Policing Saddam: Fighters find a bitter irony in history

Christopher Bellamy traces the roots of a proud people
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The Independent Online
The Kurds trace their history, with some irony, to the defeat of the Assyrians by the Medes at Nineveh, north of Mosul, in the first millennium BC. The Assyrians, a highly disciplined and warlike people, lived in what is now Iraq. But from then on, the Kurds consistently appear as a separate people committed to national self-determination, despite the continuous efforts of the states which still control Kurdistan to deny them their own identity.

The Kurds are scattered across the territory of what is now Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It isdifficult to estimate how many people would form a Kurdish state, or what its borders would look like. The Minority Rights Group says there were about 9.6 million Kurds in Turkey in 1987, 5 million in Iran, 4 million in Iraq, 900,000 in Syria and maybe 300,000 in the former Soviet Union.

A Kurdish state would also be hard to define geographically: it would cover north-east Iraq, including Mosul, Arbil and Kirkuk and south-east Turkey, including Diyarbakir, Lake Van and Mount Ararat. It would be about as big as France, centred on the Taurus and Zagros mountains. But many in the area would not be Kurdish, one of the problems of changing international borders.

The Kurds' language is related to Persian and has much in common with other Indo-European languages. But the dialects are often not understood by other Kurds and this has been used to assert that they are not in fact one people.

The Ottoman Turks used the Kurds to patrol their eastern frontier. A 17th-century traveller described the Kurds as the barrier between the Ottoman Turks and the Persians - a role which was to have a sad and bloody legacy.

In 1880, Sheikh Ubaidullah of Shamdinan launched a Kurdish revolt against the Ottoman empire. He wrote to the British consul: "We want to take matters into our own hands. We can no longer put up with the oppression which the governments [of Persia and the Ottoman Empire] impose on us". He was defeated by a combination of superior technology and the Kurds' own internal divisions and disorganisation - a problem which has bedevilled Kurdish efforts to gain independence.

Kurdish resistance to the Ottoman Empire was replaced by resistance to the Arabs of the flatlands of Iraq after the latter state was created by Britain in 1918. Following the death of a number of British officers ambushed by the Kurds, the Royal Air Force bombed them.

Revolts continued, and the most recent can be traced back to 1961. Saddam Hussein's hostility to the Kurds probably dates back to the early years of the Ba'ath party, after 1969, when they presented the major threat to his regime. From the mid-1970s, a policy of bulldozing Kurdish villages began. When the allies moved into Kurdistan in 1991, they found just about every village on their maps of northern Iraq bore the word "destroyed" next to it.

The most recent events in Kurdistan, in which one Kurdish faction has summoned Saddam Hussein to help against another faction supported by the Iranians, would be familiar to any student of Kurdish history. As a League of Nations memorandum of 1930 said: "The Kurds of Iraq are entirely lacking in those characteristics of political cohesion which are essential to self-government." Nothing much, it seems, has changed.

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