NICOSIA, Cyprus -- A high-level Kurdish delegation has begun face-to-face political talks in Baghdad with the Saddam Hussein regime on an end to the rebellion in Iraq, Kurdish officials said yesterday.
Kurdish sources in Iraq and reports from Damascus, Syria, and ** London said that Jalal Talabani, the Syrian-based leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed the delegation, which represented all the major Kurdish political groups.
Preliminary discussions began with low-level Iraqi officials, said a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the major organization of Iraq's estimated 4 million Kurds. He told the British Broadcasting Corp. that talks would continue at a higher level, with Mr. Talabani meeting Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz or President Hussein himself.
The surprise development came at the initiative of the beleaguered Baghdad regime, the Kurdish officials said, and marked another rapid turn in the post-Persian Gulf war situation in Iraq, from armed rebellion to a desperate flight of refugees and, now, attempts for a political solution.
Two days ago, Mr. Talabani, a lawyer who has lived in exile for eight years, was with Kurdish guerrillas holding out in the mountains around the recaptured northeastern city of Sulaimaniya. Yesterday, he was reported to be in Baghdad awaiting talks with the man he has accused of genocide.
"They [Mr. Talabani's delegation] are discussing an Iraqi offer for expanded autonomy within the federated structure of Iraq, promising democracy, pluralism and constitutional rule in Baghdad," said Barham Saleh, a London-based spokesman for the Patriotic Union. He said the rebel leaders were skeptical of Mr. Hussein's promises but were impelled to enter discussions because of the plight of Kurdish refugees, as many as 1.5 million men, women and children who fled Baghdad's army into the snowy mountains of the Turkish and Iranian borders.
"This has to be put in context of the human tragedy unfolding now," Mr. Saleh said. "We are trying to minimize the impact of that tragedy even if it means talking to Saddam Hussein. We will leave no stone unturned to salvage the situation. . . . We are reasonable people. We are doing this for the sake of our dying babies."
There was no immediate comment from the U.S., British and French governments, which made a unified commitment last week to set up relief camps for Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq under the military protection of the Western powers.
Kurdish spokesmen said yesterday that they expected the Western powers to support their bid for political commitments from Mr. Hussein.
Sherwan Bizayee, a London official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said, "We are going to suggest to them [Baghdad officials] that any agreement has to be backed up with guarantees from the international community, preferably the United Nations." Another party official in Damascus said of the proposed U.N. guarantees: "We insist on that."
Mr. Bizayee identified the other members of Mr. Talabani's umbrella delegation as Sami Abdel-Rahman of the People's Democratic Party; Rasoul Mamand of the Socialist Party of Kurdistan; and Nechirvan Barzani, the nephew of Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani.
At this point, none of the Kurdish leaders has advocated secession, which Washington and other Western powers oppose well, fearing that a breakup of the Iraqi state would cause even greater instability in the region.