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Ethnic groups in northern Iraq

A look at key ethnic groups in northern Iraq:

The largest group is the Kurds, who are spread over Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. In 1988 the Iraqis bombed Kurdish villages in this area with chemical weapons, including Halabja, where an estimated 12,000 died. A population of 3.5 million lives in the northern part of Iraq, where a protective zone was created to protect the Kurds from the Iraqi government after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In 1991, Iraq withdrew its civil government from the area, leaving the Kurds to govern themselves.

The Turkmen are a minority in the Kurdish area as well as in Iraq. Most live in northern Iraq in the area around the vast oil fields of Kirkuk and around the city of Mosul, and in southern Turkey. Many of the Iraqi Turkmen are still connected with Turkey by a common heritage, history and customs. This makes them suspect to the Iraqi government, which sees them as a dangerous minority, and to the leaders of the Kurdish area, where they are viewed as likely to side with Turkey in case of a war.

Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has moved Iraqi Arabs into northern Iraq, displacing both Kurds and Turkmen.


Sources: Congressional Research Service, Arab Gateway, State Department.


For more information:


Turkmen—Congressional Research Service,


Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, Human Rights Watch—


(Compiled by Knight Ridder researcher Tish Wells.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.