269. Letter From the Consul in Tabriz (Neumann) to the Consular Coordinator at the Embassy in Iran (Bolster)1

Dear Arch:

Thank you for the article on the Kurdish war as seen from Baghdad, in the December 14, 1974, Economist. It makes most interesting reading. Along with Art Lowrie’s Baghdad 796,2 on the visit of [Page 733] the British Military Attaché to the front, it provides quite a good view both of what is happening and what the Iraqis seem to think is and will happen. Since telegrams have their limits, I decided this might be a useful time to set down how I see the war to date and where I think it is going. As this involves a measure of conjecture and guesswork I could well be proved wrong. In that case, the Consulate compound is well supplied with crows for my future consumption. Be that as it may, I think such an effort is useful and I am probably in as good a position as anyone to give it a try.

In brief: The Iraqi summer offensive did much better than anyone expected but by early fall it was slowing down considerably. The costs were heavy, and for it to signify much the Iraqis have to hold most of what they took. The Kurds have suffered relatively few military casualties. Their society has been more disrupted than in any previous war but this has unified them and, because there has been a place (Iran) to send the non-combatants it has left them, at least in the area close to the Iranian frontier, unencumbered and prepared for a long war. The Kurds know that they have to make a limited but vigorous offensive this winter and I still rate their chances very good in that regard. The key remains Iran. Iraqi success has led to a degree of Iranian involvement in the war never seen before. This aid, which was largely responsible for having blunted the Iraqi offensive is likely to make the difference this winter. For a variety of reasons I think Iranian aid is going to continue and that this will result in a largely stalemated position which is what the Kurds define as their military aim. More important, the new degree of Iranian involvement in this war, partially with weapons we have sold them, and its potential for a larger explosion give this war an importance for our bilateral relations that it has not had before.

Let me now take this piece by piece. The Iraqi offensive has been a considerable success, although it failed, and in some cases failed very badly to accomplish its original goals. To evaluate it one needs to look both at its goals and the way it evolved over the period August to November. It began, at least in part, because the economic blockade and disruption of the civilian population from March to August failed to achieve any result other than increasing Kurdish unity and driving many civilians into Iran. The original goal of the offensive was to completely cut off Iraqi Kurdistan from Iranian supplies and, hopefully, to end the war. I do not think one should make too much of their failure to accomplish all of this, first because it was probably too ambitious and secondly because the army came much closer to accomplishing its mission than anyone on this side of the border thought likely in March, 1974.

What is more important is the way in which the pace of the offensive slowed down, partly as a result of Iranian counter measures. From [Page 734] late July to the end of August, that is, in less than a month and a half, the Iraqis succeeded in crossing one narrow line of mountains to occupy Quala Dizah, thereby cutting the supply line from Sardasht on the Iranian side, while at the same time they crossed two extremely severe mountain ranges, secured the Ali Beg pass, and occupied Ruwanduz. At this point I would guess that the Shah decided that he had to increase his inputs if he did not want a successful Iraqi army sitting, idle, on the Kurdish portion of the frontier. Certainly his officials along the frontier were evidencing a good deal of worry at this time and it was shortly thereafter that the first stories began to emerge of Iranian fire missions into Iraq and the delivery to the Kurds of limited quantities of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.

Although it may have resulted from an Iraqi pause to regroup, the increase in the aid given the Kurds seems likely to have been a major factor in the slowdown of the Iraqi offensive that began to show up at that time. Although heavy fighting continued, the Iraqi troops in Quala Dizah were not able to secure the eastern valley road through Ranyia to Choman, and can move on the western road to Ruwanduz only in large convoys. At least, this is the information I was still receiving on my last visit and only last week Bob Campbell was informed by our advisors that Iranian artillery can now cover the entire eastern valley route from their present firing positions. Around Ruwanduz, it took the Iraqi army until October to secure Zozak Mountain, the capture of which they announced on October 7 (AFP story of October 8 carried in Maroccan Le Matin), although I believe fighting on the mountain actually continued for some time after that. The dispatches of early October also claimed Galala was about to fall to the Iraqis but, according to the Economist article, this does not seem to have occurred until the end of November and this, along with the reported capture of Mt. Tartan, seems to mark this year’s high water mark. In other words, it has taken the troops from Ruwanduz about three months to move as far as they moved in the first month and a half of the offensive and the divisions around Quala Dizah do not seem to have accomplished anything additional at all. The Iranians have also reinstalled a second supply route. As the Iraqis have advanced the Iranian counter reaction appears to have stiffened and we are now getting stories of more sophisticated anti-tank and aircraft weapons being delivered as well as intensive artillery barrages from Iranian batteries—the latter stories certainly being correct.

With the Iraqis digging in for the winter and determined to hold their conquests how does one sum up the campaign and what does the future offer? First the offensive has, clearly, been extremely successful. If the Iraqis can hold what they have taken their chances for erecting a partial cordon next year along the Choman, Ranyia, Qala Dizah route are very good, unless Iran is prepared to commit combat troops and [Page 735] possibly planes, which I doubt. On the other hand, if the Kurds manage to retake much of this lost ground, next year’s offensive is liable to go much slower both because the Kurds now have better arms and because some of the elan is bound to seep out of the Iraqis if they find themselves dying next summer on the slopes they occupied this fall. Contrary to the Economist story, I think Kurdish military casualties have been much lighter than those of the Iraqis. There have been too many journalists in the area for the Kurds to get away with large scale under-reporting.

The key to Kurdish chances this winter and in the future is clearly Iran. A large part of the question then becomes whether the Shah may change his mind and come to some sort of deal with the Iraqis. In Tehran you may have a different point of view, but from the evidence I see I very much doubt he will change his mind. First, the whole tenor of his relations with the Ba’athists since they came to power in Baghdad has been one of distrust, suspicion, and hostility. I would hypothesize that the Shah would view backing down not as a policy likely to bring peace in the area but as a step that would simply whet Baghdad’s appetite and lead to an increase in their machinations in the Gulf. Secondly, the Shah has made his commitment to avoiding Barzani’s defeat increasingly clear and a considerable amount of prestige is now involved in these operations. This would act as a further block against allowing Barzani’s defeat if it can be prevented. Third, if the Kurds are defeated, Iran will have to choose between having over 100,000 Kurds camped permanently in Iran or encouraging/forcing their return to Iraqi control. In either case, if the defeat stems from a withdrawal of Iranian aid, the Shah risks creating a bitter group of Iraqi Kurds who would look upon Iran as the great betrayer and could well become future tools of Baghdad for stirring up trouble in Iranian Kurdistan, as sometimes happened in the early sixties. This, too, I would doubt that the Shah is prepared to accept if it can be avoided.

If my analysis is correct, then the likely course of events is that Iran will further step up the quality and quantity of arms supplied to the Kurds to enhance their chances of a successful winter counter-offensive. Such an offensive would serve both to prolong the war and to move it further away from the Iranian border and hence lessen the risk of a direct Irano-Iraqi clash. Such an increase in aid would be absolutely in keeping with the record of the past few months when each Iraqi success seems to have been answered with a step-up of Iranian assistance to the Kurds. The latest report, on orders to shoot down Iraqi planes which approach the border, fits in nicely here.

Again on the assumption that my analysis is so far generally correct, what would be the aims of a winter counter-offensive and what are its chances of success? The aim would almost certainly be to retake [Page 736] as much of the country lost as possible with particular emphasis on the mountains east and, if possible, west of Ruwanduz. This would largely determine the direction of next summer’s Iraqi offensive since they would still be faced with the necessity of cutting down Iran’s ability to resupply the Kurds, they would not enjoy the stigma of permanently losing ground, and they might find themselves with the necessity of relieving an isolated garrison in Ruwanduz if the Kurds could retake the western passes.

Evaluating Kurdish chances of success in such a counter-offensive is obviously more difficult since it involves unknowns of tactics, weather conditions, Iraqi morale and determination, and a certain element of luck. Still, some general observations are possible. Figures on the forces involved vary with the Economist speaking of 80,000 Iraqis to 15,000 Kurdish Pish Merga, USINT Baghdad (reftel) talking of 200,000 troops with about half being irregulars, and many I have talked to putting Pish Merga strength around 40,000 plus. I would accept the 200,000 figure of the British Military Attaché in Baghdad. Barzani’s figure of 40,000 Pish Merga is not unlikely, given an approximate population of two million Kurds, but this might well be increased in winter when there is no work to be done in the fields. This gives odds of about five to one counting Baghdad’s irregulars and not counting Barzani’s or odds of about two and a half to one if one counts only the hard core fighters on both sides. Depending on how one wishes to calculate, this is slightly to considerably less than we usually thought were necessary for success in such operations in Viet Nam. Given that the Iraqis have to spread out over quite a few posts and will have a limited ability to move reinforcements about in bad weather the Kurds have an excellent opportunity to amass superior forces at points of their own choosing. If the Kurds have adequate numbers of heavy mortars and ammunition they can probably put a considerable strain on the Iraqi logistic system which will have to rely on helicopters and airdrops to supply the more remote posts if the snows are heavy. I have been through a mortar seige of a fixed position when probably not more than a dozen men with a couple of mortar tubes gave us absolute hell for weeks. And we had good troops, ample helicopter support, generally good weather, and a solid position. If the Kurds adopt similar tactics they can spread the Iraqi logistics system to or beyond the breaking point.

On the questions of cover and weather I have to rely on the material in the National Intelligence Summary (NIS) Sections on Iraq. That indicates that cloud cover and bad weather can be expected to occur about a third of the days in January and February in the areas under discussion. While cover is not dense the area is characterized as “Open deciduous forests” (NIS 30, Section 24, pg. 24–16 and map pg. 24–24) which, even in its barren winter condition, can make discovering small [Page 737] groups of men and weapons from the air very difficult. Given the limits of armchair generalship, I am not saying that the Kurds will succeed this winter. But history is full of examples of small concentrated forces inflicting stinging defeats on larger, unconcentrated forces, be it the Germans against the Romans, Wellington in the Peninsula, or the Viet Minh in Indo-China. I do think that the Kurds have a good chance, that a few successful attacks may start making a dent in Iraqi morale in isolated positions, and that Iran is likely to give the Kurds the tools to do the job.

From our point of view, I think that there are two critical things to watch. One is the growing extent to which Iran is becoming committed to the Kurds and the lengths to which it will go to keep them from losing. If the level continues to intensify it is likely to come increasingly to public notice with, perhaps, consequent public linkage with our arms sales program. Certainly press comment on Iran’s participation has increased in the last two to three months.

The second point is that effective Iranian aid may increase frustrations in Baghdad and increase the potential for serious border chashes and perhaps even a short war. It is commonly said that for Iraq to start a war with Iran would be “illogical.” I am beginning to have some second thoughts about that. Its illogic is essentially military, i.e., that taking on an equally strong, or stronger neighbor when all of one’s military resources are insufficient for a domestic rebellion is not good sense. However, there is another logic that might be as or more compelling.

A bullet or exile are more frequent rewards than a pension for Iraqi leaders who fall from power. If the regime finds itself so committed to the war that it cannot back down, and if the war is seen to be unwinable, then the necessity to find a scapegoat might be overwhelming, particularly as, in blaming Iran for this state of affairs, the Government of Iraq would be partially correct. In this line of reasoning the fact that a conflict with Iran would be inconclusive or lost is less important than the fact that it lays the blame for the situation elsewhere and may allow the army to vent the frustration that seems an almost inseparable part of a limited war operation. Seen thus, a decision for war is entirely reasonable, even if the fighting itself is wholely inconclusive.

I am not predicting a war. I am suggesting that if the Kurds are fairly successful this winter, and if that success appears to be partially dependent on increased Iranian aid, then greater frustration in Baghdad seems unavoidable. If this led to renewed border clashes it would not be surprising. The danger is if these expand.

Obviously, much of the above is conjecture. But, I think it is reasonably based on fairly good information. More important, this type of guess work seems to be unavoidable if we are to make an effort to do [Page 738] more than simply report matters after the fact. That events may prove me wrong, in whole or in part, does not make the exercise less worth doing. I would appreciate comments and criticism on these ideas from you and others involved with these questions. And on that note, I wish you a Happy New Year.


Ronald E. Neumann3
  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, NEA/IRN Files: Lot 77D400, Box 11, Iran, 1974. Secret; Limdis; Official–Informal.
  2. Telegram 796 from Baghdad, November 15, countered the official Iraqi claims that the fighting against the Kurds had nearly ended, noting that reports from military attachés indicated that fierce fighting and Iranian artillery and troop support of Kurdish forces continued. (Ibid., Central Foreign Policy Files, D740332–0626)
  3. Printed from a copy with this typed signature.