The news that Kurds and Arabs are fighting one another in the remote hills of northeastern Iraq has hardly been noticed in the past few months. When the outside world is aware that the Kurds exist at all it classifies them along with those ferocious warrior races which inhabited the outer fringes of the British Raj—Nagas, Pathans, Zulus—as a people so fierce and warlike that the English could never completely subjugate them. Consequently the struggle of the Kurds to be free of the Baathist regime in Iraq is regarded less as the fully fledged war of national liberation which it in fact is, and more as some obscure and archaic tribal uprising. Anti-imperialists in the West find in it none of the heroism, romance, and moral legitimacy which they admire in more fashionable liberation struggles in Vietnam, Cuba, Angola, and Mozambique. The Kurds have few friends.
Yet by any standard of justice the Kurds deserve support and admiration. Contrary to the accepted mythology the Kurds are a proud, generous, and chivalrous people with a civilization which has endured for over two thousand years. Like the Vietnamese, they have had to fight for centuries to preserve their identity against the encroachments of more powerful neighbors, and also like the Vietnamese, they have been fighting for decades rather than for months or years. Moreover theirs is a true people’s war; no Kurdish army is kept afloat with huge infusions of outside arms and money, watched over by hordes of foreign “advisers.” There is only a militia made up of farmers and herdsmen, existing on subsistence wages, fighting with a motley array of antiquated weapons either scrounged from the European secondhand arms market or supplied, with some reluctance, by the Iranians.
The ethnic origins of the Kurds are uncertain. Usually they are classified as “Western Iranians,” and in speech, customs, and appearance they are closer to the Persians than to either the Arabs or the Turks. In religion they are Sunni Moslems and are regarded as among the most orthodox in the Islamic world. Kurdish tribes have inhabited the mountain ranges of eastern Turkey, northwest Persia, and northeast Iraq since at least the second century BC, and today the total Kurdish population of about seven million is spread among five countries: 3.2 million in Turkey, 1.8 million in Iran, 1.5 million in Iraq, 320,000 in Syria, and 80,000 in the USSR. Traditionally the Kurds have been nomads, living throughout the year in black tents, moving their herds in a constant search for new grazing lands, but since World War I an increasing number have turned to conventional farming.
Geography has shaped Kurdish society: the wild and mountainous terrain of Kurdistan, the barrenness of the soil, the poor communications, and the remoteness of towns and villages from one another—these have prevented the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of any single ruler or class, and they have guaranteed instead that power should …