No Friends but the Mountains

In 1988, Iraqi planes dropped bombs carrying mustard gas, nerve gas, and cyanide on the Kurdish town of Halabja, near the Iranian border. An estimated five thousand people were killed—many of them women and children. That incident—part of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds, who make up 20 percent of Iraq’s population — prompted international protest but no sustained action on behalf of the Kurds. The plight of the Iraqi Kurds was highlighted again in 1991, in the waning days of the Gulf War: When President George Bush called for the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow Saddam, the Kurds responded—only to see the United States stand aside while Saddam’s troops crushed the rebellion.

John Bulloch and Harvey Morris, both experienced reporters on the Middle East, place these current events in the perspective of Kurdish history. The mountainous region of Kurdistan, overlapping the borders of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, the former Soviet Union, and Iran, has been the homeland of the Kurds for more than two thousand years. Since the nineteenth century, the Kurds have sought to create an independent Kurdish nation—a desire exploited by colonial and regional powers who have repeatedly manipulated Kurdish initiatives to their own ends. The Kurds’ propensity for bitter factionalism has measurably aided their oppressors.

Estimates of the total Kurdish population vary wildly, but it seems likely that there are at least 20 million Kurds. Almost half of the Kurdish population is in Turkey, where radical Marxist Kurdish rebels have waged a long-running guerrilla war against a government that has tried to deny the very existence of the Kurds as a distinct ethnic group.

The story of Kurdish efforts to achieve independence is not only tragic but also extraordinarily complex. Bulloch and Morris’ exposition is a model of clarity, sympathetic yet objective. The text is supplemented by photographs and one map but lacks notes and a bibliography.