Iraq's Kurds may be a step closer to achieving negotiated autonomy - a step that Iran is trying hard to block. According to Omar Shaikhmous, the European spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), ''A peace agreement between Iraq and the Iraqi Kurds is now possible and close to signature.'' The PUK has been negotiating with the Iraqi government on behalf of Iraq's 2.5 million Kurds.
Such an accord, if signed, would allow Iraq to divert more of its forces to the warfront with Iran, which could alter the strategic balance between the two combattants in the Gulf war.
Most Kurds appear to favor autonomy within Iraq. But a minority, backed by Iran, favors total secession. Pro-secession Kurdish forces are now based in Iran near Rezaiyeh and are allegedly again receiving financial and logistical support from the government of Ayatollah Khomeini. They are known to be fighting alongside Iranian Revolutionary Guards against both Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish groups. Their leader is the son of Gen. Mustapha Mulla Barzani, who himself led a Kurdish force 10 years ago with aid from Israel as well as Iran.
The Iraqi-Kurdish agreement would legitimize a political status quo already achieved by the Kurds. If the accord is signed, the largest Iraqi concession would be a promise to transfer one-quarter of the national, nonmilitary budget to a new local Kurdish administration. This amount is roughly proportional to the region's share of the total Iraqi population of 13 million. This provision may well be the litmus test for the viability of the entire accord.
Another major concession involves the status of Kirkuk, the regional focus of Iraq's oil export industry and long a sticking point because of its strategic location and its mixed population. The Kurdish and Iraqi negotiators agreed May 7 that the city and its immediate environs would be ruled by joint Arab-Kurdish-Turkoman administration. The rest of Kirkuk Province would be part of the Kurdish autonomous region. The city of Kirkuk would thus be an enclave like West Berlin, Mr. Shaikhmous said.
Prior experience would suggest cautious optimism at best for the accord's passage. A 1970 agreement that promised similar measures of autonomy soon collapsed. But Shaikhmous emphasizes that, given Iraq's need for manpower against Iran, conditions for the accord's passing are more favorable now.
Among other provisions of the agreement:
* The Kurdish guerrillas - the Pesh Marga - would be reconstituted and designated as the ''People's Militia.'' They would be allowed to keep even their heavy weapons and would play a role beyond that of a local police force.
* Kurdish cultural institutions and publications would be allowed to reopen.
- Kurdish and Arabic - would be allowed within the autonomous
A well-informed source in London confirms the content of the accord but would not speculate as to whether it would actually be signed.
A cease-fire arranged last December ended more than 20 years of intermittent guerrilla warfare. According to the PUK, the truce has been marred only by occasional ''minor'' incidents.
A fourth round of Kurdish-Iraqi negotiations is under way in Baghdad, focusing on remaining details of the boundary of the autonomous region. Iraq wants to keep the key towns of Dukan and Surdash and is reluctant to allow displaced Kurdish peasants to return to an area near the Turkish border. This may be in response to growing pressure from Turkey, whose own Kurdish population is large and restive.
Turkey is also maneuvering to undercut any settlement because it fears Kurdish autonomy in Iraq will set an unwanted precedent. Iraq depends on Turkey for economic survival: Iraq is Turkey's major transport link to Europe; Iraq's only oil export pipeline to Europe traverses Turkey. Turkish pressure, in the form of border raids deep into Iraqi territory and diplomatic maneuvers, is strongly felt.