The Kurds and the KGB

Mustafa Barzani, the legendary Kurdish leader, was a KGB agent code-named "RAIS," and the Kurdish armed revolution he started Sept. 11, 1961, was in reality a KGB covert action to destabilize Western interests in the Middle East and put additional pressure on the Kassim government of Iraq.

Whoever dares to mention these facts publicly in Kurdistan would face an unknown fate, possibly forced disappearance or even murder by sophisticated means, and the whole story of KGB-Barzani ties would be dismissed as reckless defamation by the ruling Barzani family.

Unfortunately for the Barzani family, these facts are not the creation of some individuals, but the contents of KGB documents that recently became accessible to scholars and the public, or found their way to the West with defected KGB officers after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This paper relies on two main documentary sources on KGB-Barzani ties. The first is the archive of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which also contains the correspondence between the KGB and the Central Committee. The most important documents mentioned in this article go back to 1961, the peak of the Cold War.

The second source is the so-called Mitrokhin archive, which was smuggled to the West by the defected KGB officer Vasili Mitrokhin after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In addition to the KGB archive, this paper also relies on the memoirs written by former KGB officers, which refer to Barzani and the Kurdish conflict. These include the memoirs of the former KGB Maj. Gen. Pavel Sudoplatov, who was the head of the SMERSH, a special department within the Soviet security services responsible for special operations broad.

Some scholars have conducted valuable research on KGB history using publicly accessible KGB archives. The most important research paper I was able to find in this regard was delivered by Vladislav M. Zubok, a visiting scholar of the National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., and can be found here.

The aim of the current paper on Barzani-KGB ties is simply the search for the truth in the public interest. The Barzani family has established a brutal and corrupt feudal political system in Iraqi Kurdistan under the pretext that they led the Kurdish revolution. It is time to tell them the truth and remind them that the Kurds are freedom-loving people and will never accept feudal rule. The Barzani family has misused the trust of Kurdish people and become increasingly oligarchic, with the aim of self-enrichment by illegal means and a monopoly on political power. Murder, torture, abductions, and intimidation are among the main methods the family uses to silence its opponents.

My own abduction by the Parastin, the secret service of the Barzani family, on Oct. 26, 2005, in Arbil, Kurdistan, for publishing some articles criticizing the corrupt rule of the Barzanis, and my subsequent release under international pressure, are further evidence that the arbitrary power of the family is decreasing.

The great international support for my case was based on the recognition that the truth should not be silenced.

Therefore, I see it as my duty to continue searching for the truth.

Barzani and the KGB, Old Friends

After the collapse of the Kurdish republic of Mahabad in December 1946, Mustafa Barzani made his way to the Soviet border with several hundred of his men. After arriving in the Soviet Union, he received much attention from the Soviet leadership and security services, who wanted to use the Kurds for their own ends.

The first period of Barzani’s political activities in the Soviet Union would have probably remained secret without the memoirs of the KGB’s Sudoplatov, who later became the head of the SMERSH. Sudoplatov writes that he had met Barzani for the first time in Baku, shortly after Barzani’s arrival in the Soviet Union in 1947, with the aim of using him to destabilize Western interests in the Middle East. Barzani and his men were to receive arms and military training in order to be sent back to Iraq for this purpose, according to Sudoplatov.

Barzani must have been of extraordinary importance to the Soviets to be cultivated by Sudoplatov, one of the most important figures within the security services. Sudoplatov mentions in his memoirs that he was responsible for the assassination of Trotsky on Stalin’s order, and for the atomic espionage that led to the building of the Soviet atom bomb.

That Sudoplatov led negotiations with Barzani is evidence of the great expectations the Soviet leadership had for Barzani. But Sudoplatov was apparently not the only Soviet officer to deal with Barzani, as Sudoplatov mentions other officers who succeeded him in dealing with Barzani. Sudoplatov met Barzani for the second time in 1952 to negotiate with him on military training, but doesn’t mention any agreement reached between them. He met Barzani again in 1953 at a military academy in Moscow, where both of them underwent military training. Barzani was apparently being prepared for a special task abroad.

Sudoplatov reveals in his memoirs that Barzani told him then that the ties between his family and Russia were a hundred years old and that his family had appealed to Russia for help before and received arms and ammunition from Russia 60 times. There are indeed other confidential reports on a visit to Russia made by Sheikh Abdul Salam, the sheikh of Barzan, before the First World War, though I know of no other Barzani-Russian ties before WWI.

The nature of relations between Mustafa Barzani and the Soviets during the period of 1947-1958 has remained until now largely secret, with the exception of the Sudoplatov memoirs. The Mitrokhin archive and the publicly accessible KGB archive make no mention of this period, but do deliver essential information on Barzani-KGB ties after 1958.

From the Mitrokhin archive we learn that the KGB gave Barzani the code name "RAIS," and both the Mitrokhin and the KGB archives of the Central Committee of the CPSU reveal the big secret behind the Kurdish revolution of September 1961 led by Barzani. According to these archives, this was not a real revolution but a covert action by the KGB to destabilize Western interests in the Middle East.

Aleksandr Shelepin, KGB chief in the 1960s, in 1961 sent a memorandum to Nikita Khrushchev containing plans “to cause uncertainty in government circles of the USA, England, Turkey, and Iran about the stability of their positions in the Middle and Near East.” He offered to use old KGB connections with the chairman of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, Mustafa Barzani, “to activate the movement of the Kurdish population of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey for creation of an independent Kurdistan that would include the provinces of the aforementioned countries.” Barzani was to be provided with the necessary aid in arms and money. “Given propitious developments,” noted Shelepin with foresight, “it would become advisable to express the solidarity of the Soviet people with this movement of the Kurds.”

“The movement for the creation of Kurdistan,” he predicted, “will evoke serious concern among Western powers and first of all in England regarding [their access to] oil in Iraq and Iran, and in the United States regarding its military bases in Turkey. All that will create also difficulties for [Iraqi Prime Minister Gen. Abdul Karim] KASSIM who has begun to conduct a pro-Western policy, especially in recent time.” Shelepin also proposed an initiative to entice Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a Third World leader avidly courted by both East and West, into throwing his support behind the Kurds. Shelepin suggested informing Nasser “through unofficial channels” that, in the event of a Kurdish victory, Moscow “might take a benign look at the integration of the non-Kurdish part of Iraqi territory with the UAR” – the United Arab Republic, a short-lived union of Egypt and Syria reflecting Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism – “on the condition of NASSER’s support for the creation of an independent Kurdistan.” (Shelepin to Khrushchev, July 29, 1961, in St.-191/75gc, Aug. 1, 1961, TsKhSD, fond 4, opis 13, delo 81, ll. 131-32 [see Zubok, 21])

When a Kurdish rebellion indeed broke out in Iraqi Kurdistan in September 1961, the KGB quickly responded with additional proposals to exploit the situation. KGB Deputy Chairman Peter Ivashutin proposed – “In accord with the decision of the CC CPSU … of 1 August 1961 on the implementation of measures favoring the distraction of the attention and forces of the USA and her allies from West Berlin, and in view of the armed uprisings of the Kurdish tribes that have begun in the North of Iraq” – to:

  1. use the KGB to organize pro-Kurdish and anti-Kassim protests in India, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Guinea, and other countries;
  2. have the KGB meet with Barzani to urge him to “seize the leadership of the Kurdish movement in his hands and to lead it along the democratic road,” and to advise him to “keep a low profile in the course of this activity so that the West did not have a pretext to blame the USSR in meddling into the internal affairs of Iraq”; and
  3. assign the KGB to recruit and train a “special armed detachment (500-700 men)” drawn from Kurds living in the USSR in the event that Moscow might need to send Barzani “various military experts (Artillerymen, radio operators, demolition squads, etc.)” to support the Kurdish uprising. ( P. Ivashutin to CC CPSU, Sept. 27, 1961, St.-199/10c, Oct. 3, 1961, TsKhSD, fond 4, opis 13, delo 85, ll. 1-4 [see Zubok, 21])

What Ivashutin did not know was that the West already had information on Barzani’s special ties with the Soviet Union. U.S. officials had noted with concern the possibility "that Barzani might be useful to Moscow." In an October 1958 cable to the State Department, three months after a military coup brought Kassim to power, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Waldemar J. Gallman, stated that “Communists also have potential for attack [on Iraqi Prime Minister Kassim] on another point through returned Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani. He spent last eleven years in exile in Soviet Union. His appeal to majority of Iraqi Kurds is strong and his ability [to] disrupt stability almost endless. Thus we believe that today greatest potential threat to stability and even existence of Qassim’s [Kassim’s] regime lies in hands of Communists.” (Gallman to Department of State, Oct. 14, 1958, in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Vol. XII, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993, pp. 344-46 [see Zubok, 21])

Thus did the Kurdish conflict become an instrument in the hands of Moscow to exercise pressure on successive Iraqi regimes. According to the Mitrokhin archive, the KGB sent Yevgeny Primakov, code-named "MAKS," to Iraq in the 1960s under the cover of a journalist. Primakov was to later play a leading role in Kurdish affairs, especially in the conclusion of the autonomy agreement between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Iraqi regime in March 1970. The Ba’athists had to accept the Soviet conditions in return for the mediation, since the Iraqi army was completely exhausted from fighting with the Kurds. The Iraqi regime had to ease pressure on the Iraqi Communist Party and establish close ties with the Soviet Union.

After the March agreement, the Iraqi regime gained strength with Soviet support and began to obstruct the implementation of the March agreement. And the Soviet Union, having successfully used the Kurdish card to influence Iraqi foreign policy, turned its back on the Kurds. Barzani in turn moved closer to the CIA, Mossad, and Savak. The Iraqi-Soviet honeymoon lasted until the collapse of the Kurdish uprising after it was betrayed by its Western allies and Iran in 1975. After this date, the Iraqi regime resumed its oppressive policies toward the Iraqi Communist Party and began to draw closer to the West. The Soviet Union resumed its use of the Kurdish card.

Since that time, history has repeated itself several times, and the Barzani family has often changed allegiances among the KGB, the CIA, and the Mossad. The drama continues.