Kurdish nationalism -- the idea that Kurds deserve their own
independent homeland -- started to flourish during the late
19th century. "The Kurdish nation is a nation apart," one Kurdish
sheikh wrote in 1880. "We want to take matters into our own
Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) was
the first president of the Republic of Turkey,
from 1923 to 1938. He is remembered for creating a
modernized, secular Turkish state. (photo: Library
But realizing the dream of autonomy was easier said than done.
At the start of the 20th century, most of Kurdistan was controlled
by the Ottoman and Persian empires, which kept tight control
over the Kurds and other ethnic minorities.
During World War I, Kurds fought alongside the Turks, even
participating in some of the atrocities of the Armenian genocide.
But the war was devastating for Kurdish civilians as well. Nearly
700,000 Kurds were forcibly removed from their homes by Turkish
forces; as many as 400,000 are believed to have died.
Britain and the United States Redraw the Map
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, its territories
were divided between the victors, Britain and France. Britain
occupied modern-day Iraq, including the oil-rich Kurdish region
of Mosul, and France took Syria. American President Woodrow Wilson
argued that the Kurds deserved a sovereign state. But
when the dust settled and the borders of the Middle East had
been redrawn, the Kurds had been left out.
Much of Kurdistan remained in Turkey, which was now ruled by
a nationalist movement. The new Turkish leader, General Mustafa
Kemal (later known as Atatürk) announced, "The state which
we have just created is a Turkish state." The Turkish government
insisted that the Kurds were "mountain Turks" and banned Kurdish
schools, publications and religious bodies.
In 1918, Britain assumed control
of Iraq and its oil-rich regions where most of its
Kurdish population lived. (photo: Lynette Soane, courtesy
Officially, Britain was sympathetic toward the Iraqi Kurds,
but never made good on its assurances. A British memorandum
written in 1930 dismissed the idea of a Kurdish homeland as
"fantastic," adding, "Although they admittedly possess many
sterling qualities, the Kurds of Iraq are entirely lacking in
those characteristics of political cohesion which are essential
Uprisings and Rebellion
Across Kurdistan, frustrations over displacement and disenfranchisement
led to violence. A series of rebellions erupted in Turkey during
the 1920s and 1930s. The Turkish government reacted harshly,
again expelling Kurdish civilians from their homes. In Iraq,
the British twice quashed uprisings led by Sheikh Mahmoud, the
self-declared "king of Kurdistan," in 1920 and 1923. Britain's
use of its air force to bomb Kurdish villages was one of the
earliest uses of the new technology had been used against civilians. A 1933
revolt, led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, was also unsuccessful.
The rugged terrain of much of
Kurdistan has provided periodic shelter for Kurdish
fighters and civilians. (photo: Department of Defense)
Although these disconnected outbursts ultimately ended in
failure, they were a reminder of the Kurds' determination to
carve out a homeland regardless of the odds. The governments
in the region saw this determination as a serious threat to
the stability of the area. So in 1937, Iran, Iraq and Turkey
signed the Treaty of Saadabad, which provided for joint military
action against Kurdish uprisings.
NEXT: 1946-1975: False Starts
and False Friends
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