Iguacu Blog

93% Iraqi Kurds just voted in favour of an independent state. But who are the Kurds?

Sep 29, 2017
93% Iraqi Kurds just voted in favour of an independent state. But who are the Kurds?
Nathanael Chouraqui
Lead Researcher, Iraq & Syria

Nathanael holds an MSc. in International Relations from the LSE, a Bachelor of Laws from the Sorbonne University and a B.A. in Government from Sciences Po Aix. He previously worked for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as Research Consultant at Harvard University. Nathanael was awarded the LSE Research Festival Highly Commended Prize for his research on post-terrorist attack resilience. He speaks French and English.

A controversial referendum was held on Monday in several provinces of northern Iraq. Voters cast their ballots in favor of, or against the creation of an independent Kurdish state in this region. According to the first results, nearly 93% of voters have voted for independence. Here is what you need to know about the Kurdish people.


The Kurds are one of the indigenous people of the Middle East. With a populations estimated between 25 and 35 million, they form the fourth-biggest ethnic group in the region after Arabs, Persians and Turks.

Group of Iraqi Kurdish men near the border of Iraq. Photo Credit: James Gordon

They originally come from the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands, in what are now south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and south-western Armenia.

Despite political and geographical divisions, as well as linguistic differences — there is no standard Kurdish dialect — Kurdish people, from all countries, tend to be seen and self-identify as a distinct community, united through culture and history. Kurds don’t share one single religion. The majority are Sunni Muslims, while some practice Sufism, a type of mystic Islam.


The Kurds live in a mainly mountainous area of roughly 74,000 sq miles, straddling the borders of five countries: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia.

According to estimates, Kurds make up about 10% of the Syrian population, 19% of the population of Turkey, 15–20% of the population of Iraq, and nearly 10% of Iran. A sizeable Kurdish population also lives outside of the Middle East.

Kurdish regions spreading across Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraqi autonomous region highlighted.


To a large extent, the situation in which the Kurds are today is one of the lasting consequences of the post-WW1 settlements that drew the map of the modern Middle East.

After the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1919, the British and French colonial powers redrew the boundaries of the region, creating new countries and placing them under their ‘mandate’. While the French and British originally made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, the eventually implemented boundaries meant that the Kurds were dispersed across five countries, including the newly created states of Iraq and Syria.

The Kurds were left stateless, and many of them then began the pursuit of autonomy or independence. Relationships between the Kurds and the governments of the countries they live in have for decades been fractious and unstable.

In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the army destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages to “Arabize” the north of Iraq. In two years, between 1986 and 1988, the campaign led to the the killing of over 100,000 Kurds, possibly more. In 1988, chemical gas attacks in the town of Halabja killed thousands.

Portrait of Kurd refugees who just arrived in refugee camp after fleeing Southern Iraq. Photo Credit: Philippe Dutoit

Over the past 80 years, Kurdish attempts to establish an independent state, in any of their countries of residence, have been quashed — often with brutal consequences.

This week’s referendum and result — despite regional and international condemnation — illustrate the desire Iraqi Kurds have for an independent state. What happens next, and the consequences of the result, still remain largely unclear.

Nathanael’s next blog will further explore the subject of the Kurdish referendum, its causes, and potential implications for the Kurds living in Northern Iraq and beyond.

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