As Pasar Sherko tells it, his first memory of the Iraqi government came at the age of 4, with a ground-level view of an attacking MiG fighter-bomber. Iraqi armed forces were dropping chemical weapons on Iraq's Kurds and his family was fleeing toward safety in Iran.

When the Sherkos returned, in 1991, it was not exactly to Iraq. Within the country's formal boundaries, under protection of U.S. and British warplanes, Iraq's beleaguered Kurdish population built an enclave in northeastern Iraq answerable chiefly to itself. It was here that Sherko's generation came of age, beyond the reach not only of Iraq's bombs, but also of its schools, currency, media, tax collectors, language and, not least, fellow citizens, almost all of whom are Arabs.

So in the wake of a war the United States has always insisted must leave Iraq united, the question to Sherko is: Could he, as a Kurd, imagine life under an Arab president? "What kind of Arab?" the university student asked in reply. "Are there good Arabs?"

At age 19, he says he has never met an Arab. Nor is he sure he wants to: "I haven't seen anything good come from them in Iraq."

Ever since Britain created it as a state at the close of World War I, Iraq has been chronically divided against itself. In particular, the restive Kurdish minority in the north resented being governed by the Arabs of the south. But until the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the creation of the Kurdish- controlled zone, everyone lived under the same government. The Kurds' dozen years of autonomy has challenged that fundamental assumption of nationhood.

"There are many things to be proud of in Iraq, and it can have a good future," Saad Othman, the minister of agriculture with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said one day last month before the fighting began. "I am Kurdish, but also Iraqi, and there doesn't have to be a contradiction."

His son Goran, a strapping 23-year-old who runs an Internet cafe, looked at him blankly for a moment. Then he blurted out: "I hate Arabs."

As Iraqis gather to form a transitional authority under U.S. supervision, however, Kurds emphasize the word "federated." Kurds say that if Hussein's rule is replaced by a democratic model that seeks to accommodate rather than suppress Iraq's component populations, totaling 24 million, they will be able to preserve the hard-earned gains of the last decade. Such accommodation is considered essential to regional stability, given Turkey's strong opposition to greater autonomy for Kurds south of their border with Iraq.

"It's not little, what we're living in," Mahamoud said. "Kurds in Turkey cannot live like us. Kurds in Syria cannot even talk about it. Yes, we are anxious about what will happen."

Since the final days of the war, the collapse of Iraqi authority has allowed Kurds to move beyond their enclave and into territory that had been under Baghdad's control. With U.S. help, they are now attempting to establish a functioning government in Mosul and Kirkuk, the region's two main cities. In the process, tensions between Kurds and Arabs have erupted into episodic but often vicious fighting. The worst has been in the villages south of Kirkuk and Mosul, where Kurdish vigilantes have evicted thousands of Arabs from villages the Kurds claim. Other violence followed the widespread looting that accompanied the Kurds' dash outside their zone.

Kurds justify their actions by saying that many of the Arab tribes around them were allied with Saddam Hussein, the ousted Iraqi president whose name every young Kurd knows, if mostly by legend. The British may have been the first to drop poison gas on the rebellious Kurds, in 1925, but the newest generation was weaned on raw recent history told over supper.

Hussein's Anfal campaign of the late 1980s, meant to punish the Kurds for siding with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, was waged partly with chemical weapons. By its end, international human rights groups concluded that more than 100,000 Kurds, mostly young men, were slaughtered.

"They separated father from child," said Heri Hasham, a senior at Khanzad High School for Girls in Sulaymaniyah. "For example, I don't know the fate of my father. I don't know who he was, whether he's alive or dead. We don't know whether to have a funeral."

"We want a Kurdish government with a Kurdish leader," said Ashana Ahmad, a classmate. "We don't want a government led by an Arab, like Saddam Hussein."

As she spoke, the principal shook her head in remonstration. "They are young ladies, and emotional," Sairan Mahamoud said afterward. All Kurds crave their own nation, she said, but a century of futile liberation wars has taught them it is impossible for the foreseeable future.

Shortly after 1991, Kurdish politicians began coaching Kurds to leverage their autonomy into a position of strength in a unified Iraq. The goal became a kind of mantra, repeated endlessly on the public and private television stations and newspapers Kurds started in major cities, on the satellite channels beamed to Kurds in Europe and on the Web sites that became a point of pride here because Baghdad controls the Internet in the rest of Iraq.

A dozen years later, peasant shepherds on the gorgeous hills above Sulaymaniyah can recite the new Kurdish aspiration, perhaps pausing for breath because it is a mouthful: "a democratic, independent, unified, parliamentarian, federated Iraq."

In important ways, students raised in the "Kurdish experiment" would enter a new Iraq better equipped than their countrymen to cope with the changes President Bush promises. The administration's postwar plan begins with a U.S. military government but calls for transferring most power within about a year to an Iraqi government drawn up on lines to be debated by a constitutional committee.

In the nationalism curriculum taught in primary school classrooms across the rest of Iraq, pupils learned mostly the history of Hussein's Baath Party. But in Kurdish schools, the text on nationalism explains all of the government systems, with special emphasis on the federal model they were previously banned from hearing about in school.

"First we teach them as Kurds, then as Iraqis," said Ahmed Ali, principal of the Sulaymaniyah High School for Boys. "I must explain: It's a reaction to the oppression we have suffered."

Even so, a national identity appears to survive even in young people raised beyond the influence of Baghdad. In a senior English class, the students respond "Yes!" in unison when asked whether they are Iraqi. They are also Kurds, the young men explained in a follow-up discussion.

"It's the achievement of the uprising, this freedom of thinking and speaking," said Hawser Abubakr, adding that he would have no problem accepting an Arab president.

"He could be Arab or Assyrian, Turkmen or Kurd, it doesn't matter. What's important is that he is elected. And that he will rule for four years. After that a new leader will be elected. He might be a Kurd."

Kurdish leaders espouse the same faith in democracy. They say that if a new Iraq emerges with a federal system -- the model also endorsed by a broader U.S.-sponsored Iraqi opposition coalition -- the region's 3.5 million Kurds will shift their guerrilla fighters into a national army and make no claim on the rich oil fields partly under traditional Kurdish lands.

"If we can keep our achievements, and be protected, then we will be proud of being Iraqi," said Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Democratic Party, which administers part of the Kurdish controlled zone. "We cannot be proud of an Iraqi dictatorship."

Still, reunification will be rocky, not least because relatively few young Kurds can speak Arabic, the language of most Iraqis. Almost all northern schools are taught in Kurdish, as they were even before the 1991 uprising. Instruction in Arabic is available, but less popular than ever.

"I'm not certain I have anything to say to an Arab," said Ahmed Abdullah, an arts student at Salahaddin University in Irbil. He is studying English.

The Arabic tongue is the foundation of Arabic culture, and some older Kurds resent having to acquire it. Nazaed Hassan said that in 1975, the Iraqis expelled him from Kirkuk to Karbala, a Shiite Muslim Arab city in the south.

"That's how I learned Arabic," Hassan said. "I was forced to." He fled to northern Iraq in 1985, and last month he was among 70 Kurdish guerrillas preparing to reclaim villages that Hussein's government had purged of Kurds.

Yet all 70 raised their hands when asked if they were Iraqi.

"Since our early days we've been singing Kurdish songs, and always saying we're Iraqi," said Sherko, the university student in Sulaymaniyah. "We are Kurds inside Iraq."

And the capital of Iraq is Baghdad. Would he like to go there?

He paused in the task at hand, which happened to be folding programs for a commemoration of the 15th anniversary of the chemical bombing of the town called Halabja, where 5,000 Kurds died.

"Yes," Sherko said, his blue eyes lighting up. "It would be very nice to see Baghdad."