The Kurds are a largely Sunni Muslim tribe of nomadic people who have lived in a mountainous area of Southeast Asia often referred to as Kurdistan (“Land of the Kurds”) for more than 2,000 years. The mostly contiguous territory (roughly the size of Texas) includes parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Syria. Though Kurdistan is a commonly used phrase and the Kurds have tried to set up independent states in Iran, Iraq and Turkey for more than 80 years, the approximately 25 million non-Arabic Kurds don’t have their own state, making them the largest ethnic group in the world without an official homeland.
Victims of attempted ethnic cleansing by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the ’90s, the Kurds have helped U.S. Special Forces troops fight an al Qaeda-linked militia during the current Iraqi war. Their suspected desire to establish a homeland in northern Iraq amidst the chaos of war has also raised the fears of Iraq’s northern neighbor, Turkey, which has, in the past, also subjugated the Kurdish people.
Though many Kurds share the common bond of rootlessness, most do not even speak the same language. The majority of Kurds speak the Iran-based dialects of Kurmanji and Sorani (Kurdi), which both have local variations. Other sub-dialects include Kirmanshahi, Leki, Gurani and Zaza. They may not be able to speak to one another, but they can likely bond over the fact that the traditional areas of Kurdistan in Turkey (Batman and Silvan), Syria (Rumeglan) and Iraq (Kirkuk, Khanaqini), are rich in deposits of oil, chromium, copper, iron and coal.
Following World War I, the Kurds were promised independence by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which created the modern states of Iraq, Syria and Kuwait and had a provision for a possible autonomous Kurdish state. But new Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rejected the treaty in 1923, and, in addition to outlawing the Kurdish language and forbidding Kurds to wear their traditional garb in Turkish cities, Turkish forces put down Kurdish uprisings throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s.
In 1978, Abdullah Ocalan established the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which is the only Kurdish movement that advocates complete independence for the Kurdish people rather than self-government. The PKK began an armed struggle in Turkey against the repression of their culture in the early 1980s; skirmishes with Turkish forces across the Iraqi border resulted in more than 30,000 deaths. The PKK has rejected the Iraqi Kurds’ drive for self-government, and instead are holding out hope for an independent Kurdish state that would serve as a homeland for all Kurds.
The Iraqi government was prepared to grant the Kurds self-rule and language rights in 1970, but the deal fell through, in part, because of the division of oil revenues. Several more attempts at establishing autonomy failed during the late 1970s. Four years later, Iraqi forces pushed more than 130,000 Kurds into Iran.
The Kurds supported Iran in its eight-year war with Iraq, which resulted in harsh retaliation from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the ruling Baath Party. Kurdish villages were razed and, in 1987 and 1988, Saddam ordered a series of attacks that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Kurds in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja. The ethnic cleansing campaign — in which attempts were made to execute all male Kurds — employed banned poison gas to kill more than 5,000 Kurds and was carried out by Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali.” More than 200,000 Kurds were killed in 1988 alone. British Special Forces reportedly killed al-Majid during a strike over the weekend.
After a rebellion following the first Gulf War in 1991, the Kurds — who make up nearly 25 percent of Iraq’s population — were again massacred by Iraqi troops. Fearing further chemical attacks, nearly 2 million Kurds fled their homes in northern Iraq seeking shelter in Iran, only to suffer for years in refugee camps.
The remaining 5 million Iraqi Kurds received some post-Gulf War relief from oppression thanks to the American-enforced No-Fly Zone in northern Iraq, north of the 36th parallel. The respite allowed the Kurds to create their own government independent of Saddam’s regime, and also allowed them to build hospitals and enjoy such modern conveniences as Internet connections and reliable cell phone service. In 1992, the Kurds established an autonomous region in northern Iraq and held a general election, but sporadic fighting continued between two warring factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The groups agreed to a ceasefire in 1999.
During the current war in Iraq, the Kurds have helped coalition troops open a second front in northern Iraq, with Kurdish “pesh merga” soldiers (“those who confront death”) fighting alongside U.S. Special Operations Forces and helping to defeat local militant group Ansar al-Islam, which has alleged ties to al Qaeda. While the majority of Kurds have given up the dream of a separate Kurdistan, many still hold out hope for autonomous regions within Turkey, Iraq and Iran.