Kurdistan is a large region of mountains and plateaus of about 74,000 square miles (192,000 sq. km), about the size of Nebraska, stretching from southeastern Turkey, northeastern Iraq, northwestern Iran and small portions of northeast Syria and Azerbaijan. It is inhabited mostly by Kurds, an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim people whose ethnic origin is believed to be central Asian and closest to Iranians.
Large communities of Kurds can be found in Azerbaijan, Israel, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The most sizeable communities are in Turkey (about 14 million, many of whom are well integrated), Iraq (4 to 6 million), Iran (4 to 6 million) and Syria (1 to 2 million). The numbers are uncertain because national governments have usually undercounted Kurds to downplay their large minority status and Kurds’ calls, going back to the beginning of the 20th century, at the end of Ottoman Turkish rule, for their own land.
In all, however, Kurds are estimated to number between 20 million and 25 million, making them the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East behind Arabs, Turks and Iranians, and the largest stateless people in the world.
The West’s Successive Betrayals
Woodrow Wilson had recognized Kurds’ right to a country of their own in his Fourteen Points. The 12th had stated that “nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.”
The 1920 Treaty of Sevres made the call for an independent Kurdistan explicit. A commission composed of British, French and Italian representatives, the treaty’s Article 62 stated, was to draft within six months “a scheme of local autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish areas lying east of the Euphrates, south of the southern boundary of Armenia as it may be hereafter determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia,” as Iraq was then known. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan were carved out of the Ottoman empire by those means. Kurdistan never was.
The result has been an unhappy century for Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, where they’ve suffered chronic persecution and, in many cases, second-class status. By 1924, Kurdish culture and language was banned in Turkey as part of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s modernization and unification of Turkey under one culture. Syria stripped a fifth of Kurds of their citizenship in 1962, following a controversial census.
In Iraq, Kurds, with tacit support from Iran and the United States, battled the Iraqi government in the early 1970s, with arms shipments from the United States beginning in 1972. But when Iraq signed a pact with Iran in March 1975, and both Iran and the United States withdrew support for Kurdish rebels in Iraq—the United States prized its alliance with Iran more than it did with Kurds—Iraq launched a devastating offensive to suppress the Kurdish rebellion.
For Iraqi Kurds, the experience would be a precursor of rose things to come. In 1988 Saddam Hussein dropped mustard gas on the town of Halabja, killing some 5,000 Kurds. At the end of Operation Desrt Storm in 1991, U.S. President George H.W. Bush encouraged Shiites and Kurds to rebel against the regime of Saddam Hussein. They did. Bush didn’t respond. Saddam again murdered and transplanted Kurds and Shiites by the thousands. Memories of those betrayals are fresh in Kurdish minds.
Kurdish RevivalAfter suffering decades of persecution, massacres, forced relocations and chemical bomb attacks during the quarter-century rule of Saddam Hussein, Kurds in Northern Iraq are today enjoying the most autonomy and the greatest prosperity they ever have. The Kurdish area of Iraq is the only stable, secure portion of the country. Insurgent violence is minimal. Officially under American military control, no American soldiers are deployed in the region except for those guarding an American diplomatic mission in Erbil. About 1,200 South Korean soldiers are stationed there as part of the multinational force, but they’re used mostly in construction and to help the region develop its communications infrastructure.
No Iraqi flags fly in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish flag is prominent, so are Kurdish insignias on Kurdish security forces, even though, officially, the forces are sometimes part of the Iraqi national army. Kurdish, not Arabic, is the common language. The region may not be independent. But Kurds there act as if they were.
According to The Economist, “an informal referendum in 2005 suggested that 98 percent of them would like outright independence if they could have it.” Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution provides for an official referendum that should determine Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. But the referendum depends on a census that was begun only in July, and that may never be completed, considering the civil war-like situation in the rest of Iraq and 4.4 million Iraqi refugees in and out of the country.