Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2017, 10:48 GMT

Assessment for Kurds in Iraq

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Kurds in Iraq, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 23 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Iraq Facts
Area:    437,072 sq. km.
Capital:    Baghdad
Total Population:    217,220,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

From 2001 until the first few months of 2003, the situation of the Kurds remained basically unchanged: despite Iraqi government unfriendliness toward the Kurds, their internationally supported autonomous region in the north was largely free of any interference from Saddam Hussein's regime. Since 1991, when the U.S. supported Kurdish autonomy at the end of the first Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds in the north have enjoyed cultural and political freedoms that the Shiites, Turkmen, and other ethnic groups have not. Since the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, Kurds have retained most of their control in the northern territory, as well as had the political process in the central Iraqi government opened up to them. The Kurds represent about 20 percent of the Iraqi population, and this is now reflected in the interim Governing Council for postwar Iraq (25 members total: 13 ministries for Shiite Muslims, 5 to Sunni Muslims, 5 to Kurds, and 1 each to the Turkmen and Assyrian Christians). The U.S. occupation forces retain ultimate control until a functioning elected government is in place. While the current power-sharing model incorporating Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds may ultimately lead to a more stable and democratic Iraq if the groups learn to compromise with one another, the future of Iraq is extremely hard to predict right now. Security concerns are real for much of the population, Sunni and Shiite alike – indeed, perhaps the Kurds are safest in their northern region where they have been autonomous since the early 1990s. Law and order has broken down in Iraq and U.S. forces are struggling to quell an insurgency. Most of the violent insurgency is comprised of Sunnis, and the Kurdish military has fought side by side with American forces in ousting Saddam Hussein as well as in suppressing the ensuing rebellion. All Iraqi Kurdish factions supported Hussein's overthrow.

At the end of 2003, perhaps the future of the Iraqi Kurds is more predictable than that of the Sunnis or Shiites: while statehood is unlikely, there is a possibility that Kurds will be able to hold on to their autonomy since the U.S. has supported them in the past and is likely to continue doing so. On the other hand, a successful change in government would, presumably, bring the autonomous north back into central Iraqi politics, requiring the Kurds to agree upon some form of unified leadership. It is difficult to assess; the outcome of the U.S. occupation is far from obvious at this point in time. Even if the insurgency ends, law and order returns, free and fair elections are held, and the U.S. leaves, whether or not a power-sharing unified government can ultimately function in Iraq remains to be seen.

Analytic Summary

The Kurds differ in language, religion, ethnicity, and residency compared to the Shi'a majority in Iraq. They also differ linguistically (LANG = 2), culturally (CUSTOM = 1), and racially (RACE = 1), but not religiously (RELIGS1 = 4) from Iraq's Sunni Arab group, which was in political control of the country under Saddam Hussein until 2003. From 1991 until the first few months of 2003, the Kurds in Iraq enjoyed autonomy in the northern third of the country (REGIONAL = 1); this region was established as an allied-protected autonomous region following the end of 1991's Gulf War. The vast majority of Kurds live in this northern autonomous region (GROUPCON = 2), and those few in Iraq proper were subject to great political discrimination and repression under Hussein, including a prohibition on free movement, restrictions on holding official positions, arbitrary arrest and torture. Within the autonomous north, however, Kurds had the political and cultural rights they lacked in the rest of Iraq.

Before their autonomy, government repression of Kurds reached an all time high in 1987-88, when Saddam Hussein utilized chemical and biological weapons in series of attacks on Kurdish villages, killing thousands and displacing tens of thousands more. Starting in 1990, the situation in Iraq began to destabilize. Amid allegations that Iraq was trying to build a "super gun" the UN launched an investigation. After finding that several pieces of hardware and technology that could be used in an Iraqi effort to build the gun had in fact reached Iraq, UN sanctions were placed on Iraq. On August 2, 1990, following a dispute over oil reserves, Iraq invaded, occupied and annexed Kuwait. They would eventually shift the bulk of their forces to the border of Saudi Arabia. In an effort to prevent an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia and to push the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, an international coalition of allied forces, under the auspices of the UN, and under the military command of the U.S., launched an air strike against Iraq's military communication structure and air defenses on January 16, 1991. On February 23, 1991, the allies launched a ground invasion and within a week they had pushed the Iraqi army back into Iraq at which point the offensive against Iraq was halted.

Since 1991, the Kurds have had de facto control over their own territory, but have suffered from intragroup factional conflict (INTRACON91-00 = 1). Most notably, this has occurred between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), who have disagreed over the objectives of the movement, the proper sources from which to draw support, the appropriate division of power between the groups, and distribution of land, water and other resources. Despite a cease-fire and agreement for the mutual release of political prisoners in 1999, there were a number of bomb attacks on civilian targets during the years 1999 and 2000 in both the KDP and PUK-controlled areas, which killed at least 12 persons (FCCS199-00 = 2).

In 2000, the first elections were held in the Kurdish-controlled north since 1992. The PUK held municipal elections in February 2000, and the KDP held them in May that same year. Despite the division between the two Kurdish administrations, laws have been established for an independent judiciary, for women's and workers' rights, and for freedom of religion, press, and assembly. Both factions have been reported to generally observe these laws in practice. However, most of the reunification measures between the two groups have not been implemented, with the exception of exchanging prisoners, the returning of 3,000 displaced persons and the improved ability to move between the Kurdish-controlled areas. Between 2001 and 2003, intragroup conflict between the PUK and KDP did not manifest in violence. Both groups supported Saddam Hussein's ouster by the American-led coalition forces in 2003. There has been relative calm in the northern areas under Kurdish control as compared with other part of Iraq during the ongoing occupation. There was sporadic violence between other Kurdish groups, such as between the PUK and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK, a militant organization of Turkish Kurds) in 2001. The PKK presence in northern Iraq has had a somewhat destabilizing impact on the region, and it continues to maintain combat units in the north from which to launch cross-border attacks against Turkey, though their activity has decreased since 2001. Small-scale guerilla activity continued by Kurds against Hussein's regime continued into 2000 (REB99-00 = 4), and from the start of the U.S. invasion and throughout its occupation both the KDP and PUK militaries have fought along side the coalition forces in Iraq.


Congressional Quarterly Inc, 1990, "The Middle East Seventh Edition" Congressional Quarterly, Washington D.C.

Dgenhardt, Henry W. (ed), 1987, Revolutionary and Dissident Movements: An International Guide, A Keesing's Reference Publication, (London: Longman)

Hooglund, Eric. (ed), Middle East Journal, 1990 - Spring 1995, chronologies of Middle Eastern events.

Keesing's Contemporary Archive, 1990-1993, Keesing Record of World Events: Record of National and International Current Affairs with Continually Updated Indexes, Keesing's Publication, (London: Longman Group Ltd.)

Lexis/Nexis: Reuters, 1995- 2000.

Lexis Nexis Academic Universe, all news reports, 2001 - 2003.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - Iraq 2001 - 2003.

Amnesty International. Iraq Reports 2001 - 2004. Date accessed 9/16/2004.

The Associated Press, July 29, 2003, "In Mosul, A Glimpse Of Iraq's Future As Its Past Looms Large," Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

Kurd. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Date accessed: 10/4/2004.

The Associated Press, July 14, 2003, "A Look At Members Of Iraq's New Governing Council." Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

The Associated Press, March 15, 2003, "Kurds Claim Saddam Forces Turn Oil Center Into 'Military Camp'" Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

BBC Monitoring International Reports, October 13, 2003, "Kurdish Parliament To Stop Using Iraqi Flag," Date accessed: 9/16/2004.

Keesing's Record of World Events. May 2003. Date Accessed: 1/26/2005.

Search Refworld