In 1972, the U.S. helped arm an Iraqi Kurdish insurrection against Baghdad. It did so on behalf of Iran, then led by America’s ally, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who hoped to pressure the Iraqi government in an ongoing border dispute. Three years later, the shah signed a border agreement with Baghdad and shut off the weapons pipeline. Then-Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani pleaded to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for support, but the American help ended. The Iraqi government crushed the Kurdish rebellion.
Iraq’s Kurds rose up again in the 1980s with Iranian backing during the Iran-Iraq war. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s army waged a brutal scorched-earth campaign, using poison gas and forcibly resettling up to 100,000 Kurds in the southern desert.
The second event came in 1991, after the U.S.-led Gulf War that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi forces. Then-President George H. W. Bush called on Iraqis to rise up against Saddam. The Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south revolted, and Saddam responded with a brutal crackdown. While Bush had not explicitly promised support, Kurds and Shiites felt left in the lurch.