US concerns and British role during the Barzan revolt, 1943-45

Karwan Guli

By Karwan Guli:


The Iraqi government wished to keep the Americans informed of Iraqi intentions and of the measures the Iraqi government would adopt against the Barzan uprising. Accordingly, the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was also the Acting Minister of Defense, told the American Minister in Baghdad that the Iraqi government planned to launch a far-reaching campaign. The British Ambassador himself was convinced that Mullah Mustafa’s position was crystallizing and that peaceful measures would not be fruitful.

Yet the Ambassador stated that the head of the British Military Mission in Iraq and others estimated that the Iraqi army was in no condition to pursue military action against Mullah Mustafa. The best option, the Ambassador argued, was to evacuate areas which could not be protected and to isolate the area economically. Furthermore, and in accordance with the suggestions of certain British officers, the Iraqi government should at once begin intensive work to reorganize and train the army, to include the formation of a mountain division.

The question of British aircraft assistance to the Iraqi army figured in every action that was to be undertaken against the men of Mullah Mustafa. The Ambassador made it clear to the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs that no such assistance could be expected, since the British had quite enough on their hands and had neither the men nor the equipment to spare for undertakings in Kurdistan.

From the autumn of 1944 and up to the collapse of the uprising in late 1945, the international dimension of the Barzan uprising became ever more significant. Potential Soviet involvement in the uprising fuelled American concerns. It seems that the Barzan uprising caused the great powers to become concerned about the Kurds’ deteriorating situation.

To my thinking the period 1943–1945 offers an interesting field of study, revealing a strong interactive relationship between a number of factors, with an emphasis on the international dimension. The Kurdish question has drawn increasing attention from the academic community since the close of the Second World War. This extract is part of a larger study seeking to place the history of the Kurds, particularly those of Iraq, into the greater patterns of contemporary Middle East history, as well as to link the Kurds to other major developments in that period. The study considers US concerns over the Barzan revolt 1943-1945, how the British were handling it and possible Soviet involvement.(1)


The deterioration of affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan, mainly in the Barzan area, was a source of concern to the Americans. The Department of State ordered Loy W. Henderson, the American Minister in Baghdad, to gather precise information on the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan and the attitude of the British and the Iraqi governments towards the issue.

On August 14, 1944 Henderson met with the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Arshad al-‘Umari, who made a number of points relating to the Kurdish question. Al-‘Umari emphasized that the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan should be viewed as an international, rather than an exclusively internal Iraqi, issue. He furthermore claimed that the establishment of an independent Kurdistan would affect the territorial integrity of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Such a development might, al-‘Umari concluded, also be of varying degrees of interest to the Great Powers, namely Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the US.


The state of affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan continued to worsen during 1945. Members of the Iraqi government felt that their patience was wearing thin, and the British in Baghdad was partial to the Iraqi government’s point of view. Yet both the British representatives and the Iraqi government believed that they might still persuade Mullah  Mustafa to dissolve his commando and lay down his arms. The attitude prevailing among both Iraqi ministers and the British representatives in Iraq was that, if Mullah Mustafa’s forces were not stood down, no peace could be expected in the north.

Soon the British were ready to co-operate with the Iraqi government in terminating the Barzan uprising. The British sent a warning via the British Ambassador in Baghdad to Mullah  Mustafa, asserting “that this is the last warning he [Mullah  Mustafa] may expect from his Majesty’s Embassy and that if he persists in ignoring it, the consequences will be upon his own head.”

Although the British and Iraqi governments were agreed upon the ‘necessity’ of a military operation in the Barzan area, there were signs of discord between the two sides. For instance, the British military advisers wished to refrain from rash or hasty action. These differences were resolved through a meeting between Iraq’s Prime Minister and the British Ambassador in Baghdad and, in August 1945, the Iraqi Army was prepared for a major operation against the uprising.

When the operation against Mullah  Mustafa was launched, the First Secretary of the British Embassy in Washington, A. H. Tandy, was summoned to the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NE) at the Department of State on September 7, 1945. In the conversation between Tandy and Gordon Merriam, the Chief of the NE, the latter expressed “some concerns” regarding the campaign against the Kurds in Iraq. Merriam stated that, although the campaign was conducted by the Iraqi government, it seemed that its principal features had been drafted by the British and that it had, in fact, been realized at their suggestion.

While he did not deny the role played by the British, Tandy was more interested in discussing the complications that would result from possible Soviet support for the Kurds in Iraq, and whether the active participation of the British in the campaign might result in a struggle between the Soviets and the British.

Merriam pointed out that the campaign might result in Soviet reluctance to withdraw its troops from Iran after the end of the world war.

The course of this conversation perturbed the British who wished to know the exact reason for the Chief of NE’s concerns. On receipt of a report of the conversation, G. H. Thompson, British Chargé d’Affaires in Baghdad, reacted to the formulation “some concern” with alarm, and therefore he asked the Second Secretary at the American Legation in Baghdad, Robert G. Memminger, whether there was real American anxiety over the role of the British in the campaign in Kurdistan.

Memminger pointed out that the campaign in Kurdistan was largely a British-inspired measure and the situation was a cause of concern, not only to the Kurds, Iraqis and British, but indeed for every country interested in international stability. He furthermore stated that, even if one accepted the British claim that the campaign was originally suggested by the Iraqi Minister of the Interior, the British could probably have stifled this campaign at its inception.

Regarding potential Soviet involvement in the uprising, Thompson the British Chargé d’Affaires in Baghdad, maintained that he had seen no evidence confirming a Soviet connection to the situation.  However, this question brought conflicting reports from different sources. There were some claims that the Soviets were encouraging Kurdish ex-officers of the Iraqi army, a number of whom were in Iranian Kurdistan at the time.

There is nevertheless no direct evidence confirming any type of Soviet support for Mullah Mustafa’s uprising. In fact, in a conversation which took place in Spring 1947, Mullah  Mustafa asserted that he had made various attempts to gain Soviet support for his activities, and that the Soviets have proved reluctant to become involved in the Barzan uprising.

The American Legation in Baghdad followed the news of the campaign and it was particularly interested in the British role. Thompson stated that the campaign had gotten off to a poor start yet would ultimately prove successful; that Great Britain did not encourage nor protect any minorities in Iraq since it wished them to become ‘good Iraqis’; and that the internal objective was to assist Iraq in securing peace. However, Thompson also stated that he had advised the Iraqi government that the grievances of the Kurds were justified and that the Iraqi authorities should immediately take constructive steps in this matter.

The British were concerned over American attention to Kurdish affairs. Accordingly, in late September Tandy gave the Americans the most recent information concerning the campaign. Tandy informed Adrian Colquitt, an official of the Department of State, that the British had provided a number of containers for the airdropping of supplies, and he emphasized that the Iraqi government’s adoption of the campaign was ‘necessary’ for preserving domestic security. Tandy also pointed out that there was no evidence of any Soviet involvement in or support for the Barzan uprising, and that the campaign against the revolt would not affect on-going discussions with the Soviets regarding Middle Eastern problems.

Captain Archibald B. Roosevelt, the American Legation’s Assistant Military Attaché, paid a week-long visit to Sulaimaniya in early October 1945 in order to observe the situation. Roosevelt noted that there was growing resentment against the actions of the Iraqi government in Kurdistan. He further reported that the Iraqi authorities in Kurdistan were reliably reported to be arbitrarily arresting Kurds, confining them in concentration camps, and performing summary executions of civilians. Both the American Legation and the British Embassy in Baghdad were aware of the plight of the Kurds, and their common concern led to contact between the two regarding developments in Kurdistan. The British manifested their discontent over the state of affairs while making it clear to the British Ambassador that, while Baghdad could do as it pleased with Mullah Mustafa or any of his close associates, he was to stress that the Kurdish people must be treated with far greater leniency.

The British Royal Air Forces (RAF) assisted the Iraqi Army in the campaign. Mullah Mustafa and his forces were subsequently forced to retreat and to cross the Iraqi-Iranian boundary into Iranian Kurdistan. There is no evidence of concrete support from the Iranian Kurds for Mullah Mustafa, besides some glorification of the rebel as a nationalist leader. Furthermore, the Barzan uprising had no profound effects upon Iranian Kurdistan, and Mullah  Mustafa’s flight to Iranian Kurdistan at the end of the Barzan revolt caused no major stir in this area.

When Mullah Mustafa crossed the border into Iran, the Kurds there appeared close to proclaiming an autonomous republic. The British representatives in Iraq and the Iraqi government paid close attention to this combination of developments. Both the British and the Iraqis were concerned over the likelihood that the Kurds in Iraq would somehow be affected by or directly involved in events in Iranian Kurdistan. The British Ambassador sought appropriate measures designed to limit the impact of developments in Iranian Kurdistan on Iraqi Kurdistan. The Ambassador made it clear to the Prime Minister that the Iraqi government should assure the Kurds in Iraq that Kurdish interests would not be neglected. It seemed particularly important that the Kurds in Iraq be prevented from seeking friends elsewhere, outside of Iraq.

(1) Borhanedin A. Yassin, The Kurds in the Policy of the Great Powers, 1941-1947, p 104 

Karwan Guli was born in Duhok. He is studying for a master’s degree in contemporary Kurdsh history at the National University of Malaysia. 

 Copyright © 2013

5 Responses to US concerns and British role during the Barzan revolt, 1943-45
  1. masood mostafa
    July 24, 2013 | 14:58

    serkefti be bra u hevia mn ewe ev nameia te bgehit mn b tercomeve

  2. Ari Ali
    July 24, 2013 | 19:26

    Is this a propaganda for Barzanis ? If yes go and read this :

  3. Karwan
    July 24, 2013 | 21:08

    No, bro this not propaganda for the Barzanis – I would detest doing propaganda for anyone.

  4. Karwan
    July 25, 2013 | 07:23

    Zoor sopas bo te Masood Mostafa, dibitin roje kie az tercome bikim bes ne noke. Rez o silav

  5. Chia
    December 10, 2014 | 22:19

    well done dear Karwan. all the best.

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