BARZAN, Iraq — Chatting with a circle of followers at a spring, Kurdish guerrilla leader Masoud Barzani breathed in the mountain air of his ancestral village, trying to escape for a day the strains of bargaining for peace with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
From a distance, the lush setting here in northern Iraqi Kurdistan seemed idyllic. But the destruction wrought by three decades of Arab-Kurdish civil war lay all around.
Barzan has been bombed, bulldozed or blown up four times by government forces since 1963. Now, as in more than 4,000 other Kurdish villages in Iraq, virtually every house is a pile of rubble, the farm fields around the towns overgrown.
"If you look, I think you will understand," Barzani said quietly, offering a visitor a taste of one of the few remaining fruits of the land, sweet purple mulberries for which his village is famed.
For Barzani, 46, understanding is not just a question of the Kurds' anger and suspicion toward Iraq's Arab majority. As the Kurds decide whether to go ahead with yet another autonomy accord with Baghdad, they also understand that their position is weak and their homeland shattered.
"We have not defeated them," Barzani said. "Remember that. They have not defeated us. . . . We have got to live together."
Leaders of the eight-party Iraqi Kurdistan Front were due to start meeting later in the leafy mountain resort of Shaklawa, to put what were expected to be the final touches on a new autonomy accord hammered out in two months of talks with Hussein's regime in Baghdad.
Iraqi Kurdish guerrilla leaders agree that they need an autonomy deal with Hussein and that hot-blooded dreams will never unite into an independent Kurdistan the 20 million to 30 million ethnic Kurds split between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Both Baghdad and Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party, the biggest in the Kurdistan Front, say they are close to signing the deal for the future of the 3.5 million Kurds in Iraq.
The Iraqi Kurds rebelled after the Persian Gulf War but were ruthlessly suppressed, triggering an exodus of about 2 million refugees to camps in Turkey and Iran. The refugees have nearly all returned from Turkey, and a steady stream still flows back from Iran, where half a million remain.
Until the autonomy accord is signed, tens of thousands of Kurds are still camping outside government-controlled areas. Others are living under canvas amid the rubble of their bulldozed homes, waiting for money and aid they hope the accord will bring.
Kurdish Democratic Party Radio tells its listeners the news they want to hear, that the autonomy accord will be signed "within days." But guerrilla leaders are split about whether to trust Hussein and whether the public sympathy and offer of military security from the West can last.
The signing of the accord is now likely to be delayed, mainly because of harsh new conditions slammed on the table by Hussein's negotiators just as the last points of the Kurdish autonomy agreement were being discussed before the talks recessed in mid-June.
Kurdish leaders say that under the new terms, the Kurdish movement would be forced to cut its own ties to foreign governments. Baghdad also wants to enlist the Kurds in an alliance against the Shiite Muslim majority of Iraq and make the Iraqi Kurdistan Front a virtual adjunct of Hussein's Baath Party.
"The obligation conditions are terrible. No Kurd can accept it," said Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the second-biggest group in the front. The rejection was seconded by Mahmud Othman, spokesman for the Kurdish Socialist Party.
Kurdish commanders say Barzani has no faith in international support for the Kurdish cause, after 30 years as a guerrilla in wars that have laid waste his homeland as the world looked the other way.
"Nobody has told me anything. There are only statements (from other governments) that they will not abandon the Kurds," Barzani said at his hilltop headquarters, situated in the guerrilla-controlled northeast of Iraq known as Free Kurdistan.
Talabani has, however, been working to capitalize on international sympathy for the Kurds, especially in Europe, warning of Hussein's new conditions during a two-week visit to Turkey this month.
Like all Kurdish leaders, Talabani wants the U.S.-led allied military coalition--which is now in the process of pulling out--to remain in the haven in northwestern Iraq as long as possible.
Talabani said French President Francois Mitterrand had sent him a letter promising French reconstruction aid for Kurdistan and pressure on France's allies for a broader European effort.
Significantly, Talabani said he has the support of President Turgut Ozal of Turkey, a country so worried about separatism among its 10 million Kurds that until six months ago, it was technically forbidden to speak Kurdish. The Ankara government also once coordinated anti-Kurdish rebel strategies with Baghdad.