THE KURDS OF IRAQ: RECENT HISTORY, FUTURE PROSPECTS
By Carole A. O'Leary*
The Kurds, an Iranian ethno-linguistic group--like Persians, Lurs, Baluch
and Bakhtiari,--inhabit the mostly mountainous area where the borders of Turkey,
Iran, Iraq, and Syria converge. Following World War I and the breakup of the
Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were promised their own country under the terms of the
1920 Treaty of Sevres only to find the offer rescinded under the 1923 Treaty of
Lausanne. Numbering at least 25 million people, Kurds are mostly divided among
Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. The main area they inhabit is about 230,000 square
miles, equal to German and Britain combined. The Kurds are the largest ethnic
group in the world without a state. The term "Kurdistan" is widely used in Iraq
to refer to the Kurdish area of northern Iraq and in Iran to refer to the
Kurdish area of northwest Iran. Turkey and Syria, however, avoid this term for
political reasons, although under the Ottomans it was widely used.
The area of northern Iraq where Kurds predominate, is a region of about
83,000 square kilometers. This is roughly the same size as Austria. Smaller
ethno-linguistic communities of Assyrian-Chaldeans, Turkomans, Arabs, and
Armenians are also found in Iraqi Kurdistan. In Iraq there are approximately 3.7
million Kurds in the predominantly Kurdish northern safe haven area, and between
1 and 2 million in the rest of Iraq, particularly Baghdad, Mosul and that part
of Iraqi Kurdistan still under the control of the Baghdad regime.(1)
The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. There are also Shi'a and Yezidi
Kurds, as well as Christians who identify themselves as Kurds. Yezidis are
Kurds who follow a religion that combines indigenous pre-Islamic and Islamic
traditions. The once thriving Jewish Kurdish community in Iraq now consists of
a few families in the Kurdish safe haven.
Since the creation of the modern state of Iraq, the history of Iraqi
Kurdistan has been one of underdevelopment, political and cultural repression,
destruction, ethnic cleansing and genocide.(2) Al-Anfal (The Spoils) was the
codename given to an aggressive, planned, military operation against Iraqi
Kurds. It was part of an ongoing, larger campaign against Kurds because of
their struggle to gain autonomy within the Republic of Iraq. Anfal took place
during 1988 under the direction of Ali Hasan al-Majid, Saddam Hussein's cousin.
He became known as "Chemical Ali" because of his use of chemical and biological
weapons on Kurdish towns and villages.
The broad purpose of the campaign was to eliminate resistance by the Kurds by
any means necessary. Its specific aim was to cleanse the region of
"saboteurs"--who included all males between the ages of 15 and 70. Mass
executions were carried out in the targeted villages and surrounding areas. The
operation was carefully planned and included identifying villages in rebel held
areas, declaring these villages and surrounding areas "prohibited" and
authorizing the killing of any person or animal found in these areas.
Economic blockades were put onto these villages to cut them off from all
support. The army also planned for the evacuation of them and the inhabitants'
relocation to reservation-like collective towns. People who refused to leave
were often shot. In some cases, people who agreed to leave were gathered up and
separated, with men from 15 to 70 in one group; women, children, and elderly men
in another. Many of the men were executed while the others were removed to the
collective towns or to camps in the south of Iraq.
During the Anfal operation, some 1,200 villages were destroyed. More than
180,000 persons are missing and presumed dead. While the Iraqi government was
motivated partly by the fact that some Kurdish groups cooperated with Iran
during the Iran-Iraq war, documentation recovered in the Kurdish safe
haven in 1991 reveals that this operation was part of a larger campaign
undertaken by Saddam throughout his time in power. Many now regard this
operation as proof of genocide against Iraqi Kurds. In all phases of the ethnic
cleansing program, which began when the Baath Party first seized power in 1963
and culminated in the Anfal operation, it is estimated that more than 4,000
villages in rural Kurdistan were destroyed and perhaps 300,000 people perished.
The best-known chemical attack occurred at Halabja in March 1988. This town
is located in the mountains near Sulaimaniya, about 11 kilometers from the
Iranian border. Between 40,000 and 50,000 people were living there at the
time. The Iranian army had previously pushed Iraqi forces out of the area.
During three days, the town and surrounding district were attacked with
conventional bombs, artillery fire, and chemicals--including mustard gas and
nerve agents (Sarin, Tabun, and VX). At least 5,000 people died immediately as a
result of the chemical attack and it is estimated that up to 12,000 people died
during those three days.
Almost fifteen years later, there is still not much known about the impact of
these agents on the people and environment. Dr. Christine Gosden, a professor
of Medical Genetics at the University of Liverpool, working with the Washington
Kurdish Institute (WKI), helped establish the Halabja Post-Graduate Medical
Institute to understand the impact of weapons of mass destruction on civilian
populations. It offers both research and medical help for thousands of
survivors living in the area.(3) The Kurds' first-hand experience with such
attacks has prompted their request to the international community for
protection from this type of weapons in the event of U.S.-led military action
In April 1991, following the March uprising of Kurds in the north and Shi'a
Arabs in the south against the central government, Iraqi Kurdistan was divided
into two parts. Relying on UN Security Council Resolution 688, military forces
from eleven countries, including the United States and Turkey, implemented
Operation Provide Comfort to give security and humanitarian assistance to
refugees in camps along the Iraq-Turkey border. The so-called Kurdish safe haven
and northern no-fly zone were established in this context. Under considerable
constraint and against strong external and internal opposition, the Kurdish safe
haven has been successfully governed for a decade by the Kurds themselves. This
part of Iraqi Kurdistan is roughly 40,000 square kilometers, or about half of
Iraqi Kurdistan.(4) The rest continues to be directly governed by Baghdad.
In October 1991, the Government of Iraq (GOI) voluntarily withdrew its civil
administration and the citizens of the Kurdish safe haven were left to govern
themselves. Elections were held in May 1992 and the Kurdistan National Assembly
(KNA) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) were created. The Kurdistan
Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) entered into
an equal power-sharing arrangement, with 5 of the 105 KNA seats allocated to
members of the Assyrian-Chaldean Christian community. Turkomans boycotted the
election, although efforts were made to include representatives from all ethnic
and religious communities.
Participatory processes were instituted to develop experience with the
requirements, and systems and procedures of democracy. These elections were
deemed to have been free and fair by international observers.(5) Regional
governance has been based on the March 1970 Autonomy Agreement with the GOI.
Four provinces were established, each headed by a governor.
The regional government, headed by a prime minister with a cabinet of
ministers, was established in the regional capital of Erbil. But the 50-50
power-sharing arrangement broke down within two years. Today, the Kurdish safe
haven is governed in two separate parts, each by one of the two main parties (KDP
and PUK). Efforts have been on-going to find how to integrate the two
Despite this disappointment, there have been some more positive developments.
Free and fair local elections, under international observation, were conducted
in dozens of municipalities in 2000 and 2001 in the KDP and PUK areas. For the
first time since 1994, the KNA convened in its entirety in Erbil on October 4,
2002. The reconvening of the KNA is a clear indication of the growing
cooperation between the KDP and PUK, particularly in their dealings with the
Bush administration and U.S. Congress, as well as with states in the region and
Europe. In particular, the KDP and PUK are unified in asserting the Kurdish
right to self-determination in a future democratic Iraq in which they call for
Iraqi Kurdistan entering into a federal relationship with the central government
under a new constitutional arrangement.
The Kurdish safe haven is now a decade-old example of what can happen
throughout the rest of Iraq. The liberated part of Iraqi Kurdistan has become a
refuge for all Iraqis seeking freedom and democracy. Since 1991, thousands of
Iraqi refugees in Iran have returned. And since 1991, thousands more Iraqis
from central or southern Iraq have sought asylum. Even more striking, some
families who fled Iraq over 20 years ago, and who became citizens of the United
States and European countries, elected to return since 1991.
Despite various internal difficulties and constraints, including the strong
opposition of neighboring countries and both external and internal embargoes on
the region by the Iraqi government, all basic public services have been provided
to the extent resources have permitted. Freedom of speech and of free movement
is respected. Local NGOs have been established and the three universities are
working with U.S. and European partners to develop new academic programs, reform
and update curricula, and provide faculty training opportunities. The region's
leadership has allowed satellite television with over 500 channels to be
available to anyone who can purchase readily available hardware. Private
companies provide uncensored international phone service. Unlimited and
uncensored Internet access is also available from private, independent sources.
According to Human Rights Watch, the leadership of the region has made notable
progress in promoting and protecting the basic rights of the people of liberated
With assistance from the international community, hundreds of destroyed
communities were reconstructed and tens of thousands of families were able to
return to their original homes between 1991 and 1997. Despite serious problems
due to inefficiency, intransigence and the efforts of Baghdad, the oil-for-food
(SCR-986) program that began functioning in 1997 continues to provide the region
with substantial resources from Iraq's public oil wealth for health care,
reconstruction and education. The KRG directly cooperates with twelve UN
agencies in the region, including nine involved in the management of the
The history of Iraqi Kurdistan before 1991 is the history of
destruction and displacement. More than 4,000 communities were destroyed
including towns of more than 50,000 Iraqi citizens. Hundreds of thousands of
citizens were detained and killed. Tens of thousands were forced to live in
Baghdad-controlled "collective towns." Many were injured in years of warfare.
Despite their achievements in democratization and civil society building
since 1991, the citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan continue to be threatened by Baghdad
and the neighboring states in a manner that jeopardizes their hard-won
freedom and tenuous well-being. The future of Iraqi Kurdistan remains most
POST-SADDAM IRAQ AND FEDERAL ARRANGEMENTS
One extremely important consequence of the Kurdish safe haven'sexistence is
that some 3.7 million Iraqis-a considerable portion of the country's
population-have actual experience with self-rule, civil rights, and a transition
to democracy.(7) How would this situation interact with the rest of the Iraq if
it were to be freed from the current regime?
Certainly, those in the safe haven are greatly concerned about the effects of
war and regime change in Iraq, in terms of the threat posed by the war, a
possibly unstable aftermath, and their future status in a new Iraq. There is
strong support in the U.S. government, Iraqi opposition movements-ranging from
the Iraq National Congress (INC) through the Supreme Council for Islamic
Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Kurdish groups-for a federalist structure in the
Iraqis in exile and those lucky enough to live inside the Kurdish safe haven
are currently debating the framework for a federal state. Some advocate a
federal system consisting of two political units: the Arab region and
Kurdistan. Others have suggested dividing Iraq into three federal units:
Kurdistan, a Sunni Arab center and a Shi'a Arab south. An arrangement of five
federal units (Kurdistan, Baghdad, Jazirah, Kufa and Basra) has also been
suggested.(9) Iraq's Kurds would support the division of Iraq into any number
of federal units, under a federal system, as long as Iraqi Kurdistan itself
constitutes one of those federal units.
At a recent conference hosted by the University of Southern Denmark, Brendan
O'Leary outlined an interesting alternative to the adoption of a federal
political system for all of Iraq.(10) In his view, Iraqi Kurdistan could enter
into an institutionalized federal arrangement with the central government
wherein the rest of Iraq is not federally organized. He refers to this
arrangement as federacy. In theory, this model could accommodate the Arab
majority in Iraq if system-wide federalism is voted down in a referendum. It is
possible, indeed likely, that the Kurds would have no objection to the creation
of a democratic Iraq that is not federally organized, as long as Iraqi Kurdistan
itself achieves self-rule in a constitutionally mandated federal arrangement
with the center.
There is, however, a subtle but important distinction in how the federalist
concept might be applied. The Kurds have tended to favor an explicitly Kurdish
self-governing portion of Iraq. Another option would be a northern
self-governing section (or several such divisions) which are organized on a
regional but not ethnic basis. Most Kurds seem to favor the former approach,
while most American officials favor the latter approach as a way to reduce
ethnic tension in a post-Saddam Iraq. Further, Kurds explicitly have opposed the
division of historic Iraqi Kurdistan into multiple federal units, an idea which
has currency among some American analysts.(11)
Under what might be called a "Kurdistani" rather than "Kurdish" political
solution, a Kurdish majority would still control a geographically defined
northern state within an Iraqi federalist system. Still, that type of structure
would reduce Turkish objections while also preserving the rights of non-Kurdish
minorities, especially Turkomans, in the area, who would be less enthusiastic
about a Kurdish ethnic entity. But would the Kurds find such a plan acceptable?
The issue is not just whether the Kurds will exercise a right to
self-determination but how they will choose to do so. My field work in the area
(see below) shows some important trends relative to this issue.
Federalism refers to a system of government in which power is divided between
a central authority and constituent political units which have a fair degree of
local power, including the ability to raise taxes and a militia, for example.
In some multi-cultural states like Switzerland, the constituent political units
are defined not only geographically but also culturally on the basis of
language, ethnicity, religion or tribe. Federalism as an organizing structure
for governance can promote stability in multi-ethnic or multi-religious states
through the establishment of political units whose relationship to the center is
defined in a constitution that provides written principles concerning structures
and rules for governance and appropriation of federal funds.
As in the United States, federalism in a future Iraq can provide a system of
checks and balances to moderate the power of any future central government,
inhibiting the ability of an autocratic leadership-secularist or Islamist-to
seize control of the center. And, as in Switzerland, federalism can guarantee
the political and cultural rights of Iraq's ethno-linguistic and religious
The creation of a constitutionally mandated federal relationship between
Iraqi Kurdistan and a post-Saddam Hussein central government is the only
solution that will address the legitimate right to self-determination of Iraq's
Kurdish community in the context of a unified Iraqi state. Absent a just and
lasting resolution to the Kurdish question in Iraq, it will prove impossible to
achieve stability in a post-Saddam Hussein state.(12) Equally, an unstable
post-Saddam Hussein Iraq would be unlikely to pursue democratization - a stated
goal of the Bush administration.
In theory, the establishment of a federal system of governance that includes
power-sharing at the center and self-governance for Iraqi Kurdistan is a model
that will work well in Iraq. In practice, the challenge is to achieve internal,
regional and international support for the self-determination of Iraq's Kurdish
community in a federal and democratic Iraq.
THE ROLE OF TURKEY
A key concern for the Kurds, as well as the Bush Administration, is Turkey's
evolving position on federalism and the Kurdish question in Iraq.(13) Turkey
has consistently opposed the creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq
Kurdistan. However, Turkey has also raised concerns about the establishment of
a federal arrangement between Iraqi Kurdistan and a post-Saddam Hussein central
government. Turkey's primary concern is that Mosul and the oil-rich city of
Kirkuk are not ceded to a new Kurdistan federal unit.
In the period since the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government,
the disposition of the Iraqi Turkoman community has also been of concern to
Turkey. In this regard, Turkey and its proxy inside the Kurdish safe haven- the
Iraqi Turkoman Front--have called for the establishment of a Turkoman federal
unit to include the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk if a permanent Kurdistan federal
region is created. Turkish leaders have declared that the future establishment
of a Kurdistan federal region to include Kirkuk is a casus belli. In fact, the
Turks appear to have positioned themselves to intervene militarily in Iraqi
Kurdistan in the event of a regime change.(14)
Estimates of the number Turkoman in Iraq are unreliable and politicized.
They range between 350,000 to well over one million. Similarly, the exact number
of Kurds and Turkoman living in Kirkuk today is unknown.(15) Historically the
city was predominately Kurdish, but successive Iraqi governments have pursued a
policy of ethnic cleansing in Kirkuk, directed first against the Kurds and later
against the Turkoman as well.(16)
The proposed constitution for a Kurdistan political unit in a federal Iraq,
drafted by the KDP and PUK and currently under review by the recently reunified
Kurdistan National Assembly does call for the inclusion of Kirkuk in a future
Kurdistan federal political unit. However, the draft constitution is clear in
ceding control of Kirkuk's oil to the new central government and in recognizing
the fact that Kirkuk is a multi-ethnic city inhabited by Kurds, Arabs, Turkomans
and Assyrians. The draft constitution calls for regularly scheduled mayoral
elections in which members of all ethnic and religious communities can field
Iraq's Kurds are concerned that Turkey's strategic relationship with the
United States will negatively influence U.S. support for the kind of federal
arrangement they want to see. The Kurds have repeatedly and publicly assured
the U.S. and Turkey that they do not seek independence but prefer a unified,
federal and democratic Iraq within which Kurdistan represents one of the federal
political units. They have repeatedly indicated that they will work with a
representative transitional government to create a constitution for a federal
Iraq that addresses the needs of all the communities in Iraq.
Whether Kirkuk is incorporated into a Kurdistan federal region in a future
Iraq and whether a separate federal region for the Turkomans will be established
cannot be unilaterally determined by Turkey. Clearly, these are issues for the
Iraqi people to decide. Iraqi Kurds who have been expelled from Kirkuk and its
environs will surely return after the liberation of Iraq. If the majority of
Kirkukis were to vote in favor of annexing Kirkuk to the Kurdistan federal
political unit in a future referendum in a democratic Iraq, this would be a
powerful argument for doing so.
In thinking about a federal solution for Iraq, it is important to note that
Turkey is supporting a UN plan to create a Swiss-style federal government in
Cyprus in which the Republic of Cyprus would be replaced by two component
states-one Turkish and one Greek-each with its own constitution, in addition to
a common state with a presidential council and a two-chamber legislature. Even
the Tamil Tigers seem to have reached the conclusion that a federal arrangement
with the government of Sri Lanka will address their demands for
self-determination through "substantial regional autonomy."(18)
A key question for American and European policy makers-as well as for
Iraqis and Turkey- is whether federalism is the only viable solution to Iraq's
still unresolved Kurdish question that will ensure the territorial integrity of
the state. A second question is how the federalism will be structured. And a
third is whether federalism, as an organizing structure for governance in
pluralistic societies, can best ensure stability in Iraq after regime change- a
necessary condition for the development of democracy, human rights and an active
IDENTITY FORMATION IN IRAQI KURDISTAN SINCE 1991
When I returned from a visit to the region in June 2001, I wrote that an
unintended but welcome consequence of the establishment of the Kurdish Safe
haven in 1991 was an ongoing experiment in democracy.(19) Based on subsequent
fieldwork conducted in July 2002, I would further suggest that a second
unintended but welcome consequence of the establishment of the safe haven is an
experiment in pluralism that is encouraging the emergence of a communal identity
shared by Kurds, Assyrian-Chaldeans and Turkomans.
I have termed this emerging form of collective identity "Kurdistani-ness" for
lack of a better word. My interviews with Assyrian-Chaldean and Turkoman
intellectuals, political and religious leaders, and cultural activists suggest
that the decade long experiment in self rule has been a golden age not only for
the Kurds but for these smaller communities as well. In trying to contextualize
the frequent use of the term "Kurdistani" by my Kurdish, Assyrian-Chaldean and
Turkoman informants, I was reminded of how Americans use the descriptors "New
England" and "New Englanders" to define not only geographic but also cultural
and historic aspects of this localized American identity.
My discussions with more than 100 Kurds, Assyrian-Chaldeans and Turkomans
suggest that this new sense of Kurdistani identity is taking root precisely
because it accommodates pluralism or cultural diversity by not threatening
deeply rooted ethno-linguistic identities. The Kurdish Democratic
Party--established in 1946 and renamed the Kurdistan Democratic Party in
1953--supported a broad-based political platform for all Kurdistanis regardless
of ethnic identity. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party has advocated the
same view since its creation in 1975.
However; it is only in the post-1991 period that the people of Iraqi
Kurdistan have experienced self rule and democratization. This emerging
Kurdistani identity allows Kurds, Assyro-Chaldeans and Turkoman to maintain
their respective ethno-linguistic identities and, at the same time, to establish
a wider sense of collective identity based on three key factors:
--The ongoing experiment in self rule, democratization and cultural
--And their shared experience as non-Arab Iraqis who have all known
repression and marginalization within the modern state of Iraq.(20)
Suham Wali, one of the many Turkomans I interviewed, is an educator and
cultural activist, as well as director-general of Turkoman Studies in the
Ministry of Education in Erbil. She argues that the establishment of the
Kurdistan Regional Government in 1992 was a milestone. For the first time in
Iraq's modern history, the cultural and political rights of all communities were
truly guaranteed. According to Wali, while the Kurdish majority may have first
sought to address the rights of their own community, the new political structure
under the KRG has benefited all communities. She describes political life in
safe haven since 1991 as "a work in progress in which all communities, not just
the Kurdish majority, participate." Based on my interviews with Turkomans and
Assyrian-Chaldeans, I would suggest that it is this growing confidence in the
Kurdistan Regional Government's protection of the political and cultural rights
of all communities-not just the Kurdish majority-that has caused these two
communities to embrace a shared Kurdistani cultural identity, in addition to
their respective ethno-linguistic identities.(21)
Moreover, I would suggest that this shared sense of Kurdistani-ness relates
to a developing sense of communal solidarity as these communities ponder their
fate in a post-Saddam Iraq. For these reasons, I would argue that the growing
sense of Kurdistani-ness among Kurds, Assyrian-Chaldeans and Turkomans in the
Kurdish safe haven has implications for the debate on federalism as the best
model for governance in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
It is well know that the Kurds support a concept of federalism in which all
of Iraqi Kurdistan forms one of the new federal political units. What is less
well understood is level of support for this position among Assyrian-Chaldeans
and Turkoman in the northern safe haven. Future research can focus on how this
emerging sense of Kurdistani identity will affect support for federalism within
the Assyrian-Chaldean and Turkoman communities in the safe haven.
As political realists, Iraq's Kurds do not seek separation from Iraq. Their goal
is to share in the establishment of a viable regional government for Iraqi
Kurdistan in a unified Iraq under a federal system, with a governing document
that provides written principles concerning structures and rules for governance
and appropriation of federal funds. Federal systems flourish around the globe
and the establishment of such a structure in Iraq should not be viewed as a
threat by Turkey, Iran or the Arab states of the region. On the contrary,
federalism can help to ensure the unity and stability of a post- addam Hussein
Iraq, thereby providing a climate for democratization and civil society
building. Such an outcome is clearly in the interest of the United States and
its European allies, as well as in the interest of Turkey and the Iraqi people.
Given the fact that the Iraqi regime has pursued a genocidal campaign of
ethnic cleansing against its Kurdish community, it is imperative that any future
structure of governance institutionalize protections and guarantees for all of
Iraq's communities, but most notably for the Kurds who have been so brutally
victimized on the basis of cultural identity. A unified, democratic and
federally organized Iraq would not only address the legitimate right to
self-determination of the Kurdish community but also guarantee the rights of all
communities within Iraq.
The following is a selected chronology of some of the significant events that
had an impact on Iraq's Kurds in the past century.
1918 President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points: Woodrow Wilson was
committed to the ideal of self-determination for all peoples. The Twelfth
Point stated that non-Turkish nationalities living under Ottoman control "should
be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested
opportunity of autonomous development."
1920 The Treaty of Sevres: At the end of World War I, the Allied
powers met to determine the political future of lands and peoples in the
defeated Ottoman Empire. The Treaty provided for independence from Turkey in
those parts of Anatolia where Kurds were in the majority and set forth a
political mechanism for the establishment of a Kurdish state that was to have
encompassed the vilayet of Mosul. The Treaty of Sevres was signed but never
1923 The Treaty of Lausanne: The Treaty of Lausanne superseded the
Treaty of Sevres. The Kurds were not given autonomy and the areas where they
lived were distributed between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Soviet Union.
The greatest number of Kurds found themselves either under the control of the
Turkish state or under British rule in the newly created state of Iraq. A
League of Nations delegation to Mosul in 1923 to determine the wishes of the
Kurds there reported they wanted an independent state.
1924 British view: The British High Commission issued a statement on
December 24, 1924, "Recognizing the right of the Kurds living within the
frontiers of Iraq to establish a Kurdish government inside these frontiers."
1932 Iraqi Independence: In 1932, Iraq was granted full independence
by the British and the Kurdish problem was left unresolved.
1946 Republic of Mahabad: In Iran, Kurds established the short-lived Republic
of Mahabad, which survived from January 1946 until December 1946.
1946 Creation of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iraq: This party
changed its name to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq in 1953 to emphasize
the inclusion of the non-Kurdish communities of Iraqi Kurdistan.
1958 Iraq under Abd al Karim Qasim: After the monarchy was overthrown,
Qasim encouraged the participation of Kurds in the new government until his
power was consolidated. In 1959, the new government began to clamp down on all
dissident groups including the Kurds. In 1961, a Kurdish rebellion broke out
which continued intermittently for the next fourteen years.
1963 Phase I of the Ethnic Cleansing and Arabization Campaign: The
ethnic cleansing and Arabization campaign began when the Ba'th party first came
to power in 1963 and lasted until the temporary removal of the Ba'th leadership
in February 1964. During this time, the Iraqi regime began destroying most of
the Shorgha, Azadi, and Akhur Hussein neighborhoods inside the city of Kirkuk.
Hundreds of houses were flattened using bulldozers. The inhabitants of some
forty villages in the Kirkuk governorate were forcibly evicted and Arabs from
the south and center of Iraq resettled there.
1970 Autonomy Agreement between Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and
the Government of Iraq: On March 11, 1970, an autonomy agreement was worked out
between the KDP and the central government which acknowledged the existence of
Kurds and granted certain rights, but included only three of five Kurdish
provinces. It excluded provinces like Kirkuk which contain oil.
1974 Kurdish Revolt against the Iraqi Government: By 1974, relations
between the Kurds and the central government had deteriorated to the point of
armed rebellion. During this period, Iran and Iraq were involved in extensive
border disputes. The United States was backing Iran and Iran was backing the
Iraqi Kurds in their struggle in order to put pressure on Iraq. In 1975, the
border disputes were settled under the Algiers Accord and the United States and
Iran withdrew their support of the Iraqi Kurds. As a result, the rebellion
collapsed. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled the country to refugee camps,
mainly in Iran. Many who could not escape were murdered.
1974 Phase II of the Ethnic Cleansing and Arabization Campaign: After
the collapse of negotiations between the Kurds and the Iraqi regime in 1974, the
Ba'th government implemented the ethnic cleansing and Arabization policy begun
in 1963 to reduce the predominantly Kurdish population in areas deemed of
strategic economic or political importance to Iraq. In particular, the areas
surrounding Kirkuk where large oil fields are located and those within a
20-kilometer strip near the Iran-Turkey border were targeted. Kurds were
forcibly deported, murdered, removed to refugee camps, or resettled in
collective towns. Kurdish language instruction was terminated in schools.
Villages and wells in border areas were destroyed. This area became a kind of
no-man-land and anyone found entering this 20-km. strip was imprisoned and
executed. Many Faily (Shi'a) Kurds living in Baghdad were deported to Iran as
1975 Creation of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK): It was
established in June 1975 in Damascus, Syria, after the collapse of the Kurdish
rebellion that same year.
1980 The Iran-Iraq War: While many Kurds fought against the Iranians
during this war, others continued the rebellion against the central government,
often with Iranian support. This diverted Iraqi troops from the battlefront to
the Kurdish areas. By 1987, the Kurds, with the support of Iran, controlled most
of Iraqi Kurdistan. Saddam appointed his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid in charge
of northern Iraq with full authority and powers to eliminate the Kurdish
rebellion. Chemical attacks, further destruction of villages, pollution of
water supplies, detentions, and mass murders were some of the methods used to
put down the rebellion.
1984 Phase III of the Arabization Campaign: After another failed
attempt at negotiation in 1984, the regime began systematic destruction of
villages, homes, churches and mosques in the Kurdish areas. Its operation
reached a final stage in the Anfal campaign of 1988. Some 1,200 villages were
destroyed during this one year alone. It is estimated that 182,000 people died
as a result of the Anfal campaign. The number of persons unaccounted for or
killed during the three phases of the ethnic cleansing and Arabization campaign
is estimated at 300,000. The total number of villages destroyed during all
phases is estimated to be more than 4000.
1988 Halabja: In March 1988, Iraq attacked the town of Halabja over
three days using a mix of chemicals that resulted in the deaths of around 5,000
civilians immediately and many more over the next few years.
1990 Sanctions: Under UN SCR-661 passed in August 1990, sanctions were
imposed on Iraq with the intention of forcing Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
1991 The Gulf War: Kurds were encouraged by the United States to rise
up against the government and overthrow Saddam Hussein. The uprising began in
March 1991. But coalition forces did not help the Kurds. At first, the Kurds
were successful in driving out the Iraqi army from their territory but the Iraqi
Army regrouped and crushed the rebellion. In the north, almost two million
people fled Saddam's forces, seeking refuge in Iran and Turkey. International
outrage forced the coalition and the UN to take action. The Kurdistan National
Front was formed to organize an administration of public services for the area.
1992 Elections: In May 1992, elections were held in the newly
established Kurdish safe haven with international observers in attendance. The
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was formed and 105 Members of the Kurdistan
National Assembly (the Parliament) were elected.
1994 KDP-PUK Split: The fifty-fifty government split between these two
parties fell apart and fighting broke out between them.
1996 Ceasefire: The KDP gained control of Erbil and the PUK withdrew
to Sulaimaniyah. The two have maintained separate administrations from that
1998 The Washington Agreement. KDP and PUK representatives met in
Washington in the fall of 1998. Although both parties accepted the Accord, it
has not been fully implemented. Discussions and negotiations however are
ongoing and currently there has been significant movement towards the resolution
2002 Reconvening of the Kurdistan National Assembly: For the first
time since 1994, the full Kurdistan National Assembly convened in Erbil on
October 4, 2002.
*Professor Carole A. O'Leary is the Scholar-in-Residence for the Middle East
Initiative at the American University Center for Global Peace. Professor O'Leary
established a Future of Iraq Working Group at the Center in early 2001 to
examine the premise that federalism is the best organizing framework for
governance in a future Iraq. Since 1994, she has been an adjunct professor in
the School of International Service, cross-appointed to the Divisions of
International Peace and Conflict Resolution and Comparative and Regional
Studies. With Charles MacDonald, she is the co-editor a volume entitled The
Kurdish Identity in an Unsettled World that will be published in 2003.
1. See Martin Van Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh and State: the Social and Political
Structures of Kurdistan (London, 1992) and David McDowall, A Modern History of
the Kurds, (London, 2000) for comprehensive studies of the Kurds in English,
including extensive bibliographies. According to World Food Program (WFO) food
registration figures, the population of KRG-administered Iraqi Kurdistan is
approximately 3.7million today. Based on the 1957 census (the last reliable
census) and Kurdish estimates of the number of Kurds who were forced to leave
Kirkuk and other areas due to the regime's policy of ethnic cleansing, there are
well over one million Kurds in regime-controlled Iraq today, including Baghdad,
Mosul and part of Iraqi Kurdistan. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that
there are between 5 and 6 million Kurds in Iraq.
2. See the Washington Kurdish Institute website <http://www.kurd.org>
for links to human rights organizations that have documented the ethnic
cleansing and Arabization campaign against the Kurds of Iraq, as well as the
Anfal campaign and use of chemical and biological weapons on Kurdish towns and
villages, including Halabja. See also Chapter 17, "The Road to Genocide,"
including footnotes and references, in McDowall. See Kenan Makiya, The Republic
of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (Berkeley, CA, 1989) and Cruelty and
Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising and the Arab World (New York, 1993). For a
comprehensive analysis of the documents turned over by the Kurds to the U.S. in
1991 see Robert G. Rabil, "Operation 'Termination of Traitors": The Iraqi Regime
Through its Documents," MERIA Journal, Volume 6, Number 3, September 2002. See
also the Harvard University Iraqi Research and Documentation Project (IRDP)
3. See the Washington Kurdish Institute website under "Programs".
4. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the area of
Iraqi Kurdistan under KRG administration amounts to 9% of the total land area of
Iraq, which is 437,400 square kilometers. This makes KRG-administered Iraqi
Kurdistan approximately 40,000 square kilometers which is roughly the same area
as Switzerland (39,800). To compare with states in the United States,
KRG-administered Iraqi Kurdistan is double the area of the State of
Massachusetts (20,300 square kilometers).
5. Contact the Kurdistan Regional Government <http://www.krg.org>
for a copy of the report on the 1992 elections. Observers included members of
the Danish and Norwegian Refugee Councils.
6. See the Human Right Watch/Middle East website <http://www.hrw.org>
under the section "Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan".
7. See the KRG/KDP <http://www.krg.org> and
KRG/PUK <http://www.puk.org> websites for
articles on the democratic experiment in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991. See also
Carole O'Leary, "A No-Fly, Yes Democracy Zone: Iraqi Kurdistan Offers a Model
for a Post-Saddam Future," (Washington Post, Sunday, July 15, 2001) and Robin
Wright, "Kurdish Enclave May Lead Way for New Iraq," Los Angeles Times, December
8. The parties that formed the Iraqi National Congress (including the
Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Iraqi National
Accord, and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) publicly
announced their support for federalism and the legitimate right of Iraq's Kurds
to self-determination in Salahadin in 1992, in the final statement of the
Meetings of the Iraqi Congress National Assembly. The Iraqi National Congress
reiterated its support in New York in 1999. Noted independent Iraqi
intellectuals, including Kanan Makiya, Ghassan Attiyah, Munther Al Fadhal and
Rend Rahim Francke, have also voiced their support for Kurdish
self-determination and federalism.
9. For example, the U.S. State Department has organized a 'Democratic
Principles Working Group' which brings Iraqis together to flesh out a road map
for democracy and federalism as part of its Future of Iraq project. For a
regional perspective on the project see Mustapha Karkouti, "Post- Saddam Roadmap
Envisions Federal State," Gulf News, December 5, 2002.
10. "Iraqi Kurdistan: Ten years of self-rule and future prospects," an
international conference hosted by the University of Southern Denmark, Odense,
Demark, November 30 - December 1, 2002. Brendan O'Leary presented the keynote
speech entitled "Right-sizing and right-peopling the state: Regulating national
and ethnic differences." O'Leary holds the Stanley I. Sheerr Endowed Term Chair
in the Social Sciences and is Director of the Solomon Asch Center for the Study
of Ethno-political conflict, both at the University of Pennsylvania.
11. See Michael Rubin's article on "Federalism and the Future of Iraq" in How
to Build a New Iraq, edited by Patrick Clawson (Washington, DC: The Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, 2002).
12. Stability is this context refers to the establishment of a peaceful
social and political environment wherein democratization and civil society
building can take root. Stability as defined here rejects the notion that
support for autocratic regimes in the Middle East promotes stability and is,
therefore, in the U.S. strategic interest.
13. See the interview with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Paul
Wolfowitz entitled "Wolfowitz Interviewed: Nobody Should Have Their Eyes on
Kirkuk," in Hurriyet, December 5, 2002, by Sedat Ergin. See also my written
testimony for the Congressional Human Rights Caucus briefing on "The Human
Rights Situation in Northern Iraq: The Kurdish Minority and its Future,"
November 20, 2002, for a discussion of Kurdish concerns about U.S. plans for a
military intervention, including role of Turkish forces in northern Iraq <http://ww.house.gov/lantos/caucus/caucuswebpage.htm>,
and Barbara Slavin, "Kurds Push U.S. for a Promise of Protection," USA Today,
October 22, 2002.
14. See the report by David Nissman entitled "Turkey to Set Up 'Security
Belt' in Northern Iraq if U.S. Attacks," in the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
Iraq Report, Vol. 5. No. 34, October 18, 2002. In the report, Turkey's Defense
Minister, Sabahattin Cakmakoglu is quoted as stating: "The Turkish armed forces
are a deterrent force both with respect to its size and its weapons?.[And] if
this deterrent force impedes the situation we do not want in Iraq, it will have
completed its objective." Turkish tanks are positioned in areas inside the
Kurdish safe haven, including Bamarni. During my July 02 visit to the Kurdish
safe haven, I noted that the Turks had carved the Turkish flag (Crescent and
Star) into the mountainside below where their tanks are stationed in the Berwari
Bala area, between Kani Masi and Zakho. The number of Turkish troops currently
in the Kurdish safe haven is perhaps 5000.
15. The last reliable census in Iraq took place in 1957. It indicated that
Kurds constituted the majority community in Kirkuk (48%). The number of Kurds
and Turkoman in Iraq as a whole and in Kirkuk in particular will be determined
by a new census in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
16. See Robin Wright, " 'Arabization' Forces Iraqi Kurds to Flee From
Homes," Los Angeles Times, December 3, 2002, for a description of Saddam's
ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign against the Kurds.
17. The original draft constitution for the establishment of Iraqi Kurdistan
as a federal political unit in a post-Saddam federal Iraq can be accessed on the
KDP/KRG website <http://ww.krg.org>. Note that
the draft document is currently being debated in the Kurdistan National Assembly
and will surely be amended to reflect the positions of the PUK and other
political parties represented in the regional assembly.
18. Michele Kambas, "Cyprus Peace Plan Gets Major Boost from Turkey," Reuters
(Nov. 12, 2002), and Amy Waldman, "Sri Lanka to Explore a New Government," New
York Times (December 6, 2002).
19. See note 7.
20. See Chapter 6 in Makiya's Republic of Fear for a discussion of the
treatment of Iraq's non-Arab and Shi'a communities since the Mandate period, as
well as an analysis of the construction of an Arab (Sunni) nationalist ideology,
under the Baath.
21. Turkomans affiliated with the Turkish-backed Iraqi Turkoman Front reject
this shared Kurdistani identity.