Called the Assyrians, they are one of the world's oldest Christian communities, and scholars believe the Aramaic language they speak today is a dialect of the language Jesus of Nazareth and his early disciples spoke. In the Christian villages and hamlets dotting the northern enclave, historic churches and monasteries today conduct their services in classical Aramaic, presenting a picture of a people and their culture untouched by time.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Linguists warn that the Aramaic language is in its death throes, battered by centuries of persecution and marginalization by a range of conquerors from Persian armies and the Ottoman Turks to Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime.
And these days, while the Bush administration makes repeated calls for a "regime change" in Iraq, the talk in Assyrian households across the world is getting increasingly urgent as a community that has preserved its culture through the centuries braces for another milestone in their long, often tormented history. "Our greatest fear if there is a regime change in Iraq is if there will be a substitution of Saddam Hussein's tyranny for a new tyranny," says Ronald Michael, president of the Assyrian American League, an Illinois-based organization representing the Assyrian community in the United States.
Human rights groups say the Assyrians--like the Kurds--have suffered under Saddam's systematic attempts to "Arabize" the north, a process that includes driving ethnic minorities from their lands and seizing some of their properties, especially in the strategic, oil-rich northern region bordering the Kurdish enclave. "The Iraqi government has also forced ethnic minorities such as the Assyrians, the Kurds and the Turkomen to sign 'national correction forms' that require them to renounce their ethnic identities and declare themselves to be Arabs," says Hania Mufti of Human Rights Watch. "In a way, it is a form of ethnic cleansing by clearing an area of its ethnic minorities."
Through centuries of conquests as well as forced and voluntary migrations, the Assyrian community has been plagued by the politics of numbers. Assyrians define themselves as a broad category of Christian groups speaking Aramaic--or Syriac, as it is sometimes known--including followers of the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East, among others.
But scholars such as Naby Eden, an Assyrian-American specialist on minorities in the Middle East, say there have been attempts on the part of several Middle Eastern governments to categorize Christian groups by their churches in an attempt to break up an ethnic category along religious lines.
Not surprisingly, reliable figures for the number of Assyrians in the world today are hard to come by. In the Middle East, Assyrians are spread across Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, where rights groups say they live as small, often discriminated-against minorities under governments that are largely unsympathetic to their religious and cultural aspirations.
But an estimated 4 million Assyrians live in the United States, Europe and Australia today, in a steadily growing diaspora that dates back to the 1915 massacres of Armenians and Assyrians in the Middle East by the Ottomans.
In northern Iraq, where an estimated 1 million Assyrians still live in towns and villages, the situation slowly improved when the northern enclave was established after the 1991 Gulf War, and the Kurds were allowed to build an autonomous region free from Saddam's control.
In the current regional Kurdish parliament, there are five seats reserved for the Assyrian community, four of which are occupied by the ADM (Assyrian Democratic Movement). And where Aramaic was once banned by Saddam, today the language is taught in about 35 schools in the northern autonomous zone.