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Kurdish Rebellion of 1983
Part of the Iraqi-Kurdish conflict and the Iran-Iraq War
IraqiKurdistan DeFactoMap.png
Kurdish controlled area of Iraq
DateSeptember, 1983-1985/6
LocationIraqi Kurdistan


  • Kurdish KDP and PUK hold major enclaves in North Iraq
  • Beginning of Al-Anfal campaign (1986-9) against the Kurds

Former Flag of KDP.png Kurdistan Democratic Party
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan

Iraq Iraq
Commanders and leaders

Former Flag of KDP.png Massoud Barzani

Jalal Talabani

Iraq Saddam Hussein

Iraq Ali Hassan al-Majid
Casualties and losses
At least 110,000 killed (mostly civilians). 1 million refugees

The Kurdish rebellion of 1983 occurred during the Iran-Iraq war as Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan rebelled against Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to form their own country. With Iraqi occupation of the Iranian front, Kurdish Peshmerga combining the forces of KDP and PUK succeeded it retaining control of some enclaves with Iranian logistic and sometimes military support. The rebellion resulted in stalemate by 1985.

The most violent phase of conflict between the Kurds and Iraqi Ba'athist regime was the following al-Anfal campaign of the Iraqi Army against the Kurdish minority, which took place between 1986–1988 and included the Halabja poison gas attack. The Al-Anfal campaign ended in 1988 with an agreement of amnesty between the two belligerents, Iraqi government and Kurdish rebels. In the aftermath, no gains had been made by the Kurds and their losses can be measured in the immensity of human deaths.


The Kurdish People

The Kurdish region of Iraq is located in northern Iraq along the Syria, Turkey, Iran border. It is mostly broad plains and desert. This is the most fertile area of the region, where most Kurdish towns and cities are located. Towards the north, along the Iranian border, is the periphery of the Iranian Zagros Mountains. The Kurds has lived in this region for thousands of years, but have never been able to form an independent state. Instead many different empires and rulers have controlled this region.

The Kurds identify themselves as Kurdish through the language they speak, their customs, religion (mainly Sunni Muslim, but also Shia, Alevi and Yazidi), tolerance of other religions, and their tribe affiliation. Tribes are determined through kinship and territorial location.[1] For Kurds, identification with the tribe is more important and significant than the official country the tribe is located in. Since the 1920s the Kurds have harbored grievances against the commanding government due to a lack of sovereignty or representation in state institutions.

Kurdistan Democratic Party

The Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, is the longest standing and preeminent political party of the Kurdish people. It was created in 1946 under Mulla Mustafa Barzani with initial goals based on Kurdish nationalist aspirations and the desire for self-government.[2] Overtime Barzani and his supporters evolved the mission of the KDP into a fight for “the full rights of the Kurds for self-determination...achieved through peaceful means in a democratic, pluralist, and federal Iraq.”[3] Barzani was the first person to assemble almost universal Kurdish nationalism among the people and from the mid-1930s through to his expulsion from Iraq in the 1970s he was synonymous with the Kurdish quest for independence.[4] Barzani led rebellions intermittently against the governments of Iraq (First and Second Kurdish Iraqi Wars), Iran, and Turkey, in hopes of gaining larger revolutionary forces each time.

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, was established in 1975 under Jalal Talabani. Talabani had worked as a Kurdish revolutionary in the KDP and grew his name and reputation by speaking out against Barzani. In 1975 Talabani and his followers split from the PUK and started a new, more liberal party. In essence the PUK is run on the same platform as the KDP, lobbying for “autonomy for Kurdistan, democracy for Iraq”.[2] The PUK defines itself a part from the KDP by drawing its supporters from central and southern Kurdistan. The PUK has come to represent a more urban, intellectual, and politically forward group of people, versus the traditional rhetoric of the KDP. Supporters of each party are able to distinguish themselves personally by tribal alliance, personal differences, and ideological disagreement.

The Iraqi Ba'athist Government

The KDP and PUK, although separate political parties, fought the same opponent, the government of Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussein. Since the beginning of the Ba’ath rule in Iraq there have been issues between the leaders of the Ba’ath and the Kurdish people. Intermittent negotiations occurred between the two groups to discuss party platforms and to try to come to a consensus on representation; however the Ba’ath were exceptionally distrustful of the Kurds and harbored suspicions against the KDP, especially of leader Barzani.[5] In contrast, a natural alliance was drawn between the Ba'ath and political party PUK. Both were leftist organizations that advocated a Kurd-Arab alliance.[6]

Window of Opportunity

A window of opportunity is defined by Stephen Van Evera as a time period where there are incentives for war and belligerency by a less powerful state or faction.[7] There are many different types of Windows, in this instance, the window was short-term that facilitated “now is better than later thinking.”.[8] In 1980 Iraq engaged in warfare with Iran over the shatt al-Arab and rather than a quick victory the war had degenerated into to a very long drawn out stalemate. The Kurds saw this as the prime opportunity to attack while the Iraqi government was preoccupied and weakened. The goal was to create a new bargaining platform and push Iraqi governmental forces out of Kurdistan.


War Tactics

A wide variety of war tactics were used in this conflict, everything from the most simple hit and run to advanced chemical warfare. This conflict is a good case to look at how asymmetrical capabilities influence battle.

Kurdish Tactics

To combat the Ba’ath the Kurd’s strategy involved the use of conventional guerrilla warfare and armed with light weapons either stolen from the Ba’ath troops or given to the by the Iranians.[9] The peshmerga worked with the locals to build up defenses and teach defensive tactics to the local militia in hopes of educating the mass public and protect them against future attack and seizure by the Ba'ath army. Furthermore the peshmerga supplied the villages with a local government and services (education, medicine, security).

The mountains in northern Kurdistan proved to be an excellent place to hide and camp out. The mountain region was also very difficult for the Iraqi army to traverse on foot and by air. The guerrilla style war tactics of the Kurds proved very beneficial when fighting in this region. In contrast to the helpful assistance of the northern region, the southern flatlands of Kurdistan worked against the Kurdish insurgency. The Iraqis were able to easily bomb the major cities of the southern region and the fertile valley. Kurdish guerrilla tactics of hit and run did not prove to be successful against the firepower of the Iraqis during aerial bombardment and shelling.

Iraqi Tactics

The Iraq army used full-scale military tactics in combating the Kurdish insurgency. In the heavily populated agricultural areas daily air raids destroyed towns, crops, and people. The army used its superior military power of more men, guns, and artillery to combat the insurgents. In order to inflict the greatest destruction, the Iraqi army divided Southern Kurdistan into a grid pattern, dividing the most densely populated cities and farming areas into sections. The grid facilitated a mechanized detonation of heavy artillery in predetermined areas by fighter planes and inflicted the greatest destruction possible.[9] The Kurds had no knowledge of the oncoming attack or ways to protect themselves from the shelling. This was very structured and assigned per Iraqi army goals. The shelling and bombing per grid was very successful in driving mass fear among the Kurds.


Al-Anfal Campaign

File:Chemical weapons Halabja Iraq March 1988.jpg

A street of Halabja after the attack (A photo by Iranian photographer Sayeed Janbozorgi)

Beyond using traditional warfare techniques the Ba’ath engaged in the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds during the al-Anfal campaign of 1987-1988. A total onslaught began against the Kurdish people that eventually killed tens of thousands of Kurds and displaced at least one million of the Kurdish population to Iran and Turkey.[10] Ali Hassan al-Majid, nicknamed “Chemical Ali,” led the three step process of “village collectivization": the destruction of hundreds of Kurdish villages and the relocation of their residents to concentration camps, mujamma’at.[9] This campaign was the first documented use of chemical weapons by a government against its own civilians. The process of village collectivization violated widespread human rights, it is an example of systematic genocide that went unchecked by the global community.

Al-Majid and his commanding officers warned if the pershmerga did not lay down their arms and allow the cleansing program to continue peacefully the army would stop the pershmerga with chemical weapons. Iraq had signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawing the production and use of chemical and biological weapons, however this did not stop al-Majid from giving the OK to the army to proceed with the deployment of shells carrying the deadly weapons. This was the first time a government used chemical weapons against its own civilian population.

The Iraqi government and leaders behind the campaign were not punished for their campaign of genocide or the violations against the Geneva Protocol of 1928.

Halabja Poison Gas Attack

The most famous attack of chemical warfare by the Iraqi army against the Kurds was the attack on the town of Halabja on March 16, 1988. Over 4,000 Kurds were killed in this one attack by the combination of mustard gas and hydrogen cyanide.[11] Between 7,000 and 10,000 civilians were injured and thousands more died of complications, diseases, etc. stemming from the release of chemical gas.[9] The town was attacked because Kurdish guerrillas had allied with Tehran and the city was now under Iranian control.[12] Conventional artillery, mortars, and rockets bombed Halabja for two days before the chemical attack; the use of chemical weapons was done for good measure to assure no survivors were possible. This attack is considered separate from the al-Anfal campaign and was one of the last attacks by the Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq War. This act has also been declared an act of genocide against the Kurdish people of Iraq.

End of hostilities

The rebellion by the PUK and KDP was officially declared over by the Iraqi government on September 6, 1988 when a decree of amnesty for all Iraqi Kurds was read aloud on the radio.[13] The announcement came as a surprise to the Kurdish population. The decree was declared most likely because Baghdad believed the peshmerga had finally been defeated.[13] The government pardoned the insurgents, but refused to let the Kurds return to their previous relatively free lives.

The Ba’ath instituted draconian measures on all surviving towns and cities in Kurdistan. The government feared a resurgence of the insurgent peshmerga group, draconian measures prevented a revival. Furthermore any man suspected having ties with the peshmerga insurgency were round up and relocated to camps in the southern deserts. The men taken to these deserts were tortured on a daily basis and murdered in mass quantities. It is believed these efforts to weed out any remaining insurgents lasted through 1989 with an additional 300,000 people relocated from various villages to “more modern villages with better facilities.” Secure zones, or cluster camps, were created along the Iranian border as well as outside the major Kurdish cities of Erbil, Mosul, and Suliemaniyeh.[14]

Post Iran-Iraq War

KDP and PUK controlled areas of Kurdistan

The decree of amnesty did not bring any gains for the Kurdish front nor did it redistribute Kurdish powers or representation in the Iraqi government. After al-Anfal and the post-rebellion oppression the Kurds did not engage in further resistance, instead the leaders tried more diplomatic means to engage the Ba'ath in coming to a consensus on Kurdi status. No progress was made in the diplomacy realm either. Inner factional issues between the KDP and PUK were continually on the rise and prevented any progress in Kurdish autonomy. These internal issues degenerated into civil war in the 1990s (see Iraqi Kurdish Civil War).

Recognition of Kurdish autonomy

With the overthrow of the Ba'ath government by the United States in 2003 the Kurds have increased diplomatic means to seek further gains towards legitimacy. The United States and Kurdish parties disagree over the ethnic alignment of the regional government, and this disagreement continues to stall any concrete gains from occurring. The United States believes a non-ethnically defined government is best for the region so that the collective majority can broker an identity and connect both politically and as a society. However the Kurds do not agree with this concept, as they prefer a regional government explicitly built on the Kurdish identity.[15] This is a step in the direction of autonomy and a method for the Kurdish population to showcase their abilities in governing themselves and generating a productive self-sufficient economy. Time will tell if these new negotiations and concepts will bear success for the Iraqi Kurdish plight. Massoud Barzani has been elected president of Iraqi Kurdistan and Jalal Talabani has been elected president of the new Iraqi democratic government.

Impact: Refugee and Death Statistics

  • Refugees: At least 1 Million people fled (almost 30% of the population) to Iran, Turkey and Pakistan
    • Since 1971, at least 370,000 have sought refugee in Iran, over 10% of the Iraqi Kurdistan population
  • Al-Anfal Campaign
    • 50,000 to 100,000 were killed, including women and children
    • 90% of targeted Kurdish villages were destroyed, this is approximately 4,000 villages
  • Halabja Poison Gas Attack
    • 3,000-5,000 Killed
    • 7,000 to over 10,000 injured
    • At least 50,000 Kurds escaped into Iran after this one attack

These numbers were collected by Human Rights Watch.[16]

Role of Iran

Iran covertly aided the Iraqi Kurds against the Iraqis with weapons, food supplies, and intelligence in exchange for intelligence on Iraq movements and assistance along the northern Iran-Iraq border.[17]

In addition, Iran was an ally of Masud Barzani’s and aided the KDP with arms and training of peshmerga forces and leaders. In exchange for arms and education the Iranians received intelligence on Iraqi military information and Kurdish assistance in fighting the Iraqi army. The Iranians had an invested interest in assisting the Kurds. The constant siege by the Kurds preoccupied the Ba'ath and prevented the army from devoting entire resources to conquering the Iranians.[17] The Iranians supported the Kurds just to the point where they were powerful enough to fight against the Iraqis, but not strong enough to overcome the Iraqi army. The Iranians were also careful in their support to the Iraqi Kurds because too much help might send the wrong message to Iranian Kurds, who also lobbied for increased legitimacy and representation in the Iranian government-this was not a topic the Iranians wanted brought to the forefront of domestic politics.

See also


  • Ghareeb, Edmond. The Kurdish Question in Iraq, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1981.
  • Gunter, Michael M. "The KDP-PUK Conflict in Northern Iraq." Middle East Journal 50.2 (1996)
  • Gunter, Michael M. The Kurds of Iraq: Tragedy and Hope. New York: St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1992.
  • McDowall, David. the Kurds: A Nation Denied. London: Minority Rights Group, 1992.
  • O’Ballance, Edgar. The Kurdish Struggle 1920-1994. New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc (1996).
  • Romano, David. Kurdish Naitonalist Movement Opportunity, Mobilization, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2006.


  1. Kreyenbroek, Philip G., and Stefan Sperl. The Kurds a Contemporary Overview. London: Routledge, 1992. Print. Pg. 12.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gunter, Michael M. "The KDP-PUK Conflict in Northern Iraq." Middle East Journal 50.2 (1996): 227. Print.
  3. "General Information About KDP." Kurdistan Democratic Party Official Website. Web. 06 Oct. 2010. <>.
  4. Kreyenbroek, Philip and Sperl, Stefan. Pg. 52.
  5. McDowall, David. The Kurds: A Nation Denied. London: Minority Rights Group, 1992, 113.
  6. McDowall, David, pg. 90.
  7. Van Evera, Stephen. "Power Shifts: Windows of Opportunity and Vulnerability." Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999. 73-104
  8. Van Evera, Stephen. "Power Shifts: Windows of Opportunity and Vulnerability." Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1999. 74
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Human Rights Watch. GENOCIDE IN IRAQ The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds A Middle East Watch Report. New York City: Human Rights Watch, 1993,
  10. "Whatever Happened To The Iraqi Kurds? (Human Rights Watch Report, March 11, 1991)." Human Rights Watch. Mar.-Apr. 1991. Web. 6 Oct. 2010. <>.
  11. Anonymous. "The Silence from Halabja." Commonwealth 115.9 (1988): 261. Print.
  12. "Whatever Happened To The Iraqi Kurds? (Human Rights Watch Report, March 11, 1991)." Whatever Happened to the Iraqi Kurds? Human Rights Watch, 11 Mar. 1991. Web. 08 Oct. 2010. <>.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Human Rights Watch. GENOCIDE IN IRAQ The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds A Middle East Watch Report. New York City: Human Rights Watch, 1993, 297
  14. O’Ballance, Edgar. The Kurdish Struggle 1920-1994. New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc (1996), 176
  15. O’Leary, Carole A. “The Kurds of Iraq: Recent History, Future Prospects.” Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal 6.4 (December 2002).
  16. Human Rights Watch. GENOCIDE IN IRAQ The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds A Middle East Watch Report. New York City: Human Rights Watch, 1993
  17. 17.0 17.1 Gunter, Michael M. "The KDP-PUK Conflict in Northern Iraq." Middle East Journal 50.2 (1996): 18. Print

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