Kurdistan at a Glance
The name Kurdistan literally means "Land of the Kurds". The suffix -stan is Persian for "place of" or "country". In English translations of the Constitution of Iraq, it is called "Kurdistan", four times in the phrase "region of Kurdistan" and once in the phrase "Kurdistan region". The regional government calls it the "Kurdistan Region".
The full name of the government is the "Kurdistan Regional Government", abbreviated "KRG". Kurds also refer to the region as Başûrê Kurdistanê or Başûrî Kurdistan ("Southern Kurdistan").
This refers to its geographical location within the whole of Kurdistan. During the Baath Party administration in the 1970s and 1980s, the region was called the "Kurdish Autonomous Region"
Iraq's 2005 Constitution recognises an autonomous Kurdistan region in the north of the country, run by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
This was the outcome of decades of political and military efforts to secure self-rule by the Kurdish minority. They are estimated to number more than 6 million and make up between 17% and 20% of the population of Iraq.
Kurds, who number 30-40 million in total, live in a compact area that reaches from Syria in the west to Iran in the east and Iraq in the south, north through Turkey, and into the states of the former Soviet Caucasus.
Only in Iraq have they managed to set up a stable government of their own in recent times, albeit within a federal state.
However, the increase of sectarian tensions within Iraq as a whole from 2013 onwards. Culminating in a campaign of violence launched by the radical Islamic State group, meant that by 2014 the unity of Iraq was under severe threat.
In July 2014, Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani announced that his government planned to hold a referendum on independence later in the year, given that Iraq was already "effectively partitioned".
The announcement triggered alarm among Iraq's neighbours, who feared that it could set a precedent for their own restive Kurdish minorities.
But a change of leadership in the Iraqi government was followed by improved relations with Iraqi Kurdistan. The two sides agreed to work together to defeat the common enemy of Islamic State and plans for an independence referendum were put on hold - but only until 2017.
The vote went ahead in September of that year, and the overwhelming majority voted for independence. Buoyed in part by the success of their Peshmerga armed forces in defeating Islamic State and advancing into territory that is the subject of a dispute between the central and Kurdish governments.
The government in Baghdad reacted angrily and moved to reassert its authority.
The Kurds are a people of Indo-European origin. They speak an Iranian language known as Kurdish, and comprise the majority of the population of the region. However, included therein are Arab, Armenian, Assyrian, Azerbaijani, Jewish, Ossetian, Persian, and Turkish communities.
Most inhabitants are Muslim, but adherents to other religions are present as well – including Yarsanism, Yazidis, Alevis, Christians and in the past, Jews, most of whom immigrated to Israel.
Greater Kurdistan is a roughly defined geo-cultural historical region wherein the Kurdish people form a prominent majority population and Kurdish culture, languages, and national identity have historically been based. It includes territory internationally recognized as part of four different states; Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
Kurdistan roughly encompasses the northwestern Zagros and the eastern Taurus mountain ranges. The territory corresponds to Kurdish irredentist claims.
Contemporary use of the term refers to the following areas: southeastern Turkey (Turkish Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), northwestern Iran(Iranian Kurdistan), and northern Syria (Rojava).
Some Kurdish nationalist organizations seek to create an independent nation state consisting of some or all of these areas with a Kurdish majority. While others campaign for greater autonomy within the existing national boundaries.
Iraqi Kurdistan first gained autonomous status in a 1970 agreement with the Iraqi government, and its status was re-confirmed as an autonomousentity within the federal Iraqi republic in 2005.
There is a province by the name Kurdistan in Iran; it is not self-ruled. Kurds fighting in the Syrian Civil War were able to take control of large sections of northern Syria as government forces, loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, withdrew to fight elsewhere.
Having established their own government, they called for autonomy in a federal Syria after the war.
The Kurdish Struggle
The Kurds of Iraq came under British colonial rule after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Frustrated in their hopes for independence, Kurdish leaders launched a series of rebellions against British and subsequent Iraqi rule.
These were put down ruthlessly, most notoriously in the late 1980s when Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurds with massed armed forces in the 'Anfal' campaign.
This involved the deliberate targeting of civilians with chemical weapons, most notoriously in the town of Halabja in 1988.
Various Iraqi governments promised autonomy to the Kurds after the 1958 revolution, but none came to fruition.
The Saddam international coalition established a partial no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991 after the first Gulf War.
This allowed Kurdish leaders and their Peshmerga armed forces to consolidate their hold on the north after Iraqi forces withdrew, and provided the basis for the 2005 constitutional settlement.
Disputed internal Kurdish–Iraqi boundaries have been a core concern for Arabs and Kurds, especially since US invasion and political restructuring in 2003. Kurds gained territory to the south of Iraqi Kurdistan after the US-led invasion in 2003 to regain what land they considered historically theirs.
Currently, in addition to the three governorates of Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurds control parts of Ninawa, Kirkuk and Diyala governorates. They are also claimed by the Iraqi government; on the other hand, the Iraqi government control parts of those three provinces which are also claimed by the Kurds.
Autonomy Negotiations (1970–1974)
Regional autonomy had originally been established in 1970 with the creation of the Kurdish Autonomous Region following the agreement of an Autonomy Accord between the government of Iraq and leaders of the Iraqi Kurdish community.
A Legislative Assembly was established and Erbil became the capital of the new entity which lay in Northern Iraq, encompassing the Kurdish authorities of Erbil, Dahuk and Sulaymaniyah.
The one-party rule which had dominated Iraq however meant that the new assembly was an overall component of Baghdad's central government.
The Kurdish authority was installed by Baghdad and no multi-party system had been inaugurated in Iraqi Kurdistan.
As such the local population enjoyed no particular democratic freedom denied to the rest of the country.
After the Gulf War
Even though autonomy had been agreed in 1970, local population enjoyed no particular democratic freedom denied to the rest of the country.
Things began to change after the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein at the end of the Persian Gulf War. United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 gave birth to a safe haven following international concern for the safety of Kurdish refugees.
The U.S. and the Coalition established a No Fly Zone over a large part of northern Iraq, however, it left out Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk and other important Kurdish populated regions.
Bloody clashes between Iraqi forces and Kurdish troops continued and, after an uneasy and shaky balance of power was reached.
The Iraqi government fully withdrew its military and other personnel from the region in October 1991. This allowed Iraqi Kurdistan to function de facto independently.
The region was to be ruled by the two principal Kurdish parties; the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The region also has its own flag and national anthem.
At the same time, Iraq imposed an economic blockade over the region, reducing its oil and food supplies. Elections held in June 1992 produced an inconclusive outcome, with the assembly divided almost equally between the two main parties and their allies.
During this period, the Kurds were subjected to a double embargo: one imposed by the United Nations on Iraq and one imposed by Saddam Hussein on their region.
The severe economic hardships caused by the embargoes fueled tensions between the two dominant political parties, the KDP and the PUK, over control of trade routes and resources.
Relations between the PUK and the KDP started to become dangerously strained from September 1993 after rounds of amalgamations occurred between parties. This led to internecine and intra-Kurdish conflict and warfare between 1994 and 1996.
After 1996, 13% of the Iraqi oil sales were allocated for Iraqi Kurdistan and this led to relative prosperity in the region. Saddam had established an oil smuggling route through territory controlled by the KDP, with the active involvement of senior Barzani family members.
The taxation of this trade at the crossing point between Saddam’s territory and Kurdish controlled territory and then into Turkey, along with associated service revenue, meant that whoever controlled Dohuk and Zakho had the potential to earn several million dollars a week.
Direct United States mediation led the two parties to a formal ceasefire in what was termed the Washington Agreement in September 1998.
It is also argued that the Oil-for-Food Program from 1997 onward had an important effect on cessation of hostilities.
During and after US-led invasion
Iraqi Kurds played an important role in the Iraq War. Kurdish parties joined forces against the Iraqi government during the war in Spring 2003.
Kurdish military forces, known as Peshmerga, played an important role in the overthrow of the Iraqi government.
However, Kurds have been reluctant to send troops into Baghdad since then, preferring not to be dragged into the sectarian struggle that so dominates much of Iraq.
The Iraqi Kurds may be seen in two ways. The first and the most common way is to view the Kurds as victims, both of the central government in Iraq and of neighbouring powers – particularly Turkey.
The second opposing position is to see them as an agent provocateur, acting as proxy forces for states opposed to the incumbent Iraqi regime.
This polarised notion of their status may be too simplistic, when one considers that there are opposing agendas within Iraqi Kurdistan with regard to issues such as the relationship with Turkey, nationalist aspirations and relations globally.
A new constitution of Iraq was established in 2005, defining Iraq as a federalist state consisting of Regions and Governorates.
It recognized both the Kurdistan Region and all laws passed by the KRG since 1992. There is provision for Governorates to create, join or leave Regions.
However, as of 2019, no new Regions have been formed, and the KRG remains the only regional government within Iraq.
PUK leader Jalal Talabani was elected President of the new Iraqi administration, while KDP leader Masoud Barzani became President of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Since the downfall of the regime of Saddam Hussein, the relations between the KRG and Turkey have been in flux. Tensions marked a high stage in late February 2008 when Turkey unilaterally took military action against the PKK.
The group at times uses the northern Iraq region as a base for militant activities against Turkey.
The incursion, which lasted eight days, could have drawn the armed forces of Kurdistan into a broader regional war. However, relations have been improved since then, and Turkey now has the largest share of foreign investment in Kurdistan.
Following the US withdrawal
Tensions between Iraqi Kurdistan and the central Iraqi government mounted through 2011–2012 on the issues of power sharing, oil production and territorial control.
In April 2012, the president of Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region demanded that officials agree to their demands or face the prospect of secession from Baghdad by September 2012.
In September 2012, the Iraqi government ordered the KRG to transfer its powers over the Peshmerga to the central government.
Relations became further strained by the formation of a new command center (Tigris Operation Command) for Iraqi forces to operate in a disputed area over which both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government claim jurisdiction.
As of 2014, Iraqi Kurdistan was in dispute with the Federal Iraqi government on the issues of territorial control, export of oil and budget distribution and is functioning largely outside Baghdad's control.
With the escalation of the Iraqi crisis and fears of Iraq's collapse, Kurds have increasingly debated the issue of independence.
During the 2014 Northern Iraq offensive, Iraqi Kurdistan seized the city of Kirkuk and the surrounding area, as well as most of the disputed territories in Northern Iraq. On 1 July 2014, Masoud Barzani announced that "Iraq's Kurds will hold an independence referendum within months.
After previously opposing the independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey later gave signs that it could recognize an independent Kurdish state.
On 11 July 2014, KRG forces seized control of the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk oilfields, prompting a condemnation from Baghdad and a threat of "dire consequences" if the oilfields were not relinquished back to Iraq's control.
In September, Kurdish leaders decided to postpone the referendum so as to focus on the fight against ISIL. In November, Ed Royce, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the United States House of Representatives, introduced legislation to arm the Kurds directly, rather than continue working through the local governments.
In August 2014, the US began a campaign of airstrikes in Iraq, in part to protect Kurdish areas such as Erbil from the militants.
In February 2016, Kurdish president Barzani stated once again that "Now the time is ripe for the people of Kurdistan to decide their future through a referendum."
On March 23, Barzani officially declared that Iraqi Kurdistan will hold the referendum some time "before October" of that year.
On April 2, 2017, the two governing parties released a joint statement announcing they would form a joint committee to prepare for a referendum to be held on 25 September.
The immediate tasks facing the Kurdish government were great, and included rebuilding infrastructure, creating an administration and absorbing hundreds of thousands of displaced people after years of war and destruction.
Overall its efforts exceeded all expectations. Iraqi Kurdistan largely escaped the privations of the last years of Saddam's rule and the chaos that followed his ouster in 2003. They built a parliamentary democracy with a growing economy.
Major problems remain, nonetheless. The landlocked Kurdistan Region is surrounded by countries unsympathetic to Kurdish aspirations -Turkey, Syria and Iran.
It is also in dispute with the Iraqi government over several territories, in particular the historic city of Kirkuk.
Tension between the main political parties - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party - erupted into a civil war that almost destroyed the autonomous government in 1994-97, and some differences remain.
Government in Iraqi Kurdistan
Since 1992, the Kurdistan Regional Government has been based in Erbil. The KRG has a parliament, elected by popular vote, called the Kurdistan Parliament, and a cabinet composed of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and their allies in the Iraqi Communist Party, the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party and others.
Structurally and officially, the two parties exhibit few differences from each other. Both of their international organizations are similar and both have a similar structure of authority.
Nechirvan Idris Barzani, Masoud’s nephew, was prime minister of the KRG from 1999 to 2009, including presiding over the first KDP-PUK unified cabinet from 2006 to 2009.
Nechirvan, as Prime Minister, spearheaded unprecedented social and economic reforms, including attention to violence against women, improvements in infrastructure, and a focus on the private sector and foreign investment.
He has also been at the forefront of the rapprochement with Turkey and the active development of oil and gas fields in the Region.
The traditional structure of Kurdish social and political organization was inherently tribal, with a tribe being a socio-political unit with distinct territorial limits and membership based on kinship. Tribal power is widespread in Erbil and Dahuk. And one must recognize the cultural differences between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah to understand the political nature of the region.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kurdish politicians were represented in the Iraqi Governing Council. On January 30, 2005 three elections were held in the region:
1) for Transitional National Assembly of Iraq.
2) for Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly.
3) for provincial councils.
The Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period recognized the autonomy of the Kurdistan Regional Government during the interim between "full sovereignty" and the adoption of a permanent constitution.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has constitutionally recognised authority over the provinces of Erbil, Dahuk, and Sulaymaniyah.
The issues and challenges of the socio-political system have been described as "Kurdistan’s Politicized Society Confronts a Sultanistic System" in an August 2015 paper by the Carnegie Middle East Center.
The Kurdistan region of Iraq enjoys more stability, economic development, and political pluralism than the rest of the country. Public opinion under the Kurdistan Regional Government demands rule-of-law-based governance.
But power is concentrated in the hands of the ruling parties and families, who perpetuate a nondemocratic, sultanistic system.
These dynamics could foster instability in Kurdistan and its neighborhood, but could also provide a rare window of opportunity for democratization.
Elections in Iraqi Kurdistan
Elections for the Kurdistan Parliament, called the Kurdistan National Assembly until 2009, are held every four years. The leading political alliance was the Kurdistani List which consisted of the two main political parties, PUK, which held 18 seats and the PDK, which held 32 seats.
The newer and less popular competing movement, the Gorran List ("Gorran" means "change" in Kurdish) headed by Nawshirwan Mustafa won 24 seats, a quarter of all parliamentary seats.
The Gorran List had a strong showing in the city of Sulaymaniyah and the Sulaymaniyah governorate, which was previously considered PUK's stronghold.
In the presidential election, Masoud Barzani was appointed President and won another term in 2009 by gaining 70% of votes.
Dr. Kamal Miraudeli came second with approximately 30% of votes. In August 2015, this presidency has ended without an agreement between the political parties to extend his term.
The subject of presidency in Iraqi Kurdistan and the legitimacy of extension beyond two terms is a volatile subject and the cause of the current public anger.
Elections for the governorate councils are held every four years, the last one being held in 2014. Each council consists of 41 members.
Peshmerga is the term used by Kurds to refer to armed Kurdish fighters. They are sometimes called the freedom fighters. It was also a term used for the Kurdish Peshmerga Freedom Fighters.
Literally meaning "those who face death" (pêş 'front' + merg 'death' + e 'is') the peshmerga forces of Kurdistan have been around since the advent of the Kurdish independence movement in the early 1920s. Starting from the collapse of the Ottoman empire which had ruled over the area known today as Kurdistan.
The Peshmerga fought alongside the US Army and the coalition in the northern front during Operation Iraqi Freedom. During the following years, the Peshmerga played a vital role in security for Kurdistan and other parts of Iraq.
Not a single coalition soldier or foreigner has been killed, wounded or kidnapped in Kurdistan since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Peshmerga have also been deployed in Baghdad and al-Anbar governorate for anti-terror operations.
Timeline of Kurdistan History
Some key dates in Iraqi Kurdistan's history:
1920 - After the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, Kurdish hopes of having a nation of their own are raised and then dashed. Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey have sought their own homeland ever since.
1988 - Iraqi President Saddam Hussein launches a poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, killing thousands of Kurds in a campaign described by several countries as genocide.
1991 - After the Gulf War, coalition forces create a safe haven for Kurds, who in effect gain autonomy.
1994-97 - Civil war involving forces of the rival Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
2005 - After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a new Iraqi constitution designates Kurdistan as an autonomous federal region.
2017 - Iraqi Kurds vote overwhelmingly for independence in a non-binding referendum, angering Baghdad, which moves to reassert its authority.
Our budget tours to Iraqi Kurdistan start from only 3 days!
Budget tours include:
English-speaking guide / driver
Visa assistance for those who need a visa prior to departure
Assistance with hotel booking/reservation
Our 8-Day Ultimate Tour to Iraqi Kurdistan is our all-in tour.
For those of you who just want to book a tour and not have to worry about anything else, this is your tour!
Ultimate tours include:
Room at a mid-range hotel
Contact us with any questions you have about Iraqi Kurdistan!