Tarsin Amad Khalif, the principal of Azadi high school in the northern Iraq city of Arbil, gestures toward the map hanging behind him with a wistful smile. The map depicts a country called Kurdistan, its borders stretching from northern Iraq through parts of Turkey, Iran, and a corner of Syria. The same map adorns the walls of every school and government office in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, a map of a country that does not exist. "This is our hope for the future," Khalif says. "It is only a dream."
As Iraq braces for its postwar future, most educated Kurds have, at least publicly, abandoned the century-old fight for an independent state in favor of a more pragmatic blueprint for a federated Iraq, where Kurds would share power with their southern Sunni and Shiite neighbors. But the dream of a separate Kurdistan is by no means dead, and even Kurds planning for a democratic Iraq warn that they are treading warily. "We won't go back to the days of chemical weapons and Iraqi generals doing what they want with our people," says Najmaldin Karim, a Virginia neurosurgeon who recently returned to his native Iraq for a meeting of Kurdish leaders. "We won't go back to square one."
For many of the world's 25 million Kurdsincluding 3.7 million in Iraqsquare one has become familiar terrain. Writing in the fourth century B.C., the Greek historian Xenophon described the Kurds as "a warlike people" who "dwelt up among the mountains... not subjects of the King." The description has held up for nearly 2½ millenniums. Ethnically distinct from their Arab neighbors, most Kurds practice Sunni Islam and speak a language related to Persian, though shifting tribal allegiances have birthed a fragmented society. "Kurds live in high mountains, where it's difficult to unite," says Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network. "You stay in your village for six months at a time because of the snows."
With the Kurds' reputation as recalcitrant warriors already well established, the 12th century gave them Saladin, the sultan who wrestled Jerusalem from the Christian Crusaders. Saladin played down his Kurdish roots to promote the notion of Muslim brotherhood, a fact that has made him a hero among Arab nationalists, including Saddam Hussein. Though the Iraqi president slaughtered tens of thousands of Kurds in the late 1980s, he and Saladin both hail from Tikrit, 100 miles north of Baghdad.
From the 17th to the early 20th century, the Kurds straddled the border between Persian and Ottoman empires and fought for both sidessometimes against one other. With the promise of an independent state unfulfilled by the carving up of the Middle East after World War I, most Kurds were absorbed by the newly minted nations of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Home to the largest Kurdish enclave, Turkey banned the Kurdish language, prompting a string of bloody revolts. "The Turks' attempts to assimilate the Kurds backfired," says Michael Gunter, a professor of political science at Tennessee Tech University who specializes in Kurdish history. "It made them more aware of their ethnicity than ever before."
In Iraq, meanwhile, a tribal family called the Barzanis was churning the Kurds' newfound nationalism into a full-fledged movement of peshmerga (those who face death). When Mullah Mustafa Barzani was expelled from Iraq in 1945 for declaring a general revolt among the Kurds, he took shelter in Iran, where a tiny Kurdish state was established in the northern, Soviet-controlled region at the beginning of 1946. The Soviets pulled out after inking an oil deal with Tehran later that year and the nascent Kurdistan was quickly rubbed out by Iranian forces. "It was just this little rump state," says Gunter. "But to this day, it remains one of Kurds' golden ages."
With the Kurdish Republic gone, Barzani fled to the Soviet Union, returning to Iraq only after the Free Officers coup dislodged the monarchy in 1958. But the Kurds' festering tribal rivalries had again broken out in a rash of violent clashes, which Barzani tried to parlay into a nationalist revolt through his Kurdish Democratic Party. "The Kurds spent almost as much time and energy fighting each other as they did the Iraqi government," write John Bulloch and Harvey Morris in No Friends but the Mountains.
When the Baath party permanently took power in 1968, the Kurds' fortunes seemed to improve: in 1970, Saddam, then a high-level party operative, drafted a proposal to grant Kurds relative autonomy in northern Iraq. "It was the first time the Kurds were recognized by the Iraqi government," says Karim, who served as Barzani's personal physician in the mid-'70s. "If it had worked out, we would be happy today."
But self-rule would again prove elusive. In a decision that rattled many Kurds, Barzani rejected Saddam's proposal in 1974 because the deal left oil-rich Kirkuk in Iraq proper and gave Baghdad ultimate control over the autonomous region. Border skirmishes between the Kurds and Iraqis quickly escalated into full-scale war, costing thousands of lives on both sides. Funded by the United States, Iran, and Israel, the Kurds were seen as the antidote to a regime that flirted with communism. But their patrons never aimed for victory. According to a congressional report issued soon after the war, the United States actually "hoped that our client would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally's neighboring country."
When Iran and its allies pulled their support from the Kurds in 1975, Iraq razed hundreds of Kurdish villages and moved half a million Kurds to "resettlement" camps that operated as militarized ghettos. Barzani again left the country for Iran and soon settled in America, where he died in 1979; his son Massoud leads the KPD today. The Kurds proved willing to be used again in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, with Iran supporting Iraqi Kurds and vice versa. In a show of the Iraqi Kurds' factionalization, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by the intellectual Jalal Talabani and claiming to be more progressive than the KDP, negotiated a cease-fire with Saddam while other Kurds kept fighting.
As the war between Iran and Iraq drew to a close, the Kurds suffered their most devastating blow. On March 15, 1988, Saddam's forces attacked the northern Iraqi town of Halabja, which had just been captured by the Kurds and Iranians, with chemical weapons. The scene was captured in a report by Middle East Watch: "Dead bodieshuman and animallittered the streets, huddled in doorways, slumped over the steering wheels of their cars... Survivors stumbled around, laughing hysterically before collapsing." Halabja was the opening salvo of a four-month campaign that claimed 150,000 to 200,000 lives in Kurdish territory through the use of chemical and traditional weapons. By the end of the Iran-Iraq War, more than 3,000 Kurdish villages had been obliterated, 1.5 million people resettled.
The international response to the massacres was, in the words of the London Financial Times, "a deafening silence." So with the U.S.-led coalition's crushing defeat of Iraqi ground forces in February 1991 in response to the Kuwait invasion, the Kurds were understandably sanguine. Emboldened by President George H. W. Bush's pleas to overthrow Saddam just before the Gulf War and by word of a Shiite rebellion in the south, the Kurdish ranks swelled from 15,000 to more than 100,000. Kurdish forces took a handful of northern Iraqi cities, including Kirkuk, in the space of a single month. But victory was short-lived. As Saddam's forces rolled into Kurdish territory, 1.5 million Kurds scrambled to the borders of Turkey and Iran. "We were a few days from finishing off Saddam," says Karim. "Instead, he learned the tactics that he's using to fight now."
While Iran opened its borders to tens of thousands of refugees, Turkish troops beat back Kurds with rifle butts. Home to 12 million Kurdsa quarter of its populationTurkey wasn't welcoming newcomers. The country had withstood a dramatic Kurdish uprising from the late '70s to the mid-'90s, led by Osman Ocalan, the founder of the independence-oriented Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). By the time Ocalan was arrested in 1999, battles between the PKK and the Turkish Army had claimed 30,000 lives, turning southeast Turkey into a war zone. "The PKK would stop by a village at night to try to get food and shelter," says David McDowall, author of A Modern History of the Kurds. "And the Turkish Army came by during the day to recruit. If you didn't enroll, your house was torched."
The Kurdish experience in Turkey, along with a history of Turkish incursions into northern Iraq, have left Iraqi Kurds more wary of Turkey than of Saddam. "Turks have committed many crimes against the Kurdish people," says an 18-year-old history student in Abril. "I would bring loaded machine guns and missiles to fight against them." But as long as the Turks honor the U.S. request to stay out of northern Iraq, the Kurds' main concern will be preserving the security they've come to know in the past decade. U.S. and British patrols of Iraq's northern no-fly zone since 1991 has created a de-facto Kurdish state. While the Kurdish parliament has been cited by outsiders as a model for a democratic Iraq, the Kurds continue to be dogged by violent infighting. In 1996, while civil war embroiled the autonomous region, Barzani enlisted the help of Saddam's troops against the rival PUK. An opportunistic move, for sure, but the Kurds have known no other kind.