BAGHDAD, IRAQ — EACH day, as the Kurdish delegation sets off from the Al-Rashid Hotel for talks with the Iraqi government, it leaves surrounded by a posse of official security guards. These sinister-looking men, their jackets bulging with concealed weapons, accompany the Kurds everywhere - even for morning coffee in the hotel's snack bar. The dozen or so Kurds are engaged in what many see as an impossible task - attempting to transform Saddam Hussein the dictator into Saddam Hussein the democrat. Since the talks between Kurdish political groups and Iraq's leadership began April 24, the scope of the discussions has widened. As issues of political restructuring are broached, the Kurds appear to be negotiating not only their future but that of the entire country.
To Massoud Barzani, leader of the delegation, the future of 1 million Kurdish refugees stranded in mountains along Iraq's northern border can be best guaranteed by nationwide democracy. Only democracy, he argues, can ensure Kurdish rights.
The problem, the Kurds acknowledge, is: How can Saddam, who has ruled with an iron fist for virtually 22 years, be trusted? How is a man who has a track record of broken promises and atrocities against the Kurdish minority be expected to keep any commitment he makes on paper?
Mr. Barzani is banking on two factors:
*-The presence of UN-led forces in the north. Until the Kurds secure an agreement they believe will be honored, they hope there will be no quid pro quo on the departure of foreign troops.
*-Economic and political weakness. The Kurds claim the war has left Saddam defeated and humiliated and vulnerable to pressure. Now is the time, Kurdish leaders say, to make a deal.
Already, Barzani says, much has been achieved. On Saturday, he announced that an "agreement in principle" had been reached. In a deal that mirrors one Saddam negotiated with Barzani's father in 1970, the government has agreed to the separation of the ruling Baathist party from the state, political pluralism, the freeing of the press, and parliamentary and presidential elections.
Though Saddam has made several statements, both before and since the war, about introducing democracy, differences have already emerged over how this is to be done.
The Iraqi regime says it has already drafted the text for a new constitution. This draft, it argues, should be put to a vote in a national referendum before general elections.
Kurds urge broader input
The Kurds favor holding elections for a national assembly that would then draft its own constitution for a referendum. Only with the input of other voices along Iraq's political spectrum can a satisfactory constitution be written, they argue.
The problem is that a political spectrum does not exist in Iraq. The Iranian-backed Islamic groups, the Communists, and the London-based exile parties have little or no base inside Iraq.
Many Iraqis say democratic alternatives cannot be nurtured until an atmosphere of safety prevails. With Saddam in power and the Baathist-run security services still operational, few dare to criticize the ruling structure.
"No one is going to raise their heads above the parapet unless there is international protection and guarantees for the elections," says a Shiite intellectual.
This particular Western-educated professional was planning to form a party - but only if it could be somehow guaranteed that he and his family would not be hauled off by the security services.
Iraqi officials vehemently reject international guarantees as "blackmail and interference."
"What gives you the right in the West to judge our system? Why does the West only worry about democracy in Iraq?" demands Dr. Abdul Razzak al-Hashemi, the minister of higher education.
The Kurds say they know that achieving democracy is not going to be easy. But the weekend agreement is "a good start; we hope they implement it," says Samir Abdul Rahman, a leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Despite the apparent success in eliciting Saddam's promises for democracy, progress on other issues much closer to Kurdish hearts has been ambiguous.
The government has agreed to "normalization" in Kurdish areas - reopening schools, rescinding emergency law, and promoting development. The Kurds in turn have agreed to integrating the peshmerga guerrillas into the Iraqi forces.
However progress is contingent upon a key requirement: a census. Such statistics are vital if the Kurds are to claim a share in the future power structure, and to determine the size of of any autonomous "Kurdistan."
The Kurds maintain that they form 30 percent of Iraq's population. At present, they claim, Baghdad is still continuing its policies of "Arabizing" Kurdistan.
Saddam has also not agreed to consider Kirkuk, a major oil-producing center, to be within autonomous Kurdistan. The Kurds have conceded that revenue from city should go to the Baghdad. But they want administrative control over the region.
Barzani says that after 30 years of fighting the Baghdad regime, agreement will not be quickly won. Trust, he says, is the key. "We have fought so long. We both have hard experience. War is not the solution to this matter."