Prejudice in Iraq: Shiítes, Sunni, and Kurds

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Prejudice in Iraq: Shiítes, Sunni, and Kurds

The modern nation of Iraq (in the Middle East) is home to twenty-six million people. Of those, 97 percent are followers of the religion known as Islam. People who adhere to Islam are called Muslims. Almost all Muslims belong to the two major sects or branches of Islam: Sunni and Shiítes. While worldwide 85 to 90 percent of Muslims are Sunni, in Iraq and neighboring Iran Shiítes are in the majority. Shiíte Arabs make up 60 to 65 percent of the Iraqi population, or about 15.6 to 17 million people. Sunni Arabs represent 32 to 37 percent, about 8.3 to 9.6 million people. People of Arab ethnicity originated in Southwest Asia on the Arabian Peninsula.

Kurds are also Muslims, the majority of whom are Sunni. However, they identify themselves as only the Kurdish people. Kurds make up 15 to 20 percent of Iraq's population, between four and five million people. Kurds descend from Indo-European tribes.

Iraqi Shiítes live primarily in central and southern Iraq, from Baghdad south between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to the city of Basra and the Persian Gulf. The Sunni live from Baghdad north along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The entire area of the Tigris and Euphrates River was commonly known as Mesopotamia from ancient times until the end of World War I (1914–18) when the country of Iraq was created. Kurds live in mountainous northeastern Iraq. Kurdish areas in Iraq are bordered on the east by Iran and the north by Turkey.

During the twentieth century, the story of Iraq was one of prejudice, discrimination, and persecution—Sunni against Shiíte, Shiíte against Sunni, and the Sunni-controlled Iraqi government against the Kurds. Taught in early childhood, any Iraqi can relate the story of the separation of Shiíte and Sunni that occurred during the seventh century. The separation left a legacy of prejudice, hatred, and violence among Shiíte and Sunni that spanned fourteen centuries.

Sunni-Shiíte separation

Sunnis and Shiítes originally split over who should rightfully succeed the prophet Muhammad at his death in 632 ce. Sunni followed Abu Bakr (c. 573–634), who was Muhammad's closest companion and a member of Muhammad's tribe, but not his family. Others believed Muhammad wished his son-in-law Ali to succeed him. Ali's followers became known as the Party of Ali or Shi'at Ali.

Over the next twenty-four years, the number of Muslims who followed Ali increased to, eventually, some 160 million followers in 2006. Ali became the fourth Islamic spiritual leader known as a caliph. After only five years as caliph, Ali was assassinated in 661. Devastated followers granted Ali's last wish. They tied his lifeless body to a camel and sent the camel off. Where the camel stopped they built a shrine to Ali and a mosque for worship. The camel stopped at Najaf, located about 100 miles south of Baghdad, near the Euphrates River.

A few decades later in 680, Ali followers—then known as Shiítes—urged Ali's son Husayn to challenge the then seventh caliph, a Sunni. However, at the town of Karbala, roughly halfway between Najaf and Baghdad, Husayn, his family, and companions were ambushed and killed by the caliph's men. Both Najaf and Karbala became holy sites to Shiítes. The roots of Shiíte hatred for Sunni and Sunni for Shiíte were firmly rooted.

Shiíte Muslims remained a small minority living in the region along the Euphrates River near Najaf and Karbala. Just as the Shiítes living in modern day Iran, they were predominantly of Persian ancestry rather than Arab ancestry. Persians descend from various peoples in history, including Arabs, Turks, and Mongolians who settled primarily in Iran.


An ethnic group native to a region that includes parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey.
A follower of the Islam religion; the two main branches of Muslims are the Sunni and Shiíte.
A government run by religious leaders of one religion.
A government run by political leaders rather than by leaders of a certain religion.

Shiíte population increases

In the nineteenth century, the Iraqi Shiíte population dramatically increased with the agricultural improvements that included irrigating


Two major groups of Islam worshippers were Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Muslim fundamentalists (religious followers who strictly interpret religious guidance) of both Islamic sects held a set of political beliefs in the early twenty-first century that Islam is not only a religion, but a political system as well. This belief was known as Islamism. The fundamentalists believed that the increasing influences from Western society in the Arab world—including an emphasis on wealth and individualism, as well as Western entertainment—were evil for Islamic societies. Their unhappiness also targeted other Muslims, including leaders of Arab countries who were deemphasizing the role of Islamic religion in government.

In the 1960s, such movements as pan-Arabism (a desire to politically unite all Arab populations in the Middle East and Northern Africa and become free of Western influences) and Arab nationalism (the belief that a particular nation and its culture, people, and values are superior to those of other nations) focused more on cultural similarities among Arab states and favored governments that were more secular in nature. Influenced by the Soviet Union, the more liberal and moderate Arab countries adopted socialist (economic production is controlled by the government for the benefit of all the citizens) forms of government. Islamists opposed this type of government. They wanted a society and legal system strictly based on Islamic codes. During the 1980s, Islamist rebels joined together to challenge the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Heavily funded by the United States, they successfully drove the Soviets out.

Dismay over continued poverty in the Arab states led more Muslims to join in the support of Islamism, and it became a growing influence in Arab countries. Israeli occupation of parts of Palestinian Arab territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the Middle East further fueled the popularity of Islamism and disdain of the United States, which supported Israeli activities. Islamism was carried forward by various organizations, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, in the late twentieth century. During the 1990s, Islamist conflicts occurred in Algeria, Sudan, and Nigeria. In 1996, the Islamist organization known as the Taliban gained power in Afghanistan. Fundamentalists also gained control of Pakistan.

Though Islamism—led by such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood—developed in the early twentieth century, the movement did not become internationally active until the 1980s. It gained considerably more worldwide recognition in the 1990s in reaction to increased U.S. and European military presence in the Middle East triggered by the Persian Gulf War of 1990. In Saudi Arabia, an Islamic group known as the Wahhabi increased its following during this time. Saudi resident and future Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden (1957–) was greatly influenced by the Wahhabi. This gain in support was in reaction to the friendly relations of the Saudi government with the United States during the 1991 Gulf War allowing establishment of permanent U.S. military bases. A coalition force led by the United States repelled Iraqi forces following their invasion of Iraq, and a permanent U.S. military presence was established in Saudi Arabia. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein took advantage of the Islamists' sentiments by charging that Saudi Arabia had sold out Islamic interests to the West.

The terrorist attack in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, was attributed to Muslims from Saudi Arabia. The attack, which killed more three thousand civilians, brought the world's attention to Islamism. The Islamist movement in the early twenty-first century remained strong, driven still by U.S. support of Israel, strong U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.-led war against Muslims in Iraq since 2003. Many Muslims continued to believe the West was prejudiced against them and persecuting them.

the southern desert with a canal from the Euphrates River that was completed. The irrigated land supported dates, rice, and grain. Many Sunni Arabs moved into the region to farm. Being close to the holy places of Najaf and Karbala, the Sunni assimilated and gradually became members of the Shiíte sect. Hence these new Shiítes were of Arab origin, and soon Shiíte Arabs greatly outnumbered Persian Shiítes.

When Shiítes died, they wanted their bodies buried near Ali's at Najaf or Husayn's at Karbala. Cemeteries around the towns grew large. Shiítes made pilgrimages (journeys to a sacred place) to both Najaf and Karbala to pray at the mosques (Muslim houses of worship) and shrines of their ancient leaders.

Iraq is created

Modern Iraq history began in 1920. The Middle East, including Mesopotamia, had been part of the Ottoman Empire (Turkish Empire) since 1534. With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the British and French, both victors, divided the Middle East. Mesopotamia came under British control. Britain arbitrarily (randomly, without apparent logic) created a country out of three former Ottoman provinces: Basra, the Shiíte-dominated land in the south of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers; Baghdad, the Sunni area to the north; and Mosul, the oil-rich northeastern Kurdish region. This new country was called Iraq. Both Shiíte and Sunni revolted, but the British quickly squashed the uprisings. Britain appointed as king a Sunni Muslim named Faisal I (1885–1933). Britain's move to install a Sunni king led to eight decades of Sunni rule.

King Faisal I died in 1933. His son, Ghazi, took over but was killed in an automobile accident in 1939. Prince Abdul Ilah, Ghazi's brother, led the country until 1953, when Ghazi's son became King Faisal II (1935–1958) at the age of eighteen.

Shiítes, led by their clerics (religious leaders), resisted Sunni rule. Sunni rule was staunchly secular, not run by religious leaders. The Sunni government acted continuously to suppress the Shiítes, whom they considered uneducated radicals.

Constantly denied representation in the government, Shiítes revolted in 1935, but the Faisal monarchy, or realm, easily put down the revolt. Sunnis were favored over the Shiítes for positions in government employment and education. Nevertheless, some Shiítes migrated to Baghdad, Iraq's capital and largest city, and within the city tried to lose their Shiíte identity. Some managed to obtain an education while others became successful shop owners.

Baáth Party rises to power

In the early 1950s, the Iraqi government established oil agreements with foreign companies, and money soon poured into the country. Young educated Sunnis, tired of being under a monarchy and wanting a share of power and oversight in the increasingly prosperous government, moved to overthrow King Faisal II. In 1958, Sunni rebels and army officers overthrew the monarchy, killing both the king and Prince Abdul Ilah. Ten years of political instability followed that included two violent changes in government leadership in 1963, the first as a result of an assassination of the president and the second from a military coup. Through the power struggles the Sunni political party known as the Baáth grew in strength. The Baáth party took control of the government in 1968 and a member, Saddam Hussein (1937–2006), began his rise to power. The Baáth party was overwhelmingly Sunni and remained rigorously secular. Baáthist viewed the Shiítes as religious fanatics.

In 1971, the Baáth government completed a takeover of all Iraqi oil facilities from foreign control, a process that had begun in 1961. Many Sunni became wealthy, and Sunni communities prospered. Many Sunni also became prosperous landowners, especially north of Baghdad. Shiítes moved north to work on the Sunni land and some found ways to acquire their own property. However, most Shiítes struggled and lived in poverty.

Shiítes, to combat Sunni dominance, established a political party—al-Dawa—that called for an Islam government run by clerics. The same movement to establish an Islamic state (one run by clerics) was taking place in neighboring Iran but there the Shiítes were in the overwhelming majority, comprising about 90 percent of the population.

Sunni Saddam Hussein takes control

Baáthists' discrimination against and oppression of Shiítes turned deadly. Between 1974 and 1977, thirteen Shiíte clerics were murdered and fifteen others were sent to prison for life. Members of al-Dawa responded with attacks on Baáth offices. The Baáth Party outlawed al-Dawa. Sunni Saddam Hussein, by then a Baáthist leader, took control of the Iraqi government in 1979.

Muslim Brotherhood

Weary of European colonial powers controlling much of the Arab world in northern Africa and the Middle East, a movement known as the Muslim Brotherhood was created in Egypt in 1928. The Brotherhood opposed Western influences in Arab societies and promoted a return to Islamic states of past centuries. Believing Muslim lands had been trampled over by foreign influences, they also sought to rid Arab nations of leaders who were friendly to Western powers. Branches of the Muslim Brotherhood grew in other Arab states, including Syria and Jordan and, though officially banned, gained political influence. The Brotherhood was not only a religious movement, but a social movement as well. Their goal was to protect workers from unfair treatment by Western companies operating in Arab country. They also promoted construction of hospitals, schools, and other social institutions. By 1948, the Muslim Brotherhood had half a million members, and Cairo was a central meeting place for Muslims.

The assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (1918–1981) in 1981 was attributed to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (a military religious war), a violent wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. They believed Sadat was responsible for introducing Western ideas into Islamic societies. Another violent wing of the Brotherhood was the Islamic Jihad in Palestine to combat the presence of the state of Israel. They also opposed the moderate political policies of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), led by Yasser Arafat (1929–2004). The Brotherhood's popularity continued into the twenty-first century as they continued insisting that Muslims should live according to strict Islamic codes and reject Western ideas and innovations. Another armed wing of the Brotherhood was Hamas, which formed in Gaza in 1987. In the 2005 Egyptian parliamentary elections, though the organization was still officially banned, Brotherhood members won 20 percent of the parliament seats. They largely ran as independent candidates. The Brotherhood was also believed to be influential with insurgents fighting in Iraq against U.S. occupational forces and Iraqis friendly with the Western powers.

At the same time Hussein came to power, the Iranian Shiíte majority overthrew the leader of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Shah (1919–1980), and installed a sectarian (religious led) Shiíte government with cleric Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini (c. 1900–1989) as its leader. From that time on, Iraqi Shiítes were treated with brutal oppression. Hussein, determined to prevent a Shiíte power shift in Iraq as happened in Iran, used his Sunni army and security forces to round up and execute al-Dawa members as well as persons known to aid or sympathize with the party. Tens of thousands of Shiítes were kidnapped from their families and never seen again.

Hussein started his brutal hunt of Shiítes a year before he began a war with Iran in 1980. Tensions between Iraq and Iran had increased greatly following the Iranian Revolution the previous year in 1979. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the existing Iranian government and established the Islamic Republic of Iran. He called for Islamic revolutionaries across the Muslim world to follow Iran's example. Tensions across the Middle East escalated including a border dispute between Iran and Iraqi. Hussein finally launched an attack on the oil-rich, Iranian-held land of Khuzestan in southwest Iraq, along the Persian Gulf, in September 1980. The very costly war lasted eight years and, all the while, Hussein's forces continued to abduct Shiítes and demand proof that they did not sympathize with Iranian Shiítes. If their claims were unsatisfactory, they were either executed or forced out of the country. In reality, many Iraqi Shiítes fought for Iraq against Iranian Shiítes during the war.

Hussein forbade Shiítes from public religious rituals and from displaying pictures of Shiíte leaders, especially those of Ali and Husayn. He also banned Shiíte pilgrimages to Najaf and Karbala. People were threatened to never speak against Hussein. The penalty was death.

The 1991 Shiíte uprising

The Iraq-Iran war wound down by 1989 with no significant victories or change of borders but with perhaps as many as nine hundred thousand Iraqis and Iranians killed and injured. The war ended with a ceasefire negotiated under international pressure. In 1990, Hussein directed his forces to invade oil-rich Kuwait, a small Middle East country on the coast of the Persian Gulf between Iraq to the north and Saudi Arabia to the south. Fearful of further expansion by Iraq troops across Kuwait toward the border of Saudi Arabia, a U.S.-led coalition force (made up of many nations) repelled Iraqi forces. U.S. Republican president George H. W. Bush (1924–; served 1989–93) encouraged Iraqi Shiíte to rebel and overthrow Hussein.

Out of Iraqi's eighteen provinces, fourteen experienced Shiíte uprisings. However, the United States decided not to lend military support and Hussein brutally halted the rebellion. He bombed Shiíte shrines, houses, and bazaars (marketplaces). His forces terrorized the country slaughtering tens of thousands of Shiítes.

United States invades Iraq, 2003

The United Nations, an organization of the world's nations created to resolve conflicts in the world and provide humanitarian aid where needed, passed resolutions throughout the 1990s demanding Hussein halt any productions of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear and biological weapons capable of killing large numbers of people). Hussein continued to terrorize the Kurdish and Shiite populations as the United States carried out numerous bombing missions against Iraqi military installations including Operation Desert Strike that lasted several weeks in October 1996 and Operation Desert Fox in December 1998. The resolutions seemingly went unheeded and U.S. forces invaded Iraq in the spring of 2003 amid an international controversy over whether any weapons of mass destruction actually existed. Hussein's government fell on April 9, 2003, and Hussein was captured on December 13, 2003. Shiítes for the first time in eighty years were no longer under Sunni rule. However the Iraq war continued even though U.S. president George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) had declared it over in 2003. By 2006 a civil war had developed between the Sunnis and Shiítes.

Shiítes embraced their newfound freedom enthusiastically. They immediately renamed streets, bridges, and public gathering areas after Shiíte leaders and heroes. All likenesses and representations of Hussein were destroyed. Pilgrimages to Najaf and Karbala began again and crowded those cities. Merchants sold prayer beads, rugs, and clogs of earth from the holy cities to the faithful.

Shiítes again performed public religious rituals once banned under Hussein. For example, Shiíte men paraded through streets beating their backs with chains. The ritual symbolized Ali's suffering. The Shiítes again publicly commemorated their holiest day of the year, Ashoura, marking the death of Husyn in Karbala in bce 680.

The already vast cemeteries around Najaf and Karbala grew dramatically as Shiítes brought back corpses of loved ones they had sought and found. Human rights groups estimated anywhere from three hundred thousand people to seven million, mostly Shiítes, were murdered under Hussein's rule. At the end of 2003, two large issues loomed. Iraqi Shiítes would have great difficulty putting aside grievances and deep hurt. They, along with the Sunni, would need to carve out a new Iraqi self-image as one people, which would require Sunnis to accept not being in total control of the country.

By early 2006, Iraqis had freely elected a permanent government. Reflecting the Iraqi population makeup, Shiítes won a clear majority, but about 20 percent of representatives were Sunni. A new constitution had been completed and approved by the people in October 2005. The constitution provided several basic principles: a democratic (power of government held by the people through election of political leaders) form of government; freedom of religion though Islam is identified as the national religion; and, the right to assemble. Whether the new Iraq would actually work was uncertain because of the sectarian (religious) strife that steadily worsened through 2006.

The United States still maintained an occupation force of about 150,000 troops in Iraq to attempt to keep order. However, daily violence continued claimed the lives of Iraqi civilians, police, and military, as well as American soldiers. By late 2005 and early 2006, Iraqis were segregating into Shiíte and Sunni enclaves. By late 2006 some 53,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed and over 3,000 U.S. and other coalition soldiers including over 2,700 U.S. soldiers after the war was declared over by American leaders.

Deep division

Two and half years after the U.S. invasion, the deep divisions and hatred between Shiíte and Sunni surfaced. The most violent areas in late 2005 and early 2006 were in a large circle around Baghdad. The U.S. military estimated 85 percent of violent attacks were occurring in Baghdad and in communities to the north, west, and south.

The belt around Baghdad, including the city and at least forty outlying towns, had until the last few years been mixed with Sunni and Shiíte residents. Since the U.S. invasion, families seeking safety from violent prejudicial acts had been packing up and moving where their sect predominated. The movement resulted in segregation of areas in Baghdad and of whole towns. In Baghdad, as in towns around the city, entire sections were becoming Sunni only or Shiíte only.

In 2006, violence continued to escalate in the Baghdad belt. Contributing to the violence were the Iraqi security forces who were supposed to maintain peace. Although the United States trained a new Iraqi army and police force, it appeared the new Iraqi battalions were not mixed. Instead, men in battalions in the northeast were overwhelming Kurdish, battalions to the south were Shiíte, and battalions in the belt were largely segregated into either Shiíte or Sunni. According to news reports, some Shiíte young men openly declare that they joined a security force to make their revenge-taking against Sunni appear lawful.

Sunni leaders claimed daily harassment, seizure, and executions of Sunnis by Shiíte-dominated security forces. According to these leaders, the Shiíte forces who were under command of the Iraqi Interior Ministry canvassed neighborhoods, arresting and allegedly assassinating Sunni. Shiítes, on the other hand, claimed they were targeted by Sunnis in killings, often by suicide bombings. Threatening letters, hate graffiti on walls, individual murders, and suicide bombers at funerals, mosques, and most any public place all are part of dangerous daily life in Iraq.

The Shiíte families who lived in the predominantly Sunni towns of Samarra and Tarmiya north of Baghdad constantly received death threats. By 2005 and 2006, they were unable to leave the walls of their homes. Most moved from Sunni to Shiíte communities within Baghdad or to towns to the south such as Madaen, Hilla, and Hut. Conversely, Sunni families of those same towns moved to Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad or towns to the north such as Samarra and Tarmiya. Such scenarios were playing out throughout the Baghdad belt. Those who remained in mixed neighborhoods were keenly aware of their surroundings and lived in fear with threats and violence. Violence and counter-violence (violence in response to violence) made the old hatreds only more bitter and lessened the likelihood of a united Iraq.

Kurds in Iraq

Kurds numbered twenty-five to thirty million worldwide in the early 2000s. The majority lived in a mountainous area of about 230,000 square miles that is located in four countries, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. For over a millennium this area was called Kurdistan. There were approximately four to five million Kurds in Iraq, 13.5 million in Turkey, 6.5 million in Iran, and a little over one million in Syria. Several million more lived in various countries in Asia. Kurds are not Arabs; instead, their ancestors are Indo-European tribes that inhabited the mountainous regions for as long as four thousand years. Arabs conquered these mountain people in the seventh century and Islamicized them, meaning they made them followers of Islam. In modern times Kurds like other Muslims were either Sunni or Shiíte. The majority were Sunni. However, the hatred that separated Sunni Arabs from Shiíte Arabs did not exist among Kurds.

The Kurds were the world's largest ethnic group without their own country. Their desire for a Kurdish nation led to uprisings in all four countries of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey comprising ancient Kurdistan. In modern times, the Kurdish lack of an independent homeland became known as the Kurdish problem.

Following World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire (1299–1922), the 1920 Treaty of Sevres called for a country for Kurds. However, the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, failed to fulfill that promise of a Kurdish homeland. Uprisings among the Kurdish in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria resulted.

Prejudice Suffered by Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iran

Prejudice (a negative attitude towards others based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience) against Kurds in countries bordering Iraq—Turkey, Syria, and Iran—is ongoing even in the twenty-first century. Kurds experience prejudice and discrimination (treating some differently than others or favoring one social group over another based on prejudices) culturally, socially, politically, including the banning of their language.

Following World War I, Article 62 of the Treaty of Sèvres signed in 1920 allowed for self-rule, called autonomous rule, in areas predominantly populated by Kurds. Article 64 suggested independence for the Kurdish people. However, the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne signed in Switzerland in 1923 made no provision for Kurdish independence.

With no hope for a homeland, Kurds in Turkey rebelled in three violent uprisings in 1925, 1930, and 1936–38. Movement for Kurdish autonomy arose in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980 but was harshly repressed by Turkish military.

As a result, Turkey attempted to abolish any Kurdish identity. Through the 1980s, the Turkish constitution banned the use of the Kurdish language in both speech and written word. Someone overheard using Kurdish words were subject to police surveillance or arrest. During the 1980s, Turkish troops destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages, just as Saddam Hussein destroyed Kurdish towns in Iraq.

Turkey. Referred to as animals, microbes, or worthless, Kurds in Turkey were subjected to dehumanizing speech. Kurdish political parties were systematically restricted and shut down. Those Kurdish leaders who spoke of a separatist movement (separating from Turkey and claiming independent rule) were imprisoned. The most famous jailed political leader was Leyla Zana (1961–), the first Kurdish woman elected to Turkey's parliament (government) in 1991. When taking the oath for her seat in parliament, Zana spoke in Kurdish and wore the colors representing the Kurdish flag, yellow, green, and red. Her language and clothing outraged the other members of parliament. The Kurd areas of southeastern Turkey are the most economically underdeveloped in the country. While other areas of Turkey had greatly modernized with industrial growth, Kurdish areas lagged far behind since the Turkish government withheld resources from the area.

Syria. Amnesty International, a worldwide human rights organization, reported in 2005 that Kurds, although the second largest ethnic group in Syria, were routinely victims of prejudice and discrimination. Kurds were barred from many professions, not allowed to own property, and refused admission to study at the university. No published materials in Kurdish were allowed. When Kurds attempted to protest the discrimination, they faced arrest, torture, and unfair trials.

Iran. Since World War I, the Kurds were in constant revolt against the Iranian government. They actually managed to establish in December 1945 the only Kurdish independent nation, the Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan. The Mahabad Republic came to a quick end in December 1946 when the Iranian army easily defeated the Kurds. Subsequent revolts by Kurds—the largest occurring from 1979 to 1984, when the Ayatollah Khomeini established religious rule in Iran—were met with suppression of Kurdish activities, including arrests, and executions. One tactic used by Iranian governments to end revolts was the assassination of Kurdish leaders. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Kurds in Iran continued as a discriminated minority.

In Iraq, most Kurds lived in the northeast in an area about the size of Austria. The land they occupied held about two-thirds of the oil production and reserves of Iraq. For this reason, the Iraqi government long feared Kurdish separation and the loss of most of its wealth. Furthermore, the Iraqi government believed if the Kurds gained independence, then Shiítes in the southern regions might also demand independence, likely meaning an end to modern Iraq. Since the establishment of the Iraqi state in 1932, succeeding Iraqi regimes have kept Kurdish separation movements suppressed. Kurds have suffered cultural and political discrimination, destruction of entire towns, and, in the late 1980s, genocide. Genocide is a planned systematic attempt to eliminate a whole targeted group of people by exterminating all members of that group.

Kurdish and Iraqi militaries engaged in fighting in the 1960s, conflict that ended with sixty thousand deaths and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons when hundreds of villages were destroyed. Fighting again broke out in 1978 and 1979 with Iraqi government forces soundly defeating Kurdish guerilla fighters (small groups of combatants). Six hundred Kurdish villages were destroyed and 200,000 Kurds displaced to other parts of Iraq.

Chemical attacks wipe out thousands

Determined to halt the Kurd rebellions, the Baáth Party in the 1960s began severe oppression of Kurds, murdering many. When Saddam Hussein took power in 1979, he continued the campaign. However, in the 1980s, Kurds attempted to take advantage of situations when Iraqi forces were busy warring with neighboring Iran. Hussein's response culminated in a Kurdish genocide in 1987–88. Al-Anfal (anfal means spoils) was the codename for the genocide, a planned military operation directed by Hussein's cousin Ali Hasan al-Majid. Al-Majid became known as "Chemical Ali" because he unleashed chemical weapons against Kurds.

During the genocide, rebel villages were identified as "prohibited" areas where the Iraqi military were told to kill every living thing, humans and animals alike. In many villages, men fifteen to seventy were separated from children, women, and elderly men and either killed or taken to detention camps (a large center created to hold members of an undesirable peoples, such as political prisoners or members of an ethnic group).

In March 1988, Chemical Ali used lethal chemicals on the residents of Halabja, a town of forty to fifty thousand people. The attack on Halabja took place on March 16. Within hours, five thousand innocent people (75 percent of them women and children) were dead and another ten thousand maimed, disabled, or disfigured. The other days were spent attacking other of the forty cities and towns. The attack on Halabja was the worst chemical attack in modern times. The chemicals used included mustard gas, cyanide, and the nerve agents Sarin, Tabun, and VX. Most victims are believed to have died instantly when the chemical agents destroyed their body or paralyzed them. Conventional weapons such as bombs and artillery shells also were used to bombard the town. Over the course of three days, about twelve thousand innocent people died.

The fighting continues

The embittered Kurds again rose up against Hussein in 1991 when his forces were involved in the invasion of Kuwait. When the United States military, with help from forces of many nations, repelled the Iraqi forces from Kuwait, a safe haven was set up in northern Iraqi Kurdistan for Kurds. Under the direction of the United Nations, humanitarian aid reached the Kurds located along the Iraq-Turkey border. A northern no-fly zone was established to prevent the Iraqi air force from carrying out bombing raids on the Kurds.

From October 1991 until the overthrow of the Iraqi government by U.S. forces in 2003, the Kurdish people in the safe haven were left to govern themselves. The area became a place of freedom. Thousands of Iraqi refugees seeking freedom and a more peaceful existence went to the no-fly zone. Basic rights of the people—including those other than Kurds—were protected by the Kurdish leadership.

Thousands of destroyed villages and towns in Iraq were rebuilt, and families returned. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Kurdish region was the most stable of the entire country. Kurds participated in the democratic election of government officials and voted approval of the Iraqi constitution that protected their rights. In 2006, as Sunni Arabs and Shiíte Arabs carried out violent actions against one another elsewhere in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan remained stable and relatively free of violence.

Building a unified Iraq continued to prove difficult. Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiítes, though all Muslim, had far different goals. In federal government elections Shiíte Arabs voted overwhelmingly for candidates of religious parties. If their votes were the only votes, a sectarian (ruled by religious leaders) or theocratic government, such as that of neighboring Iran, would no doubt be established in Iraq. Sunni Arabs had no desire for a sectarian government and were anti-Iranian. Sunni strongly opposed and feared the establishment of a sectarian Shiíte government in Iraq. Kurds also desired a secular (non-religious) government. However, Iraqi Kurds ideally preferred to be separated from Iraq so that they might establish their own nation: Kurdistan.

The newly approved constitution actually protected all three groups, allowing each to partially achieve their goals for governance. All three received a share of Iraq's oil revenue (income). When Sunni dictators were in power they used oil revenues to finance their own development and the destruction of the northern Kurdish region and the Shiíte south. Kurds remained secular in their region; the Shiítes created a sectarian region in southern Iraq if they desired. Sunnis were to be protected from Shiíte domination. Whether the newly elected representative government and the constitution could hold the country together remained in question in late 2006.

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Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Peters, Francis E. Muhammad and the Origins of Islam. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.


Di Giovanni, Janine. "Reaching For Power." National Geographic, June 2004, pp. 2-35.

Tavernise, Sabrina. "Sectarian Hatred Pulls Apart Iraq's Mixed Towns." New York Times, November 20, 2005.


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