Kurdish Herald Vol. 1 Issue 2, June 2009 -
by Hayder al-Khoei
"When Shia rebels in Samawa fought against the British, the great Kurdish leader Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji sent his troops to the south to fight alongside the Shia."
It was one of the most famous attacks against the British after the end of World War I. 200 Kurdish rebels joined forces with 400 Arab Shia rebels, led by Sheikh Hadi al-Makdoor, and attacked a British post in southern Iraq just before dawn. It was a surprise attack and the rebels overran the British barracks and killed over 300 enemy soldiers while capturing more than 100 British-Indians. This particular Shia-Kurdish attack against the British was immortalised by a famous Arab who shouted after the battle in poetic prose “Two-thirds of paradise is for our Hadi, and one-third is for kaka Ahmad and his Kurds!”
Imam Ali Shrine, Najaf, Iraq - Photo Courtesy Hayder al-Khoei.
The strong political and military alliance between the Shia and Kurds goes back to the early 20th Century, when both groups were marginalized by the occupying British forces. In April 1920, after the League of Nations granted Britain a mandate over Iraq, mass demonstrations spread across the country. When Shia rebels in Samawa fought against the British, the great Kurdish leader Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji sent his troops to the south to fight alongside the Shia.
When discussing Shia-Kurdish relations, one has to always bear in mind that the Kurds are an ethnic group and the Shia, a religious sect, and indeed, while the majority of Kurds are Sunni, there is a significant Shi’a Kurdish minority. However, the Shia Kurds integrate into Kurdish society more so than Shia Arabs do into Arab society (with its heavily Sunni majority), because the latter place much more emphasis on religion than ethnicity. A Shia Arab in Saudi Arabia, for example, will always be marked as a Shia first. The Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq make comparatively less of a distinction between themselves regardless of religion or sect, or even borders drawn up by the British.
After Gertrude Bell advised the British to add the Ottoman Vilayet (or superprovince comprised of a number of local areas) of Mosul to the newly created state of Iraq, the Kurds were effectively made homeless. The oil-rich region of Kurdistan was key to protecting British interests in the region. The Shia on the other hand, who constitute a majority of the Iraqi people, were forced to live under the rule of the Hijazi Prince Faisal, who later became King of Iraq. Bell, of course, knew the Sunni Arabs were only a minority in Iraq, but she viewed the Shia as extremists and a government formed by them would be, to quote her, “the very devil”. Some positions in the newly established Kingdom did go to the Shia, but it was mainly the Sunni Arab elite who effectively controlled Iraq until the recent US-led invasion in 2003. Between the founding of the Kingdom and the US-led invasion in 2003, many coups and counter-coups took place and the government in Baghdad was changed several times however it was always the minority ruling over the majority. The Kurds, like the Shi’a, remained more or less disenfranchised within the Iraqi political structure.
Another factor which facilitates the Shia-Kurdish alliance is the effect of Sufism on the Kurdish culture. Many Kurds, including their current political leaders, PUK Secretary General and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, of the Qadiri order, and KDP and Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, of the Naqshabandi order, have Sufi backgrounds and this makes them naturally more tolerant of the Shia, especially due to the special status given to Prophet Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib.
After repeated negotiations and skirmishes, with still with no homeland to call their own, the Kurds, led by Mulla Mustafa Barzani, declared war in 1961 against Abdul Karim Qassim, the military leader who overthrew Iraq’s monarchy and established the Republic three years earlier.
"In 1965, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Mohsin al-Hakim issued a fatwa that made it strictly forbidden for the Shia to fight the Kurds... The religious decrees were copied and distributed all over Iraq in various street corners and buildings."
After yet another military coup in Baghdad, Abdul-salam Arif became the new President in 1963. He stepped up the war effort in Kurdistan and, in the mid-60’s, a particularly bloody campaign followed, leading to thousands of deaths from both sides. Although many of the officers in the Iraqi army were Sunni Arab from Mosul, the majority of soldiers were Shia, and they could be influenced by the marja’iya – the undisputed spiritual leaders of Iraq’s Shia – in Najaf. In 1965, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Mohsin al-Hakim issued a fatwa that made it strictly forbidden for the Shia to fight the Kurds. Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al-Khoei and other Shia scholars who had the authority to issue fatwas also did so. The religious decrees were copied and distributed all over Iraq in various street corners and buildings. The result was that many of the Shia soldiers in the army deliberately aimed above or below their Kurdish targets to pretend they were obeying orders from Baghdad but, at the same time, following their spiritual leaders in Najaf.
Two decades later, during the Iraq-Iran war, the Shia and Kurds again fought side-by-side against a common enemy. In 1986, the Badr Brigade and Pershmerga carried out numerous joint operations along the Iraq-Iran border. In 1991, following Saddam’s explusion from Kuwait, it was the joint effort of the Shia and Kurdish rebels that almost unseated the Ba’ath Party. However, their revolt failed as the cease-fire negotiations between Iraq and the US banned Saddam from using fixed-wing aircraft, which effectively gave Saddam permission to use helicopter gunships against the rebels. Soon the rebellion was brutally suppressed and hundreds of thousands were massacred.
The Shia-Kurdish alliance became stronger as the years went by as Iraq’s various opposition groups worked on and off with one another toward regime change in their homeland, and after the fall of Saddam in 2003 it was a Kurdish-Shia political alliance that formed the basis of the Iraq’s government after democratic elections.
The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now re-styled the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) was the most-powerful Shia body at the time, and they share the Kurds’ ambitions for a Federal Republic which gives Kurds and the Shia a measure of legally-sanctioned self-rule over autonomous oil-rich regions in the north and south respectively.
The future does not seem to be so bright now as the Shia themselves are split between those who still want strong local governments in the south (Hakim) and others who prefer a strong central government in Baghdad (Maliki). Moqtada al-Sadr, another major Shia player, is not so clear-cut on this issue. He is generally considered to be opposed to federalism, though he has hinted support for self-governing regions if the US forces leave Iraq. At the same time, many Shia are now asking why the Kurds, who already have their own parliament in three majority Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq, can control ministries and a large bloc of the national parliament in Baghdad. They see it as Iraq’s own ‘West-Lothian Question’.
Regardless of what stances the Shia now take, one thing is for certain – despite tensions, the strong historic relations between the Shia and Kurds will not be damaged beyond repair. Far too much blood has been shed for and with each other in their common struggle for freedom against tyranny.
Hayder al-Khoei is a public relations assistant at the Al-Khoei Foundation, a charity organization set up by his grandfather Ayatollah Abul-Qasim al-Khoei. He is also currently pursuing a degree in Politics and International Relations.