The Kurdistan Problem: Part II

Originally posted by midtowng on 01/17/07

  People are starting to ask troubling questions about Bush’s plan of sending Kurdish troops into Baghdad.

“There are fears that a fight like this, pitting Kurds against the Arabs, is bound to add an ethnic touch to the conflict,” Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman told the Iraqi newspaper Az-Zaman.

The Kurdish troops are not arabs and do not speak Arabic. Nor do the troops march under the flag of Iraq, they fly the flag of Kurdistan. In other words, they are nearly as alien to Baghdad as American troops are.

Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the deployment of the Kurds in Baghdad could bring “balance in that they are not either for Sunnis or for Shia but for Iraq.” But Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) countered, “I think they are for the Kurds.”

Senator Reed is right.

The flashpoint for all Kurdish-related tension in Iraq is the city of Kirkuk. Just the other day the UN warned of a looming crisis there.
  What is painfully apparent is the level of ignorance that plagues many in America about the Kurdish situation. I’ve repeatedly seen delegations from the pro-war crowd going to “the Kurdish region” and declaring that Iraq is peaceful and safe, not realizing that Kurdistan is not Iraq and never has been.
  So what exactly is Kurdistan?

  This is the second part of my series on Kurdistan.
  The Kurdistan region (“land of the Kurds”) extends over an arc of about 600 miles long and 200 miles wide from Luristan in Iran to Malatia in Turkey.
  No Kurdish sovereign has ever ruled over the entire Kurdistan region, however several have ruled substantial areas, with the golden years around 1000 A.D. Before they were crushed by the Seljuk Turks.

Reshuffling the deck in Persia

  When WWI ended the entire middle east was redrawn, and as you might imagine, several opportunists took advantage of the situation. The Kurdish community was no exception.
  The leader of the Shakak tribal confederation was Ismail Agha (aka Simko). He managed to get appointed subgovernor of the Qotur district of Iran by betraying the Constitutionalists during the 1906 Revolution. During WWI he fought as a Russian ally against Turkey, and then fought against Russia on the side of Iran. In 1918 he personally shot the Assyrian Christian Pope in the back. By the end of the war he was the premier power broker in that part of the Turkish-Iranian border.
  So he made it official. He created his own little fiefdom and declared himself independent from Persia. At the time Persia was under the collapsing Qajar Dynasty and was too weak to do anything about it. That changed when Reza Khan Sardar Sepah staged a coup in early 1921. It would be another four years before Reza became the first Shah of Iran, but it wouldn’t take more than a year before he sent his Cossacks against Simko and drove him into exile.
  Simko would spend eight years in hiding. The Iranian government invited him back in 1930 under the pretext amnesty. Simko was assassinated instead. Reza established a crude but effective way of dealing with the other rebellious Kurds in Kurdistan after Simko was defeated – Kurdish leaders were exiled and their lands were confiscated.

The Turkish Shuffle

  There was three primary drivers for Kurdish revolts in Turkey following WWI. They were: political, cultural, and economic.
  While there was a movement for general Kurdish independence, the real political driver was caused by centralization from the Turkish government. For hundreds of years under Ottoman rule the Kurds in Anatolia lived in autonomous regions. The Ottomans only cared about loyalty. But with centralization came less autonomy. While this made little difference to the average Kurd, it made a big difference to the wealthy, politically connected, Kurdish families. This sparked several revolts in the 19th Century, and the centralization was accelerated once the Turkish republic was formed.
  The second driver of Kurdish revolt, and probably the most important one was cultural. The Turkish government belittled the Kurdish heritage, calling them “mountain Turks”. More importantly, the Turks put restrictions on the Kurdish language and religion. This more than anything caused violent resistance, and after each revolt the Turks clamped down even harder on the Kurdish culture. It was a self-reinforcing cycle.
  Finally there was economics. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire disrupted normal trade routes in Kurdistan. Like their brethren in Iran, Kurdish regions had few if any modern roads, with many Kurds engaged in subsistence agriculture. Literacy rates were appallingly low and health care was almost nonexistence. In fact, advanced education was looked upon with suspicion by many tribal leaders. But the real economic factors came in with the repression following the revolts. Like the cultural repression, this was a self-reinforcing cycle.

  It wasn’t long before Turkish Kurds realized that their dream of independence had died with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. By 1924 the revolt started. The leader was the cleric Sheikh Said Piran. His revolt was nationalistic at its roots, but was in reality a tribal, religious and cultural revolution. Already Turkey was making restrictions on the Kurdish language and culture. Not all Kurdish tribes revolted, and this eventually undermined what little chances they had to win.
  The Turkish response was overwhelming. 50,000 Turkish troops and a small armada of airplanes were mobilized against the tribal revolt. By March of 1925 the revolt was pretty much over. Sheikh Said and all the other rebel leaders were hanged June 29th.
  It should be noted that there was a similar revolt happening in Kurdish Iraq that was also put down by the RAF.

  Just three years later Shaikh Abdurrahman, the brother of Sheikh Said tried to exact revenge on the Turkish government by attacking several army bases in Kurdistan. Nothing permanent was accomplished.
  However, something more significant began that same year near Mt. Ararat. This area of Turkey, largely populated by the Kurmancî tribe, was not yet under the control of Ankara. In 1927, under the leadership of Ihsan Nuri Pasha, the Kurds of the area declared themselves an independent nation.
  Turkey largely ignored the situation until 11 June 1930 when the Turkish army attacked.

‘Kurdish Brothers, you are worthy of becoming a great nation’.
  – appeal for help by Agri (Ararat) Rebellion, 1930

  Much to the Turks surprise, eight other Kurdish tribes responded to the Kurmanci appeal for help. The Turks had to regroup, but by the end of summer the Turkish airforce was once again bombing Kurdish villages. Over 66,000 Turkish troops and 100 planes took part in the operation. By mid-September the Kurdish revolt had been defeated.
  Less than a year later the Iraqi Kurds saw yet another rebellion crushed by air power.
  After this series of crushing defeats in all three Kurdish countries, the whole area quieted down until WWII – with one exception. But it was a big exception.

  The Dersim region of Turkey had refused to pay taxes or recognize the authority of anyone but themselves since the Ottoman days. After several decades of this situation existing, the Turkish government was prepared to put an end to it.

“Dersim is a tumour for the government of Republic. Whatever it will cost, this tumour should be eradicate by a definitive operation.”
  – President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk speech before Turkish Parliament, 1936

  Dersim tribal chiefs sent a letter to the Secretary-General of the League of Nations in 1937 documenting the cultural oppression occurring in Kurdistan by the Turkish government: “deprive Kurdish children even of a basic education in Turkish language schools; to prevent Kurds becoming officers in the Turkish army or becoming employed in civil posts in the Kurdish region; to eliminate all references to Kurd or Kurdistan from scientific works; to force Kurds into slave labour in construction projects; to deport and disperse another part of the Kurds; to uproot young Kurdish women and girls from their families and place them in illegal concubinage and, finally, to Turkify a part of the Kurdish nation and to exterminate the other part, through different means.”
  Even the name Dersim was outlawed.
  In March 1937, 50,000 Turkish troops marched into Dersim. The leader of the rebellious region, 81-year old Seyit Riza, was arrested and executed despite laws forbidding the killing of someone that old. I’ve seen it claimed that Seyit defiantly put the noose on his own neck.
  As with the previous rebellions, Turkey used the air force to bomb villages while the troops massacred all who resisted. The operation took a winter break in November, but started up again with the spring thaw in 1938 and lasted the entire rest of the year.

“This time all the people in the area will be collected and deported out of the area and this collection operation will attack the villages without warning and collect the people. To do this, we will collect the people as well as the arms they have. At the moment, we are ready to deport 2,000 people”
  – decision by the Turkish cabinet, 1938

  By December of 1938 the Kurdish rebellion had been completely crushed. Estimates of casualties and deportations range from 40,000 to 80,000. It would be nearly four decades before Turkish Kurdistan would be able to rise up again.

Another opportunity in Persia

  Early in WWII the pro-British Iraqi government was overthrown in a coup. Fearing that this new Iraqi nationalism would turn pro-Nazi (which it was turning that way), the British easily invaded and occupied Iraq. The British then turned on Iran.
  The Shah of Iran had remained completely neutral during the war, refusing to take any side and refusing British requests for stationing troops in that country. The British, with an invasion force already on Iran’s border, used this excuse to invade and occupy Iran in September 1941.
  The Persian army dissolved so quickly that extensive amounts of arms and ammunition was left behind. Kurdish chiefs who were living in exile in Tehran seized the opportunity to travel back to Iranian Kurdistan and take control of the weapons. A Kurdish chief from Baneh, named Hama Rashid, led the rebellion. But was the aim of the revolt to establish an independent Kurdistan? No.

In 1944, Hama Rashid of Banneh attacked the Marivan territories of Mahmud Khan Kanisanan who was appointed in 1941 by the Iranian government as the governor of Marivan. The Iranian forces helped Mahmud Khan to quell Hama Rashid and drive him into Iraq, but before retreat Hama Rashid burnt down the whole 1,000 houses of the town. When the government forces got rid of Hama Rashid, they turned against Mahmud Khan, the unwanted governor, and pushed him out of Iran into Iraq.

When WWII ended Iran was still occupied by allied forces. The Kurdish territories of Iran was controlled by Soviet Forces.
  The Soviets had a different attitude towards the Kurds and ethnic minorities on the other side of their border in general. This would allow the first real attempt at Kurdish independence in Persia since the dying days of the Safavid Empire in the 18th Century.

The Republic of Kurdistan in Mahabad

Independence Day 1946, Republic of Mehabad

  On 22 January 1946, the Republic of Kurdistan was proclaimed at the Chwar Chira Square and Qazi Muhammad was elected as the president. Mulla Mustafa Barzani, the founder of the Kurdish resistence movement in Iraq (who had recently been driven out of Iraq) became commander of the army of Mahabad.
  The Republic of Mahabad extended no further than the city of Mahabad and three surrounding cities in Iran. It was more symbolic than practical and was never recognized by any other nation. Nevertheless, its symbolism was dangerous to nations that constituted Kurdistan.
  By the fall of 1946 the Soviets were preparing to leave Iran and the Iranian government moved to overthrow the government of Mahabad. However, Barzani was a brilliant military commander and defeated and isolated the Iranian forces. Unable to defeat the Kurds by force of arms, they moved against the new Azerbajiani Republic that was also set up under Soviet occupation. The azerbajianis decided not to resist.

As the Iranian forces had faced several setbacks previously in the Saqqiz front, this time they attacked from Miandoab. Despite the defeat of the Azerbaijan Republic the Kurdish leaders decided to resist, but on 15 December the economic representative of the Soviet left Mahabad.
  His departure gave the Kurds the impression the Soviet Union was no longer going to protect them. Thus, Kurdish leaders decided not to resist and gave themselves up. On 16 December 1946, Qazi Muhammad went to Miandoab to facilitate the surrender of the Kurdish Republic. On 17 December 1946, Mahabad was officially handed over to the Iranian forces without any resistance.

The Iranians showed little mercy. Barzani retreated with his forces to Iraq before being again defeated by the Iraqi forces. Barzani then led a legendary fighting retreat all the way to exile in the Soviet Union. Qazi Muhammad, along with his cousin and brother, were hung in Chwar Chira Square, in the same place where the Republic was proclaimed.

The Iranian government was not satisfied with the defeat of the republic and execution of some of its leaders. It tried to eradicate the signs of the Kurdish Republic.
  Kurdish publishing press was closed, the Kurdish publications were banned, Kurdish books were burnt, and teaching in Kurdish language was prohibited.

And so ended the last independent Kurdish entity outside of Iraq. It was also the last Kurdish revolt outside of Iraq for the next three decades.


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