An Overview of Kurdistan

Stephen DeAngelis

May 9, 2007

I’m currently visiting Iraq — more specifically, the Kurdish portion of Iraq often referred to as Kurdistan. Kurdistan literally means land of the Kurds and traditionally covers a large area contained within modern Turkey, Iran, and Iraq (see map — click to enlarge). Of all the Kurds in the region, only Kurds in the autonomous region of northern Iraq have achieved a measure of political independence. This independence was achieved in the aftermath of the first Gulf War.

The international community was empathetic to Iraqi Kurd autonomy because of the treatment they had received under Arab Baathist rule. To better understand how this empathy and autonomy came about, I have drawn the following information from numerous sources.

The Baathist party came to power following a 1968 coup. The Kurdish struggle for independence goes back centuries and these efforts flew in the face of the Baathist government’s desire to secure power throughout Iraq. As a result, it started a campaign to end the longstanding Kurdish insurrection. Internal government power struggles and tensions with Iran stalled the campaign. In addition, the Soviet Union, principal supplier of weapons for Iraq, pressured the Baathist government to come to terms with Mustafa Barzani, leader of the insurrection. A peace plan was announced in March 1970 which provided for broader Kurd autonomy, but it was a pill too bitter for the Baathists to swallow.

Instead of implementing the peace plan, the government started an Arabization program in the oil rich regions of Kirkuk and Khanaqin. Baathist leadership eventually consolidated power and, in 1972, it concluded a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union. It also ended its isolation within the Arab world. The Kurds, skeptical that the peace agreement would be implemented, relied on the Iranian military for support. This arrangement increased tensions between both Iran and Iraq and the Iraqi government and the Kurds.

The result was a new Iraqi offensive against the Kurds in 1974 which pushed them close to the Iranian border. Believing it had the upper hand Iraq offered to satisfy longstanding Iranian demands in return for an end to its aid to the Kurds. Iran and Iraq reached a comprehensive settlement in March 1975 known as the Algiers Pact. The agreement left the Kurds friendless and helpless as Tehran cut supplies to the Kurdish movement, which quickly collapsed. The Iraqi government rapidly extended its control over the Kurdish region and continued its Arabization program by moving Arabs to the oil fields in Kurdistan. Kurdish guerillas continued to attack Iraqi forces and, as a result, 600 Kurdish villages were burned down and around 200,000 Kurds were deported to the other parts of the country in 1978 and 1979.

Peace between Iran and Iraq also did not last. During the Iran-Iraq War, the government implemented anti-Kurdish policies and a de facto civil war broke out. Iraq was widely-condemned by the international community, but was never seriously punished for oppressive measures, including the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, which resulted in thousands of deaths. From 1987 to 1989, the Iraqi army carried out a genocidal campaign against Kurds that included: the widespread use of chemical weapons, the wholesale destruction of some 2,000 villages, and slaughter of around 50,000 rural Kurds. Kurdish sources report the number of dead to be greater than 182,000.

In 1991, following Saddam Hussein’s embarrassing loss to coalition forces which forced him out of Kuwait, the Kurds took heart and revolted. Saddam Hussein acted swiftly and ruthlessly. His actions created a massive humanitarian crisis and Kurds fled to the hills in the dead of winter without proper clothing, housing, or food. Concerns for Safety of Kurdish refugees was reflected in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 which gave birth to a safe haven, in which allied air power protected a Kurdish zone inside Iraq. Following several bloody clashes between Iraqi forces and Kurdish troops, an uneasy and shaky balance of power was reached, and the Iraqi government withdrew its military and other personnel from the region in October 1991. At the same time, Iraq imposed an economic blockade over the region, reducing its oil and food supplies. The region thus gained de facto independence, being ruled by the two principal Kurdish parties – the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan – outside the control of Baghdad. The region has its own flag and National Anthem.

Following some internecine fighting, the Kurds finally achieved a measure of peace. The result of autonomy and peace in Kurdistan has been a minor economic miracle, especially considering Iraq is embroiled in war. The Kurdistan region’s economy is dominated by the oil industry, agriculture and tourism (yes — tourism!). For some Iraqis, Kurdistan has become a vacation spot where they can escape the civil war in the south. Due to relative peace in the region it has a more developed economy in comparison to other parts of Iraq. No U.S. personnel have been killed in Kurdistan since the fall of Saddam Hussein (although southern regions of Kurdistan are still subject to some violence).

In areas from which Kurd refugees once fled, Iraqi refugees now flow. According to The Economist, Kurdistan’s banking sector is severely underdeveloped and incapable of dealing with the economic boom. Most people believe that this economic boom can only continue if Kurdistan gains control of Kirkuk and the oil reserves that surround it. Two fully operational international airports operate out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Shops in the major cities display a broad array of imported items, ranging from modern electrical appliances to general products imported from Iran and Turkey. Most importantly, people are able to go about their business in safety. The calm and security have enabled the Kurds to continue to develop their economy at a faster pace than the rest of Iraq. True as all this is, the Kurdish economy still has a long way to go. The regional infrastructure is in urgent need of development, and foreign investment is still limited.

One of the purposes of my trip is to understand how Enterra Solutions® can help. I am learning what kind of products and services are available, what challenges businesses face, and I am making an assessment about what can be done to overcome these challenges. Helping the Kurds achieve even greater prosperity can serve as an example of what is possible. Hope is in short supply throughout much of Iraq right now and hope is what a prosperous Kurdistan can provide the rest of the country.