THE humanitarian needs of the Kurds in northern Iraq, though still desperate, are beginning to be met. But aid efforts could ultimately be Band-Aids unless a way is found for the Kurds to return to their homes inside Iraq. Last week's preliminary agreement between Kurdish leaders and Saddam Hussein occasions both hope and wariness. Saddam agreed to an autonomy plan that would allow self-government and cultural pluralism.
But this is very hard to take at face value. Can anything negotiated by Saddam be trusted? He crafted an autonomy pact with the Kurds in 1970, which was promptly broken. He negotiated a nonaggression agreement with Iran in the mid-'70s. He embraced the emir of Kuwait shortly before invading his country.
Saddam has ample reason to bargain: the Kurdish refugee crisis is bringing allied troops back into Iraq from the north even as they exit to the south. It's also postponing an easing of international sanctions to allow Iraq to sell some of its oil and begin economic rebuilding.
But what kind of guarantees do the Kurds have that the Iraqi dictator will keep his word?
The immediate guarantee is the US, British, and French presence in the ``safe'' areas of the north. President Bush has said American forces will stay as long as it takes to secure the unthreatened return of the Kurds. And the United Nations is ready to take over administration of the camps. The UN will require Baghdad's cooperation, given voluntarily or through pressure.
The pressure on Saddam springs from the international stranglehold on his economy. Any loosening of that hold should follow clear-cut progress toward compliance with international demands - which ought to include honoring a pact with the Kurds.
Mr. Bush and many others still hope for the removal of Saddam. There's no sign of that. In fact, settlement of the Kurdish issue could prolong Saddam's tenure. But vigorous compliance with an autonomy pact, under close international observation, could weaken his police state.
Democracy holds the best hope for Iraq and the region as a whole. Western nations should make clear the type of political change they'd like to see in Iraq and use their economic leverage to help bring it about. Democratic institutions, such as free elections, in an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and in Kuwait could be a start, helping reverse the political souring that has begun to mark the postwar Middle East.