Friday, October 5, 2012

Kurds and Kurdistan in an event at Valparaiso University

On October 4th, 2012, my friend Rebaz Ahmed and I had the opportunity to speak to a group of about 80 retired American professionals at Valparaiso University.  These people were interested in knowing more about Kurds, Kurdistan and Iraq. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to educate people about our own people, history and cause.

An elderly lady who attended the event who was very happy to learn more about Kurds and Kurdistan. 
A summary of what we talked about:

v  Historical background: Kurds, numbering about 40 million, are a people with a homeland of their own which was divided between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran after the fall of the Ottoman Empire by the allied forces. In the Sevres Treaty of 1920, a popular referendum for the people of Kurdistan to decide whether they wanted to stick with Turkey or become an independent state was agreed upon. The Sevres Treaty, however, was soon replaced by the Lausanne Treaty in 1923 after the Turks fought back for their European territories around Istanbul and defeated the Greeks and gained control of the straits that connect the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. For a jointly commissioned control over the strait that linked the two seas, the British and the French abandoned their plans for Kurdistan.
v  Definition of Kurds: Kurds are a distinctive ethnic group with their own distinctive history, language, culture, traditions, clothes, food and ways of living. They have their own homeland but do not have a state. They are not related to Arabs, Turks or Persians by ethnicity, and they are not related to Turks and Arabs by language. Kurdish is an Indo-European Language as compared to Arabic which is a Semitic language, and Turkish which is a Turkic language. Kurdish language, however, is related to Persian language. They are both Indo-European languages from the family of Iranian languages.
v  Definition of Kurdistan Region: Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region that has been recognized as a federal region by the Iraqi Constitution with its own administrative borders, armed forces and Regional Government (KRG).
v  Minorities in Kurdistan: Apart from Kurds, other ethnics groups also live in the region. These include: Turkmen, Assyrians, Syriac and Chaldean, in addition to Arabs who mainly moved to the region in recent years to flee the violence in other parts of Iraq. In addition to Sunni Islam (which is the faith of the majority), there are followers of other faiths including Catholic and Orthodox Christianity (Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriac are Christians groups), Yazidees, Kakayis, and Shabaks (Shiite Muslims).
v  Education and representation of minorities: ethnic groups other than Kurds (who form about 5-7% of the region) have the right and option of sending their children to Kurdish schools, or schools that teach in their own native languages (as far as I know for sure there are Turkmen and Arabic schools as well. I am not sure about schools that teach in Assyrian, Chaldean or Syriac). And they have 11 seats in the 111 seat parliament.
v  Oppression of Kurds by the Iraqi regimes: The Iraqi Kurds were subjected to oppression by the successive Iraqi governments. Saddam Hussein most brutally cracked down on the Kurdish freedom movement in the 1980s where he killed as many as 200,000 civilian Kurds – most of them women, children and elderly people - in a series of military operations code-named Anfal and in a chemical weapons attack on the city of Halabja. The victims of Anfal were taken to southern Iraq, mass murdered and buried in mass graves of which many have been discovered since 2003 and remains of thousands of the victims have been exhumed and reburied in Kurdistan Region.
v  Issues between KRG and Baghdad: There are three main issues between the Kurdistan Regional; Government and Baghdad: Oil and gas deals, Peshmarga (Kurdish soldiers) forces, and disputed areas. The regional and central governments dispute over who has the right to sign oil deals with the energy companies that explore the oil fields. The Iraqi government wants to maintain the power to be the sole party to sign such deals while Kurdish leaders want for Kurdistan to have the right to sign such deals in order to manage their own oil fields. The two governments also disagree over who should pay for the Peshmarga forces. The Peshmarga forces have been recognized as part of the defense system of Iraq and on these rounds the Kurdish government wants Baghdad to pay their salaries while Baghdad argues that they need to be paid for by the regional government from its share of the general budget because they are regional forces. The Peshmarga are officially called the Regional Guard Forces. And the biggest issue is that of the disputed areas. Disputed areas refers to those areas – that span the provinces of Mosul, Erbil, Kirkuk, Slahaddin and Diyala – which were subjected to Arabization policies by the former regime where the demographics of those territories were changed at the expense  of the indigenous Kurds for Arab settlers from central Iraq. The Arab settlers were urged to move to those territories in particular the oil rich province of Kirkuk in return they would be provided with facilities to settle there, agricultural land (that would be taken from Kurdish and Turkmen ethnics) and other incentives.
  • The majority of Americans do not know anything about Kurds or Kurdistan. A very small percentage of them actually know a little about Kurds. For instance they know that Kurds helped the Americans in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein. And they know that Kurds live not only in Iraq but also in Turkey and Iran. The majority of those who know this, however, do not know that there Kurds in Syria, Lebanon, Armenia, Russia and as far as Uzbekistan as well. 
  • More importantly, the majority of them do not know anything about the atrocities and tragedies the Kurds went through under Saddam Hussein most notably the Anfal Operatinos and the Halabja Chemical Attack.