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There are about 25 million Kurds, making them the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East after the Arabs, Persians and Turks.

Promised but never granted their own country after the first world war, they are spread across areas of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Hoda Abdel Hamid reports from the Kurdistan region of Iraq on the quest for their own country.

Turkey, home to more than half of all Kurds, denies that Kurds have a separate ethnic identity and bans any official use of the Kurdish language.

In Iran, the Kurds have no right to self-government or administration and in Syria, about 300,000 Kurds are denied Syrian citizenship.

Stateless, they are banned from using public hospitals, getting food subsidies and cannot travel outside the country.

'Villages burning'

Colonel Abdullah Kardez devoted his life to protecting his people, spending 27 years in the mountains fighting the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein.

Kurdistan, the dream: An area spread across
Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Azerbaijan

"I felt it in my heart, I had to protect my people and my nation. All the villages around us were burning and we were dying," he said.

They were called the Peshmerga. The word means "ready to die" for the millions of Kurds without a nation - and in some countries, with limited rights.

Khaled Saleh, adviser to Massoud Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan region, said: "For those in Turkey, it's an issue because the language was banned. The kind of political struggle is very different.

"Here for example you have religious freedom, whereas in Iran, you have to be under a system whereby the political system is based on religious identity."

Semi-permanent self-rule

Since 1991, the Kurds of Iraq achieved self-rule in part of the country. Today's teenagers are the first generation to grow up under Kurdish rule.

Still, they remain Iraqis, but the Kurdish dream made a huge leap in 2003.

Overnight, the Kurds became key players in the Baghdad government. Now they have to strike a fine balance between their dream for independence and preserving these new-found powers.

Iraq's first post-war president, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd. Portraits of him and Barzani are a bestseller.

But Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Massoud Barzani's father, remains a Kurdish hero.

Independence hero

"He did everything. He established the Kurdish movement and without him we couldn't do anything," one streetseller said.

Mustafa Barzani led the Kurdish struggle for independence from Iran in the 1940s, and fought with the Iraqi government in the 1960s and 1970s. He was president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)
 

Posters of Talabani, left, and Barzani are
a bestseller in the markets of Irbil
Ninety-eight per cent of Kurds in Iraq have voted for independence, but the regional government is aware that the road ahead is still long and goes through Baghdad.

Saleh said: "There is a degree of political realism by the Kurds in Iraq saying we have to be merging with this political system so we can protect our achievements.

"And also [to] have a share of power and wealth in Baghdad because that's what is important for protecting Kurdistan interests."

Kurds of Iraq are at the forefront of the struggle for a nation of all Kurds. Music and dance have kept the Kurdish traditions and identity alive.

But their dream of independence, very much alive, has been put on the shelf for now.

Source: Al Jazeera