Toronto Star

Who are the Kurds?

Living across several states, ethnic group of 25 million want a country of their own


The Kurds are an ethnic group with their own language and customs whose nomadic past led to their modern-day dispersal across several countries, mostly Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. Sunni Muslims make up the vast majority, but there is a sizable Shiite population, particular­ly in Iran.

After the collapse of the Ottoman and Qajar empires and the subsequent creation of modern states, Iraq, Iran and Turkey each agreed to oppose the creation of an independen­t Kurdistan, making them the largest stateless minority group in the world. With nearly 25 million people living in five countries, they continue to push for self-rule. What is their role in Turkey? Turkey is home to an estimated 15 million Kurds, about one-fifth of the country’s population of 76 million. Most are Sunni Muslim.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has fought a three-decade war, initially for independen­ce and later for autonomy and greater rights for Kurds. The conflict with the PKK has killed tens of thousands of people since 1984.

Turkey and its U.S. and European allies consider the PKK, which has Marxist origins, a terrorist organizati­on for killing civilians in urban bombings.

Kurds accused Turkey of not doing enough to help Syrian Kurds during the battle against Islamic State militants over the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobani, prompting violent clashes and straining the fragile peace process. Where do they stand in Iraq? Five million Kurds have their own government in Iraq’s semi-autonomous north and have significan­t representa­tion in the central government with several key posts including the presidency. They currently represent about 20 per cent of Iraq’s population, making them the largest ethnic minority.

There are two main Iraqi Kurdish factions. The Kurdistan Democratic Party is led by Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani, while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is led by former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani. The factions fought a bloody war for power over northern Iraq in the mid-1990s, before agreeing to a power-sharing deal that ended the fighting in 1998. Where do the Kurds stand in Syria? Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 per cent of the country’s pre-war population of 23 million people. They are centred mostly in the impoverish­ed northeaste­rn province of Hassakeh, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq.

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