Khaddam Files: Barzani briefs al-Assad on CIA visit

Al Majalla lifts the veil on Iraqi Kurdish leaders' “clandestine visit” to Langley, where they were briefed on the reasons for regime change

The Kurdish leader was party to secret talks with the Americans in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq. In part 2 of a 7-part series, Al Majalla reveals for the first time what he told the Syrians.
Al Majalla
The Kurdish leader was party to secret talks with the Americans in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq. In part 2 of a 7-part series, Al Majalla reveals for the first time what he told the Syrians.

Khaddam Files: Barzani briefs al-Assad on CIA visit

When Syria’s former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam left for Paris in 2005, he took reams of papers, reports, notes, and files with him.

For decades, Khaddam was a trusted insider to the al-Assads. The documents give rare insight into the heart of government from his first-hand accounts. He died in March 2020.

Among the more intriguing geopolitical periods of his time in power was the year leading up to the United States invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

In the months before, the Americans had been working closely with the Kurds in Iraq’s north. The Kurds were certainly no friends of Saddam Hussein and wanted him gone as much as Washington did.

Two of the key Kurdish leaders were Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). They had good relations with Damascus.

The ‘Khaddam Cache’ reveals, among other things, a trip they made to the CIA and what Barzani revealed about it in the Syrian capital.

Episode 1 detailed the Agency’s visit to Kurdistan to tell Talabani and Barzani that the US had decided to oust Saddam, come what may. It also covered Talabani’s subsequent feedback to Khaddam.

Although it was already known that Talabani and Barzani had been working with the CIA, Al Majalla reveals for the first time the conversations that would have such a lasting impact on the Middle East, the effects of which are still felt today.

Laying the groundwork

On 1 April 2002, Barzani and other leaders of his KDP party met a delegation from the US State Department led by Assistant Secretary Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador to Syria.

During the meeting, the US delegation reiterated America’s stance towards Saddam’s regime and proposed that Barzani visit Washington in mid-April, coinciding with a visit by Talabani.

Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam (right) receives Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, in Damascus, October 17, 2004.

Khaddam's documents detail their “clandestine visit” to the CIA’s headquarters to be briefed on the reasons for regime change and initiate preparations. The visit was so secret that their passports were not stamped.

On 4 April, Khaddam hosted Barzani as he travelled to Europe and the US. The Kurdish leader told the Syrian vice president that the Americans had “discussed holding a conference to contemplate Iraq’s future post-Saddam”.

Although details were yet to be decided, he said they “intend to invite Iraqi factions to deliberate on Iraq’s future.... They seem determined to pursue regime change by any means, regardless of the consequences”.

Barzani said that if the US were to target the Kurds with a military strike, “our capacity to respond will be limited”, adding: “Our options are to confront the US and face a fate similar to Saddam’s... or become mere tools for America”.

He said he would "present firm views based on our national principles, aiming to minimise harm and protect the interests and unity of the Iraqi people".

Barzani said his visit to Damascus was "to ensure clarity as we engage in negotiations with the Americans".

As he saw it, "opposing the (US) strike (on Iraq) holds no benefit", but "remaining passive observers is not advantageous (and) becoming involved in the implementation mechanism is unfeasible".

Barzani said: "Our aim will be to mitigate the tragedy and minimise damage. While it is challenging to anticipate their proposals, upon our return to Syria, the situation is expected to become more transparent."

Khaddam's documents detail Kurdish leaders' "clandestine visit" to the CIA's headquarters, where they were briefed on the reasons for regime change.

Khaddam unimpressed

Khaddam said the US decision to topple Saddam was made in 1991 (the First Gulf War) but was not executed then due to several reasons, the first of which was apprehension about Iraq falling into the hands of Iran and its allies.

"Secondly, following the invasion of Kuwait, the US began to seriously contemplate the threats to oil security, prompting it to forge security agreements with Gulf nations to establish a military presence in the region.

"Thirdly, a combination of siege, economic, and political pressures could potentially destabilise the regime.

"Presently, the Americans cite the Iraqi regime's threat to its neighbours, yet this pretext has been undermined by the reconciliation between Iraq and the Gulf states, the enhancement of Iraqi government relations with most Arab nations, and the decision of the Arab Summit in Beirut to oppose strikes on Iraq.

"The Americans ought to ask themselves: Should they consider the stances of Arab governments at the Beirut Summit? Are they blind to the widespread resentment against their policies in the region?

"No one is advocating for Saddam Hussein. Indeed, we collaborated to overthrow him. Our concern is the war. Conflict breeds problems, both anticipated and not, with significant repercussions for the Iraqi people and the wider region."

Khaddam poured scorn on the Americans' proposed conference for Iraq's opposition, asking how it could be a national gathering when it was being held in a foreign nation and potentially serving as a pretext for war against Iraq.

"Such a conflict would not merely target the regime but would have repercussions for the entire Iraqi state and its populace," he is recorded as saying.

"Perhaps the American strategy hinges on utilising airstrikes to target infrastructure, military establishments, and morale while rallying a coalition akin to that seen in Afghanistan.

"However, in a scenario like Iraq's, forming such a coalition is challenging, as the sole organised force on Iraqi soil is the Kurdish factions, and such a thing would not align with your interests.

"Let us not repeat historical patterns where Kurds bore the brunt. You once allied with the Shah in Iran against Baghdad. When Baghdad reconciled with Tehran, Kurds found themselves as refugees in Iran.

"The United States' penchant for force in its international endeavours incites a broad and profound wave of hostility against it on a global scale."

Psychological warfare

Later that evening, Khaddam and Barzani convened once more to discuss the Iraqi opposition's stance regarding the forthcoming conference, which Barzani felt "need not necessarily be orchestrated by the Americans."

Rather, it could "serve as a platform for the opposition, without this American imprint," he thought. The "inclusion (of the US) would only lead to embarrassment, and our attendance would be tinged with discomfort".

A Marine Corps Marine Corps soldier with a portrait of Saddam Hussein at a stadium in Baghdad, April 10, 2003.

Barzani said the venue could be in Europe rather than the United States, and the timing was "slated for late May or early to mid-June… This timeframe aligns with the American consideration of political, diplomatic, and media intricacies".

He added: "The period I mentioned is expected to witness the zenith of the psychological warfare you alluded to, coupled with deliberations on inspection and the review of memoranda of understanding."

The Kurdish leader said the Americans "perceive hesitancy among the Europeans, so aim to bring up the regime's crimes against the Iraqi people".

Evidencing the still-burning grievances, Barzani wondered whether the Americans would include "the day of Halabja (the attack against Kurds in north-west Iraq) when they (the Americans) gave tacit approval to the regime".

The conference aimed to establish "broad principles for Iraq's future… be it democratic or pluralistic and regarding the military's role". Barzani said working groups would tackle specific subjects, like the constitution or the economy.

"These are the areas they anticipate addressing, with an expected attendance of approximately 300. There is an organising committee based in Washington."

This comprised representatives from the KDP and the PUK, alongside some Iraqi opposition figures based in Turkey. Some army officers had been tentatively invited.

Barzani said the conference "will deliberate on whether to establish an alternative transitional government or if its function will be confined to public relations".

Barzani shared his thoughts and queries with Khaddam.

"Is the sole objective merely to oust the regime? If there is an alternative, who embodies it? What is its future formula? Is the method for effecting change through a military coup?"

He continued: "This poses a challenge. Abu Uday (Saddam) is impervious to coups. His expertise is unparalleled, unmatched by anyone else.

"Even if a member of the Republican Guard were inclined to eliminate him, swayed by US intelligence, he exercises extreme caution. Not even his closest confidants are privy to his whereabouts.

"He has established multiple defensive barriers. It is unfeasible for the Iraqi opposition to execute such a manoeuvre."

The US decision to topple Saddam was made in 1991 but was not executed then over fears Iraq would fall into the hands of Iran and its allies.

Former Syria Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam

Al-Assad sceptical

After Barzani and Talabani visited the CIA in April 2002, they stopped off in Germany, where they decided to update their allies in Iran and Syria.

Talabani went to Tehran, while a delegation journeyed to Damascus to meet President al-Assad and Khaddam and inform them of developments.

On 2 May 2002, Khaddam hosted Barzani, who held discussions with al-Assad that were recorded as minutes.

Al-Assad voiced considerable scepticism regarding the sincerity of the American commitment to overthrow Saddam, mentioning the messy Northern Alliance in Afghanistan for context.

Barzani told al-Assad that "change is imminent, and the Americans are resolute," while al-Assad continued arguing that "the process of change is arduous and costly."

In a meeting transcript, Khaddam and Barzani said negotiations with the Americans "commenced in Germany, where Jalal (Talabani) also joined."

He told Khaddam: "We engaged with experts (Americans) from various agencies who informed us of a US decision to launch a strike against Iraq. They said their purpose was 'to consult you on numerous matters, chiefly the future of Iraq.'

"We said, regarding the strike, the decision rests with you; we cannot stop you. However, the crucial question remains: What is the aim? Is the objective to change the regime by dismantling Iraq and its institutions?

"If the aim is to dismantle Iraq, then we cannot impede you, but we do not endorse such actions, candidly and unequivocally. As for regime change, who is the alternative?

"Will you rely on a military officer to orchestrate a coup or impose an alternative figure? Will you install someone akin to (Karzai) and impose them upon us?

Or will you assist the Iraqi people in navigating this ordeal and afford them the autonomy to select their alternative?"

Barzani said the Americans felt this would depend on "the level of your cooperation… Should you cooperate with us, we will extend assistance and allow you to select the alternative".

He said he replied that "the alternative we seek is one capable of improving our circumstances as Iraqis".

Iraqi girls wave their country's flag 31 December 2002 during a peaceful demonstration near the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) office in Baghdad in protest against a possible US military attack.

Forming an alliance

In the US, Barzani met officials from the CIA and the State Department, who told him: "We will intervene to topple the regime, even if it means deploying American forces. There are nations in the region willing to collaborate with us."

They told the Kurdish leader that these nations included Jordan, Kuwait, and Turkey. Barzani explained that the latter was a problem for the Kurds.

"We must be candid and unequivocal: we do not condone Turkish intervention as it will result in the obliteration of all we have built.

"We will resist Turkish intervention, even if we fail to forestall it, but resist it we shall, even if it entails sacrificing everything we possess. This stance is unanimous, requiring no consultation with anyone else's opinion."

The Americans stood firm. "Our decision is irrevocable," they told Barzani. "We are committed to ousting the regime, even if we must intervene unilaterally."

"Those who align with us will be rewarded. Those who remain neutral should not expect anything from us. Those who oppose us will face the consequences. This message extends to you, the Iraqi forces, and the region's nations."

Barzani asked what they had in mind for Iraq after Saddam. They told him, "We envision Iraq as a democratic and unified nation, firmly opposing its division."

He said that the Kurds were also against Iraq's division because they "would be the biggest loser". He added that whoever replaced Saddam "should not be sectarian".

The Americans said they support a democratic and pluralistic alternative, "but this hinges on your actions… If you come up with such an alternative, we will support it".

Khaddam had been listening to all this and finally interjected. "Let's contemplate a scenario where they strike Iraq," he said.

"If they opt for military intervention, they must deploy an army. Will they involve the American army? What are the repercussions of this for Iraq and the region?"

Barzani said the Americans were "keen to avoid replicating the Afghan scenario where they ousted the Taliban without a viable alternative… it's imperative for them to have a clear understanding of the situation".

Al-Assad was sceptical regarding the sincerity of the American commitment to overthrow Saddam, which he said was arduous and costly.

Where is the cover?

Khaddam queried the Americans' motives for regime change, noting how they were determined to do so "without a clear vision for Iraq's future".

The Syrian said: "They expect opposition factions to provide them with a blueprint for Iraq's future, yet many left Iraq a long time ago. Are the Americans not cognisant of this reality? Or do they possess a vision but lack a pretext for the attack?"

Barzani felt the Americans were "not in search of a pretext and not reliant on one" and would go it alone if necessary. "They dismissed the Gulf-Iraqi reconciliation at the Beirut summit as a mere media spectacle."

Hoshyar Zebari, a senior KDP figure, said the Americans were "planning to establish a new regime in the region, and Saddam is perceived as the primary obstacle… Their pretext will likely hinge on weapons of mass destruction".

Zebari added: "There appears to be a personal animosity between the Bush family and Saddam Hussein.

"Furthermore, the hard right within the US administration sees weapons of mass destruction and this regime as a threat to both regional and global security. They fear these weapons could be acquired by terrorists or deployed against Israel."

For Barzani, "toppling the regime may not be an overly arduous task, but the aftermath poses significant challenges… navigating it is the most daunting and perilous phase".

Toppling Saddam may not be an overly arduous task, but the aftermath poses significant challenges.

Masoud Barzani, former head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party

Then they discussed "the agreement between Talabani and Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim (leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution) to march on Baghdad", concluding that the plan was "not practical".

At the meeting's close, Barzani said the Kurds would keep updating Damascus, adding that the "paramount objective is to minimise the damage they (the US) will inflict upon Iraq to the greatest extent possible".

He said regime change "will destroy military and civilian infrastructure, bridges, and roads in Iraq", asking: "Who will bear the brunt of the consequences?"

Khaddam concluded that it appeared "evident that the United States had finalised its approach towards operations in Iraq, while the specifics of the implementation strategy were still under discussion".

Reflecting afterwards, Khaddam said: "What caught my attention was Barzani's stance, which seemed to sway."

He said the Kurdish leader seemed caught "between staying on the sidelines due to his ties with Baghdad and his declaration to us and others of refraining from involvement in the war and rejecting any action that could harm Iraq.

"However, he appeared more inclined to maintain a role on the stage to prevent others from monopolising it and excluding him from the Kurdish leadership sphere.

"There was also the prospect that the Kurds of Iraq could achieve a status they had long anticipated, resembling a degree of independence within the framework of the Iraqi state, particularly in light of the enduring and formidable challenges faced by the Kurds throughout Iraq's history, especially under Saddam."

**We will release the third episode tomorrow, detailing, among other things, Iran's views in the run-up to the American invasion.**

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