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ICE Case Studies
Number 152, July, 2005

Kurdistan: Ethnic Conflict and Oil in Iraq

by Raul A. Burgos

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

For many centuries the Kurdistan region has been ravaged by conflict. While the rationale behind the quarrel—and its actors—has changed over time, war and suffering have remained constant. During the Ottoman and Persian era the region was considered agriculturally important. For the Ottomans, it was their breadbasket. For the Persians, it was a battleground to fight their enemies. This meant that borders were always altered and, as a result, towns and villages changed hands very often. After the Ottoman Empire dissolved and new nations emerged in the Middle East, the Kurdistan region was shared by four states: Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. In the last century, the discovery of oil made the region indispensable to the modern Iraqi state.

This case-study presents the conflict in the Iraqi Kurdistan region dating from the Ottoman and Persian period to the present. Conventional wisdom would say that the conflict commenced during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, yet this view ignores the centuries of quarrel that have affected area. Iraqi Kurds, being neither Arabs nor Shi’ia are both an ethnic and religious minority in a country whose short history has been written with the blood of many of its own citizens—including thousands of Kurds.


2. Description 


  1. Historical background: Who are the Kurds
  2. The land: Kurdistan
  3. The Kurdish languages
  4. Social structure of the Kurdish people
  5. Iraqi Kurdistan and the British Mandate in Mesopotamia
  6. Economic significance of Iraqi Kurdistan for the central government
  7. Iraqi Kurds as political players: the quest for autonomy
  8. Iraqi Kurds under Saddam Hussein


In order to understand the conflict that engulfs Iraqi Kurdistan, it is necessary to take a look beyond oil. History is the researcher’s ally in trying to understand why, even before oil was discovered in the region, conflict was abundant. For this, it is imperative to know the Kurd’s origins.


Historical background: Who are the Kurds

Kurds have inhabited the area that now comprises northern Iraq, western Iran, eastern Syria and southern Turkey for thousands of years—even before they thought of themselves as Kurds. Their origins, while a mystery, reflect the final product of a vast sample of genetic and cultural heritage “superimposed over thousands of years of internal migrations, immigrations, cultural innovations and importations.”1 While such general descriptions have given life to a wide array of theories regarding the origins of the Kurds, they are probably the descendants of Indo-European tribes that migrated westwards through the Iranian plateau thousands of years ago.2

Honoring the group’s enigmatic origins, the ancestors of modern-day Kurds were not originally referred to as “Kurd”. According to David McDowall, the Kurds are first “clearly recorded” as ‘Cyrtii’.3 The word ‘Cyrtii’, as it turns out, does not refer to a linguistic or ethnic group, but to Seleucid or Parthian mercenary slingers.4 Similarly, by the time of the Islamic conquests, the lexeme ‘Kurd’ had “a socio-economic rather than an ethnic meaning.”5 Nowadays ‘Kurd’, says Jemal Hebez, refers to “[…] a group of people that individually have a few objective and natural-given traits, through which they are kinsmen of an independent group that is to be, from other groups, distinct.”6 This morphological transformation enshrines the metamorphosis of the Kurdish people into a distinct group with a common perception of their status as “Kurd”.


The land: Kurdistan

Few things have had more influence on the Kurdish perception of “self” as their land: “Kurdistan”—meaning “land of the Kurds.”7 The area encompasses an unforgiving mountainous region—the Zagros Mountains—where the contemporary states of Iran, Iraq and Turkey meet.8 While many Kurds live outside of Kurdistan, in places such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Eastern Iran (Kermanshah) and Syria, the majority of the population is concentrated in the area.

Yet, even though most Kurds live in Kurdistan, the region is not an easy place to live in. The area’s climate averages -5°C in the winter and heavy snow fall often leaves the villages incommunicado between December and February.9 The bitter winter that befalls the region has contributed to the alarming deforestation of Kurdistan—since wood is the preferred source of fuel. Furthermore, the Zagros Mountains forced the Kurds to establish their villages on the verge of steep slopes and “almost every year parts of Kurdistan are struck by earthquakes.”10 In addition, political factors related to the area’s host states contribute to the infrastructural neglect of the Kurdistan region.


The Kurdish languages

The Kurd’s sociopolitical cohesiveness is also hindered by the absence of a lingua franca. Thus, an obvious example of the area’s fragmentation is the multiplicity of languages and dialects spoken in different regions of Kurdistan.11 Kurds in Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Armenia speak Kurmanji, while Sorani is spoken in parts Iraq and Iran. Nonetheless, it is deceptive to think of these two languages as the totality of tongues spoken by the Kurds. Kurmanji and Sorani are just “[…] a standardized version of a multiplicity of local dialects, which still varied almost valley by valley a century ago.”12 In addition to the aforementioned languages, Kurds also use Gurani and Zaza—although in smaller numbers, while the Kurds living in Kermanshah speak “[…] a dialect much closer to modern Persian […]”13


Social structure of the Kurdish people

The social structure of the Kurds is varied and has evolved over time. Anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen argues that “there is no Kurdish social organization”,14 but this overstates the case. The fact is that, even though there is disagreement as to the predominance of tribal over non-tribal Kurds, the group presents traits of a society “based upon kinship ideology.”15 The very evolution of the word “Kurd” can enlighten the discussion. According to McDowall,

At the time of the Islamic conquests, the term ‘Kurd’ had meant nomad. From the eleventh century onwards many travelers and historians treated the term ‘Kurd as synonymous with brigandage, a view echoed by nineteenth-century European travelers. By the middle years of the nineteenth century ‘Kurd’ was also used to mean tribespeople who spoke the Kurdish language.16

The evolution of the word “Kurd” reflects the belief that the Kurdish people came from different backgrounds—as the word was used on general terms such as “nomad”. However, as the group increased in numbers and commonalities, “Kurd” came to be used to address people of tribal origins with a specific trait—id est: the Kurdish language. However, “Kurdistan” has no international or legal standing which means that Kurds are the largest ethnic group without a state. In the case of Iraqi Kurds, they have been placed within the boundaries of a state that was made up by the British after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.


Iraqi Kurdistan and the British Mandate in Mesopotamia

Outlined from three provinces of the former Ottoman Empire –Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul– what would become the Kingdom of Iraq was created. The British even transplanted a king, Faisal who was newly exiled from a temporary throne in Syria. What is known today as Iraqi Kurdistan was, in Ottoman times, the vilayet (province) of Mosul. As former United Nations representative, Gerard Chaliand, writes in his book titled The Kurdish Tragedy,

Iraq was a British creation. The break-up of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War allowed the British Empire to take control of the vilayets (provinces) of Basra and Baghdad, that is to say southern Mesopotamia. The inclusion of the vilayet of Mosul, with its Kurdish majority population, was linked to the presence of oil in this province.17

Faisal brought his own entourage to Iraq. His aides were the former Ottoman army officers called the Sharifians. They would now serve as the officers and administrators of Iraq until the end of the monarchy in 1958. As Sunni Arabs, the Sharifians were a minority compared with the Shi ‘is who comprised over 50 percent of the population. This paved the way for a government system where a religious minority—Sunni Arabs—oppressed the religious majority composed of Shi’ias, the ethnic Kurds and any other group that would represent a threat to their rule.


Economic significance of Iraqi Kurdistan for the central government

The economic significance of the Kurdistan region lies in its natural resources. Right after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, Iraqi Kurdistan was fought over by the Turks and the British. Back then, Iraqi Kurdistan was called Mosul, which had been one of the Ottoman vilayets. The region’s oil resources were so important to the British that they were to trade half of their holding, which ammounted to 70% in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to the Standard Oil in order to get American support for Britan retaining Mosul in 1923.


Iraqi Kurds as political players: the quest for autonomy

After the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown, the Kurds were granted autonomy under the Iraqi constitution. In fact, this document specified that Iraq, while being an “Arab” nation, was inhabited by both Arabs and Kurds. In theory, the rights of the Kurds were to be constitutionally protected. In reality, this was wishful thinking. The region’s legislative body, which existed through “autonomy” given to the Kurds under the constitution was always nominated—and dominated—by Saddam Hussein.18

Nonetheless, controlling Kurdistan’s pseudo-autonomous government was not enough to secure access to the region’s oil reserves: changing the city’s demographical composition was. As early as 1963—before Hussein came to power—Arabs had been given incentives to move to Kurdistan. However, under Hussein’s regime it became a stated policy of the central government to Arabise the region. The rationale behind such a policy was that, if the Kurds’ majority in the region was challenged by the influx of Arabs, the government’s hold on Kurdistan and its resources would have been sealed. Chaliand writes,

After the 1974-75 war, the Iraqi government deported the Kurdish and Assyrian populations to the deserts in the south of Iraq. Arabisation was introduced in three regions: Sinjar, Kirkuk and Khanaqin. Kurdish villages were destroyed and the Agricultural Reform Commission only gave title-deeds of properties to Arab peasants.19

David McDowall further notes,

The government also used the opportunity to settle the demographic balance in disputed areas. According to Kurdish sources one million residents were removed from the disputes districts of Khaninqin, Kirkuk, Mandali, Shaykhan, Zakhu, and Sinjar […] Besides making it difficult for Kurds in Kirkuk to hold title to their property, the governorate was rearranged to ensure an Arab majority. Towns with a heavy Kurdish majority, for example Kalar (30,000), Kifri (50,000) and Chamchamal (50,000) […] were removed from Kirkuk and allocated to Sulaymaniya, Diwaniya or the new province of Salah al Din.20

These policies would pave the way to genocide.


Iraqi Kurds and the Anfal campaign

For most of the 1980’s, Iraq had been fighting a bloody war with Iran--which Saddam Hussein had started in 1980. For Iraqi Kurds, the war meant that Hussein's military would be tied with the war and thus they would be left alone. This rationale prove true during the early years of the war and Iraqi Kurds were able to establish themselves--and their authority--in large areas of Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, once the war ended in a stalemate, Hussein's military could center its attention on the Iraqi Kurds. The response from Saddam Hussein was the Anfal campaign. This military operation was composed of major assaults on Kurdish areas using chemical and high explosive air attacks. Chaliand writes,

There were attacks in May, June and September 1987. It was the bombing of the town of Halabja, close to the iranian border, on the 16th and 17th March which finally drew international attention. The presence of television crews showing the corpses of the victims ensured that this tragedy would have international repercussions. [...]

Despite the protests of the U.N. (Security Council condemned the use of gas on 9th May and 26th August 1988), the Iraqi government contrinued to gas Kurdish villages [...] causing several thousand deaths.22

The attack on Halubja alone left over five thousand people dead, most of them civilians. The final number of those murdered by the Anfal campaign is estimated to be between 150,000 and 200,000.23

3. Duration


Ever since the Kurds became aware of their status as a distinct ethnic community, there has been conflict in the area. The reason is simple, why Kurds consider themselves different from any other ethnic group, they live in countries where governments are hostile to their independence/autonomy ambitions. The origins of the conflict are rooted in centuries of Kurdistan's domination by central governments hostile to the Kurds. Thus, it would be accurate to say that the duration of the conflict has been within the broad spectrum of one hundred (100) to one thousand (1000) years.

4. Location:

Continent: Asia (Middle East)

Region: Middle East, Asia region

Country: Kurdistan, northern Iraq.


5. Actors


Historically Sovereing Actors: Ottoman Empire, Persian Empire, British Empire

Historically Non-Sovereing Actors: Kurds.

Current Sovereing Actors: Iraqi central government, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), U.S. government and coalition forces, Turkey and Iran.



II. Environment Aspects

6. Type of Environmental Problem: Resource Concentration Problem

7. Type of Habitat: Dry

The Iraqi Kurdistan region is as dry as would be expected from a Middle Eastern location. The temperatures can get very high in the summers and extremely cold during the winters. While hot temperatures have not posed an environmental problem to the region, the cold winters have had secondary effects that have damaged Kurdistan’s environment. These damages have come in the form of deforestation, since the principal form of fuel for heat is wood. The deforestation of the area’s forests has led to soil erosion which has affected land fertility. The problem arises from the lack of trees—and its roots—to distribute water evenly across the land. The loss of tress means that the water is no longer retained leaving the region’s soil desertified.

The general dryness of the region notwithstanding, Iraqi Kurdistan is able to produce engough precipitation to be Iraq's breadbasket. In the valleys, the vegetation can vary greatly. In places where good irrigation systems are in place, arable land can be found. They take the water from the major rivers such as the Tigris and the Euphrates. In these areas, a variety of agricultural crops are produced. For example, Iraqi Kurdistan produces 50% of the wheat produced in Iraq, 40% of the barley, 98% of the tobacco, 30% of the cotton and 50% of the fruit.

(More information in the region's agricultural production can be found at the Kurdistan Development Corporation's website.)

8. Act and Harm Sites:

Historically, the Ottoman and Persian Empires would use the area to fight their battles thus:

Act site: Ottoman Empire’s side of Kurdistan attacking the harm site of Iranian Kurdistan—essentially the same place divided by a disputed border. The same situation would occur where the Persian Empire would take the place of the “act site” and would attack the Ottoman Empire, converting it into a “harm site.”

In contemporary times, the situation has been largely domestic but with the possibility of spilling the conflict over the borders. Hence, during the government of Saddam Hussein, the central government would oppress or exterminate the areas population making the country of Iraq the “act site” of its own “harm site.” But this oversimplifies the conflict, as most Kurds consider their territory different from that of the rest of Iraq—essentially a Kurdish “nation”—thus, in the view of some Kurds, the conflict would have been accurately described as one where Iraq was the “act site” and Kurdistan was the “harm site.”


III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict:

Historically international and civil.

Currently: civil.

10. Level of Conflict: Medium

Resource access to oil is the underlying reason for the conflict. Political and border issues further complicate matters.

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities): Medium


Historical numbers are impossible to document but the intensity of the conflict during Ottoman and Persian periods can place the fatality level in 100,000.

Contemporary fatality level estimated to be at 200,000.


During the Ottoman and Persian period the majority of casualties were military. Because of both empires’ weak central government, a standing army was never maintained in large numbers. This meant that in order to wage war both empires had to recruit the services of tribal warlords to fight for the empire’s interests. The Kurdish tribes were among the many tribes employed by each empire in their battles. Kurdish tribal chiefs often changed allegiances and were interested in fighting when some direct benefit was in sight. Because of this, plundering villages was a very common result of battles.

During the Saddam Hussein period, most of the casualties were civilian. Even though Iraqi Kurds had a militia (Peshmerga), Hussein regime targeted civilian populations in their attempt to control Kurdistan. For example, chemical attacks, such a those carried out during the Anfal campaign, were targeted, almost exclusively, at villages and civilians.

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

The Kurdistan conflict is centered around the need to retain an area rich in oil. The following causal loop diagram will help to elucidate the dynamics of the conflict. The case study presets a conflict over direct access to a resource (Oil). This causal loop diagram attempts to correlate specific variables in the case in a pictorial form. Many of the variables are mutually reinforced, for example: Conflict leads to a weak economy, which leads to overreliance in oil resources which leads, once again, to conflict. Furthermore, a weak economy could be, in of itself, a cause for conflict.


In Iraq there is also a power imbalance between many groups which takes different configurations:

  • Power imbalance between Kurds and Arabs.

  • Power imbalance between Kurds (Sunni) and the majority Shi’ia Arab.

  • Power imbalance between Kurds and smaller minorities such as Turkmen and Assyrian.

  • Power imbalance between Iraqi Kurds and the central government.

  • Power imbalance between Iraqi Kurds in relation to Turkey and Iran.

  • Power imbalance between the Iraqi government and its neighbors: Turkey and Iran.

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Regional

14. Outcome of Dispute: Stalemate (undecided)

V. Related Information and Sources

15. Related ICE and TED Cases



16. Relevant Websites and Literature

  1. Mehrdad Izady. Exploring Kurdish Origins (published in the Kurdish Life, Number 7, Summer 1993) <> (15 April 2005).
  2. Ibid., 8.
  3. David McDowall. A Modern History of The Kurds (New York, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2005), 9.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Jemal, Nebez. Kurdische Zugehörigkeit: Wer ist Kurde? Was bedeutet Kurde sein? Ein Beitrag zur Erforschung der Identität eines aufgeteilten staatenlosen Volkes, November 2003, (19 April, 2005), 8. Original text: “[…] eine Gruppe von Menschen, deren Mitglieder einige objective un naturgegebene Merkmale besitzen, durch die sie Angehörige einer eigenständigen, von anderen zu unterscheiden Gruppe sind.” Translated by the author.
  7. Martin Bruinessen von. Agha, Shaikh and State (New Jersey, USA: Zed Books Ltd., 1992) 11.
  8. McDowall, The Kurds, 5.
  9. Bruinessen von, Agha, Shaikh, 12.
  10. Ibid., 13.
  11. Linguists debate whether Kurmanji and Sorani are distinct languages or dialects from the Persian language. Hereafter the author will refer to Kurmanji and Sorani as “languages”.
  12. McDowall, The Kurds, 10.
  13. Ibid., 8.
  14. Bruinessen von, Agha, Sheik, 51.
  15. McDowall, The Kurds, 13.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Gerard Chaliand, The Kurdish Tragedy(New Jersey, Zed Books: 1994) 51.
  18. Ibid., 69.
  19. Ibid.
  20. McDowall, The Kurds, 339-40.
  21. Ibid., 357.
  22. Chaliand, The Kurdish Tragedy, 70.
  23. McDowall, The Kurds, 357.


All pictures are the copyright of Kurdistan Regional Government whose webmaster has allowed the author to publish them on this website.

All flags and map of Iraq are courtesy of the CIA World Fact Book

"Fire" animation is courtesy of Cool Archives


[July, 2005]

© Raul A. Burgos 2005

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