ZAKHO, Iraq -- Saleh Abdulkadir should have plenty of work.
He is a builder in this city ravaged by the failed Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein. Houses here and whole villages nearby have been razed in battle and vengeance.
But few here have faith enough to rebuild.
"There is no cement, and we don't know where these autonomy talks will lead," said Mr. Abdulkadir, who is unemployed and still living in a U.N. refugee camp tent outside Zakho. "Nobody wants to build a house just to watch it fall."
Three months after defeated Iraqi Kurds were persuaded it was safe to return home from the disease and death of refugee camps in southeastern Turkey and in Iran, their future appears no more certain now than it did then.
They have gone from hell to limbo, as talks on autonomy between Kurdish guerrilla leaders and Iraqi President Hussein drag on.
Even if there were an agreement with Mr. Hussein, many here say there is little likelihood he would honor it once the 2,500 foreign forces monitoring northern Iraq from across the border leave Turkey.
"Nobody trusts Saddam Hussein. He's always sending in the secret police to make trouble," said one of the Kurdish rebels -- known as the Pesh Merga -- handling internal security in Dohuk. "Saddam stalls the talks as long as possible to strengthen his base here. He's waiting for the foreign forces to leave before making his move."
Sources in the area said that in recent days, Iraqi troops in civilian dress have been closing in around Suleimaniyeh, Kirkuk and Erbil, like an invisible noose.
For now, the people here are relying on the foreign forces in Turkey to keep the noose from tightening.
At the roadside checkpoints, Pesh Merga wave cars past and lounge in the shade. They are seldom seen training and insist they do not want to fight another loser's round.
"If you [the foreign forces] are near us, we're safe. If you go, we're not," said Naima Ramadan, as she shopped in a Zakho fabric store with her friend, Fatmah Saleh.
The women's search for blue crepe was a sign of the loss that many families here have suffered these last few years as a result of Mr. Hussein's ambitions.
Kurdish women in Iraq wear black to mourn a recent death in their families, switching to navy blue, then lighter shades of blue as time passes. Mrs. Ramadan and Mrs. Saleh were looking for a powder-blue crepe, which they could not find.
"I lost my brother in Kuwait. Then after a month, my father died," said Mrs. Ramadan. "My father grieved so much that his heart stopped."
The Iran-Iraq war claimed Mrs. Ramadan's brother, a soldier in the Iraqi army.
Beshir Mejid, owner of a fabric store in Zakho, said that about one in four of his female customers asks for black and blue fabrics. He said his main problem is finding material to sell.
Because of the U.N. embargo, fabrics that used to come from Japan and Korea are not available. What Mr. Mejid gets often comes from special connections, and the price often is higher than people can afford.
He ran his hand over a stack of cotton broadcloths. "This is eight dinars a meter," he said, as if even he could not believe it. "It was three dinars before."
The prices are especially outrageous because few men here are employed. A U.N. report estimated that one out of two men in northern Iraq is without work.
At the same time, the community's infrastructure has practically collapsed, though services such as water, electricity, buses and garbage pickup are hobbling along in Zakho.
At the Dohuk Hospital, Dr. Sarbar Muhammed Amreen said the insanitary conditions in the refugee camps of Turkey and in Dohuk were resulting in an epidemic of typhoid fever.
"It is an epidemic: 10, 15 patients a day, mostly children and adolescents," he said, adding that typhoid is often just one of many diseases a patient may have.
In the children's ward, babies still have diarrhea because the water of Dohuk is not purified. Maha Kassem brought in her 1 1/2 -year-old daughter, Delvin, who weighed only 10 pounds. The child's gaze seemed old, beyond emotion.
For the moment, the hospital has enough medicine and supplies, though Dr. Amreen said the Baghdad-sent director of the hospital would rather not know where they come from: the United Nations, visiting journalists, foreign governments.
There is an atmosphere of anything goes in this part of northern Iraq. Drivers ignore traffic signals; traditional rules go by the wayside, replaced by an automotive law of might: yield to the bigger vehicle.
In Zakho and Dohuk, crowds of unemployed men, many of them in the colorful uniforms of the Pesh Merga, gather in the teahouses, with little to do between their hours of guard or checkpoint service.