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  Who Are the Kurds?

Kurd map/ staff
A largely Sunni Muslim people with their own language and culture, most Kurds live in the generally contiguous areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Syria – a mountainous region of southwest Asia generally known as Kurdistan ("Land of the Kurds").

Before World War I, traditional Kurdish life was nomadic, revolving around sheep and goat herding throughout the Mesopotamian plains and highlands of Turkey and Iran. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire after the war created a number of new nation-states, but not a separate Kurdistan. Kurds, no longer free to roam, were forced to abandon their seasonal migrations and traditional ways.

Background: The Kurds

The Kurds have been subjugated by neighboring peoples for most of their history. In modern times, Kurds have tried to set up independent states in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, but their efforts have been crushed every time.

The Kurdish People

* 15 million to 20 million Kurds live in a mountainous area straddling the borders of Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. About 8 million live in southeastern Turkey.

* The Kurds are a non-Arabic people who speak a language related to Persian. Most adhere to the Sunni Muslim faith.


* 1920: After World War I, when the Ottoman Empire is carved up, the Kurds are promised independence by the Treaty of Sevres.

* 1923: Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rejects the treaty, and Turkish forces put down Kurdish uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s. The Kurdish struggle lies dormant for decades.

* 1978: Abdullah Ocalan, one of seven children of a poor farming family, establishes the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, which advocates independence.

* 1979: Ocalan flees Turkey for Syria.

* 1984: Ocalan's PKK begins armed struggle, recruiting thousands of young Kurds, who are driven by Turkish repression of their culture and language and by poverty. Turkish forces fight the PKK guerrillas, who also establish bases across the border in Iraq, for years. Conflict costs about 30,000 lives.

* 1998: Ocalan, who has directed his guerrillas from Syria, is expelled by Damascus under pressure from Ankara. He begins his multi-nation odyssey until he is captured in Nairobi on Jan. 15, 1999 and taken to Turkey, where he may face the death penalty.


* 1946: Kurds succeed in establishing the republic of Mahabad, with Soviet backing. But a year later, the Iranian monarch crushes the embryonic state.

* 1979: Turmoil of Iran's revolution allows Kurds to establish unofficial border area free of Iranian government control; Kurds do not hold it for long.


* Kurds in northern Iraq -- under a British mandate -- revolt in 1919, 1923 and 1932, but are crushed.

* Under Mustafa Barzani, they wage an intermittent struggle against Baghdad.

* 1970: Baghdad grants Kurds language rights and self rule, but deal breaks down partly over oil revenues.

* 1974: New clashes erupt; Iraqis force 130,000 Kurds into Iran. But Iran withdraws support for Kurds the following year.

* 1988: Iraqis launch poison-gas attack, killing 5,000 Kurds in town of Halabja.

* 1991: After Persian Gulf War, northern Iraq's Kurdish area comes under international protection.

* 1999: Two rival Iraqi Kurdish factions, one led by Mustafa Barzani's son Massoud, the other by Jalal Talabani, broker a peace deal; goal is for Kurdish area to become part of a democratic Iraq.

SOURCES: Reuters, World Almanac, staff reports

During the early 20th century, Kurds began to consider the concept of nationalism, a notion introduced by the British amid the division of traditional Kurdistan among neighboring countries. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which created the modern states of Iraq, Syria and Kuwait, was to have included the possibility of a Kurdish state in the region. However, it was never implemented. After the overthrow of the Turkish monarchy by Kemal Ataturk, Turkey, Iran and Iraq each agreed not to recognize an independent Kurdish state.

The Kurds received especially harsh treatment at the hands of the Turkish government, which tried to deprive them of Kurdish identity by designating them "Mountain Turks," outlawing their language and forbidding them to wear traditional Kurdish costumes in the cities. The government also encouraged the migration of Kurds to the cities to dilute the population in the uplands. Turkey continues its policy of not recognizing the Kurds as a minority group.

In Iraq, Kurds have faced similar repression. After the Kurds supported Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein retaliated, razing villages and attacking peasants with chemical weapons. The Kurds rebelled again after the Persian Gulf War only to be crushed again by Iraqi troops. About 2 million fled to Iran; 5 million currently live in Iraq. The United States has tried to create a safe haven for the Kurds within Iraq by imposing a "no-fly" zone north of the 36th parallel.

Despite a common goal of independent statehood, the 20 million or so Kurds in the various countries are hardly unified. From 1994-98, two Iraqi Kurd factions – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani – fought a bloody war for power over northern Iraq. In September 1998, the two sides agreed to a power-sharing arrangement.

Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, currently waging a guerrilla insurgency in southeastern Turkey, has rejected the Iraqi Kurds' decision to seek local self-government within a federal Iraq. The PKK believes any independent Kurdish state should be a homeland for all Kurds.

Over the years, tensions have flared between the PKK, led by Abdullah Ocalan, and Barzani's KDP faction, which controls the Turkey-Iraq border. Barzani has criticized the PKK for establishing military bases inside Iraqi-Kurd territory to launch attacks into Turkey.

Ocalan's recent capture by Turkish agents touched off heated and sometimes violent protests by thousands of Kurds living in Western Europe. It's impact on the Kurdish people and their quest for independence is yet to be seen.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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