Monday, July 04, 2005


Kurds in Iraq

[This post is dedicated to ‘Bruno’, a gentleman from South Africa, in response to a question from whom I wrote much of the material. I hope that my country learns a lesson from his. I will post the political aspects of the Iraqi Kurdish question in my other blog “Iraqi Letters”]

Background - Who are the Kurds?

Kurds are often reported to be the largest ethnic group in the world without a national home. They live mainly in the mountains uplands where Turkey, Iraq, and Iran meet. They have their own language, related to Persian but divided into two main dialect areas.

Arabs are of course Semites. I always thought of Kurds as Indo-European. However, more knowledgeable experts tell us that “…Kurds are now predominantly of Mediterranean racial stock, resembling southern Europeans and the Levantins in skin, general coloring and physiology. There is yet a persistent recurrence of two racial substrata: a darker aboriginal Palaeo-Caucasian element, and more localized occurrence of blondism of the Alpine type in the heartland of Kurdistan. The "Aryanization" of the aboriginal Palaeo-Caucasian Kurds… seems to have begun by the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC… The process was more or less complete by the beginning of the Christian era…”

The name “Kurd” was a generic term used to denote nomads, and non-Arabs in particular. In Kurdish, the name “Kurd” means “warrior” or “ferocious fighter.” By the time of the Islamic conquest of the northern Middle East in the 7th century AD, the name “Kurd” was already in use as a term to designate the population of Western Iranians in the Zagros Mountains.

No firm statistics exist for the Kurdish population. Estimates range between 16 and 25 million, divided as follows: 8 - 13 m in Turkey, 4-5m in Iraq, 4-5 m in Iran, 1m in Syria and another million scattered between Lebanon, Armenia and other neighboring states.

The most famous Kurd in history is Saladin, who in all accounts emerges as the greatest military mind on either side of the Crusades… 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… In 1187, he led the re-conquest 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.

Kurds in Iraq

Kurds are the second largest ethnic group in Iraq. They make up 15-25 percent of the Iraqi population of 24 million, or about 4-5 million people. The number of Kurds in Iraq is a disputed issue, and the Kurds accuse the Iraqi government of undercounting the Kurds to reduce their status as a significant minority.

About a quarter of Iraqi Kurds live in Baghdad. The rest live in the mountainous areas of north-eastern Iraq. That area has been their home since ancient times.

Arab - Kurd Interface in Iraq

There are three main ‘interface’ zones between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq: Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul.

There is an estimated number of 800,000 to 1 million Kurds living in Baghdad like anybody else. Their economic distribution broadly resembles that of other groups (within Baghdad). They are not associated with any particular neighborhoods or with any jobs or professions (apart from Faili Kurds monopolizing the “porter” trade in wholesale markets until recently!).

In Kirkuk, any such friction is relatively new and was only visible in the 1970’s with Saddam’s drive against the Kurds. He used two (puppet) militias, Arab (Khaled’s Knights) and Kurd (Saladin’s Knights). However, both Arab and Kurdish tribes generally maintained excellent neighborly relations.

After the invasion, local Arab tribal chiefs quickly advised their tribesmen holding Kurdish land, given by Saddam, to give the land back to its rightful owners (whom everybody living in the area knew). However, they made it clear to the Kurdish parties that they will not budge from their own land. Some of them made contact with the Turkmen to coordinate their positions. Some went to Turkey to form an alliance! [The city of Kirkuk itself is a more intricate problem… and will be messier to resolve!]

When the son of an important sheikh of a large tribe was killed by a Peshmerga (the Kurdish militia) check point about a year ago, both Barazani and Talabani went to visit the father and wisely managed to contain the incident. People living there have numerous channels. Some people in those areas have extensive links with the other side, developed and maintained over many decades. Both sides helped each other behind the scenes in Saddam’s years.

In Mosul you can find a higher degree of mutual mistrust and animosity. Similar feelings of mistrust are felt by (Assyrian and Arab) Christians in the Mosul and Duhok areas.

People’s Attitudes

Kurds usually politely address male adults as “kaka”, which literally means “older brother” and females as “khanum” – madam or lady. When the country had a Kurdish president after the last elections, everybody in Baghdad seemed for while to be calling each other kaka jokingly. Jokes are rife particularly regarding Talabani attending Arab summits with all that hot air about the Arab Nation and Arab Brotherhood!

Kurds generally dislike the present Iraqi flag because it was the flag the army marched behind when subduing their revolt. The flag has been an issue of some controversy during the past two years. The Kurdish capital is a city called Arbil. Arbil is notorious for a recipe of yogurt that has a special flavour, called ‘liban Arbil’. So, some rascals have suggested a compromise whereby the two words ‘Allah Akbar’ (God is Greatest) between the three stars of the flag are replaced by the words ‘liban Arbil’.

I don’t think many Iraqis had a problem with a Kurd becoming president (except perhaps some fundamentalists). It is a good thing for the country as a whole in principle; Kurds may begin to feel that they are part of Iraq again.

This is nothing new in Iraqi politics actually. During the 1921-1958 monarchy, there were several Kurdish prime ministers. I can remember at least two. Nuri Sa’id, the amazing politician who dominated Iraqi politics for decades, is believed by most people to be a Kurd, though the old man never displayed any ethnic or sectarian inclinations. I never came across any criticism of that in principle even among the most hardliner Arab Nationalists. The first army officer to meddle in politics through a mini-coup in 1936 was a Kurd. When the coup that deposed the monarchy in 1958 took place, the minister of interior was a Kurd. Their presence in the civil service was quite significant.

During the Ottoman occupation, Kurds and Arabs were mostly united against the invading Turks most of the time. There were numerous alliances dictated by geography.

There is no inherent animosity between Arabs and Kurds as nations. There are jokes of course, much like things between the English and the Irish. But no animosity! I would go as far as saying that there is even some ethnic ‘affinity’, as far as ordinary people are concerned.

This is in sharp contrast to the ‘traditional’ animosity between Kurds and Turks. That has its historical and political reasons of course. A Kurdish friend of mine who lived in Turkey for the past 2 decades, tells me that when asked what language his kids were using, he would say Arabic! It was less offensive to his Turkish neighbors and associates!! The use of Kurdish language was actually officially banned in Turkey for a number of decades! This ‘animosity’ and mutual mistrust is also evident but to a lesser extent between the Kurds and the Iraqi Turkmen.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Listed on Blogwise