The Kurdish Issue

The Impact on the Politics of Iraq and Turkey and Their Bilateral Relations Regarding Kurds Post-Saddam Hussein Regime

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated the population of Kurds in Iraq. The error has been corrected in the text below.


Kurds are the largest stateless minority in the world, with an estimated 30 million Kurds in a geographic area encompassing territories in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. They comprise 18% of the population in Turkey and 15-20% in Iraq, and are the third largest ethnic group in the region after the Arabs and Persians. A largely Sunni Muslim people with their own language and culture, most Kurds live in the generally contiguous areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Syria—a mountainous region of southwest Asia generally known as Kurdistan (Land of the Kurds). Non-Arab minority populations, Kurds are also an Linguistic minority, speakers of Kurdish, a subdivision of the Iranic branch of the Indo-European family of languages, which is akin to Persian. Modern Kurdish divides into two major groups: 1) the Kurmanji group and, 2) the Gurani group. These are supplemented by many sub-dialects. The most popular vernacular is that of Kurmanji (or Kirmancha), spoken by about three-quarters of the Kurds today. Kurmanji divided into North Kurmanji (also called Bahdinani, with around 15 million speakers, primarily in Turkey, Syria, and the former Soviet Union) and South Kurmanji (also called Sorani, with about 6 million speakers, primarily in Iraq and Iran).[1]

The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which created the modern states of Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait, was to have included the possibility of a Kurdish state in the region. However, it was never implemented.[2] After the overthrow of the Turkish monarchy by Kemal Ataturk, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq each agreed not to recognize an independent Kurdish state. The Kurds received especially harsh treatment at the hands of the Turkish government, which tried to deprive them of Kurdish identity by designating them “Mountain Turks,” outlawing their language and forbidding them to wear traditional Kurdish costumes in the cities, a direct attack on their culture. The government also encouraged the migration of Kurds to the cities to dilute the population in the uplands. Turkey continues its policy of not recognizing the Kurds as a minority group. In Iraq, Kurds have faced similar repression. After the Kurds supported Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein retaliated, razing villages and attacking peasants with chemical weapons. The Kurds rebelled again after the Persian Gulf War only to be crushed again by Iraqi troops. About 2 million fled to Iran; 5 million currently live in Iraq. The United States has tried to create a safe haven for the Kurds within Iraq by imposing a “no-fly” zone north of the 36th parallel.

Despite a common goal of independent statehood, the 20 million or so Kurds in the various countries are hardly unified.

The paper tries to look the Kurdish Issue through the three lenses:

1. The issue of Kurdistan

2. The intra state relations between the Kurds and the government in Iraq and Turkey

3. And since these two West Asian states share borders, the impact on their respective bilateral relations with each other under this framework.

The Issue of Kurdistan

KurdistaThe main hindrance to the formation of ‘Kurdistan’, literally meaning Land of the Kurds, lies in the fact that the Kurds have internal divisions which often come in way to unify them. They lack any single unified language (spoken or written). Even on the grounds of religion, they do not comprise of a homogeneous category. The majority of the Kurds are Sunni however; one can also find Kurds who are Alevis, Shi’a or Christians. The Kurdish ‘nation’ also would include smaller sects such as the Yazidis, as well as Christian minorities like the Assyrian and the Syrian Orthodox.

The area comprising Kurdistan includes approximately parts of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and northern Syria inhabited mainly by Kurds. The permanent Iraqi constitution in Article 113 states, ‘This Constitution shall approbate the region of Kurdistan and its existing regional and federal authorities, at the time this constitution comes into force. This Constitution shall approbate the region of Kurdistan and its existing regional and federal authorities, at the time this constitution comes into force.’[3], hence making it an official-political statement in recognizing the autonomous federal entity of the Kurds and granting it an official recognition internationally.

Kurds in Iran are also officially recognized as a minority, and there is a province by the name of ‘Kurdistan’ in Iran. The problem surfaces with the way the Kurds are looked upon in Turkey. The Kurds were historically concentrated in eleven provinces of the southeast. There are also isolated Kurdish villages in other parts of Turkey. Kurds migrated to Istanbul for centuries, and since 1960 they had migrated to almost all other urban centres as well. Turkey’s censuses do not list Kurds as a separate ethnic group. Consequently, there has been no reliable data on their total numbers. Unlike the Sunni Turks, who follow the Hanafi School of Islamic law, the Sunni Kurds follow the Shafii School. However, the Kurds are divided between several states making them a minority in each.

Kurish Demand and the Government Reaction

The Kurds have often demanded their own independence with varying degree of reciprocity as well as animosity. The focus here would be on how the Issue of Kurdistan has been entertained and dealt with by the two neighbouring states of West Asia—Iraq and Turkey. A short historical schema is shown to understand the situation of Kurds today in these regions on general terms.


During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi government implemented anti-Kurdish policies which was widely condemned by the international community, but was never seriously punished for oppressive measures, including the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, which resulted in thousands of deaths. The ‘Al-Anfal Campaign’[4] constituted a systematic genocide of the Kurdish people in Iraq. Large Kurdish town of Qala Dizeh was completely destroyed by the Iraqi army. The campaign also included Arabization of Kirkuk, a program to drive Kurds out of the oil-rich city and replace them with Arab settlers from central and southern Iraq. Needless to say, there were blatant violations of Human Rights along with life itself.

Saddam Hussein’s regime proved even more disastrous for the Kurds in Iraq. After the Gulf crisis, U.N. Security Council Resolution 688 gave birth to a safe haven following international concern for the safety of Kurdish refugees. The U.S. and British government established a No Fly Zone over a chunk of northern Iraq; however, it left some of the Kurdish populated areas unprotected.. Bloody clashes between Iraqi forces and Kurdish troops continued but then finally the Iraqi government fully withdrew 1991, allowing Iraqi Kurdistan to function de facto independently. The region was to be ruled by the two principal Kurdish parties—the Kurdish Democratic Party  (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Then again, tensions between the two principle Kurdish Parties led to intra-Kurdish conflict and warfare.

Prior to the U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in March 2003, Turkey denied the U.S. the bases in Turkey to launch a northern front into Iraq. This Turkish decision unintentionally made the Iraqi Kurds a powerful ally for the U.S.  Aided by the Kurds, U.S. Forces were able to open a northern front in Iraq and secure the oil fields in and around Kirkuk. This ensured the Kurds a prominent role in the future of Iraq. The new government for Iraq post-Saddam Hussein proved very comforting for the Kurds. The Iraq Governing Council (IGC) that was appointed in July 2003 had Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, along with three independent Kurdish leaders. The Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for The Transitional Period (TAL),[5] signed March 8, 2004, laid out a political transition process, as well as citizens’ rights, and much of the debate over the TAL concerned the rights and privileges of the Kurds. Further, both the Arabic and Kurdish languages were deemed “the two official languages of Iraq”—an unprecedented gain for the Kurds historically. Further, the constitution also reflected on this change where Islamic principles are to be considered “a source,” but not the only or the primary source, of law. Thus, the assumption based on the recent positive changes showed a gradual improvement in the life of the Kurds in Iraq.

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Sonia Roy

Sonia Roy is a Research Scholar at the Center for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (India). 

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  • The Kurds do have a common heritage and are united with other ancient people of West Asia along the Noruz traditions. Noruz biinds us all, especially the Kurds. It seems that the author has no knowledge of the underlying foundation of the culture. Close to 200 million people acted out the Noruz ceremoney on 21 Marchon the first day of Spring. This peaceful secular force has united and kept the national identity of the people of West Asia against all foreign invasions, religions and political ideologies’ attempts to destroy them. That is why Kurdistan has remained from the moment of The Medes. Read the Zend Avesta and other ancient books and then comment on the people in the area.

  • lahijohny

    We should have left them to be assurian slave long time ago!? cause that’s exactly whom they are to west today period.

  • Alan

    A huge factual mistake in the first paragraph – it says 90% of Kurds live in Iraq. This is not the case. Majority of Kurds (estimated here at 30 million) live in Turkey, with estimates between 14 to 20 million. Only up to 5 million Kurds live in Iraq, although they are still the biggest Kurdish community proportionally inside the country they live, as they make around 15 to 20 per cent of Iraq.

    • Sonia

      In accordance to the CIA World Factbook, Kurds comprise 20% of the
      population in Turkey,15-20% in Iraq, perhaps 8% in Syria, 7% in Iran
      and 1.3% in Armenia. With the exception of Iran, Kurds form the second
      largest ethnic group in all the rest.

  • Hiwa

    Thank you very much Sonia for your attention in Kurdish issues. Although I have some disagreements with you, I must confess I really enjoyed reading your informative article. My biggest disagreement with you is in that you believe/think there is no common thing that makes Kurdish people, living in different countries, united. I must tell you that the strongest reason that makes us (the Kurdish people) united is the word KURD itself. When you introduce yourself as a Kurd to another Kurd whom you have never seen before in any corner of the world, you suddenly make intimate friends (the reason for that is mainly because of our common suffering in the hands of occupiers and a Kurdish say that reads: “Kurds have no friends but the mountains”). A fact that in my opinion is the most significant measure in identifying a nation.
    By the way, I think you meant ‘’ASSIMILATION’’ and not “DISSIMILATION” in the first paragraph under TURKEY’s subtitle.

  • There are so many factual and spelling errors throughout the article, which make it difficult to take its main argument seriously.

    – Firstly, as mentioned by another commenter, it is a gross error to state that “90% of the Kurds live in Iraq.”
    – In another sentence, the author claims “Kurds are the largest ethnic group in West Asia after the Arabs.” Even if we suppose the author considered Turkey to be “in Europe”, hence did not take into account the Turks, how about the Iranians? Isn’t Iran in West Asia?
    – Turkey’s application for EU membership was not on 12 September 1987, but 14 April 1987.
    – The author argues Turkey’s treatment of its Kurds constitute a “barrier” towards entry to the EU because it violates the Copenhagen criteria. However, complying with the Copenhagen criteria was a preliminary condition for a country to be officially accepted as a candidate for EU membership. Turkey was given the status of EU member candidate in 2004 only after the European commission’s report found that it indeed satisfied the Copenhagen criteria.
    – When describing how the “no-fly zone” north of the 36th parallel came into force, the author fails to mention that hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees took refuge in the Turkish-Iraqi border, and the “no-fly zone” was established after the recommendation of Turkey’s president Turgut Ozal. Turkey also allowed the “Poised Hammer” combined task force to use the Incirlik airbase in Turkey. Throughout the 1990s, there were serious concerns in Turkey that this task force was secretly aiding the PKK terrorists, yet in the face of any other alternative to protect the Iraqi Kurds from Saddam’s wrath, Turkey continued to permit the task force’s operations. Without Turkey’s support, the task force could not operate, and hence the “no-fly zone” could not be enforced. Furthermore, the “no-fly zone” was not a unilateral declaration of the US, as the author implies, but the outcome of a UN Security Council resolution.

    • Azcapotzalco

      @ Sevket Zaimoglo:

      You are also making factual errors. You wrote:

      1) “In another sentence, the author claims “Kurds are the largest ethnic group in West Asia after the Arabs.” Even if we suppose the author considered Turkey to be “in Europe”, hence did not take into account the Turks, how about the Iranians? Isn’t Iran in West Asia?

      My answer: Iranians are not an ethnic entity, it’s a linguistic and nationality marker. So everybody living in Iran is by definition Iranian, as much as every swedish citizen is swedish, but that does not make a kurd with a swedish passport an ethnic swede. Apart from that Kurds constitute 10 % of the iranian population, there are several other iranian groups that also constitute a significant number of the population – i.e., Lor, Gilaki, Baluchi, etc. And none of them are persians (but they are iranians); in fact, the persians form only 30-50 % of the overall population in Iran. This support the authors claim that Kurds constitute the second largest ethnic group in west asia.

      2) You wrote: “When describing how the “no-fly zone” north of the 36th parallel came into force, the author fails to mention that hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees took refuge in the Turkish-Iraqi border”

      My answer: The problem is that Turkey never recognised these Kurdish refugees coming from Iraq as refugees. Because, if that would be the case, Turkey would have been forced to teach the Kurdish refugees in the camps in their mother language (because, according to an UN charter, refugees are allowed to get education in their mother language). However, if we take Turkeys stance towards the Kurds during this period, it feels that that would be impossible. Therefore, Turkey decided to not recognise them as refugees. So don’t take any credits on behalf of your country for the “well-treatment”, of Kurdish refugees.

    • Sevket, the Iraqi no-fly zone was indeed a unilateral US action. It was not authorized by the UNSC, as you incorrectly stated.

  • A very informative article. I am sure there will be agreements-disagreements and more stipulated discussions about an issue as contemporary and controversial as the Kurdish Problem in Iraq and Turkey, but I would really like to thank the author for bringing our notice to a problem as massive and widespread as this. Thank you so much for your article. I have found it to be extremely educative.

  • Shaho

    I am surprised by the many mistakes regarding the situation of Kurds in Iran. The only recognized minorities in the Iranian constitution are religious ones, i.e. Christians, Jews and Sunni Muslims. Kurds are not mentioned in any legal document and they certainly don’t have minority status. They do not have the right to learn their mother tongue in schools(public or private) as the only official language in Iran is Persian and Sunni Kurds can not even run for presidency since candidates are required to practice Twelver Shia. Over the past century, there have been large scale military conflicts between government forces and Kurds: 1880s (Sheikh Ubaydulla revolt in northwest),1920s (Simko in northwest/Urmia), 1947 (Mahabad Republic), 1978-1984(KDPI and Komala in West and northwest). In 1999, large scale demonstrations in support of Ocalan in Kurdish areas of Iran were forcefully suppressed. In 2005, after the ratification of the new Iraqi constitution many Kurds took to the streets in a dozen Kurdish cities and towns across western Iran to demand Kurdish rights similar to the ones enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds and again they were brutally suppressed. Over the last few years, tens of Kurdish activists have been executed by the Iranian authorities.
    I suggest you take a close look at the HRW reports and the books published on the situation of Kurds in Iran, rather than buying into the cheap propaganda of the Iranian government and some exiled groups.

    • Usul

      What is your point Shaho? Did you feel that some good ‘ole anti-Iran propaganda was missing in this thread? Why don’t you write a piece of your own so that we can learn from you? Or from HRW? Or the BBC? Or the CIA? Dig it?

  • shamal mirza

    I personally appreciate you efforts for paying attention to a sensitive subject such as the Kurdish issue. There are some quantitative as well as qualitative errors throughout the article. For example you estimated the numbers of Kurdish Population approximately to 30 Million. By bearing in mind that the you obtained this number from others without clear references the validity of the articles will be questioned and if presumably think that the you acquired this demographic statistic from CIA Fact book it could be argued that the 20% populations of 80 million people in Turkey would exceed from 20 million, and if we take 10% of Kurdish population to this number the populations of Kurd will be more than 30 million plus the 5 Million population of Kurd in IRAQ and some 4 million in Syria.

  • rojan

    There are some nations in iran such as persians,turks,kurds,baluch,arab,turkman,gilak and also lurs that some people consider them as kurdish nation.SO,in the middle east i dont think persian people living in iran to be second largest group of people.Well,after arabs and turks,kurds are third largest group of people living in middle east.I think(i havnt any evidence,of course)kurdish nation were now formed by composing native ancience nations of the region(i mean zagros mountains and northern mezopotamya).well, what is important is that all of them name themselves as kurd kurd kurd kurd yes KURD.kurds that know where live,a definite region KURDISTAN.