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Kurds in Iraq
Boys from a Kurdish family herd sheep in Suleymaniya, in northern Iraq. Between 1974 and 1991, Iraq's army evicted 780,000 people from nearly all 4,460 villages in the Kurdish region.

The Kurdish situation in the Iraqi region, a centuries old dilemma originally attributed to an ultra-nationalistic sentiment from the Kurdish minority, is a complex and sensitive issue that can only be completely understood through a careful study of Iraqi politics dating back to the origins of this Middle Eastern nation-state. Only after identifying the key elements of Iraq's governmental infrastructure can one comprehensively show the fundamental differences between Iraqi and Kurdish political/social dogma. It is these differences that have fostered the currently epic tensions between the two groups and have sown the seeds of rebellion within Kurdish factions. Throughout history and primarily after World War I, the Kurdish minority in the Middle East has been effectively used as a political ally only to further another regime's socioeconomic needs, and consequently, the Kurds have been traditionally labeled as the perpetual "scapegoats of the Middle East." This exploited and often unnoticed people have sought only a homeland for their eclectic yet unified nationality, but numerous Middle Eastern governments-in cooperation with Western strategists-have successfully used the Kurdish desire for nationhood as a means to achieve other political ends. As a result of rampant historic exploitation and the continuous evolution of nationalistic ideas during the early twentieth century, the Kurds violently escalated their campaign for an independent or autonomous nation-state after World War I. Rarely gaining attention for their cause of statehood in public circles, the Kurds resorted to more extreme measures that often conflicted with the ideals of Middle Eastern politics. No other modern nation exemplifies this conflict more aptly than modern-day Iraq. Prior to the Baath party, a leftist political philosophy adopted for nine months in Iraq in 1963 and re-adopted after its resurgence five years later, Iraqi Kurds were almost completely without a voice in the political forum, but after solidification of the party, Kurdish issues became more widely known in the political sphere. As the Baath party further solidified its power base, however, the Kurds were seen as potentially hostile to the perpetuation of this Arab-oriented philosophy. Consequently, the Kurds were and continue to be a great obstacle in terms of unifying Iraq as one sovereign nation.

In terms of origins, the Kurds lay an historic claim to the land popularly called Kurdistan-predominantly sections of southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iran, Armenia, and northeastern Syria. The area has long been inhabited by a Kurdish majority; in fact, Kurds have lived in the region since as early as 2400 BC. Most of Kurdistan, however, was conquered by Arabs in the seventh century and converted to Islam; the region later fell to the Ottoman Turks. From antiquity, the inhabitants of this area have been portrayed as proud, tough, and resistant to foreign influence, and to this day, the Kurds remain distinct from the people of the countries in which they reside. Largely attributed to their isolation by mountains, the Kurds are known for their ferocious defense of terrain, their almost entirely self-sufficient economy, and their tribal-oriented and class-ridden society. Today, although there are occasional exceptions to the rule, the vast majority live in small villages, defying the modern culture that is embraced wholeheartedly by the citizens who live outside unofficial Kurdish borders. Small working-class and middle-class groups have begun to emerge in the cities, but in rural areas, the basic form of political and social organization is still based on descent, clans, and land ownership. In the villages, the leadership is divided between the mir or beg, who leads the tribe, and the shaikhs or mullas, who are the religious leaders. Independence among villages is quite common, but not surprisingly, the Kurdish language, despite a myriad of local dialects, serves as a common denominator among tribes that would otherwise have little or no contact. This language, belonging to the Iranian group of the Indo-European language family, has survived despite all odds, and the Kurdish nation, whose population exceeds 26 million, remains staunch in its desire to preserve this unifying aspect of their culture.

With respect to nationalistic movements, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) became the collective voice of Kurdish factions (especially in Iraq) after World War I. Led by Iraqi nationalist Mulla Mustafa al-Barzani, the KDP formed as a reaction to revoked promises of a Kurdish homeland as stipulated in Article 62 of the Treaty of Sèvres.

The recurring and unfulfilled promises of the Ottomans, the Persians, and the Allies (in 1919) culminated in the Kurdish belief that they were expendable tools in the hands of the great powers, and consequently, Kurdish political activity became an increasingly popular instrument of voicing the long-ignored plight of the Kurds. In 1960, following decades of indecisive clashes with Iraqi forces, Barzani's KDP was reportedly aided by Kurdish intellectuals and militarists from Turkey who were promptly arrested for their allegiance to the Kurdish cause and labeled as separatists, a title soon to become analogous with the Kurdish ideal. Boldly ignoring numerous threats against the KDP inside Iraqi borders and beyond, Barzani and his followers cast aside this seemingly demoralizing arrest of Kurdish supporters and carried on with a growing grassroots campaign of inciting political activity from traditionally passive Kurdish villagers. The incident was one of the most publicized Kurdish arrests up to this time, but as a whole, Kurdish resistance and demonstrations against their Iraqi oppressors went largely unnoticed until the conceptualization and adoption of Baathist ideas in the latter half of the 1960s. This party, a socialistic, Arab-oriented organization that came to power a full eight years after the arrest of Kurdish intellectuals in 1960, finally offered the Kurds of Iraq a means of voicing their sociopolitical desires, but much to the detriment of Barzani's political movement, the Baath party soon found irreconcilable differences between Kurdish ideology and its own.

Interestingly, Kurdish nationalism is both defined and resoundingly subjugated after the establishment of the Baath party in Iraq, and it is for this reason that the politics of the organization have become inextricably intertwined with Kurdish history in Iraq.

Founded in 1940 by the Syrian intellectuals Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Baitar, the Harakat al-Baath al-Arabi, or Movement of the Arab Baath, had gained sizable popularity in Iraq by 1952. This doctrine, an unusual combination of Marxist, Hegelian, and nationalist ideologies united under the banner of Arab ethnicity, not only originated outside the traditional circles of Arab politics; it formed a comprehensive ideology for the Middle East, a rarity among the dominant sectarian dogmas of this region. This ideology called for Arab unity, stressing the Arabs' need to overcome the artificial boundaries imposed in the Middle East by colonial powers, and by acting against these restraints, Baathist philosophy states, the Arab people would be able to assume their status as the executors of their own fate-no longer controlled by the absentee landlords of the West. Supporters of the party adopted the slogan of "one Arab nation with an eternal message," emphasizing the Baathist view of an Arab nation extending from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Persian Gulf in the east. This organization called for al-inqilab, or revolutionary transformation, that included all sectors of life-intellectual, economic, and social. This new philosophy, indicative of the progressive and sometimes radical ideas of a world upset with conventional means of government, serves as a testament to the evolution and growing popularity of political policy that placed an emphasis on self-determination and social reform, two greatly espoused virtues of this era. Theoretically, the Baath party preached their brand of nationalism as open to all inhabitants of the Arab nation regardless of tribe, religion, or ethnic origin, an idea the Kurds believed would give them more political maneuverability.

Unfortunately, Iraqi adoption of this doctrine proved to be a crushing blow to Kurdish aspirations-the Baath party proved to be an excellent means of legitimizing ethnic and political-oriented Iraqi aggression against their Kurdish "brethren" to the north.

In-depth study of Baathist ideology prior to 1963 shows that the question of minorities-including the Kurds-in Arab-controlled lands was inadequately addressed, but the party's background and ideas did express certain attitudes about this question. Conventional party literature declared that an environment of national suppression, division, and Western domination inspired the development of a philosophy emphasizing the liberation of the Arab nation via progressive nationalist ideas. Although a tendency toward Arab chauvinism was quite common among party advocates, Baathists adamantly defended the ability of the ideology to appeal to all inhabitants of the Middle East-Arab or otherwise. Proponents of the movement maintained that this trend of Arab elitism was not included in the writings of the Baath; the struggle of this party was reportedly aimed against the oppressors and not the oppressed nationalities. It is important to also understand, however, that ethnic tensions between Arab and Kurd pervaded every aspect of relations between the two parties, most likely a relic from the tribal affiliations of ancient times. Sensing an increasingly consolidated movement toward the segregation and persecution of minorities by Arab Baathists, Michel Aflaq, co-founder of the party, had attempted to restate the intent of this philosophy during a meeting with students from the Arab Maghrib in 1955. He called for a new concept of Arabism that included the traditionally subjugated minorities of Assyrians, Armenians, and Kurds as invaluable allies in the endeavor toward economic and social equality throughout the modern Middle East, even citing historical incidences of Kurdish warriors defending Arab lands. Interestingly enough, Iraqi application of the party's ideas conveniently overlooked Aflaq's tolerant attitude toward Kurdish minorities until 1970, the year in which a surprising announcement concerning Iraqi Kurds was made by the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC), Iraq's highest political authority.

By the end of 1969, Saddam Hussein, vice-chairman of the RCC, began to take a more visible role in Baathist politics. Reportedly tough, shrewd, and unrelenting in dealing with Kurdish insurrection during the two years following Iraq's transition to the Baath party, Hussein shocked the Iraqi nation by signing a peace agreement with Barzani's KDP on March 11, 1970. The March 1970 Manifesto, an uncharacteristically tolerant agreement by Baathist standards, called for numerous Iraqi concessions including the participation of Kurds in government, the furtherance of Kurdish education and culture, the appointment of a Kurdish vice-president, and eventual self-government for the Kurds. The manifesto did include, however, resolutions that affirmed the RCC's right to wield some influence over economic, legal, and governmental issues within Kurdish borders. Despite this seemingly unimportant stipulation given the ambiguity of its enforceability, the Kurds appeared to be the blatant beneficiaries of such a deal. Reasons for Hussein's hasty agreement to the terms of the March 1970 Manifesto are sketchy at best, but it is often speculated that the RCC had finally realized that it was in their best interests to respect the increasing influence of Barzani and his followers; fear of militant uprisings and terrorism by the more fanatical Kurdish nationalists had grown in the months leading up to the signing, and the RCC had no desire of continuing its protracted military campaign against impassioned guerrilla forces in and around modern-day Kurdistan.

Contrary to the RCC claims of finally solving the Kurdish problem by redefining the party's ideological and theoretical position and by passing the aforementioned resolutions in the manifesto, the agreement was almost destined to fail. Even before signing the agreement, Barzani knew that the Baathists and the Kurds would not be able to adequately implement the agreement; based on interviews with the KDP leader after the announcement of peace between Iraq and its Kurdish rivals, Barzani's signing is often interpreted in part as a token gesture-an indication to his people that he was willing to compromise with the enemy so long as Kurdish self-determination was included in the agreement. The agreement did, however, grant broad autonomy to the Kurds-a hotly-contested demand in previous years. Unfortunately for both sides, deep-seeded hostility between the two organizations and a concerted effort against Baathist ideology by foreign opponents proved to be more potent than the lofty, quasi-idealistic stipulations of the March 1970 Manifesto. The inability of Barzani and Hussein to control their respective troops led to intermittent border skirmishes in the days immediately following the signing of the manifesto. Both leaders did, however, remain diligent in the task of attempting to fulfill their respective obligations.

A major setback occurred when the United States, Israel, and Iran pledged both monetary and military support to Barzani after the signing of the manifesto; this resulted in the escalation of Kurdish demands, a catalyst that would eventually put an end to Barzani's rebellion. Although the United States, Israel, and Iran each had numerous reasons for supporting the Kurds, all three countries were united in the cause against Arab nationalism because of the grave threat it posed to their security and financial interests in the Arab world. Due to a change in U.S and Israeli foreign policy and the Iranian realization that a catastrophic war with Iraq would be inevitable if further aid were given to the Kurds, these countries abruptly ended their support of Kurdish militants in 1975, leaving Kurdish forces formerly dependent on international aid vulnerable to an Iraqi attack that would effectively end the organized Kurdish effort for independence. In March of that same year, Hussein's forces mounted a major offensive directed at the mountain ridges of Sartiz and Hasen Beg, two key Kurdish military strongholds. Iraqi troops were successful, and despite appeals to his former Iranian allies, Barzani was forced to order an end to Kurdish resistance in the area and to evacuate his family from Kurdistan. Thousands of Kurdish fighters surrendered, and by the end of the battle, Iraqi and Kurdish casualties totaled approximately 60,000.

The defeat of Mulla Mustafa al-Barzani's rebellion against the Baath government brought an end to the Barzani type of struggle for Kurdish independence, but numerous other groups took up the banner of the Kurdish cause. Today for example, the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, is the most recognizable of the Kurdish factions who continue to fight a war that the rest of the world has nearly forgotten. Aside from the occasional media report on this or similar organizations, the Kurds and the lessons to be learned from their struggle appear to be ignored by an overwhelming majority of the world. It is unfortunate that other nations are unable or refuse to glean knowledge from this senseless tragedy, but it is even more tragic that such a horrific series of events had to ever unfold. Nationalism, ethnocentrism, and allegiance to the popular political ideas of the early twentieth century all appear to be plausible factors that led to the Iraqi/Kurdish conflict, and as mentioned earlier, numerous Kurdish separatist groups continue to embrace these ideas and to fight a battle that has no discernable end in sight. Whether publicized or not, Barzani's campaign for independence has left an indelible mark on the modern world, and his efforts not only add another bloody page to the annals of history; they serve as a poignant reminder that the devastating effects of civil unrest are by no means limited to geopolitical boundaries or the individuals who reside therein.

J. AdamBrockwell

With thanks to Edmund Ghareeb

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