Kurdish Intelligence Chief Says Deadly Raid Freed Baathists

New divisions are breaking out among the Peshmerga.


Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Last month's raid on an Islamic State prison in Hawija, Iraq, conducted by a U.S. Delta Force Team and Kurdish special forces resulted not only in the death of the first American in the country since 2011 and the beheading of four Kurds by the jihadists. According to a Kurdish intelligence chief, it also ended up freeing scores of the former tormentors of his people: Iraqis still loyal to the Baathist ideology of Saddam Hussein. And it has exacerbated new political divisions among the Kurds, who have been the U.S.'s best allies in the fight against the Islamic State. 

Initially the raid was said to have freed 69 Kurdish prisoners. But within 24 hours the Kurdistan Regional Government officially said no Kurds were freed. At the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Tuesday, Lahur Talabani, the head of the Kurdish Zanyari intelligence service, said the raid instead ended up freeing Arab members of the Naqshbandi Army, a Baathist group formed of former high-ranking intelligence and military officers loyal to Saddam Hussein.

While the U.S. allied with some former Baathists during the counter-insurgency in 2007 and 2008 known as the surge, the strategy of teaming up with former members of the regime never sat well with many Kurds. What's more, the Islamic State has counted on collaboration from many Baathists as well, who are largely fellow Sunni Muslims. While the freed Baathist prisoners could provide intelligence for the U.S.-led coalition, the high-risk operation may well have ended up freeing prisoners whose compatriots have backed the Islamic State.

Talabani said the Hawija raid was run entirely without his knowledge by a rival security service known as the Directorate of Counter-Terrorism, under the auspices of a son of Massoud Barzani, the current president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. "They are trying to create another counterterrorism organization now with the help of the Americans, there are 40 so far who have been trained," he said of the new Kurdish unit. "They do one operation which leads to the death of one American. And as a result of that four Peshmerga get beheaded in the same place. The people they released were former Baathists and people from the Naqshbandi Army."

Talabani said that following the raid, Barzani "immediately calls in the CTD and says you are the greatest counterterrorism force." This angered the intelligence chief: "He's taking sides. It's why he has not been a successful president."

The fact that Barzani conducted the raid without Talabani knowing about it is particularly significant because Talabani's agency has so effectively supported the Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State in Syria. Talabani also said that his fighters recently have not gotten the same amount of U.S. air power aid against targets in the part of the Kurdistan region of Iraq that he and his political party control. "In Kirkuk we don't get as many air strikes or the same amount of air support," he said. "It's a big problem and I have told my U.S. partners this should be fixed because this is one fight."

Talabani said one of the main problems was that the Kurdistan Regional Government has failed to fully coordinate the militias and security services in the region. Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party fought a civil war in the mid-1990s against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani, Lahur's uncle. To this day, the peshmerga militias are loyal to these two parties as opposed to the regional government.

"I feel like I have lied to my people," Talabani said. "I told my people we have one budget and one name, but we don't work together. I work with 30 other countries and I am not going to lie anymore. I could be the one to blame, I am not saying he is fully to blame, but this should be fixed."

The current tension between the security services reflects a political stalemate for the Kurdistan Regional Government. Barzani's presidential term expired in August. Earlier in the summer, his opponents in the Kurdish parliament began meeting to discuss the succession. Barzani responded last month by firing ministers from a rival reform party, including the minister in charge of unifying the Kurdish militias.

"The political crisis today underscores the fact that the Kurds in Iraq never really united," said Aliza Marcus, an expert on Kurdish nationalism and the author of "Blood and Belief." She added, "On the surface, they agreed to power-sharing. But the two main political parties still have their own militias and their own areas of control." 

This growing schism is especially harmful now that President Barack Obama has signaled he is willing to partner more closely with the Kurds of Iraq and Syria -- on Friday the White House announced it was sending 50 special operations troops into Syria to aid them. Many politicians in Washington these days say that the Kurds are the best friends America has in the Middle East, a sentiment echoed Tuesday by Talabani as well. Now it's up to the rival Kurdish factions to be better friends to each other.    

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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