2003: The Kurds' Opportunity

The Kurds had waited more than a decade for America to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein's regime.

In 1991, many Kurds felt U.S. President George H.W. Bush had abandoned them to violence at the hands of the Baath regime during the first Gulf War. They hoped his son would finish the job while presenting the Kurdish people with the independence for which they had long yearned.

By 2003, the Kurds had enjoyed more than a decade of semi-autonomy from the central Iraqi government, a period pockmarked with internecine struggles for control between the two main Kurdish political parties.

As the war drums began to thump in Washington, Kurdish leaders met to plot their role in a new Iraq.

Initially, the United States envisioned a major role for Turkey in the allied invasion - a partnership that would have limited any Kurdish role in the transition.

But in the months before the war, the Turkish parliament rebuffed the United States, voting against direct involvement in the offensive. With this development, the role of Iraqi Kurdistan and its force of peshmerga fighters increased in importance.

As the tanks rolled north from Kuwait toward Baghdad in March 2003, some Kurdish families acted on their memories of past Iraqi wars. They fled the cities for fear of a crackdown from the Sunni-led central government.

Far fewer fled than during the 1991 Kurdish uprising when 1.5 million Kurds made their way to the borders of Turkey in Iran. For those who did abandon the cities, their exodus was short-lived.

On March 26, more than 1,000 American paratroopers landed at an airbase near the resort town of Shaqlawa to open a northern front in the nascent war.

On April 11, Kirkuk fell to Kurdish peshmerga fighters. The city is home to an ethnic mix of Kurds and Arabs.

When the fleeing Kurds returned home, it was to a new reality. The Kurdish people now played a major role as power broker in the region. A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, took over as president of Iraq and it became clear that any coalition government would have to take Kurdish interests into account.

Both Kurdish and Arabic became the official languages Iraq as the Kurdish leaders gained concessions on the application of Islamic law in the country.

Today, the largest political issue facing the Kurds is the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which requires a vote to determine the future of Kirkuk as well as the oil wealth surrounding it.

Kirkuk was central to Hussein's policy of arabization as thousands upon thousands of Kurds left the city over the course of two decades. Since 2003, many have returned.

The plebiscite will determine whether Kirkuk has become sufficiently Kurdish to be considered a part of the autonomous Kurdish regional governement.


Add your comment

Tiziano Reporter

Grant Slater,

Norman, Oklahoma

The Tiziano Project provides community members in conflict, post-conflict, and underreported regions with the equipment, training, and affiliations necessary to report their stories and improve their lives.

Tiziano Project | Twitter