Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader who stunned the West by joining forces with Saddam Hussein to defeat his Kurdish rivals, is expected to meet a senior United States government official on the Turkish-Iraqi border in the next couple of days.
Western officials hope the meeting between Mr Barzani and Robert Pelletreau, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, may signal the beginning of a gradual return to the Western orbit of the now all-conquering Kurdish Democratic party (KDP).
If so, President Saddam's apparent strategic gains of the past two weeks may crumble, leaving a single, Western-leaning Kurdish faction in virtually undisputed control of the northern part of the country.
The Clinton administration could then claim that its much-criticised strategy of laissez-faire in the north and Saddam-bashing air-raids in southern Iraq had been vindicated - whether or not Washington had genuinely expected such an outcome.
Several uncertainties remain, however. Hundreds of Iraqi secret agents are believed to have entered the Kurdish region since the KDP, with Iraqi help, chased its rivals in the Iranian-backed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) out of the city of Arbil at the end of last month. Western officials are uncertain how deeply the Baghdad agents have penetrated Kurdistan and how much freedom of action they have demanded, or seized, from the KDP.
This will be one of the central topics of discussion at the encounter between Mr Barzani, in trade-mark outsize turban, and Mr Pelletreau, in light-weight suit, which will probably take place at the Turkish border town of Silopi, maybe as soon as today. Mr Pelletreau will also want to know whether the KDP is ready to allow the resumption of Western aid efforts in northern Iraq; to re- enter talks with its defeated rivals; and to allow some form of democratic control and ordinary commercial life to resume in Kurdish territory.
Western sources point to several hopeful signs. First, Mr Barzani has not allowed himself to be paraded in Baghdad as President Saddam's long- lost friend. Second, he has stated that he still belongs to the broad Iraqi opposition movement. Third, Iraqi troops have not participated in the wider rout of the PUK in the past week.
Until Iraqi troops were invited by Mr Barzani to join in on his side last month, the Iranian-backed PUK had seemed to be the stronger of the two main Iraqi-Kurdish factions. Its disintegration in the face of KDP attacks has thrown all calculations in northern Iraq, including President Saddam's, into confusion.
His best interest would have been served by a prolonged battle between the two factions which would have given him time to turn the KDP into a dependent client rather than a temporary ally. The sudden triumph of the KDP opens up the prospect of a northern Iraq securely controlled by one dominant Kurdish leader.
What remains unclear is whether Mr Barzani has been equally surprised by his own success or whether he gambled all along on turning Iraq's strength against itself, rapidly defeating the PUK, and then changing sides once again. This may be too byzantine a strategy, even for Kurdistan.
Whatever the outcome of the Barzani-Pelletreau meeting, Western sources expect the true state of affairs in northern Iraq to remain opaque for several weeks. If Mr Barzani made too precipitate a move to expel Baghdad's agents, he might provoke some form of Iraqi military action. On the other hand, it would be easier for the US to respond to an attack on the now dominant KDP than to have supported, in effect, one Kurdish faction against another last month.
If Mr Barzani does prove to be independent of Saddam, Washington could claim, despite its own apparent fumbling, that the outcome of the crisis is largely to its advantage: President Saddam's air defences have been battered in the south; the "no-fly zone" has been extended; and the ambitions of both Iraq and Iran in Iraqi Kurdistan have been frustrated.
Meanwhile, the prospect of further US military action against President Saddam has receded.
The nuclear-powered submarine Pittsburgh has passed through the Suez Canal to join other American forces in the Gulf and President Bill Clinton signed an order yesterday sending up to an extra 5,000 US troops to Kuwait, but Western sources said there was no longer much appetite in Washington for further clashes with President Saddam so long as Iraqi forces did not fire on allied planes patrolling the no-fly zones.
Salahuddin - Mr Barzani left his headquarters last night for a hurriedly arranged meeting with Tansu Ciller, the Turkish Foreign Minister, at which they are expected to discuss the proposed Turkish security zone in northern Iraq, writes Patrick Cockburn. Earlier, in an interview with The Independent, Mr Barzani rejected the idea of the 25-km-wide zone, saying: "We understand the Turkish concerns but the formula of having a buffer zone we cannot accept." Turkey wants to clear a broad belt of territory in northern Iraq of its inhabitants in order to make it more difficult for the Turkish guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to survive.Reuse content