Who Are The Kurds?

Iraqi-Kurd Khamoo Haji, 52, listens to a radio as he takes shelter inside a cave about 10 kms (6 miles) south of Dohuk, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, Tuesday, March 25, 2003.
Some 30 million Kurds are spread over Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. They are unique, non-Arab people divided by colonial borders and modern wars — the largest nation in the world without a country. CBS News Correspondent Alan Pizzey filed a special Sunday Morning report.

They sing "Kurdistan, Kurdistan," but it has been their neighbors' worst nightmare, which is why Kurds say they have "no friends but the mountains."

Some 30 million Kurds are spread over Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, a unique non-Arab people divided by colonial borders and modern wars — the largest nation in the world without a country.

Iraqi Kurds also hold the dubious distinction of being the only people to have been gassed by their own leader, Halabja in 1988, leaving 5,000 dead.

The Kurds have survived through a fierce determination to fight anyone who tries to suppress them. Guns are part of their life.

In the Erbil market, AK-47 assault rifles range from $100 for a Chinese-made one to $600 for a top quality Russian model.

An anti-tank RPG-7 is a bargain at $125, extra rockets $30 each.

Kurdish guerrillas, whose name "Pesh Merga" means "those prepared to die" have been trying to mould themselves into a regular army in anticipation of being part of the forces of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Iraqi Kurds have their own parliament, a level of democracy unheard of in Iraq for decades, or indeed ever in any neighboring Arab country.

The world should appreciate that the Kurds have forsaken their dream of independence, Kurdish Democratic Party spokesman Hoshyar Zebari believes.

"For us accepting federalism, we will be giving up many of the powers and privileges we now are enjoying," Zebari says.

And those privileges came at a high price.

Half a million fled into neighboring Iran and Turkey after the first President Bush urged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam and then deserted them.

The "safe haven" to keep Saddam at bay was only established after scenes of suffering forced the U.S. to come to their rescue.

U.S. and British warplanes protected it so Saddam's forces could not come back.

But 1991 wasn't the first American betrayal. To help the Shah of Iran in a border dispute with Iraq, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave military aid to support a Kurdish uprising, then cut the Kurds off when Iran and Iraq signed a treaty.

Politician Sami Abdul Rahman of the Kurdish Democratic party warns that Washington must stick with the Kurds this time.

"The strongest argument that Bush has now is this, that he comes for the liberation of Iraqi people," says Rahman.

Freed from the repressive fear that characterized Saddam Hussein's rule. The Kurds built the kind of free society, their fellow Iraqis could only dream about; cafes are thronged at night.

In the last twelve years a real economy has grown, boosted by the Kurd's 13 percent share of the money from the oil-for-food program.

By taxing trucks legally transporting oil through their territory from government-controlled Iraq to Turkey the Kurdish authority earned substantial revenues.

The overthrow of Saddam will end that. To offset their loss the Kurds covet the oil fields of Kirkuk, the legendary "fiery pit" of the biblical trio Shadrack, Meshack and Ebednego.

And as a popular video on Kurdish TV shows, Kirkuk is also the spiritual home of Iraqi Kurds.

Most Kurds are Sunni Moslems; radical Islam has no significant adherents here. And as throughout Iraq, there is a high degree of religious tolerance. The Christian community can hold ceremonies without fear.

Throughout modern Kurdish history the dream of every boy has been to become a Pesh Merga guerrilla fighter. The normality of the past twelve years made almost everyone here reluctant to go to war yet again.

That said, they also want a future where children can be children, not victims, and they know it will only happen when Saddam Hussein is gone. One more war didn't seem like too high a price to pay.