Spread over five different countries -- mainly Turkey, Iran and Iraq, but also Syria and the former USSR -- the Kurds are one of the most controversial nations in History. Their name was not even acknowledged everywhere: until very recently the word “Kurd” was forbidden in Turkey, where Kurds were called “Eastern Anatolians”. Their number is the subject of endless debate: according to Kurdish authors, there are about 30 million Kurds, living in the various parts of Kurdistan: Turkey (15 to 20 millions), Iraq (6 millions), Iran (8 millions) Syria (1.5 to 2 millions) and the ex-the USSR (0.5 million), plus two million Kurds living outside Kurdistan in the diaspora. For the governments concerned, these figures are grossly “inflated”. Due to the lack of census in these countries, or to the total secrecy that surrounds them, it is difficult to affirm that these figures are correct. The geographical borders of Kurdistan are also contested: in Iraq, the border between Kurdistan and Arabian Iraq follows the line of ridges that separate the plain of Mesopotamia from the mountains of Kurdistan - but the Kurds have ben unable to force the government of Baghdad to recognize it despite thirty years of war. In Iran, the administrative province of Kurdistan covers only a fraction of the territory of Kurdistan that includes also the provinces of West Azerbaijan, Bakhtaran and Elam. In Turkey, Kurdistan... does not exist. But for the Kurds “Greater Kurdistan” spreads from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Nevertheless, with their culture, their religion, their traditions, the ridges that separate the plain of Mesopotamia from the mountains of Kurdistan - but the Kurds have ben unable to force the government of Baghdad to recognize it despite thirty years of war. In Iran, the administrative province of Kurdistan covers only a fraction of the territory of Kurdistan that includes also the provinces of West Azerbaijan, Bakhtaran and Elam. In Turkey, Kurdistan... does not exist. But for the Kurds “Greater Kurdistan” spreads from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.
A people without a homeland, the Kurds remained for a long time a people without historians. And the first legends about the origin of the Kurds were recounted by Arab, Turkish and Persian writers. For the geographer Abu Ishak-el-Farsi, who wrote in the tenth century of our era, “They are effectively people who inhabit our area, but they do not belong to the category of the human species: fragments have been collected from all over the world and kneaded in order to create the Kurd.’’ According to a legend quoted by the Arab historian Masudi, in his “Golden Meadows”, the Kurds are descended from the children of King Solomon’s slaves and of ... the Devil! Relegated to distant mountains, the unfaithful and impious concubines who had been seduced by Satan gave birth to “children who married, multiplied, and formed the Kurdish race.’’ According to another legend, the Kurds are the descendants of the victims of an extremely cruel tyrant, Zohak, who ruled in Persia in distant times: victim of two chancres that “raised their heads over his shoulders like snakes’’ Zohak suffered from unbearable pains that no doctor was able to alleviate; until the day when Satan, posing as a doctor, told him that the only way to relieve his pain was to dress daily the chancres with the brain of two adolescents. The vizir in charge of preparing this abominable remedy then succeeded in sparing each day one adolescent by mixing a human brain with the brain of a ram. The adolescents who escaped a horrible death went to live “on the ridges of the most desolate and totally uninhabited mountains... Since they were careful for a very long time to shun the company of men and flee with horror from them and their cities, they created a special language.’’ From the beginning, the Kurds were seen by their neighbours as a people apart -- the myth of the people of parias, coming from Satan, alternating with the myth of a people of exiles, victims of the most abominable oppression.
The Kurds live now on a territory inhabited since remotest Antiquity -- it is near Rowanduz, in Iraq, that the skeleton of the first Neanderthal man was discovered in the cave of Shanidar -- and historians, archaeologists and linguists have not yet made clear at what time the word “Kurd’’ appeared for the first time. Are the Kurds descended from the Kardukai mentioned by Xenophon in his Retreat of the Ten Thousand, or from the Cyrtii who appeared for the first time in 220 B.C.? Are they descended from the Medes, as their present Persian “cousins’’ eagerly claim? Or are they an autochtonous people tinged by the waves of invaders who swept through this crossroads between Asia and Europe? The debate remains open.
The history of the Kurds is better known after their Islamisation by caliph Omar ibn el Khattab. An Islamisation which was not achieved easily: the Arab chronicles narrate at length the Kurdish revolts which succeeded one another for three centuries, from the occupation of Takrit, in 637 A.D., until the advent of the first historical Kurdish dynasties: the Shaddids reigned from 951 to 1015 in Transcaucasia; the Hassanwayhs ruled from 960 to 1015 over what is to-day the southern part of Iranian Kurdistan; and the Marwanids from 990 to 1096 over the area surrounding Diyarbakir.
Salah ed Din (1138-1193), founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, was born of a Kurdish father; but his empire, which stretched as far as Egypt, never bore the features of a Kurdish state. In the thirteenth century the Mongol hordes invaded Kurdistan: they reached Shahrizur in 1247, Diyarbakir in 1252, Kermanshah (Bakhtaran) and Arbil in 1257, Hakkari and Djezireh in 1259; Kurdistan sank into an abyss of violence for two centuries and a half. And one had to wait until the beginning of the sixteenth century -- with the battle of Tchaldiran (1514) -- to witness a Kurdish renaissance: taking advantage of the rivalry that was to set for four centuries the Ottoman Sultan against the Shah of Persia, the Kurds progressively asserted their autonomy as regards the two central governments that were wooing them. It was at that time -- the Golden Age of Kurdish feudalism -- that prince Sharaf ed Din of Bitlis wrote (in Persian) his Sharafnameh (1596) -- the first book on Kurdish history. During the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries Kurdistan remained the battlefield of Turco-Persian rivalries, the border between the two empires moving Eastwards and Westwards according to the ensuing battles and treaties. The Treaty of Erzurum (1639) marked the end of a period of Persian expansion, and soon after almost all the Kurds were living under Ottoman suzerainty. One century later, the Treaty of 1732 sanctioned a new fluctuation of the border, Westwards this time, under Nader Shah, who reached the suburbs of Baghdad. But a new treaty in 1739 reestablished the border of 1639. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when there appeared this entirely new phenomenon in Kurdistan --nationalism -- the Kurdish society was, for all intents and purposes, no different from the society described by Prince Sharaf ed Din in 1596. Kurdish lords of more or less ancient lineage, living in castles comparable to the feudal castles of the European Middle-Age, ruled over a population of Kurdish, Kurdified and Christian peasants, with the assistance of sedentary, semi-nomadic and nomadic warrior tribes . In this mountain country , with no roads, the universe and the loyalty of the Kurdish lords and peasants rarely extended beyond the limits of their valley. A few chieftains managed to establish more or less autonomous principalities, but the words “State” and “Nation” did not exist at that time in the Kurdish language. In 1975, after obtaining their autonomy and coming close to independence, the Kurds of Iraq sank once again into the abyss of oppression. It was certainly not for lack of courage; but maybe, partly, for lack of history. Every national movement thrives on its past, often a magnified and embellished past: a nation forges itself around a common history. The words are almost as important as the events, the narration is as significant as the bullet. But the Kurds have no history: general Barzani’s “peshmergas” knew nothing about amir Bedir Khan or about shaikh Ubaidallahh, the unfortunate heroes of Kurdish independence. The Kurdish intellectuals who rallied around general Barzani knew nothing of the founders of the first Kurdish clubs of Istanbul. And the researcher who studies the Kurdish revolts of 1921, 1925, 1930, 1937, feels like an archaeologist searching through the scarce remains of a civilisation that became extinct five thousand years ago. Obviously the Kurds have some excuses: century-old repression has systematically destroyed any written signs of Kurdish history. But the Kurds also have their share of responsibility: after the 1970 agreement, the Iraqi Kurds did not seize this extraordinary opportunity to start at long last the huge historical work that awaited them.
Throughout the twentieth century, relations between Kurds and their rulers were often hostile. Local uprisings by Kurdish tribes continued after World War I, and from World War II onward various Kurdish political movements sought to gain self-rule and independence, especially at times when the governments with power over them weakened. For their part, the governments that ruled Kurds adopted no single policy-when weak they sometimes offered concessions to Kurds, but the general trend was toward repression, forced assimilation, and violent reprisal.
The forgotten history.
The Turkish Republic, did not acknowledge the existence of Kurds (more related to Middle Eastern Jews) as a people distinct from Turks. In 1924, Kemal Ataturk set the tone for Turkish policy when he banned Kurdish publications; denying Kurdish identity remained a cornerstone of Turkey's treatment of Kurds for many decades. Much like the Balkan states that sought to force some of their minorities to accept the dominant national identity, Turkey resorted to cultural repression to try to make Kurds into Turks. Kurds, according to official parlance, were not Kurds: they were mountain Turks, and these mountain Turks were not allowed to speak Kurdish, at least not in public. Indeed, they could actually be fined for using Kurdish to trade at markets.(The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview, ed. Philip G. Kreyenbroek and Stefan Sperl, 1992, pp. 73-74.)
Kurdish armed resistance to the Turkish government occurred in two phases. Kurdish uprisings followed almost immediately after the founding of the Turkish Republic. These rebellions in the 1920s and 1930s were not full-scale nationalist revolutions but regional uprisings that continued the long Kurdish tradition of struggle against central authority. By 1938 Turkey had finally suppressed this first wave of Kurdish resistance, but it faced a renewed Kurdish challenge in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1984 the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK), one of the most radical of all Kurdish parties, began a war in Turkey's east that intensified into the 1990s. The PKK attacked Turkish installations and Kurdish guards recruited by the Turkish government. Both the PKK and Turkish forces carried out killings and summary executions. Turkey finally gained the upper hand in the late 1990s and in 1999 captured the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan. (Michael M. Gunter, The Kurds in Turkey: A Political Dilemma, 1990, p. 77. )
Turkey struck against Kurds in the 1920s and 1930s with deportations and the destruction of Kurdish villages. These never amounted to full-scale ethnic cleansing; that would not have made sense given that Turkish authorities repeatedly insisted that Kurds were Turks. But Turkish policy verged on ethnic cleansing in battle C-zones in eastern Anatolia. Commenting on a 1927 law that allowed for deportations of Kurds, British Ambassador Sir George Clerk noted the irony that "the Kurds who were the principal agent employed for the deportation of Armenians, should be in danger of suffering the same fate as the Armenians only twelve years later." Turkish authorities carried out some of their harshest reprisals in the Dersim, a region of central Anatolia to the north of Harput, which central governments had struggled to pacify since Ottoman times. Some Armenians took advantage of the weak government hold over Dersim by escaping there during World War 1. After years of unrest, the Turkish government resolved to pacify the Dersim once and for all. Turkish authorities renamed the region Tunceli, placed it under a state of siege in 1936, and carried out a sweeping assault in 1937 and 1938 that included bombing, the destruction of villages, and deportations. (Martin van Bruinessen, "Kurdish Society, Ethnicity, Nationalism and Refugee Problems," in Kurds, ed. Kreyenbroek and Sperl, p. 60.)
Turkish forces carried out even more sweeping attacks and deportations during the war against the PKK in the 1980s and 1990s. The basic Turkish strategy consisted of forcing out villagers and burning their homes. "They ordered us to leave our houses," one witness told Human Rights Watch, "and told us to gather near the school. They told us we supported the PKK, and that they were going to burn the village." According to witnesses, Turkish soldiers, forces of the Ministry of the Interior known as Jandarma, special Jandarma units called the Ozel Tim, and village guards recruited from local residents carried out such raids. The Turkish air force was also involved. According to Human Rights Watch, between 1984 and 1995 more than 2,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, most by Turkish security forces. Even the Turkish minister of the interior said in 1995 that some 2,200 Kurdish villages had been "emptied or evacuated." All told, more than 3,000 villages were emptied of their inhabitants dur- ing the war. More than a million Kurds were either forced from their homes or fled the war zone, and estimates of the displaced reached as high as 3 million. Many of these internally displaced people left for slums in Turkey's large cities, including Istanbul. (Norwegian Refugee Council/Global IDP Project, Profile of Internal Displacement: Turkey. "Compilation of the Information As of 5 April 2004 available in the Global IDP Database of the Norwegian Refugee Council).
Turkey also resorted to political and cultural repression of the Kurds. The most prominent victims included the Zana family of the city of Diyarbekir in southeastern Turkey. Mehdi Zana was a Kurdish political activist who had been elected mayor of Diyarbekir in 1977, but three years later he was imprisoned. Released in 1991, Zana was returned to prison in 1994 and left for exile in Sweden upon his release in 1995. His wife, Leyla Zana, only fifteen years old when she married Mehdi, went to school and became a politician herself. She won a seat in Turkey's parliament in 1991, but her first act as a deputy created political shockwaves. She wore a headband with the Kurdish colors: yellow, green, and red, and after taking a loyalty oath in Turkish she added a few words in Kurdish: she intended to "struggle so that the Kurdish and Turkish peoples may live together in a democratic framework." Forced from her political party for this transgression, Zana and other deputies founded the new Democratic party, but in 1994 the Turkish Parliament lifted parliamentary immunity for Zana and her fellow deputies, claiming they were affiliated with the PKK. Leyla Zana and her fellow deputies received fifteen-year prison sentences. (Ertugrul Kurkc;;u, "Leyla Zana: Defiance Under Fire," Amnesty Magazine, 2003).
To the south and east of Turkey, Kurds also repeatedly clashed with their rulers in Iran and even more so in Iraq. Iraq, like Turkey, had its origins as a successor state to the shattered Ottoman Empire. It would have emerged from the empire without a large Kurdish minority if Britain, for military and economic reasons, had not insisted on attaching the Ottoman province of Mosul to Mesopotamia. Turkey also claimed Mosul, but in 1925 the League of Nations accepted the British position, and Iraq, then a British mandate, received most of the region. Britain soon entered into negotiations on granting Iraq independence, and the end of the British mandate in 1930 left the Kurds of the Mosul province in Iraq.
Kurds repeatedly staged uprisings in Iraq and in adjacent regions of Iran. Typically they launched rebellions when central goven}ment authorities appeared weak. Thus there is a long history of Kurdish uprising during or immediately after wars. The early uprisings were regional and tribal, but Kurdish revolutionary movements became increasingly nationalist during the twentieth century. Mullah Mustafa Barzani of the Barzani tribe of northeastern Iraq was the most famous of all Kurdish revolutionaries. With his elder brother Sheikh Ahmad, he fought the government of Iraq in an uprising in 1931 and 1932 that was suppressed with the help of the Royal Air Force. In 1945 Barzani declared revolution but retreated under Iraqi pressure to the town of Mahabad in northern Iran. Mahabad flourished as a center of Kurdish nationalism during World War II after the Soviet Union took control of northern Iran in 1941. The Republic of Mahabad declared its independence in January 1946 but soon fell to Iranian forces, and in 1947 Barzani retreated to the USSR. He returned to Iraq from exile in 1958 after a revolution that briefly led to improved relations between the central government and Iraq's Kurds, but renewed fighting broke out in 1961.(Jonathan C. Randal, .After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan (Boulder, Colo., 1999), pp. 112-131.)
Kurdish nationalism developed a new intensity after the Baath party took control of Iraq in 1968. At first the new regime in Baghdad, uncertain of its power, offered Kurds in the north elements of self-rule, but the status of the city of Kirkuk and its oil fields proved a major problem. Saddam Hussein's regime and Kurdish leaders disputed whether Kirkuk would lie within the borders of a Kurdish region. In 1974 Baghdad unilaterally announced an autonomy measure that maintained central control over Kirkuk. Barzani refused to accept these terms and launched his last uprising. He depended on Iran for support, but Iraq concluded an agreement with Iran in 1975 and defeated Barzani. (Human Rights Watch, Iraq's Crime of Genocide: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds, 1995, pp. 4,19-20).
This was Mullah Mustafa Barzani's final defeat-he died in 1979 in the United States. But in 1980 Iraq's invasion of Iran weakened the Iraqi military presence in Kurdish areas and sparked renewed Kurdish revolution by two competing Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP) led by Mullah Mustafa's son Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani.
The governments of Iraq and Iran both employed selected deportations as a tool to suppress Kurdish uprisings, but in Iraq deportation gradually developed into ethnic cleansing. After suppressing Mullah Mustafa Barzani's final uprising, Iraq embarked on a campaign to remake the population of parts of northern Iraq. The government destroyed numerous Kurdish villages and provided incentives to Arabs to replace Kurds. Sunni Arabs from the desert south of Mosul, for example, moved north into Kurdish lands. As one Arab eXplained of his move into a Kurdish village in 1975, "We were very happy to go to the north because we had no irrigated lands in the south." Meanwhile tens of thousands of Kurds were deported south. In 1978 and 1979 Iraq cleared a zone of close to twenty miles along areas of its northern border, and destroyed hundreds more Kurdish villages. All told, Iraq pushed about a quarter of a million nonArabs, including Kurds, out of their lands. (Human Rights Watch, Claims in Conflict: Reversing Ethnic Cleansing in Northern Iraq, August 2004, vol. 16, no. 4 E, pp. 2, 8, 10; and Samantha Power, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide , 2002, p. 175.)
and 1989 Iraq carried out an even
more violent campaign against the country's
Kurds. In 1987 Saddam placed
his cousin Ali Hassan
al-Majid in charge of retaking control over Iraq's north,
and in April Iraqi forces first used the
weapon that would give al-Majid the name that
made him internationally notorious:
"Chemical Ali." Iraqi forces released chemical weapons over Kurdish villages in the valley of Balisan. They also destroyed hundreds of villages. Peter Galbraith, a staff member for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saw some of the destruction in September 1987. The Iraqi ambassador to the United States offered to let Galbraith visit, and Iraqi forces surprisingly allowed Galbraith and an American diplomat to continue on their way into the Kurdish region where they found that most of the Kurdish towns and villages along the road had been destroyed.( Human Rights Watch, Iraq's Crime of Genocide, pp. 40-47, 49-51; Power, "A Problemfrom Hell," p. 183.)
The war against Iraq's Kurds culminated in 1989 with the Anfal Operation in which Iraqi forces burned villages, launched chemical attacks, and relocated Kurds. This was an ambitious program of ethnic cleansing. AI-Majid described his goals in a tape of an April 1988 meeting. "By next summer," he said, "there will be no more villages remaining that are spread out here and there throughout the region, but only camps." He spoke of prohibiting settlements in large areas ana of mass evacuations: "No human beings except on the main roads." The most infamous Iraqi gas attack of the Anfal Operation took place on March 16 at the town of Halabja; many other towns and villages suffered a similar fate. On the afternoon of May 3, 1988, Kurds at the village of Goktapa, for example, heard the sound of Iraqi jets. Goktapa had been bombed many times before, but this time was different. As one witness recounted, "When the bombing started, the sound was different from previous times . I saw smoke rising, first white, then turning to gray . The smoke smelled like a matchstick when you burn it. I passed out.” (Quoted in Human Rights Watch, Iraq's Crime of Genocide, pp. 255, 118; Power, "A Problem from Hell," pp. 188-189).
In all, Iraqi forces killed about 100,000 Kurds during the Anfal Operation and forced hundreds of thousands out of their homes. The final Iraqi campaign to remake the ethnic map of the country's north followed immediately after the Gulf War of 1991. With the Allied victory, Kurds staged a nationalist revolution and took over virtually all of the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. After reaching a cease-fire, Saddam Hussein struck back against the Kurds. The fall of Kirkuk in late March to Iraqi forces unleashed a wave of flight. More than a million Kurds fled north. They crossed by the thousands over mountains to the border of Turkey. The Turkish government did not welcome the refugees, though local Kurds did what they could to provide food. One Kurdish baker in southeastern Turkey increased his bread production more than threefold. "I don't know if it's enough," he told a reporter. "But everyone from this area is helping." (New York Times, April 7, 1991.)
This crisis so soon after the Allied victory in the Gulf War gained international attention. Acting on humanitarian grounds, the United States, Britain, and France created a "safe haven" close to Iraq's northern border with Turkey and established a "no-fly zone" for the Iraqi air force north of the thirty-sixth parallel. By October 1991 Iraqi forces and authorities withdrew from most Kurdish regions of Iraq's north with the exception of Kirkuk. The effective division of northern Iraq into Kurdish and Iraqi zones simultaneously advanced Kurdish interests and the Iraqi regime's campaign to Arabize the north. Kurds gained autonomy, but the Iraqi government accelerated its campaign to remake Kirkuk into an Arab city and region. Iraqi authorities deported 100,000 people from Kirkuk and other communities and encouraged Arabs to move north to replace them.
Since then, the Kurds, have been playing their cards carefully to ensure the advances they have made since the 1991 Persian Gulf War were not lost in the web of negotiations with the Shia and Sunnis after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Kurds opted for a more gradual approach in securing their autonomy in northern Iraq, realizing that an aggressive push for independence in the post-Saddam Hussein era would only have invited a messy reprisal from Turkey.
Thus, even though it was a priority for the Kurdish delegation to keep Kirkuk under the control of the Kurdish regional government, the Kurds where willing to offer the concession of allowing current oil revenues to filter through the central government in Baghdad. Displaced Kurds who were driven out of Kirkuk by Hussein's forces in his bid to "Arabize" the city are now returning; the Kurdish leadership hopes they will constitute a majority in the December 2007 census, so that a proposed referendum in the city will allow them to keep Kirkuk part of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region legitimately. And Kurdish leaders do not plan on disbanding the peshmerga, but will gradually integrate its guerrilla forces into the state security apparatus.
Washington likely will not endorse the Kurdish strategy fully. Kurdistan faces the dilemma of having its territory spread across four countries -- Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey -- each of which has a core interest in repressing its Kurdish minority to dampen any separatist tendencies. For its part, the United States has complex relations with each of these countries, and so cannot afford to promote the existence of an independent Kurdistan in the region.
Washington's main goal in the negotiations for the formation of Iraq's full-term government was to bring the Sunnis into the political fold. This is aimed at quelling the Sunni nationalist insurgency and bringing pressure to bear on the Sunni jihadists.
For the Kurds, this means a considerable number of obstacles lie in their path to regional autonomy. Earlier, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim -- who leads the main Iraqi Shiite political party, the United Iraqi Alliance, as well as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) -- loosely supported the Kurds in the idea of regional federalism during the referendum negotiations. At that time, the prospect of securing a Shiite enclave in the south looked promising.
While SCIRI, an Iranian creation formed in Tehran in 1982, saw federalism as being in its interest, Jaafari's Hizb al-Dawah and the movements of al-Sadr and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani are much more centered on a strong central government. Thanks to the Shiite failure to achieve a consensus on the notion of federalism, the Sunnis won a chunk of the government in the December 2005 elections. When Sunni participation in the election decreased their influence, Shiite leaders joined al-Sadr's call for a strong central government. They also openly opposed the Kurdish preference for a regional federal structure, which essentially provides for an autonomous Kurdish region in the north that would include all the provinces with sizable Kurdish populations.
Given the complexity of the negotiations, the most the Kurds can hope for at this juncture is a political framework containing as many loopholes as possible to allow for their continued evolution into a sovereign entity. Moreover, for Kurdish aspirations to be met, the United States must maintain its military presence in Iraq to keep regional forces in check. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that Washington's interests in Iraq do not clearly align with Kurdish interests.