When the White House announced on March 26, 1991, that the US would not shoot down Iraqi helicopters, Saddam Hussein had largely subdued the south and was turning his forces north. That announcement let him know that he could proceed unhindered.
The Kurds heard that statement too. “I realized there would be problems. The time was short to organize our forces,” one commander recalled.
Five Republican Guard divisions were soon bearing down on Kirkuk and retook the city on March 29. They proceeded toward Erbil, which they quickly recaptured, before moving onto Sulaimani.
Rumors flew that Saddam was using chemical weapons. Seized with terror, the vast bulk of the Kurdish population headed for the Turkish and Iranian frontiers. Nowhere in Iraq seemed safe. Families with cars drove, clogging the roads. Those without vehicles walked. Untold numbers died: killed by Saddam’s forces, suffering other mishaps along the way, or stricken by disease in miserable conditions, particularly along the Turkish border.
The Kurdish leadership, however, resolved to stand and fight. Their heroic resistance kept a crucial part of Kurdistan under Kurdish control and laid the basis for the Kurdish revival that, rather remarkably, would follow the calamity.
Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani recently affirmed, “We are no longer a symbol of tragedy, but of resistance.” The seeds of that renaissance were laid many years ago.
In the summer of 1993, Barzani reflected on the dark and desperate days, just two years before, in late March and early April of 1991.
“It was very different from 1975 or 1988,” Barzani said. “Maybe, 100,000 people fled then, while three million remained. This time it was the opposite. Everyone who could left. We were in danger of losing our country.”
“I was very depressed,” Barzani continued. “I vowed that I would not leave Kurdistan. I will die here.”
On March 30, Jalal Talabani was returning to Kurdistan from an extended trip abroad. In Duhok, he welcomed Senate staffer, Peter Galbraith. Talabani asked Galbraith’s advice on how to respond to a proposal for negotiations that Saddam had extended in mid-March. Talabani told Galbraith, “If we have hope for outside help, we will never negotiate. If there is no hope, we cannot refuse to negotiate.”
With Iraqi artillery fire intensifying, they soon left Duhok, Talabani headed for Sulaimani, Galbraith returning to Syria, from where he provided the first eyewitness accounts of the brutality of the Iraqi assault and the vast scale of the Kurdish exodus.
With Iraqi forces advancing quickly, the Kurdish leadership agreed that Barzani would oversee the defense of the Erbil area and Talabani of the Sulaimani area.
It was impossible to hold the flat land where the cities lay, but the mountains behind them again proved the Kurds’ enduring friends.
Barzani recalled the hard-fought battles that followed. “I was in Rawanduz, and I had only my bodyguards” (many Peshmerga fled, particularly newer recruits.) “There was a veteran commander, Hali, with fifteen Peshmerga. I asked him to go to the front.”
“In Korre, he found everyone fleeing. Suddenly, he found himself face to face with Iraqi tanks. Instead of running, he decided to confront them. By a stroke of luck, the first RPG he fired destroyed a tank.” That blocked the road, and other Peshmerga soon joined him. “They held off the Iraqis, until we could send more forces.”
“I have never in my life suffered so much,” Barzani said. “We were exhausted. Everything was collapsing around us. Deep down, I knew that Iraqi morale was low too, and if we could make this one stand, that would be it.”
The Peshmerga were short on all supplies, even bread. “In those days, I moved frequently between Shaqlawa, Harir, and Qandil to raise morale and oversee the entire front,” Barzani said. “But I knew this battle would be decisive.”
Masrour Barzani, Barzani’s eldest son, who now heads the Kurdistan Region Security Council, was then a young Peshmerga and fought alongside his father at Korre. He recalls his father’s iron resolve, “We will never surrender, no matter what the consequences.”
“This determination was the reason for our success,” Masrour Barzani says now. “While everyone had lost hope,” he “decided to resist and not leave the country, knowing that we had very few people left with us.” It was this “hope and belief” that allowed us to emerge triumphant.
Further south, a similar scene played out. After an initial attempt to hold Sulaimani, Talabani’s commanders made their defense behind the city, at Azmar. As T-72 tanks of the Republican Guards approached, the Peshmerga succeeded in disabling two of them. The stricken tanks blocked the road and halted the Iraqi advance, a Kurdish commander there explained.
As the front stabilized, the original defenders were soon joined by others.
The Kurdish resistance proved crucial. It protected the fleeing civilians behind them from Saddam’s brutal reprisal. And after a second Iraqi assault on Korre failed, negotiations began.
Talabani had returned with a grim assessment: the West, specifically the US, would not support them. In Washington, he had been unable to meet with any US official. So the Kurdish leadership did, as Talabani had said they would: talk with Saddam.
But the US position was becoming increasingly untenable. Although Turkish President Turgut Ozal had sympathy for Iraq’s Kurds, he was unwilling to allow them into Turkey. Over half a million refugees were stuck on the mountainous border, in the cold, the rain, and the mud.
They had no shelter, and they had no food. Turkey allowed Western journalists into the area, and the images were transmitted worldwide. CBS television correspondent Alan Pizzey broadcast from the Turkish border for 21 successive days.
“Images of Kurdish men burying the small, wrapped corpses of their children were contrasted with the president on vacation fishing in Florida,” Galbraith wrote. “It became too much.”
The untenable US position began to shift. The next piece in this K24 anniversary series will describe Washington’s evolving stance.
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