Kurds Suffer Genocide in Iraq Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Kurdish people, one-fifth of Iraq’s population, were subject to repressive and at times genocidal measures by successive Iraqi governments beginning in the 1960’s after calling for their autonomy from Iraq. The nearly 30 million Kurds remain without an independent homeland.

Summary of Event

The Kurdish experience in the 1960’s in Iraq was one of cruelty inflicted by national dictatorships and international abandonment. Claiming descent from the Medes, destroyers of Baltasar’s Babylon, the Kurds fought repeatedly against aggressors in ancient and medieval eras, and they found inspiration in recalling the deeds of their greatest hero, the twelfth century sultan Saladin. In early modern times, the Kurds were caught between two juggernauts, the Ottoman and Persian Empires. Kurds Genoci de, Kurdish Human rights;Iraq Iraqi Kurdish genocide [kw]Kurds Suffer Genocide in Iraq (1960’s) [kw]Genocide in Iraq, Kurds Suffer (1960’s) [kw]Iraq, Kurds Suffer Genocide in (1960’s) Kurds Genocide, Kurdish Human rights;Iraq Iraqi Kurdish genocide [g]Middle East;1960’s: Kurds Suffer Genocide in Iraq[06300] [g]Iraq;1960’s: Kurds Suffer Genocide in Iraq[06300] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;1960’s: Kurds Suffer Genocide in Iraq[06300] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1960’s: Kurds Suffer Genocide in Iraq[06300] [c]Government and politics;1960’s: Kurds Suffer Genocide in Iraq[06300] Barzani, Mullah Mustafa al- Kassem, Abdul Karim Arif, Abdul Salam Arif, Abdul Rahman Bakr, Ahmad Hasan al- Hussein, Saddam Bazzaz, Abdul Rahman al- Talabani, Jalal Ahmad, Ibrahim

The Ottoman defeat in World War I and the long Persian decline provided a golden opportunity for the creation of an independent Kurdistan. Nationalism;Kurds In 1920, the victorious Allies imposed on the Ottoman Empire the Treaty of Sèvres, Sèvres, Treaty of (1920) which stated that in eastern Anatolia there would be established the autonomous state of Kurdistan, which might become independent. The vast majority of the Kurdish people, however, lay outside the proposed state and were relegated to France, Syria, Persia, and Armenia. In 1923, the Ottoman Empire’s successor, the Republic of Turkey, renegotiated the Treaty of Sèvres in the Treaty of Lausanne, Lausanne, Treaty of (1923) which omitted any mention of Kurdistan. Indeed, Turkey moved swiftly to eradicate any manifestation of Kurdish nationalism, baldly labeling Kurds as “mountain Turks.” In Persia, Reza Shah Pahlavi, who assumed power in 1925 and ruled until 1941, also worked to destroy Kurdish nationalism.

Aspirations for freedom after World War I loomed large among the Kurds of northern Mesopotamia, once a part of the Ottoman Empire. The British, however, with the acquiescence of the League of Nations, placed Mesopotamia in the newly created Kingdom of Iraq. Thus the Kurds, one-fifth of Iraq’s population, were placed under an Arab-dominated regime. A Kurd, General Bakr Sidqi Sidqi, Bakr , ruled monarchical Iraq as a dictator in 1936 and 1937, but he did not help his fellow Kurds. Several Kurdish rebellions occurred against the Iraqi monarchy. The last, beginning in 1943 and led by Mullah Mustafa al-Barzani, was crushed in 1945 by the British air force. Kurdish tribal differences had undermined Barzani.

In 1958, Brigadier General Abdul Karim Kassem overthrew Revolutions and coups;Iraq Iraqi revolution of 1958 the Iraqi monarchy and proclaimed the Republic of Iraq. At first, the Kurds welcomed Kassem because his constitution Constitutions;Iraq accorded equal weight to Kurds and Arabs, and Kassem permitted Barzani and the hundreds who had followed him into exile to return. Soon, Barzani suspected Kassem of ignoring Kurdish demands for autonomy. In 1961, Barzani demanded Kurdish autonomy. Kassem then bombed Barzan village, whereupon Barzani, joined by the Kurdish Democratic Party Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), revolted. Kassem inflicted heavy casualties on Barzani’s forces. Nevertheless, the heavily outnumbered Kurds fought on, badly sapping Kassem’s strength and contributing to his overthrow in 1963.

In February, 1963, the Baՙthists, Ba{ayn}th Party[Bath Party] who were Arab nationalists, Nationalism;Arabs seized Iraqi coups of 1963 Iraq’s government. The Kurds suffered even more than they had under Kassem. Nevertheless, the Kurds recovered by the winter of 1963, and the inability of the Baՙthists to deal with the Kurds contributed to the downfall of the Baՙthists in 1963.

Field Marshal Abdul Salam Arif then dominated the Iraqi government. In February, 1964, Arif and Barzani agreed to a cease-fire, calling for recognition of Kurdish national rights in the Iraqi constitution, general amnesty, and a reinstatement of Kurds in the civil service and the military, but there was no mention of autonomy. This agreement, however, led to a deep split in the Kurdish movement. Jalal Talabani and Ibrahim Ahmad of the Kurdish Democratic Party demanded a proclamation of Kurdish autonomy. Barzani persuaded a congress of the KDP to expel Talabani, Ahmad, and fourteen other members from that movement. Barzani received the support of the Iranian KDP. Iran;and Kurds[Kurds] Moreover, he received large shipments of arms from Iran’s government. Barzani controlled 13,500 square miles and one million inhabitants in Iraq. He also controlled the Turkish and Iranian borders.

The cease-fire soon broke down. By June, Arif and Barzani had serious difficulties. In October, these intensified when Barzani demanded autonomy for the Kurds and the transformation of his forces (peshmergas) into a regular frontier force. In January, 1965, Arif stated that there would be no further negotiations until the Kurdish army was dismantled, and he pronounced Kurdish autonomy nonnegotiable. In April the Iraqi regime and Barzani’s movement clashed. Iran backed Barzani, leading to fighting between Iraq and Iran.

Strife continued in the 1960’s, notwithstanding Arif’s accidental death in April, 1966. His elder brother, Major General Abdul Rahman Arif, succeeded him as president of Iraq and proved to be weak. In May conditions strongly favored the Kurds. They won the fiercely fought Battle of Handrin, Handrin, Battle of (1966) thereby preserving their actual autonomy. That battle and President Arif’s delegation of power to Prime Minister Abdul Rahman al-Bazzaz, whom the Kurds trusted, produced the June 29 Declaration June 29 Declaration (1966)[June Twenty ninth Declaration] .

The June 29 Declaration was the most liberal recognition of Kurdish rights up to that time. The Iraqi government explicitly recognized the national rights of the Kurds; the accord admitted that the Iraqi homeland included two main nationalities, Arabs and Kurds. The rights of the Kurds were to be clarified in the permanent constitution upon its promulgation. Thus, for the first time an Iraqi government recognized the binational character of the Iraqi state. The declaration also promised the Kurds decentralization to give them freedom to deal with their own affairs. Kurdish provinces, districts, and subdistricts were to enjoy a recognized corporate personality; and there were to be free elections for administrative councils.

The 1966 declaration devoted special attention to the Kurdish language and culture. Kurdish received recognition as an official language and was to be the medium of instruction in schools in Kurdish areas, together with Arabic. The University of Baghdad was to give special attention to the study of the Kurdish language, including its literature and ideological and historical traditions; a university was to be established in Iraqi Kurdistan when funds were available. The declaration promised the Kurds their own political and literary press in the Kurdish region, in Arabic, Kurdish, or both, according to the wishes of the people concerned.

The declaration proclaimed equality between Kurds and Arabs in all spheres in Iraq in grants, ministries, public departments, and the diplomatic and military services. Only Kurds were to hold posts in the Kurdish regions as long as the number required was available. The declaration also pledged the government to spend funds on the reconstruction of Kurdistan. Institutions and departments were to be created to develop and improve the Kurdish region. The government was to compensate all those who had suffered damages and would resettle Kurds who had been evacuated back to their own regions.

The declaration also contained secret clauses. One acknowledged the Kurdish demand for the creation of a new all-Kurdish province out of Mosul province. Another permitted public operation for the KDP. The final secret clause declared a step-by-step general amnesty.

The 1966 declaration brought peace to Iraqi Kurdistan. The military, however, felt humiliated by the declaration. In July it forced Prime Minister Bazzaz’s resignation. His replacement would not implement the declaration and encouraged the Talabani-Ahmad group to attack Barzani’s forces. President Arif attempted to appease Barzani, but the army and the Baՙth Party overthrew Arif in July, 1968.

Field Marshal Ahmad Hasan al-Bakr then took Iraq’s presidency. His cousin, the now-notorious Saddam Hussein, became deputy to the president. The government tried to undermine Barzani by favoring the Talabani-Ahmad faction and by implementing certain sections of the 1966 declaration. In the fall of 1968, Iraq’s army clashed with Barzani’s army. Iran gave massive aid to Barzani. In March, 1970, Hussein and Barzani agreed to terms: Kurdish autonomy, proportional representation of Kurds in a national legislature, appointment of a Kurdish vice president at the national level, expenditure of an equitable amount of oil revenue in the autonomous region, and recognition of Kurdish and Arabic as official languages in Kurdish territory. Barzani agreed to integrate his forces into the Iraqi army, but the government was to withdraw support from the Talabani-Ahmad clique. The agreement was to take effect after the fourth anniversary of its signing. It failed in its goals, however, and ultimately Hussein, who became Iraq’s president in 1979, would seek to smash the Kurds.


The Kurds present a most compelling story in the history of human rights. Numbering close to thirty million, they are a Middle Eastern people without independence. They are most numerous in the countries of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Smaller numbers exist in Syria and the Soviet Union, and the smallest Kurdish communities are in Afghanistan and Lebanon. The Kurds continue to be subject to abuse in practically every country they inhabit, particularly Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, although in Iraq (under its constitution of 2005), they have full political rights.

The history of Iraq’s treatment of the Kurds features violence joined to broken promises. This applies to one Iraqi regime after another, with the exception of the current fledgling democratic government, whose legacy is yet to be fully known. The Hashemite monarchy of 1921 to 1958, a creation and perpetual satellite of the British, repressed the Kurds, causing revolts. The Republic of Iraq easily outdistanced the monarchy in viciousness. The enormity of the governmental crimes is highlighted by the fact that both monarchy and republic were controlled by Sunni Muslims who committed atrocities against Kurdish people.

Prime Minister Kassem, founder of the Republic of Iraq, fought the Kurds from 1961 to 1963. By January, 1962, his air force had indiscriminately bombed five hundred Kurdish villages, killed fifty thousand people, and rendered eighty thousand homeless. For a short time, Kassem intrigued some Kurds, whom he used against Barzani’s rebellious Kurds: Kassem’s quislings burned crops, slaughtered livestock, demolished houses, and looted. The number of Kurds joining the ranks of Kassem declined drastically, however, and Barzani’s revolt survived.

Kassem’s executor, the Baՙth Party, intensified the fight against the Kurds in 1963. Prime Minister Bakr’s forces bombarded Kurdish villages with tanks and heavy artillery and from the air. In the beloved Kurdish city of Suleymanieh, the Iraqi army massacred 280 civilians and buried them in a mass grave. Bakr’s forces also bulldozed Kurdish villages under their control and began Arabization of strategic areas. His forces made massive deportations, including most of the Kurdish population of 150,000 in Kirkuk. The Soviet Union and the United Arab Republic protested these atrocities, but the Iraqi government had support from Great Britain and the United States. Nevertheless, Kurdish resistance outlived the fall of the Baՙths in November, 1963.

Between April, 1965, and his death a year later, President Abdul Salam Arif fought Barzani’s Kurds. His methods duplicated those of his predecessors in the republican regime. Again, Barzani continued the Kurdish cause.

In April and May, 1966, President Abdul Rahman Arif sought to crush Barzani’s Kurds. Again the Iraqi army waged total warfare against both the military and civilians. Barzani’s victory at the Battle of Handrin on May 11-12, 1966, however, forced Arif to end the war.

In the fall of 1968, Bakr resumed the war against Barzani. Abetted by Hussein, his cousin and deputy, Bakr repeated the harsh methods he had employed in his war of extermination in 1963. An example was the burning alive of sixty-seven women and children in a cave where they had sought refuge. Barzani fought on and obtained favorable terms in a 1970 peace agreement. Like its predecessors, the Iraqi government repudiated the peace. In 1974, Bakr and the increasingly powerful Hussein warred against Barzani’s Kurds. The government would perpetrate even greater horrors. Hussein would continue these abominations until his overthrow in 2003, the most well-known act of genocide being the chemical attacks on the Kurdish town of Halabjah Halabjah (Kurdish Iraq) in which thousands of civilians were killed by poison gas in 1988. Kurds Genocide, Kurdish Human rights;Iraq Iraqi Kurdish genocide

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aburish, Saīd K. Saddam Hussein: The Politics of Revenge. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. This biography of the controversial leader is critical of both Hussein as well as the governments of the Western world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ciment, James. The Kurds: State and Minority in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. New York: Facts On File, 1996. A concise, readable account of the history of Kurdish struggles. Bibliography and glossary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ghareeb, Edmund. The Kurdish Question in Iraq. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1981. Strong concentration on the perennial Kurdish question in Iraq by a recognized scholar. Presents the Iraqi nationalist point of view. Excellent documentation, including interviews. Good print, maps, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jawad, Sa’ad. Iraq and the Kurdish Question, 1958-1970. London: Ithaca Press, 1981. Comprehensive treatment of Iraqi Kurdistan since the establishment of the Republic of Iraq. Critical of Kurdish leadership. An appendix includes the program of the Kurdish Democratic Party. Largely based on interviews and publications of the Iraqi government and various political parties. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kimball, Lorenzo Kent. The Changing Pattern of Political Power in Iraq, 1958 to 1971. New York: R. Speller, 1972. Places the Kurds within the context of the twin forces of nationalism and militarism and the resulting series of coups d’état that have racked Iraq. Extensive bibliography, index, and valuable documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Makiya, Kanan. Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq. Updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Admirable inquiry into the meaning of the Baՙth regime established in 1968. New introduction. Useful chronology and appealing appendix discussing purges of high-ranking officers, Baՙthist old guard, and important politicians. Excellent index and footnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marr, Phebe. The Modern History of Iraq. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2004. Important text by a leading authority on modern Iraqi history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Ballance, Edgar. The Kurdish Revolt: 1961-1970. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1973. Excellent objective history based on the author’s visit to Kurdish territory and interviews with Arab Iraqis and Kurds. Interesting treatment of Mullah Mustafa al-Barzani. Maps and a good chronological summary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pelletiere, Stephen C. The Kurds: An Unstable Element in the Gulf. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. Attempts to analyze the significance of the Kurds in the Persian Gulf. Author has known most of the Kurdish leaders. Map, extensive documentation, a useful index, and an appendix containing the Twelve Point Program of 1966.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schmidt, Dana Adams. Journey Among Brave Men. Boston: Little, Brown, 1964. American reporter’s first-hand account of the Kurdish movement and the Kurdish war during the early 1960’s. Sympathetic to the Kurds. Fascinating interviews with Kurdish leaders. Map, chronology, illustrations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Comprehensive history of Iraq’s past, with a chapter on the republic from 1958 to 1968. Includes maps, a chronology, a glossary, a bibliography, and an index.

Anglo-Iraqi War

Eisenhower Doctrine

Syria and Egypt Form the United Arab Republic

Iraq’s Monarchy Is Toppled

Categories: History