Sunni and Shia
|Emir Faisal at Versailles in 1919 with his British adviser Colonel TE Lawrence. Two years later Gertrude Bell(above) created for him the colonial kingdom of Iraq|
The history of Iraqi Kurdistan shows how imperialist powers and their local clients have used the warring factions of the Kurdish elite for their own ends, while the Kurdish people have paid a heavy price.
Kurdistan lies at the crossroads of western Asia. It has a long history as a frontier between rival empires. The Kurdish regions of south eastern Anatolia cover the watershed of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which provide water for Iraq and Syria. The US Department of Energy estimates that the Kirkuk oilfield on the edge of Iraqi Kurdistan has a capacity of around 1 million barrels of oil per day.
Britain's desire to control Kirkuk's oil saw large areas of Kurdish population added to the new kingdom of Iraq, although the Treaty of Sevres promised a referendum on Kurdish independence. This betrayal provoked Kurdish uprisings in 1923 and 1932 which were brutally suppressed.
Since the 1970s two parties have dominated political life in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) won the backing of the traditional Kurdish landowners and sheikhs in the 1960s. The core of Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has its roots in a layer of middle class activists who wanted to build a modern nationalist movement.
Despite their bitter rivalry, the KDP and PUK have long followed the same strategy. They have built up substantial armed militias hoping to force concessions over Kurdish autonomy from the central government in Baghdad, while looking to Iraq's regional competitors and international enemies for support.
For ordinary people in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, the driving force behind the nationalist movement has been the increasing brutality of Iraqi rule. This culminated in the Anfal Campaign in 1988. In only six months, Iraqi troops commanded by Saddam Hussein's cousin, Ali Hasan al-Majid, wiped out as many as 182,000 people. Thousands died in chemical gas attacks, or were shot and buried in mass graves. At the time, western governments refused to act, claiming that the Kurds had exaggerated the death toll.
During the 1990s the KDP and PUK returned to courting the regional powers in an attempt to dominate Iraqi Kurdistan. KDP and PUK feuding has, as David McDowall puts it, 'increasingly [driven] each party into greater dependency on, and cooperation with, the aims of their respective external rival sponsors'.
Maintaining this hated system proved costly and difficult. British officials strengthened the role of the tribal sheikhs, who became their local tax collectors and law enforcers. However, even the support of the tribal leaders for the British administration failed to contain an explosion of anger in 1920, when the League of Nations awarded Britain a mandate over Iraq.
The insurrection of 1920 swept away British control in large areas of central Iraq. Nationalist slogans united Sunni and Shia communities in protests in Baghdad, while tribesmen rose in revolt across the country. Although the insurrection was eventually crushed at the cost of hundreds of Iraqi lives, British forces also lost 400 soldiers and the British taxpayer was left to foot the £40 million bill. The revolt did not win independence for Iraq, but it forced the British government to drop the hated 'India Office' policy of direct rule.
Iraqis were still to be denied the chance to choose their own government, however. Britain's preferred candidate to lead Iraq was the Emir Faisal, son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who had created a short lived Arab kingdom based in Damascus. After French troops forced him out of Syria, British officials offered Faisal the crown of the yet to be created Kingdom of Iraq. Gertrude Bell described how British officials struggled to impose the new king on his future subjects. In August 1920 she wrote, 'Its not all smooth yet. We get reports about the lower Euphrates tribes preparing monstrous petitions in favour of a republic... I don't believe half of them are true but they keep one in anxiety.'
A combination of bribery, threats and political manipulation eventually ensured Faisal's acceptance. To the strains of 'God Save the King'--no one had yet composed an Iraqi national anthem--he was crowned in August 1921. Following the political traditions established under Ottoman rule, his government was dominated by Sunni Muslims. No Shia figures were appointed except in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. And while the all-powerful political officers were replaced by Iraqi officials, British advisers remained behind the scenes.
A rising tide of nationalist anger in Egypt proved even more difficult to control than the insurrection in Iraq. Under British occupation since 1882, Egyptians had already experienced decades of colonial rule by the outbreak of the First World War. When a delegation of Egyptian intellectuals applied for permission to attend the postwar peace conference in Versailles to put the case for Egyptian independence, British officials refused.
A nationwide campaign of protests and petitioning merely provoked the enraged authorities to deport four of the delegation's members to Malta. The fate of the Wafd--Arabic for delegation--and its leader, Sa'ad Zaghlul, sparked off a wave of huge protests across Egypt. Thousands took to the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. British property was attacked, and the railway lines were torn up by angry crowds.
A history of intervention
1916: Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France parcels out the Middle East between the Great Powers.
1917: Lord Balfour gives British assent to the creation of a 'Jewish homeland' in Palestine.
1948: Creation of the state of Israel after the UN accepts the partition of Palestine.
1953: A CIA-backed coup overthrows a nationalist government in Iran.
1956: British, French and Israeli forces attack Egypt after Nasser nationalises the Suez Canal.
1967: Israel attacks Egypt and Syria with US support
1980: US officials encourage Saddam Hussein to declare war on Iran.
1982: Israel invades Lebanon in an attempt to crush Palestinian resistance.
1991: US-led forces expel the Iraqi army from Kuwait after a devastating bombing campaign kills thousands of Iraqi civilians.
2003: US and British forces conquer Iraq.