The United States and the Kurds: A Brief History

By Zunes, Stephen | Foreign Policy in Focus, October 25, 2007 | Go to article overview

The United States and the Kurds: A Brief History


Zunes, Stephen, Foreign Policy in Focus


To add to the tragic violence unleashed throughout Iraq as a result of the U.S. invasion of that country, the armed forces of Turkey have launched attacks into the Kurdish-populated region in northern Iraq to fight guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Taking advantage of the establishment of an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, the PKK has been escalating their raids into Turkey, prompting the October 17 decision by the Turkish parliament to authorize military action within Iraq.

The Kurds are a nation of more than 30 million people divided among six countries, primarily in what is now northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey and with smaller numbers in northeastern Syria, northwestern Iran and the Caucuses. They are the world's largest nation without a state of their own. Their struggle for self-determination has been hampered by the sometime bitter rivalry between competing nationalist groups, some of which have been used as pawns by regional powers as well as by the United States.

The Beginnings

At the 1919 Versailles Conference, in which the victorious allies of World War I were carving up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, President Woodrow Wilson unsuccessfully pushed for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan. Since that time, however, U.S. policy toward the Kurds has been far less supportive and often cynically opportunistic.

For example, in the mid-1970s, in conjunction with the dictatorial Shah of Iran, the United States goaded Iraqi Kurds into launching an armed uprising against the then left-leaning Iraqi government with the promise of continued military support. However, the United States abandoned them precipitously as part of an agreement with the Baghdad regime for a territorial compromise favorable to Iran regarding the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Suddenly without supply lines to obtain the necessary equipment to defend themselves, the Iraqi army marched into Kurdish areas and thousands were slaughtered. Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger dismissed concerns about the humanitarian consequences of this betrayal by saying that "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."

The 1980s

The uprising by Iraqi Kurds against the central government in Baghdad resumed in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, led by guerrillas of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK.) Strong Iranian support for the PUK made virtually all Kurds potential traitors in the eyes of Saddam Hussein's regime, which responded with savage repression. In the latter part of the decade, in what became known as the Anfal campaign, as many as 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, more than 100,000 Kurdish civilians were killed and more than one million Iraqi Kurds--nearly one-quarter of the Iraqi Kurdish population--were displaced.

Despite this, the United States increased its support for Saddam Hussein's regime during this period, providing agricultural subsidies and other economic aid as well as limited military assistance. American officials looked the other way as much of these funds were laundered by purchasing military equipment despite widespread knowledge that it was being deployed as part of Baghdad's genocidal war against the Kurds. The United States also sent an untold amount of indirect aid--largely through Kuwait and other Arab countries--which enabled Iraq to receive weapons and technology to increase its war-making capacity.

The March 1988 Iraqi attacks on the Kurdish town of Halabja--where Iraq government forces massacred upwards to 5,000 civilians by gassing them with chemical weapons--was downplayed by the Reagan administration, even to the point of leaking phony intelligence claiming that Iran, then the preferred American enemy, was actually responsible. The Halabja tragedy was not an isolated incident, as U.S. officials were well aware at the time. UN reports in 1986 and 1987 documented Iraq's use of chemical weapons, which were confirmed both by investigations from the CIA and from U. …

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