The Forging of the Kurdish National Identity in Iraq from 1925-1932

by Jack Sodemann, History

Abstract: This article discusses Kurdish resistance to the mandate government of Iraq from 1925 to Iraq’s independence from British colonial rule in 1932. Iraqi Kurds have a history of resistance to both British occupation and the Arab Iraqi government in Baghdad. Kurdish resistance took, or didn’t take, various forms in mid-to-late mandatory Iraq, which allow the reader to draw conclusions about the formation of the Iraqi Kurdish national identity. This article also analyzes mandatory governance of the Kurdish districts, dissecting biases in sources contemporary to the time and modern sources. Specific policies and approaches to nation building from the British and the Iraqis, and how each policy and approach shaped a nascent idea of Kurdishness are also discussed. If the Iraqi revolution of 1920 was a unifying event for Iraqis, the Kurdish revolts from 1925–1932 were similarly unifying and created a Kurdish national identity.

Kurds, Iraq, 1920s, Shaykh Mahmoud, Mandate Iraq, Kurdistan

In 19th century Europe, nationalism was a tool of unifiers like Otto Von Bismarck and Giuseppi Mazzini to create a state from various principalities that had or had not been joined together in the past. The crux of nationalism as a tool was its ability to form a distinct national identity that each of its citizens could connect to. In fact, the aim of these men and their states was for the new national identity to be the primary means for its citizens to define themselves. In the twentieth century, this same tool and goal were imported through libraries, political offices, and coffee shops into the minds of would-be unifiers across the Middle East. In Iraq, these unifiers came into conflict with the British, who had learned their own lessons from nationalization in Europe, and the Kurds, who were resistant to any form of nationalism as a result of their strong ethnic identity. During the British Mandate of Iraq, especially from 1925-1932, the conflict between these three groups forged a new, modern Kurdish identity that has been irreconcilable with Iraqi nationalism. However, this version of the modern Kurdish identity is a direct result of Arab Iraqi discrimination and British chauvinism, and, with better policies, a unified Iraqi-Kurdish state could have been possible.

The mandate system was a method of direct or indirect rule that existed especially in the Middle East in the early 20th century. The crux of the system was the idea that a developed western power, overwhelmingly Britain and France, would take stewardship over a less developed country, guiding that country’s politics until such time as its people were deemed capable of self-government. Unsurprisingly, this policy met with resistance from native peoples everywhere it was implemented. At the time, Iraq was an extremely diverse area, home to many different ethno-religious groups. During British Mandate rule in Iraq, the British also implemented divide and conquer policies, pitting those many religious and ethnic minorities against each other. The group that the British chose to confer authority over the whole of Iraq onto were the Sunni Arabs, much to the chagrin of the Shi’i majority and the sizeable Kurdish population to the north. During the period covered by this article, 1925-1932, the mandate government was a joint effort between Iraqi Sunni Arabs and foreign British agents representing the British Empire. The British, until 1932, held political dominance, but the Sunni Arabs also had certain responsibilities and powers. Continued Kurdish resistance to British imperialism and a newer self-defense against the expanding territorial claims of foreign Arabs illuminates not only the politics of the region at the time, but the continued development of the Iraqi Kurdish identity to the present day.

Iraqi Kurdistan at the beginning of the mandate period is an area from which little writing has survived. In rural areas particularly, the voices of many Kurds have long since been extinguished. The will of the Kurds at the beginning of the 1920s reveals itself primarily through the 1920 revolution, the actions of their tribal shaykhs, and the urban Kurds. The Iraqi revolution, especially during the time, was seen by Iraqi Arabs in Baghdad and the British as an important indicator for Kurdish popular opinion. During the revolution, Kurdish forces fought the British with the Iraqi forces, leading British and Iraqi sources of the time to believe that the Kurds saw themselves as a part of the new Iraqi state.1 Immediately after the revolution, however, the Kurds who fought for Iraqi independence found themselves unable to participate in their new country’s political scene. The mandate government closed rural groups out of the political process throughout the country, enforcing widespread repression and delaying the formation of coherent political ideology, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan. In lieu of a connection with the people, the British relied heavily on tribal shaykhs and other local leaders to control the Kurds, a strategy they employed throughout the country.2 This strategy was flawed. Repression is always a radical force, but most successful regimes commit repression more effectively by erasing the means for a consciousness to develop amongst the repressed. By leaving the authority of the tribal leaders intact, something the British authority had no ability at that time to change, a counter-consciousness in response to repression spread. Tribal leaders who resented British control were able to effectively use British repression to motivate their tribespeople into rebellion.

At the beginning of the 1920s, the urban Kurds were fragmented, and primarily attached their identity to whichever city they belonged to. Although it was true that they were all urban populations and they were ethnic Kurds, the various cities in Iraqi Kurdistan were home to a range of different political ideologies and figures. Soleimaniyya, throughout the decade, was home to most of the Kurdish resistance, and served as the main base of operations for Shaykh Mahmoud. Despite housing Mahmoud, the British believed that Soleimaniyya was not where Mahmoud was drawing his support from. The British repeated the same belief they’d held during the Iraqi revolution a few years prior, that much of the resistance was an effort by outside groups to destabilize Iraq. In Mahmoud’s case, the British administration believed that most of his military forces were Persian Kurds.3 Whether or not this was true, the British insistence on looking at Mahmoud solely as a foreign operative for some years was a key factor in dooming Iraqi-Kurdish relations. Mahmoud was the first Kurdish Shaykh to be branded by the mandate government as a traitor and foreign actor, labels that would go on to sow divide between the Arab dominated Iraqi government and the Kurds of the North. The British insistence on seeing Mahmoud as a foreign actor also deprived them of a valuable lens through which to view policy in Kurdish Iraq. If resistance amongst an ethnic group is in fact due to outside agitation, any policy changes that would otherwise be necessary can be ignored. Thus, Shaykh Mahmoud’s role as the canary in the coal mine also was not taken advantage of.

Kirkuki resistance took the opposite direction of most Kurdish regions, beginning the 20s with antagonistic relations between Kirkuki notables, the intellectuals and ruling figures, and Baghdad, and then moving towards a much more comfortable position.4 At the beginning of that decade, there was very little resistance, violent or otherwise. Mahmoud’s rebellion and the Kirkuki resistance efforts were the only exceptions, but the Kirkuki notables neither maintained their intransigence nor did they resist in the same form as Mahmoud. While Mahmoud engaged in violence and fought a more true revolution, Kirkuki resistance was much more bureaucratic, and involved the masses less. Kirkukis refused to initially recognize Mandate authority, conducted trade subversively to the goals of the Mandate government, and dodged taxes. The short lived Kirkuki resistance is important to understand for its motivations. These Kirkukis were not advocating an independent Kurdish region, nor even an independent Kirkuk. The Kirkuki Kurds were much more concerned about centralization than ethnicity.5 This was an issue common across Iraqi Kurdistan, but the issue of identity or ethnic autonomy was not. Although everyone was aware of ethnicity as an issue, at first all parties had good reason to assume the Kurds would be very willing to join the Iraqi state. It was also true that many Kurdish officials gave their race as Iraq, giving the mandate government further justification to downplay concerns about Kurdish separatism.6

Even in the early days of the mandate government, both the British and the Arabs were conscious of the struggles of ruling a state made up of different ethnic groups. The British government kept tabs not only on the development of Kurdish resistance, but also on Iraqi plans to govern different ethnic groups. One of the great tragedies of the early mandate period is that the British stumbled into an answer for the Kurdish question, but they were never able to implement it correctly. In the mid 1920s, the British secretary of state for the colonies repeatedly discussed the Iraqi government’s responsibility to properly represent the Kurds. Additionally, the acting high commissioner noted that “the Kurd is not an Arab, any more than a Scotsman is an Englishman.”7 At the same meeting, the first king of Iraq, Faisal, also made comments. However, where the British representatives emphasized the importance of cultural autonomy and federalism, Faisal spoke more in the vein of Mazzini. Faisal’s approach, and the general approach of the Iraqi government, was to encourage all citizens to identify primarily as Iraqis, as opposed to any ethnic or religious group they might belong to. The British commentary on Faisal’s comments, and other Iraqi officials who repeated the same line, held that those comments were encouraging for Iraqi policy towards the Kurds.8 In fact, British and Iraqi answers to the Kurdish question were heavily different. The British blindness to what the Kurds would tolerate is a direct result of the confirmation bias that plagued their rule over the land of the two rivers. The mandate campaign of repression combined with the positive relationship the British had with their cronies at the top of the social hierarchy in Iraqi Kurdistan during the 1920s led the British to falsely believe that the Kurds were more satisfied than they actually were. A key part of the British position was also the idea of the noble savage, which also precluded the British from seriously considering the possibility of any Kurdish movement for autonomy. This attitude, combined with the dismissal of any resistance as the work of outside forces, led to a position of indolence. The British paid lip service to Kurdish autonomy, but did not sponsor enough legislation or put serious protections in place to safeguard that autonomy.

Towards the end of the British mandate, the government’s unwillingness to enshrine the protections that had been promised for the Kurds became apparent. The British position left both the Iraqi government and the Kurds unhappy. As would later happen with the Assyrians and the Baghdadi Jews, the Arab majority began to see the Kurds as British sympathizers who were being used to sow division in the young Iraqi state.9 Although there was prejudice between the Arabs and the Kurds dating to well before the British occupation, the British position on the Kurds heavily inflamed relations. Many high ranking Iraqi Arabs worked against Kurdish political and cultural autonomy. The Kurds were especially insulted by Nuri al-Said’s prime ministership, a man who embodied the ideology espoused in Faisal’s speech about a unified Iraq. Nuri had also personally dismissed many Kurdish officials and schoolteachers, replacing them with Arabs who weren’t always familiar with the Kurdish language or culture.10 Even after Nuri rotated out of office, the Iraqi nationalism line remained strong, with other prime ministers making similar statements to Faisal, encouraging all Iraqis to identify themselves first and foremost as Iraqis.11 As the British mandate drew to a close and the Iraqi government made its position more and more clear, Kurdish resistance increased significantly. In 1930, after the British made it clear that they would offer no further aid to the Kurds in the face of Arab Iraqi discrimination, urban and rural Kurds revolted together for the first time.12

By the 1930s, Kurdish resistance and identity had become intertwined. To be Kurdish was increasingly tied to a desire for autonomy and independence. Resistance had spread throughout all the urban areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, and very few Shaykhs or other notables still sided with the British or the Iraqi government. As the British scaled back their involvement in the state, the Iraqi government’s treatment of the Kurds intensified. The revolts in response to this treatment, centered around Soleimaniyya, were foundational to the new Kurdish national identity in the same way that the Iraqi revolt of 1920 had been foundational for Iraqi nationalism.13 In the last two years of the mandate period, there were several petitions written by Kurds to the League of Nations, asking for autonomy or self determination. In one of these petitions, Azmi Beg Baban, a Kurdish notable, claimed that the new Arab officials the Iraqi government had moved into Kurdistan treated them no better than the Turks did, and that this treatment was rife with distrust and prejudice. Azmi also noted that that same treatment had led to centuries of animosity with the Turks.14 These petitions mark a new form of resistance from Kurdish intelligentsia and notables. In the 1920s, this sort of resistance was nearly unheard of, outside of Kirkuk, and even when it did pop up, the Kurdish grievance was focused on centralization. The 1930s brought a new form of Kurdish resistance, and an appeal to a defined Kurdish identity to fuel it. The British solution to the Kurdish question had left the Kurds even more furious than the Iraqis. Both sides felt that they had been cheated. Too late, the British realized that they had slighted the Kurds, and they gestured at pushing the Iraqi government to treat the Kurds better, but the damage had long since been done.15

If the 19th century was the century of nationalism, the 20th century was a cautionary tale against nationalism. The British mandate of Iraq left many ethnic groups in far worse conditions than they’d lived under previously. Iraqi nationalism had been defined as opposition to the British enemy, making the half hearted British attempts to safeguard ethnic minorities a death sentence. For the Kurds, the death sentence did not immediately mean mass killings, but first meant the death of relations between Kurds and the Sunni Arab government of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan is a story of conflicting nationalisms artificially accelerated by the actions of the British government. Reading Kurdish sources from the 1920s, and especially modern Kurdish scholarship about the same period, has the connotation that everything was doomed from the moment British boots landed on Iraqi soil. However, this narrative only functions in service of the idea of the separation of Kurdistan from the Iraqi state. While such a narrative feels convincing in the era of Middle Eastern ethnostates, it is important to remember that the Iraqi Kurdish identity is very recent, and Kurdish separatism is a new phenomenon whose dominance over Iraqi Kurdish ideologies has clear, tangible causes.


  1. Aram Rafaat, “The Fundamental Characteristics of the Kurdish Nationhood Project in Modern Iraq,” Middle Eastern Studies 52, no. 3 (2016),, 490. ↩︎
  2. Miwa Saito, “Nation-Building and Conflict Resolution: The Kurds in Iraq and Turkey” (Saint Andrews, Scotland: University of Saint Andrews, 2002), 114. ↩︎
  3. Unsigned. “Aide Memoire on activities of Shaykh Mahmud,” November 3, 1926, FO 371/11491, in Alan de L. Rush and Jane Priestland, eds., Records of Iraq, 1914-1966 vol. 4: 1925-1927, 375-380. ↩︎
  4. Arbella Bet-Shlimon, City of Black Gold: Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 48, 60-64. ↩︎
  5. Ibid ↩︎
  6. Unsigned. “Memorandum”, 372-374. ↩︎
  7. Ibid 374 ↩︎
  8. Ibid ↩︎
  9. Saito, “Nation-Building and Conflict Resolution”, 119. ↩︎
  10. National Central Committee. “The Kurds of Iraq (Southern Kurdistan),” September 25, 1930, CO 730/157/8, in Alan de L. Rush and Jane Priestland, eds., Records of Iraq, 1914-1966 vol. 6: 1930-1932, 460-462. ↩︎
  11. Francis Humphrys. “Telegram from the Acting High Commissioner for Iraq to the Secretary of State for the Colonies,” August 6, 1930, FO 371/14522, in Alan de L. Rush and Jane Priestland, eds., Records of Iraq, 1914-1966 vol. 6: 1930-1932, 453-454. ↩︎
  12. Saito, “Nation-Building and Conflict Resolution”, 120. ↩︎
  13. Rafaat, “Fundamental Characteristics” 490. ↩︎
  14. Azmi Beg Baban, etc. “Petition from Kurdish Notables to the League of Nations,” July 26, 1930, FO 371/14522, in Alan de L. Rush and Jane Priestland, eds., Records of Iraq, 1914-1966 vol. 6: 1930-1932, 443-450. ↩︎
  15. Sherko Kirmanj, Identity and Nation in Iraq (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2013), 43-46. ↩︎


Beg Baban, Azmi. Petition from Kurdish Notables to the League of Nations, July 26, 1930. In Records of Iraq 1914-1966 vol 6: 1930-1932, edited by Alan de Lacy Rush and Jane Priestland/ Great Britain: Archive Editions, 2001.

Bet-Shlimon, Arbella. City of Black Gold: Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk. California: Stanford University Press, 2019.

Humphrys, Francis. Telegram from the Acting High Commissioner for Iraq to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, August 6, 1930. In Records of Iraq 1914-1966 vol 6: 1930-1932, edited by Alan de Lacy Rush and Jane Priestland/ Great Britain: Archive Editions, 2001.

Kirmanj, Sherko. Identity and Nation in Iraq. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013.

National Central Committee. On the Kurds of Iraq, September 25, 1930. In Records of Iraq 1914-1966 vol 6: 1930-1932, edited by Alan de Lacy Rush and Jane Priestland/ Great Britain: Archive Editions, 2001.

Rafaat, Aram. “The Fundamental Characteristics of the Kurdish Nationhood Project in Modern Iraq.” Middle Eastern Studies 52, no. 3 (2016): 480-497.

Saito, Miwa. “Nation Building and Conflict Resolution: The Kurds in Iraq and Turkey,” PhD diss. University of Saint Andrews, 2002.

Unsigned. Aide Memoires on Activities of Shaykh Mahmoud, November 3, 1926. In Records of Iraq 1914-1966 vol 4: 1925-1927, edited by Alan de Lacy Rush and Jane Priestland/ Great Britain: Archive Editions, 2001.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Dr. Kevin Jones and Mr. Jared Asser, without whose knowledge and guidance the writing of this article would have been impossible.

Dedication: To my mother Kristen, whose passion and love for the Kurdish people helped me develop this article.

Citation Style: Chicago