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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Iraq's current president is visiting the United States, and in a speech he warned our people's patience is wearing thin. The president is Jalal Talabani. He's not Iraq's most powerful official, the prime minister is far stronger, but his life story tells you a lot about the complexity of Iraq.

I want to start this conversation a little bit away from the news, if I might. Can you describe the town where you grew up in northern Iraq?

President JALAL TALABANI (Iraq): I was born in a village near Dokan Lake now.

INSKEEP: Near Dokan Lake. That's a jewel of blue water in northern Iraq's green mountains.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: It's the Kurdish region where you could hear Kurdish singers like this one until some were banned by Saddam Hussein. Kurds struggled against the central government even before Saddam killed them by the thousands. This is the region where Jalal Talabani was born in 1933 and went to school.

Pres. TALABANI: Let me be frank with you, I pass all classes first. I mean that I was good student.

INSKEEP: Politics, though, distracted him from study. As a teenager, Jalal Talabani plunged into Kurdish nationalism and politics, and eventually leadership.

How did Jalal Talabani become more prominent than any other Kurdish intellectual?

Ms. PHEBE MARR (Author, The Modern History of Iraq): By lasting.

INSKEEP: Author and scholar Phebe Marr says Talabani lasted through Saddam's repression and guerilla campaigns, and even a battle between the Kurds themselves.

Ms. MARR: It was vicious. It went on for a couple of years - they shot up the parliament building, they killed hundreds of people, they displaced tens of thousands. And they eventually set up two regions in Kurdistan.

INSKEEP: One of which became Jalal Talabani's power base. Today, Kurdish areas are peaceful even as insurgents and militias devastate other regions of the country. People come to the shores of that lake near Talabani's hometown. They picnic and sing at the beginning of spring.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: One of their leaders, Jalal Talabani, reached prominence after decades as an opposition intellectual, politician, even journalist.

Did you learn anything that helps you now when you were a journalist?

Pres. TALABANI: Of course. I learned too much. I learned at least to be able to escape from your difficult questions.

INSKEEP: He did answer questions artfully during our conversation here in Washington. His delicate position demands no less. He's president of a country that many of his fellow Kurds don't believe in.

Pres. TALABANI: Some young people are thinking that it's better to declare independence. I'm always arguing with them in this way. Let us imagine that we decided to declare independence and Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria decide not to come to fight us but close the borders, preventing us from going and coming and how we can leave.

INSKEEP: Independence is impossible. Is that what you're saying?

President TALABANI: Of course, independence is impossible. But having federation within the framework of a democratic Iraq (unintelligible) are playing important role in Baghdad.

INSKEEP: Yet Jalal Talabani goes on to say it's impossible for Kurds to fully submit to Baghdad's authority.

Vali Nasr teaches the region's intricacies to American military officers.

Professor VALI NASR (Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School): By definition, the Kurds are already out of Iraq. They are only nominally a part of Iraq.

INSKEEP: Is there a way in which Jalal Talabani, being in the position that he's in, the job that he's in, symbolizes both the promise and the dangers of Iraq right now?

Prof. NASR: Yes. I mean at some level it's a promise, because this is the very first non-Arab leader of an Arab country. And particularly given the way in which the Kurds suffered in Iraq, it was almost a major symbolic turning point that now a Kurd would be the president of Iraq.

But ultimately the Kurds are interested in Kurdistan, their own area. They're interested in Iraq only in so far as it provides a cover for the autonomy that they want in the north. Therefore his role at the center is somewhat ambiguous, because he's not really standing up in true form for making a united Iraq work.

INSKEEP: The Kurds' autonomy makes it harder to resist demands for other autonomous regions in Iraq. That in turn adds to fears that Iraq could break apart. Last week at the United Nations President Talabani himself issued a warning about Iraq's constant violence. He spoke through an interpreter.

President TALABANI: (Through translator) Our people's patience is wearing thin, particularly when we see the blood of our innocent sons and daughters being spilled and defiled.

INSKEEP: In our conversation, Iraq's president explained that he is impatient with Iraq's neighbors.

President TALABANI: I mean because our neighbors, some of our neighbors are interfering.

INSKEEP: You're talking about people's patience with countries like Iran and Syria, is that what you're saying?

President TALABANI: With Syria, Iran, Turkey, everyone in the Middle East except Kuwait. We are asking them to stop interfering in our internal affairs and respect the sovereignty and independence of Iraq. Otherwise, we'd be obliged to say something.

INSKEEP: What happens when people's patience with the violence in Iraq runs out?

President TALABANI: Iraqi people will respond in the same way that will support the opposition of other countries. We'll try to make troubles for them as they are doing for us.

INSKEEP: Make trouble for your neighbors. That's what will happen, Iraq will make trouble for its neighbors?

President TALABANI: Yes, of course. Iraq can do, Iraq can help opposing forces of our neighboring countries if...

INSKEEP: You would maybe assist opposition forces in Iran or elsewhere?

President TALABANI: Everywhere.

INSKEEP: Talabani says Iraqis are not making trouble right now. But there are Kurdish minorities in Turkey and Syria and Iran.

Mr. PETER GALBRAITH (Former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia): I find it a significant statement and, frankly, somewhat surprising.

INSKEEP: That's Peter Galbraith, a long-time adviser to Iraq's Kurds. We reached him by phone in Iraq's Kurdish region and played him a tape of Talabani's remarks.

Mr. GALBRAITH: To hear him say that Iraq is prepared to support opposition groups, armed opposition groups implicitly in each of these countries, is a reflection of real frustration with what's going on Iraq.

INSKEEP: Jalal Talabani, Iraq's first president since Saddam Hussein, says he wants to hold his country together even as almost everyone's frustration grows.

(Soundbite of music) INSKEEP: And you can find a timeline of Talabani's life at npr.org.

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