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.

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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Empire, the Kurds were promised their own country under the terms of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres only to find the offer rescinded under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.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.

This article is excerpted from Carole A. O'Leary's"The Kurds of Iraq: Recent History, Future Prospects," and was published by the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal (Vol. 6, No. 4 Dec. 2002). For a free subscription to MERIA Journal, write gloria@idc.ac.il. To see all previous issues and MERIA materials visit http://meria.idc.ac.il and http://gloria.idc.ac.il.

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Jonathan Eric Lewis - 12/30/2003

A good basic analysis of Kurdish identity, though I wish more attention would have been paid to Assyrian and Turkmen history in the region.

In case you are curious, I have recently written a piece for the "Forward" on Assyrians in Iraq


Dr. Pary Karadaghi - 12/30/2003

A good discription of the Anfal Genocide campaign against Iraqi Kurds. More information can be obtained from Middle East Watch' report The Anfal Campaign-A Genocide Campaign against the Kurds.

S. Jerjis - 11/17/2003

Dear the editor of History News Network

Response to the article of Mrs Carole A. O’Leary entitled “Who Are the Kurds?”


I think the western scholars and all the other section of the western community are going to study more easily the Iraqi community after the liberation of Iraq at 09.04.200 3.

Thereafter, it will be clear to which degree, all the sections of the western community have harboured unhealthy sympathy to the Kurds accordingly the western scholars have published a large number of articles and books which are containing hundreds of forged information for the favour of the Kurds.

It is really shameful for a scholar to describe the northern Iraq as a predominantly Kurdish and the worse is to describe kirkuk city as a Historically Kurdish city.

Although any simple book over the Mosul city or the province as a whole will tell her the contrary. W. Young estimates the number of Kurds in her article “Mosul in 1909” as 3000 from 1000.000.

In relation to the Erbil city I would refer her to the book “Two Years in Kurdistan 1918 – 1920”, p. 81, for William R. Hay. His describes the population of the city as predominantly Turkmen.

She can also find in the books of H. Batatu and D. Mcdowall that Kirkuk city is a Turkmen city.

Mrs Carole A. O’Leary had also committed such a mistake in one of her articles and described Kirkuk city as historically Kurdish city:

"Whether the historically Kurdish city of Kirkuk is incorporated into a permanent Kurdistan regional governorate in a future Iraq and whether a separate federal region for the Turkoman is to be established are decisions best left to the Iraqi people."


The reports of the Iraqi Turkmen Human Rights Research Foundation which were attached and the following articles include reliable information about the northern Iraq.




If you know Arabic the following article provides an important information about the Kurdish history and north of Iraq.


Yours ever

S. Jerjis

Dave Livingston - 1/6/2003

This article is appreciated because it provides some clarification of a puzzler told me a few months ago by a G.I. freshly back from the Middle East. This G.I., a Field Grade commissioned officer, said the Kurds whom he encountered were Christians. Accepting that he believed what he said I was left attempting to reconcile his word with what I'd read of the Kurds elsewhere, that most, nearly all of them, are Sunni Moslem.

Not forgotten was that Saladin, a Kurd, was unquestionably identified as a Moslem. By the same token, it not to be forgotten either that the Apostles Thomas, Bartholomew, Simon the Zealot, and Jude Taddeus all went evangelizing to the East just as Peter & Andrew went evangelizing West into the Roman Empire and Phillip went North to the shores of the Black Sea. Their evangelization left behind thriving Christian communities that today number in the millions, principally in India, Armenia, Lebanon, Iraq & Syria.

Even in Iran with its militantly Moslem clergy a community of 21,000 (Chaldean rite) Catholics survives, as does a smaller community of Nestorian (Assyrian rite) Christians.

In Kazakstan, of all places, there is a Catholic population of 180,000, but they are descendents of German, Polish & Ukrainian Catholics deported to Kazakstan from Eastern Europe during the Stalin regime (2002 edition of "The Catholic Almanac," p. 321).

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Paul N. Hehn - 1/1/2003

liked the brief article but did not appreciate the "in- your- face" book club advertising that cut off the first two or three lines.
lines. The same for oher articles. Why don't you lposition the ads on the side somewhere where you can read
them or n ot as you wish.

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