WHEN rumors of an impending agreement with Saddam Hussein spread through Iraqi Kurdistan last week, there was no doubting the mood of Kurdish public opinion. From one mountain town to the next, streams of red tracer fire arced into the night sky from volley after volley of celebratory gunfire.
At Jalal Talabani's headquarters in an abandoned school in a ruined hill village north of Sulaymaniyah, Peshmerga guerrillas linked arms with Kurdish refugees and danced, sang, and clapped in the moonlight to celebrate what they hoped would be the end of their ordeal.
Some refugees trekking toward the Iranian border literally turned in their tracks when they heard the news. ``Now we can return to our homes with dignity,'' one said.
Within a day, a steady trickle was carrying thousands of refugees back toward the Kurdish cities from which they fled Saddam's Army a month ago. It was nothing like the vast flood of that exodus, but it was a beginning.
But Kurdish guerrilla leaders returning to the rebel-held north from their talks in Baghdad last week made it clear that the celebration was premature.
No agreement has yet been concluded with the government. There is broad accord on general principles, such as implementing the 1970 Autonomy Agreement for the Kurds, and establishing democracy in Iraq. But detailed negotiations will be needed before a final agreement is reached.
``This is not an agreement, it is a negotiation,'' says Mr. Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who headed the four-man Kurdish delegation in the Baghdad talks. Another leader who took part described them as no more than ``a frank and cordial exchange of views.''
``What they showed us is that they are ready to recognize the general principles which we discussed,'' Talabani adds. ``But we may face difficulties and obstacles when it comes to discussing details. What do we mean by autonomy, for example? Baghdad has in theory agreed to autonomy ever since 1970, but their idea was different from ours.''
He believed that problems could arise in defining the boundaries, the powers, and the external relations of the proposed Kurdish autonomous area.
But Talabani says the government had already agreed to a number of specific Kurdish demands, including the release of all Kurds detained since the revolt broke out in early March, the revival of some 4,000 Kurdish villages razed by the regime over the years, and an end to its policy of `Arabizing' Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kurdish leaders are not alarmed at how long it is taking to reach agreement with Saddam.
``You cannot solve a 30-year-old problem with one meeting,'' says Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party. ``It may take several more rounds of talks, but the important thing is that the atmosphere is very positive. In the meantime, we are encouraging the refugees to return to their homes.''
Kurdish leaders admit that their bargaining position was greatly strengthened by the US-led coalition's intervention to protect the refugees in the north.
They believe Saddam is weak, making it a good time for them to negotiate a deal in the hope that he is either kept weak, or replaced by someone else who would inherit the Kurdish autonomy accord.
``He looked like a defeated man,'' says one of the officials who took part in the talks. ``When we met him in the past, he was like a strutting peacock. Now he is an ordinary man, polite, humble. You could read in his face the recognition of failure.''
``He looked like an animal which had been broken both morally and physically,'' says another. ``He has lost a lot of weight, and looked listless, though he became more animated during the discussion.''
The Kurds are unrepentant about seeking a deal with the man they regard as a tyrannical dictator, despite accusations by Iraqi Shiite leaders that they have sold out the other opposition groups.
``It is unfair to accuse us of a sell-out,'' says Sami Abd al-Rahman, head of one of the smaller Kurdish groups. ``Anyone in our shoes would have done the same thing. Our children are dying by the hundreds up in the mountains.''
``We were facing a tragedy,'' says Talabani. ``Three million Kurds were displaced. We could not accept another Armenia and the depopulation of Kurdistan. The Shiites had help from a powerful neighbor, Iran. We had no support, no friends to help us.''
Arguing that they had no choice but to turn back to Baghdad, many Kurds say the refugees have been poorly received by both Iran and Turkey. Many allege that aid is being siphoned off and sold privately by profiteering officials in both countries.
``The Iranians are really exploiting the situation, confiscating cars, money, jewelry and everything else the refugees have,'' one Kurdish official says. ``We sent some of our wounded across to Iran for treatment, and we are still trying to get our ambulances back.''
Nor will Kurdish leaders entertain criticism from the West that by embracing Saddam they may have made him look respectable. They believe it is the West that has kept Saddam in power.
``The Americans permitted Saddam to crush the Shiites in the south and to weaken, but not crush, the Kurds in the north,'' Talabani says. ``He was allowed to use helicopter gunships against us in the cities, but now he is not allowed to use them even to spray crops. It is very clear.''
Despite optimism that an agreement will eventually be worked out, nobody trusts Saddam. ``I'll believe he's become a democrat when I see a scorpion turn into a dove,'' one Peshmerga official growls.
So the guerrillas continue to reorganize their Peshmerga forces, seeing them as the ultimate guarantee of their rights. They also hope to win some kind of international guarantees to underwrite an agreement - something Saddam is resisting.