Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader, used chemical weapons against the Kurds, destroyed their villages and killed tens of thousands of them during his rule. The bodies are still being unearthed.
The US encouraged them to rise up against Saddam when his forces were driven out of Kuwait in 1991 but then left them hanging. And thousands died fleeing to Turkey as refugees.
But the no-fly zone that the US, British and French established to protect them from Saddam's attacks, allowed them to break away from Iraqi government authority, while remaining part of Iraq.
Since 2003, the Kurdish region has become the most stable and prosperous part of Iraq, fuelled by oil and Turkish investment.
And while relations with Turkey have improved, they have worsened with Baghdad - with disagreements over oil, land and politics that some fear could turn violent.
Pres.Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, has emerged as a crucial player in Iraqi politics and as the leader of Kurdish aspirations in the region.
He has warned that Iraq's Kurds could seek independence if they do not get what they need from Baghdad. And that his region will not be dragged down by the rest of Iraq.
"We have seen tanks, artillery and other weaponry being used against our people. We have seen large numbers of troops being used against our people," explains Barzani. "Our fear is not of that. Our fear is the mentality that still believes in using planes, artillery and tanks to solve problems. We do not believe that that will solve the problem. This is the wrong approach and the misery and the troubles that Iraq faces today is a result of that kind of mentality. Therefore we do not want that to be repeated again.
"Otherwise if Baghdad or the federal government thinks about the usage of such things then we will be obliged to go back to the times when we had to think about how to target the F-16s in order not to allow them to reach here. We hope this will not be the case but we have to get ready."
On this episode of Talk to Al Jazeera, we sit down with Barzani to find out how far he is willing to go to protect and promote the interests of the Kurdish people.