Barzani, Mas'ud (1946–)

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Barzani, Mas'ud

Mas'ud Barzani (also Massoud, Masoud) is president of the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq and president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two dominant Kurdish parties in Iraq. Barzani is the son of the most revered modern Kurdish leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, and has been a key leader in the historic Kurdish transition from a rebellious and repressed minority in an isolated and backward area of Iraq to a prosperous and legitimately recognized autonomous region of the country following the 2003 demise of the Ba'th regime. Barzani was a member of the postinvasion Iraq Governing Council and served as president of the council in April 2004. He was elected president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region by the regional parliament in June 2005.


Barzani was born on 16 August 1946 in Mahabad, Iran, where his father was commander of the fighting forces of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. His birthday also coincided with the founding of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) by his father, Mullah Mustafa Barzani (1903–1979), and others. The first and only Kurdish republic, the Mahabad Republic lasted only a year, but the KDP, later renamed the Kurdistan Democratic Party to include all of the Kurdistan region's ethnic residents, has survived through tumultuous history for more than sixty years. Mas'ud Barzani likewise survived and guided the Iraqi Kurds to its post-Ba'th regime position as a relatively prosperous, secure and autonomous region.

Following the collapse of the Mahabad Republic, Mullah Mustafa lived in exile in the Soviet Union and was called the Red Mullah, although he was not a communist. Young Mas'ud was under the care of his wealthy maternal grandfather in Iraq until he was reunited with his father after the end of the Iraqi monarchy and the establishment of the republic in 1958. His mother, Hamayl, was Mustafa's third wife and was from the rival Zebari tribe; the marriage was apparently a political union, common among the Kurds. Mas'ud had five brothers and two sisters and an array of half-siblings from Mullah Mustafa's other wives.

The Barzani family hails from the village of Barzan in the rugged arid lands of Badinan north of the Greater Zab River in northern Iraq. The family first gained prominence as minor landowning aghas and religious leaders: Several Barzani men were Naqshbandi shaykhs of the Shafi'i school of Sunni Islam. The Barzanis gained reputations as tough fighters but also as a tolerant tribe that welcomed Christians and other refugees into their village. With the end of the British-created monarchy in 1958 and the creation of the Iraqi Republic, Mullah Mustafa and his followers were allowed back to Iraq and Mas'ud was reunited with his father. Mas'ud's schooling ended when his father, who had at first joined the government, started the 1961 to 1963 Kurdish rebellion against the new republic.

In 1970 Mas'ud participated in the Kurdish talks with the Ba'th government which resulted in the 11 March agreement under which the central government was to grant autonomy to the Kurds within four years. The agreement was never implemented and another Kurdish rebellion began in 1974 with the support of Iran and the United States, intent on harassing the Ba'th regime in its movement toward the Soviet orbit. The rebellion collapsed when Iran and Iraq reached the 1975 Algiers Agreement, which, in part, gave Iran access to the Shatt al-Arab waterway in exchange for withdrawing military support of the Iraqi Kurds. Iran immediately withdrew supplies and the rebellion was crushed. Many Kurds were killed and many more forced into exile. Mullah Mustafa was devastated and the KDP was left in disarray. Mas'ud and his half-brother Idris took over the reins of the party. Mas'ud was primarily a politician and Idris directed intelligence and military elements. Mas'ud was elected the president of the KDP at the ninth party congress in 1979 and was repeatedly reelected. Idris died in 1987.

In the wake of the failed 1974–1975 revolt, left-leaning members of the KDP formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The union of several parties evolved into a single party led by jalal talabani, former protégé and then challenger to Mullah Mustafa. Talabani considered the Barzanis feudalists steeped in tribal mores, and the fierce and often treacherous rivalry between the KDP and PUK marked most of the ensuing decades and generally prevented a united Kurdish stance against the ruthless Arab Ba'th regime in Iraq.

Barzani spent much of the period from 1976 until 1991 in exile, mostly in Iran and in the United States during his father's illness. The KDP was not terribly active in Iraq during this time and Barzani focused mostly on the political aspects of party building. Following the Islamist revolution in Iran in 1979, the KDP often cooperated with Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Mosavi Khomeini's regime, even fighting Iranian Kurdish parties on the government's behalf. Later, during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988, the KDP occasionally facilitated Iranian incursions into northern Iraq. The PUK was more active in Iraq at the time and also facilitated Iranian incursions. The KDP and the PUK's cooperation with Iran to engage Iraqi troops in the Kurdish areas increased the threat the Kurds posed to the government during the Iran-Iraq War. In 1983 as many as eight thousand Barzani males were rounded up by government forces from internment camps, taken to Baghdad and paraded through the streets, and never seen again (they presumably were executed).


Name: Mas'ud (Massoud, Masoud) Barzani

Birth: 1946, Mahabad, Iran

Family: Married; eight children

Nationality: Iraqi Kurd

Education: Iraqi primary and high school; education ended at age of 16


  • 1970s: Takes reins of KDP from father with half-brother Idris.
  • 1979–present: Elected and then reelected president of the KDP
  • 2003–2004: Member of the postwar Iraq Governing Council
  • 2004: Serves as president of the council
  • 2005: Elected president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region

Still, by 1987, the Kurds, supplied by Iran, controlled most of Iraqi Kurdistan. In 1988 during the waning days of the war, the Ba'th regime instituted the Anfal (from the Qur'anic notion of the spoils of war) genocide campaign against the Kurds headed by President saddam hussein's cousin, ali hasan al-majid (Chemical Ali). Nearly 100,000 Kurds were killed outright, perhaps another 100,000 disappeared, and several thousand villages and towns were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people were herded into collective towns. Chemical weapons were used in at least forty separate attacks that have been fully documented; the Kurds claim many more. Barzani's pleas for relief to the United Nations (UN) and the world community fell on deaf ears. The genocide devastated the Kurds and Barzani, who declared an end to the struggle against the Iraqi regime, echoing his father's demoralized 1975 call to end that rebellion. "We cannot fight chemical weapons with bare hands," Mas'ud Barzani's order said. "We just cannot fight on" (Randal, 1999, p. 217).

Prior to the Anfal, in May 1987, Barzani and Talabani had met in Tehran and announced the formation of the Kurdistan Front consisting of the KDP and the PUK and other Iraqi Kurdish parties. The Front shifted to guerrilla tactics to harass Iraqi forces in Kurdistan while pursuing a political settlement with the government.

Iraq's ill-fated invasion of Kuwait in 1990 offered a new opportunity for the Kurdish movement, and for Barzani, who returned to Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran and has remained since. The Arab Shi'ite and Kurdish uprisings that followed Iraq's 1991 defeat at the hands of an American-led coalition was brutally put down by the Iraqi government. The United States responded to the resulting humanitarian crisis by establishing a safe haven and no-fly zone in part of Kurdistan. After failed negotiations between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Front, Saddam Hussein withdrew all government presence in three Kurdish governorates and the Kurds were left to themselves.

The Front organized elections in May 1992 and established the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KDP and PUK each captured fifty seats in the assembly, with another five going to Assyrian and Turkoman parties. What became known as the 50-50 gridlock soon ensued with each party blocking the other's efforts. By 1994 political fighting between the two parties, largely over revenues collected by the KDP at the Turkish border, descended into fratricide that left thousands dead and perhaps 160,000 displaced.

In the midst of the internal war, in 1996 Barzani invited Iraqi government troops into the capital city, Irbīl, (Erbil, Arbil, Hewlêr in Kurdish) to help the KDP retake it from the PUK who then fled to Sulaymaniyya. Iraqi troops withdrew quickly but rounded up some thousand five hundred Kurdish and Arab members of the Iraqi opposition based nearby and left behind intelligence operatives. From then until after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Barzani and the KDP were based in Irbı̄l and administered the northwestern portion of Iraqi Kurdistan, while rival Talabani and the PUK administered the southeast portion from Sulaymaniyya. The 1998 Washington Accords formally ended the fighting but the two parties remain wary of each other. They did, however, work together in the run-up to the 2003 war and displayed a united front in the Kurdistan Alliance of parties in the Iraq national elections in January and December 2005, winning 20 to 25 percent of the votes.

New parliament members for the Kurdistan Regional Government were elected during the first Iraqi election in January 2005, and the two administrations officially united into one government in January 2006. Barzani was elected president of the Kurdistan region by the parliament in June 2005. The Iraqi National Assembly elected Talabani president of Iraq in April 2005 and in April 2006.

Kurdistan was not bombed in the 2003 invasion and was spared the chaos, looting, and violent insurgency that engulfed much of Iraq in the aftermath, although Kurdish forces were involved in the fighting. The relative stability spurred rapid economic growth as international and Iraqi businesses quickly moved into the area, creating a construction boom and labor shortage.


Barzani was undoubtedly heavily influenced by his family's heroic position in Kurdish history. In particular, his father's role as both a tribal head and as the dominant leader in the Kurdish nationalist movement shaped the thinking of the president of Iraqi Kurdistan. At his father's side through much of his early adulthood, Barzani learned at an early age of the Kurdish quandary as a large, unwanted, and threatening minority seeking self-determination in several countries dominated by larger ethnic groups.


As the largest ethnic group in the Middle East after the Arabs, Turks, and Persians, the Kurds were left without their own country at the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and found themselves a large, unwanted, and threatening minority in several countries striving to forge unified nations of disparate ethnic nationalities in the mid-twentieth century.

Weak regimes in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey have always read Kurdish demands for autonomy as calls for independence and have responded with various forms and degrees of cultural, social, economic, and political repression. These governments, and powerful international actors, generally viewed the Kurds as, at best, problematic pawns to be exploited for pressuring competing interests.

The Iraqi Ba'th regime's repression and ethnic cleansing that culminated in genocide against the Kurds, and the callous manipulation of the vulnerable Kurdish position by regional and international actors left the Kurdish leader questioning the usefulness of powerful patrons. In particular, the willingness of the United States to sacrifice Kurdish lives in 1975 must have left an indelible impression.

The lessons of 1975 were repeated in 1991 when the United States stepped aside and watched the Kurds and Shi'ites of Iraq slaughtered by the Ba'th regime following the 1991 uprising. More than a year before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, in relation to possible Kurdish cooperation with possible U.S. covert action against the Ba'th regime, Barzani was leery and referenced the U.S. betrayal of the Kurds in 1975. "One who has been bitten by a snake will be afraid of a rope," he said quietly. For Barzani, the lessons were clear: the Iraqi Kurds indeed have "no friends but the mountains," as goes the oft-repeated Kurdish expression.


Barzani is seen as a cautious, thoughtful, and pragmatic politician who is credited with guiding the Iraqi Kurds through perhaps the most delicate, promising, but potentially threatening, period in modern Kurdish history: the 2003 U.S. invasion and Iraqi regime change. Building on the political and economic foundations established in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the Kurdish civil war abated and the UN-created oil-for-food money flowed, Barzani worked closely with his long-time adversary Talabani, who mostly focused on national politics. They led the Kurdish area into becoming a recognized autonomous region in Iraq with full national rights while continuing to advocate for a full federal system. Within a few years of the invasion, Iraqi Kurdistan was the most economically prosperous and politically stable it had perhaps ever been.

A polite, soft-spoken, and thoughtful man whose small stature does not detract from his powerful presence, Barzani tends to value the advice of those around him and is not prone to rash decision making. The KDP is reputed to operate on fairly democratic principles with regular party conferences and elections of individuals to decision-making positions. However, accusations of KDP corruption, mass accumulation of family wealth, and nepotism are accurate, at least in part.

Barzani's detractors say he is tribal, conservative, and unworldly. He does, in fact, still play many of the traditional roles of a tribal agha; but tribes have a significant role in Iraq and cannot be ignored by political leaders. And under his leadership in the late twentieth century into the early twenty-first, the Barzani administration based in Irbīl effectively built modern transportation and utility infrastructures, attracted foreign business interests and emphasized education.


It remains too early to assess Barzani's ultimate legacy. The violent instability in Iraq and the region threatens the enormous gains the Kurds seemed to have achieved within a few years of the end of the Ba'th regime. The unification of the two Kurdish administrations into one government could unravel at any time with decades-old rivalry and suspicion between the KDP and PUK barely kept in check. Undeterred dreams of a greater independent Kurdistan threaten neighboring Turkey and Iran, either of which would likely invade Iraqi Kurdistan following any move toward independence.

Certainly Barzani will go down in history for carrying on the struggle for Kurdish self-determination championed so fervently by his father, and as one of the paramount Kurdish leaders who, at least initially, successfully steered the Iraqi Kurds through the minefield of a post-Ba'th Iraq.


Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign against the Kurds. Washington, DC: Middle East Watch, 1993.

Gunter, Michael M. The Kurdish Predicament in Iraq. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. 3rd edition. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.

Randal, Jonathan C. After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Stansfield, Gareth R. V. Iraqi Kurdistan: Political Development and Emergent Democracy. London: Routledge, 2005.

                                                   Maggy Zanger