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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
Dreams of Independence False Starts and False Friends Atrocity, Genocide and Land Homecoming and Revenge

1900-1945: Dreams of Independence

General Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk)

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 of Congress)
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 hands."

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.

British occupying Iraq

In 1918, Britain assumed control of Iraq and its oil-rich regions where most of its Kurdish population lived. (photo: Lynette Soane, courtesy
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.

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 to self-government."

Uprisings and Rebellion

The rugged terrain of much of Kurdistan has provided periodic shelter for Kurdish fighters and civilians. (photo: Department of Defense)
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.

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

PREVIOUS: Introduction

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