Iraq's Resilient Minority

Shaped by persecution, tribal strife and an unforgiving landscape, Iraq's Kurds have put their dream of independence on hold-for now

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In the savage heat of summer on the Mesopotamian plain, where the temperature regularly tops 110 degrees, Baghdadis crave the cool mountains and valleys of Kurdish Iraq, where the wild landscape climbs up to the rugged borders of Iran and Turkey. Even amid this dramatic scenery, the rocky gorge of Gali Ali Beg stands out as a spectacular natural wonder, and it was there one day last August that I encountered Hamid, an engineer from Baghdad, happily snapping photographs of his family against the backdrop of a thundering waterfall.

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Hamid had just arrived with his wife, sister, brother-inlaw and four children. By his account, the dangerous ninehour drive from Baghdad—much of the ongoing Iraq War is fought on the highways—had been well worth it. Excitedly, he reeled off a long list of Kurdish beauty spots he planned to visit before heading home.

Given that Kurds have vivid memories of genocidal onslaughts by Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party henchmen, and are currently wary of attacks by Arab Sunni insurgents, I was surprised to see Hamid here. Was he nervous? Were the Kurdish people friendly? The 30-year-old Hamid, who earns a prosperous wage working for a major American corporation in Baghdad, looked puzzled. “Why not?” he replied, “it’s all the same country. It’s all Iraq.”

“They still don’t get it,” hissed a Kurdish friend as we walked past a line of cars with Baghdad plates in a parking lot. “They still think they own us.”

Kurds like to tell people that they are the largest nation in the world without a state of their own. There are roughly 25 million of them, predominantly non-Arab Muslims practicing a traditionally tolerant variant of Islam. Most live in the region where Iraq, Turkey and Iran meet. They claim to be an ancient people, resident in the area for thousands of years, an assertion not necessarily accepted by all scholars. Until the 20th century, they were largely left to themselves by their Persian and and Ottoman rulers.

As nationalism spread across the Middle East, however, Kurds, too, began to proclaim a common bond as a nation, even though they remained riven by tribal feuds and divisions. The British, after defeating the Ottomans in World War I, briefly considered the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Instead, in 1921, Great Britain opted to lump what was called southern Kurdistan into the newly minted Iraqi state, ruled by Arabs in Baghdad. Successive Iraqi governments broke agreements to respect the Kurds’ separate identity, discouraging, for example, the teaching of Kurdish in schools. The Kurds protested and periodically rebelled, but always went down to defeat. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein sought to solve the Kurdish problem by eliminating them in vast numbers; as many as 200,000 died on his orders, often in chemical weapons attacks. Thousands of villages were destroyed. Survivors who had lived by farming were herded into cities where they subsisted on government handouts.

Today, however, Iraqi Kurdistan appears in shining contrast to the lethal anarchy of occupied Iraq. Kurds provide their own security and, with some bloody exceptions, have deflected the strife raging around them. The economy is comparatively prosperous. Exiles who escaped to the West are returning to invest and make a living, as are Christian Iraqis now fleeing the embattled cities to the south. The electricity works most of the time (still a distant dream in Baghdad). Iraqi Kurds can now celebrate the outward symbols of independent statehood, from flags to national anthems. The agreement they have negotiated with the groups that dominate the rest of the country allows them to run their own affairs in return for remaining part of a federated Iraq. As the slogan of Kurdistan Airlines proclaims: “Finally a dream comes true.” Yet despite these hopeful signs, Kurds are still at the mercy of unfriendly neighbors who will not even let the tiny Kurdish airline service land in their countries. And the past rivalries that so plagued Kurdistan have not gone away. Despite outward appearances, the Kurds remain very much divided.

But at least Saddam has gone. “My age is 65 years, and in my life I have witnessed this village destroyed and burned four times,” a Kurdish farmer named Haji Wagid announced to me outside his very modest stone house, in the village of Halawa, tucked away in a mountain valley at the southern end of the Zagros range. “The first time was in 1963, the last time was in 1986.” As his wife sorted sunflower seeds in the shade of a mulberry tree, he explained how after the last onslaught, the whole area had been declared a closed military zone. “Four people were taken away, and to this day we do not know what happened to them,” said a neighbor who had sauntered over from his house to invite me for tea and watermelon, “and they killed so many livestock.” The villagers were herded off to the city of Irbil, a few hours away on the dusty plain, where it would be easier for authorities to keep an eye on them.

Most of the outside world learned of the Kurdish predicament only in March 1991. Following Saddam’s defeat in the Gulf War, the Kurds launched a revolt throughout Kurdistan, briefly securing most of the territory, only to flee in terror when the Iraqi army counterattacked. Suddenly, more than a million men, women and children poured across the Turkish and Iranian frontiers and onto the world’s TV screens. The United States, backed by the United Nations and pressured by public opinion, forced Saddam to withdraw from much of Kurdistan. Refugees returned to live more or less independently under the protection of allied fighter jets, which patrolled a newly established “no-fly” zone over Kurdistan. When U.S. ground forces invaded Iraq in 2003, the Kurds were eager to assist in the destruction of their nemesis, contributing troops and providing territory as a staging ground for the assault. The United States has hardly been consistent in its dealings with Kurds, however. Having cheered resistance to Saddam, the United States now discourages all manifestations of Kurdish independence—to preserve Iraqi unity and to avoid offending America’s allies in Turkey. Kurds complain that the United States takes them for granted.

I visited Kurdistan for the first time shortly after the Iraqi withdrawal of 1991, driving across the bridge over the Habur River that marks the major crossing at the Turkish border. The former Iraqi immigration and customs post was deserted, and the ubiquitous official portraits of Saddam had in every case been destroyed or defaced. Blackened swaths marked where entire villages had been wiped off the face of the earth. There was no electricity, hardly any traffic and precious little food, but the atmosphere was one of amazed and euphoric relief. Everywhere there were cheerful peshmerga, Kurdish fighters with AK-47 rifles and their distinctive baggy pants and turbans. Sometimes whole groups burst into song as they marched through the devastated countryside.


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