The Kurds are an ethnic group of Iranian origin (itself a branch of the larger Indo-European family), comprised of (according to some sources) about 25 million people, primarily in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. There are also Kurdish communities in ex-USSR countries, Lebanon, and Kuwait. The ancient Kurdish community near Kabul, Afghanistan left the country during the Afghan Civil War in the late 1970s. Traditionally the Kurds were nomadic herdsmen, but are now seminomadic or sedentary. During most of the history the term "Kurd" was in all the sources exclusively used for any nomadic people of Iranian origin. Later it received its specific definition for the Iranian nomads of the north-western Zagros. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but a large population of Iran's Kurds are Shiite. For over a century, many Kurds have been campaigning for the right to their own state, which they would call Kurdistan -- by some accounts the Kurds are the world's largest ethnic group without their own state. However, despite promises of the creation of such a state made in the early 20th century, all the region's governments are opposed to it.
The Kurds constitute the only sizable minority in Turkey. The exact number of Kurdish people living in Southwest Asia is unknown due to both absence of a recent study on this issue and the fact that some of Kurdish people have mixed with other local ethnic groups. The estimated numbers for the percentage of Kurdish people living in Turkey vary from 3% (Encyclopedia Americana http://go.grolier.com) to 20% (CIA Factbook http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/). They live mainly in Kurdistan. There are also Kurdish enclaves in central Turkey concentrated to the west of Lake Tuz. Millions of Kurds have moved to the large cities of Western and Southern Turkey in recent decades - notably Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa, Adana and Mersin. Many Kurds have also emigrated to Western European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and the United Kingdom.
Kurdish guerillas launched attacks on Turkish targets in 1984, and since then they have fought against the Turkish government for independence and the right to be educated in Kurdish schools, with little success. In 1999, the Turkish government had a major victory when it abducted Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), one of the groups fighting for Kurdish rights and independence. Turkey then placed him on trial for treason and sentenced him to life imprisonment. After that the Kurdish rebel movement in Turkey declared that it would end its military attacks to create a Kurdish homeland but continue its activities on political platform.
The Kurdish guerillas have been and continue to be persecuted by both Iraq and Turkey. In Turkey, publication (both printed and audio-visual media) and teaching (although very restricted) in Kurdish language is allowed, and recent reforms promised limited broadcasting in Kurdish language. However, it refuses to recognize them as an ethnic group but Kurds may take their place in any part of Turkish life including the National Assembly as long as they pretend to be 'mountain turks' a term which is very offensive to Kurds.
The status of Kurds is now surrounded in mystery. Under the former Iraqi Ba'athist regime, which ruled Iraq from 1968 until 2003, they were initially granted limited autonomy and given some high-level political representation in Baghdad. However, for various reasons including the siding of some Kurds with Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, the regime became opposed to the Kurds and an effective civil war broke out. Iraq was widely condemned, but not seriously punished, by the international community for using chemical weapons against the Kurds, which caused the death of thousands of Kurds. Kurdish regions during the 1990s had de-facto independence, with fully functioning civil administrations, and were protected by the US-enforced Iraqi no-fly zone which stopped Iraqi air attacks. During the period of self-governance there were armed clashes between the two main political groups in the area, each claiming the title of Kurdistan's government, which undermined the effectiveness of the Kurds in their fighting with the Iraqis. Following the unseating of the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, little is known as to how 'Kurdistan' will be dealt with in the future. The American-sponsored idea of a Federal Republic, with a relatively high level of autonomy for the Kurds, currently appears to be the most popular.
Some improvements in Kurdish rights in Turkey have however been made under pressure from the European Union. The European Union has made membership for Turkey conditional on, among other things, better treatment of its Kurdish minority. In August 2002, Turkey accepted the EU's conditions, and amended certain of its restrictions on the Kurds.
- See also : History of the Kurds and Timeline of the Kurds
Map of Kurdistan courtesy of The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin
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