The Kurds' Suffering Is Rooted in Past Betrayals

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The ordeal of nearly a million Kurds as they struggled to escape from Iraq across freezing mountain passes last April aroused sympathy and indignation around the world. Iraq's brutal suppression of the March uprising by Kurds and Shi'i Arabs was the immediate cause of their plight, but the Kurds' present agony is the culmination of a long history of oppression, manipulation and betrayal. At one time or another during the past 70 years, the European powers, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Israel, the US, and at times even the Kurds' own leaders have all used the Kurdish people to further their own aims.

The modern Kurdish independence movement is itself the product of a betrayal. In 1920, following World War I, the Allies and the defeated Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Sevres, which provided for an independent Kurdistan in the adjacent areas of Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq where 18 million Kurds were concentrated. Because of the opposition of Turkish nationalists and the indifference of the Western powers, the treaty was not enforced and the promise to the Kurdish people was never fulfilled. Since then, the Kurds' attempt to preserve a separate culture and obtain independence have been met with repression and bloody reprisals by governments that regard the Kurds either as threats to their own survival or as pawns to be used against their neighbors.

Uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s by Kurdish nationalists led by Sheikh Ahmad of Barzan and those in later years led by his brother, Mustafa Barzani, were repeatedly crushed, often by the cooperative efforts of Iran, Turkey and Iraq. After Iraq's revolution of 1958 that ousted the monarchy, Barzani made peace with the new government and even took part in massacres of its Ba'athist opponents. But during subsequent changes of government, relations between Kurds and Iraqi leaders fluctuated between fighting and attempts at reconciliation. What complicated these relations was Iran's growing hostility to Iraq once it became a republic. After the overthrow of Iraq's King Faisal, the shah of Iran abandoned his former policy of cooperating with Baghdad against the Kurds and instead began using the Kurds as a means of weakening Iraq. During the 1960s, Iran joined with Israel to give financial, technical and military support to the Kurdish insurgents, with the aim of embroiling Iraq in domestic turmoil that would sap its military capabilities. At the same time, nobody wanted a Kurdish victory. According to a news report in the Christian Science Monitor of Dec. 12, 1974, Iran's support for the Kurds "was always just enough to prevent their defeat, never quite enough to enable them to attain their political objectives."

There is no evidence that the US provided direct assistance to the Kurds during these years. In fact, Nikki R. Keddie and Mark J. Gasiorowski emphasize in their book Neither East Nor West (Yale 1990) that the CIA and State Department were strongly opposed to any US intervention on behalf of the Kurds. Israel, however, did play an important role in keeping the Kurdish insurgency alive. In 1980, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin revealed that between 1965 and 1975 the Israeli government had provided the Kurds with money, arms and instructors. Together, Iran and Israel set up a Kurdish intelligence service, Parastin, and Israeli intelligence units were active in Kurdish territory during these years, gathering information on Iraqi forces. In 1972, American newspaper columnist Jack Anderson reported that Israel was paying Barzani personally $50,000 a month. Israel also supplied the Kurds with Soviet weapons it had captured from Egypt and Syria, hoping at one point that Iraqi leaders would believe the weapons had been supplied by the Soviets.

The reasons for Israel's cooperation with Iran to help the Kurds were clear. The shah of Iran provided Israel with a continuous supply of oil (in 1973 Iran refused to join the Arab oil embargo against the West). By supporting the Kurds, Israel succeeded in tying down units of the Iraqi army that in 1967 and 1973 might otherwise have joined Egypt and Syria in fighting against Israel. …