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Iraq is a state but not a nation; Kurdistan is the opposite

REUTERS/Ako Rasheed
Members of the Kurdish security forces take part in an intensive security deployment on the outskirts of Kirkuk on Thursday.

This post will shortly turn into a discussion of the (possibly-disintegrating-before-our-eyes) “nation” of “Iraq” and the “non-nation” of “Kurdistan,” but first indulge me in two ridiculously philosophical (pretentious?) paragraphs about nationhood.

It’s pretty hard to keep one’s mind straight about the artificial concept of “nation-state.” The world is organized according to this construct. The inhabited world is divided into states, each of which has boundaries and a government. If someone tries to change the boundaries from the outside, it’s a war. From the inside, it’s a civil war. When all the boundaries are being respected and everyone within each state accepts the legitimacy of the government, at least until the next election, it’s peace.

These “nation-states” seem to work best when what the world calls a country coincides with the other meaning of the word “nation,” a population bound together by a shared identity of some kind, including elements of history, ethnicity, language, religion and a dose or two of secret sauce. It also helps if the population has coexisted within boundaries that are accepted as legitimate, by the nation and by its neighbors, for a long time. Nation-states that have all of these attributes are actually fairly rare, but they do have significant advantages in avoiding wars and civil wars.

Iraq, on the other hand, is at the nightmare other-end of the spectrum. Its population is comprised of three major groups that have plenty of grudges against one another and little history of peaceful coexistence except during periods of foreign domination or brutal tyranny. Iraq is a fairly recent construct. A nation-state in the size, shape and borders of what we call “Iraq” had absolutely no history before World War I.

Of course all the land and most of the cities were there for centuries and even millennia. Sumer, one of the earliest human civilizations, was in what is now southern Iraq. What’s now Iraq was the birthplace of the wheel, the plow, writing, of the first written code of law (Hammurabi’s code)  and of the patriarch Abraham. Nineveh — where, according to the Bible, God sent Jonah to warn the people to give up their evil ways — is situated in the precise territory that was captured by the radical Al Qaida offshoot, ISIS, causing the world to worry that Iraq was falling completely apart.

Iraq’s unpleasant history

But a nation-state in the territory of the modern “Republic of Iraq” has a very short and unpleasant history. In the pre-World War I period, the territory was controlled by the Ottoman Turkish Empire and comprised three Ottoman provinces (“vilayets”): one predominantly Kurdish, in what is now northern Iraq, with its capital in Mosul; one predominantly inhabited by Sunni Arabs, with its capital in Baghdad; and one predominantly Shiite Arab, with its capital in Basra. So you have a built-in sectarian divide between the Shiia of the south and the Sunni of the central region and an ethnic conflict between the Arabs and the Kurds of the north — who dreamed of being part of a Kurdish state that would unite the Kurds of the region.

If there was a normal, healthy, approved law or rule of thumb for deciding how a nation should be formed if you wanted that nation to become a reasonably stable, healthy nation-state, there is no way, no-how that such a law would have crunched those three provinces together into a new nation.

Nonetheless, the victorious British (and French) who mostly drew the post-war map that created a great many new “nations” out of the former Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires turned those three vilayets into the new nation of Iraq. (They also adjusted the Basra province, to exclude from the new nation the oil-rich territory of Kuwait, which is one historical factor that led to what we now call the “First Gulf War,” not the one to get rid of Saddam Hussein but the one to make Saddam disgorge Kuwait.)

At the time of the post-World War I mapmaking, Iraq was understood to be part of the Mideast that would be under British control. Many writers assert, although I don’t know how good the evidence is, that the Brits intentionally made Iraq ungovernable, so the Brits could continue to dominate by playing the indigenous groups off against one another. To make matters even slightly more absurd, at least to our 21-century eyes, the Brits also installed a foreigner — a member of the Mecca-based Hashemite clan that had collaborated with the Brits during the war (the Lawrence of Arabia bit) as the new king of the new nation of Iraq.

The early history of the new nation features domination by the Brits and exploitation of their oil wealth without much benefit to the native population. During World War II, Iraq was taken over by Nazi sympathizers. The foreign-imposed monarchy was overthrown in a 1958 coup.

Saddam Hussein — a Sunni Arab and a Baathist (this is not the time to try figure out what Baathism is/was, but its slogan was “Unity. Freedom. Socialism.”) — took over in the 1970s and committed unspeakable atrocities such as, for example, using poison gas against the Kurds, which, we could speculate, might justifiably have reinforced the Kurdish view that they would be happier governing themselves instead of being ruled, thanks to the British mapmakers, by Arabs.

I could (but blessedly will not) go on with the detailed history of how Iraq has behaved during its century of modern nationhood. The present sectarian Sunni-Shiite hatred has sometimes been a factor, as has the presence of a significant non-Arab minority. Those factors don’t explain everything but a goodly share of the reasons that Iraq — even unto the headlines of recent days — has been a time bomb.

The Kurds

Iraq is a state but not a nation. Kurdistan is the opposite.

Kurds are a distinct ethnic group, with their own language and culture. They are actually probably the fourth biggest ethnicity in the Middle East (after Arabs, Persians and Turks, all of which are considerably larger). The Kurds are the largest Mideast “nation” that has no state they control or in which they are the majority.

But — and this is pretty unusual — that’s not because the Kurds are too scattered to constitute a state of their own. In fact, most of the 30 million or so Kurds in the world live in a concentrated contiguous territory that is separated by the boundaries of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and a tiny bit of Armenia.

If the world drew a boundary around the territory of “Kurdistan,” it would be an overwhelmingly Kurdish nation with a population in the range of 30 million or so, a mountainous territory roughly the size of Nebraska but well over 10 times the population. Kurdistan would be in the upper half of the world’s nations by both size and population. (The state of “Kurdistan,” for example, would be larger than Syria, although part of the nation of Kurdistan is in Syria.)

The Kurds have been in the neighborhood for a couple of millennia. In the days of the great empires that took turns dominating the region, they were dominated by many of them. Except for brief moments, they have not enjoyed meaningful independent statehood or genuine self-governance. They have often been mistreated by their host states. (I mentioned Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against the Iraq Kurds. The Turks only recently ended a long effort to stamp out the Kurdish language and identity, banning Kurdish-language newspapers or radio stations and referring to the Kurds as “Mountain Turks.”)

The state of “Kurdistan” might be quite a prosperous nation if it ever existed. The Kurdish region of Turkey is rich in water resources, which is one reason the Turks have little interest in granting them independence. The Iraqi region has oil, or at least it used to. The city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, which used to be considered part of Iraqi Kurdistan, has oil, perhaps as much as 15 percent of the established Iraqi reserves.

To weaken the Kurdish claim to the oil-rich city, Saddam in the 1990 imposed a policy of “Arabization” of Kirkuk, which involved forcibly expelling Kurds from Kirkuk and moving Arab families in to replace them.

Kurds seize the moment

Since the (U.S.-arranged) demise of Saddam, the Kurds of northern Iraq have been given more autonomy than usual and have seized the moment to carve out a demonstration project of peace, democracy and prosperity — especially, of course, compared to the rest of Iraq.

Tom Friedman returned from a reporting trip to the Mideast recently and in his New York Times column this weekend he raved about the Kurds as the only players amid the recent chaos who “share our values.”

“Other than the Kurds, we have no friends in this fight,” Friedman wrote. He identified the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq as one of only two places in the region (Tunisia was the other) that have thrived since the Arab Spring, and noted that they have done it with little help from Washington.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the Kurdish story since I first wrote about it in Saddam times. It seems that everything they do is consistent with long-term goals of autonomy within the host countries and eventually independence, if that could ever be arranged, in some or all of Kurdistan. They have been screwed over so many times and the trail of their history is littered with broken promises.

The Kurds once pictured Kirkuk as the capital of at least the Iraqi portion of Kurdistan. The oil would be a wonderful asset. They have a powerful historical claim. Since they developed that dream they have been bombed, gassed and forcibly removed from Kirkuk.

Last week, when Mosul fell, most of Iraq had to worry whether Baghdad was next. The rest of Iraq is preparing for a hellish descent into intra-Arab Sunni-Shia bloodshed.

In the chaos of the ISIS takeover of Mosul and the humiliating, chaotic retreat of Iraqi troops, the well-trained and disciplined Kurdish paramilitary (known as the “Peshmerga,” which translates as “those who face death”) moved quickly into Kirkuk and control it as of this writing.

BBC reporter Jim Muir was in the Kurdish region as this was happening and wrote:

With the rest of Iraq apparently disintegrating along sectarian lines, and the central government in Baghdad in disarray, it will clearly be a long time before an Iraqi authority can challenge the Kurds’ absorption of what they have long seen as the rightful jewel in their crown.

There’s no telling where the story will go next, but it’s not hard to imagine the satisfaction of the Kurdish leaders.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 06/16/2014 - 10:37 am.


    As a teacher of comparative politics, my students and I always struggled near the beginning of the course to sort out these concepts and labels. I often made a point of the differing ways journalists and politicians and political scientists used terms like nation, state, country, regime, and government.

    Thank you for not adding to that confusion today.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 06/16/2014 - 11:09 am.

    These issues are everywhere

    Many countries are viewed as having homogeneous populations when in reality few do. Russia and China are composed of a variety of competing sometimes violent ethnic groups. As mentioned in the article sometimes only tyranny keeps the relative peace. I think what also has to be made clear that all these religious factions derive their own interpretations of their holy doctrine in sometimes bizarre if not fanatical ways. Often ‘strict interpretation’ means things were invented for their own means and often it is for control and brutality of women.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/16/2014 - 02:56 pm.

      Not sure this is quite true

      95% of the Chinese population are Han. There is some variation within this group, but they share a common history and culture.
      The Soviet Union was more heterogeneous, but Russia itself is basically one branch of the Slavs.
      I’d say that we’re the exception in terms of being heterogeneous (Brasil is the other major country I can think of that is comparable).

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 06/16/2014 - 01:59 pm.

    So true, but —

    Historically, we can thank the British for the problems of Kurdistan, Iraq, and to a great extent Iran as well. (Not to forget the absolutely key role played by the U.S. in the toppling of Mohammed Mossadegh, surely the single worst foreign policy blunder of the otherwise pretty good Eisenhower administration.)
    But how can trouble with Turkey, Iran, and Syria be prevented if Iraqi Kurdustan becomes independent?

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 06/16/2014 - 02:59 pm.

      I’m not sure that we have trouble with Turkey

      The Turks like us, and want to get into the EU.
      They may not always back our play, but I don’t see them as a problem.
      In fact, Turkey and Kurdistan provide a non-Arab and non theocratic anchor in the Middle East that will stabilize it in the face of competing jihads.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 06/16/2014 - 02:41 pm.

    Thanks for the history lesson, Eric

    Well done article that puts the problems in perspective.

    I think it fair to say that many Americans, which I would include myself, never expected the US to fill the vacuum created by the end of British and French colonial rule. Yet it is becoming increasingly apparent that many Americans and others around the world do expect that to be the case. Maybe there’s no choice in that. It’s well and good to say that it was a mistake to have invaded Iraq in the first place. I was against it then and I am appalled today that the neocon war criminals who inveigled our country into starting that war are running about as “experts” about how to solve the huge problem they helped to create. I don’t know what the answer is but it does seem that leaving these “nations” or “states” or whatever they are to implode into chaos and anarchy is not a good option. But I’m open to listening any who can make a case that it is.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 06/16/2014 - 04:50 pm.

      The solution

      Send those neocon experts on the next plane to Bagdad with a helmet and a compass and figure out a solution. Hope Cheney is up for the trip

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/16/2014 - 04:28 pm.

    (quote)…..However, it is


    ….However, it is wishful thinking to predict the Kurds will move towards independence, or that they are ready. Neither a fragmented Iraq, an Islamist controlled border with the KRG, nor a flood of refugees are in Kurdistan’s interests. Kurdish institutions are still embryonic, divided between the two dominant parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of KRG President Masoud Barzani and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), each of which control their own peshmerga forces. Rather than a united Kurdistan, a more accurate assessment is that of a KDPstan and PUKstan. Intra-Kurdish rivarly and particularist interests, therefore, militate against independence.

    Breaking with Baghdad will also entail huge financial costs to the KRG, which receives—albeit irregularly – a substantial cut from Iraq’s oil rich budget. The limits of Kurdistan’s financial independence were apparent early this year, when the central government stopped payments to the KRG over oil disputes. In a region where nearly 75 percent of the workforce relies on the government for a paycheck, public sector employees weren’t paid for months resulting in widespread public dissatisfaction. As banks experienced a liquidity crisis, the Kurdish owner of Asiacell, the country’s largest telecom, was asked to provide $130 million to prevent a financial collapse. At current Kurdistan oil production levels, the KRG will be financially unviable. Assuming they can extract and market oil, at best the Kurds could hope to be financially independent by 2017…..
    (end quote)

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/16/2014 - 06:00 pm.

    As late as last week, critic were calling for the ouster of Assad and his Iranian/Hezbollah allies.

    This week we are faced with the idea of confronting the enemies of Assad and pursuing joint action with Iran against the enemies of Assad and Iran.

    It’s all too fast. It reveals woeful knee-jerk ignorance on the part of policy makers. And media stars.

    It should make those willing to jump in the middle of any dispute ashamed (I’m looking at you, “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” McCain.)

    Some depth of knowledge must be gained before any commitments are made to any party in this blender of blood and death.

    Including to the Kurds, the current darlings of “stability”.

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