LONDON — LEADERS of Iraq's long-divided opposition groups in exile are taking steps to achieve unity. Their prime objective is to form the basis of an alternative government able to take over in Iraq should President Saddam Hussein be removed from power. The latest attempt to achieve common ground among exiled parties and prominent individuals is spearheaded by Saad Jabr, son of a former Iraqi prime minister and leader of the Western-oriented Umma (Nation) Party, founded in Britain nine years ago.
Last weekend, Mr. Jabr was elected president of the newly formed Free Iraqi Council - a nonsectarian umbrella organization operating from London that will seek to create links with exiled Iraqi political groups in other countries.
Jabr, a Shiite Muslim, said Tuesday that the council plans to establish regular contact with a coalition of Iraqi radical, nationalist, and Kurdish groups who signed a declaration Dec. 27 in Damascus, Syria, calling for the overthrow of Saddam.
Jabr said the council viewed Iraq's current situation as extremely dangerous. ``We have a mad ruler who has involved our country in a destructive war. Thousands of our people are being killed. Now is the moment to involve ourselves in action to remove this man. It is obvious that to achieve this all Saddam Hussein's opponents in exile must make common cause,'' he said.
``Members of our council shortly will travel to the countries of the allied coalition and make our case for being allowed to play an important part in the new government of Iraq.''
Jabr held talks with United States State Department officials in Washington soon after the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. He has also paid a visit to Saudi Arabia, and made contact with some members of the Damascus group.
Initial conversations had been encouraging, he said, but he also acknowledged that forging links between the exiled groups opposed to Saddam would not be easy.
Until Iraq invaded Kuwait, radical Iraqi groups based in Damascus and Tehran had tended to scorn liberals such as Jabr and the former Iraqi Army generals and businessmen who helped him set up the Free Iraqi Council. The radicals, including communists, have claimed that the liberal exiles have little or no support in Iraq. Jabr contests this.
``We adhere to the doctrine of free elections and freedom of the press. Those who say we lack a power base in Iraq ignore the fact that there are millions there who would welcome a chance to exercise their democratic rights,'' he said.
``The point is that Saddam Hussein has trampled on those rights for many years. Once there is an election the extent of our support within Iraq will be clear.'' Jabr says his own Umma Party was suspending its political activities until Iraq is liberated.
Since World War II, several waves of Iraqi exiles have fled to Britain. The current population is thought to number about 6,000. In the late 1940s, Iraqi Jews made their home here. After the 1958 revolution, royalists, landowners, and civil servants began arriving. In the 1960s, when the Baath Party took power in Baghdad, left-wing and communist politicians fled their country. Many Iraqi activists are people who left their homeland after a 1979 political purge by Saddam. Jabr is a member of this group.
Until Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Saddam's opponents in Britain preserved anonymity, persuaded to do so by a series of assassinations of Iraqi exiles in London. But since the invasion, the exiles have held informal talks with the Foreign Office.
Sayed Abdullah Mousavi, a member of the Tehran-based Islamic Action Group, was among Iraqi exiles who met British officials in January. He says it is easier for Shiite Muslims to have dealings with Britain than with the US.