Karzan Kanabi, whose clothing shop attracts young men with its cheap bell-bottom pants, never went to Baghdad, never learned Arabic and never felt the desire to go anywhere he would have to mix with Iraq's Arab population.

"We want Kurdistan to be an independent country," said Kanabi, 18, who had his Washington-brand jeans trucked in from Turkey, just to the north. He does no business with the rest of Iraq. "We only need Kurdistan."

The nationalist sentiments voiced by Kanabi and many others in this prosperous Kurdish city 200 miles north of Baghdad have become the leading edge of a storm looming over Iraq. After 13 years of quasi-independence -- the only regime Kanabi and his peers have known -- the 4 million Kurds living under their own government here in the grassy plains and jagged mountains of historical Kurdistan have resolved never to relinquish the self-rule bestowed on them by the United States after the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

"Iraq is made up of two nationalities, Kurds and Arabs," Massoud Barzani, one of the region's two legendary leaders, said in an interview Thursday in nearby Salahuddin. "Kurds have no less a place than Arabs in Iraq."

Kurdish determination, however, has run up against a resolve widely shared by Iraq's new leadership and its backers, including the United States, to preserve a unified country even without the iron fist of former president Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Iraq, they have pledged, is to be organized as a majority-rule democracy, which would redistribute power among its 25 million inhabitants -- roughly 60 percent Shiite Arabs, 20 percent Sunni Arabs and 20 percent Kurds.

So far, with a bloody anti-U.S. insurgency their primary concern, the new leaders in Baghdad and their sponsors in the Bush administration have postponed the showdown over the Kurdish issue, hoping a crisis can be avoided. But with elections scheduled for January, Kurds here said, the time has drawn near to deal with some of the most explosive issues, particularly the status of the city of Kirkuk. In addition, plans to write a permanent new constitution after the January elections, Kurdish leaders warned, are likely to bring the country face to face with the question of Kurdistan's long-term legal relationship with the central government in Baghdad.

"We have been patient for over a year," said Falah Mustafa Bakir, Barzani's foreign relations adviser. "Now is the time to address it."

Kirkuk, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, lies just outside the Kurdish region as defined over the last decade. The Kurdish leadership, citing historical ties, has demanded that the city and its surrounding oil fields be incorporated into the autonomous Kurdish zone and its special rule. The demand is opposed by leaders of the Arab majority and has been under discussion ever since U.S. troops overthrew Hussein and occupied Iraq 15 months ago.

With the organization of elections about to begin, the Kurdish demand has gained new urgency. Who lives and votes in Kirkuk, Kurdish leaders point out, is a question that will help determine the outcome of the vote -- and who is at the controls -- in a region they regard as theirs.

"This issue is a time bomb," Barzani said, speaking softly and wearing a brown uniform with the Kurds' traditional baggy pants and red-and-white headdress.

Kirkuk has been part of Kurdish folklore from time immemorial, with songs and poems heralding its place in the Kurds' tortured history. But others have long lived there too, including Arabs and Turkmens. More Arabs were brought in by Hussein's government to help smother Kurdish separatism, which had led to three secessionist uprisings in 20 years.

The Kurdish leadership has insisted that Iraqis who were brought in to Arabize the area must be returned to their homes, many of them in southern Iraq. Those leaving should be treated humanely and compensation should be paid, they said in interviews, but the newcomers must leave. At that point, they added, a referendum could be held allowing the city, its Kurdish majority restored, to vote whether to stay in the Arab part of Iraq or join the Kurdish autonomous region.

"We can't make any concessions on Kirkuk," Bakir said. "For us, it's very important."

But the new leaders in Baghdad have made it clear they too regard Kirkuk as very important. Its oil fields have contributed to Iraq's national prosperity for 80 years. Moreover, they have said, readjusting the ethnic composition of cities or regions is not the way Iraq should begin its new political life.

Vice President Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite Muslim of the Dawa party, said in a recent interview that the rights of Kurds must be respected in the new Iraq. The history of their oppression must be taken into account in whatever arrangement is worked out, he added. But he also emphasized that Iraq must remain a unitary nation, true to its history and traditions, and said the rules of democracy must be followed.

Behind his comment lay a tension that has run throughout the debate over what to do about the Kurds and the north. For Iraq's Shiites, long overshadowed by the Sunnis who dominated the Baath Party, representative democracy is a way to gain a measure of power proportionate to their majority share of the population. There is no reason, in their view, for the country's Kurdish minority to oppose majority rule now that Hussein's tyranny has been eliminated.

Quasi-Independence

For more than a decade, U.S. warplanes flew regular patrols to prevent Hussein's forces from venturing north of the 36th parallel and into the 17,000-square-mile Kurdish-controlled zone of northeastern Iraq. Left alone for the first time in generations, Kurds constructed a flourishing quasi-state, with democratic elections and institutions to underpin the traditional leadership of Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party, and his rival to the east, Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Along the road north from Baghdad, what they built is readily apparent. Northward from Kirkuk, the Iraqi flag has disappeared, replaced by the green, white and red colors of Kurdistan, with a blazing yellow sun in the center. The Arabic language has withered away, replaced by the Kurds' own tongue.

Security checkpoints to control traffic have been erected by Kurdish fighters, called pesh merga, only a few of whom wear uniforms of the U.S.-trained Iraqi National Guard. Barzani's headquarters, atop a steep bluff just outside Salahuddin, is guarded by his party's militia.

"We will not agree to having the Iraqi army here," said Mohammed Sharif Ahmad, dean of the law and political science department at Salahuddin University. "We have our pesh merga. They are organized like an army."

Together, Barzani and Talabani field more than 70,000 armed men, twice the planned strength of the Iraqi national army and several times its current roster, according to a U.S. tally. Each of the two Kurdish leaders has built his own military academy to turn out officers in two-year courses.

A decree issued by Iraq's interim government in Baghdad banning militias has had no noticeable effect here. For Kurds, making the pesh merga illegal would be like trying to reverse generations of history and undo the emergence of a new national entity over the last dozen years.

"This is my land," said Goran Nuri, who runs a bookstore in the shadow of a fortress built by Salahuddin, a Kurd, after his conquest of Jerusalem.

Nuri has laid in stocks of dictionaries, English language courses and science texts, scattered haphazardly around his narrow little shop. But what his customers really want and buy, Nuri said, are Kurdish-language modern novels, literature of their own.

The only Arabic-language tome that attracts buyers, he said, is the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

Fearing the Future

The word that has come to dominate the debate over Kurdistan is federalism. Kurds and Arabs alike have suggested that reorganizing Iraq in an association of states could give Kurdistan room to retain self-rule while staying within a unified Iraq. The Kurdish parliament has voted to forgo total independence in return for loose federalism.

But there is little agreement on how Kurdistan should be defined in the new constitution. Ahmad, the jurist, said putting off the debate is the best idea, to give the new Iraq time to jell. Meanwhile, he suggested, Kurdistan would retain its semi-independence.

But Barzani said the Kurds can wait only so long and that writing the new constitution will force a decision. "My approach is to put all these issues on the table and solve them as much as possible," he said.

Much will depend on how the United States comes down when the crunch arrives, probably next year, he said. Two recent decisions by the Bush administration have inspired doubts.

The first was rejection of a Kurdish demand for the post of either president or prime minister in the interim government, reflecting the Kurdish contention that Iraqi society is divided into Arabs and Kurds. The second was refusal to put into the Security Council resolution underpinning the new Iraqi government a condition that any important decision must be agreed on by consensus among Iraq's political and ethnic factions.

At the Kurds' insistence, U.S. occupation authorities included such a proviso in the Temporary Administrative Law governing Iraq pending its new constitution. But Shiite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, objected that this amounted to a Kurdish veto, frustrating majority rule. Eager for votes at the United Nations, the Bush administration dropped the language from the resolution.

Kurdish leaders repeatedly said they would never forget U.S. help in setting up the quasi-independent Kurdistan they have had since 1991. But they also have not forgotten what happened in 1975, when the United States, along with Iran and Israel, withdrew support for an earlier secessionist revolt and stood by while Iraqi troops crushed the pesh merga, who were then commanded by Barzani's late father, Mustafa Barzani.

"We have every right to have fears about the future," Barzani said.

In February, suicide car bombers hit the headquarters of the two major Kurdish parties, killing about 56 people. Massoud Barzani, a legendary leader in the Kurdish area of Iraq, says: "Kurds have no less a place than Arabs in Iraq."