Frontline World

IRAQ: The Road to Kirkuk, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Road to Kirkuk"

History without a homeland

The costs of war

Government, population, Iraqi Kurds

Kurds, nationalism, Iraq after Saddam




Kurds at the Crossroads - By Dave Gilson
Dreams of Independence False Starts and False Friends Atrocity, Genocide and Land Homecoming and Revenge

by Dave Gilson

The Kurds reside at the heart of one of the busiest and most dangerous intersections in the Middle East. Approximately 25 million Kurds live in an area they call Kurdistan, which spreads across parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But despite their numbers and geographical range, Kurds have spent most of their modern history as a stateless people -- as an internationally recognized entity, Kurdistan does not exist.

Historically, the Kurds' main allegiance has been not to faraway capitals but to their own tribes, clans and local leaders. This inward focus has helped preserve the Kurds' distinctive language, culture and lifestyle. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, though Kurdish society is largely secular. Most Kurds make their living farming mountainous terrain which has often served as a refuge from enemies. As one Kurdish saying goes, "The Kurds have no friends -- no friends but the mountains."

The Kurds' sense of national identity is founded on their cultural uniqueness and past achievements. For centuries, Kurdish empires rivaled those of their neighbors. Under the 12th-century rule of Saladin, the Kurds recaptured Jerusalem from the Christian crusaders and created an empire that stretched across the Middle East from the Holy Land to Persia. But by the 18th century, the Kurdish empire had crumbled, leaving the Kurds as minorities in the empires that followed.

The Kurdish sense of national identity is founded on a real sense of historical achievements. But it is also based on a modern history of thwarted ambitions and repeated betrayals. For much of the 20th century, Kurds lobbied and fought for an independent state without success. Today, the Kurds see themselves as a people without a homeland, divided by borders they never agreed to, persecuted by governments that have tried to deny their existence. The Kurds are also divided by internal problems, including political infighting and cultural and religious differences.

Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, some Kurds see northern Iraq as the site for another attempt at achieving an independent Kurdistan. The dream of an independent Kurdistan is deeply controversial. For it to stand a chance of success, first a long pattern of betrayal and revenge must end.

NEXT: 1900-1945: Dreams of Independence

back to top

Dave Gilson is a journalist based in Berkeley, Calif.

Producer: Angela Morgenstern; Designed by: Susan Harris, Fluent Studios; see full web credits.