To avoid involvement in the war, the National Liberation Army, the military wing of the People's Mojahedin, evacuated its bases in north and south Iraq and moved all its forces to Diyala Province, in the east central area. The Mojahedin also halted its radio and television broadcasts and stopped all publications.
Iran's mullahs eagerly watched events unfold from the sidelines, as two of their main enemies, the United States and Iraq, prepared for war.
When Saddam refused to withdraw his troops from Kuwait by January 15, 1991, Coalition Forces launched an aggressive air campaign. Weeks later, armored divisions based in Saudi Arabia thrust into Iraq while other forces charged into Kuwait to liberate the country.
Iraqi troops were overwhelmed by the massive show of force and superior coalition military technology. Saddam's troops in Kuwait abandoned their positions and retreated to Iraq. The withdrawing convoy was caught in the open and destroyed by air attacks. Coalition armored divisions continued their push toward Badhdad, reaching about 150 miles from the capital city, when a halt was called to further fighting and Kuwait declared liberated.
NLA's strategy to avoid involvement in the war proved successful. Its forces remained undisturbed and never engaged in any fighting. When Kurdish factions began to rebel in early March, the Mojahedin dispatched messages to the Kurds that it sought to avoid any hostilities and would remain inactive unless attacked. Their only aim, they reiterated, was the overthrow of Iran's mullahs.
The Mojahedin announced publicly on March 14 that it had obtained intelligence on members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) amassing along the border of Iraq in preparation for an attack.1 Days earlier, Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani had visited the area to inspect the military operations.
Soon thereafter, the IRGC infiltrated Iraq and killed a member of the NLA, and wounded several other soldiers The NLA mounted a counterattack in response.3
In the next engagement, the NLA defended against strikes by Revolutionary Guards in Jalula, Iraq, about 80 miles northeast of Baghdad, and at Kirfi, to the north.4 Iranian forces attacked with Katyusha rockets and, at one point, surrounded an NLA base.
The following day, Iranian Guards crossed into Iraq in at least 14 separate locations along the border.5 In numerous skirmishes, 20 NLA soldiers were wounded and eight were killed.6 In an attack on the 23 of March there were 40 NLA casualties and three comrades went missing in action.7
The Revolutionary Guards launched another offensive against the NLA on March 25. Fighting stretched from Khaneqin, an Iraqi border town, to Kifri.8 The NLA counterattacked, successfully reclaiming lost ground.9 Worried the NLA might break through its lines, the Revolutionary Guards mobilized the 73rd Kashan Brigade from Tehran for reinforcements.
The next battle began at 6:00 pm on March 31. Revolutionary Guards slipped into Iraq near Qasr-Shirin and then attacked the NLA at 1:30 am along four axes. Hostilities lasted for 18 hours, with NLA forces smashing the offensive.10 Iran's Pasdaran suffered many casualties and the following day retreated, licking their wounds.
During the attacks by the Revolutionary Guards, the NLA captured six Iranian soldiers who "wore Kurdish dress."11 The NLA handed them over to the International Commitee of the Red Cross, which confirmed the "Iranian regime was trying to recruit Kurds to fight the NLA."12 A later investigation by the United Nations also concluded the mullahs "sought to hire Iraqi Kurds to fight against the NLA."13
A small group of NLA soldiers evacuating a military base was attacked on March 11 near Tuz, a city south of Kirkuk, by Iraqi Kurds under the leadership of Jalal Talebani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In the skirmish, NLA commander Reza Karamali was killed and several others wounded. Later two other NLA members were ambushed near their base by forces loyal to Talebani.
At the time, Iran's mulllahs were giving support to the PUK, providing weapons and financial assistance.14 The mullahs also supported the rebels in south Iraq during the uprising, hoping the insurrections would topple Saddam, opening the way for the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic republic.
While the NLA was engaged in defending against the IRGC's offensive of 25 March, a platoon of 19 NLA members, traveling in four armored vehicles, lost contact with the main force. "The group lost its way in the unfamiliar terrain, and mistakenly advanced several kilometers toward the city of Kelar, where they were captured by members of the Talebani group and Kurdish Hezbollah (a proxy group of the Iranian regime."15 Seventeen of the NLA soldiers were executed by the Talebani and two others - Hassan Zolfaqari and Beshar Shabibi - were handed over to Iran's mullahs and later also murdered.
Talebani claimed in a press release on March 25 that "More than 5,000 mercenaries of the Mojahedin are being prepared and supplied with tanks to lead a ground war" to retake Kirkuk.16 The Mojahedin issued a statement declaring the allegation by Talebani to be a "blatant lie."17 At the time, the NLA was fully engaged in defending against attacks by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
Close Relations With Kurds
The Mojahedin have long had close relations with the Kurds in Iraq and Iran. Talebani expressed his support for the Mojahedin in a 1984 letter to Massoud Rajavi, the head ofthe PMOI. Talebani stated:
"Honorable and dear brother Massoud Rajavi, on behalf of the Patriotic Union of Iraqi Kurdistan (PUK) politburo, I would like to express my greeting and very best wishes to you and other Mujahedin brothers in your struggle against the reactionary zealots who rule in Iran....We are therefore always ready to strengthen our good relationship with the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran."18
The Mojahedin enjoyed close relations with the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), the other major Kurdish party in northern Iraq led by Massoud Barzani, and Kurds in Iran, who were persecuted by the mullahs and allowed the Mojahedin to set up bases in the north western area. In 1983, the PMOI formally adopted a plan supporting autonomy for Kurds in Iran.
Given its longstanding relations with the Kurds, the Mojahedin would not have attacked them. The Mojahedin was fully aware the PUK skirmishes - and false propaganda - were carried out at the direction of the mullahs as a requirement to obtain continued support. The PUK later recanted its allegations. (See Kurdish Democratic Party on the site's menu.)
On March 29, while the NLA was involved in battles with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Saddam's forces retook Kirkuk.
1) "Saddam's Forces Reportedly Set Kirkuk Oil Wells on Fire," UPI, March 14, 1991.
2) "What Lurks in the Middle East," Christian Science Monitor, March 21, 1991.
3) "Mojahedin-e Khalq Claims 100 Members of the IRGC Killed in Western Iran Attack," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Voice of the America in Persian (March 14, 1991), March 16, 1991.
4) "Iraqi Troops Reportedly Retake Towns, Heavy Fighting Continues," UPI, March 17, 1991.
5) "Army Offensive Repelled, Iraqi Opposition Says," Washington Post, March 19, 1991.
6) "Iranian Rebel Group Levels Charges at its Government,"UPI, March 21, 1991.
7) "Opposition Trains on Plains of Iraq to Topple Iranian Rulers," Associated Press, May 8, 1991.
8) "Saddam's Forces Use Planes, Helicopters to Attack Kirkuk," UPI, March 25, 1991.
9) Iranian Mojahedin-e Khalq Claims 'Large-Scale' Retaliation for Iranian Attack," BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan Radio (March 15, 1991), March 27, 1991.
10) "Iranian Opposition Describes Battle in Iraq," Associated Press, April 4, 1991.
11) "Written Statement Submitted by International Educational Developments, a Non-Governmental Organization on the Roster," Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, United Nations. Document E/CN.4/Sub.2/1995/NGO/55, August 22, 1995.
14) "Iranian Rebel Group Levels Charges at its Government," UPI, March 21, 1991.
15) "Democracy Betrayed; A Response to U.S. State Department Report on the Mojahedin and the Iranian Resistance," National Council of Resistance, Foreign Affairs Committee, March 15, 1995.
16) "UN Allies Urged to Save Rebels," The Guardian, March 26, 1991.
17) "Kurdish Leader Returns; Vows Fight to Free All Iraq," Associated Press, March 26, 1991.
18) "Enemies of the Ayatollahs," by Mohamad Mohaddessin, Zed Books, London, New York, 2004.