Turkey's incursion into northern Iraq in April and May of 1995, in pursuit of Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) guerrillas, briefly focused world attention once again on the persistent problem of Kurdish nationalism and separatism in the several Middle Eastern states with Kurdish populations. Along with a fierce civil conflict among Iraqi Kurds that began late last year and threatened to destroy the self-government apparatus that they had set up under Western protection in the wake of the Gulf War, it also served as a reminder that a great many forces, including divisions among the Kurdish people themselves, have interacted to frustrate Kurdish hopes of a state of their own.
For decades the Kurdish "problem" has plagued the governments of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and to a lesser extent Syria, while today it is also a factor in the volatile ethnic politics of the new states of the Caucasus: Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. But at a time when one long-stateless Middle Eastern people, the Armenians, have an independent nation of their own and another, the Palestinians, are struggling to expand a limited autonomy and negotiate a future for themselves, the notion of an independent Kurdistan seems as remote as ever. If the experiment in Kurdish self-government in northern Iraq fails because of internal divisions, the dream will recede even further.
One of the ironies of recent years is that the Kurds, a proud warrior people, have mostly come to the attention of the outside world in their role as victims. From the Iranian (and indirectly the U.S.) betrayal of Mustafa Barzani's war against Iraq in 1975, through the Iraqi use of poison gas against the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, to the crushing of the Kurdish uprising in the wake of the Gulf War and the unfurling of a Western protective umbrella to shield Iraqi Kurds from Saddam Hussein, the Kurds have come to be seen as a persecuted people, victims to be defended by human-rights groups and refugee-aid organizations. The Turkish incursion, which provoked far more outrage in Europe than in the United States, added to the image of the Kurds as a victimized people.
That they have been victims in recent decades is indisputable, but it is hardly the image the Kurds have sought for themselves. Like other mountain peoples of the region, they have cultivated a fierce independence and warrior ethic. They call their fighting men peshmerga, soldiers of death. Such cultures often carry their individualism and independence to the extent of creating small, local, quasi-feudal entities as the main focus of loyalty, reducing or excluding any loyalty to larger polities or the idea of Kurdish unity. One result of this has been to allow those states that have sought to control or limit Kurdish influence to manipulate internal Kurdish feuds to their own ends: Iran, Iraq and Turkey have at times each backed the others' Kurdish movements while repressing their own. Kurdish leaders have played along with such manipulation. Even under the relatively benign aegis of the Western security umbrella in northern Iraq, the autonomous Kurdish authority descended into civil war, a reminder that a mix of ethnic, religious, tribal, feudal and regional differences still divides the Kurdish "nation" more deeply than a sense of being Kurdish unites it.
The Kurds are an ancient people who, like most fierce mountaineers, appear on the world stage mostly as raiders and troublemakers. Their first interaction with Europeans appears in Xenophon's Anabasis, when the Greek army retreating from Mesopotamia to the Black Sea had to cope with the depredations of a people called the karduchoi. Take away the Armenian plural ending and these are the kardu, a word the peoples of Mesopotamia also used for the mountaineers. While some pedantic philologists have argued that the kardu were not Kurds in the modern sense, it seems clear that the same term has been applied to the mountain people of the region for a very long time.
The Kurds' warlike reputation also made them popular as mercenaries throughout the Middle East, and they often were prominent in classical Islamic armies. Salah al-Din (Saladin), the great Muslim leader who opposed the Third Crusade and ruled Egypt and Syria, was of Kurdish origin. (Ironically, he came from the Iraqi town of Tikrit, the hometown of the modem scourge of the Kurds, Saddam Hussein.)
WHO AND WHERE
One of the problems with any attempt to survey the Kurds is that almost any factual statement about them will provoke controversy somewhere. For years, Turkey, which has the largest number of Kurds of any country in the region, simply denied that its Kurds existed: they were "mountain Turks," and the Kurdish language and open expressions of Kurdish culture were forbidden. Various Kurdish autonomy schemes in Iraq have come to grief because the Kurds and the Iraqi government have never agreed on where the boundaries of Kurdistan lie (and the oil region of Kirkuk has usually been the sticking point).
The Kurdish homeland from early in their recorded history has included the northern Zagros mountains of Iran and the mountainous region to the north and east of the Mesopotamian plain. Through time, migrations have spread it further, with Kurds seeping into eastern Anatolia to replace Armenian and Assyrian populations in the Ottoman period and during World War I. Both Iraq in the 1980s and Turkey today have sought to alter the Kurdish population distribution further by depopulating whole border regions and moving their peoples to more ethnically mixed parts of the country. Some say the largest "Kurdish" city is now Istanbul; certainly Kurds are found in all the major cities of Turkey and in Turkish worker communities in Europe, particularly in Germany and the Netherlands.
How many Kurds are there? What percentage do they make up in each country? These are the kinds of questions that provoke challenges and disputes, since each country tries to minimize the proportion of their population that is Kurdish. But a conservative estimate would be that there are at least 20 million Kurds in the Middle East and the Caucasus. They are not a majority in any nation-state, though they do form a majority or near majority in a broad area ("Kurdistan" for convenience) in northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, northern Syria, southeastern Turkey and the fringes of the Caucasus.
Unquestionably, there are more Kurds in Turkey than any other country, probably over half of all Kurds. Although the Turks, when they have not been insisting that the Kurds are "mountain Turks," have tried to minimize their numbers in other ways (for example, by counting only those who spoke only Kurdish as Kurds), the late President Turgut Ozal once referred to there being 12 million Kurds in Turkey. They are probably at least 20 percent of the total Turkish population, perhaps more. A figure somewhere between 10 and 15 million would be accepted by most neutral observers.
Iraq's Kurds, though fewer in total number, represent about a quarter of the Iraqi population and have, of course, played a highly visible role in Iraqi politics. In Iran, Kurds are perhaps 10 percent of the total population, concentrated in the northwest, though also found in enclaves to the eastward, south and east of the Caspian Sea. In Syria, there are perhaps a million Kurds (eight percent or so of the population) concentrated along the Iraqi and Turkish borders. The Syrian Kurds have generally been less influential and indulged in fewer separatist movements, though for decades the Syrian Communist party was Kurdish-dominated under its Syrian Kurdish leader, Khalid Bakdash. There is a small Kurdish population in Lebanon as well.
It is sometimes forgotten that the Kurds extend beyond the borders of Turkey and Iran into the states of the Caucasus. There are perhaps as many as half a million Kurds in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, as well as some Kurds scattered elsewhere through the former Soviet Union, victims of Stalin's deportations from the Caucasus in the 1940s.
Although there are Kurdish enclaves separated from Kurdistan and a significant diaspora, the Kurds are mostly concentrated in a geographically contiguous region. Under normal circumstances a highly nationalistic people with a clear identity and constituting a clear majority in a contiguous area might have been expected to have established a state of their own. With more than 20 million Kurds, they are certainly large enough to claim nationhood: there are about as many Kurds as there are Iraqis, probably more than there are Syrians.
One reason for the Kurdish failure to achieve a state of their own is their location at a major geopolitical crossroads. They not only lie at the point in the Middle East where the Turkish- Arabic- and Iranian speaking worlds come together, but at the gates of the Caucasus as well, with Russia and Central Asia beyond. They have naturally become chess pieces for the powers around them: their own internal divisions have sometimes made them mere pawns. The presence of oil at Kirkuk, an Iraqi town which is itself ethnically Turkmen but is surrounded by Kurdish territory, has played a major role in the regional politics of the Kurdish question in this century. Before looking at that history, it is worth understanding some of the fault lines along which Kurdish society has frequently tended to fracture.
THE FAULT LINES OF KURDISH SOCIETY
The Kurdish language is related to Farsi and is thus an Indo-European language. While Kurdish nationalists rely on the fact that someone speaks Kurdish as evidence of Kurdish identity, the language divides as well as unites. There are two main dialects and many minor ones. Kurdish has been written in at least three different alphabets: the Arabic/Persian alphabet in Iraq and Iran, the Latin alphabet in Turkey (though it has usually been illegal to publish in Kurdish there) and the Cyrillic alphabet in the former Soviet Union.
In religion, the Kurds are mostly Muslim, though not entirely. Mountains have often provided sanctuary for minority religions in the Middle East, as the Lebanese Maronites or the Armenian Gregorian Church demonstrate. The Kurds have many minority religions among them. A Kurdish-speaking Jewish population has now mostly relocated to Israel. The Yazidi religion, an ancient syncretistic faith blending Islamic, Zoroastrian and Hellenistic elements, is still found in parts of Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish Kurdistan. Kurdish Islam includes many heterodox sects, particularly the Alevis of Turkey, who venerate Ali but are separate from the Alawites of Syria; the Ahl al-Haqq or Ali-Ilahi, who consider Ali divine and are considered nonMuslims by orthodox Islam; and other smaller groups.
As in almost every other sphere, any attempt to estimate numbers or percentages is quickly challenged by someone, but it is safe to say that the Kurds of Turkey and Syria and much of northern Iraq are Sunni, while Shiite Kurds are found in the eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan and in Iran, where many Sunni Kurds are also found. The religious divisions often fall along tribal lines. Though the vast majority of Kurds are Sunni, there are divisions among them as well. As was also the case with the mountain peoples of the Caucasus, the great Sufi orders of the Naqshbandiyya and the Qadariyya have played a major role in modern Kurdish history, with local tribal leaders also being sheikhs or pirs of one of the great orders. The rivalries between the orders often overlap with tribal rivalries, since the traditions are closely identified with particular tribes.
There are other fracture lines in Kurdish society as well. The traditional semifeudal social system revolved around the power of the local aghas, and this system still retains a great deal of influence in terms of personal and tribal loyalty, particularly in Iraq. Most of the prominent Kurdish leaders in both Iraq and Iran have come from the traditional agha class or from the religious sheikhs, who are often tribal leaders as well. The only prominent Kurdish leader who is not from the traditional elite classes is the leader of the Turkish PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, a Marxist whose party originally was dedicated to destroying the traditional Kurdish social structure. (He has moderated that ideology somewhat under the Turkish assault, in order to appeal to the traditional leadership classes.)
All of these fracture lines-religious, tribal, feudal, dialectal-overlap. Thus the major split in Iraq between Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is largely a personal feud between two rivals, but it also can be interpreted in terms of geography (the northwest vs. the southeast of Iraqi Kurdistan), in part a difference in dialect (the Kurmanji dialect predominating in the west and the Sorani or Kurdi dialect in the east), in terms of tribal alliances (both Barzani and Talabani come from old tribal families, though Talabani is usually more identified with urban Kurds), and in terms of religious affiliation (the KDP being largely Naqshbandi and the PUK Qadiri).
Nor are these the only fault lines along which efforts at Kurdish unity tend to fail. Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds were all part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the World War I and enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy or at least local involvement in administration during that time. Thus the divisions fostered by the creation of the nation-states of Iraq, Syria and Turkey are relatively recent. The same is true of the small Kurdish population of Lebanon, most of whom came originally from Mardin in Turkish Anatolia. Of the three successor states to the Ottomans, the Turks have made the most vigorous effort to stamp out the traditional Kurdish leadership and social structure. Thus the Turkish Kurds today have a very different society from that of the more traditional Kurdish societies in Iraq and Syria. That social fragmentation has helped make the separatist movement in Turkey the only one which is Marxist in its basic orientation, while other Kurdish movements have tended to be nationalist movements based on the traditional leaderships.
The Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iraq were all under Ottoman rule until 1918. The Kurds of Iran, however, have been under Persian control since the sixteenth century, in some cases earlier. While they retain tribal and cultural connections with their fellow Kurds across the border, and while they have certainly been a thorn in the side of successive Iranian governments, they nevertheless are to some extent "Iranized" by the much longer Iranian control. The Kurds of the Caucasus are a minority anyway and came under Russian control from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but during the Soviet period they were a minority among a minority, closed off by the "iron curtain" from their Kurdish fellow countrymen in the Middle East. Though they are players in the internal struggles of the post-Soviet states of the Transcaucasus (particularly in the Armenian-Azerbaijani war), they still tend to be peripheral to Kurdish nationalism elsewhere.
All of these divisions, then, and the manipulative policies of the states with Kurdish populations, have worked together to prevent the Kurds from establishing the state of their own they claim to want. But it is not for lack of trying.
FAILED EFFORTS AT STATEHOOD
Under the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish aghas enjoyed a considerable amount of autonomy in return for tribute, as they had under earlier dynasties of the region. During the struggle between the Ottomans and Safavid Iran in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Kurdish tribes west of the Iranian border generally backed the Ottomans in return for the granting of local fiefdoms to the tribal leaders. But these small Kurdish emirates within the Ottoman Empire contributed to the fragmentation of Turkish identity. With the nineteenth century reorganization and modernization of the Ottoman Empire, the autonomous life of Kurdistan came to an end. Local emirs rose in protest at the extension of Ottoman control from the center, but to no avail. The destruction of these emirates accelerated the growth of the Naqshbandi and Qadiri Sufi orders and the growth in local power of their prominent families.
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire provided the greatest opportunity the Kurds have ever had for establishing a state of their own. In the first flush of Wilsonian idealism, the victorious allies promised self-determination to the Kurds in the Treaty of Sevres, that part of the Peace of Paris signed with the moribund Ottoman Empire. Of course, the Sykes-Picot and other agreements that preceded the peace had already carved up some parts of the Turkish homeland among the European powers, depending on where the boundaries of Syria and Iraq were to run; and, of course, the Kurds of Iran could expect no benefit as Iran had not been a defeated belligerent in the war. Even so, the promises of Sevres went farther than the Western powers were ever willing to go later. The signatories committed themselves to the right, in principle, of the Kurds and Armenians to form states of their own.
The Sevres provisions-quite apart from the fact that many other aspects of the postwar peace did not fulfill promises made during the war-reckoned without two major factors. The first was Mustafa Kemal, the man who forged modern Turkey out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and came to be called Atatiirk. He made it clear from the beginning that the new Turkey he was building would not be bound by the treaty imposed on the dying Ottomans. Ironically, the Kurds fought on Kemal's side against European encroachments. As he drove the Greeks out of Anatolia and faced down the British and French, the dream of an independent Kurdistan (and of an independent Armenia) faded rapidly. The second factor was oil.
When the British Navy converted from burning coal and wood to burning oil in its ships just after the turn of the century, the strategic importance of the Middle East to Britain was altered dramatically. No longer were Suez and Aden its major concerns, though they remained important as links to India. The question of the boundaries of the new mandate of Iraq directly involved the question of who would control the oil in the Kirkuk region, in what had been the Ottoman vilayet of Mosul. Turkey claimed the region, as did Britain (the mandatory power for Iraq), and it fell in the area where the projected Kurdish state would have emerged. After diplomatic horsetrading the Mosul vilayet became part of Iraq. Under the Treaty of Lausanne, the pact with the new Turkey in 1923 that replaced the Treaty of Sevres, Turkey held on to eastern Anatolia. Kurdistan was partitioned, and the Kurdish state did not exist.
REVOLTS BETWEEN THE WARS
The Kurds being independent-minded and quick to battle, this did not occur without opposition. A local leader, Sheikh Mahmoud, declared Kurdish independence in 1919 with himself as king, but was soon put down. The two Kurdish provinces voted against the Hashemite (and British-backed) candidate, Faisal, as king of Iraq in 1921. Local risings were frequent. When the British terminated their mandate in 1930 and the north came fully under Iraqi contro1, a full-scale uprising under Sheikh Mahmoud broke out, but it too was put down. Among the local tribal and religious leaders involved in this revolt were the brothers Ahmad and Mustafa Barzani. The Barzanis came from a village in Iraqi Kurdistan and were hereditary religious leaders of the Naqshbandi order. Exiled in 1930, they were amnestied in 1933. In 1943, in the chaos of Iraq in World War II, Mustafa - usually called Mulla Mustafa - returned to his home village of Barzan and led a renewed revolt. In 1945 he was pushed into Iran.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, when Kemal abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, he also closed Kurdish schools and banned Kurdish publications and religious groups. His move against the Sufi orders generally, which was imposed throughout Turkey, naturally sought to destroy the power of the Naqshbandi and Qadiri orders in Kurdistan. The Naqshbandi rose up in 1925, with the Kurds part of the rising, and were fiercely crushed. Again, in 1929, an insurgency in the Kurdish region, backed by Iran, managed to gain control of a large area of Turkish Kurdistan. But Atatiirk cut a deal with Reza Shah of Iran and then was able to crush the revolt. (Once again, as so often since, the Kurds' reliance on outside help left them vulnerable to diplomatic deals.) Turkey's Law Number 1850 of 1930 said that murders committed by state or provincial authorities or any civilian against rebels would not be considered crimes: in effect legalizing the killing of Kurds.
Meanwhile, in Iran, as already mentioned, the Kurds were somewhat more Iranized because they had been part of the Persian empire since the sixteenth century. But as non-Farsi-speakers, the majority of whom were Sunni rather than Shiite, they always maintained a somewhat separate identity. The Qajar shahs (who ruled until the 1920s} cultivated the Kurds and were often allied with the traditional leaders against the Iranian constitutional movement.
As part of the general upheaval after World War I, there was a major uprising in Kurdistan in 1921, under a Kurdish leader named Ismail Shakkak Simko. Reza Khan, soon to be Reza Shah, defeated it.
The next major venture towards Kurdish independence was to occur in Iran, but more because of external factors than the internal Iranian situation. During World War II the Soviet Union occupied northwestern Iran, while Britain occupied the south. The Kurds, only part of whose territory was Soviet-occupied, and the Azerbaijanis of Iran, who shared a language and culture with the Azeris of the USSR, were encouraged by Stalin in their aspirations for independence. In 1945, the Azerbaijanis declared a Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan based in Tabriz, and the Kurds declared a Kurdish Democratic Republic based in Mahabad. Soviet forces occupied the Azerbaijan republic but not all of the so-called "Mahabad Republic" of the Kurds. The Mahabad Republic was controlled by the Kurdish Democratic party of Iran (KDPI), itself an amalgam of a variety of groups from communists to traditional leaders. The Iraqi Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, expelled from Iraq in 1945, became a general of the Mahabad Republic.
The Mahabad Republic claimed to seek autonomy within Iran but was treated as a pro-Soviet independence movement like the Azerbaijan republic. By May 1946, the Soviets withdrew from Iran, and their puppet republics did not long survive. In March 1947, Iran hanged the leaders of the Mahabad Republic except General Barzani, who escaped to the Soviet Union. Yet another effort at independence or quasi-independence had been thwarted.
SINCE WORLD WAR II: TURKEY
In the post-World-War-II period, it is almost essential to examine Kurdish history under the rubrics of the nation-states which have ruled Kurdistan. While there certainly have been links among Kurdish nationalist movements in the various countries, the Kurdish movements have also become pawns of the interstate rivalries of the region. The days when an Iraqi Kurd like Barzani could be a major player in an Iranian movement like the Mahabad Republic appear to have passed.
Turkey has continued to pursue the harshest policies against expression of Kurdish cultural and linguistic distinction. In the 1950 elections, when Adnan Menderes replaced the Kemalist leadership, the Kurds voted overwhelmingly for his Democratic party. He worked fairly closely with the Kurds. When the military toppled and hanged Menderes in 1960, the old Kemalist opposition to Kurdish identity returned. The Kemalist attempt to identify all residents of Turkey with a mythic Turkish past led to the theory of the so-called "mountain Turks": the Kurds were ethnic Turks who, isolated in the mountains, had over the centuries forgotten the Turkish language and taken up Kurdish; they must be led back to their Turkish identity.
During periods of military rule in Turkey-in the 1960s and again in the early 1980s-anti-Kurdish restrictions increased. In the 1980s, the ban on the Kurdish language was actually toughened. With the emergence of violent Kurdish resistance in the southeast, the government began a systematic campaign of uprooting rebel villages and moving their populations. In 1990, President Turgut Ozal, who had some Kurdish ancestry and pursued the most proKurdish policies of any modem leader, would claim that as a result of these depopulations in the 1980s, more than half of Turkey's Kurds lived west of Ankara.
The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers party, was founded in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, a student leader. It has waged a violent and persistent war against the Turkish authorities in southeastern Turkey, one that has provoked strong countermeasures and several Turkish incursions into northern Iraq (though no previous one so large as that of April-May 1995). Initially it attacked civilians, tourists and traditional Kurdish leaders. But, realizing the risk of alienating its own support base, it has more recently concentrated on Turkish government and military officials and supporters.
After the military yielded power and Ozal became first prime minister and later president, the situation was softened for a while, despite his declaration in 1987 of emergency rule (in effect martial law) in the southeastern provinces. In 1991 Ozal brought about the repeal of Law 2932, which banned the Kurdish language, though it remained illegal to teach in Kurdish or issue publications in it (only speaking it was really legalized, along with recording folksongs in Kurdish). This was later liberalized still more, but when a Kurdish newspaper was published in 1992, it was soon forced to close.
A group of Kurdish deputies were elected to Parliament in 1991. They have consistently faced problems. however, and today several of them are in prison for supporting separatism.
The war with the PKK continues; large parts of the "emergency" provinces are desolate. Whole villages have been depopulated, and Kurdish refugees now fill all the large Turkish cities. The war with the PKK has also involved Turkey in broader international issues. It made incursions into Iraq in 1990, 1991, 1992, and of course most visibly in the spring of 1995. The latter incursion, along with the continuing war in southeastern Turkey, has led to criticism by the United States and threats from Europe, where Turkey's newly negotiated customs union with the European Union was immediately jeopardized. When the Netherlands permitted a Turkish-Kurdish "parliament in exile" to meet, Turkey threatened sanctions against the Dutch. Clearly the Turks were willing to risk hard-won gains in Europe to destroy the PKK sanctuaries in northern Iraq. Since negotiations on the future non-Russian routes of pipelines from the Caucasus and Central Asia include several possible Turkish routes, this may have been part of Turkey's hidden agenda.
The fundamental definitions of the modem Turkish republic preclude a major role for a non-Turkish people, even if the Kurds are a fifth of its population. The fact that the PKK has been and continues to be (despite a stated willingness to negotiate) essentially a radical, secessionist movement makes it even more clearly anathema in Ankara. Except for the most extreme moments of confrontation between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds in 1988 and again in 1991, the Turkish war against the Kurds has been more harsh than any other. And it shows every sign of continuing. Soon after Operation Steel in northern Iraq, Prime Minister Tansu Ciller's ruling coalition, which some had thought in a bit of trouble previously, won a solid victory in local elections.
IRAQI KURDISTAN: THE CRUCIBLE
Though the war in southeastern Turkey has probably taken more casualties and disrupted more lives than most outsiders would ever suspect, it has never captured world attention with the force attained by the struggle of Iraq's Kurds over the past quarter century. Iraq has been accused (with solid evidence) of the most brutal depredations against its Kurdish population; ironically it has also gone the farthest towards accepting, or in recent years tolerating unwillingly, Kurdish autonomy. More Kurdish newspapers and books appear in Iraq every day than have appeared in Turkey in this century. Since 1992 a Kurdish parliament, elected with no input from Baghdad, has ruled in northern Iraq, but that solid achievement is now in jeopardy because of the fierce civil war which has divided Iraq's Kurds since late 1994.
To summarize the experience of Iraqi Kurds, let us return to Mulla Mustafa Barzani, whose early career has already been described. From the crushing of the Mahabad Republic in 1946-47 to the fall of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, Barzani remained in exile in the Soviet Union. Abd al-Karim Qassem let him return after 1958, and he became active in the Kurdish Democratic party (KDP), later renamed the Kurdistan Democratic party. Barzani cooperated with Qassem for awhile, then split with him. After Qassem's overthrow in 1963, Barzani unilaterally negotiated a cease-fire with the new regime and faced a split in the KDP Politburo. The urban, educated Kurdish leaders in the KDP objected to Barzani's unilateral decision making and his reliance on tribal support.
Through the 1960s, Barzani's struggle with the various regimes in Baghdad alternated with truces and negotiations, while his own struggle within the KDP Politburo continued. Emerging as the main spokesman for the opponents of Barzani was Jalal Talabani, who drew his support from the eastern areas around Suleimaniyya and from more educated, urban Kurds, but who also came from a traditional leadership background and thus had some of the clout of a tribal chieftain as well. In the I 960s, Talabani broke with Barzani and left the country, later actually working with Baghdad against Barzani. The geographical-dialectal-tribal-religious split mentioned earlier began to emerge.
In 1970 Barzani signed an agreement with the Baath government in Baghdad. The Kurds were given much greater cultural expression and were promised political autonomy over time. The agreement was never really implemented. The disputes over its implementation were typical: Barzani wanted control of the oilfields, the one thing Baghdad would never concede. When Baghdad nationalized the Kirkuk fields, it rejected Kurdish claims to the bulk of the revenues.
In 1974, the regime issued an autonomy declaration but refused any further concessions. But Barzani, encouraged by the shah of Iran and, indirectly, by the United States and Israel, rejected all compromise. (Barzani was one of the few people, if not the only one, who has both lived for a decade in Moscow and been funded by the CIA. He also holds the distinction of having been abandoned by both Josef Stalin and the shah of Iran.) With artillery from the shah, the Kurds won substantial gains and threatened to take Irbil. As the war grew more fierce, Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein met with the Iranians and, in an agreement in Algiers in March 1975, traded Iraq's claims over the Shatt al-Arab waterway for Iranian support of the Kurds. The shah cut Barzani off; the Kurdish resistance collapsed.
Most of Barzani's followers fled, many to Iran. Barzani moved to the United States, where he died in Washington in 1979. Jalal Talabani re-emerged, turning to Syria for support. (Syria, as Baathist rival of Iraq, joined the old game of supporting a neighbor's Kurds while rejecting any separatist claims by its own Kurds: exactly the policy the shah had been pursuing.)
The KDP split. A faction under Hashim Aqrawi accepted Baghdad's proposals for limited autonomy, excluding the oilfields. The Kurdish language and press flourished, though subject to the sharp censorship that all of Iraq endures. Talabani in 1975 created his own movement, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), giving body to the separate faction he had long represented.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 deepened the divisions between the Iraqi KDP and the KDP of Iran (KDPI), which had originally shared a common ancestry. The Iraqi KDP backed the new Islamic Republic, while the Iranian Kurds opposed it. Inside Iraq, the KDP-PUK split deepened. Then, in 1980, the Iran-Iraq War broke out.
The war provided the Kurds with great opportunities and great dangers. Two of the three major powers ruling Kurds, Iran and Iraq, were fighting each other and seeking to inflame each other's Kurds and other minorities against the regime. At the same time, fifth columns in time of war are far more subject to destructive attack than ordinary separatists. The Iraqi KDP, after many splits, re-emerged under the leadership of the sons of Mulla Mustafa Barzani, Masoud and Idris. Since Idris's death, Masoud Barzani has led his father's movement. Talabani's PUK consolidated its strength in the Suleimaniyya region.
The Kurdish border region was one area in which Iran concentrated its early offensives, and by 1983 the Kurds were willing to cut a deal with Baghdad rather than risk an Iranian breakthrough. Baghdad strengthened the previously proclaimed autonomous region, in exchange for a cease-fire. The PUK was more resistant than the KDP, and at this moment more important. Talks continued into 1984. Baghdad rejected handing over Kirkuk (as always), and while initially agreeing to dissolve the }ash or pro-government Kurdish militia, it never did so. In 1985 the PUK resumed the war against Iraq, and in I 987 the PUK and KDP joined to form the Iraqi Kurdistan Front to push for genuine autonomy.
In 1986 and 1987 Iraq suffered severe defeats at the hands of Iran, a fact easy to forget in light of its subsequent reversal of fortune. At this critical juncture it was faced with a Kurdish war as well as an Iranian one. Saddam Hussein, not a forgiving man, though one who had supported limited Kurdish autonomy and helped to implement it in the past, presumably noted this fact. He would remember the Kurdish fifth column when the fortunes of war shifted.
Throughout this war with the Kurds in the 1980s, Iraq had already been displacing Kurdish population when it felt it necessary, deporting thousands of members of Barzani's clan and removing whole villages from the Iranian border areas, resettling the inhabitants elsewhere. By 1987 came the first reports of Iraqi use of chemical weapons against its own Kurdish population. In March 1988, the PUK joined with Iranian forces in driving Iraqi troops out of the Kurdish town of Halabja. Iraq struck back with chemical weapons, reportedly killing up to 6,000 civilians. While some of those no doubt died due to the Iranian forces and the fighting back and forth through the town, the gas attack on Halabja shocked the world. So did the Kurdish refugee problem, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds fleeing into Iran and Turkey. As Iran accepted a cease-fire, Iraq moved to clean up in Kurdistan. The man in charge of this harsh campaign was Saddam's kinsman Ali Hasan al-Majid. Today he is Iraq's defense minister.
In 1989 the Kurdish problem in Iraq was a refugee issue. But with the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the defeat of Iraq by the U.S.-led coalition in 1991, the situation shifted again. At the end of the war Kurdistan rose in revolt. The KDP and PUK seem to have had to play catch-up to the man in the street. Even the pro-Baghdad jash defected en masse. All of Kurdistan soon fell to the uprising, including the oil city of Kirkuk. As has been seen, that is the one concession no Iraqi government has ever been prepared to make.
It has often been argued that one reason the United States did not move to support the Kurdish uprising was fear of upsetting Turkey, which of course staunchly opposes any idea of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq since that would give aid and comfort to Turkey's separatist Kurds. There may be some truth to this, just as the United States was reluctant to support the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq, in part fearing it would produce a pro-Iranian regime and in part for fear of upsetting another key coalition ally, Saudi Arabia. But Iraq's Kurds and Shiites represent some three-quarters of Iraq's population, and the twin uprisings threatened Saddam as nothing before or since.
Saddam's forces responded with tanks and helicopter gunships, retaking Kirkuk and launching a massive exodus of Kurds towards Turkey. Swamped with a quarter of a million new refugees, the Turks encouraged limited Western intervention. The result was Operation Provide Comfort to protect the Kurds by barring any Iraqi flights north of the 36th parallel, and the Poised Hammer force based in Turkey to enforce this and also protect an allied- and U.N.-protected zone in extreme northern Iraq. During 1991 the Kurdish and Iraqi forces (the latter without air support) stared at each other in many parts of northern Iraq. In July the Kurds took Suleimaniyya, one of their major cities and well south of the allied zones.
The Kurdistan Front tried negotiations with Baghdad with little progress. Any independence declaration was precluded by the necessity of keeping allied support. In May 1992 the Kurds held elections, independently of Baghdad, for a self-governing Kurdish entity. The elections were supposed to end the Barzani-Talabani feud by deciding who really spoke for Iraqi Kurds. Instead the two parties ran neck-and-neck, with Islamist and other parties taking the balance. A coalition had to be formed, and a Kurdish Executive and Assembly were established. They could only function, however, when the KDP and PUK were in agreement.
Added to this complex equation was the Turkish PKK, which had used the post-Gulf-War period to build up its own bases in Iraq. In 1992 Turkey invaded northern Iraq and tried to cut deals with the KDP, which controls the border area, to betray the PKK. The tribal and feudal leaders of Barzani's movement have little sympathy for the Marxists of the PKK, and the KDP fought some battles for Turkey against them. That did not sit well with many Kurds, who have grown tired of seeing one Kurdish faction fight another for the goals of a non-Kurdish regime.
The Kurdish autonomous administration was supposed to be a justification of the allied involvement in northern Iraq and a democratic rebuke to Saddam Hussein. But old habits die hard. By late 1994 all the old divisions in Iraqi Kurdistan were visible again, exacerbated by regular assassinations and bombings blamed on the Iraqi regime, which still has its operatives in Kurdistan. A dispute over customs duties at the Turkish Habur crossing in the KDP area (with the PUK wanting its share of the lucrative duties, which not only included aid for the Kurds but sanctions-busting trucks headed for the rest of Iraq) and land disputes between local feudal aghas-added to all the traditional rivalries-led to an outbreak of fighting in December 1994. That war grew more and more violent, and the Western allies watched in dismay as their carefully nurtured Kurdish Autonomy dissolved into bloody civil war. At the end of 1994 the PUK took over Irbil, the "capital" of autonomous Kurdistan (the headquarters of the parliament).
Then, in April 1995, came Turkey's massive intervention against the PKK. This time the Turks sought to cultivate both the KDP and the PUK, bringing about a ceasefire in the process. The Kurdish Parliament elected in 1992 was supposed to expire in early June 1995, but the PUK and KDP came together enough to agree to extend its term by a year. By mid-June they were negotiating on key issues like the Habur border duties (money being one of the crucial issues at stake) and sharing control of lrbil. There was at least some hope that the old feud could be buried again, though probably not forever.
THE KURDS OF IRAN
After the collapse of the Mahabad Republic, the Kurdish Democratic party of Iran (KDPI) went underground. It also moved to the right, in part because of the influence of the Iraqi KDP under Barzani from the late 1950s, which helped support traditional leadership. (Of course the withdrawal of Soviet aid had undercut the leftists after the fall of Mahabad.) The KDPI has always had to share influence with the Komala (Kurdish for "Society"), a movement of urban Kurdish intellectuals.
The KDPI's links with the Iraqi KDP became more awkward when Barzani became dependent on the shah: at one point he executed a KDPI figure and turned the body over to the Iranian authorities. During the period of Barzani's cooperation with Baghdad in the early 1970s, Iraq backed the KDPI against the shah, just as later the shah backed Barzani's KDP against Baghdad. Neither Kurdish group gained much in the long run from accepting support from their enemy's enemy.
Beginning in 1973 the KDPI fell under the leadership of Abdel Rahman Qassemlou. Qassemlou was an economist who had leftist links, had spent some years in Czechoslovakia, and joined the broad coalition of opponents to the shah. The shah in turn backed traditional tribal leaders of the Iranian Kurds. After the revolution in 1979, some of the Kurdish tribes rose, though the KDPI initially sought to work with the revolution. The new regime, however, opposed Kurdish autonomy because its Islamic ideology called for the unity not only of all of Iran but of all Islam. (Iranian Kurds were Shiite, though a minority of Kurds even in Iran tended to back the regime initially.) Qassemlou and a leader of the traditional Sunni religious leadership, Sheikh Izz al-Din Husseini, led the resistance to the new regime, which alternately fought and negotiated with the Kurds. In August of 1979 intermittent clashes grew more serious and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sent in the armed forces, taking back several key Kurdish towns, including Sanandaj, which had become a major center of resistance.
The KDPI lost all the major towns and fell back into the countryside. Then came the war with Iraq, in which Iranian Kurdistan was a major staging area for Iranian operations on the Iraqi border. The KDPI apparently retains some influence, as do the Komala and the Sunni movement founded by Husseini. But these groups' influence, hard to judge in the present internal situation in Iran, is limited to northwestern Iranian Kurdistan. They have little if any influence farther south in the Zagros, let alone among the Iranian Kurds in Khurasan southeast of the Caspian.
In 1988, the Iranian government offered peace talks to Qassemlou and the KDPI. Qassemlou was meeting in a hotel room in Vienna with alleged Iranian representatives in July of that year when he was assassinated. This has generally been seen as a blatant effort by the Iranian government to rid itself of the most prominent Kurdish leader. His successors have not been able to achieve the same international profile as Qassemlou had attained.
The situation in Iranian Kurdistan is not entirely clear today. Certainly the countryside is not enthusiastic about the Islamic Republic, but that is true in many other tribal areas as well, and many cities. The KDPI and other Kurdish movements have been driven from the Kurdish cities, but their real strength may be latent, as was the case between 1946 and the Islamic Revolution.
THE KURDS ELSEWHERE
Turkey, Iraq and Iran are the only countries where the Kurds constitute a large enough, or geographically concentrated enough, population to have any hope of achieving autonomy. In Syria the Kurds are located in border regions near Iraq and Turkey, but they have never constituted a very serious threat to the regime. The Baath of Syria, like the Baath of Iraq, is Arab nationalist in ideology and has little place for non-Arabs, though in Syria it is dominated by a religious minority, the Alawites, who might be expected to cultivate other minorities. In fact the main political voice for the Kurds was long the Syrian Communist party. led by Syrian Kurd Khalid Bakdash. But the party has been marginalized, and Syrian Kurds are not a major force, though Syria did support Talabani and the PUK for many years as a means of undermining its rival Iraq.
Lebanese Kurds are one small faction of a highly factionalized country and have not played a major role. They number perhaps 70,000, mostly immigrants from the Mardin region of what is now Turkey.
In the Caucasus the Kurds constitute minonttes in Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union they have played a role in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with one Kurdish group siding with the Armenians and helping them open a corridor to the Armenian enclave of Nagomo-Karabakh. But they remain a minority in these countries, and the fall of the iron curtain is still recent enough that they have few links with Kurds in the countries to the south. There are also groups of Kurds in Russia and some of the Central Asian countries, generally Caucasian Kurds who were deported to other parts of the USSR by Stalin, though some are refugees from the Mahabad Republic.
And there is the Kurdish diaspora elsewhere. Kurdish is spoken among Kurdish Jews in Israel, of course, though they have no sense of national identity with their non-Jewish fellow Kurds of Kurdistan. There are large Kurdish populations in Germany and the Netherlands, mostly of Turkish origin.
It is hard to draw conclusions in any survey of the Kurds. They were harrying Xenophon some 2,500 years ago and harry various Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian generals to this day. The Kurdish "question" has not yet been answered. Armenians may have a state of their own and Palestinians may have a better chance than they once seemed to have one, but the dream of an independent Kurdistan still seems remote. The peshmerga, the soldiers of death, have become the wards of international refugee programs and human-rights advocates. Turkey devastates its Kurdish provinces and invades Iraq to batter the PKK, and once the initial outrage dies down it seems likely to be able to pursue its campaign further. As the events at the end of the Gulf War suggest, the West is not about to condone an independent Kurdistan that might undermine the security of NATO ally Turkey, even if it disomfits Iran and Iraq and would thus be a logical instrument of "dual containment." Geopolitics is not yet ready for Kurdistan.
Of course, there is another side to the coin. Geopolitics was not "ready" for an independent Armenia, either, home of another mountain people long denied their statehood. The United States was actively opposed to the breakup of the Soviet Union: remember George Bush's lecture to the Ukrainians. But sometimes history plays tricks on geopolitics. So far, however, it has not favored the Kurds. Though they have a sense of nationhood and a generalized solidarity, their feudal, tribal, linguistic and religious divisions still outweigh their sense of Kurdishness. There is nothing comparable to the Gregorian Apostolic Church in Armenia, which survived persecution, dislocation, genocide and Communism as a symbol of Armenian identity, with only one major schism. The Kurds are fragmented in dozens of ways.
The events of 1991 were the best chance the Kurds had had since 1918 to achieve something akin to independence or at least genuine self-determination. But Western caution (and Turkish hostility) helped thwart that. The Kurds of Iraq did achieve a parliament and executive of their own, elected democratically and governing without any sanction from Baghdad. But that great opportunity may have been thrown away by the civil war that broke out last December. Far more Iraqi Kurds have been killed by Iraqi Kurds in the past year than by Iraqi government troops.
Of course, this discussion to some extent assumes that the Kurds really want a state of their own. Ideally, most no doubt would prefer it, but the KDP and PUK both now claim to favor only autonomy within Iraq. Although the PKK seems to still demand independence from Turkey, it has offered to talk with Ankara. The Iranian Kurds have not demanded independence for a long time: they want autonomy within Iran. (Supporters of the Mahabad Republic still insist it never sought full independence either.)
The nation-state may be withering away in Western Europe (though that is debatable), and democracy may be spreading about the world, but Kurdistan is still mired in many ancient feuds. For one thing, though the 1992 elections in Iraqi Kurdistan were more or less democratic because they were closely watched by the West (and led to a stalemate), the traditional leadership of the Kurds in every country where they live is hardly democratic. The old aghas and the Naqshbandi and Qadiri sheikhs (pirs in Iran) still dominate their tribal and feudal followers. And in Turkey, where the old tribal and feudal structures have collapsed under the assault of the Turkish republic, the Kurdish leadership is Marxist-Leninist. The Kurds still suffer, too, from the skill their neighbors and rulers show in dividing and ruling: in favoring one Kurdish faction against its rivals in order to cement the power of Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus. Kurds in Iraq were willing to take arms and money from the shah of Iran while he crushed his own Kurdish nationalists; Talabani's years in Syria were not spent promoting Kurdish rights there; Barzani accepted aid from both Moscow and Washington as it suited him, and was abandoned by both when their own interests no longer coincided with his. Both Barzani and Talabani have sided with Baghdad against the other when it suited them. Right now Talabani's PUK is claiming that Barzani's KDP is collaborating with Saddam against Kurdish autonomy: in the 1970s it could (truthfully) be said that Talabani did the same.
Will there ever be an independent Kurdistan? Ten years ago an independent Ukraine seemed impossible, and an independent Tajikistan or Slovenia ludicrous. But while Iraq may face dissolution given its deep Arab-Kurdish and Sunni-Shiite divisions, neither Turkey nor Iran (whatever its future leadership) is anywhere near fragmenting-and the USSR, after all, had created a constitution which theoretically assured the right to secede. The Kurds themselves are a major part of the problem, which their own best minds acknowledge. A mountain people fierce to fight for their own independence, that spirit filters down to each tribe and clan and village, until they fight each other as readily as they fight the outsider. Every Middle East hand knows the old proverb, "I against my brother, I and my brother against our cousin, we and our cousin against the outsider." One of the tragedies of the Kurds-at least from the point of view of Kurdish nationalism-is that it has often been "I and the outsider against my brother."
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