Jose Lev Alvarez Gomez

Iraqi Kurdistan: The Unfinished Business of Democracy in a Tribal Society Model


The Kurdish nation is the largest stateless ethnic minority in the Middle East. This group has a population of approximately 30 million people scattered throughout their historical 392,000 km2 territory. Today, this land is divided between Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq and since the 19th century, they have shown interest in establishing an independent State. Throughout history, the dream of a self-governed Kurdish State has not materialized due to the interests of the countries where this ethnic group inhabits and the great powers that have used their influence in the area to do whatever they want. Evidence of this is the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres by which the governments of France, Italy, and the United Kingdom prevented the creation of a Kurdish State. Also, against this aspiration, Turkey has been the main obstacle in establishing an independent Kurdish State. They have even designated as a foreign terrorist organization a whole political faction of this ethnic group -the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK)- and have had an armed conflict -between 1984 and 2013- against them (this conflict has ended the lives of approximately 40,000 people). However, there is a ‘light’ at the end of the tunnel for the dream of the Kurds: The Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has enjoyed a high degree of autonomy within the borders of the Republic of Iraq since the fall of the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein. The fight against the Islamic State -led by the United States and the International Coalition-, has pushed the KRG status to another level and today they are considered a key ally by the main Western powers. These factors reinforce the dream of establishing a future independent State of Kurdistan. In the present work, we will analyze Iraqi Kurdistan tribal clashes, their history, their democratic process, and their declarative and constitutive theories.


The Kurds are an ethnic group of Indo-European origin that for several centuries has been settled in what is today known as the Middle East, a large territory rich in different natural resources such as water reserves, fertile land for agriculture, minerals, and large oil reserves. The Kurdish people are predominantly Sunni Muslims, although there are also other religious groups such as Christians, Jews, and Yazidis. They differ from their Arab neighbors in traditions, language, customs, and in their way of reading and living the laws of Islam. They are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, behind the Arabs, the Persians, and the Turks. Today, only within Turkey, it is estimated that there is a population of about 15 million Kurds, while in Iraq there are around 8 million, 7 million in Iran and about 2 million in Syria. There are also smaller communities in countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Lebanon. Also, the emigration of thousands of Kurds from their respective countries to the West -especially to Denmark, Germany, Italy, and Sweden- has grown exponentially in the last 40 years. Due to being divided into four different States they have been strongly repressed and classified as minorities within the countries that currently separate them. In their respective countries, their culture has been forbidden, and public use of their language could imply prison time. Looking at it from this point of view, their name could be a bit contradictory because, in the Persian language, the word Kurdish means “hero”, and these heroes -paradoxically- throughout their history have always been dominated by other powers.

Within the territory of Kurdistan in general, the portion belonging to the Republic of Iraq is geographically located to the south of the ‘great nation’, but when we talk about the location of the Kurds within the Iraqi state, they are in the northern side of the country. In this part of Iraq, the geography is mainly composed of mountains with abundant rivers and fertile land. This region has an economy mainly based on agriculture and oil. Today, it is a much more developed area compared to the rest of Iraq. In fact, in 2017, they had a per capita income of 25% more than the other regions of Iraq in addition to being considered the safest and most politically stable area in this country. The Autonomous Region of Kurdistan is made up of four provinces: Duhok, Erbil, Halabja, and Sulaymaniyah. Each of these is divided into districts, and these, in turn, are divided into sub-districts. Throughout the short history of the Iraqi State, policies of Arabization of the regions in which other ethnic groups lived, have always been a constant. This policy was based on the transfer of thousands of Arab families to Kurdish areas with the objective of lowering the high Kurdish demographic rates in this region. It is important to highlight that the sectors in which this policy was fiercely developed were the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk (areas with abundant oil fields) The Kurds endured the British design that lumped them together with Shiite and Sunni Arabs within the Iraqi state, the inclemency of the Baath party, the massacres of Saddam Hussein, and, more recently, the atrocities of jihadism.

After encountering permanent oppression, mistreatment, and marginalization within their territory, around 8 million Iraqi Kurds supported the US intervention that resulted in the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. In addition to suffering this repression, in recent years, the Kurdish people have had to face another problem: the Islamic State (ISIS). This group of extremists with Wahhabi jihadist fundamentalist ideology has spread throughout various territories in the Middle East such as Iraq and Syria, with the aim of retaking the territories and regions that were once under Arab control and with it, trying to establish an omnipresent caliphate throughout the Muslim world just like Prophet Muhammad tried. That said, the main goal of this research project is to analyze the politico-social Kurdish issue in Iraq and answer the question: How did Saddam Hussein’s fall affect/benefit Iraqi Kurdistan? Will it lead to the region’s independence in the long term?

During the conference convened by Winston Churchill in Cairo in March 1920, the decision to create a new kingdom called Iraq in the Mesopotamian region was made. The borders of this new sovereign entity would include the occupied provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul. To lead this new kingdom, the Hashemite monarch Amir Faisal, a member of Prophet Muhammad’s Quraish tribe, was chosen. His reign lasted twelve years and was characterized by his permanent attempt to achieve strength in a State that was not sovereign at all. In addition to this, Faisal was the leader of the Arab Revolt during World War I; thusly, the British already knew of the potential and the fame that this character had among the Arabs. Nevertheless, they gave him the ‘confidence’ of leading a puppet State to have him under control. When the British occupied Mesopotamia after World War I, the region was made up of barely 3 million inhabitants: more than 50% of the population was Shiite Muslim Arabs, 20% Sunni Muslim Arabs, 20% were Kurdish and the remaining population was Jewish, Christian, Yazidi, Sabeans or Turkmens. Although the Sunnis were a minority 6 within this territory, they were chosen by the British colonizers to oversee the seizure of power by the British and to help run the nascent State. Since the Shiites had been excluded from the Ottoman administration, few of them had any kind of politico-administrative experience.

After the appointment of the new monarch of Mesopotamia, several riots and protests erupted within the Shiite regions, while the British were concerned about the discontent the Kurds had over the new State. At the same time, the Kurds felt betrayed by the British due to the unfulfilled promise of autonomy that was agreed upon from the beginning. To allay those fears and maintain good relations with the Kurds, in 1922, the British made an agreement with the government of Baghdad and committed to respecting the fundamental right of the Kurdish people for self-government if they agree to the Iraqi constitution and its territories. However, this would never materialize, and the Kurdish issue remained ignored for a long period of time. At that time, a significant portion of Iraqi Kurdistan was under the leadership of Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, with which Britain was trying to maintain good relations. But this did not last long. In 1923, the British sent the Royal Air Force, alongside the Turkish army and other Kurdish chiefs from Sulaymaniyah, to fight him. Initially, the British seized full control of the region, but months later Barzanji took advantage of a withdrawal from the British army to regain control of the area. However, in the following months, the British carried out several attacks against Sulaymaniyah and fully occupied the territory in July 1924. After this event, Barzanji took refuge beyond the Persian border, where he led several guerrillas groups until he was captured by the Iraqi authorities in 1931.

In October 1932, Iraq was admitted as an independent State in the League of Nations; however, the British continued to ‘de facto’ control the country’s economy and armed forces. A year later, due to multiple health problems, King Faisal traveled to Switzerland for treatment and shortly after died. Thus, on September 18, 1933, his eldest son Gazi assumed the Iraqi throne. During these same dates the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, both located in the Kurdish region, became the economic centers of the new Iraqi State. However, the policy that the monarch pursued regarding the ethnographic variety of the territory that he led, was the unification of the nation under the Arab ideology not because of the low demographic dimension in the area, but because of the economic importance that these two cities had. The rapid growth of the oil industries was the excuse for which the government of that time encouraged large-scale migration of Arab families from all over the country. This way, he managed to demographically weaken the Kurdish presence in these cities. In 1937, to counteract the Soviet presence in the region, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan came together and created an alliance that will be enshrined in the Treaty of Saadabad Pact. However, the main objective of this alliance was to prevent and contain the emergence of any opposition group in these countries, referring directly to the Kurds as a group promoting revolts and internal disorders. On April 4, 1939, King Gazi died in a car accident. Over the next few days, accusations of different plots against the king were made. As a result, Gazi was succeeded by his son Faisal II. But due to him being a little boy -he was just four years old-, he was replaced in the effective exercise of power by Emir Abdallah, thus generating new a 8 political crisis. From 1937 to 1941, Iraq entered a period of endless military coups. This was finalized with the military intervention of Great Britain in 1941, allowing Nuri as-Said to achieve full control of postwar Iraq. This political situation allowed the Kurds in the northern side of the country to organize and establish several political parties with nationalist agendas. As a result, important leaders appeared in the Kurdish political scene such as Mustafa Barzani, who was concerned about the increasing centralization of the Iraqi state and the marginalization of non-Arabs. In view of the situation, Barzani organized a large Kurdish rebellion against Baghdad, demanding autonomy for the Kurdish region as the sole option to solve the conflict. The militias were able to retain control over the Kurdish region for a period and even reached some political agreements with the central government. However, in 1945, the Iraqi army defeated these militias and regained control of the area. This made Barzani and his followers look for refuge in Mahabad, Iran (which was then an independent Kurdish Republic).

Shortly after, this pseudo-independent sovereign entity collapsed and Barzani moved to the Soviet Union. In 1946, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was created in Sulaymaniyah, proclaiming Barzani as its leader. The creation of this political party in Iraqi Kurdistan was not only thanks to the great efforts of the Kurdish people to make themselves heard strongly but also a strategy by the Baghdad government, which wanted to make sure that the Kurdish population was not becoming radical like the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP). The central mission of the KDP was the democratization of the region and the country, likewise the liberation from imperialism and the creation of an autonomous region emerging within the structure of an Arab and Kurdish state. Despite this, Iraq did not stop being a very unstable territory, full of permanent protests and riots led by sectors of the Iraqi population who did not feel represented nor included under the figure of the monarch. This would become the beginning of the end of the monarchical era in Iraq. Further, a military group called “Free Officers”, men belonging to the Iraqi armed forces, lead a military coup -headed by Colonel Abdul Karim Qassim- ending with the monarchy and Great Britain’s alliance with the Hashemis and the Sunni establishment.

On July 14, 1958, the first Republic of Iraq was proclaimed. Qassim -as leader of the new regime- had the objective of diminishing the influence of the nationalist movements throughout the territory and consolidating a central government, but not in the way that previous governments have done it. The new Iraqi leader made alliances with different political parties such as the ICP and the KDP. Immerse in the Cold War, he cut ties with the Western powers by pushing Iraq out of the Baghdad Pact and ordering the departure of all British troops from Iraq. To deepen this conflict, he achieved several pacts and treaties with the blessing of the Soviet Union. Because of Qassim’s rapprochement to the KDP, he allowed Mustafa Barzani to return to Iraqi soil. Upon his arrival, Barzani reached various agreements with Baghdad, like the recognition of Kurdish national rights, influence within the national government, publication of Kurdish literature, and Kurdish language education in local schools. However, in 1959, a revolt took place in the city of Kirkuk, pushing the ICP away from both Qassim’s regime and the KPD. As a result, Baghdad accused the communists of promoting violence and ideologies against the government. For this reason, the regime started a huge repression campaign -supported by the KDP Kurds- that ended in a massacre of Turkmen. General Abd al-Karim Qassim, the leader of the 1958 revolution, used the 1959 Kirkuk massacre as a pretext to suppress the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), in which communist Kurds held high positions. As time passed, Qassim became increasingly concerned about Barzani’s growing power and influence within Iraqi Kurdistan. He thought that this power could be used by foreign powers to generate instability in the country. In 1960, Qassim decided to take advantage of Barzani’s disagreements with some regional tribes such as the Zebari and the Harki, armed these groups, created a territorial dispute, and later enacted a land reform that threatened the interests of the big landlords (aghas) and tribal elites.

In 1961, alongside leaders like Ibrahim Ahmad and Jalal Talabani, the KPD expressed their opposition to the Qassim regime, and at the party’s congress, the group chose the armed conflict to fight for the rights of the Kurdish population and autonomy for the region. As expected, Qassim did not accept these terms and saw this move as a secessionist attempt. On September 11, 1961, Iraqi military planes bombed the KDP meeting centers and ordered the end of the party. Barzani quickly understood Qassim’s attack strategy and was able to take over the reins of the peshmerga (Kurdish Army) effectively. Throughout 1962, Barzani’s campaign managed to organize several blows to the central government such as creating alliances with the Baathists and the Nasserists, thusly causing great instability within the regime. In 1963, these two groups carried out a military coup bringing Nasserist Colonel Abdul Salam to the presidency of the country and Baathist Ahmed Hasan al-Bark to the position of prime minister. However, the rise of these new leaders did not bring anything good for the Kurds. Barzani tried to negotiate the recognition of Kurdish autonomy -including the territories of Mosul and Kirkuk- but this proposal was rejected. The new administration was concerned about the Kurdish presence in the areas where oil companies were located and developed an Arabization strategy for the Kurdish areas. Adding more fuel, the Talabani and Ahmad groups separated from the KDP. However, in 1964, Mustafa Barzani managed to expel these new enemies and achieved full control of the party and the territory. With the dominance of the party, the confrontation between Barzani and Baghdad was renewed.

As a result, the Iraqi government deployed nearly 100,000 troops throughout northern Iraq, -in addition to having the support of the Talabani’s and Ahmed’s group- and renewed a new military campaign in this region. The KPD took out benefits from the previous battles they had fought against Qassim and effectively organized a great semi-professional and ideologically indoctrinated army. As a result, Iraqi forces did not achieve anything and with the arrival of the winter, they got stuck in several key places in the Kurdish region. In 1966, a helicopter carrying President Abdul Salam Arif crashed, bringing his brother Abdul Rahman Arif to power. After this, Prime Minister al-Bazzaz realized that the conflict against the Kurds was nonsense and decided to propose to make a peace treaty with Mustafa Barzani -popularly known as the “Bazzaz Declaration”- in which he agreed to the KDP’s demands. But because of the pressure from the military, the treaty was canceled. Sometime later, President Rahman Arif met with Mustafa Barzani, and they signed a peace treaty with some benefits for the Kurds, although the desired autonomy request was denied. Henceforth, Barzani continued to strengthen and consolidate his power throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, which was no longer under Baghdad’s full control.

The agreement had different important aspects among which we can highlight the administration of the territory was now under Kurdish control, special funds for the development of the region were assigned, and the right to use and study the Kurdish language in schools was put into practice. On the contrary, the fate of the city of Kirkuk was one of the points of great disagreement between the parties. Both knew of the geopolitical and economic importance of this city; as a result, after the failure of the negotiations, the Iraqi government began a new Arabization policy in Kirkuk by transferring Arab families into the city and started offering financial incentives for those Kurdish families who wanted to leave the territory. In this process, more than 500,000 Kurds were “relocated” and transferred to other areas of Kurdistan and Iraq – mainly- because of threats against their lives. In March 1974, the Iraqi government unilaterally promulgated the Iraqi Kurdistan Autonomy Law. Through this measure, only half of the territory claimed by the Kurds was recognized and major cities like Mosul and Kirkuk were excluded from this legislation. Because of this, Barzani rejected the proposal and decreed that the conflict with Baghdad will not cease until the Kurds achieve all their rights in their ancestral lands. The Iraqi government knew for sure that this proposal was not going to be accepted by Barzani; however, they promulgated it with the aim of creating divisions within the Kurdish administration (something they achieved).

A year later, an OPEC summit was held in Algiers. Saddam Hussein -who was already in power- was negotiating with his Iranian counterpart an agreement to end Iran’s aid to the Peshmerga; in exchange, Iraq would recognize its neighbor’s sovereignty over the waters of the Shatt al-Arab region. Because of the disagreements within the KDP -after the 1975 defeat-, Jalal Talabani -alongside his closest allies- created a new political party called the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In their beginnings, they were mainly Marxist, anti-imperialism, and were against the KDP. At the same time, Masoud Barzani -Mustafa Barzani’s son- took over the party’s leadership. Due to al-Bakr’s resignation in 1979, Saddam Hussein became both Iraq’s Prime Minister and President of the Republic. As president, Hussein would lead the country until he was overthrown by the United States in 2003. As Prime Minister, he would have this position during two different periods: from July 1979 to March 1991, and from May 1994 to April 2003. Consequently, because neighboring Iran did not grant him access to the sea, Saddam Hussein led an ambitious military policy directed toward his eastern neighbor -who was going through a political revolution- in what became known as the Iran-Iraq War. Meanwhile, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the winds of conflict were blowing. Throughout the 1980s the Kurdish territory was divided into two large zones: the KDP controlled western and northwestern regions and the southern area controlled by the PUK. As a result, Baghdad’s government took advantage of this situation and constantly attacked the Kurdish areas with its army, thus achieving the destruction of several villages, the execution of around 8,000 KDP members, and the deportation of half a million Kurds into southern Iraq. The direct alignment of the Kurds with Iran was seen as a betrayal. As a result, Saddam Hussein waged a war -simultaneously- against the Iranians and the Kurdish militias.

Between 1987 and 1988 the Iraqi army destroyed thousands of Kurdish settlements and villages in northern Iraq, killed and disappeared about 100,000 Kurds -among whom were women and children-, and ended with the lives of other people belonging to minority communities such as the Yazidis, the Jews, and Turkmen. By March 1988, after the capture of the city of Halabja (near the border with Iran) by PUK Kurdish militias and the Iranian forces, Baghdad’s regime responded with the Anfal Campaign. This operation consisted of 8 jet fighters -loaded with chemical bombs and multiple toxic substances- who bombed the Kurdish population in this area. After this event, the city of Halabja became known as the ‘Kurdish Hiroshima’ and was a unique example of Hussein’s policy against the different minorities of Iraq. This event contrasted with the subsequent invasion of Kurdish cities and the transfer of adult and adolescent men who at the time were seen as a threat by Baghdad’s regime. After this event, the Arabization policy reached its most critical point: after the Anfal Campaign, Hussein’s regime-built hundreds of thousands of housing for poor Arabs in the northern area of the country (mainly in Kirkuk). For this reason, the demographic balance was affected throughout the province and the capital of Kirkuk. Promptly, the Kurds were now ‘invaders’ and not locals anymore.  On August 2, 1990, the Iraqi Army invaded neighboring Kuwait, an event that gave a small breath to the Kurdish conflict. The main reason that pushed Hussein to invade this small country was the large oil reserves in this territory. In summary, the war lasted less than a year, with the Iraqi troops being defeated by an alliance of the United States and 34 other countries of the United Nations (UN) during “Operation Desert Storm”. This war had great repercussions for Iraq, such as the different social and economic upheavals due to the embargo that the UN enacted on the country and the endless bombings by the United States and the United Kingdom in the years after the conflict. During this period, the Kurds took advantage of the conflictive situation that Baghdad was going through and began to unite to create an autonomous political entity.

After Hussein’s defeat and seeing the repressive forces of the army weakened, a series of revolts led by the Kurds in the north (during this time the KDP and the PUK were allies) and the Shiites in the south created a huge problem for the regime. During this time, the Kurds were able to properly call the international community’s attention by asking for help to eradicate Iraqi minorities’ human rights violations and even intervene in Iraq if it was necessary. Although this last aspect was ‘partially’ ignored, the UN spoke out about the issue, recriminated the abusive actions of the Iraqi Republican Guard, condemned the acts of repression against the Iraqi population, demanded Baghdad’s help to contribute to eliminating the threat to peace and establishing security in the region, access to the population to international humanitarian services throughout the territory, etc. This resolution is of great importance to Kurdish history for two main reasons: it was the first time (since the League of Nations arbitration regarding Mosul in 1925- 16 1926) that they mentioned the Kurds by name, and it was also the first time that the United Nations insisted on the right to interfere in the internal affairs of a Member State. Due to the massive arrival of immigrants from Iraq to the border with Türkiye and the great international media pressure at the time, a “Kurdish Safe Saven” on the Iraqi side of the border was created. This complemented the massive aid operation organized by intergovernmental, governmental, and non-governmental organizations that had begun, first unilaterally and then under the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding between the United Nations and the Iraqi government. On April 18, 1991, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was established because of the negotiations between the Kurds (forced by the International Coalition) and Hussein’s government.

On May 17th, 1991, Masoud Barzani, son of the late leader Mustafa Barzani, proclaimed an agreement between Baghdad and the Kurds. One of the most important points of the agreement was that the Kurds would have to end any alliance they had with any foreign enemies of the government of Iraq. On June 4 of the same year, elections were held to establish the Kurdistan Region Parliament. The results yielded 45% of the votes for the KPD and 43.6% for the PUK. Such a choice was generally expected to produce a clear joint leadership and end up in a form of government based on the election of the people, removing the paralysis that had characterized much of the history of Kurdistan since the insurrection. It was also hoped that a proper government could establish a unified peshmerga force of approximately 80,000 men and a police force of 20,000 that would replace the roughly 400,000 fighters in the streets of Kurdistan.

Meanwhile, neighboring countries of Iraq such as Türkiye, Syria, and Iran, saw with distress the arrival of Kurdish autonomy and did not recognize the regional government. The subsequent establishment of the Kurdish autonomy zone came with almost 2 years of relative peace in the region, until again the constant disputes between the two main parties in the region became something else. As a result, a civil war broke out between the PKD and the PUK because both political parties did not find a common way to govern and manage the resources of the autonomous entity. This conflict ultimately ended up claiming the lives of more than 3,000 people from across the region. The PUK established a direct alliance with the Iranian government, which allowed military incursion against the KDP, both in Iraqi Kurdish territory and in Iranian Kurdish territory. Due to this scenario, Barzani asked Saddam for help. Hussein saw this opportunity to retake control of the north and sent for 30,000 soldiers to conquer the city of Erbil which at the time was under the control of the PUK. This attack by Baghdad and the retaking of power in Erbil worried the Americans because they thought that Hussein would again launch a genocidal campaign against the Kurds as he did1988 and 1991.

On the other hand, Turkey saw an opportunity to intervene in northern Iraq under the premise of fighting the expansion of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) (an organization that Ankara considers terrorist). The Turkish government entered the conflict as an ally of the PDK and ferociously attacked PUK positions to force the PKK to leave Iraqi Kurdistan. On November 24, 1997, the KDP declared a unilateral ceasefire. Although the PUK did not officially declare a ceasefire, they said that they will respect the truce, despite claiming that the KDP had violated the truce by attacking PUK posts the day later. In September 1998, Barzani and Talabani signed the Washington Accord, mediated by the United States, which established the area as a region of peace. Through this agreement, the parties agreed to share revenue, share power, and deny the entry of PKK insurgents, nor Iraqi troops to the Kurdish regions. The United States for its part pledged to use military force to protect the Kurds from any possible aggression by Saddam Hussein. About a month later, Bill Clinton enacted the Iraq Liberation Act, which consisted of giving military assistance to Iraqi opposition groups, including the PUK and KDP. In addition to this, the UN implemented the Oil for Food Program which brought much income to the north of Iraq, allowing growth in the standard of living of the local population. Iraqi Kurdistan thus became a relatively peaceful region, before the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam entered the area in December 2001, bringing a renewed conflict. The PUK and the KDP were slowly constituting a government apparatus despite the multiple political divergences. This alliance was later used by Washington during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 which ended in the defeat of the Iraqi armed forces and the complete fall of Hussein’s entire Baathist government. With the help of American air power, the Kurds invaded much of northern Iraq, including the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. After this, the KRG became a reality and a key element of the new Iraqi political system.

However, what effects did the fall of Saddam Hussein brought to the Iraqi Kurdistan region so that it led to the independence referendum carried out in 2017? After the terrorist attacks perpetrated on September 11, 2001, against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the United States launched a campaign around the world against “outlaw States”, arguing the great threat that these States represented by not being able to contain the formation and expansion of terrorist groups, mainly Islamists, who attempted against the security of the world, and the West. On that day, Islam challenged the American identity that historically was established as liberal and democratic, but contrary to what they thought, the attack did not generate a setback in it. According to constructivism, the most sedimented identities are more resistant to change, therefore, this terrorist attack triggered a unique strengthening of the American identity. Since the end of the Iraq-Iran War, American interests were no longer in tune with the Iraqis, so Iraq quickly went from being considered a powerful rival and later an enemy, following Wendt’s logic of the cultural types of anarchy, the United States had already been planning an intervention in Iraq long before 2003.

To accomplish this operation, they knew that they would need allies within Iraq itself, so they turned to the Kurds, a group publicly opposed to Hussein’s regime. The rapprochement of the Americans with the Kurds was not difficult at all, since for years the Kurds had been in contact with Westerners, who financed various campaigns to counter the abuses of Hussein’s regime. For its part, Turkey frowned upon this Kurdish alliance with the Americans. The Ankara government was afraid that the Kurds would take advantage of the political chaos in their country to establish itself as an independent state as well. This would have a direct impact on the Kurdish population living in Turkey and neighboring countries that would try to imitate the acts done by the Iraqi Kurds and try to separate from the State of which they are a part. In 1998, the peace treaty between the PDK and the UPK was finalized in Washington. Since the interests are constituted by social structures and not determined by nature, the United States assisted the Kurds in the construction and unification of a common agenda of interests, already anticipating the importance that these would have for the concretization of the North American objectives and plans for a future invasion.

The years that followed September 11 were characterized by constant meetings held between the leaders of the KDP and the PUK with Washington. According to constructivism, the international system changes as the interests, and this can be identified in this period in which the relations between the United States and the Iraqi Kurds, who saw the other way to achieve your goals. On the one hand, the United States implemented its doctrine of the fight against terrorism and expanded its “democratic, liberal and peace” Western identity to those areas that represented a threat. On the other hand, for the Kurds, this alliance represented the possibility of increasing and strengthening its negotiating position within the new situation that could trigger a possible intervention, in addition to the fact that, after Turkey’s refusal to use the American army and air bases, the Kurds could become a key partner of the United States in the region. Evidently, the post-invasion strategy of the United States consisted of making representing all ethnic and religious groups present on Iraqi soil. That is why the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) was composed of 25 members distributed as follows: 13 Shiites, 5 Kurds, 5 Sunnis, 1 Turkmen, and 1 Christian. The objective of this was for the local population to assimilate and accept foreign occupation without any resistance. In this first post-Saddam stage, one can certainly see the strengthening of the Kurds due to the new political landscape in Iraq, through active participation -for example- in the negotiations for the establishment of military bases in the new country, the creation of a new constitution and the conception of a new Iraq. However, there is another perspective we cannot obviate.

According to constructivism, practices that challenge collective identity will create cognitive mismatches and threat perceptions by the majority portion, and this is what exactly happened in Iraq. Through a reinforcement mechanism based on violence, the Iraqi State Shias try to stop the demonstrations of non-conformity of the Kurdish and Sunni groups, making them feel no longer identified with the central government and resort to subnational aspects in the search for a collective identity. The identity standardization carried out by the State can cause profound political, economic, and social instabilities if there are “sub-nationalisms” in the territory. In the case of the Kurds, these would resort to a more conservative vision focused on the maintenance of a past identity, while the Sunnis will find their point in a segment of central religious dogma. The situation worsened more with the incorporation of the Islamic State as a relevant actor in the Iraqi drama. From 2014 to 2016, ISIS took control of several key territories in northern and western Iraq, as well as others in Syria, encouraging the idea of a great Muslim identity expressed in its great transcontinental caliphate.

This fact made Baghdad’s relations and communication with the rest of the country even more difficult. The main containment that ISIS has had in northern Iraq has been the men and Kurdish women fighting as part of the peshmergas. Since the battle against Daesh, the Kurds have known how to move their elements within a somewhat complicated geopolitical landscape. American and European military aid have been key factors in the KRG’s weapons and military development. This has generated a unique entity -already recognized by the central government-, and on top of that, control of territories that were historically theirs but that constitutionally do not belong to them as is the case of Mosul or Kirkuk. This military aid has been very challenged both within the Iraqi government and abroad, mainly in Türkiye which takes a dim view of the Kurdish arming and training process. During the years that followed 2012 and the creation of ISIS, Iraqi Kurdistan significantly increased oil and gas sales to neighboring Türkiye. As a result of the fight against ISIS, the Kurds took control of very important territories such as the city of Kirkuk in 2014. This accounted for the significant increase in their income-based exports; only this territory represented 60% of the oil Iraq exported. These economic relations with Türkiye and with other countries that started buying Kurdish crude, gradually increased as the years passed, in such a way that it helped in the economic development of the entire Kurdish region, thus achieving the lowest poverty rates and the highest standard of living in Iraq. In addition to that, the Kurds have developed strong diplomatic relations with some important States, hosting a series of consulates and representative offices of countries such as France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

However, on September 25, 2017, an independence referendum was held in Iraqi Kurdistan and led by former President Masoud Barzani. The sweeping victory of the yes option, with 92.73% of the total votes, generated great uncertainty around the world. Countries like the United States, through very tough communiqués, expressed their concern for the territorial integrity of Iraq and encouraged a dialogue between the Kurds and Baghdad so that the country and the region would not destabilize the entire region. For their part, Ankara, Baghdad, and Tehran cataloged this suffrage as illegal and did not recognize the results. In contrast, Israel was the only State in the world to congratulate the Kurds on the referendum’s result and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that the Kurds share the same values as the Jewish people, as well as being courageous and Western people. The explanation for the great support from the Jewish government was that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Today, the Israeli government sees with great concern how the Shiite Axis -led by Tehran- gains territorial control and influence in places like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Curiously, there are two unique types of relationships and effects: causal and consecutive. In this case, we take the celebration of the referendum from a perspective that understands it as cause-consequence. This way, the causal theory would explain why X causes Y; that causality implies, therefore, that: a) X and Y exist independently of each other; b) that X precedes, temporarily, Y; and c) if it were not for X, Y would not have happened. It comes in the last instance to answer the question of “why” a certain event happens. The idea of emancipation of the Kurdish people is nothing new to the world, and therefore the vote made in September 2017 is not either. The independence vote is a consequence of the lack of commitment from the Baghdad government to the existing constitutional principles due to the constant attempts by the Arabs to delegitimize what was agreed upon in the new way of leading the country. The Kurds had stipulated -on several occasions- their demands to continue being part of the Iraqi state. Nevertheless, the relations between the Kurds and the Shiite Arabs, and between the Shiites themselves with the Sunnis, are so poor that we can only conclude that they no longer have political cohesion within the same project.

Following the initial hypothesis of the work, over the years that marked the overthrow of the Baathist regime and the constitutional recognition of the Kurdish region and its autonomy, the Kurds took advantage of the situation to consolidate the structuring of their own government apparatus by trying to overcome Baghdad central in all areas. The incursion of ISIS into the political, social, and economic scene of the region and the fight that the peshmergas launched against them, have allowed them to demonstrate the level of progress they have achieved since 2005. Iraqi Kurdistan uniquely managed to resist the ISIS offensives, safeguarding its inhabitants, and did not allow the different crises that surrounded the region and the country to severely affect its government and territory. The KRG currently presents -in theory- almost all the necessary elements that make a government functional: a politically independent and delimited entity with an apparatus constituted based on laws. The only element that it would be on the eve of achieving would be the recognition of other States, even though it already has the recognition of a world power like Israel. However, as in the case of Catalunya in Spain, the process of recognition of a new State is long and complicated. On the other hand, according to some critics, the 2017 referendum was an excuse for President Barzani to “legally seize power”, oriented towards a territorial expansion that could have strengthened his leadership. On the other hand, the President defends himself by stating that the Kurds have always been open to negotiations with the Baghdad government, but as time passed, trust waned due to the constant attacks on the agreed constitution.

In a speech by Barzani to the European Parliament, he said that “Since we have failed in the purpose of being two good partners, let us at least try to be two good neighbors”, referring to the decision of trying a new modality of relations with Baghdad. On October 16, 2017, the Iraqi army launched a campaign against the Kurdish forces who controlled parts of the Kirkuk, Diala, and Nineveh regions in the north of the country after expelling ISIS from the area. This generated the displacement of around 77,000 people, mainly Kurds, who took refuge in the autonomous region. This operation by the Iraqi forces was carried out with the objective of intimidating the Kurdish government after the consult and showing the Iraqi government’s ‘power’. After this incident, international media called this “the end of the Kurdish dream” and highlighted Barzani’s stepping down as president. During his farewell speech, he denounced that the operation carried out by the Iraqi army was planned and would have taken place, even if the consultation had not been held. Today, speaking of Kurdish independence is to rush into the facts and the current situation that both Iraq and the Middle East are going through. The pro-independence referendum really expressed the desire and will of the people, but it also showed the weaknesses and the dependence the Kurds have on Baghdad. Although the loss of the territories that the Kurds controlled outside their federal borders represented a hard blow for the KRG, this served to soften the Kurdish government itself and made them aware of the reality. Also, this event taught the KRG that some hasty decisions could trigger a setback within the progressive process of self-determination and regional autonomy, and together with this, the possible loss of aid that their allies currently provide.


Throughout this essay, we have seen how long and complicated the fight the Kurds have had with Baghdad, how this conflict is configured, and how it has mutated after the US intervention in 2003. The objective of this work was to show the trajectory of the Kurdish question in Iraq and to answer the question: What effects did the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime have had on Iraqi Kurdistan to lead to the referendum held in 2017? Doubtlessly, we have understood that after the invasion of Iraq was completed, the Kurds were not only able to consolidate their project within the society, but they were also able to strengthen their political influence within the regions that they govern. All this became evident in the first period of the invasion due to their active participation in the negotiations the transitory executive power, which oversaw different ministries and even positioned Jalal Talabani to become the country’s first Kurdish president, had. Then, with the approval of the 2005 constitution, the constitutional right of Kurdish regional political autonomy, in addition to recognizing the Kurdish nationality and their language, became a reality. After all this, the annihilation of ISIS from Kurdish-controlled areas and their influence in places such as Kirkuk, has evidently helped in the exponential economic growth that the region has experimented since 2016.

These facts help to confirm our hypothesis that after the overthrow of the Hussein regime, the Kurds were awarding and consolidating their own governmental structure, which was already in the formation phase during previous years, with the sole objective of achieving increasingly higher autonomy in order to reach a point where they would discard the idea of being dependent on Baghdad and would proclaim their independence based on an identity of their own and centered on the idea of an ancestral nation. Only, after having carried out this consult, Kurdistan saw that this full autonomy that they believed they had, did not exist, but on the contrary, what existed was a mutual dependency structure. In return for the celebration of this consult, the army Iraqi expelled the peshmergas from all those territories that they had controlled for years. The Kurds for their part could not do much; there was all will to remain within Iraqi sovereignty or rather start the independence process. Likewise, after evaluating the most relevant historical facts of the Kurdish struggle in Iraq, it can be seen that within the historical experience of the Kurds, it can be concluded that this ethnic group still functions on a tribal basis, and not on a unit basis. This may have made impossible the development or formation of a national “Pan-Kurdish” movement or a “Pankurdinism” in the Middle East region with an agenda of common and unified goals. Thanks to the constructivist idea that everything is socially constructed and mutable, we were able to notice that just as people, states, and organizations also go through cycles of recurring changes, the Iraqi State could ‘suffer’ severe changes to its system.

Likewise, having analyzed the evolution of the Kurdish question since the end of the Ottoman Empire, it is possible to perceive how since the last century the idea of a Kurdistan has been used by governments -not only from the region- but also outside it, as a political strategy, in such a way that they have managed to manipulate key sectors of the society towards a certain side of the balance regarding Middle East policies. During this journey, we have been able to understand that when a State carries out identity standardization measures, such as the “Arabization plans”, this can cause serious political, economic, and social instabilities if there are any sub-nationalisms within a territory. The violent repression generated not only by the government of Hussein but also by the previous ones, led to the questioning of the identity of the Kurdish community; as a result, they resorted to the aspect of “being Kurdish” focused on the maintenance of a past identity past as a way of giving meaning and judgment to the socio-political chaos in which national cohesion lost any meaning. The various subjective processes of interaction that make up the formation of societies that are part of a State, explain the logic of the construction of personal identities, and at the same time, it shows the interconnectedness of the cultural units of the societies of a same country, endowed with multiple identities in constant interaction as is the case of the Arabs and Kurds in Iraq. As mentioned in the introduction, the work, interest, and importance of the work are based on the little knowledge and study of the subject within the Western academic community. Certainly, the Kurdish struggle is not isolated from the various events that occur in the countries where they are (for example in Syria) which also have repercussions on the other side of the Kurdish society, beyond the invisible border.

About the Author
Jose Lev Alvarez Gomez, BS, MA, MA, MD, Sgt. (Ret) is an Israeli who completed a B.S. in Neuroscience, Israel Studies, and Pre-Med Track at The American University (Washington, District of Columbia) and a bioethics course at Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts). After his undergraduate studies, he went on to become a sergeant in the Israel Defense Forces - Special Forces Unit 888, obtained a medical degree and completed two master's degrees: Applied Economics at UNED (Madrid, Spain) and International Geostrategy and Jihadist Terrorism at INISEG (Madrid, Spain). Currently, he is completing two more master’s degrees: Security and Intelligence Studies at Bellevue University (Bellevue, Nebraska) and Clinical Psychiatry at the European University of Madrid. Lev speaks eight languages, has written more than 180 academic papers/books/independent research projects/opinion articles/theses, is a member of multiple academic/medical organizations, and collaborates with several newspapers and journals. His professional interests are academia, applied economics/businesses, Israel studies, medicine, and scientific dissemination. José is a believer that in a diverse world, human beings are obliged to have multiple skills and varied knowledge to effectively contribute to their societies.
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