LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The Kurds in Syria say the U.S. has abandoned them after the recent troop withdrawal. Kurdish forces felt they are owed some loyalty. After all, they helped the U.S. fight ISIS. And Americans had helped protect Kurdish forces from their enemy Turkey. So let's take a step back now and ask the question, who are the Kurds? NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS JINGLING)
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Donkeys climb the steep streets in this ancient mountain village of Akra. Kurds have traditionally lived in the mountains.
MOHAMMED JESUS: And this street we're taking is the pilgrimage, is the Kurdish mini pilgrimage is what - where people come to celebrate Nowruz and take the fire all the way up the mountain.
ESTRIN: We're walking up the mountain path Kurds take on their new year, when they carry fiery torches. Our Kurdish guide goes by MJ, short for Mohammed Jesus. Long story, but he goes by that name to promote religious peace. It's important to him because Kurds have endured years of war. As the saying goes, Kurds have no friends but the mountains.
MOHAMMED JESUS: All of the mountains have pits, holes, caves that were dug up. Each one of them was built in a different era for a different defensive system - any mountain you go in Kurdistan. So that just tells you how many wars and how many times you had to escape to the mountains to take cover.
ESTRIN: There are at least 30 million Kurds - the biggest ethnic group in the Middle East that doesn't have a country of its own. They're mostly divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria - all places where they've faced oppression and rebelled against it, earning them a reputation as soldiers. In Syria, Kurdish forces have helped the U.S. fight ISIS.
BURHAN ZIBARI: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: In the village square, we run into a famous Kurdish poet, Burhan Zibari. Our guide MJ interprets.
MOHAMMED JESUS: People in the U.S. - a lot of people know what Kurds are. But when you tell them, what is a Kurd? They say, yeah, you're good soldiers. You're good with a gun. But, he says, we're much more than that. We are very widely cultured. We have beautiful art, beautiful history.
ZIBARI: (Foreign language spoken).
ESTRIN: But, he says, unfortunately, all the Kurds' neighbors - Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria - they're all battling the Kurds. For years in Syria and Turkey, it was illegal to speak Kurdish in the streets or teach it in schools. Here in Iraq, Kurds have semi self-rule. MJ says it's largely thanks to the U.S., which imposed a no-fly zone in the '90s, so Saddam Hussein couldn't bomb them from the air. That protection helped this Kurdistan region of Iraq flourish. It's probably the one place in the Middle East where Kurds have the most autonomy and freedom of expression. Our poet recites one of his compositions in his native tongue.
ZIBARI: (Through interpreter, reading) The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are braids of hair. My beloved's lips are Afrin and Qamishli.
ESTRIN: Those are two Kurdish-majority towns in northeast Syria, an area where Syrian Kurds created their own secular rule in 2013. Now, as the U.S. pulls out its troops, Turkey hopes to push out Kurdish forces there. Syrian Kurdish autonomy likely won't last. Here in Iraq, Kurds passed a referendum for independence. But Iraq didn't give it. MJ still feels grateful.
MOHAMMED JESUS: I am able to exercise my Kurdish identity - me as a person - better than my fathers and my grandfathers have been able to do so within - going 2,000 years back. So this is great. It feels great. This is something. It's not perfect. We still want it to be better. This is the best that we can get for now.
ESTRIN: In Syria, Kurds feel betrayed by the U.S. They'd relied on U.S. protection to sustain something similar to what Kurds have in Iraq. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, the village of Akra in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.