During six months in 1988, tens of thousands of Kurds, the vast majority civilians, died during an Iraqi counter-insurgency campaign code-named the Anfal operation (amaliyet al-Anfal). Precise numbers of the dead are not available. Human Rights Watch, which has carried out the only comprehensive investigation, roughly estimates casualties to have been somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 (Human Rights Watch, 1995: xvii).
The Anfal campaign was the culmination of long-standing efforts by the Ba‘ath regime to put an end to Kurdish aspirations toward greater autonomy and independence. It came toward the tail end of the Iran-Iraq war, a bloody eight-year conflict (1980-1988) that allowed Kurdish rebels to step into a security vacuum in the north to press for advantage. Anfal was the regime’s revenge for what it perceived as unforgivable treason, as well as its way of settling the Kurdish national question definitively within the boundaries of the Iraqi state.
A mere four years later, the traumas of the Anfal campaign and the chemical attack on the town of Halabja, in March 1988, became the foundation for a resurgent nationalism in the quasi-independent Kurdish region that emerged under the tutelage of the United States and its Gulf War allies.
The Kurdish national movement arose, along with the modern state of Iraq, from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Post-World War I manoeuvring by the victorious powers, England and France, brought new states with new borders, as well as stateless people living across newly drawn international frontiers. The Kurds were the largest such non-state nation, inhabiting a vast territory that comprised significant parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Feeling cheated out of independence by the post-war powers, the Kurds fought for greater freedoms in each of these countries during the twentieth century. In doing so, they repeatedly forged tactical deals with central governments under whose repressive yoke they laboured, governments of neighbouring states, and Kurdish movements in adjacent parts of Kurdistan with whom they shared language and culture, but each of which had its own battles to fight with its central authorities. From the Kurds’ perspective, their modern history is a litany of promises made and then betrayed, agreements sealed only to be undone, and long periods of relative peace punctured by insurgencies, massacres, village destruction, and, in most cases, utter defeat.
The history of the Kurdish movement in Iraq has hardly been different. It started in the early 1920s with the unsuccessful rebellions of Sheikh Mahmoud Barzinji, who titled himself “King of Kurdistan”; his movement was suppressed only once the British mandatory authorities brought in the RAF to bomb the wayward Kurds (Yildiz, 2004: 13). In the 1940s, a young Kurdish leader emerged who fought the monarchy from his base in Barzan and then Suleimaniyeh: Mullah Mustafa Barzani, considered the father of the modern Kurdish national movement in Iraq. Forced into exile in Iran in 1945, he helped establish the ill-fated, short-lived Mahabad Republic there the next year. While in Iran, Barzani founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which promptly split into an Iraqi and an Iranian wing (Yildiz, 2004: 16). Barzani was unable to return to Iraq until after the collapse of the monarchy in 1958; in 1961, he re-launched the national movement in Kurdistan.
The origins of the Kurds’ ultimately successful experiment in nation-building lie in the KDP’s growth in the vacuum of post-monarchy Iraq, when successive short-lived republican governments were in no position to impose their will on the rebellious Kurds, even if they tried (through army raids and bombardments of villages). The Ba‘ath regime that came to power through a coup in 1968 was so weak that it soon pursued a settlement with Barzani, drafting an autonomy agreement that, on paper, devolved significant authority to a regional government in Erbil. The key sticking point then, as in later negotiations, was the status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich region claimed by both the Kurds and Iraq’s Arab regimes (Yildiz, 2004: 18-19). In 1974, it led to the agreement’s collapse and to a Kurdish revolt that was crushed once the Kurds’ principal ally, the Shah of Iran, withdrew his military and logistical support after making a separate deal with the Ba‘ath regime. The KDP was defeated, its fighters dispersed, its people relocated to camps in southern Iraq, and its leadership forced to rebuild the movement from exile in Iran (Yildiz, 2004: 23-24).
In 1975, the KDP split, with younger cadres, led by Jalal Talabani, challenging Mullah Mustafa’s leadership of the national movement and establishing the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This development did not only represent a generational but also a cultural and linguistic struggle. From its founding, the PUK predominated in Suran, the southern part of Iraqi Kurdistan centred around the city of Suleimaniyeh, where the Surani dialect is spoken. The KDP’s base, however, remained in Kurmanji-speaking Badinan, especially around the village of Barzan, the home of its founder and the son who succeeded him, Masoud Barzani. Since its inception, the KDP has remained essentially a family affair, even if it has drawn in tribal leaders, professionals and intellectuals from Dohuk and Erbil. The PUK, by contrast, has had a broader, more urban, base, although Talabani’s leadership has been largely undisputed.