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Kurds in Iraq: Will They Declare Their Own State?


The Kurds are a Persian ethno-linguistic group of people occupying most of the hilly parts on the junction boundaries of Turkey, Iran, Iraq as well as Syria. Carole O’Leary writes that, after WWII and the split of the Ottoman Empire, these people were assured of their independent state through stipulations of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. They would later be short-changed as the proposal was revoked in 1923 through the Treaty of Lausanne. Consequently, these more than 25 million people are shared among Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria on about 300, 000 square kilometres. Thus, they are the largest ethnic grouping on earth with no state (2002, p.17). The area on which they inhabit in Iraq is popularly referred to us Kurdistan although the word is usually avoided for political neutrality (Katzman 2009, p.2). In this essay, we shall discuss the Kurds in Iraq. We shall determine whether they can form a new state in their northern home base or whether they may fail to pursue that independence. We discuss this considering the post-Saddam Iraq.

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Kurds in Iraq

Majority of the Kurds in Iraq are Muslims following the Sunni beliefs. A few of them are shi’a or Yezedi. Description of Kurds’ life in Iraq has been punctuated with misery. After Iraq was created as a state, Kurds have been associated with poverty, political oppression and even ethnic turmoil (O’Leary 2002, p.17-18). At one time, an organized armed operation was set against them as part of the continual crusade against Kurds in response to their fight to obtain autonomy within the state of Iraq. Under the direction of Ali Hassan Al-Majid, cousin to Saddam; chemical weapons were used to severe the resistance of the Kurds (Barkey 2009, p.7). This campaign was determined to get rid of the Kurds and clear the region of saboteurs-men from 15-70 years of age. Economic barriers were put on regions occupied by Kurds to starve them from any source of livelihood. Armies were then ordered to remove people and take them to reserves where adult men were secluded from women and children. Those who resisted leaving were killed. In deed, those gathered men who appeared to pose a threat were further butchered to reduce the crowd (O’Leary 2002, p.17).

During that time, commonly referred to us the Anfal operations, more than 150,000 were killed. The Iraqi government was influenced by the perception that Kurds were siding with Iran in the Iraq-Iran war. The entire cleansing process began after Saddam’s Baath Party seized power in 1963: The aftermath was 4000 villages going up in smoke with around 300000 people dead (Barkey 2009 p.8).A good example of such destructions occurred in Halabaja town where chemicals and other types of bombs were thrown at the people. Conservative estimates give up to 12000 deaths although eye witnesses gave a more horrible description (Refugee Review Tribunal 2005[RRT], p.2).In early 1990s, rebellion by the Kurds was split into two. Based on the UN Security Council resolution 688, armies from the US, Turkey and other nine countries applied the Operation Provide Comfort to secure and assist refugees along the border of Iraq with Turkey. Thus, we can estimate that northern Iraq became a safe place for the Kurds. Katzman and Prados note that resistance to strong opposition both from outside and inside Iraq enabled the Kurdish safety to be sustained for over a decade under their own governance; after the Iraqi central government withdrew on volition (2005,p.4).

The Kurds conducted their own polls in early 1992 which resulted in the creation of the Kurdistan Regional government. Power was shared between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). There were efforts to involve all factions of the Kurds in the government even though Turkomans had tried to stay away from the elections. Every person was allowed to take part in the process of governance as a way of nurturing democracy. In fact international observers, notes O’Leary, admitted these elections to be free and fair (2002, p.18).This local governance was sourced from the 1970 Autonomy Agreement with the government of Iraq. In this case, Kurdistan would have four provinces, each led by a governor. As usual with most coalitions, the half-half power sharing melted just after two years leading to a split in the government by the two major parties (Katzman & Prados 2005, p.5).

In spite of these upheavals, democratic polls were performed in 2001 in the areas governed by these separate parties. The Kurdish National Assembly converged in 2002, which was after about 8 years in separation. Perhaps this was a sign that the two split parties would rejoin. The two sides were unified in see self control to bargain for a future share in Iraqi Federal government (O’Leary 2002, p.18-19), that is if a new constitution is implemented. These events can be said to be a replica of what could happen in Iraq as a whole. Kurdistan has been a safe haven for refugees in need of democracy and liberty. Many of the Iraqi refugees in Iran chose to come back to Kurdistan from the Diaspora. Despite conflicts coupled with restrictions from the Iraqi government, provision of basic necessities was guaranteed. Non-governmental organizations were established. Academic support was provided by US and European governments to help develop curricula for Universities in Kurdistan. In addition, the regional government allowed free choice of TV channels over the satellite. Private companies freely provided internet services and the government did not impose censorship restrictions on them. These have been milestones in the protection of human rights (O’Leary 2002, p.19).

Many of the villages destroyed in the conflicts were rebuilt. Though the government in Baghdad tried to obstruct, Kurds continued to sell their oil for food. The Kurdish Regional Government has direct contacts with the UN agencies. Historically, Kurds in Iraq have a history of misery but it seems this could end in case the Baghdad government elects to cooperate with their desires (Katzman 2009, p.3).

Kurds in Iran after Saddam’s Reign

The Kurdistan region of Iraq has been enjoying relative peace since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s reign. Friction between Kurds and the Iraqi government has, in most cases, resulted from political and economic demands (Katzman 2009, p.1).There has also been tension among the Kurds themselves; the Shi’a and Sunni Kurds, and the minority religions in the north. Iraqi neighbours initially opposed the Kurd autonomy but they have lately begun to invest in the region, giving a hint that they may be supporting their quest for self-rule. Vasisser Reider admits that the conflict between the central government and the Kurdistan may not end soon. He adds that apart from issues to do with oil exportation, Kirkuk (The capital of the Kurds) still disagrees with Baghdad’s way of administration (2008, para.6). In fact, the strain has been escalated by the provincial elections earlier this year (2009) that resulted in a reduction in the Kurdish representation. This, adds Katzman, nearly burst into violent confrontations between the Kurds and the central government in June (2009) thus dwindling the political stability reached in previous years. Consequently, the US army had to be redeployed to put up trust between the two sides (2009, p.1-2).

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Major issues of conflict

The major conflict between the Kurds and the government result from the 2005 constitution as well as the close ties with the west. The Iraqi minorities and Iraqi Arab leaders in government feel the Kurds are demanding too much. This, according to Katzman and Prados, is seen as a security issue to the government’s honour. Kurds on their part mistrust the central government on the promise of building a diverse plurality that will grant them full privileges to recover their mistreatment during Saddam’s time (2005, p.6). President Bush tried to calm the tension by acknowledging the Kurdish ties with his government while cooling down the opponents to avert a possible explosion. President Obama has also tried to urge the two sides to resolve their conflicts amicably. This, he said, would be through accommodation of all ethnic groups in Iraq as well as ideological differences. In response, Kurds complained that Obama’s arrangement to withdraw US troops would weaken the US capacity to control the emergent conflicts. Many Kurds think the US political manipulation in the conflict is necessary to avert confrontations. In fact Kurds are also in conflict with themselves: After the 2009 elections, opposition won about 25% of the votes thus becoming a threat on their hold on the political and economic strength shared by two major parties (Katzman 2009, p.5).

The Kurds have been participating in the government as a way of nurturing their interests (Reider 2008, Para. 7).For in stance, in 2005 the Kurdish parties KDP and PUK united to win 26% of the vote which translated to 75 seats in the National Assembly. We can argue that this strength enabled Talabani to be president of Iraq because most Sunni Arabs stayed away from those elections. Additionally, the Kurds took control of the Nineveh province which according to Somer Murat is populated by Arabs (2004, p.253). Talabani tried to include Kurdish leadership in the government; Barham Salih was appointed one of the deputy prime ministers. He had been the ‘prime minister’ of the Kurdish government. Apparently, writers usually quoted his title because it was not recognized by the Iraqi government, argues Reider (2008, Para. 7). This slightly accommodated the Kurds but other factions of the country remained disillusioned.

Issues concerning the budget have also been querulous. In 2008, Iraqi budget negotiations saw Arab leaders try to cut the revenue share meant for the Kurds to 13%, a reduction by 4%. The Arabs failed to put their course through, but the Kurds sensed an imminent betrayal and would refuse to put up with the revenue share decided by a census which was not even held. Further issues emerge in the way Kurds wanted their salaries paid through the national income yet they have their own tax collections in the north (Reider 2008, para.8-9).

Still on conflicts, the Kurdish government has been purchasing weapons from Europe. Although the Central government did not object the buying of weapons from Bulgaria in 2008, it can be seen that such a move could still endanger the fragile calm experienced between the two sides (Londono 2008, Para. 1-6). First, the central government may think it is a strategy to be ousted thus it may ready itself in case of any confrontation. Second, we can observe that the confidence between the two sides may be weakened. As a result, the conflict is likely to persist.

The Question of Autonomy

Friction between the Baghdad government and the Kurds has not been centred on autonomy although it is one of the issues that Kurdish minorities have had. Katzman reports that top Kurdish leaders have opted not to fight for absolute independence. Perhaps they know that such a move would be met with stiff antagonism probably because of the regions rich oil wells! Concern among Iraqi neighbours may push the Kurds especially the young generation to pursue this course (Murat 2004, p.252).Carole O’Leary argues that Kurds are political realists and hence their aim is to share a practicable government in Kurdistan under an integrated federal arrangement in the whole of Iraq (2002, p.24). This establishment would give the Kurds an opportunity to share in the funds from the federal government apart from deriving fulfilment from self-government. Although this is viewed by Iraq’s neighbours as a potential threat, federal governments are known to cool down tensions in many countries. Besides, this may culminate to the eventual democratization of Iraq. While Turkey and Iran may be worried that this may provoke Kurds on their soils to pursue the same path, it is obvious that a democracy is a better environment because it will ensure plurality and tolerance even to the minority.

We can argue that the path taken by the Saddam administration to quell the Kurds’ ambitions may have served a potential catalyst to pursue their course in self-government; hence it is necessary for the current Iraqi government to guarantee the protection of all people. Those Kurds who were abused may only forget that mistreatment if the government accepts the identity of all people. Thus, a unified government would guarantee everyone’s protection and eventually act to avert thoughts of seeking their own state.

In summary, we have seen that Kurds became rebellious to the central government as way of responding the perceived betrayal in self rule; which had been promised but not implemented. Iran appeared apprehensive initially but later chose to aid them through accommodation of refugees. This was a way of breaking down Saddam’s administration. When the international community finally intervened, Kurds begun to get back to Kurdistan where they formed their semi-autonomous region that dealt directly with the UN agencies. Barkey argues that the 2003 Iraqi war cemented Kurds’ image in the eyes of the international community because the US dealt directly with Kurdistan after Turkey refused to cooperate. In fact the region became more stable and had to harbour refugees who sought freedom and safety.

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We conclude this discussion by revisiting our topic: The Kurds may not desire to seek their own independent state because they understand the consequences. First, they will be opposed by other factions in the country, the central government included. Two, the stability realized amid the 2003 war may teach them to avoid confrontations; even those in Diaspora after the Iraq-Iran returned to settled in Kurdistan. Being a realist ethnic group, they will opt to seek a federal relationship with the other parts of the country, perhaps just to enjoy self rule as well as a share of the national cake.


Barkey, HJ 2009, “Preventing Conflict in Kurdistan”, Cannergie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, pp 4-43, Web.

Katzman, K &Prados, AB 2005, “The Kurds in Post-Saddam Iraq 1”, CRS Report for Congress, [Order Code RS22079] Web.

Katzman, K 2009, “The Kurds In post-Saddam Iraq 2.” Congressional Research Service, pp1-10, Web.

Londono, E 2008,” Kurds in North Iraq Receive Arms from Bulgaria.” The Washington Post, Web.

Murat, S 2004, “Turkey’s Kurdish Conflict: Changing Context and Domestic And Regional Implications”, Middle East Journal, Vol.58, no.2, pp.252-253.

O’Leary, C. Dec 2002, “The Kurds of Iraq: Recent History, Future Prospects”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol.6, no.4 pp.17-29. 2009. Web.

Refugee Review Tribunal 2005, “RRT Research Response”, Australia, Web.

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Reider, V 2008. “The Kirkuk Issue Exposes Weakness in Iraqi’s Ruling Coalition”, Web.

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