Tag Archives: Iraqi Kurdistan

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 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.