Kurds represent by far the largest non-Arab ethnic minority,
accounting in 1987 for about 19 percent of the population, or
around 3.1 million. They are the overwhelming majority in As Sulaymaniyah,
Irbil, and Dahuk governorates. Although the government hotly denies
it, the Kurds are almost certainly also a majority in the region
around Kirkuk, Iraq's richest oilproducing area. Kurds are settled
as far south as Khanaqin. Ranging across northern Iraq, the Kurds
are part of the larger Kurdish population (probably numbering
close to 16 million) that inhabits the wide arc from eastern Turkey
and the northwestern part of Syria through Soviet Azarbaijan and
Iraq to the northwest of the Zagros Mountains in Iran. Although
the largest numbers live in Turkey (variously estimated at between
3 and 10 million), it is in Iraq that they are most active politically.
The Kurds inhabit the highlands and mountain valleys and have
traditionally been organized on a tribal basis. In the past it
was correct to distinguish the various communities of Kurds according
to their tribal affiliation, and to a large extent this was still
true in the 1980s; tribes like the Herkki, the Sorchi, and Zibari
have maintained a powerful cohesion. But increasingly groups of
Kurds organized along political lines have grown up alongside
the tribal units. Hence, the most northern and extreme northeastern
areas of Iraq are heavily infiltrated by elements of the so-called
Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) (see The Emergence of Saddam Hasayn
, ch. 1). The area around Kirkuk and south to Khanaqin is the
preserve of the Faili Kurds, who, unlike the majority of Kurds,
are Shias. Many of the Faili Kurds belong to the Patriotic Union
of Kurdistan (PUK). The far northwestern region of Iraq around
Sinjar is spotted with enclaves claimed by the Iraqi Communist
Party, the bulk of whose cadres are composed of Kurds.
Once mainly nomadic or seminomadic, Kurdish society was characterized
by a combination of urban centers, villages, and pastoral tribes
since at least the Ottoman period. Historical sources indicate
that from the eighteenth century onward Kurds in Iraq were mainly
peasants engaged in agriculture and arboriculture. By the nineteenth
century, about 20 percent of Iraqi Kurds lived in historic Kurdish
cities such as Kirkuk, As Sulaymaniyah, and Irbil. The migration
to the cities, particularly of the young intelligentsia, helped
develop Kurdish nationalism.
Since the early 1960s, the urban Kurdish areas have grown rapidly.
Kurdish migration--in addition to being part of the general trend
of urban migration--was prompted by the escalating armed conflict
with the central authorities in Baghdad, the destruction of villages
and land by widespread bombing, and such natural disasters as
a severe drought in the 1958-61 period. In addition to destroying
traditional resources, the severe fighting has hindered the development
of education, health, and other services.
The historic enmity between the Kurds and the central Arab government
has contributed to the tenacious survival of Kurdish culture.
The Kurds' most distinguishing characteristic and the one that
binds them to one another is their language. There are several
Kurdish dialects, of which Kirmanji tends to be the standard written
form. Kurdish is not a mere dialect of Farsi or Persian, as many
Iranian nationalists maintain. And it is certainly not a variant
of the Semitic or Turkic tongues. It is a separate language, part
of the Indo-European family.
The Kurds have been locked in an unremittingly violent struggle
with the central government in Baghdad almost since the founding
of the Iraqi republic in 1958 (see The Kurdish Problem , ch. 5).
It appeared in the early 1970s that the dissident Kurds-- under
the generalship of the legendary leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani--might
actually carve out an independent Kurdish area in northern Iraq.
In 1975, however, the shah of Iran--the Kurds' principal patron--withdrew
his support of the Kurds as part of the Algiers Accord between
Tehran and Baghdad, leading to a sharp decline in the Kurdish
movement. The signing of the Algiers Accord caused a breakaway
faction to emerge from the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), led
by Masud Barzani, the son of Mulla Mustafa Barzani. The faction
that left the KDP in opposition to the accord formed the Patriotic
Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani. The PUK continued
to engage in low-level guerrilla activity against the central
government in the period from 1975 to 1980. The war between Iraq
and Iran that broke out in 1980 afforded the PUK and other Iraqi
Kurdish groups the opportunity to intensify their opposition to
The future of the Kurds in Iraq is uncertain because of the war.
In 1983 the KDP spearheaded an Iranian thrust into northern Iraq
and later its cadres fanned out across the border area adjacent
to Turkey where they established a string of bases. Meanwhile,
Talabani's PUK has maintained a fighting presence in the Kirkuk
region, despite ruthless attempts by the central government to
dislodge them. Thus, as of early 1988, most of the northern areas
of Iraq--outside the major cities--were under the control of the
guerrillas. On the one hand, if the present government in Iraq
survives the war--which in early 1988 seemed likely--it is almost
certain to punish those Kurds who collaborated with the Iranians.
On the other hand, a number of large and powerful Kurdish tribes
as well as many prominent Kurds from nontribal families, have
continued to support the central government throughout the war,
fighting against their fellow Kurds. These loyal Kurds will expect
to be rewarded for their allegiance once the war ends.
Data as of May 1988