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.
Experts fear that in the event of a collapse of Saddam's regime in Baghdad--a common enemy for the Kurds and the Assyrians--historic differences between the two groups could resurface. And one of the greatest causes of concern is the festering issue of land ownership in the oil-rich north. "There are outstanding issues of Assyrian villages and lands, which were vacated under Baghdad's forced repatriations during the 1970s and '80s," says Mufti. "Those issues have not been resolved when the Kurdish authorities took over and they are a bone of contention between the two groups."
Experts warn that in the event of a war, control for the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk--currently under Baghdad's control--is a particularly troubling pressure point, which is being closely watched by neighboring Turkey.
Earlier this month, in a run-up to last weekend's Turkish general elections, nationalist Turkish politicians and senior generals threatened to seize Kirkuk and Mosul in the event of war, citing Ottoman-era claims to the two oil-rich northern Iraqi cities.
Some Iraqi Assyrians are also concerned that the Kurdish parties might seek an independent state if the United States attacks Iraq. "If the Kurds use the chaos of the war to try to grab land and if they are given a federal state, then we want our own state," says Michael, "because they [the Kurdish parties] have not proven themselves to be democratic."
For their part, the leaders of the KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), the two leading Kurdish parties, have maintained that their aim is not to set up an independent government or entity, but an Iraqi federation made up of an Arab region and a Kurdish region.
Some experts concede that Assyrian concerns about the democratic credentials of the KDP and the PUK are not unfounded. Over the past few years, Assyrian groups in northern Iraq have recorded a number of attacks against the community, primarily by militant Kurdish Islamic groups, including the Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam), a group suspected of having ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
Although the KDP and the PUK have outlawed the Jund al-Islam following a series of assassinations and armed clashes with the PUK, many Assyrian community leaders say the two Kurdish nationalist parties fail to administer justice in cases of attacks against the Christian population. "The nationalist parties don't want to lose the support of the Kurdish people," says Michael. "If the KDP is in power, we expect justice to be served. But the KDP turns a blind eye to these attacks out of fear of an Islamic backlash."
But by far the biggest complaint, according to Mufti, is the Assyrian fear of being "lumped together with the Kurds." Particularly egregious from the Assyrian point of view are recent Kurdish attempts to classify Iraq's Christians as "Kurdish Christians." "They started calling us 'Kurdish Christian,'" says Odisho. "Then we should call them 'Assyrian Muslims.'"
For a community that has had a minority status for centuries under different empires and has dispersed across the world, identity is a critical issue--for Assyrians living in and outside the Middle East. With approximately 4 million Assyrians living in the West and speedily assimilating the cultures of their adopted lands, experts say a shared language can play the role of an emotional state, binding members in the absence of a geographic concentration.
By all accounts, the continuation of the Aramaic language has been a linguistic feat, significant credit for which goes to the Assyrian exile communities who have refused to lose their mother tongue. "Aramaic has retained its place as a form of cultural identity because of the importance of the language to the people," says Stuart Creason of the University of Chicago. "Within history, there are very few examples of languages that are spoken for this long a period of time, maintained by the community."
But Creason warns that the very future of Aramaic is at stake. "I would call Aramaic an endangered language," he says. "It's a language whose future existence is uncertain, and it could die out within a few generations because of the political situation."
History has shown that the fate of languages is inextricably linked with the political power of the people who speak it. And Iraqi Assyrians hope their future will ring to the sounds of their ancient language.