President Trump mistakenly states that Kurds did not help us during World War II, here is the real story

“I was really upset because that’s not true.”

Jack Murphy
October 14, 2019 - 9:57 am
Omar Ahmed Barzinji served with the Iraqi levies

Courtesy of Sheik Omar Ahmed Barzinjis relatives, used with permission

When President Trump criticized the Kurds recently saying that, “they didn’t help us in the Second World War. They didn’t help us with Normandy, as an example,” some of America's allies in the region had a strong reaction.

One Kurdish soldier who serves in a counter-terrorism unit trained by American and British forces told Connecting Vets, “I was really upset because that’s not true.” He was thinking specifically of his grandfather named Omar Ahmed Barzinji who served in the British-led Iraq levies.

Documenting the service of Kurds during World War II is historically challenging. While the Kurds exist as an ethnic identity spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, they have never existed as a state. For this reason, there was never a country called Kurdistan that could have supported the allies during World War II in the first place. However, there were Kurds who volunteered and served with the Iraqi levies which were staffed with British officers. According to newspaper clippings from the time, the Iraq levies were trained by British RAF instructors to be para-troopers and learned about unarmed combat and the latest military weaponry.

One such member of the levies was Omar Ahmed Barzinji. Barzinji grew up in Qara Dagh, a small farming village outside the city of Sulaymaniyah in the 1930s. At 16, he made his way to Baghdad and attempted to enlist with the British levies who were at the time recruiting Kurds, Arabs, Assyrian Christians, and Turkmen to make up for a manpower shortage during the war.

Omar Ahmed Barzinji
Courtesy of Sheik Omar Ahmed Barzinjis relatives, used with permission

At first, Barzinji was turned away because he was too young, but family members tell Connecting Vets that a British officer felt sorry for him, and helped him fabricate some documents so he could enlist. According to the family, who provided documentation and pictures, their relative participated in over twenty parachute jumps and was deployed to Italy, Greece, and Egypt during the war.

Because the Kurds are a stateless people and because not many records survive, it can be difficult for historians to place exactly how many Kurds volunteered to serve with allied forces. For instance, it is also known that Kurds served with the Soviets on the Eastern front. However, the case of Omar Ahmed Barzinji gives a clear cut case of a Kurd who served with the Iraq levies under British command.

With a history of conflict, displacement, and marginalization, the Kurds have a saying that they, "have had no friend but the mountains". Thankfully, the Americans and the British had a few Kurdish friends during the Second World War.  For the Kurds who continue to serve, their relationship with the United States and Britain is a long-standing tradition and a welcome one at that.  

US and British Special Operations units will likely continue to work with Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq, but President Trump has announced the full withdrawal of American forces who partnered with the Kurdish YPG and YPJ militias in North East Syria. The US drawdown from the Syrian-Turkish border was seen as a de facto green light for the Turkish government to invade, which is what occurred last week. Bereft of an American ally in Syria, the Kurds are now making deals with the Assad regime to rejoin the Syrian state in hopes of avoiding a massacre at the hands of the Turkish military and their various proxy forces. 

Reach Jack Murphy as jack@connectingvets.com or @jackmurphyrgr.

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