Turmoil and Turbulence: Struggle of the Iraqi Kurds



Sun, 24 Sep 2017 - 04:12 GMT


Sun, 24 Sep 2017 - 04:12 GMT

Kurdish Peshmerga forces celebrate Newroz Day, a festival marking spring and the new year, in Kirkuk March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed

Kurdish Peshmerga forces celebrate Newroz Day, a festival marking spring and the new year, in Kirkuk March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed

CAIRO - 24 September 2017: First codified in the Treaty of Sevres (1920), Article 64 stipulated that the Kurdistan region was scheduled to hold a referendum within its governed areas in order to determine its fate, which notably included the Mosul Province. Yet, owing to a lack of international consensus over jurisdiction rights, the Kurdistan region was partitioned in the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), and was to be governed by four competing states.

The Kurds’ direct experience with the great nation-state-building game being played out by the British and French as part of their divide-and-rule strategy, meant they faced a huge challenge in their quest for nationhood.

The Kurds have been denied their own state ever since their territory was divided and the notion of the nation-state was entrenched in the global consciousness.

Today, the Kurdish population in these four respective states totals an estimated 30 million people who control vast swathes of valuable territory.

Kurdish nationalists claim- CC via Wikimedia

The Kurdish experience in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship is the stuff of nightmares, and exemplifies the uphill struggle faced by the Kurdish people since they were forcibly split by the colonial powers and thus governed by competitive states.

The Kurdish population has persistently struggled against the Iraqi government for the administration and independence of their territory in Northern Iraq.

The substantive Kirkuk oil fields, along with the highly fertile landscape, have made Iraqi Kurdistan a valued territory. In Iraq, the struggle between the Kurds and the Iraqi government relates to territory and resources, but principally, self-determination.

The pipeline, which carries a quarter of Iraq’s crude exports, from the northern Kirkuk oilfield to Ceyhan, has been repeatedly attacked. (Reuters)


By the early 1970’s, the Ba’athist government was fully aware the Kirkuk region lay above vast oil reserves, and the government has since refused adamantly to concede this territory to the Kurds.

Speculation is not helpful, but who knows what would happen if Kirkuk didn’t exist.
On both sides of the isle, oppression, persecution and betrayal have coincided with the changing political status of the Kurdish region in Iraq, making all parties wary and untrustworthy.

Aside from the discourteous nature of forced Kurdish compliance with the Iraqi government, international treaties and law dictate that Iraqi central government has the authority over this region.

However, this authority has been overwhelmingly abused. Although many violent confrontations broke out between the Kurds and the Iraqi government, the attempted Kurdish genocide during the al-Anfal campaign (1986-89) was one of the worst domestic atrocities committed by the Baath party; a horrifying feat considering Saddam Hussein’s human rights record.

The modern source of mutual discontent lies in the strategy adopted by the Iraqi Ba’ath party to consolidate its hold on power. The Ba’ath party appreciated the strength and tenacity of the Kurdish people and redefined their territory in the north of Iraq as the ‘Kurdistan Autonomous Region.’

This transpired as the First Kurdish-Iraqi War (1961-1970) in which a Mustafa Barzani-led struggle for Kurdish independence from Iraq, came to a close. With an estimated 100,000 fatalities, a stalemate ended the conflict with neither side gaining significant concessions.

However, believing they were entitled to almost double the territory allocated to them, the Kurds rejected the ‘Iraqi–Kurdish Autonomy Agreement of 1970’ which was imposed unilaterally in 1974.

With the collapse of independence talks and the unilateral implementation of the 1970 agreement, Mustafa Barzani led the Second Kurdish–Iraqi War against the Iraqi Government. However, this war was less disastrous than the first war, and lasted for a single year from 1974, with an estimated 5,000 fatalities.

Discontent and conflict between Kurds and the Iraqi Army failed to die-down however, as an ‘Arabization’ campaign in Kurdish territories took place. Kurds were being displaced and replaced with Arabs in an attempt to establish a stronger powerbase in the oil-rich territory in Northern Iraq/Kurdistan.

This handout dated 1991 shows toppled leader Saddam Hussein (AFP Photo) / AFP

By the mid-late 1970s, over 250,000 Kurds were forcibly displaced and evacuated, with their villages destroyed to be replaced with Arab settlements.

With Saddam Hussein’s rise to power in 1979 and the outbreak of war with Iran in 1980, Ba’athist disagreement with the Kurds would transform into hatred as the war took its toll on every aspect of Iraqi life. Eventually, Iraqi military presence in the Kurdish region dwindled as the war demanded all available resources, providing some relief for the Kurds.

The Kurdish Peshmerga were able to solidify their control in the north, relying on a local support base which no longer feared reprisals from the diminished and preoccupied Iraqi army.

Even more worrying to Saddam was the relationship between the two major Kurdish parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – and Tehran. By 1987, this became intolerable.

The Baath party saw the KDPs collaboration with Iran during the 1970s as despicable, with Saddam stating before he rose to the presidency, that “those who have sold themselves to foreigners will not escape punishment."


In an unusual move for Saddam, Ali Hassan al-Majid was handed total authority over all agencies of the state in northern Iraq, which notably included the first and fifth Corps of the Army, the General Security Directorate, and Military Intelligence of the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq, from March 1987 to April 1989.

Around the world, al-Majid gained the apt nickname ‘Chemical Ali’ on account of his infamous and inhumane campaign against the Kurds for which he was subsequently executed for.

Almost immediately, al-Majid began defining the target group, and determining certain swathes of land as being prohibited. Residents within these prohibited areas lost all their property rights and legal rights; their cohabitation of land with Peshmerga and anti-Iraqi government forces made them an equal threat in the eyes of the government.

All human existence within these prohibited areas in Iraqi Kurdistan was prohibited, with a shoot-to-kill policy sanctioned.

The infamous attack on the town of Halabja is embolic of this violence, much like Srebrenica is of the Bosnian genocide. In Halabja, the notorious chemical attack indiscriminately killed up to 5,000 people.

An Iraqi Kurd resident visits the cemetery for victims of the 1988 chemical attack. Reuters

This attack cleared the way for the subsequent ground assault, in which ground troops and demolition teams enveloped the area, leaving a path of total destruction. This pattern of violence was continually repeated throughout the campaign.

Owing to the vast number of people who disappeared, it is difficult to determine a figure for how many were killed during this campaign, however most sources cite this as amounting to six figures.

It is unquestionable that the al-Anfal campaign was a very dark moment in history. The campaign of terror and the destruction unleashed on the Kurds during this period had profound consequences on the immediate future of Iraq.

Following a chain of events, the al-Anfal campaign helped to create the environment which led to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent 1991 Gulf War. With this came disastrous sanctions, which killed up to 500,000 Iraqi children owing to the lack of basic necessities.


Systemic social repression led to the Kurdish National Uprising of 1991. The catastrophic war with Iran and the 1991 failed invasion of Kuwait led to a period of instability in Iraq which the Kurds capitalized on for necessary political and social gain.

Although initially successful, Saddam loyalists, led by the Iraqi Republican Guard, conducted a brutal campaign of suppression which led to the death of thousands of Kurds, and the displacement of millions more.

The Kurdish struggle was only one part of a period of massive instability and rebellion in Iraq. The Shi’a rebelled in the South against Saddam’s dictatorship, while the draining of the Mesopotamian Marshes and the forced relocation of Marsh Arabs was a crime against humanity.

With the international coalition ousting Saddam’s forces from Kuwait, no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq were declared.

A marsh Arab man paddles a boat loaded with reeds he gathered at the Chebayesh marsh in Nassiriya, 300 km (185 miles) southeast of Baghdad July 27, 2008. REUTERS/Saad Shalash

United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 facilitated a safe haven in Iraqi Kurdistan, following international concern for the safety of Kurdish refugees.

An important moment in Iraqi Kurdish history came in 1991, when finally the Iraqi army was removed from the northern region and the Kurds finally experienced political autonomy from Baghdad.

Economic struggles continued, however. During this period, Iraq was subject to the some of the most controversial economic sanctions ever imposed on a country. As previously mentioned, they infamously led to the death of over 500,000 children.

However, the Kurds were subjected to a double embargo: one imposed by the UN on Iraq, and another imposed by Saddam Hussein on the region. Not only did this lead to tensions between Erbil and Baghdad, intra-Kurdish strife limited progress.

Yet Kurdish grievances with Baghdad were plentiful, and lay principally in who controlled the oil-rich Kirkuk province. While the Kurds have continued to claim ownership of the territory, this is disputed by Baghdad as both groups seek the vast oil rents.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces celebrate Newroz Day, a festival marking spring and the new year, in Kirkuk March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed


With the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, the Kurdish army – the Peshmerga – joined the anti-Saddam campaign, and they played an important role in overthrowing the Iraqi government from the northern front.

A new 2005 Iraqi constitution defined Iraq as a federalist state consisting of Regions and Governorates which recognized the Kurdistan Region, and codified all laws passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since 1992.

PUK leader, Jalal Talabani, was elected President of the new Iraqi administration, while KDP leader Masoud Barzani became President of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

During the post-war period, Iraq was thrown into a violent sectarian civil war which tore through the country. However, the Kurds largely chose to stay out of sectarian divisions, and were not subject to the same violent conflict as the rest of the country.

However, issues of power sharing, oil production and territorial control have dominated relations between Erbil and Baghdad, and have continued to this day.


Since the Islamic State (IS) took control of one-third of Iraqi territory in 2014 and the Iraqi army suffered a systemic collapse with the loss of Mosul to IS, the Iraqi army crumbled in the face of the IS’ assault. Since then, the Peshmerga have been essential in maintaining stability in Iraq and forcing the Islamic State out of the control it usurped.

The Kurds have proven to be a reliable ally of the international community. The Peshmerga have shown the world their effectiveness as a military force. Continually, they have fought fiercely against IS and made significant gains against the organization, when many groups fled.

Not only have they proven successful as a fighting force, their motivations have often been admirable. With a shared memory of enduring extensive repression under Saddam’s government, the Peshmerga, allied with U.S. airstrikes, went to the aid of the estimated 50,000 Yazidi’s that had fled IS into the Sinjar Mountain.

A Kurdish fighter from the People's Protection Units (YPG) fires a 120 mm mortar round in Raqqa, Syria, June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

IS was committed to genocide against the Yazidi people, and the world was lost for ideas over how to save those trapped on Mount Sinjar. Without food, water or medical care, and facing starvation, dehydration and genocide from the approaching Islamic State forces; the peshmerga were able to break the siege of Mount Sinjar and pushed on to reclaim the Mosul Dam from IS.

Thus far, the Peshmerga have been central to the recapture of Sinjar, Mosul Dam, Zumar, and the city of Mosul, to name a few. Many battles far outside of their territory, yet their morality prevails.

Say no more. A referendum for independence in Iraqi Kurdistan will take place tomorrow.

It is for you to decide if you believe their independence is justified.





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