The top Kurdish leader said Saturday that the rebels and President Saddam Hussein's government agreed in principle on full democracy for Iraq and autonomy for the Kurdish minority.

But the leader, Massoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party, said there was still no agreement on how large the Kurdish autonomous region should be, and there were few details on how autonomy would work. Also, he gave no indication when a formal pact might be signed.The tentative accord could help encourage more Kurdish refugees to return to their homes in northern Iraq from camps in Turkey, Iran and a security zone in Iraq established by U.S. and allied forces.

In northern Iraq, Iraqi troops began pulling back from some positions around the provincial capital of Dohuk, a U.S. military spokeswoman said Saturday.

"The Iraqis are closing down their observation posts, checkpoints and their positions" north of the city, said Army Maj. Susan Ives, a spokeswoman for the coalition forces.

She said the move appeared to be linked to negotiations between U.S. and Iraqi military leaders. The two sides have been looking for a way to assure Kurdish refugees that it is safe to return to Dohuk, without coalition forces expanding their secure area in northern Iraq to include the city.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Philip Crowley, a spokesman

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for the allied command at Incirlik base in Turkey, said the allied commander, Lt. Gen. John Shalikashvili, and Iraqi Lt. Gen. Abu Firas Saber would meet in Dohuk later.

Near the edge of the allied security zone, Iraqi troops fired at a U.S. Army helicopter Friday night, military officials in Turkey said Saturday. But the helicopter was not hit and did not return the fire, they said.

The United Nations special representative in Iraq said the first contingent of U.N. guards assigned to protect refugees arrived Saturday in Baghdad. Bernt Bernander said the 10 guards would travel to northern Iraq on Sunday.

The guards' mission apparently falls short of Western demands for a U.N. presence to replace the allied military force in the region.

Bernander described the guards as a "general law and order" presence and said they were not a police force. He said they would be authorized to carry side-arms.

In Baghdad, Barzani said the rebels and the Baghdad government agreed to free elections throughout Iraq and freedom of the press. He also said Saddam promised to give up his monopoly on power, agreeing to separate his ruling Baath Party from the state.

The agreement also calls for the separation of the executive, legislative and judiciary bodies, Barzani said.

Barzani said that under the proposed agreement, Kurdish rebels would be incorporated into the Iraqi military or into Kurdish regional police forces.

"All these are principle agreements. We are still negotiating," said Barzani, who headed a delegation including all major Kurdish factions in two weeks of talks with the government. "Nothing has been signed or finalized, but a broad agreement has been reached on these matters."

There was no comment from the government.

While the Kurds accepted Saddam's recent promises of a new democratic Iraq, the two sides remained bogged down on the key points of the size of the Kurdish autonomous region and whether the oil center of Kirkuk would be included in the region. However, Barzani said "the oil is up to the central government."

Asked why he was trusting Saddam Hussein when earlier agreements had collapsed, Barzani said, "because both of us, we've got very hard experience that war is not the solution of the matter."