The origins of the Kurds have been heavily mythologised over the centuries. For example, one of the best known stories of ancient Persian folklore suggests Kurds are the descendants of children rescued from Zahhak, a fantastical tyrant who reputedly devoured the brains of his victims.
In more recent times, the lineage of the Kurds has been linked to various peoples inhabiting the northern Zagros, a mountain range stretching across Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Ancient historians speculate that the ancestors of the Kurdish people are the Carduchoi tribes from this region who in 401 BCE fought against the ‘Ten Thousand’, a Greek mercenary army described in Xenophon’s Anabasis, or that they are descendants of the Cyrti, who are mentioned by the Greek and Roman classical scholars Polybius, Livy, and Strabo. However, the most common, although unproven, theory is that the Kurds are the descendants of the Medes, an ancient people who dominated much of Persia between the years 678 and 549 BCE.
It was not until the rise of Islam in the 7th century that the term ‘Kurd’ became widely used, initially by Arabs who used the word as a generic name for ‘nomadic tribes’. Early Arabic accounts of the Muslim conquests of Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa note that Kurdish tribes resist the armies of Islam from the mountains of Kurdistan until sometime between the 630s and 640s. Yet after suffering defeat, most Kurds from these tribes convert to Islam in the following centuries.
This mass conversion to Islam helps the Kurds integrate into the broader Islamic world, where many Kurdish leaders achieve positions of power. In fact, after the disintegration of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 9th century (a period of Arab rule over the Middle East that many associate with the Islamic Golden Age), a number of Kurdish chieftains implement self-rule in their homelands. The most significant are the Shaddadids (951 to 1174) in Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Rawwidids (955 to 1071) in Azerbaijan, the Marwanids (990 to 1096) in Diyarbakir and Lake Van, and the Hasanwayhids (959 to 1095) in western Iran.
When the Turkish Seljuk dynasty arrive in the region during the 11th century they establish themselves as the pre-eminent power in the eastern Islamic world and launch campaigns against independent Kurdish chieftains. Thereafter, Kurdish tribes are often integrated into the armies of the various Turkic states formed in the wake of the invasions by the Seljuk empire, with some Kurds becoming powerful and influential.
The most successful Kurdish leader in this era is Saladin (r. 1174 to 1193), also known as Saladin Ayyubi, who was the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. In Egypt, Saladin overthrows the ruling Fatimids, goes on to eject the European Christian Crusaders from Jerusalem and establishes an empire that stretches from Egypt in northern Africa to Mosul in the Middle East. The reign of the Ayyubids across large parts of the western Islamic world marks the historical peak of Kurdish power in the Middle East.
The ascendancy of the Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty is relatively brief, however. In 1250, a revolt of Turkish slave-soldiers called Mamluks (‘Mamluk’ being the Arabic word for ‘property’), upon whom Saladin’s descendants had relied to maintain their rule, usurp the Ayyubids in Egypt. Some Ayyubids remain in Syria but their power is weakened by the Mongol invasions of West Asia, and eventually their lands fall to the Mamluks as well.
The Ayyubids are one of a number of Kurdish princely dynasties that continue to dominate Kurdistan, a region over which the Ayyubids, even at the heights of their power, are never able to secure in its entirety.
The Kurdish princelings occupy mountainous homelands that separate the empires of the Mongols in Persia and the Mamluks in Egypt. Subsequently, both the Mongols and the Mamluks try to enlist the support of Kurdish tribesmen, with the Mamluks even attempting to appoint a supreme commander of the Kurds, with the idea they would fight their Mongol enemies on their behalf. By trading their support the Kurdish dynasties are able to maintain a degree of liberty.
In the late 14th century the Middle East is shaken by the invasions of the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur Lang (‘Timur the Lame’). However, while many parts of Kurdistan are devastated by his army, Timur Lang’s dynasty proves even less stable than that of the Mongols.
By 1450 much of Kurdistan is occupied by rival federations known as the Black Sheep Turkmen and the White Sheep Turkmen. But these occupations prove to be temporary and Kurdish noble houses and tribal chieftains are allowed to govern their own affairs by their Turkmen overlords, provided they remain loyal.
Summaries by DJENE RHYS BAJALAN – historian, Missouri State University
In the early 16th century, much of Kurdistan is conquered by Safavid Persia which, unlike many of Kurdistan’s previous overlords, practises Shia rather than Sunni Islam.
The Safavid dynasty’s founder, Shah Ismail I (r. 1501 to 1524), who conquers not only Kurdistan but also much of modern Iraq and Iran, imposes Shia Islam as his empire’s official religion. This religious transformation puts Safavid Persia at odds with its Kurdish population, which predominantly follows Sunni Islam. The tensions are further aggravated by Shah Ismail I’s tendency to replace Kurdish nobles with his followers, who are drawn largely from the nomadic Turkmen of Azerbaijan and Anatolia (a region which makes up much of modern day Turkey).
The tension between the Persians and their Kurdish subjects is exploited by the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Selim I (r. 1512 to 1520). The Ottomans dispatch Idris Bitlisi, a religious scholar familiar with Kurdish affairs, to secure the support of Kurdistan’s noble houses prior to the Ottoman invasion of the Safavid Empire in 1514. Drawing on the assistance of 20 Kurdish noble houses, the Ottomans defeat the Persians and consolidate their rule over much of Kurdistan, with only its more easterly regions, such as Ardalan and Mukriyan, remaining outside their control. In recognition of their support, the Ottomans grant Kurdistan’s tribes and noble houses a significant degree of autonomy.
The Kurds continue as valuable allies of the Sunni Ottomans throughout the 16th century: Kurdish houses play an important role in Ottoman military campaigns on the empire’s eastern borderlands, and help Sultan Selim I successfully claim northern Mesopotamia from Safavid Persia in the early 1530s.
Nevertheless, the relationship between the Kurds and Ottomans is not always harmonious. In 1531, Sultan Süleyman I (r. 1520 to 1566) deposes his former ally Mir Sharaf, the Kurdish prince of Bitlis, forcing him to seek refuge in Persia and switch his allegiance to Shah Ismail I’s successor, Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524 to 1576). Mir Sharaf’s family members are then appointed to high administrative positions in the Safavid state.
However, in 1578 Mir Sharaf’s grandson Sharaf Khan, receives an imperial warrant from the Ottoman Sultan Murad III (r. 1574 to 1595), which restores his authority over his family’s ancestral home of Bitlis. Sharaf Khan subsequently returns there and brings his dynasty back into the Ottoman fold.
Despite their success in regaining the loyalty of the House of Bitlis, however, the Ottoman Empire’s dominance of Kurdistan remains threatened by Safavid subversion throughout the sixteenth century and beyond.
The Safaviyye Sufi brotherhood, a prominent Islamic sect, overthrows Persia’s ruling house, the Aqqoyunlus. They are led by Ismail, who is crowned Shah in 1501 at a ceremony in Tabriz, which he makes the new capital of the Persian Empire.
Over the next decade, Ismail and his followers, who are drawn mainly from the Turkish speaking tribes of Azerbaijan and are known as the Qizilbash (‘red hats’), conquer a vast empire stretching from Afghanistan in the east to Kurdistan in the west.
Amongst his followers, Shah Ismail I is regarded as a semi-divine figure possessed of a religious charisma that inspires fanatical loyalty. However, having established his rule, Shah Ismail moves away from the radical branch of Islamic belief that had propelled him to power. Instead, he establishes the more orthodox ‘Twelver’ variant of Shi’ite Islam as the official religion of the empire.
With the rise of the Safavids, a number of Kurdish leaders adopt the faith of their new imperial overlords, including the emir of Hakkâri, İzzeddin Şir, and his son Zahid. The Safavids also successfully secure the submission of one of Kurdistan’s most powerful dynasties, the house of Ardalan.
Based in their capital city of Senna, (modern-day Sanandaj), the Ardalans rule a territory encompassing much of the present day Iranian province of Kurdistan as well as the regions of Sulaimaniya, Kirkuk, and Khanaqin, which are located in modern Iraq.
Prior to the rise of the Safavids, the Ardalans – who had established themselves in the region in the 12th century – had maintained virtual independence in their mountainous homeland. However, as vassals of the Safavids and guardians of the Persian Empire’s west frontier, the Ardalans continue to enjoy a significant degree of autonomy. This includes toleration of the principality’s particular form of worship, known as Yarsanism (also as ‘Ahl-e Haqq’ or ‘Kaka’i’).
Under Persian rule, Ardalan emerges as a major centre of Kurdish culture with the princes of the Ardalan patronising poetry and literature in the Gorani dialect of Kurdish. Yet the majority of Kurdistan’s noble houses resist religious conversion and remain followers of the Sunni branch of Islam.
Tensions between the Kurds and the Safavids are further aggravated by Shah Ismail’s policy of deposing Kurdish nobles from their traditional fiefs and replacing them with Qizilbash, followers drawn mainly from the Turkish speaking tribes of Azerbaijan. For instance, when a delegation of some 16 Kurdish emirs travel to Shah Ismail’s summer retreat in Khoy in order to pledge their fidelity to the new ruler of Persia, the Qizilbash accuse them of disloyalty and imprison all but two of them.
Following the suppression of a pro–Safavid uprising in the western Anatolian province of Tekke (situated in the south west of present day Turkey), Sultan Selim I (r. 1512 to 1520) assumes the throne of the Ottoman Empire. Fearful of the threat posed to his empire by Shah Ismail I of Persia, the new sultan prepares for a campaign in the east against the Safavid dynasty.
In early 1514 Sultan Selim dispatches Idris Bitlisi, a religious scholar with intimate knowledge of Kurdish affairs, to Kurdistan with the objective of bringing the Kurds under the Ottoman banner. Idris Bitlisi’s mission is successful and some 20 Kurdish emirs agree to support the Ottomans.
In August 1514 Ottoman and Safavid forces meet on the field of battle at Chaldiran just north of Lake Van. The Ottomans emerge victorious and advance deep into Safavid territory, briefly taking control of the Safavid capital of Tabriz.
However, facing unrest within the ranks of his own army, Sultan Selim I is forced to retreat back to Anatolia. He turns his attentions to the south, launching a campaign against the Egyptian Mamluks. In the meantime, the Ottomans rely on Kurdish forces to consolidate their hold in Kurdistan and also halt a Safavid counter-offensive.
In 1515 Mir Sharaf, the Kurdish prince of Bitlis, assists the Ottoman commander, Bıyıklı Mehmed Pasha, in raising the Safavid siege of Diyarbakir. Elsewhere, Melik Halil, the Kurdish ruler of the ancient town of Hasankeyf (located near the Tigris river), participates in the capture of the city of Mardin.
A year later at the village of Koçhisar, the Ottomans’ Kurdish allies inflict a decisive defeat on Qizilbash forces (the Qizilbash are loyalist soldiers who fight for Shah Ismail I of Persia, and are drawn mainly from the Turkish speaking tribes of Azerbaijan). With help from their Kurdish allies, the Ottomans break the Persian Safavid influence over much of western Kurdistan.
Following their victory over the Safavid dynasty of Persia in 1515, the Ottomans establish the ‘province of Diyabakır’ (‘eyalet-i Diyarbekir’). The new province encompasses much of western Kurdistan and Sultan Selim I appoints Bıyıklı Mehmed Pasha as its first governor-general (‘beylerbeyi’).
In return for their service fighting against the Safavids, Sultan Selim rewards the various noble houses of Kurdistan with a significant degree of autonomy. In 1516, following advice of Bitlisi including Mir Sharaf, the Kurdish prince of Bitlis, the sultan issues a firman (imperial order) recognising the various Kurdish noble houses as masters of their traditional fiefs.
The degree of autonomy afforded to each Kurdish tribe and noble house varies, and the most prestigious and powerful, such as the emirs of Bitlis, are granted virtual independence: they are exempt from Ottoman taxation and enjoy the right to pass on their land to their children.
This arrangement forms the basis of the Ottoman–Kurdish relationship for over three centuries. As Ottoman influence expands eastwards over the course of the 16th century, new provinces (known as eyalets or beylerbeyliks), including Mosul (1535), Van (1548), Şehrizor (1554) and Urfa (1586) are established. In these provinces, the Ottomans grant a significant degree of self-rule to powerful Kurdish tribal confederations and noble houses.
Despite their successes, the Ottomans are unable to establish total control over Kurdistan. Shah Ismail I of the Persian Empire and his successors maintain sovereignty over much of eastern Kurdistan, with the region’s most powerful Kurdish principality, Ardalan, generally remaining loyal to their Iranian overlords. Yet the relationship between the Ottomans and their Kurdish vassals is not always harmonious, with violent conflicts and political intrigue on occasion undermining the alliance.
After the Ottoman Empire wins a decisive victory over the Safavid dynasty of Persia with the support of Kurdish chieftains at the Battle of Chaldiran, Sultan Selim I issues an imperial order that recognises the various Kurdish noble houses as masters of their traditional fiefs. Subsequently, the Kurdish principalities take control of their own affairs and grow more prosperous.
In this freer atmosphere, Kurdish literature flourishes. Political stability in the northern Kurdish regions sees the rise of 16th century secular and artistic movements, such as the The Kurmanji School of Poetry.
Poetic writing emerges from traditional institutions known as madrasas, religious colleges which previously taught Sunni Islamic law to the exclusion of other subjects. The shifting focus of the madrasas encourages the production of high quality Kurdish literature, and the colleges play a decisive role in the advancement of Kurdish language, culture and arts of the age. At the same time, the madrasas promote a Kurdish national consciousness.
Malaya Ceziri (1570 to 1640), considered by many to be the father of Kurdish literature, is credited as the founder of The Kurmanji School of Poetry. An iconic figure in Kurdish literature, his poetry is influenced by sufism (Islamic mysticism) and classical oriental romanticism of the era. His celebrated divan (collected work) of Kurdish metaphysical poetry remains one of the most popular Kurdish literary works.
Another leading figure from the Kurmanji School in the Bohtan principality is the great classical poet Faqi Tayran (1590 to 1660), whose epics Wasfi Sheikh San’an (‘In Praise of Sheikh San’an’) and Qawl-a Hasp-e Rash (‘Tale of the Black Horse’) are major works of Kurdish literature.
In the early 16th century, perhaps the most powerful Kurdish noble house belongs to the Rojiki princes of the principality of Bitlis. During the reign of Sultan Selim I the Rojiki clan’s patriarch, Mir Sharaf, forges a close alliance with the Ottoman Empire. However, under Sultan Selim’s successor, Sultan Süleyman I (r. 1520 to 1566), better known in the Western world as ‘Suleyman the Magnificent’, the relationship between Bitlis’s ruling house and the sultan deteriorates.
In 1531, on the eve of renewed Ottoman campaigning against the Safavid dynasty of Persia, the sultan appoints a Safavid defector, the former governor-general of Azerbaijan, to the governorship of the city of Bitlis above Mir Sharaf. Olama Beg Takkalu is granted this position after promising Sultan Süleyman he will help the Ottomans conquer Iranian Azerbaijan. Thereafter, Ottoman sources suggest Mir Sharaf revolts against imperial rule, although the grandson of the Bitlisi prince later claims he had no intention of betraying Sultan Süleyman and was forced to flee by Olama Beg Takkalu’s scheming.
Whichever is the case, Mir Sharaf switches his allegiance to the Persian Empire and spends his final years under Safavid protection. Shah Ismail’s successor, Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524 to 1576), learns from his father’s mistakes – mistakes that had cost the Safavids control of much of Kurdistan – and adopts a more lenient approach in dealing with the Kurds, no doubt recognising their importance in protecting Iran’s western approaches.
As the heir of a leading Kurdish noble house, Mir Sharaf is treated with great respect by the Shah. Indeed, both Mir Sharaf’s son, Shams ad-Din and his grandson Sharaf Khan, spend much of their lives as members of the Safavid court.
Sharaf Khan spends his early years in the imperial household under the protection of Shah Tahmasp I (r. 1524 to 1576) and is even educated alongside the Shah’s own children. At the age of 12, the Shah bestows upon him the title of emir of the Kurds, a rank he holds for three years.
Following the accession of Shah Tahmasp’s son, Shah Ismail II (r. 1576 to 1578), to the Persian throne, Sharaf Khan is again honoured, becoming amir al-omara al-akrad (‘the supreme commander of the Kurds’), a position responsible for representing the interests of the multitude of Kurdish nobles and chieftains at the Safavid court.
However, palace intrigue ultimately results in Sharaf Khan’s dismissal from the Persian court and he is appointed governor of Nakhchivan, far from the centre of Safavid power.
This proves Sharaf Khan’s final appointment in service to the Safavids. In 1578, after serving for just over a year in the position, he receives an imperial warrant from the Ottoman Sultan Murad III (r. 1574 to 1595) restoring him to the hereditary governorship of Bitlis. And so, on 3 December 1578, Sharaf Khan deserts his post and makes for the Ottoman-held city of Van.
Sharaf Khan spends the next 10 years campaigning against his former patrons for which the Ottomans reward him with additional lands and titles, including dominion over the town of Muş, to the east of present day Turkey.
Towards the end of his life, Sharaf Khan relinquishes the reins of government, handing over power to his son Shams ad-Din. He spends his remaining days engaged in literary pursuits. In 1597 he completes The Sharafnama (‘The Book of Honor’), a multivolume history composed in Persian, which he dedicates to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet III (r. 1595 to 1603).
The Sharafnama is the first systematic attempt to write a history of the Kurds and Kurdistan’s various noble houses. After exploring the various myths surrounding the origins of the Kurds, Sharaf Khan examines the histories of various Kurdish dynasties. The first section is dedicated to those rulers, such as the Ayyubid Sultans of Egypt and Syria, who ‘have raised the banner of independence and royalty.’ The second deals with ‘the great rulers of Kurdistan who did not reach the point of announcing their royalty and independence, but had struck coins and Friday prayers recited in their name.’ The third covers ‘Kurdistan’s other remembered rulers and princes…’ while final section of the work discusses Sharaf Khan’s forefathers – the hereditary rulers of Bitlis.
The Sharafnama proves to be a popular work, and between the late 16th and early 19th centuries the rulers of other Kurdish emirates commission the production of copies. In 1684 Şam’i, a scribe in the service of Mustafa Bey, the Kurdish prince of the Eğil principality, completes a translation into Ottoman–Turkish. Indeed, despite the Sharafnama’s pro-Ottoman stance, even the pro-Persian House of Ardalan sees fit to commission a copy.
As one of the preeminent sources on medieval Kurdish history, The Sharafnama attracts the interest of European orientalists with both Russian and French translations appearing in the 1860s.
Between 1598 and 1601, Shah Abbas I (r. 1588 to 1629) of Persia resettles some 45,000 Kurdish families in Khorasan, a province located in the north east of modern day Iran, to stiffen the region’s defences against raids from the Uzbek tribes of Central Asia.
They are granted significant privileges in their new homeland. Five autonomous Kurdish districts are established in the region between Astarabad and Chenaran, three of which survive until 1830s. In the 18th century, Nadir Shah (r. 1736 to 1747) transplants some of the Khorasani Kurds to Gilan, situated in the north west of modern day Iran, to defend against Russian incursions.
The geopolitical tussle between the Ottoman Empire and Safavid Persia, which had shaped Kurdistan’s affairs throughout the 16th century, remains largely unresolved during the 17th.
In 1639, the Ottoman and Safavid empires sign the Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin, which settles outstanding boundary disputes after nearly a century and a half of intermittent warfare. Nevertheless, Kurdistan continues to be a contested frontier zone, where both the Ottomans and Safavids seek to expand their influence. The various Kurdish tribal chieftains and noble houses offer their allegiances to both sides to maintain power and influence, although on occasion this brings them into conflict with their overlords.
In the early 17th century, the Kurdish Canpolad dynasty of the Kilis region (situated in the south of present day Turkey) attempts to establish hereditary rule over Aleppo, located in present day Syria. The Ottoman government crushes their revolt, however. Similarly, in 1610, the Safavids defeat the rebellion of Emir Khan Lepzerin, ruler of the Kurdish emirate of Bradost, when he attempts to expand his influence in Iran’s northwest.
Despite these periodic clashes with their Ottoman and Safavid Persian rulers, the broad contours of Kurdish tribal and princely self-rule remain intact. The result is that some regions of Kurdistan enjoy a significant degree of material prosperity and cultural development. This is evident in accounts by the 17th century Turkish traveler, Evliya Çelebi, who describes Kurdish-ruled Bitlis as a thriving town with an extensive leather-working industry and a population comprised of ‘men of learning and culture’. At Amadiyya, in the present-day Kurdistan Region, he is similarly impressed by Kurdish religious scholars who compose impressive odes in the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish.
Perhaps the most significant Kurd of the 17th century, however, is not a military or political leader but a literary figure. Ahmed Khani, like nearly all Kurdish literary figures of this age, is a product of Kurdistan’s vibrant network of Islamic colleges, some of which provided instruction in Kurdish alongside Arabic and Persian. Over the course of his lifetime Khani composes numerous works in the Kurmanji dialect which examine religion, philosophy, and the natural sciences. However, he is most well-known for his poem Mêm û Zîn, a tragic love story which is regarded by many Kurds as their national epic.
Referred to in Ottoman documents as ‘the liva (district) of the Kurds’, the district of Kilis is situated near the border of modern day Turkey and Syria. In the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire grants hereditary control of the district to the Kurdish Canpolad dynasty.
The Canpolads prove to be capable administrators. They expand their sphere of influence, and in 1604 or 1605 Hasan Canpolad rises to the rank of governor-general under the Ottomans. However, in 1606 Ali Canpolad, Hasan Canpolad’s nephew, conspires with representatives of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany (at this time seeking eastern fortunes under the Medici dynasty) and Anatolian rebels to extend his clan’s hereditary rights to include the governorship of Aleppo, a district situated in present day Syria.
In 1607 the rebellion is crushed by the Ottoman Empire. Stripped of their lands, the Canpolads are forced to flee to the mountains of Lebanon.
Seeking to expand his influence, in 1609 the ruler of the Kurdish emirate of Bradost Emir Khan Lepzerin orders the reconstruction of the ruined fortress of Dimdim near Lake Urmia in present day Iran.
In response, the Safavids of Persia dispatch an army to besiege Dimdim. Despite being outnumbered, Emir Khan Lepzerin and his followers hold out against the Persian forces for a year, yet in 1610 the fortress falls to the Safavids and Emir Khan Lepzerin and his men are massacred.
Nevertheless, the story of Emir Khan’s resistance at Bradost enters Kurdish folklore, and becomes the subject of the poet Faqi Tayran (1590 to 1660) famous work ‘Beytê Dimdim’ (‘Epic of Dim Dim’).
After over a century of intermittent conflict, the Ottoman and Safavid empires sign the Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin (which also comes to be known as ‘The Treaty of Zuhab’). The agreement seeks to settle the boundary between the two empires.
The Safavids win recognition for their claim to the eastern Caucasus and Azerbaijan, while the Ottomans secure their positions in the western Caucasus and Mesopotamia.
The Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin also confirms the dominant position of the Ottomans in Kurdistan, although eastern Kurdistan remains within the Persian sphere of influence. Nevertheless, the treaty does not ultimately resolve boundary disputes between the two empires and conflicts continue to plague relations between the two empires.
The Ottoman government of Sultan Murad IV issues a decree granting the rights to Kirkuk’s oil bearing territories to a local Turkmen family, the Naftchizadas, who claim to have sold petroleum and associated products since the 16th century. The Ottomans regard oil as an important resource, using it to fuel lamps and waterproof rafts.
The existence of oil in the Kirkuk region has been well documented over the centuries: the so-called ‘eternal fire’ which is located in Baba Gurgur, near Kirkuk, is referred to in the Bible, and the natural flames that rise from the earth were said to represent the fiery furnace into which the three Jews – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego – were thrown by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, when they refused to bow to his image in the 5th century BCE.
Abdul Khan, the Kurdish governor of Bitlis, refuses to follow Ottoman orders to remove a mound of earth outside of Van Castle in the eastern marches of the empire. Melek Ahmed Pasha, the Ottoman governor-general of Van, interprets this as a refusal to perform military service, a violation of Abdul Khan’s feudal obligations. Subsequently, he launches a punitive expedition against the governor of Bitlis in 1655.
After a bloody campaign, the Ottomans seize control of Bitlis and install Abdul Khan’s son Zeyaeddin as the town’s new ruler. The harsh actions of Melek Ahmed Pasha against the Kurds of Bitlis follow a more general tendency amongst centrally appointed Ottoman officials to intervene in the affairs of autonomous Kurdish districts throughout the century.
Aziz Efendi, a 17th century official based in the Ottoman palace, later condemns such interventions, noting that the governors-general ‘through their avarice’ are dismissing many Kurdish emirs from office ‘while executing others without reason.’ He sees this as a profoundly negative development, as it undermines the defense of the Ottoman Empire’s eastern borders.
In the early 16th century, the Babans are a relatively minor Kurdish clan residing on the Ottoman frontier province of Şehrizor (Shahrazur). Over the course of the century, however, they are able to expand their sphere of influence as vassals of the Ottomans.
In 1678, the Baban clan’s patriarch, Süleyman Bey, travels to Istanbul where he is granted the title of Pasha in recognition for his service in the wars against Persia. Over the course of the 18th century the Babans continue to expand, largely at the expense of their neighbours, the pro-Persian Ardalans, and establish dominion over the largest parts of Southern Kurdistan, including the towns of Kirkuk, Koysinjaq, Qasr-e Shirin and Zehaw.
The 17th and 18th centuries witness the emergence of a lively literary scene in Kurdistan. This is, in part, a result of the patronage of Kurdistan’s myriad of princes and chieftains. For instance, the Ottoman traveler and author, Evliya Çelebi (1611 to 1682), notes that the Kurdish emirate of Amadiya is home to a community of religious scholars who compose qasides (odes) in the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish.
The Ardalans too are noted for their support for poets writing in the Gurani dialect, such as Sheikh Abdul Momen II (1739 to 1797), an intimate of Ardalan emirate’s late 18th century ruler, ‘Khusrow Khan the Great’. In a similar fashion, the history of literary work in the Sorani dialect is linked to the growing power of the Babans.
Kurdistan’s Islamic colleges (‘madrasas’) also serve as a major source of cultural vitality. The network of madrasas gain a reputation as centres of Islamic learning where the rational sciences continue to be taught after they have gone into decline in other parts of the Islamic world. Much of the education in these schools is conducted in Arabic and Persian. However, pedagogical texts written in Kurmanji, such as Elî Teremaxî (1785), indicate that some education is also conducted in Kurdish.
Perhaps the most well-known alumni of Kurdistan’s madrasas is Ahmed Khani (1650 to 1707). Khani, a native of Hakkâri, composed several works in the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish, including Eqîdeya Îmanê (‘The Path of Faith’) and Nûbihara Biçûkan (‘The Spring of Children’). However, he is most remembered for his poetic masterpiece, Mêm û Zîn. The poem is set in the emirate of Cizre-Bohtan and is a literary adaptation of the folktale ‘Mêm-i Alan‘. The story recounts the doomed love between Mêm, a young man of modest origins and Zîn, the daughter of Cizre-Bohtan’s emir. The work touches on various themes, including love and religion.
In a section known as ‘derdê me’ (‘our woes’), Khani bemoans the Kurds geopolitical position as guardians of the borderlands and subjects of the Turks and Persians. He also critiques Kurdistan’s aristocratic elites for allowing such a fate to befall the Kurds.
Khani longs for the day a Kurdish king will rise up, unite the tribes of Kurdistan, and establish a new Islamic empire in which religious practise and the state might be perfected. While not a nationalist in the modern sense of the word, Xanî demonstrates a strong sense of ethnic pride and today many Kurds regard Mêm û Zîn as their national epic
The 18th century is a time of substantial change in the Middle East. The Safavid dynasty of Persia is overthrown in 1736 and its new ruler, Nadir Shah (r. 1736 to 1747), an ethnic Turk from Khorasan, re-establishes Persian power in the region. He drives the Ottomans from western Iran and successfully invades the Moghul Empire of Central Asia.
However, following his death, Persia again falls into political chaos before Karim Khan Zand (r. 1751 to 1779), a member of the Luri community of western Iran, asserts his authority. Although his relationship with the various Kurdish tribes is complex, Karim Khan Zand maintains a close relationship with the House of Ardalan. After the pro-Ottoman Baban Kurds successfully occupy much of the Ardalan fiefdom in 1774, the Persian ruler dispatches his forces to restore the Ardalans to power.
While less dramatic, the transformations that take place in the Ottoman Empire are no less significant. On the one hand the century witnesses systematic efforts by the Ottomans to settle nomadic Kurdish tribes and integrate them into the political life of the imperial state. Yet on the other Ottoman governance in the 18th century is also defined by the weakening of its central authority.
Dynasties of local notables (‘ayan’) throughout the Ottoman Empire establish control of provincial government in this period, and some Kurdish clans are also able to expand their power and influence. Perhaps the most successful of these are the Babans who by the end of the 18th century emerge as the dominant power across much of southern Kurdistan, ruling from their purpose built capital of Sulaimaniya.
Part of the success of the House of Baban can be attributed to the family’s status as Ottoman vassals. However, the Babans are also successful in exploiting tensions between the Ottomans and the Mamluk dynasty of Iraq, which consolidated hereditary control over Baghdad in 1704.
The rise of the Babans has cultural as well as political implications. In earlier centuries, Kurdish literary culture had been dominated by the Kurmanji dialect of the Kurdish language within Ottoman Kurdistan and also the Gurani dialect in those regions governed by the Ardalans. The Babans change this by promoting their own dialect, which is known as Babani (and is today referred to as Sorani). They do so by patronising poets and scholars who write in the Babani dialect, and thus lay the foundations for a modern Sorani literary culture across much of what will later become the Kurdistan Region.
The House of Baban takes advantage of the invasion of Persia by the Afghan Hotak dynasty in 1721 and attacks its Kurdish neighbours in the Ardalan principality. The Babans capture Ardalan’s capital, Senna, and rule the region on behalf of the Ottoman Empire until 1730, when they are driven out by the Persian army of the Safavid dynasty. The Ardalan principality is subsequently reinstated by Sobhanverdi Khan Ardalan with the approval of Nader Shah Afshar, the Shah of Persia.
Around this time, Ibrahim Pasha of Baban relocates the capital of the Baban principality to a territory called Qara Cholan, south of the modern day city of Sulaimaniya in the Kurdistan Region. He encourages diversity and religious minorities, such as Kurdish jews, are invited to settle there.
Baban’s rulers promote the arts with their patronage, which focuses on poetry, architecture and the visual arts. They establish schools and mosques which have the specific purpose of advancing Kurdish poetry and language. The most important amongst these is the Kurdish School of Baban Poetry whose influence extends beyond Baban’s borders.
The most important figure in the Kurdish School of Baban Poetry is Nali (1797 to 1856), a linguist, translator and mathematician who is later regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Kurdish classical period and an ardent supporter of the concept of an independent Kurdish state.
The Baban court in Sulaimaniya also provides refuge to Mah Sharaf Khanom, who adopts the nom de plume ‘Mastureh Ardalan’. She is a female writer, poet and historian from the Ardalan principality in Persia who flees to Baban after the Iranian Qajar dynasty (who ruled Persia from 1785 to 1925) conquers Ardalan. Mah Sharaf Khanom is said to be the only female poet and historian in the Middle East with recorded works prior to the 20th century.
Following the fall of the Canpolad dynasty in the early 17th century, the Ottomans assign their former holdings to the Kurdish Milli tribal confederations in the regions of southern Anatolia and northern Syria. The Milli Kurds subsequently emerge as a powerful force.
In the 18th century, as part of a more general policy of seeking to settle nomadic tribesmen, the Ottomans appoint Milli chieftains as ‘iskan başı’ (settlement chiefs) and give them responsibility for leading the process of permanent settlement in the region of Raqqa, located in present day Syria.
In 1758, the Milli chieftain Mahmoud bin Kalash enters the Khabur valley in an attempt to establish control over the region. Although his plans are frustrated, the Milli maintain much of their power and influence, with a Milli chieftain even serving as the governor of Raqqa between 1800 and 1803.
The Persian ruler Karim Khan Zand (r. 1751 to 1779) dispatches his cousin Naẓar-Ali Khan Zand to Kurdistan to reassert control over the region.
Naẓar-Ali Khan Zand plans to attack Abdullah Khan, the leader of the Bajalan tribal confederation and the Ottoman-backed pasha of Zuhrab. In the ensuing battle outside the town of Khanaqin, the Persians emerge victorious, slaughtering 2,000 Bajalan men. The territory of Zuhrab is subsequently integrated into Persia, although Khanaqin remains under Ottoman control.
In 1781 Mahmoud Pasha Baban establishes the city of Sulaimaniya, and moves his court there from the old Baban capital of Qala Cholan. Over subsequent decades the city of Sulaimaniya prospers, emerging as a major centre of trade and culture.
In 1820 Claudius Rich, an agent for the British East India Company, visits the town and observes that it is home to some 10,000 people, with five covered markets, two mosques and a public bath.
The Empress of Russia Catherine II, also known as ‘Catherine the Great’, commissions a publication of a standardised Kurdish grammar, signalling a growing interest in the Kurdish tribes, whose interests align with historic Russian opposition to both Ottoman Turkey and Qajar Persia.
The Russian Empire remains broadly supportive of the Kurdish tribes until the 19th century but is also concerned with the security threat the Kurds pose on its southern Caucasian borders. Subsequently, Russian scholars conduct in-depth studies of the Kurds of what is today known as ‘Eastern Anatolia’ and Saint Petersburg becomes a world centre for Kurdish studies.
In the early 19th century the leader of the Kurdish principality of Baban, Abdurrahman Pasha Baban, becomes an important and influential political figure on the Ottoman–Persian frontier. He maintains his position by playing the Ottomans off against the Qajar dynasty, which had seized the Persian throne in the late 18th century.
Abdurrahman Pasha also benefits from mistrust between the Ottoman government in Istanbul and their nominal vassals, the Mamluk pashas of Baghdad.
His position is nonetheless undermined by internal divisions within the Baban clan and, during his reign between 1789 and 1813, he is forced to flee Sulaimaniya no less than five times.
In 1805, a coalition of Ottomans, Mamluks, and renegade members of his own family, led by Khalid Pasha Baban, forces Abdurrahman Pasha to flee to Persia. Khalid Pasha briefly assumes leadership of the Baban emirate. His reign is short-lived. A year later and with the support of the Shah of Persia, Fath-Ali Shah Qajar (r. 1797 to 1834), Abdurrahman Pasha returns to power in Sulaimaniya.
Subsequently, Abdurrahman Pasha fortifies the mountain approaches to his capital in preparation for an attack from the Mamluk governor-general of Baghdad, Küçük Suleiman Pasha.
In 1810, however, Baghdad’s governor-general himself revolts against the Ottomans. Seeking to win the favour of Abdurrahman Pasha, the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II sends an emissary to offer the Baban prince the governorship of Baghdad, but the offer is refused.
The history of the Middle East in the 19th century is defined by the emerging global dominance of the European Great Powers – who at this point consist of the empires of Austria, Britain, France, Prussia and Russia – and the efforts of the Ottoman and Persian empires to adapt to a changing international political order in the wake of European industrialisation. These dynamics have a profound effect on the relationship between the Kurds and their imperial overlords as well as on Kurdish society more generally.
During the first half of the 19th century, both the Ottoman Empire and the Qajar dynasty, which had seized the Iranian throne towards the end of the previous century, seek to reform their administrations along European lines. Both attempt to establish central government authority over the peripheries of their empires by creating standardised forms of administration. And in each case, these policies draw their authors into conflict with the various Kurdish princes and tribal leaders operating within imperial borders, who attempt to maintain and expand their traditional privileges and liberties.
The best known example of such resistance occurs in the 1840s, when Bedir Khan Bey, the ruler of the Cizre-Bohtan principality, leads a coalition of Kurdish princes and tribal leaders against Ottoman forces. Although Bedir Khan is able to resist Ottoman military pressure for a number of years, he is captured in 1846 and replaced by a centrally appointed Ottoman official. A similar fate befalls other Kurdish principalities, and the process of administrative centralisation in Ottoman Kurdistan is completed – at least on paper – by 1851.
Qajar policies to centralise and reform the governorship of Iranian Kurdistan are implemented more slowly, yet by the mid 1860s the Persian Empire dissolves the Kurdish principality of Ardalan. Although the emirates that had played such an important role in Kurdish affairs in previous centuries are abolished, imperial control over much of Kurdistan remains tenuous at best, however, and the Ottomans and Safavids struggle to govern Kurdish regions effectively.
This is particularly the case in Ottoman Kurdistan, where tribal Kurds frequently resent Ottoman efforts to extract taxes and impose conscription upon them.
Many Kurdish Muslims are also alienated by the efforts of the Ottoman government to establish legal equality for Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as the growing European political and cultural influence in the Near and Middle East. They believe these parallel developments threaten the traditional social and political superiority of Islam in the Kurdish regions.
This growing Kurdish resentment towards the modernising policies of the Ottoman Empire facilitates the rise of Kurdistan’s Sufi sheikhs, the spiritual leaders of Kurdish society. With the fall of Kurdistan’s principalities and the weakness of the Ottoman and Qajar central governments, the Sufi sheikhs rise to political prominence. Their ascent to power culminates in the Sheikh Ubeydullah revolt of the early 1880s, a rebellion directed against both the Ottoman and Qajar governments in Hakkâri and then Urmia, which are located in present day Turkey and Iran respectively. Yet the Ottomans suppress the revolt and Sheikh Ubeydullah is ultimately exiled to Hijaz in present day Saudi Arabia.
The rebellion marks the emergence of modern Kurdish nationalism, however, with Sheikh Ubeydullah seeking to establish a Kurdish state consisting of territories within both Ottoman and Iranian Kurdistan.
In the aftermath of the Sheikh Ubeydullah revolt, the new Ottoman ruler, Sultan Abdülhamid II, forms the Hamidiye Cavalry Regiments, a militia drawn from amongst the Kurdish tribes. The sultan hopes that the privileges afforded by Hamadiye membership within Ottoman society will secure the loyalty of the Kurds. To a certain degree the policy proves a success, as the Ottoman Empire does not face a major Kurdish insurrection for the remainder of the century. Nevertheless, the Hamidiye Cavalry Regiments gain international notoriety thanks to their involvement in extensive anti-Armenian violence in the mid 1890s.
Amidst chaos and unrest in Istanbul, Sultan Mahmoud II (r. 1808 to 1839) ascends the Ottoman throne. He comes to power at a time when the growing economic and military might of Europe is increasingly threatening the survival of the centuries old Ottoman system of governance.
Sultan Mahmoud II’s reign is also marked by growing instability within the empire. In the Balkans, Ottoman rule is destabilised by a rising tide of nationalism amongst the region’s Christian populations. In the empire’s Asiatic provinces, Ottoman influence is weakened by rebellious vassals, most notably Mehmet Ali Pasha, the governor-general of Egypt, who establishes virtual independence from Istanbul.
Faced with these challenges to Ottoman authority, Sultan Mahmoud II seeks to reform the military, disbanding the elite janissary (infantry) corps in 1826 and establishing a Western style army with the assistance of Prussian advisors. He also works to reform and centralise the administration of the empire by replacing autonomous vassals with centrally appointed Ottoman officials.
In 1821 Mahmoud Pasha Baban, leader of the Kurdish Baban principality, switches his allegiance from the Ottoman Empire to Abbas Mirza, the Qajar crown prince of Persia and governor of Azerbaijan. This defection and the resulting political disorder prompts Abbas Mirza to invade Ottoman Kurdistan, where he inflicts a crushing defeat on the numerically superior Ottoman forces at the Battle of Erzurum.
Despite the Qajar victory, European intervention ensures that the Persians are unable to capitalise on their military gains and the Baban emirate is restored to Ottoman control.
After the success of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans and Sultan Mahmud II’s closure of the Dardanelles straits in northwestern Turkey, Russian forces led by Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825 to 1855) invade the Ottoman Empire.
While most of the fighting takes place in Ottoman Romania, the Russian forces also attack from the mountainous Caucasus region and drive deep into Ottoman territories, seizing the fortress city of Erzurum in June 1829. During the conflict, most of the Ottoman’s Kurdish vassals refuse to perform military service.
The Treaty of Adrianople, signed in September 1829, brings a cessation to the conflict between the two powers, and the Russians cede control of Erzurum to the Ottoman Empire. However, the weakness of Ottoman defenses in their eastern marches are exposed and the Ottomans increasingly view the Kurds as unreliable allies.
Viewing the eastern Kurdish principalities as a vulnerable ‘backdoor’ that the Russian Empire might exploit, Sultan Mahmoud II decides to replace Kurdish chieftains with Ottoman governors. In Diyabakir, he appoints Reşid Mehmed Pasha, a Greek who was previously the sultan’s representative as Grand Vizier, as governor–general. Reşid Pasha is also appointed governor (‘vali‘) of Raqqa, located in present day Syria, and prefect (‘mütesellim’) of Muş, in the east of present day Turkey.
Sultan Mahmoud II grants Reşid Mehmed Pasha extensive powers to challenge the Kurds and reorganise the region’s administrative structures. He proves an extremely capable governor and military commander during his tenure in office, leading numerous campaigns against Kurds across the province and putting an end to the autonomy enjoyed by the Kurdish emirs of Hazzo, Hani, Inicak and Silvan. However, Reşid Mehmed Pasha’s most notable military victory is over Mir Mohammed of Rawanduz, the rebellious Kurdish prince of Soran.
Mir Mohammed of Rawanduz had risen to the leadership of the Soran emirate in 1814. He quickly expands his holdings, launching attacks against Ismail Pasha, the emir of Ahmadiyya, and the Yazidis of Sinjar. Mir Mohammed had also established a cannon foundry, producing more than 200 cannons in Rawanduz.
However, Mir Mohammed’s rapid rise to prominence brought him into conflict with the Ottoman authorities. Initially, he enjoys some success against the Ottoman forces, yet in 1836 he suffers a major defeat at the hands of Reşid Mehmed Pasha. Mir Mohammed is subsequently sent to Istanbul where he is offered the ‘governorship of Kurdistan.’ However, whilst returning to his homeland, he is murdered en route by Ottoman agents.
The Ottoman governor Reşid Mehmed Pasha dies in 1836 and his place is taken by Çerkez Hafız Mehmed Pasha. Çerkez Hafız Mehmed Pasha continues his predecessor’s efforts to impose Istanbul’s authority over the Kurds, while bringing to heel the Garzan Kurds, a powerful coalition of nomadic tribes who occupy the districts between Batman and Siirt in the east of present day Turkey.
In the 1820s the Kurdish leader Khan Mahmoud of Müküs (today known as Bahçesaray in eastern Turkey) had expanded his dominion, which now encompasses much of the region between Lake Van and the Iranian frontier. Çerkez Hafız Mehmed Pasha’s efforts to unseat Khan Mahmoud prove unsuccessful, however.
His efforts to assert Ottoman authority over Kurdistan are delivered another devastating blow when Egyptian forces loyal to the rebellious governor of Egypt, Mohammed Ali Pasha, inflict a crushing defeat on the Ottomans at Nizip, a small town located on the left bank of the Euphrates river.
With the Ottoman Empire’s territorial integrity threatened by both internal unrest within its borders and attacks from imperial rivals without, the Ottoman government redoubles their efforts to reform and modernise their imperial institutions along European lines. These reforms, directed by officials from the Sublime Porte, the Ottoman court in Istanbul (as opposed to the sultan), are collectively known as the Tanzimat (‘reorganisation’).
The Tanzimat reforms begin with the 1839 Edict of Gülhane, a proclamation in which the Ottoman government commits itself to recognising legal equality for Ottoman subjects regardless of their religion or ethnic group, and also an orderly system of taxation and conscription.
A raft of legal and political reforms follow in subsequent years, including a second reform edict in 1856 that sees the Ottoman government restate its commitment to legal equality for all Ottoman subjects as well as equal access to state education and employment in government positions. The Tanzimat movement culminates in the 1876 proclamation of the Ottoman Constitution (‘Kanun-ı Esasi’) which establishes a formal Ottoman parliament.
Ultimately, however, the Tanzimat reforms fail to achieve their stated goals. They do not successfully vanquish the separatist ambitions of Christian populations within the Ottoman Empire, and at the same time they alienate conservative Muslims, who believe that the reforms undermine the traditional superiority of Islam within their societies.
Bedir Khan Bey comes to power in the Cizre-Bohtan emirate in 1835 following the removal of his cousin, Seyfeddin Bey, by the Ottoman governor–general of Diyarbakir Reşid Mehmed Pasha. He initially secures his position through cooperation with the Ottoman authorities. However, following the Battle of Nizip in 1839, Bedir Khan emerges as the dominant force in central Kurdistan and the leader of Kurdish resistance against Ottoman efforts to assert their authority in the region.
In 1840, Bedir Khan forms a series of alliances with a number of other Kurdish emirs, most notably Khan Mahmoud of Müküs (today known as Bahçesaray in eastern Turkey) and Nurullah Bey of the Hakkâri region. He proves an active reformer, raising the levels of elite military units under his personal command and establishing a centralised judicial system within his territories.
Bedir Khan’s rise to political prominence causes consternation amongst Ottoman officials and they quickly seek to undermine his power and influence. In 1842 the Ottoman government attempts to divide his territories by transferring the administrative jurisdiction of Cizre from Diyarbakır to Mosul. In response, Bedir Khan openly rebels and begins minting coins in his name. Bedir Khan even replaces the sultan’s name with his own during the recital of the Friday prayers, an important symbol of sovereignty in the Islamic tradition.
Bedir Khan’s revolt against Ottoman rule continues for five years and his actions even attract the interest of the Great Powers of Europe following his massacre of Nestorian Christians in 1843 and 1846.
The Ottoman armies are initially repelled by Bedir Khan’s forces. However, Bedir Khan is forced to retreat in 1846 after his nephew Yezdan Sher takes the side of the Ottomans against him. The Ottomans turn Yezdan Sher, one of Bedir Khan’s leading army commanders, by offering him the rulership of the Bohtan principality in his uncle’s stead. Meanwhile, Khan Mahmoud of Müküs is captured by the Ottomans while assisting Bedir Khan’s escape. He is later exiled to the Balkans.
Cornered in his fortress at Eruh (situated in the south east of modern day Turkey), Bedir Khan resists a siege by Ottoman and rival Kurdish tribes for many months. However, with his supplies and ammunition depleting, the emir of Cizre–Bohtan is forced to sue for peace, negotiating a surrender on condition of honourable treatment.
The Ottoman Empire subsequently exiles Bedir Khan from Kurdistan, first sending him to the Greek island of Crete and later to Damascus, located in present day Syria. They keep their promise to treat him honourably and his numerous children are educated in the elite schools and colleges of the Ottoman Empire, with many going on to enjoy successful careers in the Ottoman bureaucracy.
However, Nurallah Bey, having abandoned his erstwhile allies, remains in Hakkâri until 1849 when the Ottomans remove him from office and send him into exile.
In the early 1840s Ahmed Pasha Baban attempts to maintain his autonomy from Ottoman rule, resisting the efforts of Necip Pasha, the governor of Baghdad, to depose him. Like Bedir Khan, Ahmed Pasha Baban attempts to reform his emirate, working to increase agricultural production while establishing an elite military force which is trained to European standards.
Despite his best efforts, Ahmed Pasha Baban is defeated by Ottoman forces in 1845 and removed from office. His place is taken by his brother Abdullah Pasha, who, despite being deprived of his hereditary rights, governs the district of Sulaimaniya as a centrally appointed Ottoman prefect (‘kaymakam’).
Six years later, Abdullah Pasha is in turn dismissed by the Ottomans, bringing to a close not only the Baban emirate but also the last bastion of Kurdish self-rule within the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire finally breaks Kurdish resistance after the defeat of the rebellious Bedir Khan in Cizre-Bohtan, and also Ahmed Pasha, the leader of the Baban emirate. Afterwards, the Ottomans establish the province of Kurdistan (‘eyalet-i Kürdistan’), which is composed of most of northern Kurdistan, including the province of Diyarbakir, the counties of Van, Muş and Hakkâri and the districts of Cizre, Bohtan and Mardin.
Kurdish populated regions further to the south in the Ottoman Empire are incorporated into the province of Mosul. Over the next 20 years the regions controlled by Kurdistan’s governor vary, with the districts of Mosul, Dersim, Harput and Malatya being attached at various times. The Ottoman province of Kurdistan is ultimately abolished in 1868, following the implementation of the 1864 ‘Vilayet Law’, which reorganised provinces within the empire.
With the fall of the most powerful Kurdish noble houses, a power vacuum emerges in Kurdistan. Intertribal conflicts intensify without the presence of the old emirs to mediate, and religious violence escalates between the Kurds and their Christian neighbours. The centrally appointed Ottoman officials lack knowledge of the region, and are unable to bring order to the Kurdish provinces.
The Kurdish population views the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms as a challenge to the dominance of Islamic law. The perceived influence of European governments over the Ottoman administration is interpreted as a conflict between Christendom and Islam, a trend that is exacerbated by the arrival of a large number of Christian missionaries in the region from Europe and North America.
Sheikhs, the leaders of Kurdistan’s numerous ‘tarikat’ – Sufi brotherhoods promoting Islamic mysticism – ultimately step into the vacuum created by the removal of the Kurdish emirs. Sufi leaders leverage their positions as holy men to present themselves as the protectors of traditional religious values, and are therefore well received at a time when many Kurds believe the traditional superiority of Islam is under threat. The Kurdish sheikhs subsequently emerge as important mediators in tribal disputes and acquire large followings and great wealth.
The two most significant Sufi orders in Kurdistan are the Qadiriyya order and the Nakşibendiye-Khalidiye order. The former derives its name from the 12th century Kurdish mystic Abdul-Qadir Geylani (1077 to 1166). The latter is an offshoot of the Central Asian Nakşibendiye order.
The Nakşbendiye-Khalidiye order is founded by Sheikh Mevlana Khalid al-Shahrizuri (1779 to 1827), a native of Sulaimaniya better known as Mevlana Khalid-i Baghdadi. This newer order spreads rapidly throughout Kurdistan and beyond in the early 19th century, winning many converts amongst the Kurdish tribes. Perhaps the most influential of these converts are the Sadat-ı Nehri.
Originally members of the Qadiriyya order, the Sadat-ı Nehri claim descent from Abdul-Qadir Geylani, a central figure for the Qadiriyya. In the early 19th century they become followers of Sheikh Mevlana Khalid al-Shahrizuri, however, and move from the town of Akre in the present day Kurdistan Region to the village of Nehri near Hakkâri, to the east of modern day Turkey.
Following the fall of Bedir Khan, Sheikh Taha, the patriarch of the Sadat-ı Nehri clan, emerges as the dominant figure in central Kurdistan. Under his son Sheikh Ubeydullah, the family’s influence spreads even further, with missionaries (‘khalifa’) loyal to the Sadat-i Nehri winning followers from Beyazıt in the north to Sulaimaniya in the south.
The Crimean War (1854 to 1856) sets the Russian Empire against the Ottoman Empire, Britain, France, and the Kingdom of Piedmont–Sardinia (the predecessor state of the Kingdom of Italy).
Seeking to exploit the conflict, Yezdan Sher, the nephew of Bedir Khan, the former ruler of the Cizre-Bohtan emirate, rebels against the rule of Sultan Abdülmecid I. In the previous decade, Yezdan Sher had allied with the Ottomans against his uncle’s revolt. After the Ottoman Empire suppresses the Bedir Khan revolt, he is appointed governor of Hakkâri with their approval. However, with Ottoman troops moving from central Kurdistan to the front in the Caucasus, Yezdan Sher opposes their rule.
He seizes control of the town of Bitlis and marches on Siirt. At Siirt, Yezdan Sher takes possession of weapons held in the town’s Ottoman arsenal, and continues to campaign in the heartland of his family’s former fiefdom.
By late 1855, Yezdan Sher’s forces threaten much of northern Mesopotamia, including the city of Mosul. With battles between the Kurds and Ottoman forces proving inconclusive, a British agent in Mosul called Nimroud Rassam contacts Yezdan Sher and promises to arrange an imperial audience. However, as soon as the Kurdish leader arrives in Istanbul he is arrested.
Like the Ottoman Empire, which introduced modernising Tanzimat reforms in the 19th century, the Persian Qajar dynasty moves to centralise political power within their empire – albeit it at a slower pace – and replaces autonomous vassals with centrally appointed offices.
In 1867, the Persian monarch Naser al–Din Shah Qajar ends the special status enjoyed by the Ardalans. Formally terminating their principality, he appoints his uncle, Farhad Mirza Motamad al-Dawla, to the governorship of a new province in the region.
Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876 to 1909) arrives to the Ottoman throne amidst a major political crisis. With rebellions in the Balkans and mounting pressure from the Russian Empire, in the spring of 1876 a coalition of military officers and leading bureaucrats depose the increasingly autocratic Sultan Abdūlaziz (r. 1861 to 1876). They place his nephew Sultan Murat V, who is known for his liberal sympathies, on the throne. However, Sultan Murat V proves to be mentally unstable and in December he is removed in favour of his brother, Sultan Abdülhamid II.
Under pressure from reformists within the Ottoman Empire and hoping to win European sympathy, Sultan Abdülhamid II enacts a constitution and a parliament is established. However, in April 1877 Russia invades Ottoman territory. Using the war as cover, the new sultan dissolves parliament and embarks upon three decades of autocratic rule.
While continuing to modernise imperial institutions and greatly expanding the Ottoman education system, Sultan Abdülhamid II seeks to unite the various Muslim ethnic groups by re-emphasising the empire’s Islamic heritage and patronising important Muslim notables, including those of Kurdish origin.
Sultan Abdülhamid II’s Ottoman constitution of 1876 is not met with great enthusiasm at the time of its proclamation. However, as Sultan Abdülhamid II becomes increasingly autocratic in later decades, many educated Ottomans demand the reestablishment of constitutional rule as a remedy for the empire’s internal problems.
In April 1877 Russia takes advantage of the Ottoman Empire’s diplomatic isolation and invades, striking Ottoman forces in both the Balkans and Eastern Anatolia (situated in the eastern marches of the Ottoman Empire).
In the west, Ottoman forces defend Plevna, located in present day Bulgaria, in a campaign that lasts six months. The Russian imperial forces eventually take the Ottoman fortress and advance to San Stefano, on the outskirts of Istanbul.
Meanwhile, in the east, some 50,000 Russian soldiers under the command of Grand Duke Michael Nikolaevich cross into Eastern Anatolia. With their army in place on the defensive, the Ottoman government calls on the Kurdish sheikhs to bring their followers to the eastern war front.
Sheikh Ubeydullah, patriarch of the Sadat-ı Nehri clan, answers the call. He raises some 4,000 tribal irregulars and participates in the Ottoman defense of Beyazıt. However, Ottoman forces are overwhelmed and the Russians take not only Beyazıt, but also the towns of Kars, Ardahan, and Erzurum.
Faced with utter military defeat, the Ottomans sue for peace and in March 1878 sign the Treaty of San Stefano. The harsh terms the Russians impose on the Ottomans provoke the hostility of the European Great Powers, most notably Britain. With diplomatic tensions mounting, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck hosts a diplomatic conference in Berlin, attended by Russia, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Austria-Hungary to reassess the treaty.
At the Congress of Berlin in June and July 1878 representatives of the Great Powers reduce the size of Russian territorial gains outlined in the Treaty of San Stefano, which is superseded by the Treaty of Berlin. However, the new treaty also agrees to formally recognise the independence of Serbia, Montenegro and Romania, and establish Bulgaria as an autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Berlin, the Great Powers also secure a commitment from the Ottoman administration ‘to carry out, without further delay, the improvements and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by the Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Circassians [Sunni Muslims of the north west Caucasus] and Kurds.’
Calls for the protection of the Armenian community to be internationally monitored alarm Kurds in Ottoman territories though, who fear the Armenians might eventually seek to claim their ‘Muslim lands’ with the outside assistance of foreign powers.
In the aftermath of the Russo–Ottoman War of 1877 to 1878, tribal unrest and famine plague the Ottoman Empire’s eastern provinces. Ottoman officials are unable to deal with growing anti-government sentiment amongst the Kurds, which is further aggravated by rumours that the Great Powers are seeking to establish an Armenian kingdom. It is within the context of this growing chaos, that Sheikh Ubeydullah, the patriarch of the Sadat-ı Nehri clan, launches an uprising against both the Ottoman and Qajar governments.
In August 1879 Ubeydullah leads the first stage of his revolt in Hakkâri, with tribes loyal to him clashing with Ottoman forces in the district’s southeast. The fighting is inconclusive, but Sheikh Ubeydullah’s following continues to grow.
In spring the following year, Sheikh Ubeydullah begins a new round of campaigning, this time sending his forces across the international frontier and into Qajar territories in Persia. Initially, his invasion is a success. His forces catch the Qajar government by surprise and rapidly overrun largely Kurdish settlements in the Zagros mountains.
In the south, a force lead by the sheikh’s son, Sheikh Abdülkadir, seize Sabilgah (which later comes to be known as Mahabad), before advancing on the predominantly Shi’ite town of Miandoab. However, Sheikh Abdülkadir’s men fail to take the town and are forced to retreat back to Ottoman territories.
Meanwhile, the main force, led by Sheikh Ubeydullah himself, place Urmia (in present day Iran) under siege. Although the sheikh’s forces are armed with modern British Martini–Henry rifles, distributed to them by the Ottoman government during the Russo-Ottoman War, their lack of heavy artillery means that they are unable to take the town. They too are forced to retreat when Qajar reinforcements from Tabriz arrive on the scene.
In spring 1881, with his position weakening, Sheikh Ubeydullah accepts an invitation from the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II to come to Istanbul. There, he is placed under house arrest yet escapes in the summer of 1882 and returns to Hakkâri. He is soon arrested by the Ottomans, however, and deported to Hijaz, a western province in present day Saudi Arabia, where he dies a year later.
Sheikh Ubeydullah is the first Kurdish leader to advocate for Kurdish self-government in the modern sense, calling for the unification of both Ottoman and Iranian Kurdistan under his rule. He famously explains his motives in a letter obtained by William Abbot, the British Consul in Tabriz, stating: ‘The religion [of Kurds] is different [to their neighbours] and their laws and customs are distinct… We are a nation apart. We want our affairs to be in our own hands.’
Although Sheikh Ubeydullah’s revolt against the Ottomans and Persians ultimately fails, it places the Kurdish question on the international agenda for the first time. William Abbot later notes, ‘I am far from thinking that Europe has heard the last of this Kurdish question. It will probably be asked hereafter, what is to be done with Kurdistan?’
In 1888 a Kurdish sheikh from Muş in present day Turkey abducts a young Armenian girl named Arménouhie. His name is Hacı Musa and he forces the Armenian girl to convert to Islam and marry him, before changing her name to ‘Gülizar’.
The Hacı Musa story provokes international consternation and the girl is later returned to her family. Although the Ottoman government places Hacı Musa on trial in 1889, he is acquitted of wrongdoing. The verdict causes outrage amongst both the empire’s Armenian population and the wider European public.
On the centenary of the French Revolution, a group of students studying in Istanbul establish a secret society dedicated to the overthrow of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s autocracy and the restoration of the Ottoman constitution of 1876. Amongst the groups founders are two Kurds studying at the Imperial Medical School, Doctor Abdullah Cevdet and Doctor İshak Sükuti.
Over the subsequent decade the society expands, coalescing into the ‘Committee of Union and Progress’ (CUP), which comes to be known in the West as the ‘Young Turks’ movement.
As the movement against the despotic sultan grows, other Kurdish notables become involved including Mehmed Şerif Pasha, the Ottoman ambassador to Sweden whose father Mehmed Said Pasha was formerly the sultan’s Grand Vizier (prime minister with absolute power of attorney), and also Sheikh Abdülkadir, the son of Sheikh Ubeydullah, the patriarch of the Kurdish Sadat-ı Nehri clan.
Members of the Bedir Khan family also join the movement including Osman Bedir Khan, Mahmoud Bedir Khan and Abdurrahman Bedir Khan. Indeed, Abdurrahman Bedir Khan, along with another Kurdish aristocrat, Hikmet Baban, attend the 1902 ‘Congress of Ottoman Opposition’ held by the ‘Young Turks’ movement in Paris.
In 1890, the Ottoman authorities announce the formation of the Hamidiye Cavalry Regiments. These units are modelled on Russian Cossack regiments and are drawn primarily from Sunni Kurdish tribes of Eastern Anatolia (situated in the eastern marches of the Ottoman Empire). They are officially established to provide the Ottoman army with a body of light cavalry to ‘defend the realm against foreign attacks and aggression.’
However, the Hamidiye Cavalry Regiments also serve as a mechanism to enhance the bonds between Istanbul and the Kurds, and counter the growing threat to Ottoman authority in the east presented by the rise of Armenian nationalism.
Each regiment contains officers from both members of the regular Ottoman army and Kurdish tribal leaders, who receive military training in the Hamidiye Cavalry School (‘Hamidiye Süvari Mektebi’) in Istanbul. The Hamidiye corps is placed under the authority of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s brother-in-law, Field Marshal (Müşir) Mehmed Zeki Pasha, who is appointed to the command of the Ottoman Fourth Army Corps, headquartered at Erzincan, located in the north east of present-day Turkey.
By the early 20th century there are some 64 Hamidiye Cavalry Regiments, who are primarily based along the Russian frontier with the Ottoman Empire and in upper Mesopotamia.
Sultan Abdülhamid II establishes the Ottoman Tribal School in Istanbul. The Ottoman Tribal School is an institution designed to promote the integration of disparate tribes into Ottoman ‘civilisation’ through education. The school accepts boys between 12 and 16 years old who board on site, and has a curriculum that emphasises modern sciences as well as Islamic learning and the Turkish language.
Although originally conceived as a conduit through which sons of Arab tribal leaders could be ‘civilised’, the school’s popularity means that its doors are soon opened to the children of Kurdish tribal leaders.
The progress of students at the Ottoman Tribal School is closely monitored by Sultan Abdülhamid II, who serves as the school’s patron. After receiving their education, graduates of the Ottoman Tribal School school continue their education in various military or civil colleges, with most going on to take positions in the Ottoman armed forces or bureaucracy.
The Ottoman Tribal School closes down in 1907.
In the years following their establishment, the Hamidiye Cavalry Regiments gain international notoriety for their brutal raids and land seizures, which are directed primarily against the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. The Ottoman government largely ignores their violent excesses, as it is unwilling to take firm action against the mostly Sunni Kurdish tribes the Hamidiye Cavalry Regiments draw upon.
Between 1894 and 1896, conflict between the Hamidiye tribes and the Armenians devolves into a general massacre of Armenians. The ‘Hamidiye Massacres’, as they come to be known, provoke outrage in the Western media. Sultan Abdülhamid II is blamed for the bloodshed and receives the unflattering moniker ‘The Red Sultan’.
Despite an international outcry, divisions amongst the Great Powers forestall any action to halt the violence and between 80,000 and 300,000 Armenians are killed.
In the second decade of the 19th century Haji Qadir Koyi is born in the village of Gorqaraj near the small town of Koysinjaq. Koyi receives a religious education in a number of Islamic colleges in both Ottoman and Iranian Kurdistan and studies Islamic law. Although he spends much of his early life in Kurdistan, Koyi moves to Istanbul in the 1870s and becomes a tutor to the Bedir Khan family (descendants of Bedir Khan, the last emir of the Kurdish Bohtan principality).
In Istanbul, Haji Qadir Koyi is acquainted with modern sciences and begins to lament the backwardness of his own society. He is particularly critical of sheikhs and mullahs, whom he accuses of spreading superstition and corruption to exploit common folk. Koyi also learns of the national movements of the Greeks, Serbs, and Armenians, and begins to advocate for Kurdish independence.
To achieve the goal of Kurdish self-determination, Haji Qadir Koyi passionately argues the necessity for the Kurdish people to communicate their stories in writing, such as poetry, literature, newspapers and magazines – while seeking political alliances with major world powers. He states that statehood and education are the keys to Kurdish liberation.
Although Koyi’s influence was relatively limited during his lifetime, his patriotic message inspires later generations of Kurdish nationalists, especially those in the Sorani-speaking regions of Kurdistan.
While in exile in Egypt, Mithat Bedir Khan founds the first Kurdish newspaper in April 1898, which is called Kürdistan.
The editorship of the newspaper is later assumed by his younger brother Abdurrahman Bedir Khan. The newspaper is banned in Ottoman territories but it is published in Europe. Written mostly in the Turkish language, Kürdistan contains articles that promote Kurdish culture and history. For example, the 17th century literary epic Mêm û Zîn by Ahmed Khani is serialised in the publication.
Politically, Kürdistan becomes associated with the ‘Young Turk’ opposition to the autocracy of Sultan Abdülhamid II and champions a resolution to the Kurdish question within the Ottoman Empire, calling upon the sultan to restore the Ottoman constitution of 1876. The newspaper ceases publication in 1902.
In the aftermath of World War I, the Middle East is reshaped by the collapse of the Ottoman and Qajar empires.
Many Kurdish activists begin to favour autonomy or the formation of a Kurdish nation-state, and their aspirations are ostensibly secured by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920. However, the combination of a revival of Turkish power, the shifting ambitions of the Great Powers of Europe (particularly Britain, France and Russia) in the Middle East, and political divisions within Kurdish society, thwarts any movement towards Kurdish independence.
Kurdish national aspirations are further undermined when the Treaty of Sèvres – which had seen the victorious Allied Powers partition the territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire – is superseded by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which makes no provisions for any form of Kurdish statehood. The Kurdish homeland – Kurdistan – is therefore now divided amongst four new nation-states: Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran (which after Shah Reza Pahlavi’s successful coup d’etat in 1921 is no longer controlled by the Qajar dynasty).
The politics of this post-imperial era are defined by the ideology of nationalism. In the Ottoman successor states within which the Kurds now reside (Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran under the Pahlavi shahs), each government tries to forge a strong sense of national identity to secure its power, and therefore the Kurdish identity is respectively viewed as an obstacle to Turkish, Arab, and Persian national unity. All of these national governments seek to limit Kurdish political activism and at times the Kurds respond violently.
The Republic of Turkey faces two major Kurdish revolts within the first decade of its existence in 1924 and 1930, and towards the end of the century battles a sustained insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
In Iraq and Iran too there are periods of armed Kurdish rebellion. In the early 1920s, Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji, a religious notable from Sulaimaniya, attempts to thwart British efforts to include southern Kurdistan in the newly formed nation-state of Iraq. Ultimately, the British use air power to put an end to Sheikh Barzanji’s self-proclaimed ‘Kingdom of Kurdistan’. They later employ the same tactics to quell revolts by the Barzani clan in the 1930s and 1940s.
In early 1946, the Kurds briefly achieve their national dream by establishing the first independent Kurdish republic in north west Iran. The Mahabad Republic collapses later that year when the Soviet forces withdraw their support and leave Iran. Iranian forces subsequently overrun the Kurdish republic’s capital, Mahabad, and hang its leader, Qazi Mohammed, in the city’s central square, although Mullah Mustafa Barzani, one of the Mahabad Republic’s principal military commanders, escapes to the Soviet Union.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, now president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), fights the Baghdad based government of Iraq to a near standstill. His insurrection is only crushed in 1975 when the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, backed by the United States under President Gerald Ford, betrays his Kurdish allies to win territorial concessions from Iraq.
Throughout the 20th century the response of Middle Eastern governments to Kurdish unrest is typically draconian. Following the Kurdish revolts of the 1920s and 1930s, the Turks deport large numbers of Kurds from their home regions, and in the latter half of the century the Turkish government even resorts to violence against civilians in their ongoing conflict with the PKK. In Iraq, Kurdish civilians are similarly targeted for reprisals: in the late 1980s, up to 182,000 Iraqi Kurdish villagers are massacred during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaigns across rural Kurdistan, which saw widespread chemical weapons attacks on largely civilian communities.
Following the United States victory over the Iraqi regime led by Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War of 1990 to 1991, Iraq’s Kurds fight back by ousting Iraqi government forces from much of Kurdistan. Yet when American promises of support are not honoured, the Kurdish uprising against the government of Iraq fails and over a million Kurds are forced to flee to the Turkish and Iranian borders to escape a vengeful Iraqi army.
Facing a humanitarian catastrophe, the international community intervenes to create a Kurdish safe haven – a region in which the first extended experiment in Kurdish self-rule of the modern era is conducted.
In line with his policy of patronising important families of Muslim notables, Sultan Abdülhamid II promotes numerous members of the extended Bedir Khan clan to positions in the Ottoman bureaucracy (Bedir Khan is the last emir of the Kurdish Bohtan principality).
However, in the summer of 1906 Abdurrezak Bedir Khan, a master of ceremonies at the imperial palace and the grandson of the last emir of the Kurdish Bohtan principality, becomes involved in a dispute with the governor of Istanbul Ridvan Pasha.
Despite attempts at mediation, the dispute devolves into violence and Ridvan Pasha is assassinated. Fearing that the Bedir Khan clan has grown too powerful, Sultan Abdülhamid II deports them to Ottoman Tripolitania, which is located in present day Libya. The descendants of Bedir Khan remain in internal exile for two years.
The Barzani tribe emerges as a powerful force in the Kurdish province of Barzan after the clan’s leader, Sheikh Abdul Salam Barzani introduces popular social reforms. He promotes the tolerance and co-existence of diverse religions and ethnicities within the Kurdish movement, and acquires the nickname ‘The Sheikh of the Christians’ after forging strong ties with Assyrians in Barzan.
Sheikh Abdul Salam Barzani nullifies land ownership and redistributes property amongst local peasants, abolishes the dowries and compulsory marriages that are common in Islamic culture, and empowers village committees to oversee local affairs and conscript men of a fighting age.
In 1907 Sheikh Abdul Salam sends a telegram to the Sublime Porte, the Ottoman court in Istanbul to request that Kurmanji be instated as the official language in Kurdish Ottoman territories and that appointed Ottoman governors be Kurdish speaking. His formal demands are supported by many Kurdish tribal chiefs.
Interpreting the telegram as insubordination against the state, Sultan Abdülhamid II’s government responds in draconian fashion. The Ottoman Empire mobilises an army to advance on Barzan and succeeds in driving the Barzanis from their homeland after two months of fighting.
Sheikh Abdul Salam returns in 1908, however, and triumphs over the Ottoman forces, sustaining heavy losses in the process. Having suffered a conclusive defeat, the Ottomans negotiate peace terms: they agree to release Barzani prisoners and pay damages to the region.
A military revolt led by officers linked to the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) takes place in the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire in July 1908. Under pressure, Sultan Abdülhamid II is forced to recall the Ottoman parliament.
The Constitutional Revolution, or ‘Young Turk Revolution’ as it comes to be known in the Western world, arrives two years after a revolutionary movement forces the Persian monarch Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar to grant his country a constitution for the first time.
The ‘Young Turk Revolution’ in the Ottoman Empire opens the way for elections and several prominent Kurds are elected to the Ottoman parliament, most notably Babanzade Ismail Hakki, who becomes deputy for Baghdad, and also briefly serves as the Ottoman Minister for Public Instruction in 1911. Sheikh Abdülkadir of the Sadat-ı Nehri clan (and son of the early Kurdish nationalist Sheikh Ubeydullah) is also honoured, becoming a member of unelected upper house of the new parliament.
With Sultan Abdülhamid II’s despotic regime removed, Istanbul becomes home to a lively press and civil society. Taking advantage of this new openness, a group of Kurdish notables in the imperial capital establish the ‘Kurdish Society for Mutual Aid and Progress’. The organisation, led by Sheikh Abdülkadir, endeavours to promote education and economic development in Kurdistan. However, the society eschews any notion of Kurdish independence, instead calling upon Kurds to seek redress for their grievances through constitutional means.
Affiliates of the Kurdish Society for Mutual Aid and Progress are soon established across Kurdistan, including in Van, Mosul, Bitlis, and Diyarbakir. The organisation is eventually shut down in the spring of 1909, following a short lived counterrevolution by Islamists against the Committee of Union and Progress.
In 1908 the Ottoman Empire allows most of the influential Kurdish Bedir Khan family to return to Istanbul from their exile in Ottoman Tripolitania (located in modern day Libya).
However, the Ottomans do not permit Abdurrezak Bedir Khan to leave Tripolitania until 1910. He subsequently travels to Kurdistan seeking to foment a general Kurdish uprising with the support of Russia.
Abdurrezak Bedir Khan’s objective is to establish a Kurdish homeland under Russian protection, akin to Russia’s Muslim protectorates in Central Asia. Operating from the Russian-occupied town of Khoy on the Iranian side of the border, Abdurrezak Bedir Khan establishes contacts with a number of anti–Ottoman Kurdish tribal leaders, including Simko Şikak, Sheikh Taha of Şemdinli, and Sheikh Abdul Salam Barzani.
In late 1912, Abdurrezak Bedir Khan establishes a revolutionary organisation named ‘Irshad’, but the group is destroyed when one of his associates, Hayreddin Berazi, is killed in the autumn of 1913.
Abdurrezak Bedir Khan suffers another major setback when one of his agents is captured by Ottoman authorities is the spring of 1914. This leads to a premature rebellion in Bitlis which is put down with great ferocity by the Ottoman government.
In August 1912 a group of students studying in Istanbul establish the ‘Kurdish Student Hope Society’. The association grows rapidly in the following years and remains active until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
The Kurdish Student Hope Society publishes a number of journals, which examine various aspects of Kurdish culture and society. Although primarily an academic association, its remit is also political. Society members criticise the older generation of Kurdish leaders in Istanbul for failing to advance the social and educational interests of the Kurdish community.
In the late 19th century Captain F.R. Maunsell, a British military officer, publishes a report entitled ‘The Mesopotamian Petroleum Field’, in which he describes extensive ‘petroleum springs’ near Kirkuk and speculates that the British Empire might be able to benefit from Ottoman political instability to gain access to ‘some of these remarkable mineral riches.’
Captain Maunsell’s report comes at a time when oil is replacing coal as the primary source energy for the world’s major naval powers.
Aware of the growing European interest in petroleum, the Ottoman Empire commissions Calouste Gulbenkian, a British businessman of Armenian origin, to assess the prospects for oil production in Mesopotamia, an area that corresponds to much of modern day Iraq. Gulbenkian negotiates the creation of the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC) in 1912, a consortium of the largest European oil companies. He allocates a 35% share in the company to British interests, 25% to German interests, 25% to Royal Dutch Shell and keeps 15% for himself.
The Turkish Petroleum Company continues to exploit the development of the Kirkuk fields until the company is renamed as the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) in 1929. The company will later hold a virtual monopoly on all oil exploration and production in the region that becomes Iraq.
Sheikh Abdul Salam Barzani, head of the Barzani tribe, is executed by the Ottoman state in their Mosul province (‘vilayet‘) in Iraq, after leading a series of revolts against Ottoman rule.
Prior to his execution, Sheikh Abdul Salam Barzani calls on the Ottoman government to recognise Kurdish as the official language in the Kurdish-speaking districts of the province of Mosul and to only appoint Kurdish-speaking officials to the region.
In October 1914, the Ottoman government joins World War I on the side of Germany and her allies. The Ottoman leadership sees the war as necessary in order to maintain Ottoman independence in the face of growing European imperialism.
The outbreak of war places Kurdistan on the frontline of the conflict, with thousands of Kurds being conscripted into the regular army. The Ottoman government also seeks the support of major Kurdish tribes who are called upon to join the jihad (‘struggle’) against the Russians. Clashes between the Ottomans and the Russians take place not only in Ottoman Kurdistan but also in those Kurdish regions that are officially part of the Persian Empire under the Qajar dynasty.
The Ottoman cause is generally supported by the Kurdish intellectual and political elite. An important exception is Abdurrezzak Bedir Khan, who uses the conflict as an opportunity to realise his plans for the creation of a Kurdish kingdom.
Tribes loyal to him fight alongside the Russians throughout the war, and Abdurrezzak Bedir Khan even serves as the governor of Erzurum (situated in the east of present day Turkey) after Russian forces take the town in 1916. His actions are roundly condemned though – not only by his fellow Kurds, but also members of his own family.
Kurdistan becomes a major theatre of war during World War I and the region is devastated, with hundreds of thousands of Kurds dying on the battlefield or from disease and starvation.
In early 1915, the Ottoman army, under the command of Minister of War Enver Pasha, fight Russian forces at the Battle of Sarikamish. During the battle, the Russian military is assisted by a small group of Armenian revolutionaries. The Ottoman leadership uses this event to justify a mass genocidal campaign designed to eradicate the Ottoman Armenian community.
Under the pretext of ‘relocation’, the Ottoman Minister for the Interior Talat Pasha orders the deportation of thousands of innocent Armenians to the Syrian desert, and seizes their lands and properties in the process.
Seeing an opportunity for loot and plunder, many Kurdish tribesmen, most notably those associated with the Hamidiye Cavalry Regiments (which had remained as the ‘Tribal Light Cavalry’ after the Young Turks Revolution in 1908), engage in mass killing and the systematic abduction of Armenian women. These massacres are encouraged by the Ottoman government, which encourages the murder of Armenians as a contribution towards the jihad (‘struggle’) against Russia.
However, not all Kurds participate in the violence against Ottoman Armenians. Some groups, such as the tribes of Dersim and Mardin as well as the Barzani clan, help Armenians flee to Russian-controlled territories.
Nevertheless, it is estimated more than one million Armenians are killed under order of the Ottoman Empire before the end of World War I.
Britain and France secretly conclude the Sykes-Picot Agreement with the assent of Russia, for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. New territories are established with little regard for ethnic, tribal, religious or linguistic considerations, as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine are formed within various French-and-British-administered regions.
The Ottoman province of Mosul is initially assigned to France but the French agree to relinquish their claim after the British promise them a quarter share of the projected oil fields in the region.
In November, the Bolsheviks seize power in Russia. Subsequently, Russian forces withdraw from Ottoman areas.
Consequently, Ottoman forces rapidly advance towards Russian-held territories in the Caucasus and seize the city of Baku, located in present-day Azerbaijan. In Georgia they later capture Abdurrezzak Bedir Khan, grandson of the last emir of the Kurdish Bohtan principality Bedir Khan, who sides with the Russians against the Ottomans despite advice from his family, who denounce him in the Ottoman press. Abdurrezzak Bedir Khan is then executed.
President of the United States Woodrow Wilson sets out his vision of a new international order after World War I. In a speech known as ‘The 14 Points’, delivered at a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C. on 8 January 1918, he outlines 14 key principles, including the right of national self-determination for various nationalities living under German, Austrian and Ottoman rule.
The Ottoman Empire surrenders on 30 October by signing an armistice with the Allied Powers of France, Britain and Russia on the Greek island of Lemnos. The Armistice of Mudros, as it comes to be known, brings an end to Ottoman involvement in World War I.
Although the armistice supposedly sees an end to hostilities, British forces advance on the Mosul province (‘vilayet’) three days after it is signed, gaining control of some of the richest oil fields in the Middle East.
The legality of the British occupation of the province of Mosul is hotly contested by Turkish nationalists who describe it as illegal under international law. The dispute is referred to the newly established League of Nations, an intergovernmental organisation established with remit to arbitrate on disputes between nations and help maintain peaceful relations.
The final status of the province of Mosul is settled by the League of Nations in 1926. While their commission assigns the territories of Mosul and its oil fields to British administered Iraq, Turkish anger over the loss is soothed by an agreement which grants them 10 per cent of the oil royalty on Mosul’s oil deposits for 25 years.
In addition to contesting Turkish claims on the region, the British also contend with tribal unrest and a growing nationalist agitation within Kurdish inhabited districts of Mosul. In the immediate aftermath of the Ottoman surrender, the British authorities in Mesopotamia had recognised Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji as the governor of Sulaimaniya. However, relations between the British and Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji soon deteriorate when he seeks to establish himself as the ruler of an independent Kurdish state.
In late 1918, a group of Kurdish notables and intellectuals in Istanbul establish the ‘Society for the Betterment of Kurdistan’. The organisation is led by Sheikh Abdülkadir of the Sadat-ı Nehri clan (and son of the early Kurdish nationalist Sheikh Ubeydullah) as well as leading members of the extended family of Bedir Khan (the last emir of the Kurdish Bohtan principality), including Emin Ali Bedir Khan.
The Society for the Betterment of Kurdistan endeavours to advance the interests of the Kurds in the aftermath of World War I. The movement is split, however, between those who seek Kurdish autonomy within the Ottoman Empire and those who favour complete independence.
In 1919, Mehmet Serif Pasha, an Ottoman Kurd diplomat who had travelled to the Paris Peace Conference (1919 to 1923) as part of the Ottoman delegation, joins the Society for the Betterment of Kurdistan and attempts to represent the Kurds. At the conference in Paris, Mehmet Serif Pasha outlines Kurdish territorial claims to the Allied Powers, and also helps negotiate a territorial division of Eastern Anatolia (formerly the eastern marches of the Ottoman Empire) with members of the Armenian National Delegation.
Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Atatürk) leads Turkish nationalist resistance to the implementation of the plans of the Allied Powers (who include Britain, France, Italy, Greece and Armenia) to partition Ottoman Anatolia.
In April 1919, the Ottoman government appoints Mustafa Kemal Pasha as Inspector-General of the Ninth Ottoman army and tasks him with disbanding the remaining Ottoman forces. Instead, he rebels against Istanbul and establishes a new government based in the Anatolian town of Ankara.
In 1919, Mustafa Kemal Pasha establishes a congress in the city of Sivas, in present day central Turkey, to oppose Allied claims on Anatolia. He issues the Misak-i Milli (‘National Pact’) against the occupying Allied Powers.
The ‘National Pact’ states that the Ottoman regions the Allied Powers did not occupy at the time of the Armistice of Mudros in 1918 (which agreed the terms of the Ottoman Empire’s surrender in World War I) are to be considered part of a Turkish homeland, which includes the province of Mosul.
In Western Anatolia, Turkish forces defeat the armies of Greece, which had launched an invasion of the Anatolian interior in 1920. They compel the Greeks to renounce all of their territorial claims to the region. Meanwhile, in the East an army under the command of Kazim Karabekir defeats the forces of the newly established First Republic of Armenia at Sarikamish, Kars and Alexandrapol, obliging the Armenians to cede territory they had gained under the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres.
Kazim Karabekir is able to win a significant degree of Kurdish support for the Turkish nationalists by mobilising the Kurds’ Muslim sensibilities and fears of the Christian Armenians. The Turkish commander later says he ‘immunised the Kurds’ against the call of nationalism by telling them the Allied Powers ‘wanted to turn Kurdistan into Armenia’, yet would never let his ‘Kurdish brother be destroyed.’
Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji, a Qadiriyya Sufi sheikh of the Kurdish Barzanji clan in Sulaimaniya, revolts against the British and declares himself ‘Ruler of All Kurdistan.’
However, Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji’s rebellion is crushed and he is captured by the British and exiled to India. Elsewhere in Kurdistan, tribes grow increasingly rebellious and three British officials are killed. The town of Aqra is overrun by Kurdish rebel tribes, but the British soon re-establish control by employing Kurdish levy forces to combat them.
Winston Churchill, then Britain’s Secretary of State for War, advocates using poison gas against ‘uncivilised tribes’ in Iraq but there is no evidence of Britain subsequently deploying weapons of this nature in Kurdistan.
The League of Nations approves the British Mandate in Iraq, then known as ‘Mesopatamia’, triggering a nationwide revolt against British control in May 1920. There are mass anti-British demonstrations in Baghdad, as Sunni and Shia religious and tribal communities cooperate to demand independence from British rule and the creation of an Arab government.
The British crush the revolt by October 1920.
In August 1920, the defeated Ottomans sign the Treaty of Sèvres with the Allied Powers of France, Britain and Italy, which partitions their empire.
Kurdish claims receive partial recognition in the Treaty of Sèvres: Articles 62 to 64 in Section III of the agreement provide for the formation of “a scheme of local autonomy for the predominantly Kurdish areas lying east of the Euphrates…” The agreement commits the Ottoman government to enacting these reforms within six months and creates a pathway to Kurdish independence, under League of Nations supervision, within one year.
Significantly, the agreement assigns a number of Kurdish-inhabited districts located in the vicinity of Lake Van in eastern Turkey to a future Armenian state. This accords with a previous agreement reached by the Ottoman Kurdish diplomat Mehmet Serif Pasha and the Armenian National Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference (1919 to 1923) the previous year. The Treaty of Sèvres also leaves open the question of the inclusion of the Kurdish districts of Mosul province in a future Kurdish state at the discretion of the Allied Powers.
The Treaty of Sèvres is controversial amongst Kurdish political groups and provokes a split within the Society for the Betterment of Kurdistan, of whom Mehmet Serif Pasha is a member. The organisation is divided between those who seek local autonomy for Kurds and those who favour full Kurdish independence and statehood.
Kurds living within regions assigned to a future Armenian state also vigorously oppose the conditions of the Treaty of Sèvres.
The three Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul are consolidated into the new state of Iraq under a League of Nations mandate administered by Britain. The Hashemite Emir Faisal (r. 1922 to 1933) is installed as the king in August 1921, although the British retain control of much of the new country’s administration.
Faisal I of Iraq, as he comes to be known, is the son of the Grand Sharif of Mecca and a leader of the 1916 British-backed Arab revolt against the Ottomans at Mecca and Medina, both of which are situated in present day Saudi Arabia.
He is chosen by the British to rule their mandate on account of his conciliatory attitude towards the Allied Powers of Britain, France and Italy. Emir Faisal is also recommended by T.E. Lawrence, the British military officer who assisted the Hashemite revolts against the Ottomans (and who was famously the subject of the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, which depicts Faisal’s revolts).
Turkish efforts to foment an anti-British insurrection in the Kurdish-inhabited districts of Mosul prompt the the British to pardon Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji for his 1919 rebellion and recall him from his exile in India, hoping that he might counterbalance the Turkish influence.
However, once he arrives in Sulaimaniya Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji declares himself ‘King of Kurdistan’ and once again rebels against the British. Subsequently, the Royal Air Force (RAF) bomb Sulaimaniya four times before it is occupied by British forces. When the British soldiers enter the town in 1924 they find it decimated by famine and disease, with only 2,500 Kurds living there.
Wing Commander Sir Arthur Harris (who is later nicknamed ‘Bomber Harris’ by the British press after he oversees the destruction of German cities during World War II) fights as a Squadron Leader in Iraq. He comments, ‘The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means in casualties and damage. Within 45 minutes, a full size village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.’
Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji manages to escape into the mountains. Unable to defeat the British, he eventually surrenders to Iraqi forces in 1932.
Following major Turkish victories over the Greeks and Armenians, the Allied Powers (Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Greece and Romania) enter into negotiations with the new Turkish government in Ankara.
These talks culminate in the Treaty of Lausanne, which is signed in July 1923 in Lausanne, Switzerland. This peace treaty supersedes the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres and recognises the boundaries of the newly formed ‘Republic of Turkey’.
The new treaty makes no mention of Kurdish rights, let alone recognising any form of Kurdish autonomy or self-rule. Furthermore, after the agreement the government of the new Republic of Turkey begins a purge of leading Kurdish activists, forcing many to leave the country.
Thus, the Ottoman Kurdish population find themselves divided between Iraq, Syria and Turkey, with no recognised national territory, and its dreams of an independent Kurdish state shattered.
Under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin Soviet Russia seeks to establish semi-independent, communist nation-states within a greater Union of Soviet Republics in Europe and Asia.
In 1923 the Kurdistan Uyezd (‘Kurdistan Sub-region’) is formally announced. Its capital is Lachin, a town that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan but is actually controlled by the independent Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the South Caucasus.
‘Red Kurdistan’, as the region becomes informally known, consists of about 25 villages stretching between Armenia and the NKR. Despite its name, it does not enjoy any special autonomy and is dissolved in 1929.
In later years, under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union forcibly deports much of the population of ‘Red Kurdistan’ to other Soviet Republics in 1937 and 1944.
In the wake of the Treaty of Lausanne, the government of the newly established Republic of Turkey moves to put an end to the last vestiges of the old Ottoman order as it moves towards secular nationalism under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In March 1924 the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara votes to dissolve the Caliphate, clearing the way for the new nationalist government to become the sole governing entity within the Republic of Turkey.
The abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate, coupled with increasing Turkish hostility to the Kurdish language and culture, provokes a popular uprising amongst Turkey’s Kurds.
Preparations for a rebellion are undertaken by Azadi (‘Freedom’), a secret committee of Kurdish military officers, many of whom had only recently allied with the Turks. However, it is Sheikh Said of Piran who emerges as the movement’s leader, launching a revolt against the Turkish government in the Spring of 1925, whom he accuses of violating Islamic values.
Sheikh Said mobilises a force of 10,000 Kurdish tribal fighters and places the city of Diyarbakir under siege. Nevertheless, Turkish forces, backed by aerial support and pro-government Kurdish tribes, quickly suppress the rebellion and capture Sheikh Said.
In the aftermath of the revolt, the Turkish authorities execute Sheikh Said by hanging and thousands of Kurds are forced to flee to French-administered Syria to avoid reprisals.
The discovery of what is then the world’s largest oil reservoir is made at Baba Gurgur near Kirkuk in Iraq by the Turkish Petroleum Company (later known as the Iraq Petroleum Company), a consortia of Western oil companies that includes Royal Dutch Shell, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and Compagnie Française des Pétroles (today known as Total S.A.).
In 1927 a group of Kurdish exiles based in Lebanon (at this time administered by France) establish ‘Khoybun’ (‘To Be One’s Self’), a revolutionary organisation dedicated to securing the independence of Kurdistan.
Amongst the group’s founders are Celadet Ali Bedir Khan, Kamuran Ali Bedir Khan, Erhem Cemilpasa and Memduh Selim, all of whom had been involved in the Society for the Betterment of Kurdistan, the Kurdish activist group that was established in Istanbul in the aftermath of World War I.
Khoybun forms links with Armenian revolutionaries and engages in lobbying activities in Europe, the United States and Iran. The organisation appoints former Ottoman army officer Ihsan Nuri as its military leader and sends him to Turkish Kurdistan. There, Ihsan Nuri wins the support of several major tribal groups who are angered by the Republic of Turkey’s increasingly harsh treatment of their communities.
In the summer of 1930, Khoybun launches an insurrection in the province of Ağrı. Turkish forces are caught off guard by the strength of the rebellion, which spreads rapidly – engulfing the region between Mount Ararat in the north to Lake Van in the south. Nevertheless, after convincing the Iranian government to end their support for the rebels, the Turkish military launches a successful counteroffensive.
Ihsan Nuri manages to escape to Iran but the Khoybun rebellion is effectively defeated by the autumn of 1930, with its last rebel strongholds being wiped out by the Turks in early 1931.
The Hamilton Road is a strategic highway which stretches 180 km from the Iranian border, through Rawanduz in Iraqi Kurdistan to Erbil, the Kurdish capital. It is built by Archibald Milne Hamilton, a New Zealand-born civil engineer, who later writes a book about his experiences called Road Through Kurdistan (1937).
The Hamilton Road is used during World War II by the Allies to supply Russia, and in the early 1970s by the Iranians to ferry weapons and supplies to Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Following the end of the First World War in 1918 Simko Shikak, the paramount chief of the Kurdish Shikak tribe, emerges as the dominant figure in Iranian Kurdistan. In the early 1920s he launches a revolt in Iran to pursue his demands for an independent Kurdish state.
Ambitious and ruthless, Simko captures all of Iranian Kurdistan east of Urmia, both allying with and fighting against the Russians, Turks, Armenians, Assyrians and Persians.
Nevertheless, in 1922, Simko is defeated by government forces and forced to flee to the mountains. Yet he continues to be a thorn in the side of the government of the new Iranian ruler, Shah Reza Pahlavi (r. 1924 to 1941) after his seizure of the throne from the Qajars in 1924.
In 1930, Iranian military leader General Hassan Muqaddam invites Simko to meet with him in Oshnavieh in Iranian Kurdistan. However, the meeting is a ruse and Simko is assassinated on the outskirts of the town.
Sheikh Ahmed Barzani, the head and religious leader of the Barzani tribe, and his brother Mullah Mustafa Barzani rebel against the British-supported government of Iraq. The Iraqis had previously made efforts to police the district of Barzan and impose a system of taxation, and also settle Assyrian refugees from Hakkâri on lands adjacent to the village of Barzan.
After a year of fighting against Iraqi forces, the Barzani clan flees to Turkey. The Turkish government later hands them over to the Iraqi authorities and they are sent into internal exile.
British planes use delayed-action bombs in violation of international conventions and cause widespread civilian casualties in the Barzan region of Iraq. The bombing reportedly destroys more than 1,360 dwellings in 79 villages.
The British Mandate agreed by the League of Nations in 1921 comes to an end and Iraq becomes an independent nation, joining the League of Nations. Nevertheless, Britain keeps much of its influence over the Iraqi government, maintaining a number of military bases in the country.
Iraqi independence is met with disquiet amongst the Kurds. Following the resolution of the Mosul question in 1926, in which a League of Nations commission had assigned the province’s oil fields to Iraq (with Turkey receiving a 10 percent royalty for 25 years), the international body recommends that the Kurds be granted cultural and administrative autonomy. However, by 1932 little progress has been made. Relations between Baghdad and the Kurds remain tense following the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930 which, although laying the foundations for Iraqi independence two years later, makes no reference to Kurdish rights.
Despite their political misgivings, many Kurds make peace with the Iraqi government, and some leading Kurdish figures go on to to play important roles in Iraqi politics. Mohammed Emin Zeki Bey (1880 to 1948), a native of Sulaimaniya who is remembered today primarily as a historian of the Kurds, holds a number of ministerial positions throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
Similarly, Bakir Sadqi Askari (1890 to 1937) is appointed head of the Iraqi armed forces under the ineffectual King Ghazi I (r. 1933 to 1939), son of Faisal I, and in 1936 leads a military coup d’etat against the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Yasin al-Hashimi. In the process, Bakir Sadqi Askari becomes a virtual dictator of Iraq before he is assassinated a year later.
The Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC), a consortia of Western oil companies that includes Royal Dutch Shell, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and Compagnie Française des Pétroles (today known as Total S.A.), renames itself the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) in 1929.
The IPC’s first export of crude oil from Kirkuk occurs in 1934 and a dual pipeline is opened from Kirkuk to Haifa (located in present-day Israel) and Tripoli (in present-day Lebanon) a year later. Consequently, Iraq becomes a major international oil exporter with four million tons shipped in 1935, with Kirkuk becoming the new nation’s most important economic hub.
The Iraqi government seeks to limit the Kurdish Kirkuki presence in the IPC workforce by recruiting Arab workers from other parts of Iraq to staff the booming oil fields. They argue the imported workers have skills and experience that are not matched by the indigenous Kurdish population.
Subsequently, new neighbourhoods are constructed in Kirkuk to accommodate the large number of Arab migrants arriving from the south and centre of Iraq. The Arab migrants easily find work in the local administration of the Iraqi government or the burgeoning oil industry, and are much better paid than their Kurdish counterparts.
The Iraqi government commences the construction of a vast irrigation project around the Hawija plains to the south west of Kirkuk, on lands claimed by the indigenous Kurdish population.
After the Iraqi government completes the project, large numbers of Arabs – mainly from the al–Obeid and al–Jibbur tribes – are resettled in the area. Nomadic Kurdish tribes are displaced from their traditional pastures as the Iraqi government distributes the agricultural lands amongst the imported Arab settlers.
Over the next 20 years, some Kurdish estimates suggest as many as 1,000 Arab families are resettled in the Hawija district of Kirkuk by the government of Iraq.
Kurds in the Dersim region of eastern Turkey, who are primarily speakers of the Zaza dialect of Kurdish and members of the Alevi sect of Shia Islam, resist the authority of the Ankara government.
The reprisals are fierce. Between 1937 and 1938 an estimated 30,000 Kurds, including men, women and children, are massacred by Turkish soldiers in the Dersim region of eastern Turkey, with victims suffocated, beheaded, bayonetted, thrown from cliffs and drowned. Furthermore, the town of Dersim is renamed Tunceli and thousands of Kurds are deported to central Anatolia as part of the Turkish government’s plan to ‘Turkify’ the region.
In 2011 the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologises for the Dersim operation, describing it as ‘the most tragic event in our recent history.’
During the 1930s a series of new Kurdish cultural and political organisations are established. These include the Komala-ye Lawan (‘The Young Men’s Association’), a Baghdad-based youth organisation, Komala-ye Briyeti (‘The Brotherhood Association’), founded by one of Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji’s sons, and Darkar (‘The Woodcutters’), an association of left-wing nationalists with ties to the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP).
However, perhaps the most significant is Hiwa (‘Hope’), which is founded in 1938 by Rafiq Hilmi (1898 to 1960), a veteran of the 1923 Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji revolt against the British in Sulaimaniya.
Hiwa brings together a number of Kurdish groups based in Erbil, Kirkuk, Kifri, Kalar, Khanaqin, and Baghdad and helps spread a nationalist sentiment amongst educated Kurds, including those who serve in the Iraqi civil service and armed forces.
In May 1941, the pro-Nazi Germany Arab nationalist Rashid Ali al-Gailani seizes control of Iraq in a coup d’etat, overthrowing the pro-British regime of Regent ‘Abd al-Ilah and his Prime Minister Nuri al-Said.
Acting as Prime Minister, Rashid Ali al-Gailani establishes a new government and immediately cancels the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930, cutting off the British oil pipeline to the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the Arab militia rampages through Baghdad, killing hundreds of Jews.
Within that month of May, however, Rashid Ali al-Gailani’s men are defeated by British and Arab Legion forces. The British subsequently reinstall ‘Abd al-Ilah as Regent of Iraq.
The British and Soviet invasion of Iran begins in August 1941 with the aim of securing Iranian oil fields and Allied supply lines to the Soviet Union (USSR) to aid their war effort against Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers of Italy and Japan.
The British and Soviet armies meet at Sanandaj in Iranian Kurdistan, and at Qazvin, west of Teheran, and Iranian resistance is rapidly overwhelmed.
The Allied Powers replace Shah Reza Pahlavi, whom they accuse of being pro-Nazi Germany, with his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (r. 1941 to 1979). In the aftermath of the Allied victory, Iranian government authority breaks down as the British occupy the south of the country.
The Soviets later expand their influence across northern Iran, and then into Azerbaijan and Iranian Kurdistan.
Formed in Iranian Kurdistan in 1942, Komala J. K. sets out its ambition to bring Kurds from all parts of Kurdistan under the control of a single political party.
The leaders of Komala J. K. contact the main Kurdish national movements in Syria, Iraq and Turkey, later meeting their representatives to discuss the formation of a nation-state for the Kurds.
After escaping detention in Sulaimaniya, where he had been held by the Iraqi government, Mullah Mustafa Barzani returns to Barzan in northern Iraq. With the assistance of Barzani tribal fighters, he then attacks police stations and frontier posts in a challenge to Iraqi authority.
Mustafa Barzani’s force grows exponentially and equips itself with captured weapons that help the guerilla fighters defeat the well-trained Iraqi army units. Barzani later petitions the Iraqi government for Kurdish autonomy and his negotiations secure the release of Kurdish prisoners from captivity, including his brother Sheikh Ahmed Barzani. The government in Baghdad denies his request for autonomy, however.
After a string of defeats at the hands of Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s men, the government of the Iraqi Regent ‘Abd al-Ilah finally convinces other Kurdish tribes to ally with Iraqi forces against the Barzanis.
The allegiance between the Kurdish tribes and the Iraqi government turns the tide of the conflict against the Barzani forces. Furthermore, British Royal Air Force (RAF) bombing raids force the Barzanis and their men across the border into Iran, with the fighters bringing their families with them.
A small team of German agents parachutes into Iraqi Kurdistan to sabotage the Kirkuk oil fields and foment a Kurdish uprising against the British in a special forces mission named ‘Operation Mammoth’.
Nazi Germany plans to send further teams into the region with consignments of weapons for the Kurds, so that they might expel the British, supposedly in exchange for German assistance in creating an independent Kurdistan.
The mission fails within days, however, after the commandos land 300 km away from their target destination near Mosul and lose their weapons. They are soon arrested by the British and face execution as spies. However, several years after the cessation of hostilities in World War II they are released.
In Iran, German agents plot to assassinate the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Roosevelt at the November 1943 Teheran Conference in a covert mission known as Unternehmen Weitsprung (‘Operation Long Jump’).
However, the Germans are forced to cancel their mission when they realise they are being surveiled by a team led by the Soviet spy Gevork Vartanian.
In the years following the Anglo–Soviet invasion of Iran, the Iranian government’s authority collapses, and Kurdish leaders in the town of Mahabad take advantage.
In January 1946 they establish an autonomous state within Iran under the leadership of Qazi Mohammed, a local lawyer, which they name as the Mahabad Republic. They initially demand autonomy for Kurds in Iran although these ambitions soon rise to outright independence. Their demands receive the tacit approval of Soviet authorities stationed in the region.
Qazi Mohammed later announces the formation of the ‘Kurdish Democratic Party’ as the Mahabad Republic’s first political administration.
The Barzanis arrive in Iranian Kurdistan following their 1943 to 1945 revolt against the Iraqi government. They rapidly establish themselves as the most effective fighting force in the region, and upon the formation of the Mahabad Republic Mullah Mustafa Barzani is appointed as one of its principal military commanders.
However, the Soviet withdrawal from Iran leads to the fall of the Mahabad Republic in December 1946. The Soviet decision to withdraw is made following diplomatic pressure by the United States and the United Nations Security Council, and after Iran grants them oil concessions.
The ‘Kurdish Democratic Party’ (KDP) of Iraq is formed with Mullah Mustafa Barzani as its president but later changes its name to the Kurdistan Democratic Party in 1953.
Although sharing a similar name to the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) founded by Qazi Mohammed, it is an entirely separate political organisation.
The Soviet withdrawal from Iran leads to the fall of the Mahabad Republic – a fledgling Kurdish nation-state – in December 1946. The Soviet decision to withdraw is made following diplomatic pressure by the United States and the United Nations Security Council, and after Iran grants them oil concessions.
With the collapse of Soviet support, Iranian Kurdish tribes desert Qazi Mohammed and some offer allegiance to the Iranian government. The Barzanis remain loyal to Qazi Mohammed and the Mahabad Republic, yet with the Iranian army – now supported by rival Iranian Kurdish tribes – bearing down on them in overwhelming numbers, the Barzanis are forced to flee and fight their way to the Iraqi border. Qazi Mohammed refuses to abandon his people in Mahabad, however.
The Iranians take control of Mahabad after the Barzanis’ withdrawal. They arrest Qazi Mohammed, try him and execute him by hanging. Four Kurdish military officers who accompany Mullah Mustafa Barzani to Mahabad later return to Iraq and are captured and executed.
On 7 April 1947 the Arab Ba’ath Party is founded in Damascus, Syria by the political intellectual Michel Aflaq and the politician Salah al-Din al-Bitar, both of whom are Syrian Arabs. They are assisted by followers of the Syrian historian Zaki al-Arsuzi.
The Arab Ba’ath Party presents itself as the vanguard of a new Arab generation whose mission is to fight against the fragmentation of the Arab homeland, declaring itself ‘The Party of Arab Unity’. The party’s ideology is principally shaped by Michel Aflaq, whose political theories collectively come to be recognised as ‘Ba’athism’.
At the heart of the Ba’athist ideology is the belief that to fulfil its potential the Arab world needs unify into a single Arab nation, stretching across the ‘Fertile Crescent’ of West Asia (including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, southern Turkey and western Iran) and also to the Arabian Peninsula and parts of northern Africa. The party’s ideology demands the subjugation of all non-Arab minorities in these regions, such as the Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians and other groups.
The Ba’ath party quickly spreads its message of pan-Arab nationalism by establishing itself in countries beyond Syria, setting up branches in Jordan in 1948, Lebanon in 1949 and Iraq in 1952.
The extreme nationalist ideology of the Ba’ath Party later leads to a huge loss of life in Iraqi Kurdistan and the mass expropriation of Kurdish lands in Iraq and Syria
After the collapse of the Mahabad Republic, Mullah Mustafa Barzani flees to the Soviet Union (USSR) with a force of 560 men in May 1947. He reaches the USSR in June, fighting battles against Iranian forces along the way.
Meanwhile, his brother Sheikh Ahmed Barzani travels to Iraq with elderly men, women and children, who had previously been forced to flee to the Iranian border by the British bombing campaign against them in 1945.
Upon his return, Sheikh Ahmed Barzani is arrested by Iraqi government forces and held captive in Basra. Meanwhile, all males in his party older than 12 years old are transported to Kirkuk and Sulaimaniya, where they are also imprisoned.
After Israel is established with the help of the United Nations in 1948, the persecution of Iraq’s Jewish population grows under the Sunni Arab government of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Said. Jews have lived in Kurdistan since 740 BCE: they originally came from the northern kingdom of Israel but were later taken captive by successive Assyrian kings.
Between March and May 1951 around 120,000 Iraqi Jews are airlifted to Israel by the Israeli government as part of ‘Operation Ezra’ and ‘Operation Nehemiah’. Of these, 20,000 are Kurdish Jews who speak Aramaic, the language of ancient Israel.
With Mullah Mustafa Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), still exiled in the Soviet Union, lbrahim Ahmed is appointed as the the party’s new Secretary General.
lbrahim Ahmed is a Kurdish editor, publisher and novelist with a background in law, and had formerly served as a judge in Erbil and Halabja.
Seeking to shift the politics of the party towards left wing socialism, he comes into conflict with the more politically and culturally conservative tribal elements within the KDP, whose influence he attempts to reduce.
With the party split between its two political factions, internal political tensions mount within the KDP throughout the 1950s.
The Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria (KDPS) is formed by the Syrian Kurdish intellectuals Osman Sabri and Daham Miro in 1957. It is later renamed the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria.
President Shukri al-Quwatli refuses to acknowledge the KDPS, and his Syrian regime wages an extensive campaign against politically active Kurds in Syria, accusing them of separatism.
In the following years, the Syrian security services arrest, imprison and execute many members of the KDPS, and aggressively target Kurdish civilian communities, inflaming ethnic tensions.
The Iraqi monarchy is overthrown by a left wing military coup led by Brigadier Abdul Karim Qasim and Colonel Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif on 14 July 1958. The monarch King Faisal II, Regent and Crown Prince ‘Abd al-Ilah and Prime Minister Nuri al-Said are assassinated, ending the Hashemite dynasty. Their corpses are dragged through the streets, chopped into pieces and then burnt by the revolutionaries.
Abdul Karim Qasim is appointed as Prime Minister and Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif becomes Iraq’s interior minister. All political prisoners and political exiles of the previous regime are granted general immunity, and Sheikh Ahmed Barzani – the eldest brother of Mullah Mustafa Barzani – and Sheikh Latif, the son of Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji, are released from prison.
In the aftermath of the military coup d’etat a new constitution is ratified on 27 July, which recognises Kurds and Arabs as equal partners in the new Iraqi state. As Prime Minister, Abdul Karim Qasim works to win the support of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which he uses to strengthen his political position versus Arab Nationalists within his regime.
The positive relations between the three parties are helped by their mutual belief that Iraq should not be merged with Egypt and Syria to create a pan-Arab state (‘The United Arab Republic’), although Qasim’s political ally Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif, an Arab nationalist, wants Iraq to join the Egyptian–Syrian union.
This political difference aggravates their relationship, and after a power struggle Abdul Karim Qasim imprisons Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif for plotting against the state. Arif is sentenced to death in February 1959, although he is later released in November 1961.
The Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani returns from his 11 year exile in the Soviet Union and is invited back to Iraq by Prime Minister Abdul Karim Qasim, who wishes to woo the Kurdish people to consolidate his political position within Iraq.
As the newly installed Prime Minister, Abdul Karim Qasim’s power hinges upon his ability to balance the competing interests of communists and Arab nationalists within the Iraqi government. By recognising Kurds as equal partners within the Iraqi state in his new 1958 constitution, however, he is able to court a new constituency, although Arab nationalists strongly disapprove of the strategy.
Pan-Arabists within the Iraqi government oppose Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s return to Iraq, yet Abdul Karim Qasim continues warm relations with the Kurdish leader. He installs Barzani in a Baghdad palace that was once occupied by the executed former Prime Minister Nuri al-Said and gives him a handsome monthly stipend.
In Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s 11 year absence the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) undergoes significant changes, especially during eight years under the leadership of lbrahim Ahmed. Unhappy with Ahmed’s promotion of left wing socialist policies and his alienation of the KDP’s more conservative wing, Mullah Mustafa Barzani quickly seeks to re-assert his control over the party.
With the assistance of members of the KDP politburo Barzani removes Ibrahim Ahmed from his position as General Secretary of the KDP and replaces him with the pro-communist lawyer Hamza Abdullah. With Hamza Abdullah’s appointment, Barzani seeks to cement ties with the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) which, like the KDP, supports the leadership of Iraq by Abdul Karim Qasim and is subsequently favoured by Iraq’s new Prime Minister.
In the aftermath of civil disorder in Mosul and Kirkuk, however, Barzani anticipates pressure from Abdul Karim Qasim to reduce communist influence over the KDP, and so ejects Hamza Abdullah from the KDP. He subsequently allows the re-election of lbrahim Ahmed as General Secretary in October, even though bitterness remains between the two men.
Prime Minister of Iraq Abdul Karim Qasim, faces opposition from Arab nationalist and Ba’athist forces within the Iraqi army, and their anger boils over in the Mosul uprising of March 1959. In Mosul, Sunni Arab nationalists in the Iraqi military provoke skirmishes with Kurdish and Christian leftists following an Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) march backed by Prime Minister Qasim, and the situation rapidly degenerates into a major civil disturbance. Hundreds and possibly thousands are killed.
The Iraqi government sends troops into Mosul to restore order and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani, who has just returned from exile in the Soviet Union, helps Abdul Karim Qasim crush the revolt with the help of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP).
Although Abdul Karim Qasim succeeds in quelling the rebellion with the help of Barzani’s forces, he does so at some political cost. Qasim uses the Mosul uprising as a pretext to purge Arab nationalists and Ba’athists from the Iraqi armed forces and government, which provokes a Ba’ath plot to assassinate Qasim to halt the rise of communism in Iraq. Meanwhile, the communists are emboldened.
In mid July another communist rally provokes civil disruption in the city of Kirkuk, where the majority of the population are Iraqi Turkmen (37%) and Kurds (33%). In the ensuing fighting, 31 people are killed, at least according to official records, with the vast majority of them Turkmen. In the aftermath of the bloodshed, the Iraqi authorities execute 24 Kurds for their involvement in the killings and four non-Kurds.
In the aftermath of the civil disorder in Kirkuk, however, Abdul Karim Qasim, holds the communists and not the Kurds responsible. He subsequently cools relations with the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), reducing – although not ending – communist influence over his government.
Meanwhile, the pressure on the Kirkuki Kurdish community mounts as prominent Kurds face an increasing risk of assassination. Fearful of the diminishing security situation, local Kurdish leaders blame the Iraqi government and secretive Turkmen organisations for the attacks, suggesting they are waging a violent campaign to displace Kirkuki Kurds. Elsewhere, Kurdish employees of the Iraqi state are transferred out of Kirkuk to the south and centre of Iraq.
Some historians view the July 1959 clashes in Kirkuk as the turning point at which 20th century relations between the Turkmen and Kurds in Iraq change from peaceful co-existence to ethnic hatred and distrust.
Following the civil disorder in Mosul and Kirkuk, in which communist rallies involving Kurds lead to outbreaks of violence, there are immediate repercussions in neighbouring Turkey. Asim Eren, a nationalist politician and retired military commander, addresses the Turkish parliament and urges revenge attacks on Kurds.
Eren’s statement is condemned by Kurdish students who sign a collective letter that is distributed to foreign embassies in Turkey. The Turkish government of President Celâl Bayar subsequently arrests 50 Kurdish students, many of whom are followers of Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). They are detained and accused of separatism and “of taking part with the aid of foreign states, in activities to weaken the unity of the nation.”
After one of the students dies in detention, the remaining 49 students become a cause célèbre in Turkey and are referred to as the ‘Forty-niners.’
The injustice suffered by the ‘forty-niners’ sparks a new wave of Kurdish nationalism across southeastern Turkey. The Turkish leadership grows increasingly worried as KDP leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s popularity rises amongst the Kurds of Turkey.
The 49 detained Kurdish students are released in January 1961 for lack of evidence after the Turkish government faces intense international pressure. Following a protracted legal process the accused are finally acquitted in 1964 by the Supreme Court of Appeals of Turkey in Ankara.
The students’ judicial ordeal does not end at this point however, as the Turkish government subsequently charges them with organising to ‘weaken national feelings.’ The charges are eventually dropped.
Relations between Prime Minister of Iraq Abdul Karim Qasim and the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Mullah Mustafa Barzani, sour after the KDP sends a petition to the Iraqi government demanding greater autonomy for the Kurds.
Qasim rejects the KDP’s demands and thereafter relations between the two parties deteriorate. Masoud Barzani, Mullah Mustafa’s son, later argues that the true turning point came with the publication of an article in the government newspaper Al–Thawra (‘The Revolution’), which demands the forceful ‘assimilation’ of Kurds in Iraq to ‘dissolve [Kurdish identity] in the crucible of the Arab nation.’ (A concept of identity erasure that would later become national policy in Iraq under Ba’athist rule).
Barzani returns to Iraqi Kurdistan from Baghdad In March 1961 and sets out to consolidate his hold on the mountainous areas of Iraqi Kurdistan. With Abdul Karim Qasim now viewing Barzani’s KDP as the supporters of a Kurdish separatist rebellion, the Iraqi Prime Minister lashes out, ordering the Iraqi Air Force to indiscriminately bomb villages in Barzan and other rural Kurdish areas. The ferocity of the Iraqi Air Force’s bombing campaign catches the Kurdish population by surprise.
Ultimately, however, the attack hardens the resolve of various Kurdish tribal groups, who fight the Iraqis under the banner of the KDP. On 11 September Mullah Mustafa Barzani issues a proclamation urging Kurds to take up arms against the Iraqi army. They do so and by the autumn of 1961 KDP peshmerga guerrilla fighters control a large swathe of territory in northern Iraq from Zakho to Sulaimaniya. Thereafter, Kurds refer to the war as the ‘Aylul Revolution’ (‘September Revolution’).
The Iraqi government responds to Barzani’s declaration of war by launching a furious assault on rural Kurdistan, with its planes destroying some 300 villages by the end of the year.
The First Kurdish War continues for many years. In the aftermath of the first Ba’athist coup of February 1963, the Iraqi government completes major weapons deals with the United States (tanks, helicopters and napalm bombs) and Britain (tanks, fighter aircraft and Hunter rockets), with both deals taking place in April. In June 1963 Syria joins the military campaign, supporting Iraq with soldiers, tanks and fighter jets.
The fighting does not cease until 1970 when the terms of Kurdish autonomy are renegotiated with the government of Iraq.
In December, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Central Committee meets at a mountain cave in Chemi Razan near Sulaimaniya and decides to try and heal the rift between Mullah Mustafa Barzani and the intellectual leftists Ibrahim Ahmed and Jalal Talabani, who remain influential members of the party’s modernising wing.
The divisions between the two wings of the KDP are significant, yet their respective support bases – the Kurdish tribes for Barzani, educated urbanites for Ahmed and Talabani – are both vital for the KDP to operate effectively.
Division between the two wings of the party had already previously proven costly when Barzani forbids fighters under the command of Ahmed and Talabani from entering regions under his control, effectively restricting their operations to an area between Ranya and Sulaimaniya.
Under the regime of President Nazim al-Kudsi the Syrian government conducts an exceptional census in the predominantly Kurdish al-Hasaka province in northeastern Syria. The census aims to separate Kurds who had a right to live in Syria from those who had illegally entered the country from Turkey or Iraq after 1945.
However, the census is conducted over a 24 hour period on 5 October 1962: no advance warning is given to the inhabitants of al-Hasaka and no information is supplied to inform them of any consequences for not participating. Subsequently, thousands of Kurds are unable to produce the necessary documentation to prove their residency in Syria before 1945.
After the census is completed, between 120,000 and 150,000 Syrian Kurds are stripped of their national citizenship. Deprived of their civil rights and officially registered as ‘foreign’, the Kurds who fail to register themselves in the al-Hasaka census effectively become stateless: they cannot receive passports, they cannot own property, land or businesses, and cannot receive state subsidies nor use Syrian state hospitals.
Although allowed to attend state schools, they are excluded from employment in the public sector, barred from running for public office and yet they are unable to leave Syria. Furthermore, Syrian Kurds whose citizenship is annulled by the al-Hasaka census see their properties redistributed to Arabs.
In 1965 the Syrian government takes a further step, unveiling ‘Law No. 93’ which demands that an Arab cordon be established close to Syria’s border with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.
The ‘Arab Belt Project’, as this programme comes to be known as, is eventually implemented in 1973 and sees Kurds in affected areas – a zone along Syria’s northern borders of approximately 375 km length and 15 km depth– forcibly removed from their homes and replaced with Syrian Arab settlers.
In addition, the Syrian authorities break up large Kurdish estates and enact agrarian reforms that see the creation of ‘model farming villages’ that expropriate Kurdish owned agricultural lands and redistribute them to Arabs. In total, Syrian Kurdish farmers lose around 1.4 million acres of rich agricultural land, and an estimated 4,000 Arab farmers are moved into their properties.
Although the Ba’athist government of Syria suspends the ‘Arab Belt Project’ in 1976, these ‘model farming villages’ are never dismantled and the lands are never returned to their Kurdish owners.
Meanwhile, successive Syrian governments suppress the expression of Kurdish identity and culture, banning the use of Kurdish languages in public institutions and prohibiting the public celebration of Kurdish festivities such as Newroz, the Kurdish new year.
Launching in October 1962, Dicle-Firat (‘Tigris–Euphrates’) publishes only eight issues before it ceases publication in May 1963. Yet it remains the longest running Turkish–Kurdish publication of the decade and plays an important role in questioning anti-Kurdish narratives within the Turkish nationalist press.
At a time when many Turkish publications suggest Kurds should be driven from Kurdish regions within Turkey and ‘assimilated,’ Dicle-Firat publishes articles that dispute Turkish government claims that Kurds are of Turkish origin – mere ‘mountain Turks’.
Instead, Dicle-Firat writers argue Kurds in fact have Indo-European origins. They trace Kurdish presence in Turkish areas back to the Karduchi and Guti tribes who inhabited territories near Lake Urmia in western Iran and also northern Mesopotamia from around 800 BCE onwards. Elsewhere in its pages, Dicle-Firat publishes articles about Kurdish languages, literature and poetry. The newspaper seeks to illustrate the distinctiveness of the Kurdish language, and enhance its readership’s knowledge of the heritage and culture of the Kurdish people.
The Prime Minister of Iraq, Abdul Karim Qasim, is ousted in a Ba’ath Party coup in February 1963 and executed. His bullet ridden corpse is shown on Iraqi television.
The Ba’ath are an Arab nationalist, socialist political group who originally pursue the ideological goal of unifying the Arab world from North Africa to West Asia under the banner of a pan-Arab superstate. They form paramilitary units known as as the National Guard, recruiting 30,000 armed men.
This new National Guard hunts and kills an estimated 3,000 Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) members allied to Abdul Karim Qasim as the Ba’athists consolidate their power. Although holding junior positions in the Ba’ath Party at the time, Saddam Hussein and Nadhim Kazzar (who later becomes the head of Amn, Iraq’s Internal State Security Service) reputedly execute or torture to death hundreds of ICP members at the notorious Qasr al-Nihayya (‘Palace of the End’) in Baghdad.
Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif, who was Abdul Karim Qasim’s co-conspirator in the 1958 Iraqi Revolution, is installed as President of Iraq with Ahmed Hassan Al-Bakr his Prime Minister.
In the aftermath of the coup, Mullah Mustafa Barzani attempts to negotiate a peace agreement with President Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif, but the talks founder and on 10 June the Iraqi government announces the resumption of military operations against the Kurds.
A curfew is imposed on Kurdish towns and cities, and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) members are assassinated.
After Kurdish forces score military victories against the Iraqi army in the mountains of northern Iraq, the government of the new President of Iraq Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif takes its revenge on Kurds living in and around the city of Kirkuk.
Seeking to secure the Kirkuk region, which is highly valuable because of its abundant oil production, the Iraqi government demolishes Kurdish neighbourhoods and destroys nearby villages, exiling their inhabitants.
Meanwhile, Arab militias are deployed and drive Kurdish farmers from their lands in 44 villages. Kurds working in the local oil industry are dismissed or moved out of the governorate, and security zones are established around Kirkuk’s oil fields. The Iraqi government confiscates property owned by Kurds and Turkmen, along with the entitlement deeds for their land. A curfew is imposed on Kurdish towns and cities, and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) members are assassinated.
Arif’s Iraqi regime also seeks to strip the Kurdish and Turkmen identity from the city of Kirkuk: schools and streets named in the Kurdish and Turkmen language are renamed in Arabic.
Iraq’s failure to reach settlement with Mullah Mustafa Barzani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) increasingly concerns American foreign policymakers.
In the aftermath of the first Ba’athist coup of 1963, the new American administration of President John F. Kennedy fears the Soviet Union may militarily support the Kurds, strengthening the hand of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and leftist factions within the KDP. However, their greater fear is of the increasing Soviet influence in the Middle East, with the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union intensifying. Despite publicly voicing support for a ‘negotiated settlement of the Kurdish issue’, the State Department privately supports the Ba’athists, whom they consider ‘modernisers’.
In April 1963 the United States provides military assistance to the Ba’athists in the form of tanks, tank transporters, combat helicopters and military trucks. In June, they supply the Arab nationalists with napalm weapons, which are later used to bomb Kurdish strongholds.
Robert Strong, who is appointed by President Kennedy as American ambassador to Iraq, reports in July that “While there are a number of things about the Ba’ath I dislike and even fear, I would hate to see Iraq drop back [in]to chaos, utter incompetence and the breeding of communism as a result of [their] disappearance.”
However, officials from the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) in Kirkuk, the source of approximately two–thirds of Iraq’s oil production, report nightly sabotage operations by Kurdish rebels. This further undermines the State Department’s faith in the competence of the Ba’athists. In addition, the General Manager of the IPC in Kirkuk, a Scottish–Italian named George Tod, reports to the American embassy that the largely Arab workforce – whom the the Iraqi government had sought to promote since the beginning of oil exports from Kirkuk in 1934 – are ungovernable.
Tod states that the imported Arab workers in Kirkuk “turned out work when it pleased”. He also says that they consistently defy company orders and that IPC managers disciplining Arab workers regularly face arrest or worse by members of Iraq’s National Guard. The American embassy in Iraq reports Tod’s full observations in a September 1963 memo, which shatters any illusions regarding Ba’athist ‘competency’ in northern Iraq.
The memo states: “In [Tod’s] opinion, Iraq is an almost ungovernable entity, will lack stability indefinitely, will suffer from an exacerbated Kurdish problem for a long time no matter what the Iraqi army achieves, and is headed for disaster in the [oil] industry because of its labour and staff personnel policies [of Arabisation].” It concludes that, ” [The Ba’ath] cannot modernise Iraq.”
Subsequent reports to the U.S. embassy in 1963 suggest the Ba’athists are using oil facilities as makeshift prisons and torture chambers, creating further American unease.
The brutality of the new Ba’athist regime of Iraq is noted frequently in Foreign Office cables during the administration of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. This inconvenient truth does not, however, prevent them from approving the sale of more than £6 million in arms exports to the Ba’athists on 11 April. The British supply the Iraqi government with weapons that include tanks, artillery, fighter aircraft and rockets.
Declassified documents from June 1963, which are later unearthed by the British historian Mark Curtis and published in his book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, illustrate British political sensitivity over the arms sales. G.Hiller of the British Foreign Office reports that, “There has been some press criticism… of our decision to supply arms which the Iraqis are likely to use against the Kurds and if fighting breaks out, and the Iraqis make indiscriminate rocket attacks against Kurdish positions and villages, there could be more widespread parliamentary and public criticism.”
On 6 July the British embassy in Baghdad writes to the Foreign Office: “The Kurds tend to be shot rather than taken prisoner. We have had some indications from officials that this may be deliberate policy… We have since heard reports of an intention drastically to reduce the Kurdish population in the north and to resettle the area with Arabs and of at least one Arab officer’s disgust with the methods employed as inhuman and ill-advised in the long term. There is no doubt at all of the [Iraqi] government’s deliberate destruction of villages… in the interior of Kurdistan… The Kurds tend to be more humane towards Arabs, doubtless feeling that this is in their long term interests. The government of Iraq, on the other hand, has resorted to the use of force without the normal civilised safeguards against undue loss of civilian life and perhaps even with some intention of reducing the size of the Kurdish minority in Iraq, or at least cowing it permanently.”
Despite these reservations, British arms sales to Iraq continue. However, British officials counsel a reduction in the level of weapons supply to the Ba’athists, with the Foreign Office increasingly wary of the public relations risk of supporting their war against the Kurds.
Furthermore, British officials work to ensure the United Nations (UN) does not discuss a motion put forward in July by the government of Mongolia, asking for the issue of genocide against the Kurds of Iraq to be raised at the UN Assembly. In September 1963 Foreign Office official William Morris notes that if this is brought up at the UN, then “our best line would be to abstain from voting… and indeed avoid saying anything at all if we possibly can.”
Factionalism within the Iraqi government undermines the ambitions of the Ba’ath Party. Conservative military figures demand a continuation of Abdul Karim Qasim’s ‘Iraq First’ policy prioritising national interests, whereas the politically influential Ali Salih al-Sadi, effective leader of the Ba’athists, states the government’s immediate goal is to achieve an international union that merges the nations of Iraq and Syria,
With discipline fading in the National Guard, the military attempts a failed coup and Ali Salih al-Sadi is exiled to Spain by President of Iraq Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif. Losing patience with the Ba’athist members of his government, Arif forces them to resign and on 18 November takes full control of the Iraqi government.
On 28 November, Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif resumes negotiations with Mullah Mustafa Barzani and the Iraqi army’s campaign against the KDP dissipates. In February 1964 President Arif successfully negotiates a ceasefire agreement with Mullah Mustafa.
In February Mullah Mustafa Barzani negotiates a ceasefire agreement with the new President of Iraq Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif in a personal capacity, thereby infuriating the wing of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Ibrahim Ahmed, as the agreement makes no mention of Kurdish autonomy.
The KDP subsequently splits into two factions: the conservatives led by the party’s popular figurehead Mullah Mustafa, and the urbanites led by Ibrahim Ahmed and Jalal Talabani, a young military leader and rising political figure within the KDP.
The Ahmed and Talabani faction accuse Barzani of ‘autocratic’ governance and state the pro-Barzani wing of the KDP is overly ‘tribal’. They challenge Barzani’s leadership of the KDP and, following furious disputes, the two sides’ respective peshmerga clash.
Ahmed, Talabani and their 4,000 supporters are subsequently ejected from the KDP, and forced to flee to Iran in July 1964, where they remain in exile. With Mullah Mustafa Barzani now in sole control of the KDP, he makes new demands of the Iraqi government. This time he clearly states that Kurdish autonomy must be included in any peace agreement and that the Kurds will demand control of Kirkuk’s oilfields for a deal to take place. These demands are rejected by the government and in March 1965 fighting resumes between the Iraqis and the Kurds.
President of Iraq Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif, appoints Abdul Rahman Bazzaz as Prime Minister in 1965 in an attempt to bolster the civilian wing of the Iraqi government against hardline factions from the Iraqi military. Realising the importance of Iraq’s ‘Kurdish question’, Bazzaz seeks to negotiate a peaceful resolution with the Kurdish leadership.
By 1965 Mullah Mustafa Barzani is firmly in charge of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) after the expulsion of Ibrahim Ahmed, Jalal Talabani and their supporters the previous year. He sends the Iraqi government the KDP’s demands: Kurdish autonomy from Iraq, control over the oil rich Kirkuk and Khanaqin provinces, a fair share of Iraq’s oil revenue and finally the official acknowledgement of Kurdish as the official language of Kurdistan.
Abdul Rahman Bazzaz counsels President Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif to recognise the reality of Kurdish nationalism by officially acknowledging the language and culture of the Kurds. By contrast, Iraq’s Minister of Defence General Abdul Aziz Uqayli demands Arif resume the war and bring an end to the Kurdish revolution.
There is a dramatic turn of events, however, in April 1966 when Arif is killed in a helicopter crash in the south of Iraq that many believe to be a deliberate act of sabotage by Ba’athist elements in the Iraqi military.
His death comes at a sensitive moment in Iraqi-Kurdish relations. Respectful of the changing situation, Mullah Mustafa Barzani announces a one–month truce to give the new Iraqi regime time to consider his demands.
Immediately after Barzani’s ceasefire is declared, however, militarists within the Iraqi regime install Abdul Salam’s brother Abdul Rahman Arif as President of Iraq, believing him to be a malleable figure who can be manipulated do their bidding. Soon afterwards they break Barzani’s ceasefire and launch a renewed military offensive against the Kurds.
The newly appointed President of Iraq Abdul Rahman Arif tasks Prime Minister Abdul Rahman Bazzaz with forming a new government. Upon doing so, Bazzaz clashes with military generals within the cabinet, who remain intent on resuming Iraq’s war with the Kurds. However, the militarists are supported by the new Iraqi President, who rejects Kurdish demands for autonomy.
With little faith the Iraqi army will triumph against the forces of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Bazzaz protests against a further military offensive but is overruled. The Iraqi army subsequently breaks Barzani’s ceasefire by launching attacks against Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) peshmerga forces on 4 May with the objective of cutting their supply routes from Iran. However, even though the Iraqis bomb Kurdish positions with napalm, and amass a force of nearly 40,000 troops and over 200 aircraft, their military operation against the Kurds ends in disaster.
The Iraqi army’s most devastating defeat occurs in the northern sector. Concentrating six army brigades in the mountainous Gali Ali Beg region, north of Erbil, and bolstered by arms from Britain and napalm bombs from the United States, the Iraqis are confident of achieving a decisive victory.
Fighting their way through the Rawanduz gorge, they attempt to seize Mount Handrin and Mount Zozik from the Kurds, two massifs which dominate the route from Rawanduz to the Iranian border. This aggressive incursion into mountainous Kurdish territory, however, leaves them vulnerable to a counter attack and on 11 and 12 May the peshmerga strike.
Tzuri Shagi, an Israeli commander who had crossed into Kurdistan from Iran, helps Mustafa Barzani plot their defeat, according to a September 2017 article in the New York Times. It reports that Shagi draws up defensive positions so that lightly armed Kurdish forces are able to channel a 5,000 strong Iraqi brigade into a heavy ambush.
The dramatic Kurdish success against the Iraqi army at Mount Handrin turns the tide of the battle and possibly the tide of the war. The Iraqis are routed and, according to the British historian Edgar O’Ballance, nearly 2,000 Iraqi soldiers lie dead on the battlefield alongside their abandoned arms.
The battle on Mount Handrin is later regarded as a landmark event in Kurdish military history.
Following the abject failure of Iraq’s military offensive, Prime Minister Abdul Rahman Bazzaz – at this point the leading representative of the government’s civilian faction under new President Abdul Rahman Arif – seizes the opportunity to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
Bazzaz quickly arranges a meeting between representatives of the Iraqi government and a Kurdish delegation. On 29 June, he sends a 15 Point offer to the Kurdish leadership, which recognises the Kurdish nationality and offers peace terms.
The Bazzaz Declaration proposes a radical shake-up of Iraqi politics. It calls for the establishment of a democratic republic and outlines a process of political decentralisation to take place within a 12 month time frame. It also states that freely elected administrative councils are to decide upon local political matters in Iraq, and that Kurds should receive a proportional representation in a new parliamentary system of government. Finally, the Bazzaz Declaration sees Iraq acknowledge Kurdish as an official language of the nation.
KDP leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani immediately accepts the terms of the Bazzaz Declaration with the proviso that ‘it does not correspond to the revolution’s objective of autonomy.’ Yet dreams of a democratic, republican Iraq, in which the Kurdish nationality and culture is recognised and respected, soon evaporate.
Many leading members of the Iraqi military view the Bazzaz Declaration as a humiliation. When Bazzaz later issues an unpopular decree that restores property to some 50 supporters of the deposed Iraqi monarchy, military and Arab nationalist factions within the Iraqi government demand his resignation. Under intense pressure, Bazzaz steps down as Prime Minister in August.
Thereafter, his successor Naji Talib, a former Major General in the Iraqi army, refuses to implement the Bazzaz Declaration and the peace negotiations with Barzani and the KDP disintegrate.
The collapse of the Bazzaz Declaration and the breakdown of peace negotiations between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) come at great political cost to Ibrahim Ahmed and Jalal Talabani.
Expelled by the KDP in 1964, they had travelled to Baghdad to forge an alliance with President Abdul Salam Mohammed Arif. Supplied with money and military equipment, they recruited a force of 2,000 men.
Yet after Arif dies in a helicopter crash in April 1966 his brother Abdul Rahman Arif is installed as the new President of Iraq and immediately launches an assault against KDP forces near Rawanduz. The campaign ends in abject failure and the Iraqis suffer heavy casualties.
Following the Iraqi army’s heavy defeat at Mount Handrin in May, Talabani helps Mullah Mustafa Barzani negotiate the terms of a peace agreement with the Iraqi government, which comes to be known as the Bazzaz Declaration. The agreement recognises the Kurdish nationality and culture within a proposed new Iraqi parliamentary system, and is immediately accepted by Barzani, Talabani and Ahmed in late June.
According to the historian David McDowell, Ahmed and Talabani continue their alliance with the Iraqis under the new regime of Iraqi President Abdul Rahman Arif as they believe that the terms of the Bazzaz Declaration will be honoured by the Iraqi government.
However, the terms of the Bazzaz Declaration are not honoured. President Abdul Rahman Arif caves in to pressure from military hardliners within his government who refuse to countenance Kurdish autonomy within Iraq, and the terms of the agreement are not implemented. The peace negotiations with Mullah Mustafa Barzani and the KDP collapse, the conciliatory Prime Minister Abdul Rahman Bazzaz is pressured to resign, and Ahmed and Talabani find themselves allied to and supplied by a government that is increasingly dominated by military hardliners and Arab nationalists.
Having miscalculated, Ahmed and Talabani have little option but to fight alongside the despised ‘jash’ Kurdish collaborator forces of the Iraqi government – jash (or ‘donkey foals’) being a pejorative term for Kurdish fighters who sided with the Iraqis against their own people. Subsequently, Mullah Mustafa Barzani harshly calls them ‘the new mercenaries’, while their Kurdish enemies brand them ‘Jash 66’.
Ahmed and Talabani subsequently participate in major battles against Barzani’s peshmerga over the next four years, and several thousand Kurdish fighters are killed in the fighting between the rival factions and Iraqi forces.
After two years of governance by President of Iraq Abdul Rahman Arif, Ba’athists take advantage of his perceived weakness and instigate an attempt at a bloodless coup d’etat on 17 July. General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr leads the coup, which proves successful, bringing the Ba’athists to the seat of power for the second time in Iraq.
General al–Bakr becomes President while Saddam Hussein is appointed as his second-in-command and chief interlocutor with the Kurds.
Imprisoned by the regime of Abdul Salam Arif in 1964 until his escape in July 1966, Saddam Hussein has a brutal reputation. He was previously a leading member of a Ba’athist operation in 1959 to assassinate the Iraqi President Abdul Karim Qasim, and murdered members of Qasim’s entourage himself. Qasim was wounded in the arm and shoulder but survived the assassination attempt (although he was later executed by the Ba’athists following their 1963 coup d’etat).
After the failure of the assassination attempt against the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein fled to Syria and then Egypt. He returned to Iraq in 1963 but was imprisoned the following year.
The Ba’athist’s relaunch their ‘Arabisation’ programme, which is implemented more aggressively than under their previous period in government in 1963. They design the policy with the ambition of changing the ethnic character of Kirkuk and its surrounding governorate.
Kurds in Kirkuk are banned from buying property and told they can only sell to Arabs. They are also offered financial inducements to leave the city for towns in central and southern Iraq. Civil servants, schoolteachers and oil company employees who had escaped previous expulsions are transferred out of the areas by their employers and replaced by Arabs.
Schools, neighbourhoods, mosques, and streets are also renamed to lose their Kurdish or Turkic language designations, and the authorities refuse to register new born babies with Kurdish names.
Outside of the the city, villages with predominantly Kurdish populations are evacuated. Kurds who are moved by the Iraqi authorities are subsequently banned from returning if their homes are considered to be too close to Kirkuk’s oil fields or military bases. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Arab families are brought in by the Iraqi government and given jobs and housing, with more than 1,000 houses being built in Kirkuk to accommodate the new arrivals.
Kirkuk’s Turkmen community is also targeted. The Ba’athist government initially guarantees their cultural rights but reneges on this agreement a few years later, demanding that Turkmen language schools teach Arabic exclusively. University graduates find employment opportunities in Kirkuk limited, while Turkmen doctors, engineers and scientists are not permitted to work for non-governmental organisations. Instead, they are offered jobs in the centre and south of Iraq in majority Arab regions.
Sami Abdul Rahman, a trusted ally of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, carries out a daring raid on the Kirkuk oil fields. He and a small team of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) peshmerga trek for 100 km through Iraqi held territory in Kirkuk, breach Iraqi defences and damage some Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC) installations.
The peshmerga operation intends to draw attention to the Iraqi government’s ‘Arabisation’ policies. Under the ‘Arabisation’ programme, Iraqi forces had aggressively removed hundreds of Kurdish villagers from their homes in the Kirkuk region and replaced them with thousands of Arabs from the centre and south of Iraq.
The Sunday Times of London reports that the attack is a warning to the western shareholders of the IPC, including British Petroleum (BP). They write that “much heavier raids” are threatened by KDP peshmerga, unless western companies and governments pressure the new government of Iraq to halt its Arabisation campaign and open peace negotiations with the Kurds.
Elsewhere, fighting between Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s forces and the Ibrahim Ahmed and Jalal Talabani faction escalates throughout the summer of 1969. The Iraqi government initially backs Ahmed and Talabani, who present themselves as socialists closer in ideology to the Ba’ath, but Barzani’s battlefield successes concern the Iraqis. They are also threatened by Barzani’s alliances with Iran, which supplies the KDP peshmerga with sophisticated artillery.
Subsequently, Iraq’s President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr sends his second-in-command Saddam Hussein to negotiate a peace deal with the Kurds. The talks stall over the status of Kirkuk, however, which Barzani demands be included in any new Kurdish autonomous region.
The new Ba’ath government in Baghdad pursues its policy of ‘Arabisation’ aggressively in Kurdish regions of Iraq, and frequently resorts to extreme violence.
In two Kurdish villages just south of the Turkish border, Dakan and Soriya, the Iraqi army massacres villagers, killing around 120 civilians as retaliation for their support of guerrilla fighters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), against whom the Iraqi government remains at war.
Iraq’s second-in-command Saddam Hussein flies to Kurdistan to meet Mustafa Barzani and negotiate a peace agreement. He presents the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader with a blank sheet of paper and tells him to write his demands. After Saddam returns to Baghdad, the KDP and the Iraqi government sign an accord in March which grants the Kurds autonomy within Iraq.
The parties agree that Kurdish be recognised as an official language and that this autonomous region will consist of three Kurdish governorates with a Kurdish majority. A 15 point plan is agreed by Saddam Hussein and Mullah Mustafa Barzani, with the signed statement concluding, “History will bear witness that you [Kurds] did not have and will never have as sincere a brother and as dependable an ally as the Arab people.”
‘I knew [it was a ruse] even before I signed the agreement,’ Barzani would later recall. ‘But our people asked me, “How can you turn down self-rule for the Kurdish people?”’
However, Kirkuk remains a disputed territory that remains outside the purview of the 11 March agreement, which reserves judgement on the territorial extent of the Kurdish autonomous region pending a new census. As a stalling manoeuvre, the Iraqi government agrees that the region’s final boundaries would depend on whether the census showed that a proven majority of Kurds resided in the disputed areas.
Yet the proposed census never happens, and even before the 11 March agreement is publicly announced the Ba’athists redraw Kirkuk’s boundaries with the ambition of reducing the Kurdish population in Kirkuk’s ‘official’ territory. Villages and towns within the borders they marked were annexed to Erbil or Sulaimanyia and vice versa, and in some cases settlements located within Diyala and Saladin’s boundaries are added to the Kirkuk region.
In June the original Komala Ranjdarani Kurdistan (‘Organisation of Toilers for Kurdistan’) party is founded by Shaswar Jalal (who is widely known as ‘Aram’) and a group of leftist intellectuals, students, artists, poets and writers, who are largely based in Sulaimaniya.
Komala Ranjdarani Kurdistan, which becomes widely known as ‘Komala’, subsequently launches its manifesto, which seeks to introduce Marxist–Leninist ideology to Iraqi Kurdistan to challenge the alleged ‘conservative bourgeoisie’ tendencies of the leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The party’s doctrine is heavily influenced by the ideology of the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, and seeks to mobilise Kurdish workers and the rural poor to ignore the ‘conservative’ and ’tribal’ leadership of the KDP and lead a popular revolution against the Ba’athist government of Iraq.
Komala Ranjdarani Kurdistan sets up cells in various Kurdish and Iraqi cities, including Baghdad and Sulaimaniya and attracts wide support amongst educated Kurds. Although it initially supports Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s struggle against the B’aath regime, Komala Ranjdarani Kurdistan later becomes a relentless opponent of the KDP.
One of the conditions negotiated by Mullah Mustafa Barzani during the 11 March Autonomy Agreement is that the Iraqi government cease all support of the Ahmed–Talabani faction who had battled Barzani’s peshmerga over the previous four years.
Having lost several battles to Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) peshmerga in February and with Iraqi weapons and money no longer arriving to support their struggle following the March agreement, Ibrahim Ahmed asks Masoud Barzani, son of Mullah Mustafa, if they can discuss a reconciliation. Mullah Mustafa Barzani subsequently meets Jalal Talabani in November and agrees to readmit his faction to the KDP on the condition that they dissolve their organisation for good – a term Talabani accepts.
Afterwards, Talabani is dispatched to Damascus, Syria, where he becomes the KDP representative. Other members of his faction, who include Ibrahim Ahmed, Ali Askari and Nawshirwan Mustafa are also readmitted to the KDP, although not given positions of responsibility.
Jalal Talabani later claims that at their meeting Mullah Mustafa Barzani promises him a promotion to the KDP’s politburo and that this promise is not honoured. By contrast, Masoud Barzani later writes – in his historical account of the Kurdish liberation movement – that Ibrahim Ahmed personally thanked him for his father’s forgiveness. He states that Ahmed confessed to him, ‘We are the ones who made mistakes.’
Masoud Barzani also writes his father tasked him with making sure no harm or humiliation was inflicted on Talabani or Ahmed by other members of the KDP, a duty that he honoured.
After the collapse of the 11 March Autonomy Agreement the Ba’athist government of President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr aggressively expels thousands of Fayli Kurds from Iraq.
The Faylis are Shia Muslim Kurds who have lived in the border areas between Iraq and Iran since the earliest days of the Ottoman and Persian empires, with approximately 100,000 Faylis living to the west of the Zagros mountains. Many Faylis also settle in Baghdad, becoming key contributors to the city’s commercial and cultural life.
The Ba’athists, however, argue that Fayli Kurds – many of whom do not possess national identity papers – are in fact Iranian. Consequently, and without any legal procedure, Iraqi police and intelligence units forcibly deport around 50,000 Fayli Kurds to the Iranian border after September 1970, according to the historian David McDowell.
Even more major expulsions of Fayli Kurds by the Iraqi government take place in the late 1970s and in 1980.
A Kurdish informant in the Ba’ath intelligence service informs Mullah Mustafa Barzani of an Iraqi plan to assassinate his son Idris in Baghdad. An aide subsequently takes Idris Barzani’s place in an official car provided by the Iraqi government, and is seriously wounded in a roadside ambush that takes place in December 1970.
Mullah Mustafa strongly denounces the attack and demands the Iraqis capture the culprits and bring them to justice. Al–Thawra (‘The Revolution’) the Iraqi government newspaper, runs an editorial condemning the assassination attempt and then in February runs an article claiming the suspects have been located and are to be tried. Nothing comes of it.
Afterwards, the Iraqi government seeks to placate the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leadership by sending money to Kurdish families who had lost a son in the First Kurdish War (1961 to 1970) and also offering a monthly grant to wounded peshmerga. The Iraqis also allocate a large budget (4 million Iraqi dinars, equivalent to approximately US $11.2 million in 1970) for construction projects in northern Iraq.
Mullah Mustafa Barzani appeals to the United States for aid in August 1971. A month later, he survives an assassination attempt at his headquarters in Haji Omran near the northeast border with Iran. Iraqi religious officials conduct a meeting with him under the impression they are secretly recording the discussion on behalf of Saddam Hussein, but their ‘recording devices’ are in fact explosives planted by Iraqi operatives which detonate.
The entire delegation of nine Iraqi clerics and two peshmerga fighters are killed in the explosion, but somehow Mullah Mustafa Barzani survives. Amidst the confusion, the Iraqi drivers who had transported the clerics unsuccessfully try to salvage the mission by throwing a grenade into the building. However, they are themselves shot and killed by peshmerga.
Fourteen other Kurdish peshmerga are injured in the attack. Although unable to capture the conspirators for further questioning, Mullah Mustafa Barzani holds Saddam Hussein personally responsible for the operation.
Iranian and Israeli support for Mullah Mustafa Barzani is stepped up after the ‘Soviet-Iraq Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation’ is signed in April 1972 by the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad and the Nikita Khruschev-led Soviet Union (USSR).
In May 1972, the United States, led by President Richard Nixon, decides to support Iran to oppose a growing Soviet influence in the Middle East.
In June the ruling Ba’ath Party nationalises the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) (formerly known as the Turkish Petroleum Company), a Western-owned venture that held a virtual monopoly on all oil exploration and production in Iraq between 1925 and 1961.
By 1975 all foreign-owned companies are similarly taken over and put under Iraqi government control. Thereafter, the Iraqi oil industry is controlled by the Ba’ath government through the nationalised Iraq National Oil Company (INOC).
In Kirkuk, around 280 Kurdish, Chaldean and Assyrian labourers, civil servants and engineers working in the oil industry are replaced by Arab employees The collective sacking of Kurdish and Turkmen oil workers is interpreted by the Kurdish leadership as another clear breach of the terms of the March 1970 Autonomy Agreement.
Chemical weapons specialists sent by the East German (GDR) government visit Baghdad to meet representatives of the Iraqi government. There, Saddam Hussein asks them if they can provide technology to enable the Iraqi army to produce poison gas. Kurdish operatives working for Iraqi intelligence later inform Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) officials about this meeting, and of Iraqi’s interest in gas warfare.
Subsequently, the Kurdish leadership purchases gas masks from a manufacturer in West Berlin and also start to produce their own crudely-made protective face masks, in anticipation of a poison gas attack by the Iraqis.
On 11 March 1974, the fourth anniversary of its Autonomy Agreement with the Kurdish leadership, the Iraqi government unilaterally announces a new autonomy law.
The Kurds are not happy with the changes: Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi government’s second-in-command, allocates the Kurds only half the land promised to them in the original agreement and excludes the rich, oil producing governorate of Kirkuk. He gives the Kurds just 15 days to accept the deal but they reject it outright. The Ba’athist regime subsequently states that the Kurdish demands are tantamount to secession.
War breaks out shortly afterwards between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Iraqi state. The Kurdish movement makes rapid initial gains, setting up an administration near the Iranian border and governing a territory covering a large part of southern Turkish border and approximately 400 km of the Iranian border. In these regions, the KDP establishes nine ministries and operates with effective autonomy.
With Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s military campaign against Iraq receiving popular support, Kurdish doctors, nurses, teachers, students, army officers and civilians flood into areas controlled by the KDP. Providing for the basic needs of this population influx – which some reports estimate as being as large as 100,000 people – proves difficult, with the large number of refugees creating a humanitarian burden that draws upon the KDP’s resources.
In northern Iraq, the Iraqi army fights fiercely in Kurdish-controlled regions. Areas of Qaladza, near the Iranian border, are destroyed by bombs dropped by Iraqi jets and on 24 April 130 civilians are killed. Three days later, the Iraqi Air Force bombs Halabja and kills 43 people, and on 29 April at least 20 die in Galala. Then in the summer, the Iraqis overrun Zakho, an Iraqi Kurdish town on the Turkish border.
Although the USA, Israel and Iran offer covert support to Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s war effort, the KDP peshmerga are unable to stave off the disciplined and sustained Iraqi assault, and by August Iraqi troops capture Qaladza and Rawanduz near the Iranian frontier.
In the Bahdinan region, south of the Turkish border, the Kurdish forces face increasing difficulties, as economic sanctions imposed by the Iraqi regime bite. They suffer serious food shortages with winter approaching.
The situation grows critical for the KDP peshmerga. The Iranians restrict their supply of artillery shells and ammunition to them, and by late February 1975 the KDP conclude that the Iranians and the Americans have no intention of letting them win the war and are instead using them as a proxy to apply pressure to the Iraqi regime. Meanwhile, Iraq conducts secret negotiations with the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran for a peace agreement to end Iran’s support of the Kurds.
Backed by the United States, the Algiers Accord of March 1975 sees the Iranians and Americans withdraw their support for the KDP, forcing Mullah Mustafa Barzani to abandon the Kurdish struggle against the Ba’athist government of Iraq.
In Baghdad, Kurdish students wage an undercover war against the Ba’athist government but pay a heavy penalty.
Leyla Qasim, a female Kurdish political activist and student at Baghdad University, is arrested in April with four other Kurdish students. They are tortured and then in May they are publicly executed. Leyla Qasim’s body is returned to her parents the following day with her eyes gouged out.
Thereafter, she is remembered by Kurds as a national heroine and a symbol of civil resistance.
The Algiers Accord between Iraq and Iran is signed in Algiers, Algeria on 6 March 1975, solving their dispute over the Shatt Al Arab waterway in southern Iraq. The agreement effectively ends Iranian and American support for the Kurds.
Bitterly disappointed, Mullah Mustafa Barzani appeals to Henry Kissinger, the United States Secretary of State, and asks why, having asked the KDP to support American foreign policy objectives, the US is abandoning its moral and political responsibilities to the Kurdish people. Kissinger offers a chilling response, telling Barzani that ‘Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.’
Sami Abdul Rahman, a senior Kurdish politician who had fought alongside Mullah Mustafa Barzani since 1963, would later say of Kissinger’s treachery that, ‘It was the most cruel betrayal in our history, which is full of betrayals.’
Without outside backing, the Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government collapses. Kurds loyal to Mullah Mustafa Barzani escape to Iran while some others remain in Iraq. Those remaining in Barzan are later forcibly displaced to the south of Iraq by the Iraqi government.
Mullah Mustafa Barzani orders his peshmerga fighters to abandon their struggle and then withdraws from political life.
With the Kurdish uprising now over, the Iraqi government’s ‘Arabisation’ programme reaches a new dimension across Kurdistan.
Thousands of Kurds are moved away from oil-rich areas, particularly around Khanaqin and Kirkuk, and around 50,000 are deported to the south of Iraq – to Ramadi, Nasiriya, Basra and Samawa.
Those Barzanis who did not flee to Iran after the collapse of the Kurdish revolt in 1975 are transported from their mountainous home to the arid governorate of Diwaniya in the south of Iraq.
Meanwhile, the property of Kirkuki Kurds who joined the Kurdish movement is seized by the Ba’athist regime and they are not allowed to return home. Those seeking a job or wanting to register a property are forced to change their nationality and declare themselves as ‘Arabs’. Kurdish families are imprisoned if they have sons who serve as peshmerga, and are only released when their children surrender to the authorities.
Previously, the Iraqi authorities had redrawn the Kirkuk region’s official boundaries, halving its geographical area from 20,000 to 10,000 square kilometres, as well as offering financial incentives of up to 10,000 Iraqi dinars (approximately US $34,000 in 1975) to Arab families in the south of Iraq to settle in Kirkuk. Consequently, there is a significant reduction in the demographic percentage of Kurds in the Kirkuk region, and the Arab population soon outnumbers Kurdish and Turkmen Kirkukis according to ‘official’ Iraqi records.
In Damascus, Syria, Jalal Talabani, formerly of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), announces the formation of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) on 22 May. The PUK is an umbrella organisation that includes the Marxist-Leninist political party Komala Ranjdarani Kurdistan (widely known as ‘Komala’), the Socialist Movement of Kurdistan (KSM) led by Ali Askari (also ex–KDP), and the General Line, led mainly by Jalal Talabani and his followers. However, with limited political or military structure within Iraqi Kurdistan, the PUK initially draws heavily upon the resources of Komala.
The fall of the KDP under Mullah Mustafa Barzani has left a large ideological and moral vacuum. Following the collapse of the Kurdish resistance to the Iraqi government after the Algiers Accord in March, Komala calls for the armed struggle to resume against the Ba’ath regime. The Iraqi government reacts quickly: its forces capture dozens of Komala party members, imprisoning and torturing them.
The newly formed PUK does not establish peshmerga cells until May 1976, however, and then clashes in June with Barzani loyalists in the Bahdinan region. Immediately south of Iraq’s border with Turkey, Bahdinan is a key shipment node for the PUK’s supply of weapons from Syria.
The first PUK conference takes place in January 1977 at a border village in Iranian Kurdistan. After nearly a decade of being exiled from the mainstream of Kurdish politics, Jalal Talabani returns as a major player.
The arrival of large numbers of Arab families in Kirkuk after the mass ‘Arabisation’ programmes instigated after the Ba’ath’s ascent to power in 1963 and 1968 significantly changes the regional demographics of the Kirkuk governorate.
However, the process is accelerated further when the Iraqi government changes Kirkuk’s boundaries in late 1975 and 1976 and also renames the governorate al-Ta’mim (‘Nationalisation’), attempting to signal the expropriation of the region and its oil from the Kurds and stress it now had an Arab character.
In December 1975 the Kirkuk governorate is formally detached from the Kurdish areas of Chamchamal, Kalar and Kifri. Similarly, in January 1976 the Iraqi government reassigns the Turkmen dominated districts of Tuz Khurmatu and Qadir Karam to the Saladin governorate, and later switches the Arab sub-districts of Kandenawa and Qaraj from the Erbil governorate to Kirkuk in December.
There is a clear objective for the Iraqi government’s manipulation of Kirkuk’s boundaries: to reduce the Kurdish majority in the Kirkuk governorate. This objective is accompanied by policies – such as renaming Kurdish regions and villages with Arab names, and prohibiting the use of the term ‘Kurdistan’ – that seek to obliterate all traces of Kurdish nationality.
Following the Iraqi government’s ethnic cleansing policies the Kurdish population in the Kirkuk governorate halves between 1950 and 2000 according to official statistics.
Members of the leadership of the Kurdish Marxist-Leninist party Komala (or ‘Komala Ranjdarani Kurdistan’) are arrested on the Iranian border by Iran’s secret police and handed over to the Iraqi government. In November, three of them – Shahab Nuri, Anwar Zorab and Mamosta Jafar Abdulwahid – are executed by the Ba’athists.
In the previous year, one of Komala’s founders Shaswar Jalal (who is widely known as ‘Aram’) had worked closely with the former Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) member Jalal Talabani to promote the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a new umbrella organisation which united Komala, the Socialist Movement of Kurdistan (KSM) and Talabani’s own group General Line. At this stage, however, the PUK’s political and military structure within Iraqi Kurdistan draws largely upon the resources of Komala. It is not until May 1976 that the PUK forms peshmerga cells.
After Shaswar Jalal’s fellow party members are executed by the Iraqi government, he commits Komala’s resources towards open warfare with the Iraqis, launching military operations from the Kurdish mountains. Shaswar Jalal’s movement supplies the newly formed PUK with peshmerga, political cadres and support from within the Kurdish villages.
Meanwhile, the PUK’s Kurdish political rivals the KDP, having suffered painful defeat at the hands of the Iraqis, begin the painful process of rebuilding their movement without their totemic leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani (who had withdrawn from political life in the aftermath of the Algiers Accord of 1975).
Senior KDP officials meet in Europe to launch the KDP Provisional Leadership (KDP-PL) under Idris and Masoud Barzani, Mullah Mustafa’s two sons, along with other senior party officials.
Under the terms of the 1975 Algiers Agreement, in which Iran had agreed to end its support for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the Iraqi government sets up no-go areas along Kurdistan’s borders with Turkey and Iran. This so-called cordon sanitaire seals the Kurds off from outside support. Some of these guarded strips of land are up to 20 km wide, with the Iraqi military ordered to shoot intruders on sight.
Hundreds of Kurdish villages are destroyed by Iraqi forces and wells providing a water supply are concreted over. The Iraqi regime builds some 75 camps, known as ‘Mujamma’a‘, to house Kurdish families cleared from the border zones. These are crudely built settlements located either near large Kurdish towns or beside major highways in areas controlled and policed by the Iraqi army.
The Iraqi government erects the Mujamma’a to isolate Kurdish communities from political and military support from outside of Iraq’s borders.
The Iraqi government pays thousands of Kurds in the governorates of Kirkuk, Mosul, Khanaqin and Sinjar to register as ‘Arabs’ in a government census. They are threatened with eviction from their villages if they don’t comply.
In January Shaswar Jalal (widely known as ‘Aram’), the charismatic leader of the leftist Kurdish political party Komala, is ambushed at Tankseer village in the Qaradagh region by a jash unit under the command of Asi Raouf (the ‘jash’ – literally, ‘donkey foals’ – are Kurdish fighters who side with the Iraqi government). Shaswar Jalal is killed in the ensuing gunfight and buried by the villagers of Tankseer after the jash leave his body.
Following Shaswar Jalal’s death he is replaced as Komala’s General Secretary by Nawshirwan Mustafa. The selection is controversial, however, and Komala subsequently splits into three factions, with two of them hostile to the new leader.
Nevertheless, Nawshirwan Mustafa attracts large numbers of new members to Komala with his skilful use of Marxist–Leninist rhetoric.
In the aftermath of the 1976 resumption of Kurdish hostilities with Baghdad, there are frequent skirmishes between Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) forces. In 1978 the PUK leader, Jalal Talabani, sends a force of 800 men led by Ali Askari and Doctor Khalid Sa’id north into regions traditionally loyal to the Barzanis. Their stated objective is to collect a large cache of arms sent by the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad to Kurdish villages in Turkey just across the border from Syria.
The PUK force is ambushed by fighters loyal to the Barzanis who believe the PUK plans to destroy KDP forces and their tribal allies in the region. Ali Askari and Doctor Khalid Sai’d are subsequently captured in Hakkari province in southeast Turkey and then executed. Some of their peshmerga fighters are either killed in battle, captured or arrested by the Turks, while others escape or are later released.
This violence in Hakkari province is the first major clash in a civil war between the KDP and the PUK.
To counter the threat of a renewed Kurdish insurgency, the Ba’athist government of Iraq builds more Mujamma’a resettlement camps. They are situated either near large Kurdish towns or beside major highways in areas controlled by the Iraqi army.
The Ba’athists originally created Mujamma’a settlements between 1976 and 1977 to remove Kurdish villagers from the mountains where the peshmerga operated. By depopulating the villages that supported the peshmerga, the Iraqis sought to deny the Kurdish forces a resupply of food, weapons and intelligence. Between 1978 and 1979 the Iraqi forces stepped up their creation of these ‘collective towns’, forcibly evacuating about half a million Kurdish civilians from their homes to live in them.
Many of the Barzani Kurds who were deported in 1975 to desert camps in Diwaniya, southern Iraq, are later brought back by the Iraqi government and housed at a Mujamma’a in Qushtapa, near Erbil, and in similar camps further north.
Masoud Barzani escapes an assassination attempt in Vienna, Austria, when one of his aides is wounded after a street ambush. The gunmen target his entourage, failing to realise he is not with them. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) blame the Iraqi intelligence services for the attack.
Following violent protests against his rule by Islamist revolutionaries, the Iranian monarch Shah Reza Pahlavi leaves Teheran in January 1979, never to return. On 1 February the Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini makes a dramatic return to Iran from his exile in Paris.
Rumours of an immediate military coup against Khomeini do not materialise and in late March the Ayatollah wins a landslide victory in a national referendum, which is largely boycotted by Iranian Kurds.
Appointing himself the country’s political and religious leader for life, Ayatollah Khomeini declares Iran an Islamic Republic, replacing 2,500 years of continuous Persian monarchy with an authoritarian theocracy. Meanwhile, various Kurdish towns hold political rallies where they call for autonomy for the Kurds within a federal Iran. The Kurdish provinces are the only part of Iran to resist the establishment of a theocratic regime.
In August, Khomeini issues a fatwa (a ruling of religious law) ordering his Revolutionary Guards (also known as ‘Pasdaran’) to seize Iranian Kurdistan within 24 hours. The new regime viewed Kurdish national expression with great apprehension, with Khomeini declaring in a November speech that the very concept of ethnic minorities was contrary to Islamic doctrines.
Over the next two years the Iranian government’s brutal attempts to annihilate Kurdish separatism leads to thousands of Kurdish casualties, according to contemporary news reports, with many more civilians suffering imprisonment, torture, rape, and mass execution at the hands of the Revolutionary Guards.
Mullah Mustafa Barzani dies on 1 March 1979 in Washington DC in the USA, where he is being treated for lung cancer. He is later buried in Oshnavieh in Iranian Kurdistan. His son Masoud Barzani assumes the leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
Saddam Hussein takes an increasingly prominent role as the face of the Ba’ath government in Iraq. With President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr in declining health, Hussein acts as the de facto leader of the country.
With Syria also under the Ba’ath leadership of Hafez al-Assad, President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr attempts to propose a formal union of the countries that would appoint al-Assad as deputy leader of the conjoined state, thereby sidelining Saddam Hussein’s influence over Iraqi government affairs.
However, sensing an opportunity to consolidate his power Saddam Hussein refuses to allow this to happen. On 16 July 1979 he forces Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr to resign on national television, and immediately declares himself President of Iraq.
Shortly afterwards, he convenes an assembly of hundreds of Ba’ath Party leaders in an auditorium in Baghdad on 22 July 1979. The meeting is videotaped. During the meeting Saddam alleges a fifth column has emerged within the Ba’ath Party, and that these conspirators are working with the Syrian government of Hafez al-Assad to overthrow his government.
In a coup de theatre, he presents Muhyi Abdul-Hussein, a top Ba’ath Party officer on stage. For protesting Saddam Hussein’s seizure of power, Muhyi Abdul-Hussein had been arrested, tortured in prison, then blackmailed – and told his wife and daughters would be murdered and raped were he not to ‘confess’ to conspiracy. Confessing on stage, he reads the names of 68 alleged co-conspirators, all of whom are present in the room and are immediately taken into custody by security agents. Praising the past and future loyalty of those still seated, Saddam Hussein theatrically wipes away tears as Ba’ath party members chant ‘Long live Saddam’.
All of the arrested Ba’ath Party members are tried and found guilty of treason: 22 are executed, with high-ranking Ba’ath officials acting as the firing squad to prove their fealty to Saddam Hussein’s new regime.
Filmed footage of these ‘democratic executions’ is later cut into a film of the 22 July assembly. Videotape copies of the 1979 assembly and the executions of alleged conspirators are then distributed to Ba’ath Party activists throughout Iraq to illustrate to them the consequences of defying Saddam.
The Iraqi regime accuses its Fayli Kurdish population of being fifth columnists, undermining Iraq in favour of Iran, and 50,000 are removed from their homes in Baghdad and other areas and dumped on the Iranian border.
The displaced Fayli Kurds are forced to walk through minefields to reach Iran. Thousands of men aged between 18 and 55 are also detained by the Iraqis and then executed.
After the Ba’ath Party’s 1973 pact with the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and other Kurdish factions breaks down, there is widespread persecution of ICP members by Iraqi government forces. They conduct mass arrests and execute ICP members, forcing the party to go underground. The communists move their bases to Kurdistan and grow worried about the warming relations between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Iraqi regime.
When the communists abruptly switch their allegiance to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani, the PUK feels betrayed and relations with the ICP deteriorate quickly.
On 12 September 1980 a military coup in Turkey sees General Kenan Evren overthrow the government of Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel. The new Turkish government suspends many civil liberties, claiming such measures are necessary to establish political stability.
Kenan Evren is elected President of Turkey in 1982 and subsequently restrictions on Kurdish communities within the republic are tightened. The use of Kurdish languages is strictly prohibited in Turkish public and private life, and Turkish Kurds who are caught speaking, publishing or singing in the Kurdish language are arrested and imprisoned.
The very existence of the Kurdish ethnicity is denied by Kenan Evren’s press advisor Ali Baransel, a former academic, who claims they are in fact Turks.
War breaks out on 22 September 1980 when Iraq invades Iran. Fearing the Iranian Revolution of 1979 would inspire an insurgency amongst Iraq’s long suppressed Shia majority, the Ba’ath government attacks Iran, hoping to profit from the political chaos sweeping the country.
The Iranian Kurds rebel against the new Islamic revolutionary government of Iran, but are crushed by their Revolutionary Guard forces. They kill thousands of Iranian Kurds and later execute more than 800 political prisoners.
Kurdish political factions resort to desperate measures to publicise their cause. Michael Powell, a British engineer working on the Dukan Dam in northern Iraq, is kidnapped by peshmerga from the Kurdistan Socialist Party (KSP) in January 1981 and held captive in a remote mountain camp near the Iranian border.
The case is widely publicised in the British media after Gwynne Roberts, a British journalist working for the Sunday Times newspaper, treks through Iraqi Kurdistan to contact the hostage and report the story. Despite the ensuing publicity, the British government refuses to pay a ransom yet Powell is released in June 1982.
There are other kidnappings in 1981: the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) captures two French hostages in February but they are quickly released after the intervention of the French Communist Party (PCF).
On 21 March, the day marking the Kurdish New Year (Newroz), Mazlum Dogan, an inmate at Diyarbakir prison in southeast Turkey, sets his cell on fire and hangs himself.
Mazlum Dogan is a famous Kurdish newspaper editor who has been heavily tortured during three years of imprisonment by the Turkish authorities. He takes the decision to end his life to protest the inhuman conditions he suffers at Diyarbikir prison and the suicide sparks a series of deadly protests in prisons across Kurdish regions of Turkey.
On 18 May in the same prison, four young Kurds – Mahmut Zengin, Eşref Anyık, Ferhat Kurtay and Necmi Öner – spray themselves with paint, join hands and then burn themselves alive – protesting again the cruelty of their Turkish captors. Like Mazlum Dogan, the four Kurdish activists achieve martyrdom status amongst the Kurds of Turkey.
Diyarbakir prison had been turned into a military gaol after the Turkish military coup in September 1980. In the months following General Kenan Evren’s overthrow of the government of Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel, 30,000 Kurds are reportedly imprisoned there, with captives including men, women and children. The international human rights organisation Amnesty International subsequently receives thousands of allegations of torture at Diyarbikir prison, and reports that hundreds of Kurdish prisoners died as a result of mistreatment.
Almost 300 Kurds die in Diyarbakir prison. Among them are 14 who did not survive a hunger strike, 43 who committed suicide and 16 who were shot dead after allegations that they attempted to escape. Many other Kurds die after they are tortured.
Prisoners are believed to have been subjected to severe beatings, the forcible removal of hair and nails, electrical shock treatment in which electrodes are attached to the genitals, sexual humiliation and assault, as well as so-called ‘Palestinian hangings’ (hanging by the arms), ‘falaka’ (beating of the soles of the feet) and immersion in baths of excrement.
Murat Paker, a professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, later tells Foreign Policy magazine that ’Diyarbakir prison was designed as a stage on which the Turkish state could perform all kinds of bloody operations on the Kurdish people… they wanted to crush Kurdishness.’
The prison rapidly becomes a powerful symbol of the repression of Kurdish identity by the Turkish state and fuels the increasing radicalisation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Many inmates at the prison are PKK members who recruit, train and organise from within its walls. In later years the PKK goes on to launch a full scale insurgency against the Turkish state.
In 2007 a group of 30 academics, intellectuals and journalists form the ‘Truth and Justice Commission for Diyarbakir Prison’ and record interviews with 500 former inmates incarcerated at the facility between 1980 and 1984. Kurdish political parties and civil rights groups in Turkey demand the prison be turned into an institution called the ‘Museum of Shame’. However, Diyarbakir Prison continues to function as an active prison to this day.
When Iran invades northeastern Iraq with help from Masoud Barzani’s peshmerga forces, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is already engaged in peace negotiations with the Iraqi government led by President Saddam Hussein. The PUK makes no secret of its hostility towards the alliance linking Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) with other political parties such as the Kurdistan Socialist Party and the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP).
In May 1983 renewed violence erupts when PUK fighters led by Nawshirwan Mustafa attack the ICP headquarters straddling the border with Iraq and Iran. The attack is launched in the so-called ‘Valley of the Parties’ near Qandil mountain where PUK bases are in close proximity to groups supporting the KDP.
Several members of the ICP Central Committee and about 70 party members are killed. The communists accuse the PUK of carrying out the attacks at the behest of the Iraqi government.
The PUK later attacks the Kurdistan Socialist Party and other Kurdish opposition parties who support the KDP.
On 22 July 1983 Iranian forces open up a new, northern front in the war against Iraq in Iraqi Kurdistan near the Kurdish border town of Haji Omran, with support of fighters from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Iraq. Advancing from Piranshar in northwest Iran, the Iranian forces use the mountainous terrain to their advantage, ambushing convoys and seizing a large slice of Iraqi territory.
The Iraqi army responds with a counter-offensive, deploying poison gas in Kurdistan for the first time. However, poison gas cloud drifts back down across Iraqi lines and the Iraqis suffer a decisive loss at Haji Omran as a result.
In late July 1983, just days after devastating losses near Haji Omran in Iraq during an Iranian military offensive, the Iraqi army abducts between 5,000 and 8,000 Barzani males from government resettlement camps in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Barzani men are forced on to large buses, and driven towards the south of Iraq and never seen again. Months later, President of Iraq Saddam Hussein makes clear to a gathering of Kurdish notables in Erbil that their disappearance is an act of revenge for the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) support for Iran. Saddam announces the abducted Barzanis have ‘gone to hell.’
In December 1983, and with Iraq faring badly in its war with Iran, United States President Ronald Reagan’s newly appointed Special Envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, meets with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad as part of a diplomatic effort to normalise US-Iraqi relations.
At the time the United States views the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein as a counterweight against Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic of Iran. Worried that Iraq may lose the Iran–Iraq war, the United States is prepared to go to exceptional lengths to shore up Iraqi defences against the suicidal yet effective ‘human wave’ attacks by Iranian troops.
Donald Rumsfeld’s 1983 trip to Baghdad takes place at a time when Iraq is routinely using chemical weapons in defiance of international war conventions.
In a 2002 Washington Post report, journalist Michael Dobbs uncovers evidence that following the Rumsfeld–mediated reconciliation with Saddam Hussein, the United States secretly trades precursor materials used to manufacture chemical and biological weapons with the Iraqi government.
Drawing on declassified government documents and interviews with former American policymakers, Dobbs reveals that “… the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush authorised the sale to Iraq of numerous items that had both military and civilian applications, including poisonous chemicals and deadly biological viruses, such as anthrax and bubonic plague.”
Dobbs also refers to a 1994 investigation by the United States Senate Banking Committee, which discovers “… dozens of biological agents shipped to Iraq during the mid 1980s under license from the Commerce Department, including various strains of anthrax, subsequently identified by the Pentagon as a key component of the Iraqi biological warfare program.’ He presents further evidence that under both the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. administrations, the United States Commerce Department approves the export of insecticides to Iraq, “despite widespread suspicions that they were being used for chemical warfare.”
Following the normalisation of United States–Iraqi relations in 1983, the Iraqi military secretly trains their operatives to deploy poison gas and deadly bacteriological materials in missions inside and outside of Iraq. They later use chemical weapons on the battlefield – throughout the Iran–Iraq War, the bombing of the Kurdish city of Halabja, and during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign against rural Kurdistan.
Nevertheless, although United States export controls to Iraq tighten somewhat in the aftermath of the bombing of Halabja in May 1988, the American chemical corporation Dow Chemical sells US $1.5 million in pesticides to the government of Iraq in December of that year.
During a meeting on 25 July 1990, April Glaspie, the United States ambassador to Iraq, personally reassures Saddam Hussein that President George H.W. Bush is seeking ‘better and deeper’ economic relations with Iraq, although just one week later American policy changes when Iraq invades Kuwait.
In December 1983 the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) agrees a ceasefire with Iraq and begins negotiations with Saddam Hussein’s regime for Kurdish autonomy, which is to include the oil-rich regions of Kirkuk and Khanaqin.
The PUK also demands a halt to the ‘Arabisation’ of disputed territories, in which Kurdish inhabitants are forcibly replaced by Arab settlers, as well as an allocation of 30 per cent of all Iraqi oil revenues to develop Kurdistan.
The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which is originally a Marxist organisation, launches an armed struggle against the Turkish state to achieve self-determination for the Kurds of Turkey.
The PKK is led by Abdullah Öcalan, who trains his new force at military camps at the Bekaa valley in Syria. The PKK’s ideology initially combines revolutionary socialism with Kurdish nationalism, although in later years it abandons the ideology of Marxism-Leninism.
The peace negotiations between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Iraq’s governing Ba’ath Party – ongoing since December 1983 – break down in January 1985, with the PUK’s demands for an extension of Kurdish autonomy to the Kirkuk region the core point of disagreement separating both sides.
After the collapse of the negotiations with the PUK, Saddam Hussein’s repression against the Kurds increases exponentially. The Iraqi military launches a ferocious campaign against the PUK, destroying an estimated 1,500 Kurdish villages in their areas over a two-year period. Pro-Iraqi government Kurdish ‘jash’ militia kill PUK leader Jalal Talabani’s brother and two nieces.
Meanwhile, internal divisions beset the PUK: leading members of its leftist Komala wing set up a separate group called ‘Allay Shoresh’ (‘The Revolution’s Banner’) which accuses the PUK’s principal leadership of dictatorship and undermining democratic principles.
Allay Shoresh bases are subsequently attacked on the orders of PUK leaders Jalal Talabani and Nawshirwan Mustafa. The Komala party leaders Mala Baxtiyar, Peshko Najmiddhin and Sheikh Ali are also arrested and held in solitary confinement for three years. They are bound hand and foot, allowed no contact with the outside world and forced to confess to their ‘crimes’, according to Peshko’s Najmiddhin’s biographical book Experience and Remembering (‘Azmoon U Yad‘).
Both Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the international human rights organisation Amnesty International call for the captives’ release.
The Allay Shoresh prisoners later escape in 1988 after peshmerga take them to Iran to escape the Iraqi army’s chemical weapons attacks. And Mala Baxtiyar later reconciles with the PUK after his daughter marries Jalal Talabani’s son, Bafel.
East Germany (GDR) intensifies its secret programme to train Iraqis in the battlefield and covert use of chemical and biological weapons. At a base south of Berlin, Germany, State Security (‘Stasi’) trainers instruct Iraqi operatives on how to launch such attacks at airports, railway stations and large public gatherings. They are also taught how to poison drinking water sources such as wells and rivers, how to use bacteria such as anthrax and yellow fever, and how to disperse mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.
The Iraqi operatives train in East Germany until 1985, although afterwards the training continues in Iraq. The secret training programme is revealed by a senior trainer attached to the elite force of the Stasi, the Felix Dzerzhinsky Guard Regiment, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. In 1991 his revelations are broadcast on Channel 4 TV in Britain: even though the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had collapsed, he fears reprisals if his identity is revealed and so his name remains a secret.
On 10 October 1986 the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) allies with Iran to launch a joint military offensive on Kirkuk, northern Iraq’s economic core and one of the richest oil reserves in the entire country.
The PUK side of the operation is led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, then deputy secretary general of the party. In his memoirs, Mustafa writes the attack was designed to cripple the Iraqi economy and with it the Ba’athist regime.
Iranian film crews record the military operation and broadcast reports from the battlefield on IRIB, the Iranian national TV network. Despite being largely unsuccessful, the propaganda value of such a bold military incursion in Iraq is prized by the Iranians. However, the blowback from the attack proves costly for the Kurds.
Sheikh Jaffar Mustafa, a leading PUK military commander at that time, later says, ‘We were the ones who paid a heavy price. I think two oil wells were destroyed. The Iraqi regime retaliated… It was beyond a mistake.’
Immediately after the attack, the PUK signs an agreement with the Iranians setting out the terms of their military, political and economic cooperation. Saddam Hussein views this accord as a gross betrayal.
In retaliation, his government destroys some 1,500 rural Kurdish villages in northern Iraq and intensifies it’s programme of ‘Arabisation’. The Iraqi regime expels Kurds in Kirkuk and adjoining regions and offers more financial enticements to attract a new wave of Arab settlers.
In March Saddam Hussein appoints his cousin Ali Hassan al–Majid as head of the Ba’ath Party’s Northern Bureau, ‘to solve the Kurdish problem and slaughter the saboteurs’. Establishing his headquarters in Kirkuk, al–Majid sets two main priorities.
The first is to complete the ‘Arabisation’ programme of forced resettlement which the Ba’athists had been managing in the Kirkuk region since 1963. To this end, al–Majid publicly boasts – in an April 1989 meeting to welcome his successor as Secretary General of Iraq’s Northern Bureau that was recorded on audiotape – of spending 60 million Iraqi dinars (worth approximately US $204 million in March 1987) to increase the percentage of Arabs and Turkmen in the Kirkuk governorate from 51 per cent to 60 per cent in the space of one year.
Ali Hassan al-Majid’s second stated priority is to to destroy the rural villages of Kurdistan. These villages were the lifeblood of the Kurdish resistance, supplying peshmerga fighters of both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) with food, weapons and intelligence. Seeking to ruthlessly annihilate this source of Kurdish power, al–Majid orders the mass deployment of chemical weapons against rural Kurdistan.
The first such attack occurs on 15 and 16 April 1987 when the Iraqi Air Force bombs the Jafati and Balisan valleys in Kurdistan with chemical weapons. It is an extraordinary step, taken with complete disregard for international law, and is one of the few times in human history that a sovereign state uses poison gas against its civilian population.
Later, Iraqi agents poison a small group of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leaders in a mountain village with the highly toxic heavy metal known as thallium. Thallium has been called the ‘poisoner’s poison’ since it is colourless, odorless and tasteless and frequently used to poison rats.
Despite the scale and nature of Ali Hassan al–Majid’s attacks on the Kurds in the Jafati and Balisan valleys, however, the Iraqi government initially succeeds in concealing the scale of its chemical weapons onslaught from the outside world.
On 27 and 28 June 1987, Iraqi planes drop chemical bombs on Sardasht in Iranian Kurdistan, killing an estimated 110 Kurdish civilians and injuring an estimated 4,500.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani, along with other, smaller party factions unite against the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein with Iran’s support.
In late February 1988, Saddam Hussein’s regime launches the ‘Anfal’ campaign with a massive chemical attack on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) main headquarters in the Jafati valley, high in the mountains of Kurdistan.
The Anfal campaign, which has eight phases, lays waste to rural areas of Iraqi Kurdistan: hundreds of villages are gassed including 70 communities in late August in Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) areas just south of the Turkish border.
Experts estimate that between 100,000 and 180,000 people are killed and around 2,500 villages are destroyed in the Iraqi government’s military campaign against rural Kurdistan, which is led by Ali Hassan al–Majid. Anfal lasts just over six months and causes the defeat of the Kurdish peshmerga forces. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds flee to Iran and Turkey.
You can read the full story of Anfal in this special interactive feature produced by the Kurdistan Memory Programme.
Near the Iranian border with Iraq, the Iraqis devastate the Kurdish town of Halabja with chemical weapons on 16 March 1988. These chemical weapons include mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin and tabun. Around 5,000 Kurds die at Halabja and 10,000 are injured.
Iraq denies it has gassed the Kurds, however, and the United States (US) State Department says Iran was partly to blame for the attack. Later, the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) produces a classified report which claims that it was Iranian and not Iraqi gas that killed the Kurds of Halabja, absolving Iraq of culpability. Years later, the United States will acknowledge Iraq is fully responsible for the chemical bombing of Halabja, suggesting that earlier attempts to blame Iran were acts of political expediency.
After extensive negotiations for a ceasefire take place, the United Nations brokers a peace agreement with Security Council Resolution 598, which is accepted by Iraq and Iran on 20 July 1988, ending their eight-year war.
The Iran–Iraq War came at a great cost in lives and economic damage. Over half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers and civilians are believed to have died in the war with many more injured: common estimates suggest there were approximately 500,000 Iraqi and 1 million Iranian casualties.
In October 1988 British filmmaker Gwynne Roberts crosses the Zagros mountains into Iraq searching for evidence that Saddam Hussein’s regime deployed chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds. The story had previously been ignored or denied by members of the international community.
Soil samples Roberts takes from underneath an Iraqi bomb casing are later tested by Porton Down, Britain’s Chemical Defense Establishment, and are found to contain traces of mustard gas. This evidence of Saddam Hussein’s chemical genocide against the Kurds, which is described by one leading British scientist as ‘the smoking gun’, causes an international outcry when Roberts’ documentary film Winds of Death is broadcast around the world.
Iraqi forces expel Kurds from Dibaga near Mahmour in northern Iraq, a region with 350 capped oil wells feeding off Kirkuk’s main oil reservoir.
Over 30 years, more than 170 Kurdish villages are destroyed around this area of Iraq as the Ba’ath Party seeks to eliminate the Kurdish presence in oil-rich areas near Kirkuk. Most of the Kurdish-owned land in the Mahmour area is later confiscated by the Iraqis.
More than 2,000 Kurdish refugees, fleeing Iraqi army attacks with chemical and conventional weapons, fall ill at a refugee camp in Mardin, southeast Turkey. Their symptoms include diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, disorientation, temporary paralysis, and general weakness.
Samples of their blood are smuggled back to the West by British TV journalist Gwynne Roberts and British doctor John Foran. Some of Britain’s leading laboratories help test the samples and their findings suggest a super toxic organophorus compound, possibly the nerve gas sarin, is the likely cause of the poisoning. There are strong suspicions that Iraqi agents trained by the East Germans may have been responsible for poisoning camp food.
Presented with the evidence, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani blames Iraq for the Mardin poisonings, but suggests local Turkish authorities are likely to have played a part.
On 3 June Ayatollah Khomeini dies in Teheran aged 86 after suffering several heart attacks. He is succeeded as Supreme Leader by Ali Khamenei, formerly the President of Iran.
Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), is assassinated by Iranian agents in Vienna, Austria on 13 July 1989 following a meeting with representatives of the Iranian government.
A Kurdish insurgency flares after his death and continues until 1996 when thousands of Iranian troops cross into Iraqi Kurdistan to destroy KDPI bases. Under pressure from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, the KDPI temporarily ends its military activities inside Iran.
A series of liberal revolutions within the authoritarian nations of Europe’s communist Eastern Bloc leads to growing civil unrest in East Germany. The East German (GDR) government responds by permitting its citizens to visit West Germany and West Berlin.
The fall of the Berlin Wall paves the way for German reunification and has a domino effect throughout eastern and central Europe, where many Soviet-imposed communist governments are toppled by their people.
After German reunification, East Germany’s covert training programmes involving chemical and biological warfare agents are exposed. The revelations include the existence of a special school run by the East German State Security (‘Stasi’) experts south of Berlin, where Iraqi operatives were trained to use supertoxic materials in sabotage operations.
Saddam Hussein orders the destruction of some 500 houses in Kirkuk’s walled citadel, the oldest part of the city. The citadel is the ancient historic home of Kurds, Turkmen, Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Iraqi Jews (prior to the mass exodus of Iraqi Jews to Israel between 1950 and 1952).
Saddam declares his aim is to ‘beautify’ the city, yet his real intention is to remove all traces of ethnic minorities who have populated Kirkuk’s citadel for centuries. The Iraqi authorities in Kirkuk do not allow Kurdish and Turkmen residents to remain unless they list their national identity as ‘Arab’ on their Iraqi identity documents.
The destruction of the 500 residences in the Kirkuk citadel is completed by the end of 1992. By the end of the 1990s the Iraqi government destroys some of the Kirkuk citadel’s archaeological sites, in an attempt to remove historic traces of non-Arab settlement in the city.
On 2 August 1990 the Iraqi army invades Kuwait, taking the country in one day.
One of the world’s major oil producers, Kuwait was originally part of the Ottoman Empire’s province of Basra, which the Iraqi government long claimed as its own. Subsequently, Kuwait had supported Iraq in the Iran–Iraq War, giving the Ba’athist government of Iraq a US $65 billion loan.
In 1989 Saddam Hussein demands Kuwait cancel its war debt immediately, but the request is refused. The Iraqi government later complains to fellow Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) nations that Kuwait is exceeding its quota for oil production and stealing oil from Iraqi territories via a technique of ‘slant-drilling’.
In July 1990, Iraq openly threatens military action at a meeting of the Arab League, a regional organisation of Arab countries situated in and around North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Iraq then assembles more than 100,000 troops along its border with Kuwait.
The Iraqi army’s invasion of Kuwait provokes international outcry. On 6 August, the United Nations Security Council demands an ‘immediate and unconditional’ withdrawal of Iraqi troops, and announces a trade boycott of Iraq.
On 8 August, Saddam Hussein’s regime announces that Kuwait is now a part of Iraq. Meanwhile, the United States launches ‘Operation Desert Shield’, assembling a coalition of forces to defend Saudi Arabia’s oil fields from the Iraqi army. The American-led coalition consists of 28 nations and approximately 670,000 troops, with the majority coming from the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Egypt and France.
Between 17 January and 28 February 1991, the coalition launches ‘Operation Desert Storm’, the combat phase of a war effort to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
Forces from the coalition of nations opposing Iraq, which most notably includes the United States, Saudi Arabia, Britain, Egypt and France, expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait in March 1991 and previously pro-government Kurdish ‘jash’ militias join the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in an popular uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The Kurdish uprising is encouraged by the United States. President George H.W. Bush personally suggests the Kurds should challenge Saddam Hussein in a ‘Voice of America’ radio broadcast transmitted throughout Iraq. In the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Kuwait by American forces and their allies, Bush states in a news conference that ‘The Iraqi people should put [Saddam] aside, and that would facilitate the resolution of all these problems.’
However, when Kurdish rebels take up arms against the Iraqi dictator, US forces refuse to intervene. Worried that the revolt might lead to Kurdish secession from Iraq, a development that its ally Turkey greatly feared, and also wary of creating a Shia–led Iraqi regime that would likely ally with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States negotiates a ceasefire agreement with Saddam Hussein.
While the ceasefire terms forbid Iraq from flying fixed-wing aircraft, the ban does not apply to helicopters. Ruthlessly exploiting this loophole in their agreement with the Americans, the Iraqis fly military helicopters over disputed territory borders and attack with impunity.
Iraqi forces subsequently bomb their enemies into submission, brutally quelling Shia rebellions in the south and Kurdish rebellions in the north.
In February, the ban on the Kurdish language and music – first introduced in 1983 under the authoritarian regime of Turkish President Kenan Evren – is lifted in Turkey under the new administration of President Turgut Özal.
Many restrictions on the expression of Kurdish culture and identity remain in force, however. For example, the use of Kurdish languages is still forbidden within schools and at public gatherings in Turkey, and also – with a few exceptions – in printed materials.
Encouraged by their American allies to rebel against the Iraqi government, the Kurds discover that the United States has in fact negotiated a ceasefire with the Iraqis, allowing them to send military helicopters to Kurdish areas with impunity.
Some 1.5 million Kurds flee into the mountains but Turkey closes its border with Iraq and approximately 500,000 refugees are left without food, clothing and shelter. In contrast, Iran allows more than 1 million Kurdish refugees to cross its borders.
The humanitarian disaster suffered by the Kurds attracts massive coverage from the international news media.
Pressured by journalists to justify his actions at a press conference on 5 April 1991, President George H.W. Bush states, ‘I made clear from the very beginning that it was not an objective… to overthrow Saddam Hussein. So I don’t think… the Kurds in the north ever felt the United States would come to their assistance to overthrow this man… I have not misled anybody about the intentions of the United States of America.’
The United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) is created to oversee Iraq’s compliance with the destruction of Iraq’s chemical, biological and missile weapons facilities.
Turkey is concerned about the large numbers of Kurdish refugees attempting to cross its borders to flee Iraqi bombing attacks, and also of the potential for further civil unrest within its Kurdish regions, so seeks assistance from its allies. The United States, Britain and France subsequently establish a no-fly zone prohibiting Iraqi aircraft from overflying the region of northern Iraq.
The coalition allies carry out ‘Operation Provide Comfort’, which seeks to defend Kurds who have been forced to flee their homes and deliver humanitarian aid to them. Furthermore, the allied forces led by the United States send troops into northern Iraq to create a ‘safe haven’ on the Iraqi side of the Turkish border following United Nations Resolution 688, which demands that Saddam Hussein’s regime ‘immediately ends this repression’.
In September 1991, the Congress of People’s Deputies in Moscow, Russia, votes for the dissolution of the Soviet Union and in December Mikhail Gorbachev resigns as President of the Soviet Union.
Leyla Zana becomes the first Kurdish woman to win a seat in the Turkish Parliament. She recites her formal oath in the Turkish language and then addresses members of parliament in Kurdish, a language that is at this time still prohibited in public institutions in Turkey.
Her call for brotherhood between the Kurds and the Turks falls on deaf ears: Turkish nationalists are infuriated by her unauthorised use of the Kurdish language and also by her headband, which contains the Kurdish national colours of yellow, red and green.
Parliamentary immunity protects Leyla Zana from arrest, but the coalition government of President Süleyman Demirel and Prime Minister Tansu Çiller rescinds this privilege and Zana’s Democracy Party is banned.
In December 1994, the Turkish government accuses her of belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and she is tried for treason, along with eight members of parliament representing the Democracy Party.
Leyla Zana and three other colleagues are subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of separatism and collaborating with the PKK. While imprisoned, she is recognised as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Union in 1995.
In June 2004 Leyla Zana is released from prison.
Kurdish leaders open negotiations with Saddam Hussein for autonomy in Kurdistan while peshmerga forces assume control over Erbil and Sulaimaniya. The Ba’athist government later imposes a blockade on Kurdistan after fighting breaks out between the Kurds and the Iraqi army.
With armed forces from the United States, Britain and France establishing a ‘safe zone’ in northern Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s forces draw a militarised demarcation line stretching from northern Syria to Iraq. They remove Iraqi flags and withdraw their administration in territories north of the line. In doing so, they effectively abandon about 10% of the land area they controlled previously and over three million former citizens.
The Iraqis also withdraw Arab families brought to the region as part of their ‘Arabisation’ ethnic cleansing programme of Kurdish and Turkmen areas, resettling them in Kurdish areas south of the new border line, such as Kirkuk. Below the Iraqi ‘line’, tens of thousands of Kurdish families are forcibly displaced from their homes and forced to seek refuge in the newly established Kurdistan Region to the north.
Travellers trying to reach the border of the Kurdistan Region must pass Iraqi government checkpoints, where they are routinely humiliated. At the side of the road Iraqi officials burn their personal belongings and food supplies, and then drain the fuel tanks of their vehicles. Their vehicles are also detained and those wishing to reach their destination are forced to ride a further 5km on the back of garbage trucks.
Within Iraqi controlled territories south of the new border, Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians who wish to remain in Kirkuk are told they will be allowed to do so as long as they officially register themselves as ‘Arabs’. Nevertheless, the Iraqi government’s policies for the forcible resettlement of non-Arabs continues for years afterwards: between 2001 and 2003, Saddam Hussein’s government expels an estimated 1,000 people per month to the Kurdistan Region.
In May 1992 Kurdish political parties hold elections in the Kurdistan Region, which at this time covers about half of Iraqi Kurdistan. This is an historic event, as the first internationally observed, free and fair democratic elections to be held in Iraq.
Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) candidates win just over 50 percent of the votes and defeat the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), although the two parties agree to share the cabinet posts on a 50–50 basis.
The Kurdistan Regional Government and the Kurdistan Parliament (initially called the ‘Kurdistan National Assembly’), are established in Erbil, Iraq.
The Iraqi National Congress (INC) meets in Kurdistan for the first time. The INC is an umbrella group of Iraqi opposition parties funded with the aid and direction of the United States government, which seeks to foment the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) deputy leader Nawshirwan Mustafa dissolves the Kurdish Marxist-Leninist party Komala, which he had led since 1978. He declares that ‘its mission is now accomplished.’
After Abdul Rahman Qassemlou, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), is assassinated by Iranian agents in 1989, he is replaced by Sadegh Sharafkandi.
Sadegh Sharafkandi is himself assassinated at the Mykonos Greek restaurant on 17 September 1992 in Berlin, Germany, together with two members of the KDPI’s Central Committee, Fattah Abdoli and Homayoun Ardalan, and a translator. In a subsequent trial in a German court, an Iranian, Kazem Darabi, and a Lebanese, Abbas Rhayel, are found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In April 1997, however, a German court issues an international arrest warrant for Iranian intelligence minister Hojjat al-Islam Ali Fallahian, whom it says ordered the assassination of Sharafkandi with the knowledge of Iran’s Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khomenei. The court ruling leads to a diplomatic crisis between Iran and several Western nations.
Despite international protests, the convicted killers Darabi and Rhayel are released in 1997 and deported back to Iran and Lebanon respectively.
The remains of Mullah Mustafa Barzani are disinterred in Oshnavieh, Iran and reburied in Barzan in the Kurdistan Region in October 1993.
The United Nations and Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime sign an agreement not to name the companies which supplied the Iraqis with the chemical precursors to make poison gas.
It later transpires in a 2002 Washington Post report, which draws on declassified government documents and interviews with former American policymakers, that the Ronald Reagan administration authorised American companies to sell poisonous chemicals and biological viruses, including anthrax and bubonic plague, to Iraqi government agencies from 1985. Companies from France, China, the Soviet Union and Great Britain also profited by selling weapons to Iraq in this period.
Prior to the breakdown in relations that led to the Gulf War in 1990, the United States enjoyed cordial diplomatic relations with Saddam Hussein’s government, and supported the Iraqis during the Iran–Iraq War.
Although the Kurdish Civil War of the 1990s has many causes, the long-standing rivalry between leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) lies at the heart of the conflict.
Following Iraq’s defeat by Coalition forces in the Gulf War of 1990 to 1991, Iraqi Kurds are optimistic about their political future but the mood quickly changes. Elections are held in 1992 which are won by the KDP with 50.22% of the vote versus 49.78% for the PUK. Subsequently, the two Kurdish political parties adopt a 50:50 government sharing system, yet their mutual distrust soon resurfaces.
Tensions between the KDP and PUK are exacerbated by an extreme shortage of resources in Kurdistan. At this point the two parties do not have substantial economic income streams, aside from smuggling and tariffs imposed on cross-border trade with Turkey and Iran, and argue continually over what constitutes a fair division of those revenues they are able to generate.
On 20 December 1993 the two parties announce a strategic agreement, which establishes a Presidential Council to govern the region. Yet that same day, fighting breaks out between the PUK and the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, a pro-Iranian political organisation. The conflict rages for more than a month throughout eastern areas of Iraqi Kurdistan.
On 1 May 1994 a local dispute between PUK and KDP supporters in Qala Diza, a city close to the land border with Iran, causes violence between the two political groups to escalate, sparking a civil war that will cost thousands of Kurdish lives.
Later in May, PUK forces seize control of the Kurdish Parliament building in the city of Erbil. Numerous attempts are made by Kurdish allies, including the United States and the United Kingdom, to persuade the two parties to cease fighting but these appeals fall on deaf ears.
Turkey and Iran’s involvement escalates the war between Kurdish factions. Turkey enlists the help of the KDP to fight the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who are based in Turkey yet have recently established bases inside Iraqi Kurdistan. To complicate matters further, the Islamic Republic of Iran, aided by the PUK, enters Iraq to fight the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), another political organisation which establishes camps inside northeastern Iraq.
The involvement of major outside powers sees the domestic political conflict between the rival Kurdish parties rapidly spiral out of control.
With his forces besieged by the Iranian army and under attack from both the PUK and the PKK, KDP leader Masoud Barzani asks the United States to mediate peace talks with the PUK. A low-key American response fails to calm the situation, however, and so Barzani feels he has little option but to turn towards the Iraqi government. On 31 August 1996, Saddam Hussein’s regime sends three army divisions into KDP controlled areas, according to a United States Congressional report. Thereafter, a joint KDP–Iraqi force drives the PUK out of Erbil.
In Erbil the Iraqi army targets various political groups and individuals opposed to Saddam Hussein, who they execute and imprison. The PUK subsequently flees from its traditional stronghold of Sulaimaniya. However, by October the PUK – backed by Iran– retakes most of its territory after the Iraqi army withdraws from the region.
The United States, Turkey and the United Kingdom attempt to mediate between the rival Kurdish parties once again, yet without success. On 13 October 1997 the PUK launches a ferocious offensive against the KDP using Soviet BM-21 ‘Grad’ missiles to attack Masoud Barzani’s headquarters north of Erbil.
Turkey rapidly intervenes to assist the KDP though, and by mid-November 1997 the KDP reasserts control over its own territories. Jalal Talabani offers to negotiate with the KDP and during the summer of 1998, the United States renews its efforts to mediate between the two sides. Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani finally sign a peace agreement in Washington DC on 17 September of that year.
The Kurdish Civil War came at a huge loss to the Kurdish community: tens of thousands of Kurds were displaced between August and October 1996, and an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 peshmerga and civilians died in the conflict.
In January 1995 there are several attempts to arrange a ceasefire between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) but fighting continues. The worst clashes are in and around Erbil in northern Iraq, the seat of the regional government, now held by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
However, in August 1995 the warring parties agree to a ceasefire at United States-brokered peace talks in Dublin, Ireland.
Test transmissions begin for MED TV after it is granted a 10 year licence by the United Kingdom’s Independent Television Commission (ITC).
MED TV is established on the direct orders of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and takes its name from the Medes, an ancient people who dominated Persia and are believed by many to be direct ancestors of the Kurdish people (although this theory remains unproven). With studios in London, Stockholm, Cologne and Denderleeuw in Belgium, it is the first ever international Kurdish satellite TV station.
MED TV broadcasts in the three main Kurdish dialects of Kurmanji, Sorani and Zazaki, and also in Turkish, English, Assyrian and Arabic. Its coverage of Kurdish affairs attracts many supporters, including Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize-winning English playwright, who says of the channel, ‘MED TV is a wonderful achievement – we must do everything we can to protect it from the forces which of course wish to destroy it.’
The short history of MED TV is turbulent, however. The Turkish government forbids its citizens from watching the channel and those who do access it are arrested. After the Turkish intelligence agency accuses MED TV of being a terrorist organisation, the station’s studios are raided by special forces in Belgium, Germany’s anti-terrorist police and Britain’s Scotland Yard, and its signal is jammed.
MED TV’s UK TV license is eventually revoked in 1999 by the ITC at the official request of Turkey.
In late July the ‘Badr Brigades’, an Iraqi based military group backed by Iran, enter the Kurdistan Region and attack the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI), an Iranian Kurdish political group which had long opposed the regime of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.
The Badr Brigades shell and rocket a KDPI camp near Koysinjaq and then move their forces north along the Hamilton Road, which stretches 180 km from Erbil to the Iranian border. They try to attack another KDPI settlement near Rawanduz before they are forced to retreat.
In mid August, a United Nations observer reports the Iranian army has shelled Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) peshmerga positions inside the Kurdistan Region, apparently in support of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). However, the security forces of the United States, Britain and Turkey, who staff the Military Coordination Centre (MCC) in Zakho, do not intervene.
Following an appeal from Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Saddam Hussein’s forces enter the Kurdistan Region and assist KDP forces against Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) fighters for one week, helping the KDP to seize the city of Erbil on 31 August.
The PUK forces first abandon Erbil and then Sulaimaniya as KDP peshmerga take control of both cities. A new Kurdish government, led by the KDP, is subsequently announced at the parliament building in Erbil.
Backed by Iran, PUK forces retake Sulaimaniya a month later.
After the end of the Gulf War in 1991, the United Nations (UN) Security Council imposes a near total financial and trade embargo on Iraq.
These economic sanctions bite especially hard in the Kurdistan Region, which unlike other areas in Iraq is dependent on the United Nations for food distribution. With the UN’s economic sanctions on Iraq facing mounting international condemnation for their negative humanitarian impact, the intergovernmental organisation agrees an ‘Oil for Food’ programme with Baghdad in 1995. The ‘Oil for Food’ agreement stipulates that the three northern governorates under Kurdish control be allocated 13 per cent of the proceeds from Iraqi oil exports.
Implemented in December 1996, the UN’s ‘Oil for Food’ programme continues for seven years in collaboration with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. Ten UN agencies are involved in its management.
In the midst of the Kurdish Civil War of 1994 to 1997, a new player establishes itself in Halabja, Iraq: the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK).
The IMK is supported by Iran and begins to impose Sharia law in areas under its control near Halabja. A more radical faction called Ansar Al Islam splits from the IMK, which later becomes an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic radical terrorist organisation.
In January, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) announces that it is establishing a new Kurdish government based in Sulaimaniya .
Like the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, the PUK claims jurisdiction over all Kurdish controlled territories in northern Iraq.
In May 1997 the Turkish government of President Süleyman Demirel launches ‘Operation Hammer’, a cross-border military operation in the Kurdistan Region that seeks to destroy Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) bases. In so doing, they support a Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) offensive against the PKK, who are allied with their rivals, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The Turkish intervention ultimately proves unsuccessful in dislodging the PKK from its positions in northern Iraq and the operation is condemned by the governments of Iraq, Iran and Syria.
In September 1997 the Turks launch a new attack on the PKK and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), inflicting further casualties.
In September 1998 rival leaders Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani sign a peace agreement in Washington, D.C. in the United States, ending four years of intermittent fighting between their forces. They agree for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to share revenue and power and not allow Iraqi troops into the region.
As part of the deal, the United States, led by President Bill Clinton, pledges to protect Kurdistan militarily. However, the government of the Kurdish region of Iraq remains split between the two rival administrations.
From 16 to 19 December 1998, United States and United Kingdom jets bomb military targets within Iraq in an attempt to ‘degrade’ the Ba’ath government’s capacity to produce, store and deliver ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (chemical and biological weapons).
The three-day attack is a military response to persistent obstructions to United Nations (UN) weapons inspections in Iraq, after the government of Saddam Hussein accuses the UN inspectors of being Israeli and American spies.
Exiled in Syria between 1979 and 1998, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan is forced to leave following diplomatic pressure from the Turkish government. He seeks refuge in Russia, Italy and Greece, before transferring to Kenya.
In February 1999 Abdullah Öcalan is kidnapped in Nairobi, Kenya, by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation, with help from the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and handed over to the Turkish authorities. They put him in solitary confinement on İmralı, an isolated island in the Sea of Marmara, where he is guarded by approximately 1,000 military personnel.
Convicted of treason and separatism by a Turkish military court, Öcalan is sentenced to death. However, his sentence is later commuted to life imprisonment after the abolishment of the death penalty in Turkey in 2002.
The United States State Department reports the Iraqi government’s expulsion of 900,000 Kurds and Turkmen from Kirkuk and the surrounding areas to the south of Iraq. Most are expelled after refusing to register themselves as Arabs.
The Iraqi government also gives Kurds from Kirkuk the choice of resettling in the Kurdistan Region.
The 21st century begins promisingly for the Kurds of Iraq, although the country’s ethnic and sectarian divisions soon flare once again.
On 11 September 2001, 19 militants from the radical Islamic terror group Al–Qaeda fly hijacked airliners into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., killing more than 3,000 people and injuring a further 6,000.
The attack pre-empts a new phase in the United States’ military involvement in the Middle East. In 2002, President of the United States George W. Bush announces ‘The War on Terror’, an American–led campaign that begins with the invasion of Afghanistan and seeks to overthrow the ruling Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist regime which is believed to be harbouring the leader of Al–Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.
Following Saddam Hussein’s failure to comply with Iraq’s commitments to United Nations weapons inspectors, the United States leads an invasion of Iraq in 2003 with a coalition of allies. President Bush declares, ‘Our mission is clear: to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism and to free the Iraqi people.’
Iraqi Kurdish forces join the US–led campaign to topple Saddam Hussein and reap significant political benefits as a result. The main Kurdish political parties play an important role in drafting Iraq’s new constitution, which is adopted after a national referendum in 2005. Furthermore, Jalal Talabani, formerly the leader of the Kurdish political party The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is named the first President of the new government. He becomes Iraq’s first non-Arab leader.
The new Iraqi constitution recognises the legitimacy of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the rights of people residing in the so-called ‘disputed territories’, such as the oil-rich Kirkuk province, to decide whether they wish to join the Kurdistan Region or not through a popular vote. However, a planned plebiscite to rule on this matter is never held and disagreements over oil and gas resources continue to undermine relations between the KRG and the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
The terms of Iraq’s constitution state that the KRG is entitled to 17% of Iraq’s federal budget, but after the Iraqi government extracts ‘sovereign expenses’ from the payments the Kurds claim they never receive more than 11%.
In 2014 the relationship between the government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region worsens when the Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al–Maliki, a Shia, refuses to send the KRG its share of Iraq’s oil revenues, dramatically decreasing Iraq’s budget payments to the Kurds. He justifies the decision by claiming the Iraqi government did not consent to the KRG independently exporting oil from the Kurdistan Region through Turkey. However, the KRG argues the Iraqi government’s failure to forward the Kurdistan Region its full share of the federal budget, as per the terms of the Iraqi constitution, means it has no option but to sell its own oil exports to meet its public spending commitments.
Regardless, the situation remains unresolved for several years, leading to a deepening financial crisis in the Kurdistan Region. The Kurdish economy’s previously stellar performance declines significantly and the KRG fails to meet the public payroll.
The growing financial crisis is exacerbated by the 2014 invasion of northern Iraq by the Salafist jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The rapid gains of ISIS take the KRG by surprise and the radical Islamists capitalise by forcing the peshmerga to withdraw from Sinjar on the Syrian border. There, ISIS targets the large Yazidi community in Iraq’s Ninewa governorate, who practise an ancient religion the Islamic extremists consider heretical. In the early days of their invasion, ISIS massacres over 1,000 Yazidis, although further to this the Ministry of Religious Affairs for the Kurdistan Region reports a further 2,800 Yazidi men as missing or abducted, with the Kurdish authorities discovering 66 mass graves containing the corpses of Yazidis executed by jihadist gunmen. ISIS also kidnap and enslave more than 3,500 Yazidi women and children.
The massacres in Ninewa lead to a humanitarian crisis as more than 360,000 Yazidis are forced to flee their homes (again according to the Kurdistan Region’s Ministry of Religious Affairs). Many seek settlement in large, hastily organised refugee camps across the Kurdistan Region, and around 100,000 flee abroad.
Elsewhere, ISIS forces penetrate deep into central Iraq. They occupy the cities of Fallujah, Mosul, and Tikrit. Fearful of the jihadists’ reputation for brutal public torture and mass executions, the Iraqi army abandons the city of Kirkuk and leaves the region’s oil fields unguarded.
Over the next two years, a coalition of Kurdish, Iraqi, and international forces combat ISIS and succeed in expelling them from their Iraqi strongholds. However, the campaign is undermined by the failure of the government of Iraq to fulfil its budget commitments to the KRG and cover the salaries of the Kurdish peshmerga.
With Kurdish forces having proved themselves the most effective force fighting ISIS in Iraq, the war effort against the jihadists is threatened. In 2016 the KRG appeals to the United States for monetary support, and the US Department of Defense subsequently agrees to pay the salaries of the peshmerga for a 12 month period.
As the threat of ISIS recedes in the Kurdistan Region, and with the Iraqi government refusing to send federal funds to the Kurdistan Region for a third year, the KRG commits itself to a non-binding referendum on Kurdish independence. The referendum faces fierce opposition from the government of Iraq and its regional neighbours, as well as the United States and major European powers, who attempt to dissuade the KRG from staging it. Their protests are ignored, however.
Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region, tells the Guardian newspaper (UK), ‘Is it a crime to ask our people to express themselves over what they want for the future? From World War I until now, we are not a part of Iraq. It’s a theocratic, sectarian state. We [Kurds] have our geography, land and culture. We have our own language. We refuse to be subordinates.’
The Kurdistan Region independence referendum vote is held on 25 September 2017 and 92.73% of the population vote in favour of independence.
In the aftermath of the Kurdish independence referendum the neighbours of the Kurdistan Region – Iran, Iraq and Turkey – respond with fierce hostility.
Iraq in particular adopts a bellicose approach: in a show of force the Iraqi army reoccupies the ‘disputed territories’, in particular Kirkuk, with the support of Iranian–backed Shia ‘Popular Mobilisation Units’ (PMUs).
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shia, subsequently declares the Kurdistan Region independence referendum to be ‘unconstitutional’ and demands that the Kurdish leadership ‘cancel the referendum and its outcome.’ President Barzani responds that more than 3 million votes for Kurdish independence ‘created history and cannot be erased’, and that, ‘Any sanction imposed on the nation of Kurdistan cannot be more effective than the [the Iraqi government-led] Anfal, chemical attacks, mass murder and budget cut.’
Under Prime Minister al–Abadi, the Iraqi government’s relationship with the Kurdistan Region grows more authoritarian. It closes Kurdish airspace and punishes the Kurds by reducing the KRG’s share of the Iraqi budget from the 17% allocated in the 2005 Iraqi constitution to 12.6%, although by early 2018 even these payments have yet to arrive.
Meanwhile, under the administration of President Donald J. Trump the United States increasingly plays a peripheral role in the region as Iran’s influence over Iraqi affairs increases.
In the early 21st century Kurdish movements suffer a mix of successes and setbacks north of the border in Turkey, to the east in Iran and to the west in Syria.
In 2002, Turkey elects the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to office, a conservative, Islamic orientated party which initially seeks to resolve the country’s long-running ‘Kurdish question’. The AKP initially seeks to do so by easing public restrictions on the Kurdish language and culture in Turkish public life, and even enters into negotiations with the jailed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcalan.
Meanwhile, pro-Kurdish political parties in Turkey increase their influence in national politics, culminating in the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) winning some 13% of the vote in Turkish general election of 2015. This, however, marks the high-point of Kurdish electoral success in Turkey.
In the aftermath of a failed 2016 coup d’etat by a faction of the Turkish military against the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish government orders a crackdown on the military, civil service, educational institutions, journalists and political dissidents, and there is a serious escalation in conflict between Turkish security forces and militants linked to the PKK, which Erdoğan continues to refer to as ‘a terrorist organisation’. Similarly, the HDP’s parliamentarians, local government officials, and party activists face prosecution and imprisonment, and are also accused of propagating ‘terrorism’.
In Iran, the Kurdish political parties that once dominated Iranian Kurdistan in the 1970s and 1980s are largely forced into exile in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. However, Kurdish activists and militants continue to challenge the authority of the Islamic Republic, established following the 1979 Revolution. Despite occasional popular protests, however, the Iranian government remains firmly in control.
By contrast, the 21st century sees Syria undergo perhaps the most dramatic transformation of the modern era. Syria’s Kurdish population, who are concentrated along the Syria–Turkey border, has long been marginalised by the Syrian government. Indeed, in 1962 between 120,000 and 150,000 Syrian Kurds were stripped of their Syrian citizenship on the grounds that they had illegally entered the country from Turkey or Iraq after 1945. Subsequent Kurdish discontent towards the Syrian governments of President Hafez al–Assad (in office from 1971 to 2000) and his son President Bashar al–Assad (2000 to present day) provokes violent protests, most notably in 2004.
However, following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, Kurdish forces loyal to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an off-shoot of the PKK, manage to establish control over a large swathe of northern Syria by 2012. They establish an autonomous region which they name Rojava (‘The West’ in Sorani Kurdish) and divide it between three self-governing cantons.
Within the context of the Syrian Civil War, the PYD enjoys considerable success, receiving military support from the United States to counter ISIS. However, despite their victories against ISIS, the fate of Syria’s Kurds remains uncertain, as both the Syrian government in Damascus and the Turkish government in Ankara express hostility to the PYD’s presence on the Syria–Turkey border.
On 11 September 2001, 19 militants associated with the radical Islamic terror group Al-Qaeda hijack four airliners and launch coordinated terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.
The attacks kill over 3,000 people, including 400 police officers and firefighters, and injure a further 6,000 people. Al-Qaeda leader and founder Osama bin Laden initially denies involvement but in 2004 claims responsibility for the attacks.
Doctor Barham Salih, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) regional government, escapes an April 2002 assassination attempt outside his house in Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq.
Attacked by two gunmen, Barham Salih’s bodyguards return fire: five of them are killed, along with the two gunmen. Ansar Al Islam, an Al-Qaeda associate group which has a base near Halabja in northeast Iraq, is blamed for the attack.
In July 2002, the United States Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) alleges Saddam’s regime has links to Ansar Al Islam and through them to Al Qaeda. This allegation is repeated to the United Nations Security Council by US Secretary of State Colin Powell in February 2003, but the connection is never proven beyond doubt.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) help coordinate the work of Iraqi opposition groups in anticipation of an imminent United States-led military campaign against Iraq. A joint session of the Kurdish Parliament is held and the major parties agree to work together until new elections can be conducted.
United States President George W. Bush, the son of President George H.W. Bush, addresses the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) on 12 September 2002 in New York, and condemns Iraq for supporting terrorist organisations, violating human rights, producing weapons of mass destruction, using money exchanged in the UN ‘oil for food’ programme to purchase weapons, and for refusing to comply with the UN weapons inspection programme.
Iraq rejects these allegations, but says it will readmit UN arms inspectors. Claiming this is a ploy, the United States helps to draft United Nations Resolution 1441, which states Iraq will face ‘serious consequences’ if it is found in breach of its commitments to weapons inspection and disarmament. On 8 November 2002 the UN unanimously passes the resolution.
For three months after November 2002, United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix and Mohamed El Baradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency visit sites in Iraq, where weapons of mass destruction are believed to have been produced, to compile a report on Iraq’s weapons capabilities. While they find no evidence of such activities, they claim the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein is deliberately failing to account for chemical and biological stockpiles UN weapons inspectors had discovered back in 1998.
The final report compiled and presented to the United Nations (UN) by Hans Blix on 7 March 2003 states Iraq’s attempts to work with the UN ‘cannot be said to constitute immediate cooperation.’
Saddam Hussein supplies the United Nations Security Council with a list of the foreign companies that supplied Iraq with weapons and components, including chemical precursors for poison gas. The names are redacted before the lists are distributed to United Nations members.
Following Hans Blix’s March 2003 weapons inspection report for the UN, the United States declares Iraq in material breach of UN Resolution 1441, and gives Saddam Hussein a deadline of 17 March to offer total compliance with UN demands. The deadline is not met.
On 20 March, the United States bombards Iraqi cities, declaring its military mission in Iraq will be called ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, By April, United States-led coalition forces, which include soldiers from the USA, the UK, Australia, Poland and other countries, move into Baghdad, Iraq. In April, Baghdad falls to coalition forces and the 39 foot statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square is symbolically toppled. Meanwhile, Kurdish forces take control of Kirkuk and Mosul in the north of the country, routing the Iraqi forces.
On 1 May 2003, United States President George Bush declares an end of major combat operations in Iraq in a speech delivered on the USS Abraham Lincoln battleship.
In May 2003 Doctor Rihab Rashid Taha al-Azawi, a female Iraqi microbiologist dubbed ‘Doctor Germ’ by United Nations (UN) weapons inspectors, surrenders to coalition forces in Iraq. In a 2003 interview with the BBC’s Panorama programme, Doctor al-Azawi declares that Iraq was justified in producing germ weapons in the 1980s and 1990s for the purposes of self-defense. She says Iraq never intended to use the biological agents it produced, and that ‘We never wanted to cause harm or damage anybody.’
However, Doctor al-Azawi admits to UN inspectors that the biological weapons programme she managed had grown 19,000 litres of botulism toxin, one of the most poisonous biological substances known to man. The Iraqi biological weapons programme also produced 8,000 litres of anthrax and 2,000 litres of aflatoxin, which can cause liver cancer.
Furthermore, Doctor al-Azawi claims to have conducted research into cholera, salmonella, foot and mouth disease and camelpox, a disease that is closely related to smallpox. It was her work on camelpox that led American and British scientists to suspect Iraq was seeking to ‘weaponise’ the smallpox virus.
Doctor Rihab Taha was released in December 2005 without charge. Another female Iraqi scientist, Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, nicknamed ‘Mrs Anthrax’ by UN weapons inspectors, was also freed by United States forces after her case was reviewed.
The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is established in northern Syria by former members of the The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and states that it considers Abdullah Öcalan, who was captured and jailed by Turkey in 1999, its ideological leader.
The PYD seeks Kurdish autonomy within Syria and establishes itself as the main Kurdish fighting force in the country over the coming years. The party is unusual because it is led by both a man, Salih Muslim, and a woman, Asya Abdullah.
Following the April 2003 fall of Baghdad to coalition forces, Saddam Hussein and his family go into hiding. But in July 2003, his sons Uday and Qusay Hussein, and his 14-year-old grandson Mustapha, are discovered in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and killed in a gunfight with American forces.
On 13 December, Saddam Hussein is captured by American forces at a farmhouse in ad-Dawr, a small town near his home city of Tikrit. Kurdish intelligence is said to have tipped off the Americans about his whereabouts. Saddam Hussein is found hiding in a specially constructed hole in the ground, wearing a wild, unkempt beard. He is captured without resistance and transported by the Americans to Baghdad, where he is detained ahead of a future trial.
In the aftermath of the Iraq War and the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s government by United States-led coalition forces, many Kirkuki Kurds, who have suffered forcible displacement by the Iraqi government in the previous decades, return to the Kirkuk region to reclaim their homes. They discover that the settlements they lived in have either been destroyed or are now occupied by Arab families.
To resolve a chaotic situation the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American–led transitional government of Iraq, establishes a special body to oversee restitution claims and reverse the ‘Arabisation’ policies of ethnic cleansing that had been overseen by Saddam Hussein’s regime. This special body, the ‘Commission for the Resolution of Real Property Disputes’, is set up in 2004. However, it is immediately overwhelmed by a heavy caseload.
Meanwhile, Arab and Turkmen communities accuse the Kurds of facilitating demographic change in the Kirkuk region to favour themselves, in order to influence future popular votes under the newly democratic governance of the region.
On 1 February there is a double suicide bombing in Erbil, northern Iraq, at the headquarters of the two main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The bomb blasts kill 101 people and injure more than 200.
Several senior Kurdish political figures die in the bombings, including Sami Abdul Rahman, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region.
Arab football supporters raise a flag of Saddam Hussein at a football match in the Kurdish city of Qamishlo, Syria, when a local Kurdish team plays a visiting Sunni Arab team. The Arab football supporters loudly denounce the Kurdistan Region’s political leaders and Kurdish supporters respond by chanting ‘George Bush’ (whose forces had only recently toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein). Fighting breaks out in the stadium and Syrian security officials open fire on the Kurdish football supporters.
In the aftermath of the riot, Kurdish protesters burn down the offices of the ruling Ba’ath Party and in a nearby town topple a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the former President of Syria. The Syrian army is subsequently deployed, killing 33 Kurds and arresting around 2,000. Seven Arabs also die in the riots.
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani is elected as Iraq’s interim President, and an alliance of Kurdish political parties comes second in Iraq’s new national parliamentary elections.
The first session of the Kurdish Parliament is held in Erbil, Iraq, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader, Masoud Barzani, becomes President of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The new constitution of Iraq is ratified by a transitional National Assembly (a temporary Iraqi parliament) after a referendum is put to its citizens.
The Iraqi constitution of 2005 formalises the Kurdistan Region’s autonomous status within the borders determined by Saddam Hussein’s retreating forces in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, an area that does not include the so–called ‘disputed territories’.
Subsequently, Arabs and Kurds remain at loggerheads over who should govern the oil–rich region of Kirkuk, and also disagree on how the major oil and gas reserves in other areas of the Kurdistan Region should be developed in future.
The new Iraqi constitution outlines a mechanism, set out in Article 140, for resolving the status of Kirkuk and all of the disputed territories, yet the December 2007 deadline it establishes for a referendum on the matter is not met. Although Article 140 establishes a three stage process for normalisation, a census and then a referendum, the status of Kirkuk remains unresolved and sectarian violence in the city increases exponentially.