THE scene in this Kurdish stronghold is a reminder of 1922, when rebel leader Sheikh Mahmoud al-Barazanji established a short-lived independent Kurdish kingdom here. Bearded militiamen, dressed in traditional costumes, confidently patrol city entrances and government buildings, and move freely in the streets.But the Kurds have come a long way since the Barazanji revolt, which ended tragically when British troops crushed his "kingdom" in 1923. They have no illusions about the extent of foreign, particularly Western, support for a Kurdish independence movement in Iraq. "The Kurds have learned from the previous experiences. They know better now than to depend on foreign support," says Wamidh Nazmi, a political scientist at the University of Baghdad. So even when the peshmergas, or militias, found themselves in charge of Sulaymaniyah after a short spell of bloody fighting with the Iraqi Army last month, they knew their control would not amount to more than a bargaining chip at talks over autonomy between the Baghdad government and Kurdish groups. But the lack of Western support has not forced the Iraqi Kurds to settle for nothing. In the view of analysts and even some Iraqi officials, the Kurdish movement is expected to help shape Iraq's future. "By coming to Baghdad for talks with the government and linking talks over ... autonomy with demands of democracy, the Kurdish movement has gained respect among the Iraqi Arabs and has placed itself in ... a key role in shaping the future of a united Iraq," says the University of Baghdad's Saed Naji Jawad, an expert on the Kurdish question. In a Monitor interview early this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi conceded that the four-month negotiations with the Kurdish parties have convinced the Baghdad government to liberalize, in some respects, the laws governing political parties and the press. Mr. Hammadi says that the future of democratization in Iraq hinges on the signing of an agreement with the Kurdish parties. The Kurdish opposition, especially in the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), believes the weakness of the Baghdad government provides it with a rare chance to reach an agreement, according to Kurdish sources. The talks, however, have failed so far. Political observers in Baghdad believe that the Baghdad government resents the forceful Kurdish campaign for democratization. Iraqi officials also feel that they can afford to play for time to consolidate their standing and secure an agreement that limits the Kurdish role, according to these observers. This Iraqi government assessment runs against most Western and even Arab predictions that time is against the Iraqi regime. Whether to postpone or reach an agreement with Baghdad is a major debate among the Kurdish groups, according to sources in the opposition parties. KDP leader Masoud Barzani apparently believes that signing an agreement with Iraqi president Saddam Hussein would be better than waiting for a pro-Western government to replace Saddam's Baathist regime. According to this line of argument, the Kurdish question will lose its importance as a pressure point against the regime if a pro-American government takes over in Baghdad. "The West will then be as apathetic to us as it is to the Kurds in Turkey," says a Kurdish university professor who preferred anynomity. But Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, believes otherwise. He maintains closer ties with the West and thinks that the Kurds could get a better deal if the regime collapses, according to the same Kurdish sources.