As the Kurdistan Front prepared to liberate Kurdistan, it dedicated one of the four Peshmerga forces to the Badinan region and its largest city, Duhok. However, snow in the mountains still blocked the most direct route to Duhok, and the force moved more slowly than anticipated.
The Badinan uprising began in Akre. Already on March 11, crowds of unarmed Arab soldiers, fleeing the uprising in Erbil, arrived in Akre, headed to their homes.
Bjil, in the southeast of Akre district, was the first town to rise, inspired and emboldened by the sparks of freedom emanating from Erbil. Kurdish patriots met and sent letters to the mustashars, advising them to cut ties with Saddam Hussein’s regime and support the uprising.
Early the next morning, on March 12, the people of Bujal, en masse, raided the headquarters of the foundations of the hated regime: the Baath party, the mukhabarat, and the army base. Most of the regime’s forces had already fled. Some of the Mustashar joined the people, others stayed home, but none dared to fight the people. As the Peshmerga arrived, a huge rally celebrating the joyous victory welcomed them.
The Kurdistan Front had sleeper cells established in the city of Duhok. On March 13, they met in secret to nail down the final details for the uprising. They included their plans for attacking the key institutions of the regime and how to maintain order after it was overthrown.
The functionaries of Saddam’s regime expected a movement against them. They had already sent a large military group to the region. They also increased checkpoints in the city and arrested young men whom they suspected would be involved in the uprising.
But their measures were useless. The cells of the Kurdistan Front continued working, according to their plan. They distributed weapons to those who wanted to join the revolt, but who had none. Early the next morning, before dawn, on March 14, the uprising in Duhok began.
Nizarke Castle, used by Saddam’s army as a military fortress, was the first target, followed by the central police station and the Baath Party building, as well as the Amn headquarters. The most serious fighting occurred at the Amn headquarters. Most of the people of Duhok joined in. Those who did not fight encouraged the fighters with enthusiastic poems and slogans that they read over loudspeakers. By 10:30 that morning, Duhok was under the people’s control.
Kirkuk was the last city to be liberated by the Peshmerga, and it was unlike any other city, as one commander explained. There was no general uprising. Kirkuk had a mixed population of Kurds, Turkomen, and Arabs. Saddam’s regime had deported Kurds and replaced them with Arabs to change the city’s demographic makeup.
Because of Kirkuk’s importance and the difficulties it presented, the leadership of the Kurdistan Front decided to use three of the Peshmerga forces—Erbil, Sulaimani, and Kirkuk—to free the city.
But unexpected problems soon arose. The Mujahideen al-Khalq, the Iranian opposition group aligned with Saddam’s regime, blocked the passage of the Sulaimani force. The commander of the Sulaimani force explained that the Iraqi army was defeated and demoralized. But the Mujahideen had not fought. Their morale remained high, and they had good armaments, including tanks. Their willingness to fight helped the Iraqi army in that area to retain its cohesion. This commander tried to reach an understanding with the Mujahideen, asking them not to resist the Peshmerga. “This will be a favor that we won’t forget,” he told them. “and we will owe you.” But it was to no avail. The Sulaimani force was unable to join the battle for Kirkuk.
Kurdish forces began moving into Kirkuk on the night of March 20, taking the oil company and a quarter of the city’s main installations. Ali Hassan al-Majid, “Chemical Ali,” was the Iraqi commander. While Kurdish forces moved to take over the rest of the city, Majid fled on a helicopter. As the head of the Erbil force observed, “Majid was not a military commander, but a killer. Everything was done by terror.” The Kurds captured many documents in his office. The Kurdish commander explained, “They had good information that we were planning to attack. He had tanks and helicopters, and he could have fought. But he didn’t fight even one day.” Rather, he fled, leaving his own people behind, even before the Peshmerga had taken the city.
A top leader from the Kurdistan Front came to Kirkuk, and this commander enjoyed the experience of drinking coffee with him in Majid’s office and then dining at the headquarters of the North Oil Company.
However, Peshmerga control over Kirkuk was never that firm. Khalid Military Camp, a large Iraqi base, lay on the outskirts of the city. But the Peshmerga could not capture all of it. In their first attempt, the jash joined them, and the Peshmerga captured part of the base. But when the Peshmerga sought to resume their attack, the jash would no longer join them.
In any event, much bigger forces had been set in motion that would soon overwhelm the Peshmerga in Kirkuk and elsewhere. The uprisings that followed the Gulf War ceasefire surprised the US leadership. There was some debate in Washington about supporting them, as Saddam proceeded to brutally suppress the revolts. However, nothing significant was done, and the debate was brought to a decisive end on March 26. On that day, the White House publicly signaled to Saddam that the US would not interfere with his brutal crushing of the uprisings before President George H. W. Bush left Washington for a fishing vacation in Florida.
It is to those events that we will turn next.
Laurie Ann Mylroie, Ph.D., taught at Harvard University and the US Naval War College. Most recently, she served as a cultural advisor to the US military in Afghanistan.
Editing by Delovan Barwari
(Shamal Akrey contributed to this report)
(A previous version of this report did not specify the name of the photographer. This has since been corrected on Dec. 06, 2018.)