Al Jazeera World

Independence and the Iraqi Kurds

Who are the Kurds and how did their bid for independence in Iraq appear to fail after such a resounding ‘yes’ vote?

The first notable, historical mention of the Kurds is widely thought to be the Sharafnama, or The Book of Honour, by the medieval Kurdish poet Sharaf al-Din Bitlisi in 1597. Written by a Kurd about his own people, Sharafnama arguably put Kurdish culture and history on the map.

A people who saw themselves on a par with Persians and Arabs had announced themselves to the world.

The Kurds originate from the mountain regions of the northern Middle East and currently number between 25 million and 35 million and occupy an area spanning the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They are the fourth largest ethnic group in the region – outnumbered by both Arabs and North Africans – and have a difficult relationship with other ethnic groups and countries in the region. 

The Kurds have anticipated, negotiated, warred and waited to establish their own permanent state since the First World War and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. But they have been constantly disappointed, not least when Asia Minor was given to the new state of Turkey in 1923.

In Iraq, a series of conflicts with different political regimes led to the announcement of autonomy after the First Gulf War in 1991, followed by the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 1992.

Their continued desire for independence from Baghdad led to a referendum in the Kurdish Region of Northern Iraq in September 2017. The result was overwhelmingly in favour of separation but the Iraqi government rejected the vote as unconstitutional.

More recently, the Kurd-dominated state, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, faces upheaval in the face of President Donald Trump‘s call for the withdrawal of American troops from their mission to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

There is a widespread concern for the tens of thousands of Kurds who have fought alongside the Americans and who would be extremely vulnerable without continued US support.

As a result, Trump has threated to “devastate Turkey economically” if any harm should come to Syria’s Kurds, post-withdrawal. This threat comes in the light of Turkey’s aggression towards Turkish Kurds, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan branding the Kurdish militias involved in the fight against ISIL as part of so-called “terrorist” group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

But the question remains as to whether the Kurds spread across the whole of the northern Middle East, in regions where they make up the ethnic majority in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, can realistically ever attain their own permanent, independent state or states.

How could Kurdish Peshmerga forces join the Iraqi army in the fight against ISIL in western and northern Iraq but have their independence referendum declared unconstitutional and the subject of an economic and social backlash from the Baghdad government?

In this film, we speak to key players and witnesses in the KRG independence referendum in 2017, to find out why they disagreed about the timing and continue to be so fragmented across their semi-autonomous region.

The film tracks the history of the Kurds from their disappointment at the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, to the Iraqi Kurdish revolution of 1958 and the first Iraq-Kurdish war of 1961, Iranian revolution, the Anfal Genocide against the Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s regime, the rise of ISIL and the fraught KRG-Baghdad relationship of today.