Kurds in History
The first mention of the Kurds in historical records was in cuneiform
writings from the Sumerians (3,000 BCE), who talked of the "land of the
Karda." It would appear that from the earliest times the Kurds were
generally unaffected by shifts in the empires around them, as they tended
their flocks and obeyed their tribal leaders with a minimum of interference
from outsiders. This lack of interference was very probably due to the
inaccessibility of the area in which they lived, although they early on
gained a reputation for being excellent fighters. At one time or another in
their early history, some or all of them came under the dominance of the
Sumerians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Parthians, the
Persians, the Romans, and the Armenians.
In the 7th century CE, the Arabs conquered the area and in time converted
everyone in it—including the Kurds—to Islam. The Kurdish area became a
border area between the Muslim Caliphate and the Christian Byzantine Empire,
and the Caliphate utilized Kurdish troops in securing the frontier area
against the Byzantines based in Istanbul.
In the centuries that followed, the Kurds withstood the invasions from
Central Asia which brought the Turkic peoples as far west as Asia Minor (now
Turkey), again probably because they occupied an area too difficult for
outsiders to reach.
The most famous Kurd in history is Saladin, who in all accounts emerges
as the greatest military mind on either side of the Crusades, and the wisest
and most famous Muslim ruler. Saladin was born in Tikrit (the same
birthplace as Saddam Hussein) in 1137, into a prominent Kurdish family.
Saladin grew up in educated circles and distinguished himself militarily in
his twenties by playing a significant part in keeping Egypt out of the hands
of the First Crusade. Through his own accomplishments and with the help of
his powerful family, he was appointed commander of the Syrian troops and
vizier of Egypt at the age of 31. He subsequently became the sole ruler of
Egypt and soon set out to unite the Muslim territories of Syria, northern
Mesopotamia (Iraq), Kurdistan, Palestine, and the rest of Egypt. He proved
to be a wise but firm ruler, skilled in diplomacy, free of corruption and
cruelty, and dedicated to the spread of Islam. In 1187, he led the
reconquest of Jerusalem and occupied it with compassion and courtesy. He
died in 1193, and historians agree that he is one of the world's towering
most famous Kurd in history is Saladin.
Kurds in the Ottoman Empire
As the Ottoman Empire rose to power in the 13th through 15th centuries,
it extended its territory to what is roughly now the border between Iran and
Iraq. From then until World War I, the area inhabited by the Kurds was about
three-fourths subject to the Ottomans and one-fourth subject to the
Persians. Under both, the Kurds enjoyed a considerable amount of autonomy:
The Kurdish princes who had allied themselves with the Ottoman Sultan, for
example, were set up as vassals of the Ottoman Empire, and the areas under
their command became autonomous principalities.
Both empires made extensive use of Kurdish military prowess, and as a
consequence Kurd often fought Kurd on behalf of the Ottoman or Persian
government. The Kurdish areas in present-day Turkmenistan and Khorasan in
northeastern Iran were originally settled as military colonies to protect
border areas of the Persian empire.
The Kurdish principalities in both empires cultivated literature and the
arts to a considerable extent, and a small educated Kurdish elite gradually
developed. In the 19th century, the same drive toward national identity that
was spreading among the Arabs also influenced the Kurdish elite, but for the
most part the several small Kurdish rebellions against the Ottomans were
prompted by a sense of injustice on the part of local tribal leaders. These
rebellions were promptly suppressed by the Ottoman government, and, as they
threatened the weakening empire, led to the imposition of direct Turkish
rule on the previously autonomous Kurdish principalities.
The Kurdish vilayet of Mosul was
made part of Iraq in 1925.
The Kurds in Modern Iraq
In the days of the Ottoman and
Persian empires, the Kurds of the area bordering the two had been an
intermittent irritant to both the Ottoman Sultans and the Persian Shahs.
After World War I, however, Kurdish antagonism more seriously threatened
Iran and the new nations of Turkey and Iraq, as their governments struggled
to free themselves of foreign domination and maintain control over their
In the dividing up of the old Ottoman Empire that took place after World
War I, the new country of Iraq was formed from the Ottoman vilayets
of Baghdad, Basra, and also Mosul with its Kurds and its oil fields. The
disposition of Mosul was the cause of much skirmishing among the powers
involved, but the British who were to administer the new Iraq prevailed, and
in 1925 it was finally attached to Iraq. The Kurds had no voice in the
During the years between the formation of Iraq and its independence in
1931, limited steps were taken in the direction of the Kurds. In 1926, the
initial Iraqi local-language law provided for the teaching of Kurdish in
schools in Kurdish-speaking areas, and for the publication of
Kurdish-language books. In addition, there was Kurdish representation in the
During World War II, Mustafa
Barzani emerged as a champion of Kurdish rights and Kurdish nationalism.
hroughout this time, there were small rebellions on the part of
the Iraqi Kurds among particular tribes in the Barzani area. During
World War II one of their leaders, Mustafa Barzani, emerged as a champion of
Kurdish rights and Kurdish nationalism, through his military expertise and
through his participation in the establishment of the short-lived Kurdish
autonomous republic (the Mahabad Republic, 1946–47) in Iran.
After World War II, the Kurdish elite in Iraq became involved in various
political parties that opposed British influence and the Iraqi royal
government, and espoused the democratization of Iraq. One of these, the
Kurdish Democratic Party founded by Mustafa Barzani, was composed entirely
of Kurds. One of the Iraqi parties was the Ba'ath party, which eventually
gained control of Iraq.
In 1958, the royal government of Iraq was overthrown, and the new
republican government of Abdul Karim Qasim was wholeheartedly supported by
all the political parties, including the Kurdish Democratic Party. In the
first constitution, the Kurds were named as part of the new state, and their
rights were guaranteed. Mustafa Barzani returned as a hero to Iraq from the
Soviet Union, where he had been in exile for 11 years. Kurds were allowed to
broadcast in Kurdish and to publish books and periodicals as well.
Elementary schools in Kurdish-speaking areas were allowed to use Kurdish as
the medium of instruction, and Kurdish departments were established in some
of the Iraqi universities.
By 1960, however, concessions to the Kurds had been withdrawn, and for
the next 15 years, the Iraqi government carried out an extended campaign of
"Arabization" of the Kurdish areas, which included such tactics as armed
warfare, destruction of villages and deportation of Kurds, moving of Arabs
into Kurdish areas, and other measures designed to weaken and demoralize the
The Kurds actively resisted this government campaign. In 1974 (Iraq was
by now dominated by Saddam Hussein, although he was still only vice
president), the Kurdish resistance, spearheaded by the Kurdish Democratic
Party, asked for and received arms and other help from Iran. The resistance
escalated but was crushed in April, 1975, when the Shah abruptly withdrew
his support of the Kurds in return for a favorable redrawing of the southern
border between Iran and Iraq along the waterway to the Persian Gulf.
These events in 1975 produced a flow of Kurdish refugees into Iran during
the hostilities, and then produced an additional flow when Iran withdrew its
support for the Kurds and the Kurdish army gave up the struggle. Some of
those refugees eventually found their way to the United States, including
Mustafa Barzani, who came to the United States for medical treatment and
died here in 1979.
It was after the collapse of the Kurdish resistance that Jalal Talabani,
disagreeing with the decision of the Kurdistan Democratic Party that
continuing resistance against the Iraqi government would be futile, formed a
splinter party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The end of the Kurdish resistance also brought about a series of
government moves designed to render the Kurds less of a threat. Political
areas were remapped to designate a smaller area as "Kurdish," and Arabs were
moved into the excluded Kurdish areas to dilute the Kurdish populations. Any
teaching in Kurdish was stopped, and the Kurdish departments and schools in
universities were closed.
In 1979, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and
in 1980 Iraq went to war against Iran. The Iraqi Kurds supported the
Iranians, and toward the end of the war the Iraqi government retaliated with
an extensive, devastatingly cruel campaign against the Kurds. Between
February and August of 1988, hundreds of Kurdish villages in northern Iraq
were totally destroyed, and as many as 200,000 Kurds were killed in the
process. This was the period during which the Iraqi government used chemical
weapons against Kurdish soldiers and civilians alike, causing a
In 1988, hundreds of Kurdish
villages in northern Iraq were totally destroyed, and as many as 200,000
Kurds were killed in the process.
At about this time, the different Kurdish factions, who
were continually fighting one another as they warred against the Iraqi
government, made an effort to resolve their differences and present a united
Kurdish Front to the Iraqis and to the world. The participating factions
included Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (now headed by Mustafa
Barzani's sons) and Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The Front
negotiated with dissident Shi'a Iraqi Arabs who were also opposed to Saddam
Hussein, but in the end the two groups agreed to pursue their goals
The Iran–Iraq war ended in 1989, with Saddam Hussein's armed forces
nearly intact. Between then and the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1990, the
Kurds ceased guerrilla activity in the Kurdish areas and concentrated on
advancing their cause politically from exile in Iran.
Republican Guard proceeded, well over a million Kurds fled in
unprecedented numbers to the Turkish and Iranian borders.
The Gulf War and Subsequent Events
On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait. Between then and the
actual war the following February, the Kurds at first tried to convince
Saddam to trade concessions for the Kurds in return for support in a
possible war, and then, as American troops were being built up in Saudi
Arabia and the Persian Gulf, they positioned themselves for a likely Iraqi
defeat. They reopened negotiations with the dissident Shi'a Arabs from the
south, and in meetings in Damascus and Beirut all the dissidents developed a
united front which had the goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and setting
up a coalition government for Iraq.
Immediately after the ceasefire on March 2, 1991, the dissident Shi'a
Arabs in the south rebelled. The Kurds in the north took advantage of the
situation and rebelled also. Within three weeks all the Kurdish area was in
revolt, the towns of Ranya, Sulemaniye, Arbil, Dahuk, Aqra, and Kirkuk were
under Kurdish control, and the province of Mosul was under siege. In
response, Saddam Hussein gathered his Republican Guard, marched back into
the territory so recently captured by the Kurds, and within a week had
retaken all the territory.
As the Republican Guard proceeded, well over a million Kurds fled in
unprecedented numbers to the Turkish and Iranian borders. Iran accepted the
Kurdish refugees, but Turkey refused them entrance. Refugees on the Turkish
border were stranded on mountainsides exposed to the winter weather, and
because trucks could not reach them there was a desperate lack of food and
materials from which to build shelter. Turkey allowed foreign journalists
into the area, and the world watched, aghast, as thousands of Kurds died.
Western governments responded by dispatching supplies through Turkey and
by direct airdrops to the refugees. Turkey's President Turgut Ozal proposed
that the United Nations take over territory in northern Iraq and establish a
safe haven for the Kurds. At a European Community meeting in Luxembourg,
Britain's Prime Minister John Major presented a proposal for a UN-protected
Kurdish enclave; the plan was endorsed by the other European leaders, and
about a week later was endorsed by the United States as well.
Provide Comfort is the name given to the 1991 implementation by the United
States and its Gulf War Allies of a safe haven for Kurds.
Operation Provide Comfort
Operation Provide Comfort is the name given to the 1991 implementation by
the United States and its Gulf War Allies of a safe haven for Kurds. Under
the Operation Provide Comfort umbrella, allied western troops on the ground
persuaded the Kurds to descend from the mountains into the plains, where
camps were set up with relief supplies as an added inducement. Allied troops
were also sent into Dahuk, to maintain a presence so that the Kurdish
refugees who had fled that area would go back to their homes. And the area
of Iraq above the 36th parallel—which includes Arbil, Mosul, Zakho, and
Dahuk—was declared a no-fly zone: Any Iraqi planes flying above the parallel
would be subject to reprisal.
By July, the system had been established, and the western troops withdrew
from Iraq to bases in Silopi, just across the Turkish border, leaving a
small staff, the Military Coordination Center in Zakho, to oversee the
continuing relief effort and to act as a stabilizing force. The no-fly zone
was regularly patrolled by aircraft from the United States, Great Britain,
France, and Turkey.
Operation Provide Comfort was not the only source of help for the Kurds.
There were several other relief programs supported by different countries
and agencies, and a number of initiatives aimed at strengthening opposition
to the Iraqi government and Saddam Hussein.
The New Kurdish Asylees
The Kurds employed by Operation
Provide Comfort are very probably typical of all the Kurds who worked for
western agencies. The OPC Kurds held a variety of positions: clerks,
translators, drivers, guards, cooks, and aid workers of different sorts.
Those who held clerical positions are educated, sophisticated,
"westernized," and able to communicate fairly well in English. Others in the
group have had less education and exposure to the West. The guards, for
example, speak little English, and are likely to have had about 8 to 12
years of education (many were educated as soldiers in the Iraqi army).
Each employee was allowed to bring close family members, and the
accompanying parents, husbands or wives, and children enlarge the first
group to about 2,100. These will have a predictable range of education and
experience. Service providers can assume that the grandfathers and
grandmothers in the group will undoubtedly be more traditional in outlook
and will have the most trouble adjusting to a new country and culture. The
young to middle-aged adults will be the most anxious, as responsibility
falls on their shoulders for their parents and children; it is they who will
also be the most demanding of services. The children should assimilate