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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Yesterday, Turkey announced it withdrew thousands of troops from neighboring Iraq, where they've been battling Kurdish separatist rebels hiding in the mountains. The Kurds are frequently described as the world's largest ethnic group without a country of their own.

NPR's Ivan Watson sent this Reporter's Notebook about the long and bloody quest for statehood.

IVAN WATSON: Not long ago, I watched a fistfight almost break out at a dinner table between an Iraqi Kurdish journalist and an Arab interpreter from Baghdad. It started when the Kurd mentioned that he noted down Kurdish for his nationality while filling out a hotel registration form. The Arab laughed and said: There's no such thing as a Kurdish nation.

The Kurd looked directly at the Arab and said, quote, "Do you know why I like Israelis? Because they're so good at killing Arabs."

The Arab had insulted a Kurd whose family fled chemical bombardment by Saddam Hussein's army in the 1980s. No regime has succeeded in crushing the dream of an independent Kurdistan.

Nearly 100 years ago, Britain, France and the United States reneged on a promise of statehood for the Kurds when they carved up the Middle East after World War I.

Today, more than 20 million Kurds live divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Kurdish nationalists are tenacious. But they have also been plagued by self-destructive infighting.

It was no surprise, then, that the Iraqi Kurds did not rush to help the Kurdish separatists of the PKK when the Turks attacked them nine days ago. The Iraqi Kurds have much to lose. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan has become the closest thing the Kurds have ever had to an independent state.

Unfortunately, the leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan increasingly resembles so many of the Middle East's other authoritarian regimes, and hordes of frustrated young Kurds illegally emigrate to Europe each year in search of a better life. Among those who have left Iraqi Kurdistan is the young journalist who nearly punched the Arab interpreter at dinner.

My leaders are no different from Saddam, he once bitterly told me. The Kurd is now studying in America. He says he still dreams of one day returning to a truly independent Kurdistan.

SIMON: Ivan Watson.

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