WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration said yesterday it would welcome an agreement by Saddam Hussein to grant some measure of autonomy to Kurds living within Iraq but offered little guidance to Kurdish leaders said to be doubtful Mr. Hussein would follow through on the offer.
"This is something they're going to have to decide for themselves," a U.S. official said after a meeting with Kurdish opposition leaders at the State Department yesterday. "I don't think this is something we want to get in the middle of."
During three days of talks in Baghdad between Iraqi government officials and representatives of several major Kurdish organizations, Mr. Hussein was described by spokesmen for the rebel leaders as being very receptive to their demands that he provide Kurds broad new rights of self-government under overall Iraqi authority.
The Times of London also reported yesterday that Mr. Hussein was considering allowing the city of Kirkuk, an important oil center with a mixed Arab-Kurdish population, to be included in a proposed Kurdish autonomous region.
The White House said it had no independent confirmation of the talks, but it found the prospect of a long-term solution to the massive flight from Iraq of Kurdish refugees encouraging.
"Obviously, anything that would allow them to return to their homes in safety would be a welcome move," observed presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater.
U.S. officials made no attempt todissuade the Kurdish leaders from dealing with Mr. Hussein by suggesting that another long-term solution to their problem might be in the works -- such as a U.S.-backed plan for Mr. Hussein's removal from power.
In fact, David Mack, the deputy assistent secretary of state for Near East Affairs, warned the delegation from the Iraqi Kurdistan Front yesterday that refugee camps now being set up in Iraq by U.S. forces "must not become bases for guerrilla activity," according to a statement issued by spokesman Richard Boucher.
But neither was the Bush administration eager to push the Kurdish leaders into bargaining with a leader who many feel has betrayed them in the past and who they feel is only willing to talk now in hopes of softening world reaction against him.
"We have long held that human rights abuses against the Kurds should stop," Mr. Boucher said. "Exactly what they want to do with Saddam is for them to decide."
Wariness within the Kurdish community comes from long experience with Mr. Hussein.
They say the Iraqi president violated an agreement to give them autonomy in 1974, nearly two decades before their latest rebellion ended so brutally last month that 2 million refugees fled for their lives into the mountains along the borders with Turkey and Iran.
"Our history with Saddam is one of mistrust: He didn't keep his word," said Hoshyar Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic party, said last night.
Even so, he said there was reason for optimism because "the Iraqis have showed some positive signs" in negotiations so far.