Iraqi Kurdistan vs Federal Iraq

Iraq is a complicated place. Sectarian divisions have long characterised the country, be that between the various factions of Islam or along one of the many other cultural, religious or political splits. But what are the differences between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq? Perhaps the most obvious is the division in the country between the Kurds, who inhabit the north of Iraq, and the rest of the country. Here, we’ll unpick the differences between the two and delve a little bit into what makes these two regions distinct.

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurdish people, also known as the Kurds, are an ethnic minority indigenous to a large region encompassing south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and south-western Armenia. Their roots are thousands of years old, and despite having no formal country of their own, there is distinct Kurdish culture and language comprised of several dialects. 

The Kurdish have long desired a homeland. There are currently four regions of Kurdistan, none of which have been formally recognised:

  • Northern Kurdistan: Located in southeastern Turkey
  • Southern Kurdistan: Located in northern Iraq 
  • Eastern Kurdistan: Located in northwestern Iran
  • Western Kurdistan: Located in northern Syria
Kurdish protesters in Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan: Relations with Southern Iraq

Kurds make up an estimated 15-20 percent of Iraq’s population. Compared with Kurds living in the other three states, Iraqi Kurds have, and currently do enjoy more rights. However, this isn’t to say that Iraqi Kurds have been free from repression. 

The long-held wish from the Kurds for an independent state has historically aggravated the Iraqi government. While 1970 saw the granting of autonomy, by the late 1970s, Saddam’s government was forcibly relocating Kurds from Kurdistan with a resettlement program that saw the tactical settling of Arabs in areas with Kurdish majorities, particularly around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. 

Tensions rose throughout the 1980s, particularly due to the Kurds largely supporting Iran in the Iran-Iraq war currently raging. 1988 saw one of the darkest periods in Kurdish-Iraqi relations (and Iraqi history as a whole) when Saddam unleashed a deadly chemical attack on the town of Halabja killing 5,000 people. The same year, Iraqi forces launched the “Anfal Campaign” in which tens of thousands of Kurdish were killed, with hundreds of thousands more forced into exile.

In 1991, the Iraqi government targeted a rebellion by the Kurdish which forced around 1.5 million Kurds to flee across the Zagros Mountains towards Turkey. However, Turkey feared the onslaught of refugees and closed the border, forcing hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in the freezing mountains with no infrastructure whatsoever. Many died Human Rights Watch described it as a genocide with an estimated 50,000-100,000 people losing their lives.

Modern-day relations between the states

Fast forward to today. While things are still by no means perfect between the two regions, things have been a lot better for around two decades. The Iraqi government still, however, resists full Kurdish autonomy – September 2017 saw a referendum on independence held in the Kurdistan Region and its disputed areas, including Kirkuk. The vote was dismissed as illegal by the Iraqi central government, despite a reported 98.98 percent voting in favour of independence. Read about our experience travelling through Iraqi Kurdistan during this referendum

Touring in Lalish, Iraqi Kurdistan

What’s it like travelling between the two regions?

All combined Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan tours will travel through a border crossing when travelling between Iraq and Kurdistan. However, when you’re in Iraq proper, you will pass through many checkpoints which can feel like border crossings at times, so this is nothing unusual. You won’t receive a visa or a stamp in your passport when you cross into Iraqi Kurdistan. The currency is still the same. 

An Iraqi Kurdistan tour is quite distinct from tours to Iraq proper. Iraqi Kurdistan looks and feels like a different country. You’ll notice straightaway that the scenery is a lot greener and more mountainous in Iraqi Kurdistan. The roads are a little better and the streets cleaner. Southern Iraq is still very much recovering from the decades of brutal war and fighting at the hands of Saddam’s government, the American occupation, the invasion of ISIS as well as rigorous sanctions from the international community and ongoing governmental chaos and corruption. Both tourism and infrastructure are noticeably lacking as the country tries to keep its wheels turning in the face of hardship. 

Kurdistan, on the other hand, was spared much of the recent fighting and has therefore been allowed to flourish. This stability has, in turn, meant that foreign investment could pour in, meaning Kurdistan ostensibly seems richer here there are high-rise skyscrapers, modern commercial complexes, trendy bars and modern comforts. 

For a real taste of Iraq, we strongly recommend our Entire Iraq Tour. We take several groups per year around both Southern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan over the course of two action-filled, exciting weeks. We work with the best-of-the-best Iraq Tour Guides on both sides of the country and you will get to experience and learn about some of the most fascinating ancient and modern sites from this, the “cradle of civilisation”. Get in touch to find out more.