He came from a relatively comfortable Kurdish family in northern Iraq, and his father was a respected judge. But that did not shield Barham Salih's boyhood from the Kurdish curse: the recurring ravages of war, torture and exile, which doomed a restive ethnic group's quest for self-determination.

Crushed since ancient times by Ottoman, Persian and Arab ambitions and overlooked by colonial powers who carved up the region according to strategic and oil interests, the Kurds' dreams for a homeland never materialized into statehood.

In the 1980s and '90s, Salih served as top diplomat and spokesman in Washington and London for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a political-military force based in Sulaymaniyah, in northern Iraq. Today, at 42, Salih is prime minister of the half of northern Iraq that is administered by the group, known as the PUK.

Salih was in Washington this week to confer with officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department about the Kurds' role in a postwar Iraq that would be free of Saddam Hussein but still united -- a compromise between the Kurds' nationalist aspirations and reality.

"I don't want to see my people embroiled in an endless cycle of violence for something that is not achievable. History has been cruel to us, geography has been harsh," Salih said. "Our people need roads, schools and health care. We have to stop dreaming and get something that is tangible."

Salih also discussed other pressing matters, such as the dispatch of mobile health clinics and protective kits for a population that has no gas masks or chemical suits but could be the first to suffer a chemical or biological attack in any Iraqi war.

Salih was only 6 years old when battles broke out between the Kurdish rebel fighters called the peshmerga, and Iraqi soldiers. He was 9 when the Iraqi air force bombed the mountains near Sulaymaniyah in an attempt to flush out the rebels.

"Life was very difficult growing up," Salih said. "We lived in a war zone and my childhood was all war."

In the early 1970s, a three-year lull in the fighting gave the Kurds a respite, and each spring many families took to the emerald hills for picnics. The smell of fresh lamb kebabs grilling on open fires and the aroma of brewing tea flavored with cardamom filled the flower-scented air.

But mostly, Salih remembers the rattle of machine guns; his family crouching anxiously by a radio to hear late-night newscasts from the BBC; men in baggy pants and colorful sashes with rifles on their backs taking to the hills to fight; his father's backaches, which developed from injuries inflicted by Iraqi interrogators in 1963; and his own torture, when he was sent to prison twice in high school.

Still, Salih was one of the lucky ones: He survived.

Salih became a Boy Scout, and he studied hard. He voraciously read all the books his father bought him, developing a love for Arab literature and Kurdish poetry as well as a passion for math, physics and philosophy.

When Salih was 14, his father, Ahmed, was exiled after he participated in a failed rebellion in 1974. But he was allowed to practice as a judge in the Shiite town of Samawah. When Ahmed Salih joined the rebels, his family was ordered out of its home. Later, his father escorted them to Iran. In March of 1975, the rebellion collapsed and the family returned to Iraq.

In 1976, Salih joined the PUK, when it was established as an underground movement. "The voice of the presenter on Damascus Radio still rings in my ear," he recalled.

Salih's activities -- distributing pamphlets and tending to wounded Kurdish militiamen -- landed him a 43-day stay in prison during which he was hung up and beaten. Electric shocks were applied to his body.

Before he graduated, he was again treated to the security services' special hospitality. But his jail experiences fired his resolve to excel.

In 1979, the year Hussein seized control as Iraqi president, Salih was spirited away by an uncle and taken to Britain to pursue his education. He studied engineering at Cardiff University in Wales and earned a doctorate in statistics and computer modeling from the University of Liverpool.

In the 1970s, Salih visited his father when he was in Samawah, and he got to know local Iraqi Shiite families from nearby townships. "We seldom dined alone. Every night we were invited to someone's home," he recalled. "Despite the brutality of the Baath Party, people are people. Later, these families would come and stay with us in Sulaymaniyah during Norouz, the celebration of spring. There were no good hotels. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together," sharing pots of his favorite Kurdish dish, prepared with chunks of baby lamb, yogurt, wild leeks and dill.

This is the Iraq that Salih would like to remember. He expressed hope that Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians and Iraqi Arabs will one day live together in a democratic and united Iraq. But he fears that a vacuum after the war would invite neighbors to meddle and could fuel animosities among extremists.

Salih's goal in a postwar Iraq is not taking a government portfolio but starting an in-depth, English-language newspaper to influence "the debate about the kind of Iraq we want, entering a war of ideas to shape the future."

Salih flinches when asked if he has given up the dream of a Kurdish nation.

"This is very painful to me," Salih said. "But if we fail to seize this opportunity and continue with politics as usual, our people will be condemned to a life of misery and bondage."

Barham Salih, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, says that Iraqi Kurds need "something that is tangible" rather than a dream of their own nation.