The Kurdish nation has existed for some four thousand years in a broad crescent encompassing the northern Middle East and western Iran. Much of its land is hilly even mountainous with fertile soil and the water of the Tigris river and its tributaries. Because of that, Kurdistan was mostly agrarian until the mid-20th century, when mechanization and education prompted many Kurds to move to cities such as Irbil, Dohuk, Mosul, and Kirkuk. Regardless of where they live, however, Kurds have always considered themselves a unified people that deserve an independent state.
The Ottoman Empire dominated the Kurds for centuries until the end of World War One. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres called for an independent Kurdistan, but that was negated three years later in the Treaty of Lausanne, which parceled out the Kurds' homeland - then about the size of France - to Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The Kurds have never forgotten this change of fortune.
In Iraq, Kurds inhabit the north while the center is Sunni Arab and southern Iraq is Shi'a Arab. Iraqi Kurds have felt little in common with these other groups.
After nearly a half century as a people without official recognition, Iraqi Kurd finally received it in 1970 in a pact described by Nijyar Shemdin, Washington representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He recounts "The 1970 agreement defined that the Kurds' area in northern Iraq was to be called Kurdistan, and all Kurds and Arabs were partners in ruling Iraq and that the official languages of Iraq were to be Kurdish and Arabic."
The Iraqi government then reneged on the 1970 agreement in 1974, triggering clashes between Kurds and Baghdad's forces. In 1988 Iraqi President Saddam Hussein unleashed attacks against the Kurds called the "Anfal operations." Nijyar Shemdin recounts the brutality displayed against his people. He says "Out of 4,500 villages, 4,000 were completely destroyed and the Kurds were subjected to live in makeshift villages that were like concentration camps." Saddam's "Anfal" campaign against the Kurds included the 1988 chemical weapons attack on the city of Halabja, where at least five thousand people were killed.
After the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. - led coalition set up a "no-fly" safe zone in northern Iraq above the 36th parallel outside of Saddam's direct control. Nejmadeen Karim, president of the Washington Kurdish Institute, says that enabled five million Iraqi Kurds to set up their own regional democratic government. "The Kurdistan region in the past 13 years after the Gulf War established a civil society." He adds "There is a functioning government, there is a parliament, there is an independent judiciary, there is due process. Our mayors have all been elected by the people."
With Kurdistan's newfound autonomy, people could express themselves and their culture openly. A free press and Kurdish-language media emerged, with numerous radio and television stations as well as newspapers.
Following the 2003 Iraq war, Kurdish stirrings for full independence increased. But former Kurdish member of the Iraqi Governing Council Mahmoud Othman says once again, circumstances prevent a Kurdish state. "Independence" he says "is not easy because our geopolitics is not helping us. Internationally there is no support for our independence, so it's not viable for the time being."
For decades, Turkey, Syria, and Iran have opposed an independent Kurdistan out of concern that their own Kurdish populations would then try to break away and join it. The United States has also insisted that Iraq remain intact to thwart neighboring countries which might exploit its fragmentation.
So the Kurds insist instead on autonomy within a federal Iraqi government, which Professor Khaled Salih at the University of Odensee in Denmark says is the only logical path. Professor Salih asserts "It is essential for the Kurds to have a federation that recognizes the nationality of the Kurds because that has been the basic root of conflicts between Iraq and the Kurds. And that cannot be negotiated away."
But, Washington Kurdish Institute President Nejmadeen Karim says other Iraqis may refuse to grant autonomy to Kurdistan for their own reasons. "The Sunni Arabs not only want to dominate Kurdistan, they also want to dominate the Shi'a. The Shi'a think they have the majority and they should rule without any respect to the right of the minorities."
So Kurdistan's fate depends on what happens to an unstable Iraq which some analysts fear may not survive the internal forces pulling it in different directions. But the Kurds' yearning for self-determination will go on regardless.