OUTSIDE ERBIL, Iraq — After three years of fighting on the front lines of the war on ISIS, the Kurds of Iraq want to claim the land they’ve been defending as their own.
They say they have seen 1,800 soldiers killed and 10,000 more wounded in the US-led campaign, and also worked as a key intelligence partner, feeding information to their US allies and helping them take out ISIS leadership with drones and airstrikes. Now Kurdish leaders are demanding payback, in the form of US support for their bid for independence, which will come to a head in a contentious referendum on Monday.
Stretched across a mountainous region that spans Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Iraq, the Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a state. The Kurds in Iraq, who say they number 5.5 million people, have sought to break free from Baghdad for decades. With the war on ISIS winding down, they believe their chance is now — and have billed the referendum, held in Kurdish territory against Baghdad’s will, as the first step. But the Trump administration has balked at the idea, leaving them to forge ahead alone. They face resistance from a host of powerful opponents — Iran and Turkey, both wary of their own restive Kurdish populations, along with the Iraqi government and the Shiite militia who back it — and warnings of potential violence.
The man driving the independence push is Masrour Barzani, 48, an heir to the political dynasty that controls Iraqi Kurdistan and one of the Middle East’s most powerful spy chiefs. Barzani was central to the Kurdish war effort — and has now adopted the same pugnacious style he uses to hunt down terrorists as he hammers home the independence cause in Washington, DC. Accustomed to operating in the shadows, Barzani has never before agreed to be profiled in the media, but he sat down with BuzzFeed News for three long interviews over the course of three months, making his case for independence and opening a window into the secretive realm in which he operates. “Let me tell you something,” he said. “I think that we have done for the world many times more than what the world has done for us. We expect that this should be recognized.”
Barzani lives and works in a fortified compound in the mountains 20 miles northeast of the regional capital of Erbil — he and his comrades face the constant threat of terror attacks or assassination, exacerbated by the regular presence of Western intelligence agencies. The compound can only be accessed by military roads, where guards in crisp uniforms carry gleaming assault rifles. Before meeting Barzani, visitors must stop at a small outpost and hand over their electronics — laptops, cameras, phones — to be screened for surveillance equipment and hidden weapons. With rows of military buildings, a stately headquarters, and road signs posted in English, the compound is part of the modern and professional face that Iraq’s Kurds, a minority that punches above its weight in international politics, like to present to their Western allies. On a recent visit to the security outpost, though, the sign on the men’s room was misspelled as “Bentlemen.”
Barzani comes from a family of legendary guerrilla fighters who helped to carve out autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s, then came to dominate its politics, accumulating wealth and power along the way. His father, Masoud, is the Kurdish region’s president and the center of gravity for the independence push, but in the US, Barzani has become its most dogged advocate. He studied at American University in Washington, DC, and wages his battles in the back rooms of intelligence and diplomacy. He arrived for the first interview at his headquarters wearing a finely tailored suit, his black hair neatly swept back. Short and compact like a wrestler, he sat upright in a parlor chair, giving the impression of a coiled spring. “Yes, we are protecting ourselves, but if we were not here, ISIS wouldn’t stop in Kurdistan,” he said. “And I think we have proven to the world that we deserve to be treated as equal to every other nation.”
The Kurds have sought independence since Iraq’s borders were drawn after World War I, as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement. Although they have suffered massacres at the hands of successive Iraqi governments, today their disputes with Baghdad revolve around things like oil revenues and military supplies, as well as fears about Iran’s increasing influence over Iraqi politics. Kurdish voters are certain to say “yes” in Monday’s referendum, but the government in Baghdad is just as certain to reject this result. The Kurdish dream is to carve out an oil-rich state from Iraq that would cover several long-disputed territories, like the city of Kirkuk. “For a hundred years we’ve been subject to genocide and injustice. It’s enough,” Barzani said. “What would make [the West] convinced that we deserve a better life? Sacrifice? We’ve made the sacrifice. Loyalty? We’re loyal. Friendship? We’re the most trusted friends the West has. And what do we need in return? All we need is equality. We want to be the same as you are.”
Barzani is a poster child for the way the America has waged its war on ISIS, first under Barack Obama and now under Donald Trump. Unwilling to commit large numbers of its own ground troops, the US has instead relied on local forces. Barzani coordinated Kurdish militia fighters as they carried out US battle plans in concert with US airstrikes. He also sits at the center of the clandestine world in which Washington conducts its war on terror — one of gun-running, nighttime raids, and targeted assassinations. His network reaches into parts of Iraq where no American can tread, extending even across ISIS lines.
Barzani also embodies a fundamental problem with this US strategy. By relying so heavily on proxy forces to fight its wars — and backing competing sides, in Iraq as well as Syria — Washington has set them on a collision course with one another. Nowhere is this more evident than with Iraqi Kurds. America singled them out as a separate entity, going around Baghdad to send them cash and arms, while at the same time embedding US soldiers among their ranks. This special treatment helped to fuel the independence drive. At the same time, a heroic narrative has emerged around the Kurds, painting them as pro-Western warriors deserving of independence in return for their sacrifice. But the US also backed the Iraqi military. Iraqi soldiers shed even more blood than the Kurds did in the war on ISIS — all in the name of keeping the country united.
Focused on winning the territorial war, the US did little to address the contradiction in its policy. Eager to keep the Kurds on board, in fact, Washington hasn’t said a clear “no” on the eventual possibility of independence — instead it has kicked the can down the road by urging the Kurds to delay their plans indefinitely. Now, with no road left, America has come down hard against the referendum — calling it “ill-timed and ill-advised,” in the words of the senior US diplomat Brett McGurk. As the Kurds press ahead, the unsettled question of independence threatens to set the stage for the next round of upheaval in the Middle East.
The US has a long history of using Iraqi Kurds against its enemies — from the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda and ISIS. The Kurds, too, have long tried to turn their alliance with America to their own ends. And they have been repeatedly burned.
Barzani is well aware of the risks that come with relying on US backing. His grandfather, Mustafa Barzani, was a veteran of great-power politics who, depending on the political winds, worked with the CIA, the KGB, Mossad, and Iranian intelligence. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon had agreed to aid a rebellion against Soviet-backed Iraq at the request of his ally, the Shah of Iran. But when Iran and Iraq reached a political agreement, the US pulled back its covert support, shattering the revolt and leaving the Kurds on their own to face a campaign of retaliatory crackdowns. A 6-year-old Barzani and his family were forced into exile in Iran in 1975, along with an estimated 200,000 Iraqi Kurds. An ailing Mustafa sought medical treatment in the US, where he died in 1979 while living a short drive from the CIA headquarters in Virginia.
In Iran, Kurdish soldiers loyal to the Barzanis regrouped under Masrour’s father, Masoud. The mountain fighters called themselves peshmerga, which means “those who face death.” After Saddam Hussein took power in 1979, he began an unprecedented campaign of terror against the Kurds. The massive Barzani clan was singled out for abuse — in one operation, Iraqi forces abducted and killed as many as 8,000 Barzani men and boys. According to Human Rights Watch, during the worst of the violence, from 1986 to 1989, between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds were killed in a campaign of genocide that employed airstrikes, mass executions, and chemical-weapon attacks.
In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, US diplomats and spies encouraged Iraqi Kurds to launch another uprising, promising to help them overthrow Hussein. But the US reneged, and the Kurds were massacred yet again, in retaliatory airstrikes. Global outrage eventually led the US and several allies to establish a no-fly zone over the Kurdish region, which allowed the Kurdish revolt to persist. By the end of the year, the Kurds had driven Iraqi forces from the region, laying the groundwork for a semi-autonomous zone in which they were given a free hand to run their own affairs.
During the uprising, Barzani crossed the Iranian border with his father. He brought a camcorder, filming the struggle and his family’s place in it. Yet he would follow a different path from previous generations of Barzanis. Masoud sent Masrour to London to spend a gap year improving his English and then on to American University in Washington, DC. When Masrour returned to Iraq, he joined the intelligence service, called the Parastin, that had been established by his father.
The Parastin was one of several intelligence services run by the Kurdish factions battling Hussein. The Kurds relied on their intelligence to help them stand up to the more powerful Iraqi regime. They had networks of agents across the country, and were even rumored to have secret courts in which they convicted regime officials in absentia for their atrocities, before sending operatives to carry out executions.
As the US prepared to go to war in Iraq, in February 2003, it faced a sudden emergency: Turkey had decided to close its borders to the US Army division that was supposed to be the invading force. The decision upended months of US planning and left officials scrambling. John Maguire, who was the CIA’s number two man in Iraq at the time, turned to the Kurds for help. “When the chips were down, the Kurds filled that gap,” he recalled in a recent phone call from his home in the US. Maguire now works for an international security firm with interests in the Middle East, including Iraqi Kurdistan.
To help make up for the sudden lack of US manpower in the north, Maguire and other US officials put together a motley force consisting of CIA paramilitaries, US special operations troops, and Kurdish soldiers, Maguire said. The teams departed from points around Iraqi Kurdistan in Toyota pickups and SUVs, passenger vans, and “all manner of civilian vehicles.” They traveled south through Hussein’s Sunni heartland, helping to tie up Iraqi forces in the north while the main US invasion force of Marines and infantry took Baghdad from the south. The Kurdish convoy then delivered the US troops and spies safely into the capital.
With Baghdad secured, Maguire wanted to pay his Kurdish allies back. One of Hussein’s massacres stood out for its brutality: In 1988 some 5,000 people were killed in a sarin gas attack in the Kurdish town of Halabja. Maguire asked the Kurds for a list of the regime officials who were involved, so the US could “snatch up as many as we can.” He wasn’t prepared for their answer. “The Kurds quietly and politely said, ‘We don’t really have any names for that,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘You have to. How can you not know who they are?’ And they said, ‘No, we know who they are, but they’re all dead.’”
This was an exaggeration: Culprits were still at large, including the regime official known as “Chemical Ali” who oversaw the attack in Halabja. But the Kurds had done what they could to exact their own justice. “They ID’d all the pilots, the people who loaded the [gas] canisters, and the regime people responsible for it,” Maguire said, “and then went around and killed them.” (Barzani said he had no knowledge of Kurdish intelligence assassinating regime officials.)
Intelligence cooperation between the Kurds and Americans cemented as the war spiraled into an insurgency and the US focus shifted from Hussein to al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS. Maguire said he saw Kurdish intelligence as a complement to their US counterparts: “They are an example of what the CIA is missing today with their over-reliance on tech tools. The Kurds do it the opposite way. They penetrate their enemy.”
Barzani gained a reputation among the Americans as an effective operator over the course of the long occupation. “I knew him from his expedient work making sure there weren’t al-Qaeda attacks in Kurdistan between the invasion and the departure of US forces,” said Elissa Slotkin, who served three tours as a US intelligence officer in Iraq during the war. “Masrour combines that personality of a modern politician who communicates well with the Americans with that older-school, Middle East leader that relies on snuffing out problems before they get bigger.”
It was the war against ISIS that would bring the US-Kurdish partnership to a new level — but it was born out of a massive failure of intelligence.
Neither the Americans nor the Kurds had grasped the severity of the ISIS threat until it was almost too late.
“We woke up to a war we were not ready for,” Barzani recalled.
Until ISIS stormed across the Syrian border in June 2014, the Obama administration had paid the group little mind — Obama had even referred to them as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team.” But after ISIS captured Mosul and then continued to expand its territory in Iraq, the Kurds found themselves sharing a border of more than 500 miles with the militants. Soon after, ISIS launched a predawn attack on the Kurdish-controlled town of Sinjar. The peshmerga were not prepared — and they fled. The rout continued as ISIS massacred the Yazidi religious minority around Sinjar and pushed deeper into Kurdish territory. Soon they were on Erbil’s outskirts, and now it was the Kurds calling on the US for help, fearing that they would be wiped out next.
US airstrikes came on August 8. Kurdish and US officials scrambled to arrange the new partnership, the peshmerga coordinating with US jets. It was a constant struggle to adapt to ISIS’s insurgent tactics; Barzani became animated when describing the makeshift ways the Kurds found to stop ISIS’s armored-car and truck bombs. “[His father] Masoud was the strategist. But Masrour was the implementer,” a senior US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Questions would come up at [the coalition’s joint command], and the Kurds would say, okay, we gotta call Masrour. Outside of Masoud the strategist, he was the most important figure in the war.”
There was no way Obama was going to commit US troops to a ground war, so the peshmerga stepped in. For that they needed weapons — and lots of them.
Slotkin, who by then was a senior defense official, recalled embarking on an unlikely campaign to find those weapons. “In those days, the peshmerga were doing incredible things. They were the only line of defense,” she said. “My team went on a worldwide hunt to find them weapons and ammo.”
Slotkin said she found “excess weapons and ammunition” from across eastern Europe to funnel to the Kurds, and that arms ultimately came from more than 20 countries. She added: “We found ways to fly planeload after planeload into Iraq. In those first few months, we got millions of tonnes of weapons into the hands of the forces fighting ISIS on the front lines.”
The massive influx of weapons helped the Kurds to claw back territory from ISIS but didn’t stop them from demanding more. Now it was Kurdish officials asking for help with intelligence. “They needed weapons, they needed intelligence, and they needed money,” said Slotkin, who is currently mounting a bid for Congress. “Masrour was the front man on making sure the pesh had what they needed — and he was effective [in helping to secure] what is probably an unprecedented amount of support to a sub-national group in the history of the United States.”
The war’s tide was turning by the spring of 2015, while behind the scenes, the US intensified its assassination campaign against ISIS leadership. Kurdish commandos also joined US special operations forces on raids behind ISIS lines, including an operation in the Iraqi town of Hawija in which a sergeant from the US Army’s Delta Force was killed. Barzani said that Kurdish intelligence has helped the US kill dozens of ISIS members, including several key leaders, such as its former spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani and military commander Abu Omar al-Shishani. “We have been asked to discover, dismantle, and destroy sleeper cells and terror attempts not only in other Arab countries, but in Europe, and also in the United States,” Barzani said. “If the enemy doesn’t recognize borders, why should we? If they don’t recognize nationalities and religions, why should we? When it comes to fighting terrorism, we are one, and we have to create a strong front.”
A spokesman for the US-led coalition in Baghdad declined to comment on these claims. “The Coalition and our partner forces rely on close coordination and effective information sharing to ensure that we achieve our goal: to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” said US Army Col. Thomas F. Veale. “We recognize the incredible risk some of our Coalition members undertake to gather this information, and it would be in bad faith for us to publicize that information.”
On the battlefields in Iraq, Kurdish soldiers have often described themselves as the world’s front line against ISIS — and many believe they are also laying the groundwork for independence. Though their war effort is now largely complete, they continue to man the trench lines, which roughly trace the boundaries of their ideal Kurdish state.
Independence is wildly popular in Kurdistan, and those who know Barzani believe he aims to use it to boost his stature in local politics, as he positions himself as its champion. But they don’t doubt his passion for the cause. “He is a real hardcore Kurdish nationalist,” the senior US official said.
Iraqi Kurdistan is often described as one of the best in a bad neighborhood when it comes to a pro-Western outlook and human rights. Yet it is still plagued by corruption, rights abuses, nepotism, and internecine rivalries. The Barzanis compete bitterly with the Talabani clan, who have their own power base in the city of Sulaymaniyah, as well as their own storied history in the struggle for independence. Each family controls its own political party and factions within the peshmerga; there is even a parallel security structure headed by a mirror image of Barzani, another Western-friendly intelligence chief in his forties, Lahur Talabani, who likewise works hand-in-hand with US special operations forces and intelligence. The two sides descended into civil war in the 1990s. Even now, they are locked in an uneasy political showdown, as Masoud Barzani has refused to abide by his constitutional term limit, and instead shut down parliament.
The Kurdish region suffers from endemic corruption, much of it tied to its multibillion-dollar oil industry. Watchdogs have long claimed that the Barzanis are among those lining their pockets. They have denied the charges.
The security service that Barzani controls has been accused of abuses, including intimidation of political rivals and crackdowns against journalists. “The darkest side of Masrour is that he has the greatest amount of influence on the security services, which have been accused of misdeeds against the opposition and against journalists,” the senior US official said. “I mean we’re not talking a huge number of cases. This is not Russia. But there are serious cases of journalists being killed.”
“And the same is true in [Talabani] land too,” the official added. “I think it’s more reflective of the lack of development of Kurdish political culture despite this face they present to us of a moderate, pluralistic, Western-oriented region. When in fact it’s very traditional — family power, political struggles, a shut-down parliament. Masrour is a product of his environment.”
In his mountain compound, Barzani was ready for these critiques. He said that all abuses had been fully investigated, and denied any role in targeting journalists. He admitted that the Kurds had a lot of work to do to mature into a modern democracy — and claimed it would be far easier as an independent state. “I don’t think that Kurdistan should be like the rest of the Middle East. I want Kurdistan to be better,” he said. “We want to present a better model.”
Barzani rejected criticism that his family’s power was overweening. “My family has been struggling for more than 100 years, and we have lost dozens of members that have been killed and executed by the enemies of Kurdistan. So why should our family be accused or blamed for this?” he said. “If I’m competent and capable, I shouldn’t be criticized for being part of a family. I think it’s a wrong way to look at it.”
“Even in the US,” he added, “in the last few generations, you have had a lot of family politics.”
When Jared Kushner was brought up as one example — Trump’s son-in-law had recently wrapped up a trip to the region — Barzani responded: “I didn’t say that.”
Asked if he had aspirations to be president one day — of an independent Kurdistan, perhaps — Barzani sounded every bit the politician. “I think it’s premature to say that,” he said. “I would never run away from any responsibilities. But you have to devote yourself to one goal. And that goal is independence for Kurdistan.”
Barzani is known as a skillful backroom operator and is well-connected in Washington. Those needing access to the Kurdish region, a hub for US interests in oil as well as war and politics, try to stay on his good side. “He’s a powerful guy. First of all say hi for me,” one senior analyst at a DC think tank said. “He is expanding in every direction in Washington and [at home],” another said. In one interview, a former CIA station chief sang Barzani’s praises over cigars and wine. In another, an ex-undersecretary of the US Army described him as a “patriot” and a close friend.
Influential allies have come out in support of the referendum, including the former US ambassador Peter Galbraith, who later held financial stakes in Iraqi Kurdistan, and has said he is now in Erbil as an unpaid advisor to the regional government. In a possible bid to win favor with the Trump administration, the Kurds have even employed Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman who is at the center of the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the US election. According to the New York Times, the relationship was initiated this summer, even as investigators intensified their scrutiny of Manafort, raiding his home. Barzani, meanwhile, has sought to use the influence he has built to press US officials, arguing for independence in meetings with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and with administration power-players like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and Kushner.
But the US has refused to budge — this week, the White House again put out a statement opposing the referendum. The Trump administration is dominated by Iraq War veterans who won’t easily forget the sacrifices US soldiers made in the name of building a strong and stable Iraq. James Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and McMaster all commanded ground troops during the conflict. “[Pushing the referendum] may make him more popular in Kurdistan, but I think there’s a serious vulnerability there,” Slotkin said. “If the Kurdish people support independence but the US ultimately doesn't back them, they have backed themselves into a corner.”
The Kurds bill the upcoming referendum as binding, but there’s no way they can force the Iraqi government to recognize the result. Barzani said it could be a starting point for negotiations on independence with Baghdad, but the Iraqi government is unlikely to agree. “This is really dangerous territory,” said David Pollock, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who knows the Barzanis and considers them friends. “This is not going to be smooth sailing. So where could the violence come from? It’s going to come from Iran. It’s already happening. Iran is already shelling across the border claiming it’s going after anti-government factions. And they could very well start doing more of that. And using the agents they have in the [Kurdish region] they could stir up terrorism, sabotage, assassinations. That’s one possibility. And it’s also possible there will be serious skirmishes in the disputed territories between the peshmerga and the Shiite militia or the Iraqi army. So this is a gamble.”
For Barzani, the independence push is a chance follow on the revolutionary path set by his father and grandfather — and is worth the risk. “No one denies that there are serious issues with Baghdad. We have to tackle these problems and find a solution. There are two ways to do that. You either use force, or you do it using peaceful means,” he said. “We don’t want any war. We are tired of dying. We are tired of running. We are tired of being destroyed. We are tired of living this life, and we want peace. But peace doesn’t mean surrender. Peace doesn’t mean subordination.” ●
Masrour Barzani was a member of the peshmerga and returned to Iraqi Kurdistan with his father in 1991. An earlier version of this article misstated that.