SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq – Twelve years after he led a mission that protected Kurds from Saddam Hussein's wrath, Jay Garner returned to northern Iraq on Tuesday to a warm welcome and a bigger task -- the reconstruction of the entire country.
The retired U.S. general sat down with rival Kurdish factions for talks, won assurances they would put aside for now their aspirations for independence, and discussed ways to mediate conflicts between Arabs and Kurds.
Unlike the polite but cool reception he received a day earlier in Baghdad, and outright hostility in the south last week, the American postwar administrator got a delighted welcome here.
Among several signs spectators held: "We trust you in our future."
Garner replied in kind, telling Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani: "You always make me feel at home."
Talabani responded: "When you retire, come back to Kurdistan ... and we'll prepare a beautiful house for you."
The retired general lavished praise on the democracy that sprang up amid the Kurdish region's de facto autonomy -- kept safe from Saddam by U.S. and British jets -- and promised that Kurds would play a key role in forging a democratic Iraq.
Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, promised that his people would put their independence aspirations on hold, at least for the near future.
That statement could placate neighboring Turkey, which has feared that Kurds would push for independence in the postwar power vacuum, in turn igniting new unrest among Turkey's Kurds.
But the Kurds are just one piece of the conflicting jumble of ethnic, religious, political and exile groups competing for power that Garner must balance as he pursues his task of overseeing the postwar reconstruction of Iraq.
Garner met jointly with Talabani and Kurdish Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani on Tuesday in a chalet in the lakeside town of Dokan about 30 miles northwest of Sulaymaniyah.
The Kurds have their own tensions, with a long-standing rivalry between the two groups that degenerated into civil war in the late 1990s. They've since found common ground with Washington, and in October, the full Kurdish parliament convened for the first time in eight years.
After Tuesday's meeting, Talabani, addressing worries about the Kurds' desire for an independent state, said: "Our dream is to live in the framework of a democratic Iraq. ... Although we believe that the Kurdish people, like other people in the world, have the right to self-determination, at this moment we want to deal within the framework of Iraq."
Sulaymaniyah governor Aso Sheikh Nuri echoed those assurances. "There are regimes all around us who do not like the idea of a free Kurdistan," he said. "We want a federated Iraq; we want to live inside a free and democratic Iraq."
The Kurds formed a regional government in 1991 under the protection of U.S. jets patrolling northern Iraq's "no-fly zone," where hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees fled after Saddam's troops crushed a Kurdish rebellion.
Garner told reporters they discussed forming a multiethnic committee to mediate disputes between Arabs and Kurds. He dismissed those who described current hostilities between the two groups as ethnic cleansing.
"The only ethnic cleansing was done by Saddam Hussein," Garner said. "This is a different government and a new era."
Disputes between Arabs and Kurds have led to some fighting. Over the past three decades, Saddam's government embarked on an "Arabization" program in the north, expelling tens of thousands of Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrian Christians and replacing them with Arab families from southern Iraq.
Recent tensions spurred an increase of U.S. troops on Tuesday in the northern city of Mosul, where American forces have been struggling to restore order.
Talabani praised President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and sharply criticized opponents of the U.S.-led war, whether peace activists or the European governments.
"Peace cannot be achieved with dictators," Talabani said. "Peace can only be achieved with democracy and human rights."
During his visit, Garner held a town-hall style meeting and met with an auditorium full of students at Sulaymaniyah's university.
"I think the time has come for the Kurds," he said. "The job they've done in the north is a tribute for free men and women."