Category Archives: Asia

The Latest Iraqi Partition Craze: The Kurds

People are talking about Iraq being partitioned into three parts lately: a Kurdish state, a Sunni Arab state, and a Shiite Arab state, but none of this is new.  This was part of the discussion before and during the height of the Iraq War around 2006.  Future Vice President Joe Biden was even ridiculed for suggesting it back then.

However, this idea now seems considerably closer to becoming a de facto reality with Sunni Arabs taking over much of the lands between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad to the south, the disintegration of Iraqi government forces outside of their southern, Shiite core, and the mopping up of disputed territories by the Kurds.

Iraq has been riddled with ethnic and sectarian troubles since the beginning of its existence as a modern country.  The British set up Iraq by combing the three former Ottoman vilayets (provinces) of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra into one country. This map, shown in Figure 1, which seems to be roughly in line with other maps that I can find of the division of Ottoman provinces, shows the just how close the borders of Iraq reflect this arbitrary combination of provinces.  Figure 2 provides a current map of Iraq’s borders cropped to roughly the same proportion.


Figure 1


Figure 2

The Kurds are divided between Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran rather than being part of one state (even one where they are a minority).  This severely weakens their position in all the states.  The borders pre-WWI didn’t really matter since they were all part of an overall Ottoman state (with the exception of Iran) and that state was based around Islam and not nationalism. However, with the carving up of states and the rise of Arab (and Turkish, but that’s another matter) nationalism the Kurds found themselves in a precarious position.  They were divided and could, unfortunately, be suppressed more effectively this way.

The Kurds rebelled periodically at this new arrangement and were frequently crushed.  The result in Iraq was that the Kurds were gradually pushed further towards the mountains and the areas that were once Kurdish majority or mixed became steadily Arabized.  This was seen by Saddam as a way to secure his rule long term since Sunni Arabs were more cooperative to his Sunni Arab dominated, nationalist state.  In fact the Kurdish population in Kirkuk province was reduced from nearly 50% according to the 1957 census to a little over 20% according to the 1997 census.

In light of this history the events since the overthrow of Saddam can only be described as a best case scenario for the Kurds.  They have steadily gained territory and developed a stable and economically growing state within a state.  When the Kurds had autonomous states under the Ottoman Empire, as shown in Figure 3 provided here they dominated considerable portions of northern Iraq.


Figure 3

By the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that had managed to gain some territory only controlled the core of this former territory with no access to the major oil fields in the north around Kirkuk.  Figure 4 shows just how much Kurds lost before they could regain their autonomy.


Figure 4

Despite this are being greatly reduced the Kurds have been able to unofficially regain control of areas outside this area by resettling Kurds back to areas they were forced out of by Saddam’s regime.  In fact they likely have undone so much of the ethnic cleansing that a referendum on including the Kirkuk government into the KRG may even be approved by a popular vote.  As a result the Iraqi government has continually blocked the referendum from occurring.

All of this is a moot point, however, because as a result of the ISIS offensive and the resulting collapse of central government control over northern Iraq the Kurds have stepped into the vacuum and taken over the vast majority of claimed territories.  Minority inhabited areas such as those inhabited by Christian Assyrians, Shiite Turkmens, and Shabaki and Yezidi Kurds are now under mostly Kurdish control. Whereas before they could look to the Shiite dominated central government as an alternative to the KRG to protect them from Sunni Arab extremist groups the total rout of the Iraqi military in northern Iraq has left only the latter.

Most of the historical regions, as shown in Figure 3, of Tasini (where Yezidi Kurds are dominant), Soran, and Baban which were historically dominated by Kurds are again under a Kurdish control (Figure 5).  With the exception of southwestern Kirkuk province, the city of Tal Afar, and the claimed parts still controlled by the Shiite central government the Kurds in Iraq now have everything they want.


Figure 5

The Mandali and Badra areas in the south which are populated by Shiite Kurds who are not significantly persecuted by the Shiite friendly central government anyway are probably a stretch too far anyway.

Southwestern Kirkuk province (Al-Hawija district) is and has historically been heavily populated by Sunni Arabs with little Kurdish presence anyway.  Controlling this territory would only be a headache and the Kurds now control the major oil fields around Kirkuk to fund their state even without this area.

The only significant loss (and by that I mean non gain) for the Kurds has been the city of Tal Afar, which is under ISIS control.  However even here the Kurds still control the areas north of Tal Afar, which are not historically Kurdish inhabited, and have a connection to Sinjar to the west.  On top of this Tal Afar itself is a Turkmen inhabited city and it’s always possible the Kurds could take it over in the future.

ISIS, on the other hand, has little prospect of taking on the Kurds, especially while fighting the central government.  The central government also has little prospect of taking on the Kurds while fighting ISIS and allied Sunni Arab groups and even if they defeat ISIS they’ll be too exhausted and the Kurds will likely be too firmly entrenched in their new territories by then.

When I drew up (more like filled in) an amateur map of a best case scenario for the Kurds years ago when people were talking about partitioning Iraq into three states I never really expected it to happen, but it’s managed to happen.  Here’s the map by the way.


Figure 6


The Feyli Kurds Part 3: The Feyli Kurds of Iraq

As a continuation of my discussion about Feyli Kurds and about Kurds in general I would like to finally get to the persecution suffered by these people by Saddam Hussein’s regime and their prospects since the fall of this regime.  While Feyli Kurds get along fine in Iran (or at least as well as other Shiite minorities like the Lurs or Azeris), they have faced decades of brutal discrimination in Iraq.

An interesting source (although likely biased given the name) that I found describing the history and current situation of the Feyli Kurds in Iraq can be found here.

It appears according to various sources including this map that the Feyli Kurds can be divided to two geographic areas.  I have zoomed in on the part of the map relevant to the area of interest although the entire thing is fascinating and worth inspection.

Note: Kurds form the minority population in some of the areas shown in the map and in some areas they have been forcefully removed relatively recently (20th century).

Here is the full map:

Kurdish_Tribal_Confederacies_lgI have zoomed in on the relevant area.  Names of tribes in large, capitalized, red letters describe major tribes in the area while names in smaller, non capitalized, black letters describe minor tribes.  Feyli Kurds, spelled “Fayli,” are found as a major tribe in Iran near the border with Iraq.  They are also found as a minor tribe in a curious strip jutting towards Baghdad.Kurdish_Tribal_Confederacies_lg_zoomed

Notice the border areas of Iraq with Iran where Shiite Kurds known as “Faylis” live.  In fact the Kaid, Arkuwaz, Khizil, Chachan and Bajalan are shown to live in the border areas with Fayli Kurds not actually living along the border, but instead close to the center of Iraqi power and culture, Baghdad.

In fact, looking at an alternate tribes and clans map that lists all the tribes in Iraq instead of just the Kurdish ones, the “Fayli” tribe is not mentioned at all.  I got this map from a list of Iraq maps at the University of Texas.  So what gives here?


At least this helps answer the question of the peculiar location of the Feyli Kurds jutting towards Baghdad.  It appears to be, in fact, the area around the Diyala River  after the Alwand River meets with it and continuing some distance further, definitely stopping before the city of Baqubah.

This also helps me to form a hypothesis of the question as to the nomenclature of Shiite Kurds in Iraq.  Any one who knows the actual answer can correct me, but my hunch is that in fact this is a similar situation to the Greeks.

The Greek people actually call themselves “Hellenes” and always have.  The name Greece actually comes from the Romans, who first encountered Greeks in the Italian peninsula in a region they called “Magna Graecia.”  This name came about because one of the first Greek tribes to colonize the Italian peninsula were called Graecians.  As the Romans conquered the entire Mediterranean basin (including the Greek polities) and is seen as the foundation of Western culture that has come to dominate the world, the name has stuck.

Interestingly, while researching the matter I found out that most Middle Eastern and South Asian languages as well as Indonesian (influenced heavily by the Middle East and South Asia) name the Greek people after the ancient region of Ionia where Greeks formed their first major colonies in Asia.  This would make sense as this is the first place where the Greeks would interact with Asian peoples (especially the Persians) and the name would propagate from there.

All this information can easily be found under etymology of Greece on wikipedia and also here.

Now as to the Feyli Kurds they are, in fact, the closest group of Kurds to the millenia old center of Iraq, Baghdad.  As a result of this I expect a similar phenomenon regarding Shiite Kurds in Iraq.  Feylis are the first and closest group to the elites of Baghdad (and many Feylis have moved to Baghdad for economic opportunities and the fact that it is so close to their homeland) so I would expect the name to stick for all Shiite Kurds in Iraq.

As for what the Saddam regime did to these people I will post an excerpt that comes straight from the first link in this post:

Decrees Number 666 of 7 May 1980 started the Plight of Faylee Kurds
The decision to strip hundreds of thousands of Faylee Kurds of their Iraqi citizenship, confiscate all their documents and property and the deport them keeping thousands of their young women and men in detention camps was taken by the Revolution Command Council (the highest executive and legislative branch of the State of Iraq, at the time) in Decree No. 666 dated 7 May 1980 signed by Saddam Hussein Chairman of the Council, President of the Republic and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of Iraq. Decree No. 666 is obviously a political decision directed against a whole section of the Kurdish people in Iraq, stigmatizing its members as being of “foreign origin” and accusing them of “disloyalty to the people and fatherland and to the political and social principles of the Revolution”, an accusation tantamount to treason.

As a consequence of this arbitrary and unjust decree hundreds of thousands Faylee Kurds (as well as other Iraqis such as, Kurds from Kurdistan living in Baghdad as well as Turkomans, Arabs and from other ethnic groups) were forcibly and inhumanely deported to Iran starting with Faylee Kurd big merchants from Baghdad on 7 April 1980. The deportees were not allowed to take with them anything apart from the clothes they were wearing when they were picked up from homes, schools, government offices, work places, shops and military units. Thousands of young Faylee Kurds, women and children were detained and then disappeared without a trace. Unconfirmed reports indicate that some of them were use in the chemical and biological experiments and the others were emptied of their blood and vital organs during the war.

The plight of Faylee Kurds in Iraq is part of the overall plight of the Kurdish people in Iraq. The mass forcible deportation of Faylee Kurds from Iraq was an integral part of the policy of Saddam Hussein’s regime of ethnic cleansing.
The forcible deportation of Faylee Kurds in 1969-1971, sending returnee Kurds after the collapse of the Kurdish movement in 1975 to the south in small number scattered among Arab communities, the mass forcible deportation of Faylee Kurds starting April 1980, the Anfal campaign at the end of the 1980s (killing 180.000 Kurds, destroying over 2200 villages and communities, forcible displacing Kurds from Kirkuk, Khanaqin, Sinjar among others), and Decree Number 199 issued by the Revolution Command Council on 6 September 2001 – the correction of ethnicity – giving every Iraqi aged 18 years or more “the right” to change his/her ethnicity to Arabic, are all parts of a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

While the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his regime has done much to end the persecution of Feyli Kurds it has not done much to restore the lands they lost, now inhabited by Arabs.  Unlike Sunni Kurds who control the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and an impressive military force of soldiers known as peshmerga, Shiite Kurds are not in a position to take any of the lands that they’ve lost.  The weak central government in Baghdad is certainly in no position to evict the current Arab occupants from their new homes even if it wanted to.  Although the government of Iraq has offered citizenship to returning Feyli Kurds and many have returned as a result, even that is often a long and arduous process.

As a result, places that used to be inhabited by Iraqi Kurds such as Muqdadiyah and Mandali are now primarily inhabited by Iraqi Arabs.  One notable exception is in Khanaqin, which is close enough to the KRG for the KRG to have a serious claim to the area

This map shows the areas disputed between the KRG and the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Disputed_areas_in_Iraq.svgRed is non disputed areas controlled by the KRG, pink is areas disputed and officially controlled by the KRG, and orange is areas disputed and not officially controlled by the KRG.  Many of the areas in orange have a large peshmerga presence and are de facto controlled by Kurds if not officially by the KRG.

I doubt the long southern tip envisioned by Kurdish activists to be their southern border with Iraq will ever happen.  In fact, most of the attention and effort is being placed in controlling, or at least splitting, the Kirkuk governorate with its huge oil reserves.

Khanaqin may serve as the focal point of the Feyli Kurds in the future as the center of the only part of their historical lands that they may have local control over.

A map of Iraq showing both ethnic and religious divisions demonstrates the perilous position of Shiite Feyli Kurds in Iraq.  This map appears to be outdated and the situation is likely even more perilous position today.

Iraq_Religions_lgPerhaps Feyli Kurds will one day have their own small, semi autonomous region centered around Khanaqin as a compromise between the KRG and the central government.  The same concept appears to be taking shape in the Nineveh plains which has become a focal point for fleeing Assyrians since the fall of Saddam.

The Feyli Kurds Part 2: The Language(s) of the Feyli Kurds

Last week I wrote about the Kurds as a people as an introduction to the subgroup known as “Feylis”.  I wanted to write this week about the Feylis of Iraq and the ordeals they have faced over the past few decades, but as I was writing I decided a post on the language(s) spoken by the Feyli Kurds deserved its own post.Kurdish-inhabited_area_by_CIA_(1992)

As stated last week, the Kurds are an ethnic group whose territory mainly spans a large area in and around border regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.  This is a large group of 30-40 million that has, through the circumstances of geography and history, been denied their own state.   This is a mostly Sunni Muslim people who speak the various dialects of the Kurdish language.

Feyli Kurds themselves are a specific subgroup of Kurds noted by their practice of Shia Islam, unlike the Sunni Muslim majority.  They speak the Sorani dialect of Kurdish and the Gorani language.

Interestingly enough, Gorani is seen as a separate, although closely related, language to Kurdish.  It is grouped with Zaza in northern Kurdistan, another language that is not Kurdish, but whose speakers sometimes see themselves as Kurds and sometimes as a distinct group (although still very close to the Kurds).

While Zaza speakers seem to have an at least somewhat distinct identity based on their language, the Feyli Kurds identify themselves primarily with their sect (Shia Islam) as a distinguishing factor.  There are many speakers of Gorani among Sunni Kurds in the area and on top of that Gorani is seen as an endangered language being phased out by the Sorani dialect.  I had trouble finding a source on this and it seems a somewhat unclear situation, although if anyone can find the following book they can confirm: Meri, Josef W. Medieval Islamic Civilization: A–K, index. p 444.

Even if the Gorani language were to be completely supplanted by the Sorani dialect I would expect the Feyli Kurds to continue to exist as a distinct group due to their Shia faith whereas if the same were to happen between the Zaza language and the equivalent northern dialect of Kurdish (Kurmanji) I would expect the Zaza people to be subsumed into the larger Kurdish group.

Even the classification of Gorani as separate from Kurdish seems unclear with some sources classifying Gorani as a dialect of Kurdish due to the self identification of Gorani speakers as Kurds.  If someone has access to Encyclopedia Britannica they can confirm with the following source: “Kurdish language.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 23 November 2010.

Now language borders are themselves a fairly arbitrary idea.  While it is pretty easy to decide what is Turkish and what is Kurdish or what is Arabic and what is Kurdish due to their distinct separation into different language families originating from different areas, distinguishing languages or dialects that are all found in the North west Iranian group of languages, and found in roughly the same region, is a much trickier matter.

My own hunch is that Gorani is distinct from Kurdish as is Zaza, but all three languages being very distinct from Turkish and Arabic, their speakers identify with each other.

Mid_East_Linguistic_lg This map (provided by a Columbia University study “gulf2000” which is giving me great maps) illustrates the language situation much more beautifully than I could.  The pink and red areas are all grouped in the north western Iranian language family with the red areas being dialects of Kurdish while the pink areas are other languages (Zazaki, Gorani, etc.)

The following map, originally published in Le Monde although I lifted it off a forum post somewhere, shows the situation of the Kurdish dialects in particular.000654a

Notice here Gorani and Zazaki are classified as dialects of Kurdish along with the main two dialects of Kurdish, Sorani and Bahdinai (Kurmanji).  If these groups want to see themselves as Kurdish speakers then that is fine with me (what is an identity other than what people choose it to be).

There is not much more I can say on the matter of language here (due to my own ignorance on the subject) so I will end the discussion here and hopefully my next post will be on the plight of Feyli Kurds in Iraq rather than going off on another tangent.

The Feyli Kurds Part 1

Who are the Feyli Kurds?

Let’s start with the broader question: Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are an ethnic group of some 30-40 million people mainly found in the mountainous region comprising southeastern Turkey, northeastern Syria, Northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran.  There are many maps with differing borders on the concept of “Kurdistan,” ranging from reasonable to absurd ones like this one:


However, this seems to be the most commonly used map, apparently produced by the CIA.


It is claimed that they are the largest group without a state, but this is a dubious claim at best considering India alone is a multi ethnic state comprising many nations larger than the Kurdish one (Tamils, Maharathis, Gujaratis, etc.) without their own state.  However these groups aren’t necessarily oppressed.

Regardless of semantics the Kurds are quite a large nation to not have a state largely due to historical disunity and largely due to European colonialism and arbitrarily drawn borders after WWI.  The closest they have been allowed to get to a real modern state is the current Iraqi Kurdistan region (comprised of most of the Kurdish inhabited areas of Iraq).

The four aforementioned countries where most Kurds live are dominated by Turks, Arabs, and Persians.  The Kurds are predominantly Muslims like their Turkish, Arab, and Persian neighbors.  However there are many things that differentiate them.

The Kurdish language is related to Persian so there is some sense of togetherness felt between Kurds and Persians on the basis of language along with cultural similarities such as the celebration of Nowruz, or the Persian New Year.  However, Kurdish is in a completely different language family than Arabic and Turkish and the cultures are more distinctly different.

Even with the Persian majority in Iran there is religious division.  A majority Kurds in Iran are Sunni as contrasted to the Shiite majority of Iran and the Shiite clerical regime there.  Suppression of Sunni Islam in Iran has put Sunni Kurds at loggerheads with the Iranian government.

Interestingly enough this is not an issue with the Shiite Kurdish minority in Iran who are much better integrated into Iranian society.  This brings us the the Feyli Kurds.  The Feyli Kurds are a group of Kurds in Iraq and Iran who follow the Shia brand of Islam, unlike the majority of Sunni Kurds.  Feylis speak southern dialects of Kurdish such as Sorani (one of the two main dialects of Kurdish) and Gorani.


According to the above map of where the Kurds live (or historically such as in the case of that part of Azerbaijan bordering Armenia) the Feyli Kurds are found roughly in southern Iranian Kurdistan and in neighboring areas of Iraq bordered by a thick red line.

The details of this map should be taken with a grain of salt considering that none of the four countries where most Kurds are found ask for ethnicity on their censuses.  The map appears to show the maximum area inhabited by Kurds rather than just the areas where they are a majority.

The thick red border that is supposed to represent the range of Feyli habitation is itself just an educated guess from a forum poster here.  I chose this as it’s almost impossible to find a map showing where the Feyli Kurds are in Iran and this provides a reasonable guess based on the literature.

To the Feyli Kurds Iran would not be a particularly oppressive state.  Iran, unlike Turkey, Syria, and Iraq is not a state built exclusively on ethnic nationalism that excludes ethnic minorities.  It is a state built on Shia Islam so while the Iranian regime is oppressive to all its ethnic groups to varying degrees it is not particularly oppressive to the Shiite Feylis.

The Feylis of Iraq, on the other hand, have faced a great deal of oppression which I will detail in my next post.