As of the late 1990s, there were estimated to be more than 20 million Kurds, about half of them in Turkey, where, making up more than 20% of the population, they dwell mainly near the Iranian frontier around Lake Van and in the vicinity of Diyarbakir and Erzurum. The Kurds in Iran, who constitute some 10% of its people, live principally in Azerbaijan and Khorasan, with some in Fars. The Iraqi Kurds, about 23% of its population, live mostly in the vicinity of Dahuk (Dohuk), Mosul, Erbil, Kirkuk, and Sulaimaniyah.
Ethnically close to the Iranians, the Kurds were traditionally nomadic herders but are now mostly seminomadic or sedentary. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. Kurdish dialects belong to the northwestern branch of the Iranian languages. The Kurds have traditionally resisted subjugation by other nations. Despite their lack of political unity throughout history, the Kurds, as individuals and in small groups, have had a lasting impact on developments in SW Asia. Saladin, who gained fame during the Crusades, is perhaps the most famous of all Kurds.
Commonly identified with the ancient Corduene, which was inhabited by the Carduchi (mentioned in Xenophon), the Kurds were conquered by the Arabs in the 7th cent. The region was held by the Seljuk Turks in the 11th cent., by the Mongols from the 13th to 15th cent., and then by the Safavid and Ottoman Empires. Having been decimated by the Turks in the years between 1915 and 1918 and having struggled bitterly to free themselves from Ottoman rule, the Kurds were encouraged by the Turkish defeat in World War I and by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's plea for self-determination for non-Turkish nationalities in the empire. The Kurds brought their claims for independence to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
The Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which liquidated the Ottoman Empire, provided for the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state. Because of Turkey's military revival under Kemal Atatürk, however, the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which superseded Sèvres, failed to mention the creation of a Kurdish nation. Revolts by the Kurds of Turkey in 1925 and 1930 were forcibly quelled. Later (1937-38) aerial bombardment, poison gas, and artillery shelling of Kurdish strongholds by the government resulted in the slaughter of many thousands of Turkey's Kurds. In the British mandate of Iraq, there were unsuccessful uprisings in 1919, 1923, and 1932. The Kurds in Iran also rebelled during the 1920s, and at the end of World War II a Soviet-backed Kurdish "republic" existed briefly.
With the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, the Kurds hoped for greater administration and development projects, which the new Ba'athist government failed to grant. Agitation among Iraq's Kurds for a unified and autonomous Kurdistan led in the 1960s to prolonged warfare between Iraqi troops and the Kurds under Mustafa al-Barzani. In 1970, Iraq finally promised local self-rule to the Kurds, with the city of Erbil as the capital of the Kurdish area. The Kurds refused to accept the terms of the agreement, however, contending that the president of Iraq would retain real authority and demanding that Kirkuk, an important oil center, be included in the autonomous Kurdish region.
In 1974 the Iraqi government sought to impose its plan for limited autonomy in Kurdistan. It was rejected by the Kurds, and heavy fighting erupted. After the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran (1979), the government there launched a murderous campaign against its Kurdish inhabitants as well as a program to assassinate Kurdish leaders. Iraqi attacks on the Kurds continued throughout the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), culminating (1988) in poison gas attacks on Kurdish villages to quash resistance and in the rounding up and execution of male Kurds, all of which resulted in the killing of some 200,000 in that year alone.
With the end of the Persian Gulf War (1991), yet another Kurdish uprising against Iraqi rule was crushed by Iraqi forces; nearly 500,000 Kurds fled to the Iraq-Turkey border, and more than one million fled to Iran. Thousands of Kurds subsequently returned to their homes under UN protection. In 1992 the Kurds established an "autonomous region" in N Iraq and held a general election. However, the Kurds were split into two opposed groups, the Kurdistan Democratic party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which engaged in sporadic warfare.
In 1999 the two groups agreed to end hostilities; control of the region was divided between them. Kurdish forces aided the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, joining with U.S. and British forces to seize the traditionally Kurdish cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Turkish fears of any attempt by Iraqi Kurds to proclaim their independence from Iraq—and thus revive the longstanding hopes of Turkish Kurds for independence (see below)—led Turkey to threaten to intervene in N Iraq. Although Kurds were given a limited veto over constitutional changes in the subsequent interim Iraqi constitution (2004), many Iraqi Shiites found this unacceptable. Kurdish leaders were wary, as a result, of political developments as the United States ceded sovereignty to a new Iraqi government. In 2004 the two main Iraqi Kurdish groups agreed to unify the administration of Iraq's Kurdish region, but that had not been achieved by Jan., 2006, when an additional unification agreement was signed; a single regional government was established in May, 2006. Subsequently, Kurds' attempts to establish control over Kirkuk and Kurdish areas outside the Kurdish region and to control oil resources in the Kurdish region have led to tensions with the central Iraqi government and with other Iraqi ethnic groups.
In Turkey, where the government has long attempted to suppress Kurdish culture, fighting erupted in the mid-1980s, mainly in SE Turkey, between government forces and guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which was established in 1984. The PKK has also engaged in terrorist attacks. In 1992 the Turkish government again mounted a concerted attack on its Kurdish minority, killing more than 20,000 and creating about two million refugees. In 1995 and 1997, Turkey waged military campaigns against PKK base camps in northern Iraq, and in 1999 it captured the guerrillas' leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who was subsequently condemned to death. The PKK announced in Feb., 2000, that they would end their attacks, but the arrest the same month of the Kurdish mayors of Diyarbakir and other towns on charges of aiding the rebels threatened to revive the unrest.
Reforms passed in 2002 and 2003 to facilitate Turkish entrance in the European Union included ending bans on private education in Kurdish and on giving children Kurdish names; also, emergency rule in SE Turkey was ended. However, in 2004, following Turkish actions against it, the PKK announced that it would end the cease-fire and resumed its attacks. In 2006 there was renewed fighting with Kurdish rebels and outbreaks of civil unrest involving Kurds; an offshoot of the PKK also mounted bomb attacks in a number of Turkish cities. In Sept., 2006, and again in June, 2007, the PKK unilaterally declared cease-fires, but Turkey rejected them, and fighting continued, at times spilling over into Iraq and threatening to become a wider war involving Iraqi Kurds. Beginning in Oct., 2007, Turkey launched a series of attacks into N Iraq, including a significant ground incursion in Feb., 2008. Some 40,000 people are thought to have died in Kurdish-Turkish fighting since the mid-1980s. The legal Democratic Society party is now the principal civilian Kurdish voice in Turkey; in the most recent parliamentary elections (2007), it won 20 seats. It has called for expanded rights for Kurds and autonomy for largely Kurdish SE Turkey. In 2009, however, the party was banned by Turkey's constitutional court for allegedly having links with the PKK and some prominent members of the party were arrested, leading to increased tensions.
There were also clashes between the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq in the 1990s and Kurdish unrest in Syria in 2004 and Syria and Iran in 2005. In 2007, Iran shelled Kurdish positions in Iraq in retaliation for Kurdish rebel operations in Iran.
See G. Chaliand, ed., People without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan (1980); R. Olson, The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion (1989); D. McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (1996).