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Iran and the Caucasus 17 (2013) 215-234

A History of Violence: Ethnic Group Identity and the Iraqi Kurds
Craig Douglas Albert
Georgia Regents University, Augusta

Abstract One of the more interesting aspects of world concern during “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was how to incorporate Iraq’s Kurdish population into an American military strategy. Furthermore, as the war was winding down, and the United States and Iraq began to construct a new Iraqi state, government, and Constitutional regime, the focus shifted on what role would the Kurds play in the new government, or even if they should be included in a government. But for most policy-makers, it was unclear who were the Kurds. How were they different than the other ethnic and religious populations of Iraq and the region generally? What was their history with the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein? The purpose of this paper is to provide answers to these most important questions through the lens of Political Science. As Iraq continues to form its new identity, it is important to understand what constitutes the identity of one of its most prominent ethnic groups, the Kurds. In tracing and describing Kurdish ethnic attributes, it is also important to delineate the history between the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein, how Iraqi identity was constructed in opposition to Kurdish identity (often oppressing it), and to understand the tense relationship between the two, a relationship that is most aptly described as having a history of violence. Keywords: Iraqi Kurds, Kurdish Identity, Ethnic Violence, Ethnic Identity, Ethnonationalism

INTRODUCTION In the United States and throughout the international arena as well, as the American war in Iraq progressed, constant debate emerged, often heated and divisive. One of the more interesting aspects of concern was how to incorporate Iraq’s Kurdish population into an American military strategy. Furthermore, as the war was winding down, and the United States and Iraq began to construct a new Iraqi state, government, and Constitutional
! Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2013 DOI: 10.1163/1573384X-20130206

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regime, the focus shifted on what role would the Kurds play in the new government, or even if they should be included in a government. Indeed, there was widespread interest and concern within academia and policy circles considering the possibility of a Kurdish state. Iraqi federalism, consisting of a Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish power-sharing structure was also one of the more favoured solutions. It is interesting to note, however, that President George W. Bush did not explain sufficiently to the public who, indeed, were these Iraqi Kurds. How were they different than the other ethnic and religious populations of Iraq and the region generally? What was their history with the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein? The purpose of this paper is to provide answers to these most important questions through the lens of Political Science. This paper unfolds in three sections. First, it tells the conflictual story of the Iraqi regime and the Iraqi Kurds. It traces the major points of contest and conflict between the two sides and attempts to describe their oppositional history. Second, this paper attempts to describe the Iraqi national identity constructed by Saddam Hussein. Thirdly, I provide a categorised ethno-historical description of the Iraqi Kurds in an attempt to understand exactly what elements of ethnicity are important in the Kurdish ethnic group identity. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE: 1968-19921 In 1968, the Revolution of July (15-30) brought a particular brand of Ba’thist ideology to power in Iraq. The Takriti Ba’th gained power and overthrew the Qasim regime, which only held power from a decade earlier, themselves gaining power in another July Revolution (1958). By 1979, the Takriti Ba’th began consolidating into a familial party rather than a regional one. Saddam Hussein ascended to the pinnacle of power, a position he relinquished only after the 2003 American occupation. During this time, the Takriti Ba’th lost power as Hussein transferred powerful posiI mark the end of this history in 1992, as afterwards, the US-lead “No-Fly Zone” over Iraqi Kurdistan greatly hindered Kurdish conflict with the government and a more tacitly “independent” Kurdistan began to form at this time. Of course, there were still differences between the sides at this point, but for the purposes of time, space, and relevancy, are not discussed herein.
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tions to dedicated and loyal family members, numbering perhaps 50,000. The Ba’th thus became the party of Hussein, rather than a party for Iraq (Dodge 2003; Davis 2005). The main ideology of this strain of Ba’thism, however, included a unique blend of pan-Arabism and what may be conceptualised as “Mestopotamianism”. This was an attempt to make Iraq the leader of the Arab world by presenting the ideal Arab as an Iraqi Arab. The Ba’th sought to become king of Arab nationalism by defining Arab identity according to Iraqi history, culture, and memory. This process included discriminating against all other political parties and identity groups including the Iraq Communist Party, the Shi‘a, and especially, the Kurds. The attempt to construct a singular Iraqi national identity immediately put the Takriti Ba’th in conflict with Iraqi Kurds. For almost 30 years, the two groups would be in conflict eventually resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. The Kurdish question has existed since the founding of the Iraqi nation-state in 1921, and the Kurds always had a differentiated identity. For the Ba’th, Kurdish identity would be a barrier to creating a single Iraqi nationalism. But the Kurdish problem plagued even the British in their first attempts to establish an Iraqi national entity, post-WWI. Conflict and compromises oscillating between a state bent on destruction of the Kurdish identity and an almost completely opposite stance of recognising Kurdish autonomy characterised Kurdish/Iraqi relations. But as Iraqi identity was solidified, so too did Kurdish seek to separate itself and demonstrate a distinct identity. Under Saddam, this not only meant defiance, but a complete offensive security threat to Hussein’s vision for an Iraq unified with a specific national identity. And, unfortunately, opposition to that vision, “was met by massive military campaigns” (Polk 2006: 121). According to Dodge (2003: 159), no society could exist in Iraq that was not defined according to the Ba’thist vision. Saddam Hussein did not wage a conventional war against the Kurds. Rather, he used tactics of state terrorism and localised instances of mass atrocities. Following WWI, the Kurds sought autonomy and/or independence from Iraq. The Iraqi government despised the decades-long Kurdish uprisings, rebellions and political campaigns arguing for independence. It is without a doubt that the Iraqi government and the Kurds deeply opposed one another. This opposition led to Saddam Hussein’s crackdown

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on what he would call anti-government Kurdish activities. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) supplied the first rationalisation to attack the Kurds. Saddam feared that the Kurds would fight with Iran against Iraq in an effort to break the central government and gain some form of autonomy (Yildiz 2004). To dissuade the Kurds, Saddam introduced a scorched earth policy, beginning in 1987, combined with mass executions and deportations (McDowall 2004). Within six months, at least 500 Kurdish villages were rased. Further, he ordered the deportation of Kurds living in villages that were spared to areas firmly under Saddam’s control. Many Kurds also fled to Turkey and Iran. Those that opposed the deportations were summarily exterminated (McDowell 2003). Even before the IranIraq war, however, Saddam and the Ba’th showed distaste for the Kurds.2 In a 1969 effort to force Iraq’s government to recognise Kurdish independence, Kurdish leader Barzani launched an attack on Kirkuk’s oil installations, stopping a large portion of Iraq’s oil production. Baghdad responded with a full military effort attacking Kurdish villages and towns. Iraqi armed forces generally prevailed in capturing accessible towns, but Kurdish forces consistently won in the country-side (Tripp 2000). Saddam Hussein eventually halted the attacks and attempted to negotiate in secret with the Kurds but was dissatisfied with their demands, which included, “a recognition of Kurdish rights that far exceeded anything that had been conceded before” (Tripp 2000: 200). Saddam stalled his talks and the official implementation of any Kurdish rights until he could guarantee that Iran would not interfere on behalf of the Kurds if Saddam’s forces attacked. After signing a treaty over the Shatt al-‘Arab border, the Shah of Iran agreed to stop supporting any Kurdish rights in Iraqi territory. This gave Saddam the assurances that he could get away with oppressing the Kurds without risking a larger war with Iran. As Abdullah (2003: 175-176) writes, “There then followed a vigorous and ruthless policy of ethnic
Although Saddam Hussein was not solely in power from 1968-1979, he was largely in control of all negotiations and talks with the Kurds. Dawisha (2009: 210) writes, “While Saddam [Hussein] did not assume the presidency of Iraq until July 1979, and while in the years after the 1968 coup he would publicly defer to President Bakr, and would appear prepared to consult with, even debate, other senior members of the Party, in reality, from the very beginning of the Ba’thist era, he behaved and was perceived as the surest bet for appropriating political power”.
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cleansing that was designed to remove all Kurdish villages from the border areas with Turkey and Iran… By 1978, an estimated 200,000 people were moved and many villages destroyed”. Although conflict was severe during the 1970s, the pinnacle of Saddam’s conflict with the Kurds occurred in the spring and summer of 1988. The al-Anfal campaign was used by the Ba’thist regime as a term to describe a series of eight military operations against the Kurds in 1988. There are large-scale reports of the systematic use of chemical weapons, napalm and phosphorus during the campaign in an effort to repress the ethnic group from fighting with the Iranians against the Iraqi forces during the Iran-Iraq war (Yildiz 2004: 27). One of the worst attacks occurred on March 16, 1988 in Halabja, a Kurdish city of about 70,000 people. On this day, as many as 5,000 Kurds were killed, “when the city suffered the most notorious gas attack since World War I” (Gunter 1992: 44). Estimates show that up to 3,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed and up to 1,5 million Kurds were either internally displaced, or became international refugees during Anfal. Perhaps the most disturbing figure is that up to 180,000 Kurds are believed to have been killed during Al-Anfal.3 At first glance, it may appear that Saddam was practicing ethnic cleansing or some form of genocide. However, his reasoning for attacking Kurdish forces was punishment for their collaboration with Iran. Also, he did use some Kurdish forces known as the Jash, in his military to fight opposing Kurds. Jash were pro-Saddam Kurdish forces, usually enticed into collaborating with the government for monetary purposes. It does, however, fall under localised instances of mass atrocities and state terror. Finding exact figures of Iraqi deaths in the Kurdish campaigns during the Iran-Iraq war is impossible. Saddam Hussein did not release any reports of losses at the hands of the Kurdish forces and the Kurdish militia, known as Peshmerga. The Peshmerga were the dominant Kurdish forces that handled most of the Kurdish anti-Saddam operations. Further, much of the Iraqi losses were suffered at the hands of Iran-Kurdish forces and Iranian backed Kurdish forces. It is known that in 1987, Kurdish opposition formed the Kurdistan National Front and the Iraqi National OpposiIt is argued that during the entire Ba’ath regime, a total of 4,000 out of 4,655 Kurdish villages were destroyed and up to 300,000 people perished (Bird 2005).
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tion Front. The more frequent the Iraqi attacks were, and the greater the intensity, the more solidified and determined the Kurdish forces became. After the Iran-Iraq War, the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991) provided the Kurds with an impetus to seek more independence with encouragement by the United States to rebel and perhaps try to overthrow Saddam. In March 1991, Saddam began a successful retaliation against the Kurds in an attempt to quell the rebellion and save his government. Saddam waged a more conventional war this time, though still brutal with rampant mass atrocities. Iraqi forces, including the Republican Guard (Saddam’s special elite troops), swelled into Kurdistan with the support of aircraft, heavy infantry and armoured vehicles, including tanks. Within one month, five Kurdish cities were retaken: Kirkuk, Sulaimania, Dohuk, Zakho, and Erbil. Saddam used massive indiscriminate air support often decimating entire villages; in some cases, helicopters dropped phosphorous bombs. It is estimated that around 100,000 Kurds were detained in the attack, with 20,000 Kurds killed (Yildiz 2004). Astonishingly, it is asserted that over 1,5 million Iraqi Kurds fled into neighbouring Turkey and Iran (McDowell 2005). As in the 1980s, there is also limited data available on Kurdish tactics and Iraqi losses during the Persian Gulf War. A few events are well reported, however. In one instance, the Kurds (indeed overestimating) stated the capture of at least 2,500 Iraqi prisoners during skirmishes between the two forces (The New York Times, July 20, 1991: 4). In adjacent fighting, Kurdish forces estimated that they captured up to 30,000 Iraqi soldiers (Economist 3/30/91). Kurdish forces also used tactics of mass slaughter and terror. In Mount Azner, Kurdish forces repelled a contingent of 500-600 Iraqi troops, reportedly killing around 110 (The New Republic, June 3, 1991, 23). In one day of fighting in Sulaimania, around 900 Iraqi forces were killed. There were also revenge killings, human rights abuses and slaughter inflicted against Saddam’s forces. One account includes Kurdish civilians attacking an Iraqi prison, killing 700 Iraqi security force members. Recent investigations in Iraq have found mass graves containing the bodies of Saddam’s regime members (Yildiz 2004). Over 50,000 Iraqi forces are estimated to have deserted in Iraqi Kurdistan. Perhaps a large reason adding to Kurdish early successes is that the Jash forces, who so

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eagerly supported Saddam in preceding years, decided to return to the side of their ethnic kin, believing that Hussein was near defeat (Yildiz 2004). UNDERSTANDING IRAQI NATIONAL IDENTITY UNDER SADDAM HUSSEIN Saddam Hussein depicted a Mesopotamian ideal of the Arab national identity headquartered in modern day Baghdad. For the Iraqi Ba’th Party, it is this locale where the ideal Arab exists. It traces Iraqi national identity from ancient times. As Al-Musawi (2006: 25) explains, “[T]here is a narrative corpus that speaks of Iraq since ancient time. In a number of appellations, it depicts a number of characteristics, traits, predilections and ways of thinking and life that are usually associated with a habitat along the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, or on the shores of Sumerian waters”. The Iraqi Ba’th wanted to connect the current Iraqi nation-state with the great ancient cities in order to instill a strong sense of collective identity that spans thousands of years. They wanted to create an identity based on the heroic days of Mesopotamia. Davis (2005: 3) writes, “The ‘imagined community’ fashioned by the Takriti Ba’th entailed greater reliance on a historical imaginary than on an ideological formulation”. The idea was to create an understanding of Iraq history as one nation united by a glorious history by a common type of citizen, a citizen characterised by being Iraqi, which was the remote form of Arab(ness). To enforce this vision of Iraqi identity, Saddam tried to liken himself to the leaders and kings of ancient Mesopotamia. Not only did he rebuild the walls of the ancient city, he also inscribed his name onto each brick used (Al-Musawi 2006: 28). Archeological work was done to resurrect other ancient cities as well, including Hatra, Assur, and Nineveh. Museums of Iraqi history were built and older ones were refurbished. The point was to create an identity that forced the image of a ‘true’ or ‘pure’ Arab as an Iraqi. Thus, to be an Iraqi also means to be Arab. For Saddam, it specifically meant to be a Sunni Arab. Davis (2005: 187) further elaborates, “For Saddam, only Sunni Arabs have the right to be considered culturally authentic”. Saddam Hussein’s vision of an Iraq identity based upon Sunni Muslim characteristic lead the leader to attempt to promote those with a Sunni identity above those with a Kurdish identity and sought to force the Kurds

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to accept, assimilate, and conform to his vision. Further, Saddam’s rewriting of Iraqi history was a tool of manipulation targeted at all Iraqis who did not share his Sunni vision. The regime thus specifically targeted the Kurds with political, as well as cultural violence. Saddam’s purpose was to either force the Kurds to assimilate by denying them political rights and liberties and failing that, with physical violence including the use of chemical and biological weapons on Kurdish villages. In order to construct the idea that Iraq was the defining point of Arabism, Saddam directed cultural works to purposely make the connection between the great Arab past and the present Iraqi identity. Plays, songs, poems, movies all depicted this Arab as Iraqi identity. The idea of tracing ‘Iraq-ness’, guarded and defined by Saddam himself, eventually lead to a cult of personality with the dictator who apparently bought into his own propaganda and believed, indeed, that Iraq was the centre of the Arab identity and by connection, he must be the perfect Arab. Billions of dollars were spent in linking present Iraq to ancient Mesopotamia and also to link Saddam to the great leaders of the past. He attempted to create an Iraqi identity that was completely based on an Arabised Mesopotamia. If Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar were the heroes and identities exemplar in ancient times, Saddam was so now. Dawisha (2009: 217) evinces the forced connection between ancient and present-day Baghdad and Saddam’s heroic part, “In Baghdad, a billboard, portraying Saddam and the 6th century B.C. King of Babylon Nebuchadnezzar shaking hands, had Saddam looking down on the legendary Babylonian King”. Saddam and the Ba’th paradigm generally were against the toleration of diversity or of accepting a plethora of ethnic group politics. That meant that those who did not accept the Ba’thist vision of Iraq would have to suffer, both culturally and physically. In fact, Saddam would only view those understanding his identity as truly being an Iraqi citizen, and therefore, those that would not accept his vision could not be a citizen. One's status and wellbeing were in fact determined by whether one assimilated to Iraqi national identity or if they were defined by some other identity. Any groups or individuals that did not have this identity were seen as a threat to Saddam himself, and also to the vision of Iraq leading

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the Arab-world based on its citizens being the ideal. It is against this identity one must view the Kurdish ethnic group identity. THE IDENTITY OF THE IRAQI KURDS The Iraqi Kurds are an eclectic ethnic people.4 This diversity places a limit on how strong a single Kurdish ethnic identity can be. As Rubin (2003: 296) writes, “Among the Kurds, there is religious, linguistic, and tribal diversity”. Perhaps the most important factor in describing the Kurdish identity is recognising how the Kurds themselves feel about being Kurdish. Kurds not only identify themselves by traits they seem to share, but they also distinguish themselves from outsiders. As Natali (2005: xvii) writes, “Kurds have tried to protect their identity by differentiating themselves from the dominant ethnic group. Kurds are Kurds because they are not Arabs, Persians, or Turks”. This relationship has helped create the Kurdish identity, which has a long history among the Kurds themselves (Nezan 1996). There has even been a specific name given to that identity: Kurdayetî. The Kurds recognise Kurdayetî as a distinguishing group characteristic that separates them from other groups in the area, especially the Arabs and the Persians. Kurds even use this identity to judge their own. In other words, the strength of their ethnic group identity depends on how Kurdish the Kurds are. As Natali (2005: xxi) suggests, “Kurds that don’t follow most of the Kurdish traditions are not considered Kurds by authentic Kurds”. And interestingly enough, though, “The rebel is highly prized in Kurdish society… rebelling against the culture itself carries a heavy price” (Bird 2005: 77). With all these differences among the Iraqi Kurds, is it possible to call them an ethnic group? What are the similarities that bind them together? How strong is their ethnic identity if one can even be said to exist? The existence of distinct people who call themselves the Kurds is well evidenced in scholarly circles. The name of their ethnic homeland, Kurdistan, literally means, “Land of the Kurds” (Natali 2005: 1). However, the term ‘Kurd’ did not always label a distinct ethnic people. It was originally
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See Asatrian 2009, for a wonderful analysis of the Kurds.

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used in the twelfth century to describe the roaming nomads of the Iraqi and Iranian mountains (McDowall 2004). In the Kurdish language, the word Kurd actually means warrior, or ferocious fighter. The Kurdish majority traces its ethnic origins to the Median Empire in the sixth century B.C. (Entessar 1992; Natali 2005). The professional class underscores this belief. As Rubin (2003: 298) writes, “Kurdish teachers and professors in Iraq today base their claims to nationhood on alleged common descent from the [Medians], a nomadic people who established an empire in Iran in the eighth century B.C.”. Although this is the common belief among the Kurds, many go further by arguing that Kurdish civilisation dates back to at least the seventh millennium. As McDowall (2004: 3) writes, “Occupancy by the Kurds stretches back into the mists of time, ‘from time immemorial’ to use a resonant phrase, conferring on the Kurdish people a unique association with the land”. As is discussed below, many Kurds argue that they are descendants of the Medes, an ancient Iranian people whose society reached its apex around the sixth century B.C. This idea is usually considered a myth and is discounted by most scholars. However, scholarly interpretation matters not regarding identity, but what the group thinks, is ontologically. Some Kurdish authors assert that Kurds are the descendants of the Zargros area, which was comprised of Indo-European tribes dating to the second millennium B.C.. Most of them, however, note that the common starting point of Kurdish history is in the sixth century B.C. and as descendants of the Medes. Other accounts trace Kurdish existence to the 24th century B.C. and to even 50,000 years ago. Many Kurds argue that their tribes played a huge part in the establishment of Islam as the dominant religion in the area and their role in the Ottoman Empire (McDowall 2004). More practical dates trace the existence of the Kurds, based upon the recognition of a Kurdistan region, to the 16th century (Bruinessen/Jwaideh 2006). In the 16th century, travellers to the region, as well as official documents, speak of people in current Kurdistan territory referring to themselves as Kurds. The term was applied to an amalgaman of tribes, but nevertheless, this seems to be the most widely accepted dating of the Kurdish people. O’Shea (2006) argues that there is no consensus on the length of group existence and that accounts of their history are errorstrewn and defendant upon the biases of the sources used. Dating also

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depends upon which tribe or peoples the Kurds are descendants of. It is obviously difficult and subjective to trace the existence of modern-day Kurds. The Kurds’ ethnic territory has a similarly complex history. The area of land that composes Kurdistan has fluctuated through time, but is predominantly the mountainous area where the borders of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey meet (Yildiz 2004). Their geographic territory, generally referred to as Greater Kurdistan, is split between those four distinct states. Most states in the region do not recognise the existence of the area. If they did, they may have to lay claims to this land and perhaps cede it to the larger Kurdish nationalistic movement. Despite the constant controversy over the lands of Greater Kurdistan, there is relatively little dispute over Iraqi Kurdistan. This area is usually referred to as “Southern Kurdistan”. It extends from the Zagros Mountains and the Zagros River from Iranian Kurdistan to the mountains of Turkish Kurdistan. These extend into the southern plains of Arbl, Harir, Shahrezur, and Kirkuk. The Mesopotamian plains are separated by the Hamrin Mountain chain, the natural boundary between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq proper (Vanly 1993). The Iraqi Kurds number around 5 million people, or between a fourth and a fifth of Iraq’s total population (Bird 2005). After the Gulf War (1990-1991), Free Kurdistan was established in Iraq. This territory was separated from the rest of Iraq with a border running from Zakho, near the Turkish border, to the Iranian border. The boundaries encompassed the traditionally Kurdish cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaimania (O’Leary/Salih 2005). This area is traditionally seen as the de facto autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq. Its southern border, however, that has yet to be set in stone. The main argument is whether to include the city of Kirkuk. While the Kurds see this city as theirs, the Iraqi Arabs also vie for the land because of its rich oil resources. Although the southern borders of Kurdistan are disputed, the rest of the land considered to be the Iraqi Kurdistan is readily agreed upon. This is especially true since the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq and its subsequent government arrangements concerning the Kurds. Language is, of course, extremely important for a unified identity to exist. Entessar (1992: 4) writes, “The degree of shared experience, especially in language… has long been recognised as a principal contributor to

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the development of ethnic consciousness and ethnonationalism”. The Kurds are no different, “Kurds are set apart from their neighbours chiefly by language… Yet Kurdish is not at all a unified tongue” (Harris 1977: 113). The role of myths, symbols and stories is one of the most difficult to describe in ethnic groups. It is also perhaps the most important element in creating and sustaining an ethnic identity. Scholars of ethnic conflict often pay little or no attention to these myths because they are hard to measure scientifically. However, as McDowall (2004: 4) writes, “There is a danger of outsiders dismissing such myths as worthless; they are valuable tools in nation building, however dubious historically, because they offer a common mystical identity, exclusive to the Kurdish people”. The construction of myths does not take away from their significance to ethnic members. Some of the most important myths are those based on creation and common ancestry, ethnic election, group heroism and a common history. The importance of these stories for the Iraqi Kurds may determine their identity more than any other variable. Several myths of common origin are widely believed in Iraqi Kurdistan, creating a separate identity from other groups in the region (Bulloch/Morris 1992). The first is the description of how the Kurdish New Year celebration, Newroz, began. Newroz is also celebrated by most Iranians, “But in Kurdistan, Newroz is the national holiday, celebrating not just New Year’s, but also Kurdish identity, culture and history” (Bird 2005: 30). Newroz is linked to a Kurdish creation myth in which a great King, Dehak (or Zahhak) suffered from two snakes growing out of his shoulders. To relieve the pain, Satan told the king that he must feed the brains of two humans every day to the snakes (Bulloch/Morris 1992). The palace executioner began to take pity on the humans being sacrificed and sent one of the two daily meals to distant valleys, whilst mixing the brains of a sheep with that of the other human to quench the snakes’ hunger. Eventually, the valley’s community burgeoned and grew, developing a culture of their own, and started referring to themselves as the Kurds. Another story tells that the Kurds are descendants of the children of King Solomon’s slave girls, sired by a demon named Jasad, and, driven by the angry king into the mountains. One myth argues that the Prophet Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was a Kurd (McDowall 2004; see also Bulloch/ Morris 1992).

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Culture is a defining characteristic of ethnic identity. If an ethnic group has a homogenous culture, it is likely to have a strong identity; if an ethnic group has a heterogeneous culture, it is likely to have a weak identity. For the Kurds, culture is extremely important in everyday life. One of the most important elements of Kurdish culture is their religion. As Acker (2004: 99) writes, “The religious context is crucial to understanding Kurdish ethnicity and culture, [and] the nature of Kurdish nationalism”. It is, however, not as unified as some may suspect. Although religion is important to the Kurds, different factions, tribes and families celebrate several types of religion. Without question, the majority of the Kurds are Sunni Muslims (Kreyenbroek 1996). Sufism is another religion that plays a part in the heterogeneity of Kurdish beliefs. McDowall (2004: 11) writes, “Kurdish religious distinctiveness has also been expressed in the strength of Sufi brotherhoods …and their eccentric practices, which include ecstatic utterances, trances, fire-eating and self-mutilation”. The majority of Sufi in Iraq follows Naqshbandi and Qadiri orders. Sufism has strengthened some parts of Kurdish culture, but it has also weakened the mainstream (McDowall 2004). It weakens a single Kurdish identity by separating the Kurdish people with distinct religious practices. Ethnic dress also comprises a large part of group identity. Some authors describe Kurdish dress and costume as a traditional-like outfit (Bird 2005), while others argue that it is much more diversified (O’Shea 1996). Many Kurds no longer wear traditional costumes or have recent memory of their national dress. Kurdish dress differs by region, gender and from city to rural dwellers. For instance, there are at least three main types of dress for men and at least four for women. Among the men, however, there is a dominant—perhaps universal—outfit that varies in colour and ornaments depending on the occasion. This is the shal u shapik, or trousers and jacket (Bird 2005). The Kurdish Peshmerga, especially from the southern regions, have always worn Kurdish clothes. Among the Barzani tribe and their supporters, the traditional shal u shapik is modified, using a machine-woven military version, called the khak, with red-and-white turbans (Bird 2005). Among women, dress is divided by how religious one tends to be, whether a woman is in the home or out, and how traditional she is. There is a rich

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tradition of distinct dress in Iraqi Kurdistan. But for many, dress plays no role in daily life and is preserved for special occasions, if at all. Ethnic food is also important for comprising an identity. Iraqi Kurdish food is a mixture of several regional dishes. Although there are only a small number of Kurd-only meals, foods are combined in a way that contributes to a traditional Kurdish menu. As is food, so too is art important for ethnicity. Under quasi-autonomy, Kurdish art has blossomed. In recently opened art institutes, students are trained not in a traditional format, but rather study and practice the Western motif. Artists are now seeking international exhibits in the Middle East, Europe, America, and Asia. Iraqi Kurdistan soon developed three institutes of fine arts where students can take classes in design, painting, sculpture, dance, theater audio-visual, and music (Tucker 2004). Several art galleries now also exist, displaying paintings of Kurdish landscapes and allegorical depictions of massacres (Bird 2005). Music also plays a significant role in Kurdish culture and appears to have a higher station in Kurdish culture than does art. According to Bird (2005), traditional Kurdish instruments include long and short-neck flutes, frame drums, cylindrical drums, goblet drums, oboes, flutes, zithers, whistles, and spike fiddles. Although music plays a large part in Kurdish culture, it changes in certain parts of Iraqi Kurdistan as much as dialects do. Common among Kurdish music are battle songs and epics that tell heroic legends, as are love songs and children’s songs. Much of the music is played during celebration or various types of meetings where, “men gather in circles with various instruments” (Bird 2005: 199). As with the teaching of art, Kurdish music instruction seems to resemble and concentrate on the Western tradition, focusing on familiar instruments, such as the violin, piano, accordion, flute, and cello. Professional musicians are often deemed members of the ‘low’ class and are frowned upon in society. Regarding literature, another important characteristic of ethnic group identity, McDowall (2004: 2) writes, “The Kurds have lacked a civic culture and an established literature”. Although he may be correct, the Kurds have shown signs of a Kurdish literature. Since the creation of the Kurdish safe-haven 1991, the prospect of a strictly Kurdish literary movement has

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increased. Kurdish literature is either oral or written. The oral tradition is much more established and traditional. The Kurdish oral tradition contains folktales, epic poetry, songs, and proverbs. Family gatherings were the main forum for preserving the oral tradition. Many stories specifically focus on family, tribal, and community histories. Male elders pass the stories down to younger men to preserve the oral tradition. The written tradition endured the same restrictions as the oral tradition. Through industrialisation and modernisation in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, new techniques allow mass printings. These printings created new works and allowed oral tradition to be put on paper. Kurdish literary tradition dates at least to the 16th century in the works of Idris Bitlisi, an Ottoman dignitary of Kurdish origin (Blau 1996). From the late 1800s through the 20th century, the press became very important for the development of Kurdish literature relating to Kurdish culture, highlighted by the creation of several magazines. They were, nonetheless, difficult to distribute because the Kurds were split into four nation-states, some of which hindered literary freedoms. Much Kurdish literature revolved around the plight of the Kurds and expressed their social concerns. During the 1960s, the conservative Iraqi regime challenged Kurdish equality in and banned their publications (Blau 1996). A brief halt in Iraqi oppression occurred in the 1970s, causing an immense rise in the number of Kurdish intellectuals. Many contributed to publications demonstrating the symbiotic relationship between political and cultural development (Blau 1996; see also Bird 2005). There is a small tradition of a specific literature for the Kurds. It is fragmented, however, and a majority of the population does not appreciate its value. Due to the oppression and pre-modernised society that the Kurds have experienced, their ability to produce literature, either oral or written, has been low. Solidarity among the Kurds is perhaps their weakest link in the establishment of a common identity. At the heart of the internal problems for the Kurds of Iraq lays the struggle amongst factions of the Kurds. After WWI, the British colonisation of Iraqi Kurdistan left them divided into several factions. The British utilised these divisions to prevent any unified opposition from forming against the new Iraqi monarchy. At that time,

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Kurdish nationalism seemed to be on the rise, especially amongst elitist and spiritual leaders. However, this nationalism was not representative of all Iraqi Kurds. Rural society was heterogeneous and “socioeconomic and political status was based on distinctions between tribal and nontribal communities, Muslims and non-Muslims, warriors and tillers of the land, landowners, peasants, and urban groups” (Natali 2005: 32). Many landowners profited from the Iraqi state by growing products, such as tobacco, that were sold at high value to Baghdad. This exchange allowed richer families to support the British installed monarchy at the expense of the Kurdish people. Furthermore, the British continued to fragment Kurdish society by organising government structures according to regions and tribes led by rival Kurdish leaders (Natali 2005). Manafy (2005) argues that Kurdish tribalism is waning because of the recent changes toward modernisation and globalisation. Nevertheless, it is still present, and was a major force impeding Kurdish solidarity. Likely the most profound division among contemporary Iraqi Kurds stems from party politics. The fragmentation of the Kurds into several parties began around the 1930s and 1940s when many Kurds, lacking a nationalist party of their own, joined the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), with the intention of receiving the party’s support for independence. The ICP eventually retreated from this position, but still supported minority rights. To further complicate matters, many Kurds had great difficulty in choosing between giving their allegiance to national identity or to Marxist social justice (McDowall 2004). Partly to resolve this issue, but also to unify Kurdish factions in Iraq, Mullah Mustafa Barzani created the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in 1946.5 Though fairly leftist in its infancy because many of its members were from the ICP, the KDP did not urge class conflict. The two parties formed a close alliance for much of the 1950s. However, upon creation of the Baghdad Pact and the Arab nationalism sweeping across Egypt and the Middle East, many Kurds felt that they were being Arabised. As a result, in the late 1950s most of the Kurds associated with the ICP joined the KDP in an effort to establish a democratic
KDP was later changed to the Kurdistan Democratic Party to show more civic rather than ethnic nationalism.
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republic in Iraq that would recognise Kurdish rights (McDowall 2004). Soon the regime became embroiled in a war against Arab nationalists and Ba’thists. It employed the ICP and the KDP to help quell the rebellion. Once the regime regained security, it blamed serious uprisings in Kurdistan on the ICP and used Barzani to sever all ties between the ICP and the KDP. The KDP eventually prevailed and the ICP was neutralised. During the early 1960s, Barzani wanted to unify all Iraqi Kurds in order to play a more dominant role in the movement and fend off any potential challengers. This nationalism, however, had the negative effect of putting the KDP up against tribal leaders who wanted to remain more localised. Barzani waged war on opposing Kurdish tribes, punishing them for not joining the nationalisation efforts. It was in these years that it became appropriate to argue, “The Kurds are the major killers of the Kurds” (Manafy 2005: 51). Soon the Iraqi regime became threatened by the increased dominance of one party in Kurdistan and started to send arms and supplies to Barzani’s tribal enemies. Thus, as the British had done before them, the Iraqi regime used opposing Kurdish elements to keep either from gaining hegemony. From that point forward, Iraqi Kurdistan was in constant strife between competing factions of Iraqi Kurds, different parties of different origins and between the central government—soon to be taken over by the Ba’thist—and the Iraqi Kurds. They were still split between tribal, familial and socioeconomic factors as well. Perhaps the most severe division came during the Kurdish wars. In 1975, Jalal Talibani, a Kurdish politician who usually opposed the policies and ideas of Barzani, announced the formation of a new Kurdish political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) (McDowall 2004). The PUK was created in response to the KDP’s failure to achieve its policies. The party set out to bring autonomy and democracy to Kurdistan once and for all. A rivalry existed for years between Barzani and Talibani mainly over tribal politics and leadership questions. This rivalry exploded in 1978 when small skirmishes erupted between the two parties. The conflict continued into the Iran-Iraq war. The PUK allied with the Iraqi government in exchange for promises of Kurdish autonomy under the leadership of Talibani. Many Kurdish men joined with the PUK and some even fought openly against the Kurds for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in exchange for monetary assistance or because of fear from the regime. The

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Jash’s duties included guarding checkpoints and keeping the local peace (Bird 2005). Although the duties were light, most Kurds considered the Jash traitors. The relationship between the PUK and Iraq lasted until 1985 when hostilities once again turned to violence. The Kurdish parties soon reconciled and formed a united government, the Kurdistan Front, in 1987. The timid alignment between the two parties lasted well into the 1990s. Both groups helped with Kurdistan’s semi-democratic elections in the safezone set up by the United States in the wake of the Kurdish massacres by Saddam’s regime after the Persian Gulf War. This peaceful state of relations was halted in the mid 90’s, when tribal land disputes erupted into open conflict between the two parties. By 1999, however, the rift was mended, largely due to pressure from the United States. A fragile friendship has been maintained up to this writing. Regarding group objectives, another indicator of ethnic identity, the Kurds are split along several ideals. In fact, Manafy (2005: 40) argues, “The Kurdish movement lacks a cohesive and well-defined ideology”. Because of this lack of cohesion, the Kurds are unable to define their preferred political ends in a cohesive manner. The movement argues at different times for varying interests: cultural autonomy, political and cultural autonomy, or an independent Kurdish country (Manafy 2005). Depending on the social, political, and economic environment, different factions support one over the other two. The lack of a common goal has often led to the emergence of new factions, and consequently, the emergence of new goals. CONCLUSION Preceding the United States’ most recent war in Iraq, the American and international public were confronted with news reports concerning the Iraqi Kurds. Recently, the public still hears of the Kurds when reports are issued concerning the current situation inside Iraq. Although this has been the case, there has not been a thorough investigation into understanding the identity of the Iraqi Kurds, nor has there been much written about the history of violence between the Iraqi government and the ethnic group. This paper has attempted to address these defects in the literature by describing the conflictual relationship between the two sides, and by briefly detailing the identity of the Iraqi Kurds, and the vision Saddam

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Hussein sought for a single national identity. Understanding the relationship of identity to violence is critical if one is to understand international relations and foreign policy. Certainly, an understanding of the Kurds and of Iraq and the region more generally was necessary before making a decision to invade as did the United States. Hopefully, this paper will be useful for both academics and policy-makers not just those interested in the Kurds, however, but more importantly, for all groups that governments seek to intervene on the behalf of, or against. To have a more peaceful, cosmopolitan world, it is certainly necessary to understand identity and violence. BIBLIOGRAPHY
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