Military Wiki
Iraqi Kurdish Civil War
Part of the Iraqi-Kurdish conflict and the Iraqi no-fly zones conflict
IraqiKurdistan DeFactoMap.png
Kurdish controlled area of Iraq since 1991
DateMay 1994-November 24, 1997
LocationIraqi Kurdistan
Result Washington Agreement, cease-fire; creation of two Kurdish regional governments, one in Sulaymaniyah and one in Erbil

Iraq Iraq

 Iran (until 1995)

23x15px INC
 Iran (from 1995)

23x15px SCIRI
Commanders and leaders

Massoud Barzani
Rowsch Shaways
Iraq Saddam Hussein
Turkey İsmail Hakkı Karadayı

Mustafa Hijri

Jalal Talabani
Nawshirwan Mustafa
Kosrat Rasul Ali
23x15px Ahmad Chalabi

Abdullah Öcalan

KDP: 25,000 active, 30,000 reserves[1]
Iraq Iraq: 30,000 (1996)[2]
 Turkey: 50,000 (1997)[3]

PDKI: 600 (1998)[4]

PUK: 12,000 active, 6,000 reserves[1]
23x15px INC: 1,000 (1995)[5]
PKK: 5,000-10,000 (1994)[6]
 Iran: 2,000 (1996)[7]

23x15px SCIRI: 5,000[8]
Casualties and losses
5,000 killed[9]

The Iraqi Kurdish Civil War (Kurdish: Birakujî(31 ab (٣١ ئاب)) = Fratricide(31 August) was a military conflict which took place between rival Kurdish factions in Iraqi Kurdistan in the mid-1990s, most notably the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan vs. the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Over the course of the conflict, Kurdish factions from Iran and Turkey, as well as Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish forces were drawn into the fighting, with additional involvement from the American forces. Between 3,000 to 5,000 fighters and civilians were killed throughout more than 3 years of warfare.


Autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan was originally established in 1970 as the Kurdish Autonomous Region following the agreement of an Autonomy Accord between the government of Iraq and leaders of the Iraqi Kurdish community. A Legislative Assembly was established in the city of Erbil with theoretical authority over the Kurdish-populated governorates of Erbil, Dahuk and As Sulaymaniyah. As various battles between separatist Kurds and Iraqi governments forces continued until the 1991 uprisings in Iraq, the safety of Kurdish refugees was reflected in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 which gave birth to a safe haven whereby U.S. and British air power protected a Kurdish zone inside Iraq.[10] (see Operation Provide Comfort). While the no-fly zone covered Dahuk and Erbil, it left out Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk. This led to a further series of bloody clashes between Iraqi forces and Kurdish troops. Soon, an uneasy and shaky balance of power was reached, and the Iraqi government withdrew its military and other personnel from the region in October 1991. From this point, Iraqi Kurdistan has achieved de facto independence to be ruled by the two principal Kurdish parties – the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan – free from the control of Baghdad. The region then adopted its own flag and national anthem.

The Kurds held parliamentary elections in 1992, which held sessions in Erbil. The seats in the parliament were split evenly between Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party.[11]

Since the Iraqi government had withdrawn its forces from Kurdistan in October 1991, Baghdad had imposed an economic blockade over the region, reducing its oil and food supplies.[12] The Kurdish economy also suffered heavily because a United Nations embargo on Iraq was still in place, preventing trade between Kurdistan and other nations. As such, all trade between Iraqi Kurdistan and the outside world was done through the black market. The PUK and KDP jockeyed each other for control over smuggling routes.

Fighting begins (1994)

Fighting broke out between the two factions in May 1994. The clashes left around 300 people dead.[13] Over the next year, around 2,000 people were killed on both sides.[11] According to CIA agent Robert Baer, members of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provided limited support to the KDP and allowed the KDP to launch attacks from Iranian territory.

Attacking Saddam (1995)

In January 1995, CIA case officer Robert Baer traveled to northern Iraq with a five-man team to set up a CIA station. He made contact with the Kurdish leadership and managed to negotiate a truce between Barzani and Talabani.

Within days, Baer made contact with an Iraqi general who was plotting to assassinate Saddam Hussein. His plan was to use a unit of 100 renegade Iraqi troops to kill Saddam as he passed over a bridge near Tikrit. Baer cabled the plan to Washington but did not hear anything back. After three weeks, the plan was revised, calling for an attack by Kurdish forces in northern Iraq while rebel Iraqi troops leveled one of Saddam's houses with tank fire in order to kill the Iraqi leader. Baer again cabled the plan to Washington and received no response. In the meantime, on February 28 the Iraqi Army was placed on full alert. In response, the Iranian and Turkish armies were also placed on high alert. Baer received a message directly from National Security Advisor Tony Lake telling him his operation was compromised. This warning was passed on to the Kurdish and Iraqi allies. With this new information, Barzani backed out of the planned offensive, leaving Talabani's PUK forces to carry it out alone.

The Iraqi Army officers planning to kill Saddam with tank fire were compromised, arrested and executed before they could carry out the operation. The PUK's offensive was still launched as planned, and within days they managed to destroy three Iraqi Army divisions and capture 5,000 prisoners.[14] Despite Baer's pleas for American support of the offensive, none was offered, and the Kurdish forces were forced to withdraw. Baer was immediately recalled from Iraq and briefly investigated for the attempted murder of Saddam Hussein. He would later be cleared.[14]

Renewed fighting (1996)

Although the Kurdish parliament ceased to meet in May 1996, the fragile cease-fire between the PUK and KDP held until the summer of 1996. Talabani concluded an alliance with Iran, and helped Iran conduct a military incursion into northern Iraq on July 28 aimed at the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran.[11][15]

Faced with the prospect of fighting both Iran and the PUK, Massoud Barzani asked for assistance from Saddam Hussein. Seeing an opportunity to retake northern Iraq, Saddam accepted. On August 31, 30,000 Iraqi troops, spearheaded by an armored division of the Republican Guard attacked the PUK-held city of Erbil, which was defended by 3,000 PUK Peshmerga led by Korsat Rasul Ali, in conjunction with KDP forces. Erbil was captured, and Iraqi troops executed 700 captured soldiers of the PUK and the Iraqi National Congress dissident group in a field outside Erbil.

This attack stoked American fears that Saddam "intended to launch a genocidal campaign against the Kurds" similar to the campaigns of 1988 and 1991. This move also placed Saddam in clear violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 forbidding repression of Iraq's ethnic minorities. In response, Operation Desert Strike begins on September 3, when American ships and USAF B-52 Stratofortress bombers launched 27 cruise missiles at Iraqi air defense sites in southern Iraq. The next day, 17 more cruise missiles were launched from American ships against Iraqi air defense sites. The United States also deployed strike aircraft and an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf region, and the extent of the southern no-fly zone was moved northwards to the 33rd parallel.[16]

After installing the KDP in control of Erbil, Iraqi troops withdrew from the Kurdish region back to their initial positions. The KDP drove the PUK from its other strongholds, and with additional Iraqi help captured Sulaymaniyah, on September 9. Jalal Talabani and the PUK retreated to the Iranian border, and American forces evacuated 700 Iraqi National Congress personnel and 6,000 pro-Western Kurds out of northern Iraq.[11][13] On October 13, Sulaymaniyah is recaptured by the PUK, allegedly with support of Iranian forces.[17]

Turkey enters the war (1997)

Fighting continued throughout the winter between the KDP and PUK. Complicating matters, the anti-Turkish Kurdistan Worker's Party or PKK was present in Iraq. On friendly terms with the PUK, the PKK began attacking ethnic Assyrians and civilians who supported the KDP.[18] In response, Turkish forces launched Operation Hammer in May, in an attempt to root out the PKK from northern Iraq. This operation caused heavy PKK casualties, however the PKK continued to operate in northern Iraq.

On September 25, Turkish forces re-entered northern Iraq. This time they were allied with the KDP and attacked PUK and PKK positions in an attempt to force a cease-fire between the factions. The operation once again resulted in heavy PKK casualties, and a cease-fire was negotiated between the PUK and KDP.[18]

Despite the cease-fire, renewed fighting broke out along the armistice line between the KDP and PUK in October and November. In this round of fighting, 1,200 combatants were killed on both sides and 10,000 civilians fled their homes.[18] On November 24, 1997, the KDP declared a unilateral cease-fire. The PUK, although not declaring a cease-fire officially, said their group would respect the truce, despite alleging that the KDP had violated the truce by attacking PUK positions on November 25.[17]


Division of Kurdistan after the civil war

In September 1998, Barzani and Talabani signed the U.S.-mediated Washington Agreement establishing a formal peace treaty. In the agreement, the parties agreed to share revenue, share power, deny the use of northern Iraq to the PKK, and not allow Iraqi troops into the Kurdish regions. The United States pledged to use military force to protect the Kurds from possible aggression by Saddam Hussein. At the same time, implementation of the U.N. Oil-for-Food Programme brought revenue to northern Iraq, allowing for increased standards of living.[19] Iraqi Kurdistan became a relatively peaceful region, before the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam entered the area in December 2001, bringing renewed conflict.

Around a month later, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act into law, providing for military assistance to Iraqi opposition groups, including the PUK and KDP.

The KDP estimated that 58,000 of its supporters had been expelled from PUK-controlled regions from October 1996 to October 1997. The PUK says 49,000 of its supporters were expelled from KDP-controlled regions from August 1996 to December 1997.[13]

The PUK and KDP later co-operated with American forces during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, routing Iraqi forces with the help of American air power and overrunning much of northern Iraq including the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.

After the invasion, Massoud Barzani was later elected president of Iraqi Kurdistan while Jalal Talabani was elected President of Iraq.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Willing to face Death: A History of Kurdish Military Forces - the Peshmerga - from the Ottoman Empire to Present-Day Iraq (page 63), Michael G. Lortz
  2. "Persian Gulf War and Aftermath - History - Iraq - Middle East: embargo iraq, crisis iraq, power united, exchange rate, end year". January 15, 1991. Retrieved January 28, 2013. 
  3. Europa World Year Book 2004 (page 4227)
  4. Iraqi Insurgent Groups
  5. Events Leading Up to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq
  6. Kurdistan - Turke
  7. Unsafe Haven: Iranian Kurdish Refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan (page 1)
  8. "Turkey and Iran Face off in Kurdistan :: Middle East Quarterly". Retrieved January 28, 2013. 
  9. Feb 20, 2010 (February 20, 2010). "Asia Times Online :: Middle East News, Iraq, Iran current affairs". Retrieved January 28, 2013. 
  10. L. Fawcett, Down but not out? The Kurds in International Politics, Reviews of International Studies, Vol.27, 2001 p.117
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Politi, Daniel. "The Kurds - Slate Magazine". Retrieved January 28, 2013. 
  12. M. Leezenberg, Iraqi Kurdistan: contours of a post-civil war society, Third World Quarterly, Vol.26, No.4-5, June 2005, p.636
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 John Pike. "Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)". Retrieved January 28, 2013. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Robert Baer speech at World Media Association[dead link]
  15. John Pike. "Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI)". Retrieved January 28, 2013. 
  16. John Pike. "Operation Desert Strike". Retrieved January 28, 2013. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Chronology for Kurds in Iraq
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 John Pike. "Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)". Retrieved January 28, 2013. 
  19. "Kurdish Agreement Signals New U.S. Commitment - The Washington Institute for Near East Policy". September 29, 1998. Retrieved January 28, 2013. 


  • Baer, Robert (2003). See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism. Three Rivers Press. ISBN 140004684X. 
  • Pollack, Kenneth (2002). The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Random House. ISBN 0375509283. 

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