By the time of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in September 1980, Mustafa Barzani’s son, Massoud Barzani, had taken his father’s place as the leader of the Kurdish movement in Iraq. In the last years of the Iran-Iraq war, the Kurds were united in open revolt against Saddam’s forces.
Following the war, Saddam’s revenge against the Kurds was swift, and world-historically awful. In his genocidal Anfal campaign of 1987-1989, Saddam directed the slaughter of up to 180,000 Kurdish civilians, including mass summary executions and chemical weapon attacks, the disappearance of tens of thousands into concentration camps, and the wholesale destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages.
The Gulf War:
In February of 1991, during the air campaign phase of the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush called upon the Iraqi people to rise up and overthrown Saddam Hussein, pledging U.S. support. When the Kurds in the north, and the Shia Arabs in the south did exactly that, the U.S. government was caught off guard. It feared the unpredictability of a mass rebellion, and thus, as Saddam’s army moved to quell the uprisings, President Bush decided to ignore the Shia and Kurds’ desperate pleas for help.
Saddam massacred around 300,000 Shia in the six months following the uprising as a result of Washington’s betrayal. And as Iraqi forces advanced toward Kurdistan, two million Kurds—mindful of what Saddam’s idea of vengeance looked like—fled virtually overnight to the Iraqi-Turkish border. Turkey refused to grant entrance and asylum to the refugees, and left them to fend for themselves in the mountainous border region. The resulting international spotlight on Kurdish suffering at the border led the U.S. to create a safe-haven and no-fly zone in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Saddam withdrew all military and administrative personnel from Kurdish provinces, and initiated a full economic blockade of the Kurdistan region. Coupled with the UN sanctions on Iraq as a whole, the Kurds found themselves economically, politically, and geographically isolated, resulting in a profound humanitarian crisis.
Despite the privation, the Kurds underwent a crash-course in self-government. They quickly moved to create a parliamentary legislative body and a presidential-style executive, borrowing structure and language from liberal democracies around the world. They held their first elections in May 1992; it was the first free and fair parliamentary election in the history of Iraq.
The Other Iraq:
The 2003 Anglo-American intervention, removing Saddam Hussein and the Baath party from power, finally ended the Kurds’ isolation, and made their nascent democratic and economic progress inexorable. The Iraqi Consititution now grants the Kurdistan Regional Government expansive legal rights of self-rule, and provides the Kurds with political power and revenue-sharing with Baghdad proportional with its share of Iraq’s population. Kurdistan is oil-rich, and blessed with large fertile valleys. Since 2003 there have been billions of dollars of foreign investment flowing into Kurdistan, leading to a proliferation of large infrastructure projects and a steady rise in the standard of living. The region now has seven universities, two international airports, and all the cultural opportunity of a young, thriving, growing democracy.
An increasing number of Kurds do not remember the historic betrayals of the British or of Kissinger, nor the murderous reign of Saddam Hussein. They have spent most of their lives in a safe, democratic, and pluralist territory of their own. They would not recognize the lament of Kurdish poet and nationalist Ahmad-e Khani, who in 1694 wrote, “Why have the Kurds been deprived, why have they all been subjugated?” While the Kurdish experience has been defined by such laments for centuries, the next generation of poets will have different stories to tell.