Saddam Hussein’s shadow often looms large over my meetings with Masoud Barzani. My career has allowed me to follow the thrilling and painful tales of both these officials. Both have an iron will and lived on a hot tin plate called Iraq.
Saddam believed that the spirit of the nation tasked him with the mission of reclaiming Iraq’s former glory. Barzani believed that fate had chosen him to act as the guardian of the Kurdish dream. Saddam was the boldest Iraqi leader in dealing with the demands of the Kurds. He was also the cruelest in leaving their country in tatters. Barzani, however, remained steadfast and undeterred in maintaining the approach taken by his father, historic Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani.
Neither Saddam nor Masoud Barzani would succeed in taking the other out. Their relationship over the years would witness several strained handshakes and painful blows. However, two decades ago, destiny would determine the fate of the relationship when the American empire invaded Iraq.
Saddam was shown the gallows while Masoud Barzani would become president of Iraqi Kurdistan that would be ruled under the Iraqi and Kurdish flags. He succeeded in achieving the dream that the Kurds in Türkiye, Iran and Syria failed in achieving.
The current century began with an Iraq that appeared headed towards a long period of stability. The Kurds in the north continued to benefit from the no-fly zone, while in Baghdad, Saddam’s regime remained firmly in control, manipulating international inspectors and the conditions of the Oil-for-Food Program. His atrocities while quelling the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings after he was forced to withdraw from Kuwait remained heavily present in memory.
The opposition retained its dream of overthrowing the regime, but it appeared out of reach. It could defeat Saddam’s military machine alone. American air power was not for hire to provide Iraqi factions with cover to advance their international and regional agendas. A shocking development was needed to change calculations and equations. It would soon happen.
Planes and towers
The date September 11 is significant for the Kurds. On that day in 1961, Mustafa Barzani launched the Kurdish uprising whose embers would remain aflame until they were put out in 1970 through an agreement with the Baath party.
On September 11, 2001, Masoud and his son Masrour were in Iraq's Duhok city. They saw on television a plane flew into one of the World Trade Center towers. For a moment he thought the channel was airing a scene from a movie. Then he saw another plane fly into the second building. Breaking news then flooded in about a very major dangerous development taking place in the United States. It was unheard of that any country would attack the world’s lone superpower on its own soil.
It was difficult to predict that Saddam’s regime would end up paying the price dearly when it was revealed that the al-Qaeda organization was behind the attack. It was difficult to image that the regime and al-Qaeda were associated with each other. Each one followed contradictory agendas even though they were bound by their hatred of the US or at least made statements against it.
The leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party believed that a new phase had been opened, but its dangerous features had not yet emerged. He mended ties with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani, and dispatched envoys to Türkiye, Syria and Iran to determine their reading of the potential impact of the attacks on New York and Washington.
Wounded America was boiling. The world was trying to guess where it would vent its anger and 2002 would bring signs that Masoud believed would help him predict what was to come. On January 30, US President George W. Bush would name Iraq in the Axis of Evil along with Iran and North Korea. Later that month, US Secretary of State Colin Powell would speak of the need to change the regime in Iraq and that the US would go about the mission alone if it had to. It wouldn’t take long for British Prime Minister Tony Blair to support the American position.
Decisive secret meeting
On February 17, 2002, Masoud welcomed a delegation from the CIA. The delegation spoke of how “America has decided to remove the Saddam regime”, “the attack would take place on several fronts” and that the “Kurdistan Region had a major role to play in our calculations.” The Kurds were invited to visit Washington.
Masoud informed the delegation that the Kurds would “support any operation that would lead to the establishment of a pluralistic federal democratic Iraq.” He recalled to Asharq Al-Awsat that he also demanded guarantees from the US that the Kurds would be protected and that Washington inform Iraq’s neighbors that the Kurds would not pose a threat.
On April 1, Masoud received a US Department of State delegation that reiterated Washington’s position for the ouster of the regime. On April 15, Masoud, his son Masrour, and leading member of his party and future foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari headed to the US. They would be joined by Talabani, his son Bafel, and leading member from his party and future Iraqi president Barham Salih.
The meeting in Virginia was attended by officials from the CIA and State Department. The Americans spoke firmly that the decision to oust Saddam had been taken and there can be no going back from it. They stressed that the Kurds were to receive their “full rights” and that Washington had approved the establishment of a federal Iraq. They added that Washington “would not allow any foreign meddling” and hoped that the Kurds would play a part in bringing together the Iraqi opposition.
The Americans were firm and decisive and the Kurdish response was the same. “As long as America has taken its final decision about the ouster of the regime, then we will do our best to make sure it happens,” they said. “As long as the alternative is a democracy and will allow the rise of a federal Kurdistan, then we will do everything we can.”
The Kurdish delegation departed Washington for Paris. French officials were convinced that the US had taken the final decision to oust Saddam. They, therefore, asked the Kurds about the alterative. Masoud stressed that the alternative would be agreed upon by the Iraqi opposition and that the new regime would be democratic and federal.
The delegation then headed to Damascus where the regime was informed of the American plan. The regime was “very pleased,” recalled Barzani, who assured the Syrians that Iraq would not be divided and that foreign meddling would not be allowed. The Syrian vice president was convinced that the US would not intervene militarily in Iraq and was ready to bet on it, added Barzani.
US criticizes Turkish ‘blackmail’
On July 21, an American delegation of experts landed in Erbil. Discussions revealed that Türkiye was concerned that the ouster of the Saddam regime would lead to the establishment of a Kurdish state. An American official said Türkiye was “blackmailing the US and demanding hefty sums of money.” He stressed that Türkiye would not be allowed to meddle “in any way, shape or form in Kurdistan’s affairs.”
Türkiye would continue to pose an obstacle as the countdown for the invasion wound down.
Later that month, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would declare that the invasion of Iraq must be launched from the south and north. Iran, meanwhile, was observing the developments. It had a long, torrid hateful history with the ruler of Baghdad. It was difficult for it to openly declare support for the American invasion, whose repercussions were unpredictable. It also believed that the removal of Saddam would remove an obstacle for it in Iraq and the region.
Iran ultimately allowed its loyalist Iraqi factions to take part in the meetings of the Iraqi opposition that preceded the war. It took the decision to facilitate the process of the ouster of the Saddam regime, while also taking another decision to destabilize the American military presence in Iraq and prevent the rise of a stable and pro-western system in Baghdad.
Damascus appeared to have supported Tehran’s position. General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, would be tasked with the mission to exhaust the American army, which would be surrounding Iran from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The US resorted to various justifications for its invasion. It claimed that the Baath party had ties with al-Qaeda, that it possessed weapons of mass destruction and biological weapons. Masoud adamantly stressed that his party did not provide any support to these claims.
As the war drew near, Türkiye’s concerns grew deeper. Commander of the United States Central Command, Tommy Franks met with Turkish officials who made a series of demands. They objected to the establishment of a Kurdish state and to Kurds seizing control of Kirkuk and Mosul. They stressed that Türkiye should have a say in the shape of the new system of rule in Iraq and objected to the Kurds being part of the process of overthrowing the Saddam regime.
The Kurds were informed that Türkiye’s involvement in the coalition that would oust Saddam was essential and important. The Americans were planning on attacking from the south and north, meaning Turkish territories. The Kurds rejected any form of regional involvement, whether from Iran or Türkiye.
Ultimately, the US did not yield to the Turkish demands and Türkiye did not allow the American forces to advance from its territories.
On the night of March 19, 2003, the war erupted, changing Iraq and the regional balances.
No international front was powerful enough to deter the Americans. Russian President Vladimir Putin was preoccupied in fortifying his country and China was still in the process of becoming the world’s second largest economy.
The fiercest objection came from French President Jacques Chirac, who warned Bush during a NATO summit in Prague that the war would destabilize the region and among its consequences would be the arrival of Tehran loyalists to power in Baghdad and consolidate Iran’s power in Damascus and Lebanon.
Attention turned to Iran to sense its position from the war. It facilitated the ouster of Saddam but at the same time, tasked Soleimani with preparing plans to destabilize the American military presence in Iraq. Masoud told Asharq Al-Awat that American officials later complained to him about Iran’s malign role, but they never spoke of targeting it or Syria, whom they accused of opening the borer to extremists to fight US forces in Iraq.
Iran would later send more messages. In 2007, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in occupied Baghdad to remind everyone that Iran is part of Iraq’s geographic destiny and that it would remain its neighbor after the American withdrawal.
Masoud never attempted to visit Saddam in prison. He never attended his trials. “Gloating is not a sign of a man,” he said. Along with the rest of the world, he watched as Saddam’s statues were toppled.
He was pleased with the overthrow of his enemy but feared that Iraq would drown in bloody vendettas, and they are many. He feared the eruption of a conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, and Arabs and Kurds. He feared that regional powers would turn Iraq into an arena to pursue old and new dreams. The developments would justify his fears and Baghdad would wallow for years in bloodshed.
Saddam probably never imagined that he would end up paying the price for what Osama bin Laden did in New York and Washington. He probably imagined that he would be remembered by history with the likes of Salaheddine and Abou Jaafar al-Mansouri, who built Baghdad.