BAGHDAD -- On Friday, Feb. 8, 1963, a radical young college student sat in Iraq's Military Prison No. 1 contemplating a grim future. The next day, he and a group of fellow students were to be sentenced to 15 years in prison for political activism.
Suddenly, the doors of the jail burst open. The Baathist revolution had begun. A rebel threw the keys of the prison to the young student, Adel Abdul Mahdi.
His sudden freedom was one step on a dizzying path for Mahdi, now 62, who today is the leading candidate to become Iraq's next prime minister. En route, he acquired numerous labels, including Baathist, Marxist, French-trained economist, exiled opposition leader, Islamist and religious party leader.
Mahdi represents the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest party within a Shiite coalition that emerged as the strongest bloc in elections for an Iraqi parliament, according to results released Sunday. Backroom negotiations over who will get which top posts in the new government have been going on for two weeks.
With a politician's demur, Mahdi said he was not desperate to become prime minister.
"The main idea was to liberate our people," he said in an interview last week. "When you risk your life, it doesn't mean anything to have a ministerial post."
Mahdi's party, born and nurtured in Iran, guided by a Shiite cleric and backed by a feared militia, unnerves some secular and Sunni Iraqis who say they fear an Iranian-style government run by Islamic code.
Mahdi is the smooth, urbane face of the party, and he appears not in clerical robes, but in a Western suit. His role, in part, is to soothe skeptics in Iraq and worriers in the West. As members of his religious party whipped their backs with ropes and chains and wept Sunday night as a part of a Shiite rite, Mahdi was coolly discussing the election results on CNN.
His line is a message of moderation. He dismisses talk of Shiite domination and describes his vision of Iraq's government as one that embraces everyone.
"Building an institutionalized Iraq, a good democracy, freedom, respecting all of us, respecting Islam and other religions, respecting the secular parties -- this is what we can do to achieve a balance," said Mahdi, who speaks English and French fluently. "Everyone will find his place."
Mahdi walks a tightrope on the volatile issue of the role of Islam in the writing of a constitution this year. "Religion for us is very well mixed in our life -- prayers, marriages, death, it's very mixed," he said. "Even in our language, it's mixed. I think in the West there is a real distinction between religion and the secular. But that's not the case here."
Still, he insisted his party was not seeking a government based on Islamic law.
"There are two extremisms we have to avoid, because each of them will lead to the other," he said. "If we have a secular extremism it will lead to a religious extremism. Religious extremism will lead to secular extremism."
Mahdi's father was a large landowner and respected Shiite leader who participated in the 1920 revolution against the British. Mahdi was sent to the school widely regarded as the best in Baghdad, Baghdad College, run by American Jesuits. His schoolmates included the current interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, and Ahmed Chalabi, whose whisperings in the ear of the CIA helped propel the U.S. invasion.
Mahdi came of age in the 1950s, just as the Arab world was being fired up by the issues of pan-Arabism, the Palestinian cause, the Suez crisis and -- in Syria and Iraq -- a socialist nationalism called Baathism. Mahdi and his schoolmates embraced it.
"They were fervent times," said a childhood friend, Imad Khadduri, a nuclear scientist who now lives in Canada. "We dreamed politics. There was a real challenge to be thinking at the time. Adel would take us on long walks and expound on the philosophy of the Baath Party. He was very good, very committed."
Mahdi's political instigations were too much for the Jesuits at Baghdad College. They threw him out before his final year, ostensibly for chewing gum in class. He went on to college, earning an economics degree, but spent much of his time as a student leader, pursued by the government. It was exhilarating, he recalled.
"You are 19 years old, and they are following you at night from house to house. Families would hide you, give you refuge," he said. "You were important."
During this time, he and Allawi organized a mob and seized the dean of Baghdad University during a student strike. The government brought in tanks to end the takeover, and Mahdi was sent to prison. He was freed after the Baathist revolution, but the revolt, largely fueled by students and teenagers, collapsed within nine months. For most of 1964 and part of 1965, he was in and out of jail.
"I don't want to make myself out to be a hero," he said, recalling the torture he endured under the pre-Saddam Hussein government. His interrogators tied his arms behind his back and hung him from them, and they ripped flesh from his thighs with pliers, he said. "There were a lot of people more courageous than me."
In 1965, he emerged from jail, took a test for a foreign service post and -- with his father's influence helping to get the jail terms overlooked -- was appointed a third undersecretary in the Foreign Ministry.
Mahdi left to study in France in 1969, in part, he said, because of the activities of a growing wing of the Baath Party that included Hussein. "From the beginning, Saddam and I were enemies," he said. Hussein grew more powerful after the Baath Party took over again in a coup in 1968.
Mahdi would not return to Iraq for 34 years. The government revoked his passport, and Mahdi, with his wife, Rajah, moved between a farmhouse in Lyon and homes in Beirut and Syria, using false passports and fake IDs. He recalled trying to cash a check at a bank in Beirut and accidentally giving the bank officer a false passport: "He looked at the name on the check, and my face -- nothing matched. I said, 'Oh, here, I have another passport with that name.' In Lebanon, that was okay."
Mahdi was known among the exiles as an intellectual and a peacemaker. He translated works of philosophy and economics into Arabic, and embraced a Maoist view of Marxism. He was an indefatigable talker. "Once we had a 17-hour debate," said Walid Khadduri, Imad's brother, an economist. "He's a flexible person. The good thing about him is he is ready to work with others of different opinions."
Some friends viewed Mahdi's flexibility as political expediency when he joined the Islamic parties that were starting to gain underground support in Iraq in the 1970s. Hussein Hindawi, a fellow exile who has returned to run the Iraqi elections commission, said the transition was a common one for some activists inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution and disappointed by a deal struck between Hussein and the Iraqi communists in the early 1970s.
"The alliance between communists and Hussein was catastrophic to us. For some, Islam was the only compatible choice," Hindawi said.
During the 1970s and '80s, Mahdi visited Tehran often and joined forces with the Shiite Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Badr militia associated with the council in Iran became notorious for its treatment of captured Iraqi soldiers.
Mahdi said he returned to Baghdad through Kurdistan on April 12, 2003, for the first time in more than three decades. "I was astonished to see how ruined the country is. When I returned back it was rubbish, nothing left," he said.
As finance minister in the interim government he is a target; since he was appointed, he has nearly been a victim of two bombings. But his wife and son Hisham, 29, have joined him in Baghdad, and he said his other son and two grown daughters would also move from France to Iraq.
"We have always lived in dangerous situations," he said. "My family prefer to be with me. We all feel safer and more peaceful than living apart."