One of the foremost scholars on Kurdistan, Martin van Bruinessen, notes that in the 1920s and 1930s, Kurds formed 23 percent of Iraq’s population, or 2–2.5 million people (Bruinessen 1992, 14). Of course, this was not a static ﬁ gure; because of the permeability of frontiers and the immigration of Kurds from Greater Kurdistan, the ﬁ gures can only be taken as an approximation. However, with the end of World War I and the demarcation of Iraq’s borders, Kurds living in Iraq were forced to become more Iraq centered.
The story behind the inclusion of the Kurds in the new state is one of oil, intrigue, and a diverted nationalism. By the war’s end, the Kurdish districts of Kirkuk, Irbil, and Suleymaniya had been occupied by British forces. Administratively, they came under the Mosul vilayet (government), even though the Kurds saw themselves as a race apart.
Inﬂ uenced by Wilsonian ideals of self-determination, just like many of the occupied populations of the Arab Middle East and heeding the calls of Kurdish intellectuals in European exile, the Kurd leadership in Iraq hoped for independence and a state of their own. The Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which partitioned the Arab Middle East, did in fact provide for the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state, but it was rejected by Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938), the Turkish leader.
The Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which was ﬁ nally signed after torturous negotiations between Britain and Turkey, ratiﬁ ed the assimilation of Mosul into British-controlled Iraq but failed to address the creation of a Kurdish nation.The fact that Mosul possessed oil was an open secret, even though Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859–1925), the chief negotiator at Lausanne, vehemently denied that fact in Parliament.
The British desire for “an empire on the cheap” (a colonized territory that cost them little or nothing) made it imperative that Mosul be included in Iraq. The Kurdish question, such as it was, came as a distant second; in the lengthy negotiations with the Turks at Lausanne, there were even proposals to split Iraqi Kurdistan and then cede the northern Kurdish districts to Turkey, in part because those districts possessed no oil (Mejcher 1976, 137). One is forced to conclude that one of the strongest reasons for the British consideration of southern Kurdistan within Iraq stems from the fact that its inhabitants lived in the oil-rich areas of Mosul vilayet.
A League of Nations commission set up to look into Turkish claims on the province of Mosul suggested in 1925 that the vilayet should remain within Iraq. But it added the proviso that “the Iraqi state should recognize the distinctive nature of the Kurdish areas by allowing the Kurds to administer themselves and to develop their cultural identity through their own institutions” (Tripp 2000, 58–59). This was a proviso that Kurdish notables periodically took up with the British as well as the new Iraqi government.
Although a Local Languages Law was passed by the assembly, making Kurdish one of the state languages of Iraq, there was not much incentive either on the part of the British or the Iraqi authorities to accentuate ethnic differences at a time when an all-inclusive, national ideology was being promoted instead. The league also suggested that the period of enforcement of the terms of Anglo-Iraq Treaty, which had been reduced from 20 years to four, now be extended to 24 years as a way of ensuring protection for the Kurds. Although hesitant to do so, Iraq’s National Assembly ratiﬁ ed the treaty in January 1926.
As a result of this British strategic decision to include ethnic and linguistic minorities within a state not of their own choosing, the ambivalence of the Kurdish position became more pronounced. While some Kurdish aghas settled down in Iraq, others exploded in open rebellion. Even before the Treaty of Sevres was passed, many small “disturbances” (to use a British euphemism) had already occurred in the Kurdish regions. Perhaps the best known was the insurrection of Shaykh Mahmud al-Barzanji (1878–1956) of Suleymaniya.
In May 1919, Shaykh Mahmud, previously the British-appointed governor of his district, declared the independence of Kurdistan; because he could not rally enough followers from other Kurdish tribes to mount a credible offensive against the British, however, southern Kurdistan was retaken, and Shaykh Mahmud was thrown in jail. A larger debacle took place in northern Kurdistan in 1931. The Iraqi army was actually forced to retreat under Shaykh Ahmad al-Barzan’s attack (he and his tribe were against the imposition of conscription in the Kurdish region); only the help of the RAF was able to turn the tide and restore Iraqi authority in the area.