STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Iraq may be in chaos, but the country's ethnic Kurds hope they come out ahead. They rule a semiautonomous area in the north that is fairly prosperous and fairly safe. As the Iraqi army crumbled before militants this month, that created a power vacuum, and Kurdish forces reached out and moved in to take some areas they'd been seeking for a long time. Now the Kurds are talking about their generations-old dream of independence. NPR's Deborah Amos reports they face dangers to.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This vast city park is crowded on these hot summer nights. Many Kurds are more focused on the World Cup, the new Miss Kurdistan - she was named this week - and the final days of school. Ahmed Amin, a translator for a Western oil company, is out for a stroll with his wife and young son. The war next door seems very far away.
AHMED AMIN: We are in safe place and we are - just look like we are living in a different country.
AMOS: Do you think that this is actually good for the Kurds?
AMIN: Yeah, it is. I think this is the time for us to become a country.
AMOS: So you'd want to be an Iraqi anymore?
AMIN: No, I don't want to. I don't feel I'm Iraqi.
AMOS: Kurdish pride is what he feels now that the nearby city of Kirkuk is under Kurdish control. Kirkuk has deep symbolic meaning for Kurds who see it as their historic capital, he says.
PRESIDENT MASOUD BARZANI: Yeah, we get it back so this is time for us to decide Kirkuk's ours.
AMOS: That was the message from Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region. He made his first trip to Kirkuk on Thursday, trailed by Kurdish media. We saved you. We will protect you, he said, signaling a long-term stay. Last year the Baghdad government moved a special military unit into Kirkuk, bringing the Kurds and the Baghdad government close to open war. But the unit disappeared when the army collapsed, settling the matter for Kurds. Today, the mood here is euphoric, says journalist Hiwa Othman. The Kurdish region has doubled in size and population, which does bring some strains.
HIWA OTHMAN: And this is a huge administrative and economic burden on the government.
AMOS: But Kirkuk is an oil-rich hub. Kurdish officials say they can pump a million barrels a day by the end of the year - a move that's likely to enrage officials in the capital, but the rift with Baghdad is not just political. It's now geographic says Jabber Yawer, the spokesman for the Kurdish forces, as security continues to deteriorate.
JABBER YAWER: (Through translator) The reality now - there is not any contact - land contact with Baghdad. The problem in Baghdad - they make this reality not us.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).
AMOS: This is the reality of Kurds. Children sing the Kurdish anthem on the last day of school in a capital well protected from Islamist radicals. With battles raging further south, Kurds see their time has come, says Doctor Noori Abdulrahman, the head of the Kurd's Council of Ministers. Will Kurdish focus remain in Kirkuk?
NOORI ABDULRAHMAN: We will try our best to keep it.
AMOS: Including the oilfields?
ABDULRAHMAN: Everywhere. It's our people on our land. You have to defend them.
AMOS: And, he says, with Kirkuk's oil revenues, the Kurds can move closer to declaring an independent state denied them when the Middle East was carved up over a century ago.
ABDULRAHMAN: We are not going to hide that. We didn't hide that any time. And I think it's our right as people and as a nation.
AMOS: So you are moving ahead on independence?
ABDULRAHMAN: If we could do that, yes - as soon as possible. (Laughing).
AMOS: The U.S. has pressed the Kurds to take part in an inclusive government in Baghdad. But privately, Kurdish officials say they are done with Baghdad. Now they're waiting for the moment to break free of the crumbling Iraqi state. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Erbil.
INSKEEP: You hear Deb on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.