Kurdish nationalism from World War I through 2007: An incomplete historical narrative - III

  • KurdishMedia.com - By Benjamin Kweskin
  • 05/04/2008 00:00:00


Iraq’s borders, like most of the Middle East, were created by the West, in this case the British. The vilayet (province) of Mosul, a majority Kurdish province, was incorporated in the British mandate in 1918, and later the new Arab state, due to its oil wealth. [1] The province of Sulaimaniyah was initially controlled by Sheikh Mahmoud from 1922-1923, who at least for a time played the Turks and British off each other, as he and his followers revolted against both British occupation and annexation to Arab Iraq.[2,3]

In fact, Britain and Iraq recognized the rights of Kurds in Iraq to form their own government December 22, 1922, though their policies would change after the Lausanne conference of 1923. [4] This short stint of independence was the first time Kurds would be independent until the Republic of Mahabad, in Iran, and Mosul has continued as a flourishing hub of Kurdish nationalism, despite Saddam Hussein’s efforts of Arabizing the area.

In 1962, due to continued fighting from the peshmerga militias of Mustafa Barzani and Jalal Talabani, Kurds effectively controlled the entirety of Iraqi Kurdistan—from the Zakho Mountains on the border with Syria and Turkey, to Iran. Analysts attribute this ‘fluke’ to the fact that Iraqi forces were more involved with a dispute with Kuwait, though the Kurdish forces were able to hold their own for a significant time.[5]

With the advent of the Ba’athists coming to power in 1963, Kurds (particularly the KDP) were able to negotiate somewhat with Baghdad, thanks to Egypt’s Gemal Abdel Nasser’s backing. This tenuous agreement with Iraq fell apart later that year, with the Iraqi army massacring hundreds in Sulaimaniyah, and expelling 40,000 Kurds from Kirkuk. [6] This event has not been forgotten by the Kurds, as they are currently paying off Arabs to leave the city where they once made up a definitive majority. [7]

Arabization policies and attempted ethnic cleansing did not initiate with the regime of Saddam Hussein; it only worsened. In fact, after the coup against the first Ba’athist regime became realized, the new Iraqi government under Abdel Rahman Aref began the institution of Arabizing Kurdistan. Incentives were offered to migrating Arabs, and this ethnic cleansing only intensified in the mid 1970s with the expulsion of thousands of Kurds and Assyrians to Southern Iraq from three primary regions: Sinjar, Khanqin, and Kirkuk--areas that have proven oil reserves. By the middle of 1979, a quarter of one million Arabs had moved to Kurdistan. [8] Despite military backing from the Shah of Iran, Israel, and the United States, it was not enough for Mustafa Barzani and his men to fend off the stronger Iraqi army. [9]

Interestingly enough, in 1974, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein the Iraqi government sought to impose a plan for “limited autonomy” in Iraqi Kurdistan, but this was just a ploy. As a result of the breakdown in subsequent negotiations, Kurdish-Iraqi fighting broke out throughout the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), and culminated in the now infamous poison gas attacks on several Kurdish villages, known as the “Anfal [Spoils] Campaign in 1988.” [10]

Most everyone who has watched any type of American news channel in the past five years has heard the oft-repeated phrase, “Saddam gassed his own people.” This was even one of the rallying points that President George W. Bush used to pressure Congress to go to war against the former Iraqi regime. In 1988 Hussein and other regime elite in the Iraqi government ordered chemical attacks to be used against the ‘rebellious’ Kurds in Northern Iraq, slaughtering over 5,000 civilians in the city of Halabja alone, 75 per cent of whom were women and children. [11]

General Ali Hassan al-Majid, or “Chemical Ali,” notorious for taking a hard-line approach on the Kurds pronounced, “I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything, the international community? Fuck them, the international community, and those that listen to them!” [12]

In part, male Kurds were rounded up during this horrific period, with statistics indicating that around 200,000 were killed both within Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan; mass graves, executions, forced displacement, rape, and bombings were only part of this campaign. Evidence is still being unearthed to this very day. [13] Sources differ in the actual number of villages destroyed. The State Department put it at 1,500; the Kurds placed the number at 3,500. [14] New York Times journalist Dexter Filkins, interviewing Brandeis University professor, Kanan Makiya, (a source who assured George Bush prior to the war in Iraq that Iraqis would greet Americans with “sweets and flowers” [15]) surmised, “As many as 180,000 Kurds had been murdered [by Saddam] in what people still call ‘the War of Annihilation.’” [16] Gerard Chaliand in his book The Kurdish Tragedy, explicitly explains Saddam’s policy toward the Kurds after Iraq and Iran ceased hostilities in 1988:

“The Settlement of a cease-fire agreement between Iran and Iraq in August 1988 has two consequences for the Kurds; the end of the [previous] Iranian alliance [with various Kurdish political parties] and the complete availability of the Iraqi army. The Iraqi army launched an extremely violent offensive against the Kurdish provinces…mobiliz[ing] 60,000 Iraqi soldiers and a large number of aircraft. 478 villages were destroyed and 77 villages gasses in the attack which caused the flight of around 100,000 of the region’s 150,000 inhabitants. A reign of terror was established.” [17]

As the Persian Gulf War was nearing its end in 1991, a second Kurdish uprising against the oppressive Iraqi rule was crushed by Iraqi forces and as a result, nearly 500,000 Kurds fled to the Iraq-Turkey border and more than one million fled to neighboring Iran.[18] Afterwards, thousands of Kurds eventually returned to their homes under UN protection and the US/UK no-fly zone. In 1992 the Kurds (with the assistance of the international community and the US in particular) established an autonomous region in Northern Iraq, the government calling itself the “Kurdistan Regional Government.” [19]

The two largest political parties were, and remain, that of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iraq (KDPI), led by current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and KRG President Massoud Barzani, respectively. The PUK was formed in 1977, primarily in opposition to the perceived “personality cult” of Mustafa Barzani and the KDP. The PUK intermittently included two smaller groups, the Marxist-Leninist Komala, and the Socialist Party of Kurdistan. [20] Though KDPI broke up in 1975, it became reborn with Mustafa’s sons Idris and Massoud at the helm in a new Marxist-Leninist form that ironically enough supported Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and his anti-imperialist policies. [21]

The PUK and KDPI has vied for power in Kurdistan since the late 1970s, with past politics leading to intra-Kurdish political violence known as the Kurdish civil war. However, with the establishment of the KRG of 1992 and the subsequent American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the PUK and KDP have now formed a seemingly genuine alliance and an era of peace has been in effect since 1999.

The two main political parties agreed to stop the hostilities, and as of now have dual control of their autonomous regions throughout Kurdistan. They have both had to answer to recent Turkish demands that they stop harboring members of the terrorist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Abdullah Ocalan, their leader, has been held in a Turkish prison since 1999. [22] Interestingly enough, four years before his capture, he stated:

“As for the question of separatism, we do not insist on a separate state [.] [O]n the contrary, we defend a form of government that respects our people’s distinct cultural, social, political, and economic rights. These rights can be realized under one state just as they would be under [sic] two states.”[23]

Looking for an excuse to get back at Saddam Hussein and gain independence, the Kurds allied with the United States in the war that was launched in March 2003. Kurdish Peshmerga forces assisted in the US-led invasion of Iraq, and as of January 2004 elections, Kurds became an over-represented minority in the Iraqi government, taking an astonishing 77 seats out of 275. Kurds in Iraq will forever consider themselves Kurds first and Iraqis second, if at all. [24]

In September 2006, Iraqi flags were taken down in the northern part of the country, replaced with the official Kurdish one.[25] Kurdistan Democratic party leader Massoud Barzani commented in early 2007, "Turkey, Syria, and Iran should get used to the idea of an independent Kurdistan."[26] Able to dictate certain politics to Baghdad, both Barzani and Talabani combined forces to block deployment of the Iraqi army in Kurdish areas, [27] as Kurdish soldiers and peshmerga are used in their stead.

In another flexing of the Kurdish Regional Government’s muscles, after receiving $1.4 billion in June 2004 from the U.S., less than a week later they additionally signed their own oil-prospecting agreement with the Norwegian company DNO, while Barzani signed a deal with Bush donor Hunt Oil Company. [28,29] All together, the KRG has signed seven contracts with international oil companies, including Canada, United States, and Hungary. [30]

AEI think-tank associate Michael Rubin contends that after exchanging money and allowing a laisszez faire policy on the part of the Americans, the US has lost leverage among the Kurds, citing examples that Kurds don’t cooperate with Iraqi telecommunications companies, as well as issuing separate Kurdish visas (instead of Iraqi ones).[31] Mr. Rubin fails in recalling that since Iraq’s independence, Kurds have been relegated to second-class citizens, their culture had been marginalized, rights are largely curbed, and the previous Ba’athist regime sought to eliminate any trace of Kurdish identity in the Anfal campaign. These scars do not heal overnight.

Current PKK attacks against Turkish forces have caused an uproar in Turkey, where many citizens have rallied around the flag, calling upon their government to eradicate the terrorist group responsible for killing Turkish troops, citizens, and even tourists in recent months. The question is, to what extent would Turkey be given the green light? According to a Turkish journalist who reported to Al Jazeera.net:

“The areas that we're talking about - deep inside the Iraqi Kurdish mountains where the PKK is holed up - mean you have to go 60km inside Kurdish territories. This is not the legitimate 'hot pursuit' that is allowed for Turkey by international law, it is an occupation."[32]

Washington is more ambivalent since it recognizes that, despite the KRG’s recent neglect in handling the situation themselves, Northern Iraq has been the quietest part of Iraq. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack related to media outlets in early October, “…I am not sure that unilateral incursions are the way to go, the way to resolve the issue."[33] Rubin continues his subjective argument against the Kurds:

“Turkey no longer fears European disapproval deter[s] Ankara from attacking PKK bases. Too many European leaders have already made clear that Turkey has no hope of entering the European Union. And polls show the Turkish public no longer looks favorably upon E.U. membership. Turkish officials understand that even if they receive no green light from Washington, the only consequence of a cross-border raid would be to force Iraqi officials to seal their northern border.”[34]

What Turkey does fear is any attempt by Iraqi Kurds to proclaim their independence, a cause that keeps the country anxious about the present situation. Turks have also been pressuring the Americans to keep the oil-rich nation of Kirkuk in Arab hands as opposed to placing it within “Kurdistan,” using the pretext that it’s a mixed city, which furthermore contains a large Turkmen population. Kurdish power over Kirkuk would give the KRG control over 40 per cent of Iraq’s oil, as most of that oil lies in the (Northern) region of Iraqi Kurdistan (Mosul, Kirkuk),[35] making it more difficult for them to achieve an independent nation. [36] A contentious issue indeed, this city had been a predominantly Kurdish region prior to the “Arabization” policy initiated under Saddam’s regime in the 1970s and 1980s. Under this policy, Shi’a Arabs were forcibly evicted from southern Iraq, moving them into Kurdish areas in the north, thus displacing both peoples. [37]

The majority of Kurds wish to form one large secular and democratic country stretching throughout the four aforementioned countries, while upholding basic rights for all its citizens including non-Kurds and other minorities such as Turkmen, Assyrians, and even Arabs. The current compromise of autonomy has become widely accepted for most Kurds—the alternative pushes them closer to occupation than complete independence. Article 53 of the Iraqi Constitution allows the Kurdish region to have its own national assembly, constitution, security forces… [Additionally] print[ing] its own stamps and issu[ing] its own currency. [38]

The KRG region in Northern Iraq has demonstrated that they govern the most peaceful, democratic, and affluent area of Iraq, in 2005, 98 per cent of Kurds voted in an informal referendum for independence from Iraq.[39] After a non-binding bipartisan US Senate resolution passed 75-23 in early October 2007, calling to establish a federalized Iraq with three states, Kurds overwhelmingly reacted positively, while the Arab League deemed it, a “calamity for the entire Arab and Islamic world.” [40]


1. Chaliand, Gerard. The Kurdish Tragedy, p. 51.

2. Ibid, 52.

3. Entessar, Nader “The Kurds in Post-revolutionary Iran and Iraq,” pp. 915.

4. Chaliand, Gerard, p. 51.

5. ibid, p. 57.

6. Ibid, p. 58.

7. “Kirkuk’s Arabs paid to pack.” Bays, James. Al Jazeera.net, http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/E0512E0F-CBCD-4699-936D-7F8D58BDC12B.htm. November 7, 2007.

8. Chaliand, Gerard, p. 69.

9. Entessar, Nader. “The Kurds in Post-revolutionary Iran and Iraq,” p. 919.

10. Kurds: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Six Edition. 2001. http://www.bartleby.com/65/ku/Kurds.html. March 19, 2004.

11. “Gains by Kin in Iraq Inflame Kurds’ Anger at Syria.” New York Times. March 24, 2004.

12. “The Ali Hassan al-Majid Tapes.” Human Rights Watch Reports. Http://hrw.org/reports/1993/iraqanfal/APPENDIXA.htm. Accessed November 5, 2007.

13. “Gains by Kin in Iraq Inflame Kurds’ Anger at Syria.” New York Times. March 24, 2004.

14. Chaliand, Gerard, p. 70.

15. “Regrets Only?” Filkins, Dexter. New York Times Magazine., October 7, 2007

16. ibid.

17. Chaliand, Gerard, p. 65.

18. “Shiites and Kurds at impasse over oil-rich zones fate.” Kurdishmedia.com. Http://kurdishmedia.com/news.asp?id=6432. March 16, 2005.

19. “Gains by Kin in Iraq Inflame Kurds’ Anger at Syria.” New York Times. March 24, 2004.

20. Chaliand, Gerard, p. 64.

21. Ibid, p. 65.

22. “The Kurds in Turkey.” Federation of American Scientists. Http://www.fas.org/asmp/profiles/turkey_background_kurds.htm. March 12, 2005.

23. “Turkish success and the “separatist” PKK.” Akpinar, Hüseyin. Kurdishmedia.com. Http://www.kurdmedia.com/article.aspx?id=14135. October 12, 2007.

24. “Kirkuk-Kurds’ bottom line in coalition talks.” Middle East online. Http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=12896. March 3, 2005.

25. “Enabling Kurdish Illusions.” Rubin, Michael. Http://www.meforum.org/article/1670Weekly Standard, March 19, 2007.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. ibid.

29. “Blood and Oil in Kurdistan.” Papaconstantinou, Petros. Kurdishmedia.com http://www.kurdmedia.com/article.aspx?id=14160. October 18, 2007.

30. “Seven new petroleum contracts for the Kurdistan Region announced by Ministry of Natural Resources; five existing contracts reviewed.” KRG website. Http://www.krg.org/articles/detail.asp?rnr=223&lngnr=12&smap=02010100&anr=21217. November 6, 2007.

31. “Enabling Kurdish Illusions.”

32. “Kurds Urge Turkey not to Attack.” Al Jazeera.net. Http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/C7B34D38-F15B-4F26-BAD4-4F8BD3297FCE.htm. October 11, 2007.

33. “Turkey prepares for raids into Iraq.” Al Jazeera.net. Http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/12B13419-2F9C-4E2E-A124-E6D6635FCCEC.htm. October 9, 2007.

34. “Enabling Kurdish Illusions.”

35. “Gains by Kin in Iraq Inflame Kurds’ Anger at Syria.” New York Times. March 24, 2004; See also Nader Entessar “The Kurdish Mosaic of Discord, p. 92.

36. “Blood and Oil in Kurdistan.” Papaconstantinou, Petros. Kurdishmedia.com. Http://www.kurdmedia.com/article.aspx?id=14160. October 18, 2007.

37. “Shiites and Kurds at impasse over oil-rich zones fate.” Kurdishmedia.com. Http://kurdishmedia.com/news.asp?id=6432. March 16, 2005.

38. El Amir, Ayman, “Who wants another Israel?” Al-Ahram Weekly Online. Http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2007/870/op1.htm. Issue No. 870, Nov. 8-14, 2007.

39. “The US Senate Resolution on a Federal Iraq: the Road to Freedom.” Karadaghi, Rashid. Kurdishmedia.com. Http://www.kurdmedia.com/article.aspx?id=14119. October 7, 2007.

40. Ibid.

  • KurdishMedia.com - By Benjamin Kweskin
  • 05/04/2008 00:00:00