Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


“If within one year from the coming force of the present Treaty the Kurdish peoples within the area defined in Article 62 shall address themselves to the Council of the League of Nations in such a manner as to show that a majority of the population of their areas desires independence from Turkey, and if the Council considers that these people are capable of such independence and recommends that it be granted to them, Turkey hereby agrees to execute such a recommendation, and to renounce all rights and title over these areas.” (Paris Peace Conference, Treaty of Sevres 1919-1920)

These clauses of the Paris Peace Treaty ending WWI were overruled by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. They are still held holy by the Kurds.

"Our past is sad. Our present is a catastrophe.  Fortunately, we don't have a future” (quoted by Hineer Saleem from his grandfather). Things have changed from Saleem’s grandfather’s day.

More Kurds live Turkey than in any other country perhaps as many as 10-12 million, Northern Iraq has perhaps 4-5 million, Western Syria perhaps 1.5 million and Northwestern Iran perhaps 6-8 million for a total population of twenty two – twenty eight  million. No one can be certain since Kurds refuse to allow census takers in ‘their’ territory.


In the fifteen years following the Treaty of Lausanne over twenty uprisings took place. But by 1938 the uprisings had failed and Kurdish independence remained dormant for forty years. In 1978 Abdullah Ocalan founded the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) whose goal was Kurdish independence.  

Southeastern Anatolia, the primary living area of the Turkish Kurds is the poorest part of that country. The Turkish government have refused for decades to give minority rights to the Kurds. Being poor they developed a lucrative and illegal drug trade. By the late 1980’s PKK was a liberation movement with a terrorist army. Ocalan was captured in 1999, sentenced to death; his sentence was converted to life imprisonment. In 2002 the PKK (changing its name to Kurdish Freedom and Democracy Congress KADEK) abandoned its armed struggle and pledged a purely political campaign. The Turkish government in a reform package as part of its EU membership application allowed the Kurdish language to be used and enhanced Kurdish rights.

Saddam Hussein wiped out every Kurdish opposition and resistance in Iraqi Kurdistan killing perhaps as many as 150,000 men, women and children. He created a security zone of 30 Kilometers between the Turkish and Iranian border. He destroyed 2000 villages and 2500 Mosques. The Kurds are Sunni Moslems but of a different Sunni interpretation – the Schaf’I not the  Hanafi similar to the rest of the Sunni Iraqi’s and most other traditional Sunni’s. During the Iraqi-Iranian war the Kurds supported different sides at different times. Saddam deported perhaps a million Kurds over two decades.  In 1998 in the village of Halabja 5,000 Kurds were murdered by the use of chemical gas.

The Iraqi Kurds created two political parties; the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Massud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kuridstan (PUK) headed by Jalal Talabani recently elected the President of Iraq. These two groups conflicted during 1994-1998; but in 1998 they reconciled and consolidated their forces.

The most important city to Iraqi Kurds is the city of Kirkuk.  With a population close to one million is like Jerusalem with three ethnic divisions  - Kurds, Arabs and Turks - each passionate about their rights. As Talabani has stated before his election as President of Iraq “Our struggle for Kirkuk is a struggle for destiny to restore all the liberated Kurdish areas, including Kirkuk and its surroundings, to the bosom of Kurdistan". During a news conference he showed a photograph an early twentieth century-map showing Kirkuk as part of Kurdistan. He further said “My father sacrificed himself and his revolution in 1974 for the sake of Kirkuk. If we should be forced to fight and lose everything we have accomplished we [still] would not bargain over Kirkuk's identity-the heart of Kurdistan”. He also showed a map including southeastern Turkey, western Iran, northern Iraq and eastern Syria labeled as Northern, Eastern, Southern and "little South" Kurdistan, respectively. Barzani has stating that Kirkuk is "the heart of Kurdistan" expressed the willingness of the Kurds to go to war "for the sake of protecting this identity and [retaining] the benefits the Kurds have gained since the end of the 2003 war.”  The London daily Al-Hayat called "Kirkuk the jewel in the Kurdish throne and a powder keg with respect to the unity of Iraq" (Feb. 4, 2004).

Since his election he has stated that ‘we consider this city, Kirkuk, as a city of multinational fraternity because it is the city of Kurds, Turkomans (sic), Arabs and Chaldo-Assyrians’. His partner Barzani has stated "All the Kurdish parties have agreed that for now we are living with a federal regime in a democratic Iraq." Note the words "for now"; but what of the future.

On election day (January 30, 2005) , a rocket landed near the Ahmed home decapitating 16-year-old Yusef. "We are willing to pay with our blood, like water on the floor, because Kirkuk is a Kurdish city and should stay part of Kurdistan," said Yusef's mother, her husband Sabrir Kareem Muhammad kissed a photo of their son.

Half the population of Iraqi Kurds, growing up since 1991 do not speak Arabic or identify with the Iraqi state, favor outright independence, and their leaders worry that if the new system did not preserve their autonomy, these demands might grow. At the same time as the January 30 election in the Kurd provinces a referendum was held on whether to remain part of Iraq or become independent; 97% of the two million voters elected for independence. In council elections in Kirkuk the Kurds won 26 out of 41 seats.

Independent sources confirm that 120,000 Kurds were forced north out of Kirkuk and Arabs installed in their homes and neighborhoods. Human Rights Watch has called the Arabization of Kirkuk, the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds (March 2003) and another possibly 600,000 deported to the non-Kurdish cities; one of which was nearby Mosul. Mosul has since been divided into a Kurdish northeast and an Arab west. The American coalition forces have allowed the Kurdish militia to control the Western half of the city. This has created tensions between the Kurds and Sunni. Will the Kurds try to incorporate Mosul into Kurdistan? According to newspaper reports the peshmerge kidnapped Turkmen and Sunnis as late as May 2005.

The Kurds are creating ‘facts on the ground’ bringing Kurds back into Kirkuk and dealing with the ’settlers’, interesting terminology to one who resides in Israel.  Most of the Saddam deported Kurds have long lived in tents similar to the Palestinian ‘refugees’.

The Kurdish leaders will demand Kirkuk and its oil revenue – 40% of Iraq’s reserves and 70% of oil production during Saddam’s era.  Can they achieve that? PUK's leader Jalal Talabani has become the President of Iraq’s Provisional government for that specific purpose; to protect Kurdistan. Will he have the power to draw the lines of the Kudistan Province so as to include Kirkuk? The Kurdish militia – ‘peshmerge’ rule Kirkuk currently.

From the Syrians, to the clerical mullahs dominating Iran to the Turks; all have fought for decades against Kurdish independence. The Kurds expect to retain their military and expect the Oil revenue from Kirkuk to be divided with the central government. The Iraqi armed forces would probably be forbidden to enter Kurdistan. According Transitional Administrative Law – TAL – all of these questions are to be determined after the final constitution is operational and a census taken. The Iraqi electoral commission already allowed 100,000 Kurdish refugees to vote in the January 30 elections.

What if a majority of the Shi’tes vote to install some of the Islamic Sharia religious laws, such as the very sensitive personal status rules; marriage and divorce,  inheritance laws and women and family rights?  How would President Talabani’s wife Hero, a major women rights activist in Kurdistan react to Sharia law?  The Kurds largely secular would almost certainly oppose these and the constitution cannot be approved without their four provinces. They may even demand a secular state. They might allow for the Koran to be one source of legislation but not the only one. Ideally, they would like the separation of state and religion. There are many versions of how to interpret Sharia law. Can Sharia law be applicable in the Shi’a provinces and not in Kurdish provinces not? Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world recognizes the different religious interpretations and allows each province to choose whether to implement Sharia law, which one or accept a civic law. Another example is Nigeria. Muslim provinces have a legal system based on Sharia law and the Christian provinces have a secular legal system. Can this work in Iraq; each province having its own legal system?  

The Turks and the Kurds:

The dream of independence may come true for the Kurds of Iraq. How would the Turkish government react? From Ankara's perspective the creation of a Kurdish state in their northern neighbor with Kirkuk as its capital might serve as a magnet for Turkey's own Kurdish population.

While Turkey may be at the mercy of forces beyond its control, its government is anchoring its strategy to the political process in Baghdad and, as part of that, a peaceful solution to the Kirkuk question. Could Turkey make a preemptive strike into northern Iraq to prevent the rise of an independent Kurdistan– unlikely but not impossible.

There are reasons for Turkey to act with restraint with regard to Iraqi Kurdistan. First, Turkey will have to weigh the consequences of any military action in northern Iraq against the damage this would do to its hopes of obtaining membership in the European Union. (Given recent events in the E.U. it seems less likely that the approval of Turkey to join will ever happen.) Second, at a time of severe pressure on oil supply, oil from Kirkuk ‘could’ provide Turkey with a reliable source of supply.  Third, the Kurds with their well-armed and battle-hardened Peshmerga could provide problems even for the large Turkish military. In the words of the 19th century German General Helmut von Moltke: "It is impossible to triumph over the Kurds when they are united."


Iranian Kurds:

There may be as many as eight million Kurds in Iran. They as in other Kurdish areas are oppressed. They are not Shi’a and thus considered ‘infidels’ by the Clerics.  The Iranian Kurds rebelled in 1979-1982 and were crushed by the clerical regime. They have members in the Parliament, but they are part of the Reformer movement which has itself been crushed by the Clerics in recent years. In Iran the Kurds are considered an Arab influence as against the Persians.

Iran does have a Kurdish Province. The Governor Abdollah Ramazanzadeh believed that Iran's systematic discrimination against the Kurds was slowly changing. He believed that "in ten years or so, Kurdistan will be not only a happy province, but also a prosperous one." Of course that was before the latest election of the hardliner Mahmood Ahmadinejad as President-elect.  

Syrian Kurds:

Less is known about the 1.5 million Kurds in Eastern Syria. They are ten percent of the population; the largest ethnic minority, unless one counts the ruling Alawites at12% . They are an oppressed minority, lacking basic rights – 300,000 were striped of their citizenship in 1962. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds are defined as ‘foreigners’; have no passports, no rights to marry, to travel even within Syria or own property. Like the other oppressed Kurds they are forbidden to speak their own language.

However as Ahmad Barakat head of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Progressive Party, stated "our problem is very different from that of the Kurds in Iraq. Their aim in Iraq is to get a state of their own, we just want our culture and freedom as Syrian nationals."

In 2004 an insurrection of the Syrian Kurds was crushed causing an unknown number of casualties. Recently in the 150,000 person Kurdish city of Qamishli the body of a prominent cleric, Sheik Muhammad Mashouk al-Khaznawi, was found. Days later, protesters calling for an international investigation of the sheik's killing clashed with security forces. Khaznawi was a charismatic 47-year-old cleric who began denouncing the Syrian government in sermons in recent months, came to embody the Kurdish political opposition. He is now considered by the Kurds as a martyr to political independence. Even the Kurds quarter of Damascus revolted. The ‘hamas’ rules did not apply, no genocide was generated. The Kurds have been emboldened by both the success of Iraqi Kurds and the Lebanese independence. We have seen what happened to Lebanese leaders’ opposed to Syrian.

But there have been, at times, good relations between Syria and the Kurds.   The PUK whose leader Talabani now the president of Iraq was founded in Syria (1975).  Syria's Grand Mufti Ahmad Kaftaro, the highest Muslim authority in Syria, from 1966 until his death in 2004, was a Damascene Kurd.

What would happen if the coalition forces recruited the peshmerge to enforce the Iraq-Syrian border? (They did in Mosul.) What would happen if Iraqi Kurds recruited Kurds from Iran, Syria or Turkey to join the peshmerge” to fend off the Turkish military?

A Kurdish Iraqi boy remembers:

As a boy I loved to wander the streets of the Christian and Jewish quarters.  [One day] I found myself in the market in the Jewish quarter. Suddenly a door opened, and an elderly white-haired man with a long white beard came out.


He raised his hand towards me and beckoned me to come to him. I was overcome by fear, but could not fight the magic in his fingertips, which drew him towards him like a magnet. He opened the door, and told me to go in. I could not disobey, and he led me in with his hand. I began to ask myself whether this was my end. I wished I had not entered! Why couldn't I escape and run back to my family?


He asked me what my name was, and I answered “Khaled”. He said: “Wonder of wonders, and where do you live? And how old are you?” I said to myself: “He is asking how old I am in order to be sure my blood is suitable for the deed. He placed his hand on my head and asked: 'Khaled my son, do you know how to light a fire?' Another wave of terror swept over me. Would he cook me over a fire? He said: 'Show me how you light the fire in the stove.' I took a match, and lit the stove with shaking hand’.”


“This man, one of the people of the Torah, the Talmud, and the Mishna, kissed me on the head and led me to a room with an antique cupboard. He opened one of the drawers, took out a handful of chocolate, and filled my pockets. He led me, completely amazed, to the door, opened the door, and bid farewell, blessing me, wishing me a long life, and adding: 'Give regards to your father.”


I left, astounded, and hurried home like somebody who has awakened from a strange dream. I told the story to my father and brothers, and they laughed at me, and said: “It is the Sabbath. The Jews are forbidden to light fire on the Sabbath. The poor old man was thirsty for a cup of tea.”


We shared the chocolate, and I spent the rest of the week counting the days until the Sabbath, and then until the Sabbath after that and the one after that. Every Sabbath I went to that same alley, hoping that the white-haired old man would open the door and that I would light his fire, and he would fill my pockets with chocolate. But the door never opened again, and those ancient features, from Biblical times, did not reappear. Recently I have been thinking about knocking on the door and asking: “My uncle, Abu Sasson, do you need anybody to light your fire?” (MEMRI, April 5, 2005)