These are days of hope for the Kurds of the Middle East, an ancient people originating in an area now divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey that has large exile communities elsewhere in the Middle East and in Europe and North America. In the First World War, they were promised the possibility of their own state within the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. But treaties following the conflict’s end split Kurdish lands between Turkey and areas under British and French control. When Arab states became independent, Kurdish aspirations were firmly contained. The Turkish republic denied for decades there was such a thing as a Kurdish people.
Rebellions periodically erupted. Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey were united in their determination to kill off Kurdish dreams of independence. Additional complications were created by the Soviet Union and the US. They used Kurdish groups as Cold War surrogates, with baleful long-term implications.
In 1991, the US-led coalition created a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. Protected from Saddam Hussein’s army, most Kurdish areas became effectively self-governing. The partnership with the West helped end cross-border support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the radical independence movement which declared a ceasefire in its war against Ankara in 1999. United in their opposition to Saddam, Kurds and the Iranian government established a modus vivendi.
This arrangement was tested by the US-led coalition’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. It ended the threat from Baghdad and led to unprecedented co-operation between the two principal Iraqi Kurdish parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is strong in urban areas. Northern Iraq has been the most consistently peaceful part of the country since 2003. PUK leader Jalal Talabani became the first president of democratic Iraq in April 2006.
But Saddam Hussein’s defeat created new problems. Arab, Assyrian, Turkmen and other minorities fear the consequences of dominance by the Kurdish majority. An agreement that northern oil fields should be treated as a national resource is vulnerable to potential competition with Iraq’s central government, which rejects claims that Kirkuk, Iraq’s leading oil centre, should be under Kurdish rule. The demand for the reversal of forced population movements of Arabs and Kurds under Saddam Hussein is potentially explosive.
There are regional consequences. In 2004, the PKK suspended its ceasefire. Kurdish fighters have clashed with security forces in northeast Iran. Tehran suspects its enemies are using Iranian Kurds to cause trouble.
Champions of Kurdish aspirations say it is time for a people the world forgot to be granted national self-determination within their own state. This dream is being expressed in the use of Kurdistan as the name for Iraqi Kurdish areas. It is a term that Baghdad, other Middle East states and the world community are not yet ready to accept.
Defenders of the status quo believe a Kurdish state would plunge the region into a conflict. Ankara fears it will undermine unified Turkey, which has a Kurdish minority of at least 15 million people.
Realists argue that Kurdish self-government within a loose Iraqi federation is inevitable and beneficial, but that the legitimate concerns of neighbouring states must be taken into account. They caution against attempts to find a quick solution to a complex issue. The reality is that the Kurds themselves are divided by tribe, religion, class and language as well as by international borders.
The Middle East needs a cons