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The Kurds in History
Early 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 figures.

The 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 territories.

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 discussions.

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 government.

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 Kurds.

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 separately.

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.

Hussein's 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.

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.

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 quickly.





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