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IRAQ: The Road to Kirkuk, May 2003

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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

1978-1992: Atrocity, Genocide and Land

PKK soldiers

Developed as a revolutionary socialist organization in 1974, the PKK began to use violence against Turkish security forces 10 years later. (photo: Department of Defense)
In 1984, a Kurdish group known as the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or the PKK, launched a guerrilla war in southeastern Turkey. The nationalist PKK, led by Abdullah Oçalan, claimed to be fighting not just for independence but to reclaim the quickly fading Kurdish culture. Under Turkish law, Kurds were forbidden to speak or write in their language, Kurdish folk songs were required to be sung in Turkish, and children with Kurdish names were renamed. "The Turks make us live lower than animals," Oçalan told an American reporter. "To say I was a Kurd was to prepare myself for the worst difficulties in the world."

The PKK became notorious for its ruthlessness, which included targeting Kurdish landlords and tribal leaders who didn't support the party. The Turkish government responded in kind, using search-and-destroy tactics to flush out the "terrorists" and their supporters. When this didn't stem the insurgency, Turkey attempted to remove the PKK's base of support by removing civilians from their homes. By the early 1990s, an estimated 2,000 Kurdish villages had been destroyed, leaving 750,000 refugees.

The conflict's most infamous atrocity occurred in March 1992 in the town of Cizre, where Turkish soldiers killed 100 civilians during a Kurdish New Year celebration. After 15 years of fighting, as many as 30,000 people had been killed, mostly Kurds.

Chemical Ali and Anfal

Young Kurdish boy, victim of chemical attack

Images of victims such as this young Kurdish boy shocked the world in the late 1980s when Saddam Hussein unleashed 18 months of chemical weapon attacks on villages in Northern Iraq. (photo: Department of Defense)
The most enduring images of atrocities against the Kurds took place in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein planned a genocidal campaign against them. Ali Hassan al-Majid, Saddam's first cousin, headed the campaign. He became known as "Chemical Ali" after the Kurdish town of Halabja was attacked with nerve gas and other chemical weapons in March 1988, killing 5,000 civilians. But Halabja was just one of 60 civilian targets that were attacked with poison gas during the 18-month campaign known as anfal, or "spoils." Any survivors of this deadly campaign were evicted under a policy of "Arabization," which resettled Iraqi Arabs in northern Iraq, often in homes once owned by Kurds.

Images of Halabja shocked the world, but few governments moved to condemn or stop Saddam's war against the Kurds. The United States government, which had backed Iraq in its recent war against Iran, did not take any steps to punish Saddam. A bill that would have put more than $1 billion in economic sanctions on Iraq died in Congress. Masoud Barzani, the son and political successor of Mustafa Barzani, lamented, "If this goes on, there will be no Kurds left in Kurdistan. Saddam's plan is to destroy us as a people. It's him or us. There's no other choice."

Civilians killed at Halabja

An estimated 5,000 civilians died in the chemical attack on Halabja in 1988. (photo: Department of Defense)
A Safe Haven

Only after Iraq was defeated in the 1991 Gulf War did the Iraqi Kurds receive a reprieve. Peshmerga took over parts of northern Iraq, then were repelled by the Iraqi army. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to the mountains, where Kurdish civilians have traditionally hidden during times of trouble. The United States and Britain provided humanitarian aid to the refugees and established a "no-fly zone" that prevented further Iraqi military incursions. Under this shelter, in 1992, Iraqi Kurds held elections, making the area they controlled into an unofficial Kurdistan. The vote was split almost evenly between the KDP and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Jalal Talabani.

Yet for most Kurds, true independence remained distant. Years of repression across Kurdistan had created a huge population of Kurdish refugees. Many left the region altogether. By the early 1990s, 700,000 Kurds lived in Western Europe, with 400,000 in Germany.

NEXT: 1993-2003: Homecoming and Revenge

PREVIOUS: 1946-1975: False Starts and False Friends

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