Iraqi Kurdistan profile

Map of Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraq's 2005 Constitution recognises an autonomous Kurdistan region in the north of the country, run by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

This is the outcome of decades of political and military efforts to secure self-rule by the Kurdish minority, who are estimated to number more than 6 million and make up between 17 and 20% of the population of Iraq.

Kurds, who number 30-40 million in total, live in a compact area that reaches from Syria in the west to Iran in the east and Iraq in the south, north through Turkey, and into the states of the former Soviet Caucasus.

Only in Iraq have they managed to set up a stable government of their own in recent times, albeit within a federal state.

Market in Irbil The economy in Kurdistan revolves around oil and agriculture

But now an insurgency by Sunni Islamist groups in western and central Iraq threatens the unity of Iraq.

This makes greater independence for the Kurdistan Region ever more likely. The government plans to hold a referendum on the question in 2014. But it also raises the danger of conflict with neighbours, who fear the example it sets for their own restive Kurdish minorities.

Long struggle

The Kurds of Iraq came under British colonial rule after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Frustrated in their hopes for independence, Kurdish leaders launched a series of rebellions against British and subsequent Iraqi rule.

Oilfield in Iraqi Kurdistan The region's oil reserves have attracted substantial foreign investments

These were put down ruthlessly, most notoriously in the late 1980s when Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurds with massed armed forces in the 'Anfal' campaign.

This involved the deliberate targeting of civilians with chemical weapons, most notoriously in the town of Halabja in 1988.

Various Iraqi governments promised autonomy to the Kurds after the 1958 revolution, but none came to fruition until the anti-Saddam international coalition established a partial no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991 after the first Gulf War.

This allowed Kurdish leaders and their Peshmerga armed forces to consolidate their hold on the north after Iraqi forces withdrew, and provided the basis for the 2005 constitutional settlement.

Autonomy grows

The immediate tasks facing the Kurdish government were great, and included rebuilding infrastructure, creating an administration and absorbing hundreds of thousands of displaced people after years of war and destruction.

Overall its efforts exceeded all expectations. Iraqi Kurdistan largely escaped the privations of the last years of Saddam's rule and the chaos that followed his ouster in 2003, and built a parliamentary democracy with a growing economy.

Uncertain future

Major problems remain, nonetheless. The landlocked Kurdistan Region is surrounded by countries unsympathetic to Kurdish aspirations, like Turkey and Iran, and by states approaching internal collapse - Syria and the rest of Iraq.

It is also in dispute with the Iraqi government over several territories, in particular the historic city of Kirkuk.

Tension between the main political parties - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party - erupted into a civil war that almost destroyed the autonomous government in 1994-97, and some differences remain.

Irbil Citadel The ancient citadel in Irbil was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2014

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