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Contending For Iraq

Kurds Fight Decades-Long Battle. Baathist Party Strayed from Original Ideals To Gain Absolute Control Over Iraqi Society. Saddam Hussein is striking decisive blows to the internal revolts challenging his grip on power. But efforts to maintain Baathist party rule are likely to face long-term Shiite and Kurdish resistance. Here, a closer look at the key factions in the country's power struggle. DEEP DIVISIONS IN IRAQ

By Gerald Butt / April 4, 1991



NICOSIA, CYPRUS

THE Kurdish community in Iraq is 3.5 million strong, representing about one-fifth of the population of the country. The Kurds trace their descent back to the centuries before the birth of Islam and the subsequent Arab conquests, which began in the seventh century.

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They have continued to inhabit a mountainous region, control of which is today shared by Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey.

After the arrival of the Arab armies, the Kurds adopted Sunni Islam, but their own language (close to Persian) and culture survived.

The Kurds played a major part in many of the important developments in the Middle East in the centuries that followed, and they accused the Arabs of failing to grant them the credit they deserved.

For example, they say there is seldom a mention in the Middle East of the fact that Saladin, the man who drove the Crusaders out of Jerusalem and the hero of every Arab, was a Kurd from Iraq.

The frustrations felt by the Kurds today, scattered in four countries, can be traced to the opening decades of this century.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the allied powers agreed that the Kurdish provinces should be bound together to form an independent state. Provision for this was included in the Treaty of S`evres of 1920.

But the promise was broken when Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk refused to give up the southeastern corner of his country, and Britain incorporated Mosul and Kirkuk into Iraq.

When oil was found in northern Iraq, any chances of the Kurds being granting control of the land vanished.

In the years that followed, the Kurds began what was to become a long series of unsuccessful attempts to break the links with the Iraqi capital.

In 1970, after eight years of revolt led by Mustafa Barzani, the Kurds in Iraq were given a measure of autonomy. Four years later, their rebellion resumed, with the Kurds enjoying the support of the shah of Iran.

But in 1975, President Saddam Hussein and Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi signed an agreement on the Shatt al-Arab border dispute. One condition of the accord required Iran to drop its backing for the Kurds. From that moment until the start of the recent rebellion, the Iraqi Army was able to keep the lid on Kurdish nationalism - but not without resorting in 1988 to the use of chemical weapons in the town of Halabja, where several thousand people were killed.

The Iraqi Kurds are part of a Kurdish community of more than 20 million. Within the Kurdish community, there are many splits and divisions - with some groups aspiring to autonomy within existing national borders while others are striving for a united Kurdistan throughout the region where Kurds have lived for centuries.

These divisions have done as much as anything to enfeeble the Kurds and ensure that their cause receives far less international attention than that of other peoples seeking a homeland.

The two dominant figures in the Iraqi Kurdish movement are Massoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.