As the clock ticks nearer to the hour of change in Baghdad, Kurds in northern Iraq are unfazed by talk of a looming war at their doorstep.

Late in the evening, the men gather at the marketplace near the Citadel, an ancient Assyrian fortress. There are stands selling kabab, marinated turnips, boiled chickpeas, freshly-baked bread, falafel sandwiches and fried eggplant.

Cigarette vendors, cobblers, loitering youth, and a few beggars compete for space on the narrow walkways. Tinny Kurdish music is blasting from portable tape-decks.

It is a starry night. A cool wind sweeps across the area sending dust and charcoal particles into the air. It all seems familiar, somehow. Life here is just as it always has been – and will be.

Saddam Hussain must go, but Kurds will remain the largest nation in the world without a state.

"It is our destiny," said Chalak, an attendant at a men's apparel store. "Maybe one day we will be as lucky as the Armenians and end up with at least a portion of our historic lands. Certainly, I won't be around to see the day, but my great-grandchildren…"

In 1992, the Kurdish National Assembly moved to abandon their quest for autonomy and adopted the slogan of federalism within a united Iraq. For 10 years, their cause has been the removal of Saddam Hussain from power.

Most Kurds agree that autonomy was a failed experiment in northern Iraq, and full-fledged independence would be no different – at this point in time.

The needs of the average Iraqi – whether Arab, Shiite, Kurdish, Assyrian, or Turkmen – can only be met by a strong federal government, which, in turn, can only be maintained through joint efforts by all elements of Iraqi society.

Abdullah, a 62-year-old fruits and vegetables vendor, is a refugee from Halabja, which was hit by chemical and biological weapons in 1988. "We hope Saddam will be removed," he said. "Maybe then, the local government can focus a little bit more on our plight."

Shakhwan, a 28-year-old school teacher, is a refugee from Kirkuk. He fled his hometown in order to avoid serving in Saddam's army.

"If this war is going to happen, let it start soon so we can return home all the sooner," he said.

Goran, a 23-year-old student, doubts there will be a war. "Saddam is going to leave the country of his own free will. They will give him a chance to stay in a safe country. He will accept defeat and leave before a war," he said. "The Americans prefer to come to Iraq without a war. This is what the American public opinion wants anyway."

A few kilometers away, in the lobby of the Chwar Chra Hotel, the conversation is of a more philosophical nature.

"The fundamental difference between this war and the previous Gulf War is that Saddam knows the Americans are coming to get him personally," said Dana, a university professor.

"In 1990, James Baker, the then U.S. Secretary of State, told Tariq Aziz, the Iraqi Foreign Minister at that time, that if Saddam did not use chemical weapons, the U.S. would not touch him. Before the war had even started, Saddam felt he had won. But this time, he knows he is not going to stay in power. This one will not be 'the mother of all wars'. The game is over."

Twenty-eight-year-old Omar, who manages the hotel's business centre, believes Saddam will surrender himself before a war.

"When confronted with a choice between life and death, human beings will always choose life. When Saddam realises that his life is in danger, he will surrender himself in return for asylum in a safe country," he said.

However, he added that it is impossible to predict Saddam's course of action at this stage as he is "full of surprises".

"Saddam usually waits for the last minute before making a decision. This is very important. We cannot predict what he will do. People always expect a surprise from Saddam," he said.

For the time being, few are concerned with the idea of replacing Saddam with an American puppet regime.

Salah, a London-based Kurdish businessman, said: "Americans have a very special interest in Iraq. If they did not, we could not count on them to help us. At the end of the day, the best formula will be one that meets the interests of all concerned parties."

Abdul Salam, another London-based Kurdish businessman, concurred."No one can tell you how bad it is to live 35 years under a regime that restricts your every thought, your every movement," he said.

"It is impossible to describe. It is impossible to understand no matter how many books you read, or how many TV programmes you watch. Nothing is like the fear of living under Saddam's regime."

He added: "I think I speak on behalf of the majority of the Iraqi people when I say we are extremely happy that finally there is an American presence here… It doesn't mean that we love America. It just happens that there is a leader in America who understands Saddam very well and wants to get rid of him."

The statement was followed by a joke about the much-ridiculed intellectual capacity of U.S. President George W. Bush.

"We are ready to make friends and alliances with anyone who will help us get rid of Saddam. The Americans have an interest in every single place in the world. We are not going to fight against U.S. interests. That would be a losing battle, but we will fight for our own interests."