Thursday, 1 August 2013

A Short History of Kurdistan-Iraq

Today I booked my flight to go from London to Sulaymaniyah, the second city of Kurdistan-Iraq (or Iraqi Kurdistan). I'm planning to go and teach English there for a year whilst learning Sorani Kurdish. I'm nervous about such a big culture shock, but also excited about immersing myself into Kurdish society, afterall I wrote my final dissertation on K-I, so it's somewhere that's interested me for a while - and the free one-person flat and tidy salary don't hurt. With this in mind, here is a short history of the area that I spent a year researching about.

Kurdish national identity as it is today is quite a young concept, a fair bit younger than the Turkish, Persian and Arab nationalisms which surround it. The idea of one nationality per country originally came to the Middle East from Europe. For hundreds of years the region had been made up of the Ottoman and Persian empires, as well as the Russian empire encroaching from the north, all of which had no intention of encouraging any nationalistic feeling amongst either the dominant or subject peoples. However, as these ideas became more fashionable, so the dominant groups began exerting increased oppression upon minority groups in an attempt to homogenize the entire country, as had been accomplished in France a hundred or so years earlier. This was also the main cause of the Armenian genocide in Turkey (in which some Kurds shamefully took part). Kurdish nationalism came as a reaction and follow-up to this and although there had been Kurdish uprisings before, they had not been based on Kurdish identity, but rather were attempts at redistributing the power of certain tribes and chiefs.

Growing Kurdish identity coincided with the borders for the British mandate of Iraq being drawn, in typical backwards colonial style, right through the middle of the Kurdish region. Although the US had promised that all national groups would get to decide their own fate, including the Kurds, nobody wanted to upset Turkey further and the British were keen on keeping the northern region of Iraq within Iraq in order to keep their oil rich new country strong, so the Kurds were left out to dry. When the Kurds rose up against the British occupational forces they were gassed, bombed and machine gunned by the RAF; the colonial secretary at the time, a certain Winston Churchill, was "strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes" [1].

The Kurds continued to resist Baghdad's control until Saddam Hussein took power and promised a deal with the Kurds, this promise was also broken as soon as he had consolidated power enough in order to repress both the Kurds and the Shia. Kurds were arrested, tortured and raped by the Ba'th regime and 'Arabisation' kicked Kurds out of key, oil rich areas, such as Kirkuk in order to increase Baghdad's control; their oppression was on a whole other level in comparison to their kin in Turkey and Iran. When the Iran-Iraq war broke out both sides accused their Kurds of siding with the enemy, often without justification. Whole Kurdish villages within Iraq were destroyed by Hussein, the most notorious incident being the gassing of Halabja [2].

After the first US invasion a no-fly zone was set up in parts of the Kurdish area, mostly because Turkey wanted to get rid of the refugees who it had been holding in the mountains. However, the subsequent sanctions against Iraq doubly affected the Kurds who were also under an internal embargo from Baghdad. Nevertheless the Kurds took the new autonomy as an opportunity to set up their own democratic state. Despite many expected flaws, it had some success and was a rather liberal and secular affair. However, the two main parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) based around the powerful Barzani family and the more liberal People's Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani developed a fierce rivalry which turned into a full civil war. Although lamentable, it can be somewhat understood considering the tenseness of the situation.

By the second US invasion these issues had been resolved and the Kurds were united in helping the invading armies take down the Ba'thist regime. This was particularly useful for the Americans who had been refused access to Turkey for the invasion. In return the US helped the Kurds fight off the externally funded Islamic groups who were causing trouble in the area. Despite some violence in the region at the beginning of the war, there have been no terrorist attacks in K-I since 2004 (the Foreign and Commonwealth Office even gives separate advice for the Kurdish area).

Since the war the Kurds have been able to maintain their autonomy as a federal state within Iraq and has remained a safe zone whilst Iraq comes closer to becoming a failed state entirely. They have found oil and have been exporting without Baghdad's interference. This has caused friction with the capital, but considering Baghdad's eagerness to sell off all oil reserves to foreign companies with little recompense for the Iraqi people, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. This has also helped the area boom and it is now developing very quickly. There may still be problems, but the Kurdish people seem willing to tackle them, the next question is whether they will seek further independence, be it just for themselves or all the Kurds.


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