The history of the Kurds in Iraq: “the largest people never to have achieved statehood”

Johan Franzen explores the history of the Kurds, an ancient people’s hunt for a home in a war-torn region,

Kurdish fighters in north-west Iran, 1918

The Kurds are said to be the largest people never to have achieved statehood. However, the idea that the speakers of the many different Kurdish dialects – scattered across mountainous areas of eastern Anatolia, northern Iraq and western Iran, with smaller pockets in northern Syria, Armenia and northeastern Iran – form a coherent ‘people’ is a relatively new one.

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Kurdish is a language of the north-western Iranian group, and descent from people identified in the Bible as Medes, from what’s now Iran, has been claimed. Early Mesopotamian records mention tribes with names that could be linked to ‘Kurd’, but modern Kurds may not have a single ancient ethnic heritage; certainly, the tribe has long been the primary level of identity and organisation.

The name ‘Kurd’ can definitively be traced to the period following the tribes’ conversion to Islam in the seventh century AD. Even after that, they continued to exist largely in nomadic groups rather than occupying a defined homeland. Yet Kurds wielded significant military influence, peaking with Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (c1137–1193), known in the west as Saladin, the Kurdish warlord whose empire encompassed much of the Middle East and north-east Africa.

The vast area known historically as Kurdistan was never defined. Before the 20th century, Kurds lived mostly at the periphery of empires, in semi-autonomous tribal confederations in remote mountain valleys. And though the majority of Kurds are Sunni, significant minorities follow a variety of other religions. Tribal identities were paramount, and a northern Kurd from Diyarbakır would have struggled to understand a southern Kurd from Erbil, their tongues being distinctly different languages.

But in the upheaval during and after the First World War, this all began to change. Defeated by the Allies, the Ottoman empire was carved up into new states. The fate of the Kurds was an item on the agenda in the postwar discussions that continued for much of 1919 and which culminated in the foundation of the League of Nations in early 1920. A Committee of Kurdish Independence addressed the peace conference in Paris and, for a while, the notion of a Kurdish state was entertained. The peace treaty signed with Turkey at Sèvres in August 1920 contained an article stating that: “If within one year… the Kurdish peoples… shall address themselves to the Council of the League of Nations in such a manner as to show that a majority of the population… desires independence from Turkey, and if the Council then considers that these peoples are capable of such independence and recommends that it should be granted to them, Turkey hereby agrees to execute such a recommendation, and to renounce all rights and title over these areas.”

Following the Second World War, the first embryo of a coherent Kurdish nationalist movement began to form

Before such a scheme could be implemented, however, a resurgent Turkish nationalist movement led by the war hero Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) took charge of the defeated imperial army and, in a war of liberation, drove the occupation forces out of Anatolia. When the dust settled, the Allied powers agreed to revise the punitive Treaty of Sèvres. In the new peace treaty, signed at Lausanne in 1923, the article that promised Kurdish independence had vanished. Instead, the Kurds were incorporated into the new states of Turkey, Iraq and Syria, with a significant portion also dwelling in Iran.

A strong Kurdish nationalist movement was slow to build and, though there were intermittent Kurdish protests during the British mandate over Iraq, these were largely local, tribal affairs. Yet with the modernity accompanying the new Iraqi state, a gradual ‘national’ consciousness began to grow. Through standardisation of the Kurdish language, which was taught in Kurdish schools in the north of Iraq, an incipient Kurdish literary culture took shape. Then, following the Second World War, the first embryo of a coherent Kurdish nationalist movement began to form.

Short-lived republic

Shortly after the war, a Soviet-sponsored Kurdish republic briefly came into existence in Mahabad, Iran. Its military commander was the indomitable Kurdish nationalist Mulla Mustafa Barzani, and the Barzani clan has dominated the Kurdish nationalist movement ever since. The Mahabad republic was quickly defeated by Iran, and Barzani went into exile in the Soviet Union, where he remained until a revolution overthrew the British-installed Iraqi monarchy in July 1958. At that point, Barzani returned from exile to lead the Kurdistan Democratic Party, a disparate collection of leftist nationalists and more conservative tribal chieftains.

Assurances by the new military regime that Kurdish rights would be enshrined in a new constitution at first seemed to herald a new beginning for the Kurds. However, negotiations between Barzani and ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim, Iraq’s new prime minister, broke down. Barzani’s demands for autonomy were too far-reaching, and included making oil-rich Kirkuk the ‘capital’ of an autonomous Kurdistan. Eventually, the deadlock descended into all-out war between the government and the Kurds, who formed military units called Peshmerga to take on the Iraqi army.

Though Qasim’s regime was overthrown in 1963, subsequent military regimes followed a similar pattern: seeking negotiated settlement but eventually engaging in military action against the Kurds. Increasingly, the Shah of Iran and Israel provided financial and logistic support to the Kurdish rebels, in order to undermine the Iraqi government.

Deal with Saddam

When the Ba‘ath Party seized power in 1968, Saddam Hussein took charge of negotiations and successfully managed to agree a deal with Barzani in March 1970. Although the agreement was the most far-reaching ever signed by any Iraqi government – promising extensive autonomy with Kurdish-language provision, a guarantee of Kurdish officials in Kurdish areas, and a separate legislative body – it soon became clear that it was not enough for the Kurds.

War broke out again in 1974, this time on an unprecedented scale. By now, the Shah, along with the CIA, was providing millions of dollars to the Kurds annually, and extensive logistic support across the border. The Iranians even stationed troops disguised as Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq to help the rebellion.

When the Shah unexpectedly made a deal with Saddam in March 1975, promising to withdraw support for the Kurds in exchange for Iraqi border concessions, Iraqi troops swiftly moved in and crushed the rebellion, forcing as many as 200,000 Kurds to flee to Iran. In the aftermath, the Kurds accused the government of pursuing an ‘Arabisation’ policy in the region. It therefore came as no big surprise that, when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the Kurds eventually sided with the Iranians, even though by then that latter country had become an Islamic republic following the overthrow of the Shah in 1978–79. The Kurds paid a heavy price for their decision, being branded traitors by the Saddam regime and taking the full brunt of a brutal campaign at the end of the war that saw thousands of Kurdish civilians killed as the Iraqi government retook areas captured by Iran and the Kurds.

Similar hardship afflicted the Kurds when, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and defeat by the international coalition in early 1991, they rose up in rebellion anew, along with the Shia population in southern Iraq. The uprising was quickly crushed and, as the west looked on, millions of Kurds were uprooted from their homes. Many fled to Europe and beyond for safety. Eventually, their plight forced the international community to react. Belatedly, the United States and Britain established a no-fly zone in the north that effectively allowed the Kurds to develop a semi-autonomous proto-state under western protection. With the Saddam regime facing stiff international sanctions until being forcibly removed by the 2003 invasion, the Kurds continued to develop their own government institutions.

Following the war, the Kurdistan region was officially recognised in Iraq’s new constitution, and a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) led by Mulla Mustafa’s son, Masoud, was set up. Yet, despite all vestiges of Saddam’s regime being forcibly removed by an American ‘de-Ba‘athification’ decree, the relationship between the Kurds and every post-invasion government, formed by Shia political parties, has continued to be troublesome. Outright war may have been avoided, but disagreement on sharing of oil proceeds continue to mar relations.

Votes for independence

The Kurdish leadership, dominated for over 70 years by the Barzanis (Masoud’s nephew Nechirvan is now president), has continued to push for independence. In 2017, Masoud Barzani called for an independence referendum, and one was held in September the same year; some 93 per cent voted for independence. The Iraqi government rejected the legality of the referendum, and tensions quickly led to armed confrontation in Kirkuk, during which government forces re-asserted authority and took back territory that had been captured by Kurdish Peshmerga in the fight against the so-called Islamic State over preceding years. Crucially, this included the Kirkuk oilfields.

The Kurds soon discovered that Turkey and Iran were intent on preventing Kurdish independence at all costs

The Kurds soon discovered that Turkey and Iran were intent on preventing Kurdish independence at all costs, and that even the United States, whom the Kurdish leadership thought of as an ally, would not intervene as the Iraqi government crushed Kurdish dreams of independence. Today, a century after the idea of a Kurdish state was first raised, Kurdish independence seems as distant a reality as ever.

Johan Franzén is senior lecturer in Middle East history at the University of East Anglia

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This content first appeared in issue 21 of BBC World Histories magazine