer than it was in 2006.


This paper has attempted to account for the development of the peshmerga and its role in the Kurdish struggle in Iraq as well as its role in peace enforcement in post-2003 Iraq. While supporting Kurdish nationalism, the peshmerga’s continuous defiance of Iraqi Arab authority, despite being frequently outnumbered or overpowered, have reinvigorated the Kurdish spirit. To mention the peshmerga in passing, as many authors have done, or to label the peshmerga as merely “militias”, is to marginalize the contribution of the organized Kurdish fighting force in Kurdish history. For a people who have depended on their fighting ability for centuries in order to maintain their national identity, it is difficult to see the Kurdish in Iraq without the peshmerga forces.

As seen in this paper, not only have previous interastate agreements been nullified, but the Kurds have also been “abandoned” by three of the world’s premier superpowers: the British in the 1920s, the Soviet Union in the 1940s, and the U.S. in both the 1970s and the 1990s. It is little surprise then that after gaining power the Kurds would be hesitant to disband their only real source of self-defense.

The ideal of the peshmerga as “guardians” of Kurdish nationalism will continue far beyond the generation of Mustafa and Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani. As older peshmerga step away from the battlefield and assume political roles, new peshmerga fill the ranks to protect their national identity and to help bring peace to those who live in violence.


1.Ali, Nuri (25 June 2005). KRG agrees that peshmerga will become 'regional guard'. Kurdistani New (Kurdish daily), p. A2.
2.Eagleton, William Jr. (1963). The Kurdish Republic of 1946. Oxford University Press.
3.Ghassemlou, Abdul Rahman (1965). Kurdistan and the Kurds. Publishing House of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, Collet’s Ltd.
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6.Kirkuki, Hawar (28 December 2006). Kurds make breakthrough on talks with Iraq. The Kurdish Globe, p. A1.
7.Lortz, Michael G. (2005), (Thesis) Willing to Face Death: A History of Kurdish Military Forces—the peshmerga—from the Ottoman Empire to Present-Day Iraq. The Florida State University, Collage of Social Sciences.
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10.Radio Free Iraq (14 June 2007). 2,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to keep security in Diala. Retrieved on 23 February, 2008 from:
11.Robinson, Linda (2004). Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces. Public Affairs.
12.Sharp, Jeremy M. (25 March 2005). Iraq’s New Security Forces: The Challenge of Sectarian and Ethnic Influences. CRS Report for Congress, 25 March 2005.
13.Full text of the Washington Agreement between the KDP and the PUK leaders, available at:
14.Full text of the CPA’s Transitional Administration Law is available at:
15.The joint Barzani and Talabani letter to the U.S. President George W. Bush, available at
16.Unofficial English translation of the Iraqi Constitution by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, available at:
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