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SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) -- Retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Jay Garner met with Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq on Tuesday, praising the support they gave in ridding the country of Saddam Hussein.
Garner, who is overseeing the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, was on the second day of his tour around the country. His helicopter landed in Sulaymaniyah under heavy guard and was met by a delegation from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main Kurdish groups.
It was Garner's first time in the region since he ran Operation Provide Comfort, coordinating humanitarian aid after Saddam crushed a Kurdish rebellion following the 1991 Gulf War. Kurdish cooperation is key for the peaceful development of northern Iraq, but their internal struggles and disputes with both Iraqi Arabs and neighboring Turkey have left many in the region anxious.
"You always make me feel at home," Garner told PUK leader Jalal Talabani.
Talabani responded "When you retire, come back to Kurdistan ... and we'll prepare a beautiful house for you."
The PUK has often been at odds with the Kurdish Democratic Party that holds sway in the western part of Iraq's Kurdish region, and their disagreements resulted in civil war in 1996. They later found common ground as partners with Washington, and in October the full Kurdish parliament convened for the first time in eight years.
But last week, in a possible sign that tensions were flaring up again, KDP leader Massoud Barzani accused the PUK of triggering looting and chaos in northern cities by storming into the Iraqi oil center of Kirkuk.
On Tuesday, Garner went to the town of Dokan about 30 miles northwest of Sulaymaniyah in one of Kurdistan's picturesque regions, where he, Talabani and Barzani began formal talks after lunch.
Earlier, Garner praised the Kurds, despite their internal tensions.
"I think the time has come for the Kurds. The job they've done in the north is a tribute for free men and women," he told The Associated Press.
He did not say how his office would address the sensitive question of Kurds' aspirations of independence.
The Kurds formed a regional government in 1991 under the protection of U.S. jets patrolling northern Iraq's "no-fly zone."
Turkey, which lies immediately to the north, is wary of events in Iraq's Kurdish area, concerned they might encourage Turkey's own Kurdish population to seek independence.
Before visiting Dokan, the 65-year-old Garner went to the city's university and spoke to an auditorium full of students.
"Iraq is one of the wealthiest countries in the Middle East, yet the wealth of Iraq has never been shared," he said.
Hiwa Abdullah, a professor of Arabic, said he was happy to see Garner in the region.
"At least with Americans, we will no longer be afraid of chemicals and genocide," he said.
He was referring to life under Saddam's regime, which ordered a 1988 poison gas attack that killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds.
In 1991, Garner commanded the allied force that moved into northern Iraq to protect hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees who fled their homes after Saddam crushed the Kurdish rebellion.
Garner was appointed in January by Washington to run the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which is charged with restoring services in Iraq while an interim government is formed.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)