The Kurdish-inhabited region of northern Iraq is relatively peaceful and prospering economically, but the Iraqi Kurds' political autonomy and political strength in post-Saddam Iraq is causing backlash in Arab Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. The Iraqi Kurds' ties to the United States and the U.S. drive to stabilize Iraq are increasingly less likely to help the Kurds to parry these challenges. This report will be updated. Also see CRS Report RL31339, Iraq: Post-Saddam Governance and Security, by Kenneth Katzman.
The Kurds, a mountain-dwelling Indo-European people, comprise the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never obtained statehood. An initial peace settlement after World War I held out hopes of Kurdish independence, but under a subsequent treaty they were given minority status in their respective countries- -Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria--with smaller enclaves elsewhere in the region. (See dark gray area of map). Kurds now number between 20 and 25 million, with an estimated 4 to 4.5 million in Iraq, roughly 15 to 20 percent of the Iraqi population. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims and their language is akin to Persian.
To varying degrees, Kurds have been persecuted in their countries. Some Kurds would settle for autonomy, while others want independence. Iraq's Kurds have had more national rights than have those in any other host country. Successive Iraqi governments allowed limited use of the Kurdish language in elementary education (1931), recognized a Kurdish nationality (1958), and implemented limited autonomy for the Kurdish areas (1974). For the three decades that preceded the U.S.-led expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, an intermittent insurgency by Iraqi Kurdish militia ("peshmerga") faced increasing suppression, particularly by Saddam Hussein's regime.
Kurdish dissidence in Iraq was initially led by the Barzani clan, headed by the late storied chieftain Mulla Mustafa Barzani, who founded the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) after World War II. He rejected the Iraqi government's Kurdish autonomy plan in 1974, (1) but his renewed Kurdish revolt collapsed in 1975 when Iran, then led by the Shah, stopped supporting it under a U.S.-supported "Algiers Accord" with Iraq. Barzani, granted asylum in the United States, died in 1979, and leadership of his party passed to his son Masoud. Some years earlier, a younger, more urban and left-leaning group under Jalal Talabani emerged; it broke with Barzani in 1964 and, in 1975, became the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KDP and PUK have remained the dominant in the Iraqi Kurdish movement; their differences center on leadership, power, control over revenue, and the degree to which to accommodate Baghdad. The KDP, generally more tribal and traditional, is strongest in the mountainous northern Kurdish areas, bordering Turkey. The PUK predominates in southern Kurdish areas, bordering Iran. …