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       Information on Kurdistan and Kurds

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Map over Kurdistan

The Kurds

by Kjersti Løken and Sven Gunnar Simonsen

In the 1920s, the Kurds were close to getting their own state. Today most Kurdish nationalists have abandoned this goal and instead want autonomous Kurdish regions within Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The Kurdish Labour Party (PKK) is an exception to this because it is still fighting for a separate Kurdish state. Resistance from the outside world and internal rivalry have led to a long and difficult struggle for the Kurds.

 

Background

The Kurds have developed a common identity over the past 2,000 years. Most of them probably descend from Indo-European tribes which settled, as far back as 4,000 years ago, among the original inhabitants in the mountains on the frontier of what is now Iraq, Iran and Turkey. They were presumably mountain people who had come into conflict with the Mesopotamian empires of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria. The Kurds themselves maintain that they are descendants of the Medes, but this claim lacks linguistic support. At the beginning of the Arab period in the 7th century, the ethnic term Kurd was used to designate a mixture of Iranian or Iranified tribes as well as some Semitic and possibly some Armenian communities.

Although there are minor Kurdish communities in Syria, Lebanon and Armenia, most Kurds still live in the mountainous regions in the border area between Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The heart of this area consists of inaccessible mountains rising from the north-west to the south-east. To the west, the mountains give way to a hilly landscape sloping down towards the Mesopotamian plain. To the north, the mountains gradually change their character to a steppe-like plateau and highland in what used to be called Armenian Anatolia. The population in this region does not consist exclusively of Kurds, but the dominant culture is Kurdish. The greater part of this area has been called Kurdistan since the beginning of the 13th century, even though Kurdistan was not to become a common term until the 16th century. By then, the Kurds had migrated north and west to the Anatolian plateau. Since then, the term Kurdistan has meant more than just geography. It also refers to Kurdish culture and is therefore a social and political concept as well.

About 85% of the Kurds are Sunni Muslims. In fact, religion plays only a minor role in creating the feeling of Kurdish distinctiveness, although religious adherence may reflect loyalty to different villages and tribes.

The Kurds lack a common language, and they cannot always communicate with other Kurds in their mother tongue. The majority speak a language originating in north-west Iran. This language has two main dialects: Kurmanji and Sorani (Kurdi), both with major local variations. There are also several sub-dialects, such as Kirmanshahi, Leki, Gurani and Zaza.

Kurdistan can boast vast oil deposits as well as minerals like chromium, copper, iron and coal. Oil is found in commercially viable quantities in Kirkuk and Khanaqini (Iraq), Batman and Silvan (Turkey) and Rumeglan (Syria). This is an important factor in the attitudes of the various national governments regarding the question of Kurdish self-determination, and has strengthened the Kurds own feeling of being treated unfairly.

 

Inner struggle

The society of the Kurds consists mainly of tribes that arose from a nomadic and semi-nomadic way of life in previous centuries. Kurdish society is strongly individualized and often split by internal disagreements. So far in history, the Kurds have never really managed to unite in their common cause. Their primary loyalty is to the immediate family, and then to the tribe. Tribe allegiance is, however, based on a mixture of consanguinity and territorial loyalty. Many Kurds of the lower regions are not organized in tribes, but even among these there is often strife between different clans and communities.

The split of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in 1974 under leader Mulla Mustafa Barzanis struggle for autonomy in Kirkuk is a good example of internal Kurdish rivalry. Several thousand Kurds joined forces with the Baath Party of Iraq in the war against Kurdish self-government, mainly because they doubted Barzanis personal motives and the way he was leading the KDP. This war caused great losses to Kurds and Iraqis alike. The fights between Turkish and Iraqi Kurds in the autumn and winter of 1992 are another example of this internal dissension. The inter-Kurdish conflicts have also been consciously used by the authorities of Iran, Iraq and Turkey in their own national strategies.

Despite the internal strife, the Kurds still claim they constitute a distinct community through their language, lifestyle, ethnic identity and not least geographical spread.

 

The Treaty of Sèvres

The Kurds were promised their own country through the Treaty of Sèvres. Signed on 10 August 1920, this agreement divided what was left of the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Sèvres was a result of joint Kurdish and Armenian efforts to fight for Kurdish and Armenian independence respectively. The Kurds and the Armenians both knew how to take advantage of the Allies unsuccessful attempts at protecting them, and they presented a joint memorandum at the Versailles peace negotiations in 1919. The Treaty of Sèvres was signed the following year, but Turkeys Mustafa Kamal Atatürk disregarded the agreement in his struggle in the early 1920s for a modern Turkish state with new borders. From that time onwards, the Kurds lost hope of further international support. They found themselves split between four states, no longer just three.

In 1991, Turkey had 10,800,000 Kurds, which amounted to 19% of its total population. In Iraq, the number of Kurds was 4,100,000 (23%); in Iran, 5,500,000 (10%);and in Syria, 1,000,000 (8%).

 

Turkey

Of the four countries where the Kurds form sizeable minorities, Turkey has by far been the most democratic except regarding the Kurdish question. Until very recently, the authorities denied that the Kurds existed as a distinct nationality in Turkey. However, during 199192 the late President Turgut Özal, himself of Kurdish descent, opened the door for discussion about not only the existence of the Kurds but also how to deal with their demands. More recently, Ankaras fight against the Kurds, and especially against the PKK, has hardened under Prime Minister Tansu Ciller and her successor, Necmettin Erbakan. To eliminate the PKK, the government relies exclusively on military means, rather than economic and political measures. Ciller has declared that Kurdish separatists have brainwashed the governments of Europe and the USA, and she repudiates international criticism on violations of human rights. The Helsinki Committee claims that Turkish authorities use terror actions by the PKK (see below) as an excuse for attacks against the civilian population.

In the spring of 1994, eight Kurdish MPs were deprived of their parliamentary immunity and accused of treason. The Kurdish Democratic Party (DEP) was banned in July 1994, and all 13 of its representatives lost their seats in the national assembly. Moreover, Ciller admitted that there were political, rather than juridical, motives for the trial against them. Following significant pressure from the international community, the charges against the eight were changed. The eight were in the end convicted for having created or had links with armed groups, in particular the PKK. Five of the eight were sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. The trial led the EU to halt work on establishing a customs agreement between the EU and Turkey. This agreement, however, came into force in December 1995. Criticism from the West in January 1995 led Ciller to suggest a change of the elements of the constitution depriving the Kurds of the right to free speech. There has also been liberalization regarding teaching and television programmes in Kurdish.

The massive flight of Kurdish refugees from Iraq to camps in Turkey at the end of the Gulf War and the safe havens established by the UN in northern Iraq put Turkey in a difficult position. On the one hand, the country wants to develop its cooperation with the West, but the authorities also want to play a central role in the part of Iraqi Kurdistan where oil deposits are located. Turkey had claimed this region until forced to cede it to British Mandate Iraq in 1926. The fate of about 1 million Turks in northern Iraq is also a matter of great concern to Turkey.

 

The PKK

The Revolutionary Kurdish Labour Party (Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan) in Turkey is unique among Kurdish movements because it openly advocates complete independence. Other Kurdish organizations in Iraq and Iran see self-government as the only realistic solution. The PKK is also the sole major organization that attempts to realize a pan-Kurdish vision through a united Kurdistan. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the PKK is strong in the Kurdish heartlands.

The PKK is heavily influenced by Marxist and socialist ideas. The party has had the opportunity to develop an independent agenda, and many Kurdish intellectuals therefore regard the PKK as the only modern Kurdish movement. However, the PKK also works through violent guerrilla warfare in south-eastern Turkey, and carries out actions against economic targets throughout Turkey.

From time to time, the government has treated the civilian population in Kurdish areas very harshly. During the past decade, 1,300 villages are said to have been burnt down or destroyed by Turkish security forces. Two million Kurds have become refugees in their own country.

Now and again, the PKK has responded with hostage actions, for instance by taking foreigners travelling in south-eastern Turkey as hostages. Civilian terror targets have increasingly become part of the strategy, and sympathy for the PKK abroad has diminished considerably over the last few years. According to estimates, the war costs Turkey around USD 7 billion a year. On top of that comes the loss of international goodwill.

Germany and France banned the PKK and its various front organizations in the autumn of 1993, after several terrorist actions against Turkish embassies and business enterprises abroad. As many people see it, PKK has now become highly reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge and their policy in Cambodia in the 1970s and of Sendero Luminoso in Peru. According to British police, the political wing has financed its operations through drug dealing.

The PKK came into existence after the military coup in Turkey in 1980 and started its armed fight against the Turkish government in 1984. The party has its strongest footholds in south-eastern Turkey and in exile circles. It is led by the doctrinaire exile leader Abdullah Öcalan, and the movement has had important support abroad in the Syrian President Hafiz al Assad.

So far the struggle has cost more than 15,000 lives. As the activities of the movement became increasingly bloody, the initial support from Iran, Syria and non-Kurds dwindled. The partys goal concerning a social revolution throughout the Middle East has also contributed to this.

It is a paradox that the formation of a de facto autonomous zone in northern Iraq provided Turkey with its best opportunity to fight back against the PKK. In October 1992, the Kurdish leaders Barzani and Jalal Talabani supported a major military campaign within the Kurdish zone. This operation was a devastating blow to the infrastructure and members of the PKK; Turkey claimed to have killed 200 PKK soldiers. Since that time, Ankaras military strategy has consisted of attacks on the Iraqi side of the border as soon as signs of PKK activities or movements in the area are detected. In July and August 1994, the Turkish Air Force once again attacked Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. A collaboration between Iraqi Kurds and Turkish authorities to stop the activities of the PKK was presumably the prelude to the unilateral, though short-lived, ceasefire proclaimed by the PKK in March 1993. Turkey has also closed its borders to Iraq to prevent Turkish Kurds from fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan. Tansu Ciller vowed to crush the Kurdish insurgents in south-eastern Turkey in the course of 1994.

In late March 1995, Turkish authorities launched a major offensive against the PKK in northern Iraq. Some 35,000 troops participated in the operation, which, according to Ciller was intended to rip out the roots of the PKK. The offensive served to alienate many of Turkeys Western European allies. Turkey, for its part, reacted very negatively to the Netherlands hosting a PKK-aligned Kurdish exile government. The Turkish troops were finally pulled out of northern Iraq in May. According to Turkish authorities, 555 PKK rebels had been killed. After the withdrawal, heavy fighting resumed in south-eastern Turkey. The offensive was renewed for a week in early July, and an additional 167 rebels were reported killed.

In December 1995, the PKK announced a unilateral ceasefire. The Turkish government responded by demanding the extradition of Öcalan from Syria, where the organization has its headquarters.

 

Iraq

The existence of the Kurds, as well as the distinctiveness of their language and culture, has been widely accepted in Iraq. All the same, the Kurds have perished by the hundred thousands because the ruling Baath Party has suppressed even the slightest expression of separatism and resistance against government policy. This has been going on for several decades: Kurdish revolts were also countered in 1919, 1923 and 1932.

In 1970, Iraq came to an agreement with the Kurds concerning linguistic rights, autonomy in the Kurdish region and participation in the Baghdad government, but this agreement fell through later. After having given their support to Iran in the war against Iraq, the Kurds were made to feel Saddam Husseins terrible revenge. Among other incidents, 5,000 inhabitants were killed by chemical warfare when Saddams forces attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988.

The Gulf War in many ways gave the Kurds new possibilities. One of these was the establishment of the internationally guaranteed enclave in northern Iraq.

Two-thirds of Iraqi Kurdistan is currently under Kurdish control. This is an area of 50,000 square kilometres populated by 3.5 million people, 500,000 of whom are refugees. The Iraqi Kurds strive for self-government within the framework of a democratic Iraq without Saddam Hussein. In October 1992, they proclaimed the establishment of a federal Kurdish state, which caused a great deal of concern in Turkey, Syria and Iran. In the spring of 1994, a serious conflict erupted between the two leading Kurdish guerrilla groups, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) of Iraq, led by Barzani Massoud. The two had previously shared power in a regional government for the Kurds.

During 1995 and 1996, several clashes took place between the PUK and the KDP, after their joint control over the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq broke down in 1994. After that, most of the north-west was controlled by Massoud Barzanis KDP, while the south-east has been the area of Jalal Talibanis PUK. In December 1994, fighting resumed, and in January 1995 it intensified, following the capture by PUK forces of the regional capital, Arbil, and the town of Sulaimaniya. Foreign mediation in the months that followed, in particular by the USA and Iran, failed to solve the intra-Kurdish conflict.

In late August and early September 1996, the KDP, with the support of Saddams regime and some 40,000 Iraqi troops seized Arbil and several other towns from the PUK. Among the towns captured was Sulaimaniya, the main base of the PUK. The initiative amounted to Iraqs first major challenge to the order established in the region by the US-led coalition following the 1991 Gulf War. The UN Security Council condemned the Iraqi action. The USA retaliated single-handedly by launching air attacks on military bases in Iraq.

Following their losses to the KDP, the PUK forces pulled back into Iran. In mid-October, they returned with new strength and, according to the KDP, Iranian military assistance. They recaptured Sulaimaniya and other towns. Battles for positions appeared set to continue.

The increasing international concern about the Iraqi Kurds will make it difficult to disregard their plight once Saddam is removed from power. The Iraqi Kurds have already come a long way towards de facto autonomy, something that would have been impossible under previous political systems in Iraq.

 

Iran

In Iran the Kurds have been allowed a measure of cultural independence, but they have basically been isolated from political processes, and all attempts at self-government have been suppressed by military means. Supported by the Soviet Union, the Kurds managed to establish the so-called Mahabad Republic in 1946, but Iranian leader Shah Reza crushed the rebellion the following year.

In 1974, war between Iran and Iraq forced 130,000 Kurds to flee to Iran. Iran also lent military assistance to the Kurds, but their revolt collapsed when Iran and Iraq settled their dispute. After the Gulf War of 1991, refugees to Iran were given a choice between returning to Iraq or being moved from the border area to permanent camps deeper in the country. During 1993, there were several outbreaks of armed struggle in Iranian Kurdistan.

As mentioned, the KDP has claimed that the PUK offensive was supported militarily by Iran. Whether or not this is true, it is the case that the PUK enjoys a free haven in Iran. It remains to be seen whether the struggle between Kurdish groups, which is convenient for many states, will turn into a war by proxy between Iran and Iraq.

 

The Future

International conferences have united the Kurds and given them increased attention as a people. Although the engagement of the UN in northern Iraq has necessarily also given continuity to the work of the Kurds, the question of Kurdish autonomy remains unresolved. One possible solution to this problem is to achieve genuine agreement about some kind of self-government.

Turkey has thus far not succeeded in its policy towards the PKK. The government in Ankara still faces significant opposition from the Kurdish guerrillas. For Turkey to achieve peace, suppression and use of force cannot be the only responses to the Kurds and their struggle. Sooner or later the Kurds will have to be met with political means in a democratic and pluralist framework like that already existing in other parts of Turkey. The other countries in the region are paying close attention to Turkey, though, in fear of pan-Turkish thrusts. Should Turkey try to gain influence over northern Iraq and the future of the Kurds in general, the Kurdish area in Iraq will be endangered. In such a case, Iraq is likely to develop a definite anti-Turkish policy to protect its own position in this region. The political ambitions of the Kurds are actually a threat against pan-Arab ideas. As many people see it, the Turks intend to use the Kurdish controversy to expand their power at the expense of the Arab countries in a new and dangerous phase of neo-Ottomanism. Turkey may at least be forced to introduce some kind of federal system which would allow the Kurds broad cultural autonomy.

The fight for self-government has been less violent in Iran, at least lately. Increased struggle for autonomy in Iraq and Turkey may, however, spill over to the Kurds in Iran. This may then unleash renewed suppression of the Kurds at the hands of the Iranian authorities.

This is taking from http://www.prio.no/html/osce-kurds.asp

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