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Iraq: Kurds
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > Geography and Population > Kurds


Kurds represent by far the largest non-Arab ethnic minority, accounting in 1987 for about 19 percent of the population, or around 3.1 million. They are the overwhelming majority in As Sulaymaniyah, Irbil, and Dahuk governorates. Although the government hotly denies it, the Kurds are almost certainly also a majority in the region around Kirkuk, Iraq's richest oilproducing area. Kurds are settled as far south as Khanaqin. Ranging across northern Iraq, the Kurds are part of the larger Kurdish population (probably numbering close to 16 million) that inhabits the wide arc from eastern Turkey and the northwestern part of Syria through Soviet Azarbaijan and Iraq to the northwest of the Zagros Mountains in Iran. Although the largest numbers live in Turkey (variously estimated at between 3 and 10 million), it is in Iraq that they are most active politically.

The Kurds inhabit the highlands and mountain valleys and have traditionally been organized on a tribal basis. In the past it was correct to distinguish the various communities of Kurds according to their tribal affiliation, and to a large extent this was still true in the 1980s; tribes like the Herkki, the Sorchi, and Zibari have maintained a powerful cohesion. But increasingly groups of Kurds organized along political lines have grown up alongside the tribal units. Hence, the most northern and extreme northeastern areas of Iraq are heavily infiltrated by elements of the so-called Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). The far northwestern region of Iraq around Sinjar is spotted with enclaves claimed by the Iraqi Communist Party, the bulk of whose cadres are composed of Kurds.

Once mainly nomadic or seminomadic, Kurdish society was characterized by a combination of urban centers, villages, and pastoral tribes since at least the Ottoman period. Historical sources indicate that from the eighteenth century onward Kurds in Iraq were mainly peasants engaged in agriculture and arboriculture. By the nineteenth century, about 20 percent of Iraqi Kurds lived in historic Kurdish cities such as Kirkuk, As Sulaymaniyah, and Irbil. The migration to the cities, particularly of the young intelligentsia, helped develop Kurdish nationalism.

Since the early 1960s, the urban Kurdish areas have grown rapidly. Kurdish migration -- in addition to being part of the general trend of urban migration -- was prompted by the escalating armed conflict with the central authorities in Baghdad, the destruction of villages and land by widespread bombing, and such natural disasters as a severe drought in the 1958-61 period. In addition to destroying traditional resources, the severe fighting has hindered the development of education, health, and other services.

The historic enmity between the Kurds and the central Arab government has contributed to the tenacious survival of Kurdish culture. The Kurds' most distinguishing characteristic and the one that binds them to one another is their language. There are several Kurdish dialects, of which Kirmanji tends to be the standard written form. Kurdish is not a mere dialect of Farsi or Persian, as many Iranian nationalists maintain. And it is certainly not a variant of the Semitic or Turkic tongues. It is a separate language, part of the Indo-European family.

The Kurds have been locked in an unremittingly violent struggle with the central government in Baghdad almost since the founding of the Iraqi republic in 1958 under Jalal Talabani. The PUK continued to engage in low-level guerrilla activity against the central government in the period from 1975 to 1980. The war between Iraq and Iran that broke out in 1980 afforded the PUK and other Iraqi Kurdish groups the opportunity to intensify their opposition to the government.

The future of the Kurds in Iraq is uncertain because of the war. In 1983 the KDP spearheaded an Iranian thrust into northern Iraq and later its cadres fanned out across the border area adjacent to Turkey where they established a string of bases. Meanwhile, Talabani's PUK has maintained a fighting presence in the Kirkuk region, despite ruthless attempts by the central government to dislodge them. Thus, as of early 1988, most of the northern areas of Iraq -- outside the major cities -- were under the control of the guerrillas. On the one hand, if the present government in Iraq survives the war -- which in early 1988 seemed likely -- it is almost certain to punish those Kurds who collaborated with the Iranians. On the other hand, a number of large and powerful Kurdish tribes as well as many prominent Kurds from nontribal families, have continued to support the central government throughout the war, fighting against their fellow Kurds. These loyal Kurds will expect to be rewarded for their allegiance once the war ends.

Data as of May 1988

Last Updated: May 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Iraq was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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