WASHINGTON -- A Kurdish rebel leader announced in Baghdad yesterday that Kurds and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had reached agreement in principle on greater autonomy for their region, offering the hope that some 2 million refugees might eventually be able to return to their homes in safety.
The announcement was greeted cautiously by the Bush administration, which was grappling with what President Bush called the "serious problem" of how to get Iraqi forces away from campsites in northern Iraq that are intended to lure hundreds of thousands of Kurds down from their mountain sanctuaries.
Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said at a news conference, "As a principle I can say yes," when asked whether the two sides had reached agreement. "We need to have another round of negotiations for details to implement it." He said talks would resume after celebrations marking Mr. Hussein's 54th birthday Sunday.
Mr. Talabani, who returned to theKurdish area of northern Iraq late last month after years in exile, said the talks centered on implementation of a 1970 autonomy agreement.
"This meeting gave me confidence that there will be no main obstacles in the way of implementation of the declaration of March 11, 1970, which is the main point," he said, according to vTC Reuters. He said he expected no problems in working out details.
"I have never seen in all this time such a positive spirit, such a positive climate, such positive ground for negotiation on Iraqi Kurdistan."
Mr. Talabani also said, "As Iraqis, we are for the independence and sovereignty of the Iraqi government. Together with other Iraqis, we will try to ensure Iraqi sovereign independence and to take part in the rebuilding of our country."
In Washington, Bush administration officials greeted news accounts of the agreement with skepticism about Iraqi intentions.
"In the short term we hope it will enable Kurds to return to their homes," one official said. "But in the long term, we're not sure of its value because of Saddam Hussein's less than sterling track record in honoring agreements."
The 1970 accord, which allowed Kurds to govern their region and participate in the national government, fell apart within a few years in clashes between government troops and rebels opposed to the way Iraq was putting it into effect.
Iraqi moves to suppress the Kurds culminated in the deaths o 5,000 Kurds by poison gas in 1988.
A renewed uprising followed Iraq's defeat in the Persian Gul war, but it was crushed by troops using heavy weaponry and helicopters.
This set off a massive Kurdish exodus toward the Turkish and Iranian frontiers. Some Bush administration officials believe that Mr. Hussein deliberately pushed the Kurds out in an effort to destabilize neighboring countries.
Senior administration officials were trying yesterday to reach a consensus with Britain and France on how to get Iraqi forces out of Zakho, a northern Iraqi town where allied forces are erecting camps to move the Kurds from inaccessible mountains along the Iraqi-Turkish border.
"We're working that problem and we'll have more to say about it later," President Bush told reporters.
"It's a serious problem but . . . I think we're getting it under control."
Another official said the intimidating presence of Iraqi forces in Zakho "has to be dealt with" since it would "probably mean that Kurds won't want to move to the camp."
Among actions that could be taken, he said, would be to deliver an ultimatum to the Iraqis to withdraw or simply to order them out. U.S. officials denied reports attributed to British forces that an ultimatum already had been given.
Meanwhile, the United States prepared to use international agencies to send the bulk of its planned relief aid to Kurdish refugees inside Iran. But "there's still a possibility that military flights may be used" for some of the aid, an administration official said.