Jalal Talabani knows what it's like to be a marked man. In 1989, after Saddam Hussein's army had ravaged the Kurdish population of northern Iraq with chemical weapons, the dictator offered amnesty to all Kurdish soldiers who fought against him--except one. Saddam ordered his minions to hunt down Talabani, a chief of the Kurdish separatist guerrillas known as the peshmerga. If Talabani was caught, Saddam vowed, he would put him to death.
It's a testament to Talabani's knack for survival that he not only managed to elude Saddam's forces but also is now poised to assume the job of his former nemesis. A coalition of Kurdish political parties, which Talabani helped lead, came in a strong second in Iraq's national elections, winning 75 of the new Assembly's 275 seats. That gave the Kurds, who make up 17% of Iraq's population, enough clout to demand top jobs in the new government. While the victorious Shi'ites last week tapped Ibrahim al-Jaafari for Iraq's most powerful position of Prime Minister, Talabani, 72, has emerged as the most likely successor to Saddam as Iraq's President. And though the post is intended to be largely symbolic, Talabani plans to use the position of titular head of state to protect Kurdish interests. "I must have the right to participate with the government in ruling the country," he told TIME in an interview at his headquarters in the northern Iraq mountain stronghold of Qala Chwala. "We want to be partners in reshaping Iraq."
The question is, How much of the country do Talabani and the Kurds want to reshape? The Kurds are holding out for at least six Cabinet posts, including head of the crucial Oil Ministry. They also say they are owed money from the U.N.'s oil-for-food program. A U.N. spokesman told TIME that $3.7 billion in Kurdish money was handed to the Coalition Provisional Authority. So far the Kurds have collected about $1.4 billion of that. They also want assurances that the Kurdish-dominated north will retain the autonomy it has enjoyed since the end of the first Gulf War, when the U.S. established a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds, and that the new Iraqi constitution will not impose Islamic law, as some prominent Shi'ite clerics have demanded. But some Kurdish ambitions could trigger ethnic disputes that would reverberate beyond Iraq's borders. The Kurds' election success has emboldened those who want to expand the southern boundaries of Kurdistan to include Kirkuk, the oil-rich city that is home to Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans. For U.S. officials, the nightmare scenario is that the Kurds break away from Iraq altogether--splintering the nation and inciting restive Kurdish minorities in such neighboring countries as Iran, Syria and especially Turkey, which has threatened to intervene to prevent the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.
In his interview with TIME, Talabani played down the possibility of Kurdish secession. "If you asked the Kurds, 'Do you want independence?' of course everyone will say yes," he said. "But if you ask, 'Do you want independence now?' the answer would be no." A U.S. official says Talabani, a former lawyer with close ties to Washington, "knows how far he can push, and he's not likely to push further than that, even if a lot of Kurds want him to."