Kurdish people

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Areas with significant Kurdish population.
Areas with significant Kurdish population.

The Kurds are an Iranian people, primarily descendants of the Aryans, and are widely-thought to be specifically descendants of the Medes. They are primarily found in mountainous areas and highlands in Southwest Asia, which includes parts of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, as well as smaller sections of Syria, Armenia and Lebanon. Most Kurds speak 'Kurdish', an Iranian language of the western branch. The ancient Greek historian Xenophon referred to the Kurds in the Anabasis as "Khardukhi", a 'fierce and protective mountain-dwelling people' who attacked his armies in 400 BC. Although many Kurds live in modern-day Middle-Eastern countries, it is worth noting that they differ in various ways from the Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, and Turks, which may not be readily apparent to outside observors.

Ranging anywhere from 25 to 27 million people, the Kurds comprise one of the largest ethnic groups without their own country in the world. For over a century, many Kurds have campaigned and fought for the right to 'self-determination' in an autonomous homeland known as "Kurdistan". The governments of those countries with sizable Kurdish populations are actively opposed to the possibility of a Kurdish state, believing such a development would require them to give up parts of their own national territories.



Country Estimated number Source
Turkey 13,930,000 CIA factbook
Iran 6,120,000 CIA factbook
Iraq 3,910,000 - 5,220,000 CIA factbook
Syria 1,570,000 - 1,840,000 CIA factbook
Azerbaijan 200,000 khrp.org
Lebanon 80,000 institutkurde.org
Armenia 75,000 khrp.org
Georgia 40,000 khrp.org
Sub Total Asia 24,568,000 - 26,145,000
Germany 500,000 - 600,000 institutkurde.org
France 100,000 - 120,000 institutkurde.org
Netherlands 70,000 - 80,000 institutkurde.org
Switzerland 60,000 - 70,000 institutkurde.org
Belgium 50,000 - 60,000 institutkurde.org
Austria 50,000 - 60,000 institutkurde.org
Sweden 25,000 - 30,000 institutkurde.org
United Kingdom 20,000 - 25,000 institutkurde.org
Greece 20,000 - 25,000 institutkurde.org
Denmark 8,000 - 10,000 institutkurde.org
Norway 4,000 - 5,000 institutkurde.org
Italy 3,000 - 4,000 institutkurde.org
Finland 2,000 - 3,000 institutkurde.org
Sub Total Europe1 912,000 - 1,092,000
United States 15,000 - 20,000 institutkurde.org
Canada 6,000 - 7,000 institutkurde.org
Sub Total North America 21,800 - 27,000
Grand Total 25,498,800 - 27,263,200
1. Excluding Turkey

The exact number of Kurdish people living in the Middle East is unknown, due to both an absence of recent and extensive census analysis, and the reluctance of the various governments in Kurdish-inhabited regions to give accurate figures. The fact that some Kurds have mixed with other local ethnic groups has also contributed to the uncertainty as to who can be counted as a 'Kurd'. For example, many Kurds in Turkey have adopted Turkish, having moved to mainly Turkish regions of the country and assimilated to some extent, while Kurds in Iraq have attempted to maintain their distinct identity. In addition, groups such as the Zaza and Dimli are often counted by some as Kurds, but are actually a closely- related Iranian people.

Nonetheless, if estimated figures are accurate, comprising between 25 and 27 million people, the Kurds are, as Carole A. O’Leary (a professor at the American University) commented, the largest ethnic group without a separate state in the world. [1]


Before the spread of Islam in the 7th century, most Kurds practiced Zoroastrianism, which is believed to be one of the oldest religions in the world. Today, however, the majority of the Kurds are believed to be Sunni Muslims, belonging to the Shafi and Hanafi Schools of Islam. There is also a number of Kurds that are Shia Muslims, and they primarily live in the Kermanshah and Ilam provinces of Iran and Central Iraq ("Al-Fayliah" Kurds). Another religious minority among the Kurds are the Alevi Shia Muslims, who are mainly found in Turkey. The remaining Kurds are either Christians, Jews or Yezidis.

'Yezidism' is an ancient Kurdish religion. The faith's most holy place lies in Iraqi Kurdistan in the village of Lalish, north of Mosul; and originally was known as Nineveh. Most Yazidi's live in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the vicinity of Mosul, Sinjar, and Lalish. Large numbers of Yezidis are also found in Syria and Turkey.


Main article: Kurdish language

The Kurdish languages belong to the northwestern group of the Iranian branch of the 'Indo-European' family. Even though Kurdish is an Iranian language, Kurds have been greatly-influenced by languages around them; mostly Arabic, as well as Turkish. In addition, the Northern Kurdish dialects such as 'Kurmanji' are written using the Roman alphabet, while the southern dialects tend to be written in the Arabic alphabet.

The Kurdish languages form a dialect continuum, with comprehensibility diminishing as the distance from one's native dialect increases. The principal Kurdish languages are:

In Iraq

Under the former Iraqi Ba'athist regime, which ruled Iraq from 1968 until 2003, Kurds were initially granted limited autonomy (1970), and after the Barzani revolt in 1961, were given some high-level political representation in Baghdad. However, for various reasons, including the pro-Iranian sympathies of some Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980's, the regime 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. (See Halabja poison gas attack.)

During the 1990's, Kurdish regions gained some measure of autonomy with fully-functioning civil administrations; they were protected by the US-enforced Iraqi no-fly zone, which prevented air attacks by Iraqi government forces. During this period, armed clashes developed between three main political/military groups in the area (including the Kurdistan Democratic Party) over political authority.

In the aftermath of the US invasion which unseated the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, the 'Kurdistan issue' became a major concern. Iraqi Kurds were unwilling to accept a strong central government and many of them called for outright independence. However, neighboring Turkey made it clear that an independent Kurdistan would be unacceptable. President Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, distanced himself from the movement for independence. The Kurdish delegation to the Constitutional Committee succeeded in achieving a highly federal structure in exchange for certain Islamist conditions demanded by Shia delegates. The Kurdish provinces (governorates) will be allowed to unite into a largely autonomous region that can maintain its own armed forces, levy taxes and overrule federal laws. Also, Kurdish was made a national language alongside Arabic.

In Turkey

About half of all Kurds live in Turkey, numbering some 14 million. They comprise 20% of the total population of Turkey and are predominantly distributed in the southeastern corner of the country.

Modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal (better known as Atatürk--"father of the Turks"), enacted a constitution 70 years ago which denied the existence of distinct cultural sub-groups in Turkey. As a result, any expression by the Kurds (as well as other minorities in Turkey) of unique ethnic identity has been harshly repressed. For example, until 1991, the use of the Kurdish language--although widespread--was illegal. To this day, music, radio and TV broadcasts, and education in Kurdish are not allowed except under extremely limited circumstances.

The Turkish government has consistently thwarted attempts by the Kurds to organize politically. Kurdish political parties are shut down one after another, and party members are harassed and imprisoned for "crimes of opinion." Most famously, in 1994 Leyla Zana--who, three years prior, had been the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish parliament--was sentenced to 15 years for "separatist speech." Her party was banned. More recently, in June the leaders of the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HADEP) were sentenced to several-year prison terms for allegedly having ties with the outlawed PKK guerillas. The state prosecutors' evidence consisted largely of press releases found in the HADEP offices from a news agency close to the PKK.

Adding to the grievances of Turkey's Kurds is the economic underdevelopment of the southeast. The Ankara government has systematically withheld resources from the Kurdish region. As a result, there are two distinct Turkeys: the northern and western regions are highly developed and cosmopolitan, part of the "first world," while the south and east are truly of the "third world."

The disparity and repression led to the formation of an armed separatist movement, the PKK, in 1984. While the majority of Turkey's Kurds do not openly support separatism from the Turkish state, many do support the PKK, as the only force fighting for broader Kurdish cultural, economic and political rights.

The state immediately responded to this threat with increased force, deploying some 300,000 troops in the southeast at an annual cost of $8 billion. In addition, the Turkish armed forces instituted a system of "village guards," paying and arming Kurds to keep the PKK guerillas out of their villages. Villages that refuse to participate in the guard system face demolition by the Turkish military, while those that go along suffer under harsh reprisals by the PKK.

The war escalated dramatically in the early 1990s. Between 1984-91, an estimated 2,500 people had been killed. Over the next four years, that figure shot up to 20,000. Some 3,000 villages have been destroyed by the military in an effort to rout out PKK sympathizers, creating more than 2 million refugees.

In Iran (Persia)

Kurds have been part of the Persian Empire since its very beginning; along with all other ethnic groups which make up the present-day nation of Iran. Although intense fighting occurred between Kurds and the Iranian state between 1979 and 1982, since 1983 the Iranian government has had control over the area which the Kurds inhabit. This area encompasses Kordestan and parts of West Azarbaijan, Kermanshah, Ilam Province and Lorestan.

In Iran Kurds, like other minorities, can express their cultural identity freely; they are, however denied the right of self-government or administration. Membership of any Kurdish 'separatist' party could be punishable by death. The Kurdish language is also banned from being taught in schools; which is a breach of the current constitution, and there are restrictions today on publishing Kurdish literature. In 2005, the Islamic government banned the two kurdish magazines "Aso" and "Ashti" (following many persian-language ones in other areas of Iran in recent years), and their editors have been arrested.

Kurdish human rights activists in Iran have been threatened by Iranian authorities in connection with their work. [2]

In Syria

Kurds often speak Kurdish in public, unless all those present do not. It is claimed that Kurdish human rights activists are mistreated. No political parties are allowed. Population is over 3.8 million.

In Armenia

In the Soviet Union, from the 1930's to the 1980's, the Kurds were a 'protected minority', under Soviet Law. They had their own state-sponsored newspaper, radio broadcast and cultural events.

During the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, many Kurds were forced to leave their homes.

Timeline of modern Kurdish history

1920: Treaty of Sèvres determines the borders for the territory of Kurdistan.

1921: Boundaries of the modern Iraq overlaps the territory of Kurdistan, which had been determined by the Treaty of Sèvres.

1923: Boundaries of the modern Turkey determined by the Treaty of Lausanne overlaps the territory of Kurdistan, which had been determined by the Treaty of Sèvres.

1922 to 1958: The Iraqi Kurds live under the Iraqi Kingdom.

1925: The first Kurdish revolt in Turkey, supported by British powers from Iraq, by Sheikh Sayid, is overcome.

1930: Tunceli demonstrations were stopped.

1937: Agri demonstrations were suppressed.

1946: Although Iran had declared its neutrality during the Second World War, it was occupied by allied forces. The Iranian Kurdistan province is still occupied by the Soviet army; with the support of which a Kurdish state was created in the city of Mahabad. The republic of Mahabad, as it is often called, lasted less than a year, however; as with the end of the War, and the withdrawal of the occupying Soviet forces, the central government crushed the separatists and re-joined Kurdistan with Iran.

1958: Abdel Kareem Qasem becomes President of Iraq; Iraq's new constitution declares 2 major ethnic groups in Iraq: Arabs and Kurds. The President invites Mustafa Barzani from the Soviet Union to Iraq for discussions about Kurds.

1961: Failed negotiations between the government and Kurds ignites the September 11 revolt of Barzani. Fighting continues until 1970.

1970: The March 11 autonomy agreement reached by both sides (the Baath party is now in power).

1974: Relations break up again about economic issues. Fighting erupts again. Governments bombs Kurdish towns such as Qela Dize where over 250 people die, half of which are children.

1975: The Algiers agreement declares an end to the Kurdish revolt and Iran discontinues its support of Iraqi Kurds. Kurdish uprising disbanded. Barzani flees to the United States.

1975 to 1980: The son of Mustafa, Masoud Barzani, encourages a new uprising against the government.


  • The Islamic Revolution in Iran gives the Kurds an opportunity to receive some autonomy. They failed.
  • The PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) is created.


  • PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan flees to Syria and trains his armed supporters in several places including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and possibly Iran.
  • The Iran-Iraq war affects Kurds in both countries. Support to either government by Kurds could cause repercussions for Kurds in the other country. Both governments send Kurds to the frontlines. More than 1 million die on both sides.

1984: PKK guerillas launch their first attacks on Turkish targets in Turkey and abroad.

1988: The genocidal Anfal-campaign is being carried out by the Iraqi government to "decrease" the Kurds. Some 4500 villages are completely destroyed, and 182,000 Kurds are relocated to unknown destinations, in this year alone.

1988: The Halabja-disaster on the 16th of March, with intensive aerial chemical bombing (by Saddam's regime), such as Nerve gas, VX and Mustard gas, kills more than 5000 Kurds and wounds an estimated 12,000.

1990's: The massive PKK uprising propels Turkey into a state of civil war. Attacking the KDP in Iraq in order to control another part of Kurdistan, Turkey repels PKK guerillas and pursues them into Iraq.

1991: A popular uprising by the Kurds, encouraged by George Bush Sr. ignites, after the Iraqi defeat of the Persian Gulf war. The uprising is initially successful, but government forces crack down; causing more than 2 million Kurds to flee to Turkey and Iran. Thousands die of starvation, cold and hunger.

1991: Turkey's 70-year ban on using the Kurdish language is lifted.

1992: After the set-up of the no-fly zones in the North and South to protect the civil Iraqi population, the Allied forces make a security zone in the north of Iraq, so that the refugees can return. After that, the Kurds seize their area, set up their own government, start their own elections and draw autonomous borders.

1992 to 2003: The Kurds enjoy self-rule, but heavy fighting erupts between the two main Kurdish factions. The KDP and the PUK almost commit 'political suicide' in fighting in 1994, 1996 and 1997. In 1999, the two parties agree to a cease-fire.

1998: PKK leader flees from Syria to Russia after threats from Turkey against Syria.

1999: After spending months in Russia, Italy, and Kenya, Abdullah Öcalan is arrested by Turkish special forces in the Greek embassy in Nairobi, Kenya and is brought to Turkey for trial.

2002: PKK changes its name to 'KADEK', in an effort to remove the 'terrorist' connotations of the name PKK.


2004: In Syrian-Kurdistan, violence broke out between Arab supporters and Kurds at a soccer match. Syria is accused of killing as many as 40 Kurds, causing the Kurdish population in Syria to rise up in the days of the aftermath. Thousands are arrested; and some are beaten to death in prisons.

2004: KADEK changes its name to KONGRA-GEL.


  • Iraqi transitional assembly and Kurdistan national assembly elections held. Jalal Talabani, secretary-general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is elected as President of Iraq. Kurds receive more than a quarter of the votes.
Declaration by Abdullah Öcalan of Democratic Confederalism.
  • KONGRA-GEL changes its name to the historic PKK.


Renowned Kurdish individuals

See also

Kurdish Governments

Kurdish organisations

See also: Category:Kurdish organisations

External links

Militant organizations

The Kurdish Issue in Turkey

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