THE 350 or so Iraqi opposition delegates who met here in their biggest and most crucial gathering ever believe the outcome could help make or break the ``uprising'' against Saddam Hussein. Many of the delegates, drawn from virtually the entire spectrum of Iraq's diverse society, fear that Saddam may be able to crush the insurrection - or at least inflict massive loss of life - unless it is given more support from the outside world.
But they say they are not seeking military intervention. The group has asked for political and moral support, as well as logistical, medical, and food aid.
Along with trying to coordinate and escalate their efforts to bring Saddam down, they want to send a message to the United States, which has so far declined to follow the lead set by Britain in opening up direct high-level contacts with the Iraqi opposition.
While Washington's warnings to Saddam not to use chemical weapons are appreciated, the opposition leaders believe the administration could do a lot more to help the uprising, especially given President Bush's frequent calls for the Iraqi people to change their leadership.
The reassuring signal that the conference is trying to send to Washington is that the anti-Saddam revolt, and the opposition factions which support it, are not led by Shiite fanatics bent on imposing an Iranian-style Islamic revolution on Iraq.
Even - in fact especially - the radical Shiite groups included in the ``joint action committee'' endorse the moderate message that all opposition factions are committed to replacing Saddam with a democratic system that would safeguard Iraq's integrity.
``There's a great deal of anxiety about the position of the Americans,'' says Samir Mansoor, leader of a group of Iraqi democrats attending such a meeting for the first time.
``There is a suspicion that Washington, having disarmed or drastically weakened Saddam, would prefer his survival to an unknown entity that would include Shiites and others who might be radical. The `devil you know' principle might apply,'' he adds.
Shiite radical leaders attending the conference lose no opportunity to stress that the uprising is a popular insurrection, not a fundamentalist revolution.
``The message is that this is not an Islamic fundamentalist or Shiite intifada,'' said Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, spokesman for the Tehran-based Islamic Daawa party.
``We don't represent a threat to anybody except Saddam,'' added Abu Maitham al-Saghir of the Tehran-based Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. ``Those who say the uprising is fundamentalist are looking for a pretext to keep Saddam in power. We want Iraq to stay independent and with its territory and people unified. We are striving to give the Iraqi people complete freedom to express their political views and choose the regime they want.''
``We only want what other peoples in similar situations have wanted,'' added Ayatollah Muhammad Taki al-Mudarrasi, leader of the Islamic Action Organization. ``The uprising is a revolution of justice and right, not an uprising by one group.''
In order not to send the wrong signals, connections with Iran are being played down, and Iranian support both for the conference and for the ``uprising'' has been low-profile.
``We asked Iran to refrain from interfering inside Iraq - we don't want what's happening to be seen as resulting from Iranian interference,'' said Dr. Rubaie. ``We want an Arab dimension and flavor, not Persian. It's of paramount importance that we approach our brothers in Saudi Arabia especially.''
For that reason, great significance was attached to the fact that two Saudi-backed groups, National Salvation and the Free Iraqi Council, joined the conference. It is the first time they have teamed up with the 17 groups - Kurdish guerrilla factions, nationalists, communists, Shiite movements, independent democrats, dissident Baathists and others - which set up the joint-action committee in December.
Hopes for US support
Conference sources hoped their inclusion might open the doors not only to additional funds, but also to a more sympathetic hearing from Riyadh's US allies. ``If we get the international support we want, and there is serious action by the opposition inside Iraq, I would expect the regime to collapse in a matter of weeks, or months at the most,'' said Ayatollah Mudarrasi.
``Unless we get logistical, humanitarian, moral, and political help from Arab and Islamic countries and the outside world, it is doubtful that we can maintain the momentum of the uprising for months on end, given our limited resources,'' added Rubaie.
Among the forms of help they would like to see are an international warning to Saddam not to use force against the uprising, withdrawal of recognition for his regime, freedom of action across the borders, and access to Iraqi prisoners of war who may not want to be repatriated. They believe such positions would encourage more Iraqi Army officers to join the revolt.
The opposition groups have promised to form a coalition government should Saddam be overthrown, to guide Iraq for a transitional period of one or two years pending general elections for a constituent national assembly. The 4 million Kurds have been promised regional autonomy within a national framework.