The Slate Gist

The Kurds

Early this month, the United States bombed Iraq in retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the Kurdish city Irbil. Who are the Kurds, and why do they feature so often in news stories from the Middle East?

There are between 20 million and 25 million Kurds–one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without its own state. Almost the entire Kurdish population lives in a mountainous area that covers eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran, as well as slivers of Syria, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The Kurds, descendants of Indo-European nomads, call this region Kurdistan, and have lived there at least 2,000 years.

Although the Kurds consider themselves a nation, they share neither a common language nor a common religion. Kurdish consists of several mutually unintelligible dialects, linguistic relatives of Persian, the language of Iran. The vast majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but there are also Shiites, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, and others.

The Kurds have spent most of the last two millennia fighting against, or allying with, the Arabs, the Persians, and the Turks. They joined the Muslim crusades (Saladin, the 12th-century Muslim hero who recaptured Jerusalem, was a Kurd). They have ruled their own mountain kingdoms at various points in history. More recently, they were subjects of both the Persian and Ottoman empires.

The history of the Kurds in the 20th century has been one of almost constant warfare and disappointment, as they have sought autonomy–with little success–in each of their three principal homelands. The Kurds of what is now Turkey were promised a state after World War I, but Kemal Atatürk annexed them. With Soviet help, Iranian Kurds founded a state called Mahabad in 1946, but the Shah crushed it less than a year later. Iraqi Kurds have been warring for autonomy since the 1930s. Today, separatist movements continue in all three countries.

Iraq: Kurds number about 4 million, approximately 15 percent of the Iraqi population. The recent Kurdish unrest is rooted in 60 years of rebellion, betrayal, and defeat. Between the early 1930s and 1975, Mulla Mustafa Barzani repeatedly warred against Iraqi authorities. He and his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) controlled much of northern Iraq at several points, and the Iraqi government even granted the Kurds some autonomy in 1970. That arrangement soured, and in 1974, Barzani again took up arms against Iraq, this time backed by Iran, the United States, and Israel. But Iran signed a peace accord with Iraq in 1975 and immediately abandoned the KDP. So did the United States and Israel. Iraq smashed the Kurdish uprising. Barzani left for the United States, where he died in 1979. The Iraqi Kurds split into factions: Barzani’s son Moussad took over the clannish, conservative KDP; Jalal Talabani founded the urban, vaguely leftist Patriotic Union of Kurdistan(PUK).

The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s revived the Kurds. The PUK and KDP made common cause with Iran. In 1988, Saddam Hussein savaged the Kurds. His troops razed hundreds of Kurdish villages, massacred thousands of Kurdish fighters and civilians, and forcibly relocated many more to southern Iraq. A poison-gas attack on the town of Halabja killed as many as 7,000 Kurds. About 100,000 Kurdish refugees fled to Iran and Turkey.

Three years later, after the Gulf War, the Kurds rose again at the urging of the United States and its partners in the anti-Saddam alliance. But Hussein stomped them. The allies intervened only when nearly 2 million Kurdish refugees surged toward the Turkish and Iranian borders. The United States, France, Britain, and Turkey delivered humanitarian aid, established a no-fly zone, and pressured Hussein to withdraw from Kurdish territory. With Western help, the Kurds elected a Parliament in 1992. Based in Irbil, the Parliament split evenly between the KDP and the PUK.

Democracy didn’t last. With no Iraqis to fight, the Kurds turned on each other. Civil war broke out in 1994, and more than 2,000 Kurds were killed before the United States brokered a peace in 1995. That peace collapsed this summer. The PUK helped Iran conduct an incursion into northern Iraq. Barzani’s KDP, in turn, asked for Hussein’s help (even though Hussein had slaughtered thousands of Barzani’s supporters during the 1980s). Hussein accepted the invitation. On Aug. 31, 30,000 Iraqi troops and thousands of KDP fighters drove the PUK from Irbil. This raid inspired United States cruise-missile strikes on southern Iraq. After securing Irbil, Barzani’s men quickly routed the PUK from its other strongholds. Talabani fled to the Iran border, and the PUK is all but defunct. Barzani insists that he’s not Hussein’s puppet, and that Iraqi troops have withdrawn to the south. But Hussein’s secret police have settled in; the Kurdish Parliament has collapsed; and experts doubt that the KDP can resist Iraqi bullying.

Turkey: Kurds constitute 20 percent of Turkey’s 60 million citizens. In his effort to build nationalism across Turkey in the 1920s, Atatürk instituted a campaign to suppress Kurdish identity that continues today. Teaching and broadcasting in Kurdish are banned. And as recently as 1994, the government jailed for treason politicians who expressed mild pro-Kurdish sentiments. This suppression has helped legitimize the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a quasi-Marxist guerrilla group that champions Kurdish autonomy. Since 1984, Abdullah Ocalan and his army of between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters have been waging a vicious war against Turkey from bases in northern Iraq and Syria. More than 18,000 people have died. The PKK has murdered Turks who teach Kurdish children, Kurds who side with the Turks, and thousands of Turkish soldiers. The PKK has also bombed Turkish targets in Germany. Both Germany and the United States classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.

The Turkish army has responded with equal brutality. It has “de-Kurdified” much of southeastern Turkey, bulldozing as many as 2,500 Kurdish villages and forcing thousands of Kurds to move to cities in western Turkey. And since 1995, Turkish troops have invaded northern Iraq three times to destroy PKK bases.

Iran: The Iranian Kurds are much quieter than those in Turkey or Iraq. Kurds constitute only 10 percent of Iran’s population; their culture and language are much closer to Iran’s than they are to Turkey’s or Iraq’s; and Iranian governments have permitted them limited cultural expression, though no political autonomy. In 1979, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) joined Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, but he quickly snuffed any hope for Kurdish autonomy. His tanks and fighter planes crushed a budding Kurdish resistance movement. The Iranian government has assassinated two KDPI leaders. This summer, the government and the PUK raided KDPI hideouts in northern Iraq. This assault, in turn, helped reignite the PUK’s war with the KDP.