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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

1946-1975: False Starts and False Friends

Kurdish fighters

Kurdish fighters attempted to establish an independent homeland in Iran in 1946, but their success was only temporary. (photo: Mahmud Efendi, courtesy
The first -- and brief -- experiment in Kurdish self-rule took place in Iran, where Kurdish nationalism had been relatively quiet during the first half of the 20th century. In 1946, Kurds in northern Iran took advantage of the postwar power vacuum to declare independence from Teheran. The Mahabad Republic, founded by Qazi Muhammad, survived only with support from the Soviet Union and military assistance from Iraqi Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani out of Iraq. But less than a year after the republic was founded, Iranian troops overran it. Barzani fled to the Soviet Union; Muhammad and other leaders were captured and publicly hanged.

Barzani, who was now head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), had become the most prominent Kurdish nationalist. In 1958, he returned to Iraq, where he led a campaign against a succession of governments in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein, whose Ba'ath Party seized power in 1968, set up an autonomous area for the Kurds. But the region excluded the city of Kirkuk, "the Kurdish Jerusalem," and Barzani's peshmerga guerrillas took up arms once again. The response of Saddam's government was brutal: Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled their homes as Iraqi forces razed villages and murdered civilians.

The CIA, the Shah and Saddam

The Iraqi Kurds held out with assistance from Iran, Israel and the United States, which had sent CIA agents to arm and train the peshmerga.

Archibald Roosevelt in Mahabad

In 1946 Archibald Roosevelt, a United States intelligence officer, was one of the few Westerners to reach Mahabad, capital of the newly formed Kurdish republic. (photo: Library of Congress)
But these alliances proved to be fragile. In 1975, Saddam agreed to settle a border dispute with Iran if the Shah of Iran would cut off his support for the Kurdish fighters. The Nixon administration, which had seen the Kurds as a buffer to both the Iraqis and the Soviets, also withdrew its aid. Saddam's army regained control of northern Iraq, continuing its campaign of ethnic cleansing and massive human rights abuses.

Kurdish rebel chief Mustafa Barzani

Kurdish rebel chief Mustafa Barzani fought against the British, Iranians and Iraqis for four decades. He is shown here in 1963, with his personal bodyguards in a village in Northern Iraq that he used as his temporary headquarters. (AP/Wide World Photos)
A congressional report later concluded that the United States and the Shah had not wanted the Kurds to succeed. The Kurds were never aware that they were being used as pawns in a geopolitical game. "Even in the context of covert operations, ours was a cynical enterprise," the report concluded. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was unremorseful about what many Kurds saw as betrayal: "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."

Deeply disheartened, Barzani went into exile in the United States. Before his death in 1979, he wondered plaintively, "Have the Kurdish people committed such crimes that every nation in the world should be against them?"

NEXT: 1978-1992: Atrocity, Genocide and Land

PREVIOUS: 1900-1945: Dreams of Independence

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