Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Kurds in Iraq, Iran and Turkey: Three Kurdish Perspectives; Iraq; "Kurds Have No Friends but Their Mountains"

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Kurds in Iraq, Iran and Turkey: Three Kurdish Perspectives; Iraq; "Kurds Have No Friends but Their Mountains"

Article excerpt

The Kurds in Iraq, Iran and Turkey: Three Kurdish Perspectives; Iraq; "Kurds Have No Friends But Their Mountains"

"[Kurds] constitute one of the largest races, indeed nations, in the world today to have been denied an independent state. Whatever the yardstick for national identity, the Kurds measure up to it."

So says David McDowall, of the London-based Minority Rights Group. Congressman Jim Bates of California characterizes the Kurdish people as "the largest oppressed minority without a homeland in the world."

Since antiquity, the Kurds, as a homogeneous community adhering to their culture and tenaciously retaining their distinct identity for no less than three millennia, have occupied a vast, cohesive region called "Kurdistan," which means the land of the Kurds. It comprises northwestern parts of present-day Iran, northern Iraq, parts of northern Syria and southeastern Turkey, with overlaps into the Republic of Armenia. Since the early 13th century, much of this area has been called Kurdistan, although it was not until the 16th century that the term came into common usage to denote a system of Kurdish fiefs. The main concentration of Kurds is to be found nowadays in that part of Kurdistan where Iraq, Iran and Turkey meet.

Kurdistan was never wholly independent as one state. Within Kurdistan, however, there were semi-independent Kurdish principalities from the 11th to the 19th centuries. They constituted a buffer between the two rival empires of the Shi'i Muslim Safavids and the Sunni Muslim Ottomans for centuries, until the last Kurdish prince of Ardalan was finally deprived of his power in 1865.

After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, President Woodrow Wilson called for a state for the Kurds in 1919. The Treaty of Sevres of 1920 was ratified by the Ottomans, but Kemal Ataturk, who founded the present-day Turkish Republic, refused to abide by it. The subsequent Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 totally ignored the issue of an independent Kurdistan.

Kurdistan has all the requisites for an independent state.

It is the dream of Kurds everywhere to live one day in a united independent Kurdistan. None of the countries among which Kurdistan has been divided has ever permitted a referendum on independence among its Kurdish inhabitants. In an era that has witnessed the breakup of the Soviet empire and of Yugoslavia, culminating in the emergence or re-emergence of numerous independent countries, and the reunification of countries like Yemen and Germany, the 25 million Kurds resent the fact that the winds of change are not blowing in their direction as well.

Kurdistan has all the requisites for an economically viable independent state. It is rich in oil and other minerals such as chrome, copper, iron, coal and lignite. It is also rich in water and fertile arable lands, and has great potential for tourism.

Despite decades of insulation ever since World War I from their brethren across the current international borders, the Kurds' sense of kinship has by no means waned. The Kurds of Turkey and Iran hurried to the rescue of the nearly two million Iraqi Kurds fleeing into the countries from Saddam's helicopters in the aftermath of the Gulf war last year. For weeks, they continued to feed those refugees and shelter them in their homes.

Nonetheless, most Kurds are aware of the geopolitical constraints. Kurdistan is a landlocked country divided among four states, whose governments all are suppressive of and totally undemocratic in outlook toward their Kurds, if not of and toward their whole population. The Realpolitik of striving for more rights within each country seems to many Kurds to be a more viable and attainable option in the interim.

The state of Iraq, in an area known to the West as "Mesopotamia," was created under the British mandate (1920-32) from the Mosul, Baghdad and Basra provinces (vilayets) of the defunct Ottoman state. Iraq's first king, Faisal I, from present-day Saudi Arabia, was installed by the British. …

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