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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Kurds in Iraq

View Group Chronology

Iraq Facts
Area:    437,072 sq. km.
Capital:    Baghdad
Total Population:    217,220,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Until the first few months of 2003, the situation of the Kurds in Iraq remained basically unchanged: despite Iraqi government unfriendliness toward the Kurds, their internationally supported autonomous region in the north was largely free of any interference from Saddam Hussein's regime. While the current power-sharing model incorporating Shi'a, Sunnis and Kurds may ultimately lead to a more stable and democratic Iraq if the groups learn to compromise with one another, the future of Iraq is extremely hard to predict right now. Security concerns are real for much of the population, Sunni and Shi'a alike indeed, perhaps the Kurds are safest in their northern region where they have been autonomous since the early 1990s. Law and order has broken down and U.S. and Iraqi forces are struggling to quell an insurgency. Most of the violent insurgency is comprised of Sunnis, and the Kurdish military has fought side by side with American forces in ousting Saddam Hussein as well as in suppressing the ensuing rebellion. All Iraqi Kurdish factions supported Hussein's overthrow.


Analytic Summary

The Kurds differ in language (LANG = 1), religion (BELIEF = 1; RELIGS1 = 5), ethnicity (RACE = 1), culture (CUSTOM = 1) and residency (GROUPCON = 3) compared to the Shi'a majority in Iraq. They also differ linguistically, culturally and racially, but not religiously, from Iraq's Sunni Arab group, which was in political control of the country under Saddam Hussein until 2003. From 1991 until the first few months of 2003, the Kurds in Iraq enjoyed de facto autonomy in the northern third of the country; this region was established as an allied-protected autonomous region following the end of 1991's Gulf War. Kurdish autonomy was formally recognized in 2005.

Before their autonomy, government repression of Kurds reached an all time high in 1987-88, when Saddam Hussein utilized chemical and biological weapons in series of attacks on Kurdish villages, killing thousands and displacing tens of thousands more. Starting in 1990, the situation in Iraq began to destabilize. Amid allegations that Iraq was trying to build a "super gun" the UN launched an investigation. After finding that several pieces of hardware and technology that could be used in an Iraqi effort to build the gun had in fact reached Iraq, UN sanctions were placed on Iraq. On August 2, 1990, following a dispute over oil reserves, Iraq invaded, occupied and annexed Kuwait. They would eventually shift the bulk of their forces to the border of Saudi Arabia. In an effort to prevent an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia and to push the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, an international coalition of allied forces, under the auspices of the UN, and under the military command of the U.S., launched an air strike against Iraq's military communication structure and air defenses on January 16, 1991. On February 23, 1991, the allies launched a ground invasion and within a week they had pushed the Iraqi army back into Iraq at which point the offensive against Iraq was halted.

From 1991 until 2003, Iraqi Kurds in the north enjoyed cultural and political freedoms that Shi'a, Turkmen and other ethnic groups did not. However, during this period, there was also a civil war between the two largest Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. While the civil war ended in 1998, intracommunal conflict continued at a lower level (INTRACON91-00 = 1). There have also been conflicts between the dominant Iraqi Kurdish organizations and the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurd militant organization.

In 2000, the first elections were held in the Kurdish-controlled north since 1992. The PUK held municipal elections in February 2000, and the KDP held them in May that same year. Despite the division between the two Kurdish administrations, laws have been established for an independent judiciary, for women's and workers' rights, and for freedom of religion, press, and assembly. Both factions have been reported to generally observe these laws in practice. However, most of the reunification measures between the two groups have not been implemented, with the exception of exchanging prisoners, the returning of 3,000 displaced persons and the improved ability to move between the Kurdish-controlled areas. Small-scale guerilla activity by Kurds against Hussein's regime continued into 2000 (REB99-00 = 4), and from the start of the U.S. invasion and throughout its occupation both the KDP and PUK militaries have fought along side the coalition forces in Iraq. Between 2001 and 2003, intragroup conflict between the PUK and KDP did not manifest in violence.

Since the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, Kurds have retained most of their control in the northern territory, as well as had the political process in the central Iraqi government opened up to them (POLDIS04-06 = 1). The Kurds represent approximately 18 percent of the Iraqi population, which is reflected in the Council of Representatives, Iraq's working legislative body, where Kurds held approximately 19 percent of the seats in 2006 (LEGISREP04-06 = 1). A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, also holds the post of president (EXECREP04-06 = 1).

There has been relative calm in the northern areas under Kurdish control as compared with other part of Iraq during the ongoing occupation. However, the Ansar al-Islam organization (which groups Sunni Kurds with Sunni Arabs) has recently engaged in attacks against U.S. and coalition forces (REB04 = 1). The Kurds, outside of Ansar al-Islam, have also not been subject to government repression in recent years (REPGENCIV04-06 = 0; REPNVIOL04-06 = 0; REPVIOL04 = 3; REPVIOL05-06 = 0).



Amnesty International. Iraq Reports 2001 - 2004., accessed 9/16/2004.

Degenhardt, Henry W., ed. 1987. Revolutionary and Dissident Movements: An International Guide, A Keesing's Reference Publication. London: Longman.

International Crisis Group. 2004. "Iraq's Kurds: Toward a Historic Compromise?" Middle East Report No. 26.

International Crisis Group. 2006. "The Next Iraq War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict." Middle East Report No. 53.

Katzman, Kenneth and Alfred B. Prados. 2005. The Kurds in Post-Saddam Iraq. CRS Report for Congress.

LexisNexis. Various reports. 1994-2006.

Library of Congress-Federal Research Division. 8/2006. "Country Profile: Iraq."

Marr, Phebe. 2003. The Modern History of Iraq. 2d Ed. Boulder: Westview Press.

U.S Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Iraq 2001- 2006.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006