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Kurdistan - Iraq

The Kurdistan Region of the Republic of Iraq (KRI) is a constitutionally recognized semiautonomous region in northern Iraq with a population of 5.1 million (2012 estimate). Its government (the KRG), based in Erbil, has the right, under the Iraqi constitution of 2005, to exercise legislative, executive, and judicial powers according to the constitution, except in what is listed therein as exclusive powers of the federal authorities.

Although the largest numbers live in Turkey (variously estimated at between 3 and 10 million in the 1980s and as high as 14-15 million by 2008), it is in Iraq that they have historically been most active politically. Indeed, the Kurdish minority has offered one of the most persistent and militarily effective security threat of Iraq's modern history. In Iraq, the Kurds have traditionally been organized on a tribal basis. In the past it was correct to distinguish the various communities of Kurds according to their tribal affiliation, and to a large extent this was still true in the 1980s. Tribes like the Herkki, the Sorchi, and Zibari maintained a powerful cohesion.

Increasingly groups of Kurds organized along political lines have grown up alongside the tribal units. Hence, the most northern and extreme northeastern areas of Iraq were heavily infiltrated by elements of the so-called Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). The area around Kirkuk and south to Khanaqin was the preserve of the Faili Kurds, who, unlike the majority of Kurds, are Shias. Many of the Faili Kurds belong to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The far northwestern region of Iraq around Sinjar was spotted with enclaves claimed by the Iraqi Communist Party, the bulk of whose cadres were composed of Kurds.

Iraqi Kurdish areas have historically spanned three provinces: Dohuk, Arbil, and Sulaymaniyah of Iraq. Kurds also comprised a substantial portion of the population in and around Kirkuk, and live as far south as Khanaqin.

Kurds consider Kirkuk, a 5,000 year old city and a center of oil production, as the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, even though it was under Iraqi government control and even though it contained more Arabs than Kurds. Both the KDP and the PUK regarded Kirkuk as a key piece in their plan for a secure and economically viable independent Kurdistan.

By the beginning of the 16th century, the Shia Safavid (Iranian) Empire had emerged as a rival to the Ottoman Empire. The Kurds found themselves in the middle of the territories claimed by the Sunni Turkic Ottomans and the Shia Persian Safavids. The two empires fought at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, where the Ottomans defeated the Safavid Shah. The result of the battle established a boundary between the two empires that split the Kurds between Turkic and Persian empires.

Kurdish cultural identity was fundamentally influenced by their experience at the intersection of the Turkic, Persian and Arab cultures. These three cultures have subsequently dominated Kurdish culture, in part because of the empire and state borders have prevented coordination and unity within the larger Kurdish population.

From the mid-16th century through World War I, the Ottoman Empire ruled three provinces or vilayets Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul that comprise contemporary Iraq. The Kurdish area in modern-day Iraq was part of the Mosul vilayet.

The historic enmity between the Kurds and the central Iraqi Arab government had contributed to the tenacious survival of Kurdish culture. The Kurds' most distinguishing characteristic and the one that bound them to one another was their language. There are several Kurdish dialects, of which Kirmanji tends to be the standard written form. Kurdish is not a mere dialect of Farsi or Persian, as many Iranian nationalists maintain. It is certainly not a variant of the Semitic or Turkic tongues. It is a separate language, though part of the Indo-European family.

The Kurds had been locked in an unremittingly violent struggle with the central government in Baghdad almost since the founding of the Iraqi republic in 1958. Three governorates in the north, Dahuk, Irbil, and As Sulaymaniyah, constituted Iraqi Kurdistan, a region that historically had a majority population of Kurds. Ever since Iraq became independent in 1932, the Kurds have demanded some form of self-rule in the Kurdish areas. There were clashes between Kurdish anti-government guerrillas and army units throughout most of the 1960s. When the Baath Party came to power in July 1968, the principal Kurdish leaders distrusted its intentions and soon launched a major revolt.

It appeared in the early 1970s that the dissident Kurds, under the generalship of the legendary leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani, might actually carve out an independent Kurdish area in northern Iraq. In 1975, however, the Shah of Iran, the Kurds' principal patron, withdrew his support of the Kurds as part of the Algiers Accord between Tehran and Baghdad, leading to a sharp decline in the Kurdish movement. The signing of the Algiers Accord caused a breakaway faction to emerge from the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masud Barzani, the son of Mulla Mustafa Barzani. The faction that left the KDP in opposition to the accord formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani. The PUK continued to engage in low-level guerrilla activity against the central government in the period from 1975 to 1980. The war between Iraq and Iran that broke out in 1980 afforded the PUK and other Iraqi Kurdish groups the opportunity to intensify their opposition to the government.

In March 1970, the government and the Kurds reached an agreement, to be implemented within four years, for the creation of an Autonomous Region consisting of the three Kurdish governorates and other adjacent districts that had been determined by census to have a Kurdish majority. Although the RCC issued decrees in 1974 and in 1975 that provided for the administration of the Autonomous Region, these were not acceptable to all Kurdish leaders and a major war ensued. The Kurds were eventually crushed, but guerrilla activities continued in parts of Kurdistan. In early 1988, anti-government Kurds controlled several hundred square kilometers of Irbil and As Sulaymaniyah governorates adjacent to the Iranian frontier.

The future of the Kurds in Iraq had already preceded through uncertain times because of the Iran-Iraq War. In 1983, the KDP spearheaded an Iranian thrust into northern Iraq and later its cadres fanned out across the border area adjacent to Turkey where they established a string of bases. Meanwhile, Talabani's PUK maintained a fighting presence in the Kirkuk region, despite ruthless attempts by the central government to dislodge them. Thus, as of early 1988, most of the northern areas of Iraq, outside the major cities, were under the control of the guerrillas. It was speculated during the conflict that if on the one hand, if the present Saddam Hussein government in Iraq survived the war, which in early 1988 seemed likely and turned out to be the case, it was almost certain to punish those Kurds who collaborated with the Iranians. On the other hand, a number of large and powerful Kurdish tribes. as well as many prominent Kurds from nontribal families, had continued to support the central government throughout the war, fighting against their fellow Kurds. These loyal Kurds no doubt expected to be rewarded for their allegiance once the war ends.

In early 1988, the Autonomous Region was governed according to the stipulations of the 1970 Autonomy Agreement. It had a twelve-member Executive Council that wielded both legislative and executive powers and a Legislative Assembly that advised the council. The chairman of the Executive Council was appointed by President Saddam Hussein and held cabinet rank. The other members of the council were chosen from among the deputies to the popularly elected Legislative Assembly. The Legislative Assembly consisted of fifty members elected for three-year terms from among candidates approved by the central government. The Legislative Assembly chose its own officers, including its cabinet-rank chairman, a deputy chairman, and a secretary. It had authority to ratify laws proposed by the Executive Council and limited powers to enact legislation relating to the development of "culture and nationalist customs of the Kurds" as well as other matters of strictly local scope. The Legislative Assembly could question the members of the Executive Council concerning the latter's administrative, economic, educational, social, and other varied responsibilities. It could also withhold a vote of confidence from one or more of the Executive Council members. Both the assembly and the council were located in the city of Irbil, the administrative center of Irbil Governorate. Officials of these two bodies were either Kurds or "persons well-versed in the Kurdish language," and Kurdish was used for all official communications at the local level. The first Legislative Assembly elections were held in September 1980, and the second elections took place in August 1986.

Despite the Autonomous Region's governmental institutions, genuine self-rule did not exist in Kurdistan in 1988. The central government in Baghdad continued to exercise tight control by reserving to itself the power to make all decisions in matters pertaining to justice, to police, to internal security, and the administration of the frontier areas. The Baath Party, through the minister of state for regional autonomy and other ministerial representatives operating in the region, continued to supervise activities of all governing bodies in the region. The minister of justice and a special oversight body set up by the Court of Cassation reviewed all local enactments and administrative decisions, and they countermanded any local decrees that were deemed contrary to the "constitution, laws, or regulations" of the central government. The central government's superior authority had been most dramatically evident in the frontier areas, where government security units forcibly evacuated Kurdish villagers to distant lowlands.

Although the Kurds had traditionally opposed any central governments in both Iran and Iraq, most Kurdish leaders initially saw the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran as a possible vehicle for promoting Kurdish aspirations toward self government. The Iranian government's anti-minority attitude, however, along with Iraq's attempts to support the Iranian Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), dashed all hopes for a unified Kurdish independent state. The Iraqi and Iranian regimes each chose to support a Kurdish faction opposing the other's government, and this intervention divided the Kurds along "national" lines. As a result, during the 1980s Kurds in Iraq tended to hope for an Iranian victory in the Iran-Iraq War, while a number of Kurds in Iran thought that an Iraqi victory would best promote their own aspirations. Because most Kurds were Sunni Muslims, however, their enthusiasm for a Shia government in either country was somewhat limited.

Following the outbreak of hostilities and the ensuing stalemate in the Iran-Iraq War, Kurdish opponents of the Iraqi regime revived their armed struggle against Baghdad. In response to deportations, executions, and other atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the Baath, the Kurds seemed in the 1980s to have renewed their political consciousness, albeit in a very limited way. Differences between the brothers Masud and Idris Barzani, who led the KDP, and Jalal Talabani, leader of the Iraqi-supported Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as well as the Kurdish leadership's periodic shifts into progovernment and anti-government alliances, benefited Baghdad, which could manipulate opposing factions. What the Iraqi government could not afford, however, was to risk the opening of a second hostile front in Kurdistan as long as it was bogged down in its war with Iran. Throughout the 1980s, therefore, Baghdad tolerated the growing strength of the Kurdish resistance, which, despite shortcomings in its leadership, continued its long struggle for independence.

In 2003, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq led to developments for Iraq's Kurdish population. The Iraqi Kurds expressed interest in a federal system of government that would grant them a measure of autonomy. As of May 2003, the US had maintained that any government installed in Iraq would be voted on by a parliament, made of groups representing the Iraqi population. The Kurds would clearly represent a minority in that parliament.

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Page last modified: 22-12-2017 13:10:56 ZULU