Who Are the Kurds?
Ms. O'Leary is is the Scholar-in-Residence for the Middle East Initiative at the American University Center for Global Peace.
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Empire, the Kurds were promised their own country under the terms of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres only to find the offer rescinded under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.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.
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. 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.