Setting the record straight on the Kurds

April 24, 1991

By Peter Boyle

Recent Kurdish condemnation of governments long considered to be in the "socialist" camp and the pretended Western support for the Kurds have caused some confusion on the left. As well, some Arab nationalists are reluctant to support the Kurds, accusing them of being a Western tool and of seeking to break up Iraq.

The Kurds are one of the few nationalities in the world with a large population (more than 15 million) yet without a state. In the Middle East today, they share the plight of the Palestinians and the Armenians.

The colonial carve-up of the Ottoman Empire in 1916 left the Kurds' traditional territory divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They have been repressed in each of these countries. (Smaller numbers of Kurds also live in the Soviet Union.)

In 1920, the Kurds led a revolt against British colonial rule in the Gulf. In response, Turkey made a deal with France to grab a bigger slice of Kurdish teritory. Another uprising took place in 1923 and was crushed by the British army. The British suppressed another Kurdish rebellion in 1931. In 1946, the short-lived Kurdish republic of Mahabad was founded with Soviet support but was crushed by the shah of Iran with British assistance.

In 1956, under the aegis of Britain and the US, Turkey, Iran and Iraq signed the Baghdad Pact, which included a clause providing for coordinated repression of Kurdish revolts in any of these couuntries.

When the British puppet monarchy in Iraq was overthrown in 1958, the new military government renounced the Baghdad Pact and proclaimed a republic based on "the free association of Arabs and Kurds". However, five years later the Iraqi government began repressing Kurds, and an armed struggle began.

In 1963, the Baathist Party staged a coup and organised a cease-fire with the Kurds but then proceeded to massacre Iraqi communists. Many communists fled to Kurdish territory for protection. (To this day, the only armed communist units in Iraq are part of a united front with the Kurdish Democratic Party.) The Baathists then turned against the Kurds. That year the Soviet Union declared support for the Kurdish movement.

When the Baathists were ousted by more conservative military officers in 1964, the new regime followed its predecessor and offered to recognise Kurdish national rights. Once again this turned out to be a ruse, but it split the Kurdish movement before fighting broke out again. Another cease-fire was agreed in 1966.

The Baathists came back to power in 1968 and relaunched war against the Kurds. After signing an agreement for Kurdish autonomy in 1970, the Iraqi regime began a program of assassinations against Kurdish leaders.

In 1972 the Soviet government signed a friendship and cooperation sts, opening a shameful era of collaboration with one of the world's bloodiest dictatorships. With Soviet military supplies, the Baathist regime was able to inflict heavy casualties on the Kurds.

To counter Soviet influence in Iraq, the CIA began supplying some aid to the Kurds via the shah of Iran, according to King Hussein of Jordan, then on the CIA payroll. But in March 1975 the shah made an agreement with then vice-president Saddam Hussein to cut off support to the Kurds, thus ensuring their defeat. This brief episode of cynical US exploitation of the Kurdish struggle has been used to cover far greater crimes against the Kurds.

Saddam Hussein then began his program of Arabisation of Kurdish territories, relocating or wiping out entire villages.

In 1979, the Kurds helped topple the shah of Iran, but soon the new government under Ayotollah Khomeini turned against them.

In 1980 Saddam Hussein, with Western backing, invaded Iran. The Kurds began armed struggle again, and Iran opportunistically offered them support. Over the next few years, most Iraqi opposition groups formed a united front with the Kurds.

Thousands of Kurds in Iraq "disappeared" over the next few years. In 1988, Saddam killed 5000 Kurdish villagers in Halabja with chemical weapons. There was hardly any international outcry. The components for the chemical weapons came from the West, and the planes that dropped them were from the Soviet Union. The Western press suddenly rediscovered Halabja in 1990.

Before the Gulf War, the Kurds halted military operations and called for a peaceful solution and a democratic Iraq. The Bush administration called upon the Iraqi people and the Kurds to depose Saddam Hussein. When Saddam's forces appeared defeated, the Kurds and the Shiite opposition in the south launched an uprising. Suddenly Bush changed his tune and said what he really meant was that the Iraqi armed forces should topple Saddam in a coup. The US allowed the same armed forces to massacre the rebels. n

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