In March 1988 the Western media once again shocked their audience by bringing home horrific stories of the extensive and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons on the civilian population in remote Kurdistan. As two reporters visiting the area put it: ‘Neither side in the Gulf War has ever been particularly scrupulous about observing the accepted norms of international conflict. But what has been happening in the past year, and especially the last week, in the remote corner of north-eastern Iraq reveals previously unplumbed depths of savagery.’ footnote1 However appalling these pictures were to Western observers, to the Kurds they were neither unexpected nor without precedent. Some twenty-five years earlier, in August 1963, another reporter had sent an almost identical account of the Unequal War, in almost the same area: ‘The Iraqi army appears bent on breaking the Kurds’ will to resist by methods of total war. In addition to bombing and machinegunning some villages . . . crops have been burned. Villagers have been deported to a zone south of Kurdistan. The economic blockade of the north has been imposed more vigorously. As a result by next spring some Kurds may face starvation.’ footnote2

In the present century a systematic process of de-Kurdification has been carried out by different regimes in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and to a lesser extent Syria. The Kurds’ very existence has been denied in Turkey, where the mere mention of their name is tantamount to treason and they are referred to as ‘the mountain Turks who have forgotten to speak Turkish’, footnote3 while in Iran officials have somewhat patronizingly called them ‘pure Iranian’ in a deliberate confusion of the terms ‘Iranian’ and ‘Aryan’. In Iraq the authorities have been forced to acknowledge the Kurds’ existence—partly because of the sheer weight of the Kurds in the total population footnote4 (variously estimated between one-third and onequarter) but above all because of the militancy of Kurdish nationalism in that country. footnote5 However, Kurdish politics in general and its Nationalist movement in particular remain underdeveloped, reflecting the forcible fragmentation of the territory between five different countries and the backward conditions of Kurdish society. Located at the geographical edge of all five countries, Kurdistan comprises inhospitable, highly irregular mountainous and for the most part barren lands. It would not be much of an exaggeration to characterize it as a collection of the most underdeveloped regions of some of the most backward countries (excluding the Soviet Union) of the Middle East.

The Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria have had a long history of struggle for independence, and to this end they have forged alliances with regional and extra-regional forces out of necessity, convenience or at times sheer desperation. The absurdity of some of these alliances gives the appearance that the Kurds—or their political leaders—have behaved opportunistically and have been willing to sell out to the highest bidders, irrespective of the principles and the issues involved. The leaders themselves tend to describe these vacillations as pragmatic ‘tactical manoeuvres’ necessary for survival. The rise of the political parties over the past four decades has been rapid, but their adherents mainly come from the urban intelligentsia. Despite the accelerated pace of de-tribalization, the vast majority of Kurds still live in the countryside where tribal ties and personal loyalties to Aghas, Khans, Mullahs and Sheikhs are very strong. Thus, to talk of Kurdish Nationalism as if it were a homogeneous, cohesive movement is quite misleading. In the past five decades there have been at least two different strands of nationalist sentiment, with different underlying causes and different visions for an independent Kurdistan. The first one is based on the sentiment of the tribal ‘chieftains’, who have been antagonized by state intervention in their traditional way of life. As a dying breed their natural reaction has been resistance to assimilation and change. The nationalist aspirations of the urban intelligentsia, often shrouded in Marxist phraseology, are as much opposed to tribalism as they are hostile to the unification ideologies of the ‘host’ governments. In this clash between ‘traditionalism’ and ‘progressive nationalism’ the two parts hang together in a perennial relationship of love and hate, the urban intelligentsia providing the education and the cultural and international solidarity for the movement, while the military backbone still lies in the tribes.

The purpose of this article is to trace and evaluate the role of Kurdish political organizations in the most recent phase of the protracted conflict between Iraq and Iran, since September 1980. The Iran–Iraq conflict is a complicated and recurrent theme in the region, which has been extensively researched and cannot be discussed here. But to explain the recent course of events, it is necessary to go back to an earlier phase, culminating in the Algiers Agreement of March 1975, in which the fate of the Kurds was a significant if not decisive element.

The full-scale Kurdish revolt in Iraq, which broke out in the autumn of 1961, had causes of a mixed nature. The Kurds had participated in the July 1958 revolution to overthrow the monarchical regime, with the expectation that the new revolutionary government would be sympathetic to their demands. But although the third article of the Provisional Constitution did contain a statement to the effect that Kurds and Arabs were partners in the homeland, by September 1961 it had become clear that Qassim was dragging his feet and was not prepared to give in to Kurdish demands. At the same time, Qassim introduced a progressive Land Reform Programme, limiting individual landholdings to a maximum of 1350 acres in the north, together with a Land Tax applicable to cultivated lands across the country. The purpose of the agrarian reform was to broaden the social base of the revolution by winning over the support of the peasantry, while the Land Tax was designed to raise government revenue from non-oil sources—an important consideration with the prospect of the nationalization of foreign oil companies and the potential boycott of Iraqi oil looming large on the horizon. Clearly, Qassim was trying to avoid a repetition of the experience that had led to Mossadeq’s downfall a decade earlier.

Not surprisingly, the large landowners of Kurdistan did not like the idea of the Agrarian Reform, put up resistance to its implementation and refused to pay the Land Tax. This latter aspect initially prompted the Kurdish Democratic Party (kdp) to denounce the rebellion as ‘reactionary, inspired by the imperialists, and directed against the progressive Iraqi Republic’. footnote6 But opinions were divided within the kdp, and after much deliberation, the Talebani faction won the argument and the party joined the rebels in December 1961, primarily to prevent it from being dominated by the tribal leaders led by Mulla Mustafa Barazani, and with the ultimate goal of steering it towards the cause of ‘autonomy for Kurdistan and democracy for Iraq’.

The position of the Iraqi Communist Party (icp) is worth mentioning here. Having declared both Qassim and his Kurdish adversaries as ‘progressive’, the icp found itself in a dilemma. While preparations for a full-scale war were underway on both sides, the icp suggested that the two sides should forget their differences and form a common front (in conjunction with the icp, of course) to challenge imperialism. Curiously, the sister party in Iran, the Tudeh, later found itself in an identical position and took exactly the same course of action.