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Just as Kosovo is trying to create a national identity, ethnic Kurds are trying to forge an identity. Kurds may be the world's largest ethnic group without a state of their own. They are scattered across four different countries -Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria - and they periodically hold uprisings, which is why Turkey started attacking Kurdish rebels across Turkey's border in northern Iraq late last week.

NPR's Ivan Watson joins us now from Istanbul to talk through some questions about Kurdish identity. And, Ivan, very simply, what do the Kurds want?

IVAN WATSON: Turkish Kurds, they say, at least the PKK - the rebels who are fighting, they have renounced their hopes for a separate state, for carving out a piece of Turkey for Kurds called Kurdistan. They say they're fighting for Kurdish identity, for linguistic and cultural rights in Turkey.

INSKEEP: Which is a little mushier than saying they want independence. It must be hard to know when you've gained enough or when you've lost enough.

WATSON: Exactly. And there have been some reforms introduced in Turkey. This is a country that long denied the existence of Kurds at all. Called them mountain Turks and banned Kurdish language, banned Kurdish names and identity. That has been relaxed somewhat, though many would argue Turkey still has a long way to go. For instance, there are only a few hours of Kurdish language programming on Turkish television every week. That's like having two hours of Spanish language programming on American TV any given week. But the Kurdish Nationalist party does have at least 20 deputies in the Turkish parliament right now. So some people are arguing what is the point of fighting at this point when Turkey is trying to join the European Union and has been relaxing some of the taboos that once existed here.

INSKEEP: Well, Ivan, this is one of the things that was on my mind. I'm wondering why it is when Kurds have been around for a century, what is the difference between periods of conflict between their various rulers and periods of peace or coexistence? What makes the difference?

WATSON: If you go back to the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish areas were known to have been fairly lawless, that there was clan warfare there and banditry going on. But there wasn't an organized Kurdish nationalist movement and that's where the Kurds lost out - when the Ottoman Empire was carved up after World War I. There wasn't an organized lobby when European governments were creating the new states, so the Kurds got divided between Iran and Turkey and Syria and Iraq. And all of those countries have had Kurdish problems since, Kurdish uprisings.

INSKEEP: And which of those four countries is the closest to finding some kind of equilibrium?

WATSON: Well, the Iraqi Kurds again are pushing for autonomy, but they have to hold back a bit because if they get too ambitious, they know that easily the Arabs and the Persians and the Turks could all unite as they have done many times in the past to crush any attempt to carve out an independent state, because all of these countries are concerned about a Kurdistan emerging in their midst. They see this as a potential threat to their own stability and national unity.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask this, Ivan. Are those governments right? That if there were something closer to a real Kurdistan - independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, that it could create danger for four nations and the borders of all of them?

WATSON: There have been attempts to carve out a Greater Kurdistan. The PKK rebels that the Turkish state is currently fighting in northern Iraq, they had been fighting for a Greater Kurdistan, to take away pieces of all four countries. But one of the biggest problems for the Kurdish nationalist movement is it has always been plagued by divisions, by internal rivalries, by clan problems and linguistic differences. You go to one part of the Kurdish populated areas and a Kurd cannot communicate with a Kurd from another part of the Kurdish populated areas. So though Kurdish nationalism is a very strong force, they are still divided by these regional differences and it makes it very difficult to get a broader Kurdish nationalist movement that could really pose a threat to the entire region and to four states simultaneously.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ivan Watson has spent years covering the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq and Turkey. He's in Istanbul. Ivan, thanks very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Steve.

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