Memories of Iraqi Kurdistan

In 2003, the fall of Saddam Hussein opened up semi-autonomous Kurdistan to foreign investment. It also revived the interest of oil companies in the region, which had been explored, but not developed, by the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) between 1946 and 1961.
This article appeared in Vol. 11, No. 2 - 2014


A guard overlooking the Kurdish mountain range, 1952. (source: Mike Morton)

Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) surveys laid the foundation of our geological knowledge of Kurdistan and, for this reason, are still highly relevant to modern oil exploration. But these activities also involved IPC personnel living and working among the indigenous people of the region, and their memoirs of the time provide a fascinating insight into a forgotten aspect of oil exploration.

IPC in Kurdistan 

The area of north-eastern Iraq that IPC geologists loosely called Kurdistan. The Turkish Petroleum Company, the forerunner of IPC, mounted an expedition to Iraq in 1925–6, which included a brief survey of Kurdistan. Following the discovery well at Baba Gurgur in 1927, the company’s focus was on developing the massive Kirkuk oil field. It was not until 1946 that the region was opened up to oil exploration again. 

As well as prospecting for oil, IPC was interested in the Kurdish mountains because their geology provided important clues about the structure of the region. But Iraqi Kurdistan had a troubled history as its people sought autonomy from Baghdad, and there were periodic outbreaks of unrest which made oil operations dangerous. Most of the area was accessible only on horseback and, apart from railway rest houses at Kirkuk and Mosul, a consulate house in Sulaimaniya and a few public works shacks elsewhere, company employees had to rely either on the hospitality of government officials or – more likely – travel with their own tents and assistants. Journeys usually involved a courtesy visit to officials en route, a lengthy process since custom demanded the killing of a chicken or a goat in a guest’s honour. 

Many of the scientists employed by the IPC group of companies worked in Kurdistan at some stage in their careers. Among the notable geologists and paleontologists who came and went was the enigmatic figure of Robert George Spencer ‘Doc’ Hudson. A man of craggy features and exceptional academic ability, Hudson had been a professor of geology at Leeds University before joining IPC in 1946. His task was to study the fossils, mostly invertebrate, collected by the company’s field parties. He brought with him years of experience of the fossils, stratigraphy and geology of northern England.

An IPC geological party at Chalki Camp in 1952. Back row, from second right to left: Tewfic Bey (headman of Barwar Country), IPC geologists René Wetzel, ‘Doc’ Hudson, Mike Morton and crouching, Sami Nasr. Among the mule men, guards and watchmen, the conical felt hats of the Assyrians contrast with the headdress of the Kurds. (source: Mike Morton)

Although reluctant to accept his first eight-month assignment to Iraq, Hudson enjoyed it enough to spend a full year in the company’s laboratories at Kirkuk. He stayed on with the company until 1958, writing extensively on the geology of the region and leaving to the company a 12-volume loose-leaf quarto ‘Guide to Index Fossils of the Middle East’. He was considered a leading authority on the subject (and on the  carboniferous geology of northern England and Ireland) when he died accidentally from carbon monoxide poisoning in his rooms at Dublin University in 1965.

Kurdish Chieftains

It is remarkable how Kurdistan won the hearts of the IPC people who worked there. My father, geologist Mike Morton, often spoke of it as the finest place he had ever visited on his extensive travels around the Middle East. ‘It’s cold here now,’ he wrote. ‘I went up to the Persian frontier last week. It rained here too – and snow fell on the mountain peaks around the camp. It’s a lovely part of the East – high mountains, trees, streams, wild birds, squirrels, and in the higher parts, wild pig, bears, and ibex. There are even a few leopards.’

  • A geological party negotiates its way through the Kurdish mountains. (source: Mike Morton)

  • A group of dancing Kurdish tribesmen welcome the geologists. (source: Mike Morton)

  • A Kurdish family. (source: Mike Morton)

  • A group of Kurdish assistants around the camp fire (source: Mike Morton)

  • A geological camp near a village in the Kurdish mountains, 1952. (source: Mike Morton)

Apart from the beauty of its natural landscape, this was a land of larger-than-life figures. Among its chiefs was Babekr Agha of the Pizhdar tribe. He was tall, gaunt and with a patch over one eye and a large aquiline nose. Dressed in baggy trousers, a brightly coloured cummerbund and wearing a turban, he presented an imposing figure. The men sitting around his majilis had all the charm and humor for which the Kurds are renowned.

In the 1950s, relations between the Kurds and the company were good. On one occasion, Babekr Agha arrived at  the IPC hospital in Kirkuk for a medical operation. To the dismay of the British staff, a retinue of about 50 armed men, all of whom expected to sleep beside their chief, accompanied him. Aftermuch negotiation, staff persuaded them to camp outside in the hospital grounds. John Davies was the IPC surgeon, a man who was so devoted to his work that he stopped people in the street and, if they looked interesting enough, invited them to come for an operation. In the Agha’s case, the operation was successful and the patient, on his departure, paid tribute to the IPC management while his tribesmen jostled to get into the room.

Another prominent chief was Suleiman Agha of the Herki tribe. IPC liaison officer, Ian Macpherson, would often visit him to pay his respects. At one lunch thrown in his honor, Suleiman Agha provided the customary fare of lamb and rice cooked in the Persian style with apricots and walnuts. Unlike the Arabs, the Kurdish women were unveiled and moved freely around the gathering, although they did not eat with the visitors. They wore bright colors that clashed rather than matched but, as Macpherson observed, the effect could be dazzling in the strong clear light of an Iraqi spring. At the end of the lunch, the customary Kurdish gesture of approval – a series of energetic belches – followed. To judge by their efforts, they were well pleased, but Macpherson kept his counsel, prevented by company ‘regulations’ from making his own contribution.

A Kurdish tribesman at a geological camp in the mountains. (source: IPC) At the center of Kurdish life was the town of Sulaimaniya, then a maze of narrow alleys and mud brick houses. For those houses built on a hillside, the roof of one formed the courtyard of the next row above – and so on. At the end of one of these alleys was the house where Macpherson stayed when recuperating from illness. Kerim, the young Kurd who looked after him, fed him well on kebabs and other local fare and, most memorable of all, breakfasts of preserved apricots, mast (smoky yoghurt), cornflakes and wild honey. It was a noisy house, surrounded by dogs, cats, small boys and donkeys. There was a small mosque, and storks on nearby roofs snapped their beaks all day, making a clattering sound that gave them the nickname ‘lag-lag’. On the veranda, in the vine surrounding Macpherson’s bed, hundreds of sparrows with piercing voices made sleep impossible after dawn.

The Kurdish tribesmen who assisted the survey parties were fierce yet intensely loyal. My father was accompanied by Kurds as guides, chain men, sample collectors and assistants. On one occasion, a tribesman appeared from behind a rock, demanding, ‘Your money or your life!’ Omar, a Kurd in the geological team and an ex-British army paratrooper, explained vehemently to the highwayman that the geologists were his guests and eventually the man let them pass safely. After they had passed by, Omar said, ‘That man has insulted my nation, wait here, I am going back to kill him.’ He was eventually persuaded otherwise. 

A Case of Kidnapping 

In July 1961 the Iraqi leader, General Abdul al-Karim Qasim, ordered his troops to begin military maneuvers against the Kurds, an action that precipitated a fullblown Kurdish revolt. Since most of the developed Iraqi oilfields were in the north, a cry went up that the Kurdish troubles ‘smelt of oil’. One Baghdad newspaper reported that the government had found rebel maps printed with help from ‘imperialistic quarters’, and letters in English that the Kurdish leader, Mullah Mustafa al-Barzani, had written to British subjects. Mustafa had gone into hiding, the newspaper claimed.

In 1961, the rebels known as the Peshmerga raided an IPC exploration drilling camp at Taq Taq. They left the expatriates unharmed but the company suspended drilling operations and abandoned the well when Qasim confiscated the non-producing areas. In October 1962, the Peshmerga raided Ain Zalah and took a drilling superintendent prisoner. After a long walk to the Iranian border, they released him.

IPC geologist Frank Gosling. (source: F Gosling) These troubles would have particular significance for one IPC employee. Frank Gosling had started with the company in the Geological Research Department in London in 1952 and transferred to Kirkuk in 1956. Here he worked on exploration wells and field surveys mostly in the Kurdish mountains. One day in November 1962, he phoned his wife, Pauline, to say that he was going to be late for lunch. He was showing an Iraqi geologist, Adnan Samarrai, the geology of an area some ten miles north-west of Kirkuk. Traveling in two Land Rovers, the party of five arrived at a spot in the Qarah Chauq hills and the two geologists began their inspection. Then four armed Kurdish tribesmen appeared. Initially, the atmosphere was tense – one of their drivers was convinced that the Kurds were going to kill them all. However, after some discussion, the Kurds decided to release the men at sunset and slip away.

But then they changed their minds. Thus began a lengthy trek through the mountains, arriving at the village of Bettwahta where they were held for four long weeks. This was a large village tucked under a large precipitous limestone cliff with caves at its base, providing the rebels with shelter from overflying Iraqi MIGs. The leader of the Kurds, Barzani, eventually arrived at the village to discuss Gosling’s release. He was described as a ‘fierce walnut-colored man of 59, with straight black eyebrows that almost met across an eagle’s bill of a nose; a rough, obstinate old warrior’. After a long discussion, Barzani agreed that Gosling could leave, but via Iran, since the authorities in Kirkuk might accuse him of spying for the Kurds if he returned to Iraq.

Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa al-Barzani with men of the Peshmerga in the Kurdish mountains in 1965. (source: William Carter)

Winter had arrived – the weather was cold with rain and sleety showers and icy water rushed down the mountain streams – and the next stage of the journey was hard. Presently, after setbacks and sickness, Gosling passed across the border into Iran, thence taken by train to Tehran. He arrived back in London on January 9, 1963, almost three months after his capture.

Kurdistan Today

In 1972, the Iraqi government nationalized IPC’s assets, effectively ending the concession. In 2013, however, a number of different oil companies had 24 drilling rigs in Kurdistan and this year there will be 40, with production expected to reach 250,000 bopd. A new pipeline to ship oil from Kurdistan to Turkey has opened, although it is opposed by the federal government in Baghdad, indicating that tensions between the regional and federal governments have not been resolved. 

To read more about the history of the IPC, see GEO ExPro article ‘Once Upon a Red Line’ .

Quentin Morton’s next book 'The Third River: Aspects of Oil in the Middle East, 1887– 1979' is being published in the spring by the National Center for Documentation and Research in Abu Dhabi, UAE.


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