Iraqi exiles want US in - then out

More than 300 opposition leaders met this weekend in London to plan for a future without Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi opposition leaders who gathered in London this weekend broadly agree on two things. Saddam Hussein must go. And the US, should its forces topple the Iraqi president, must rapidly follow him out.

The US is funding the Iraqi opposition, has worked to bring the fractious exiles together, and may be the main engine of Mr. Hussein's downfall. But opposition leaders dread the prospect of a lingering US presence in what they call a liberated Iraq.

"We don't want a break in sovereignty in Iraq to be filled by non-Iraqis," says Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi businessman who is president in waiting in the eyes of his supporters. "Even for a day," he adds.

US officials, meanwhile, have spoken of the potential need for a sustained presence in the country - perhaps even a military governor - until a new Iraqi leadership can assume power.

The London gathering of more than 300 delegates from a variety of parties and factions is the most significant meeting of Hussein's Iraqi opponents in a decade. A final statement expected Monday will likely emphasize their desire to create a democratic, pluralistic, federal government - the likes of which has never existed in the Middle East's Arab states.

But the delegates are also expected to name a high-level committee that will act as a liaison with the US and may form the basis of a future government. One working paper at the conference refers to this group as a "nucleus transitional authority."

The US has cautioned the delegates against creating any sort of provisional government or a government in exile, which the US sees as premature. Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's envoy to both the emerging Afghan government and to the Iraqi opposition, told delegates this weekend "to be prudent, don't overreach, and to be as representative as they can," according to a US official here who spoke on condition of anonymity.

US officials are said to fear that a government-in-waiting might complicate the scene should members of Hussein's military seize power before or during a US-led military effort to overthrow the dictator. This coup scenario - while undemocratic - seems tidier in the short term than the prospect of assembling a democratic leadership in a country that has known only authoritarian rulers or foreign-imposed monarchs in its 70 years as a modern state.

Also, many of the opposition figures are notoriously unpopular in the country to which they aspire to return. Chalabi, a banker turned politician, has cultivated strong ties with the US government, but his own people may not be as fond of him. Following a US invasion, says Mousa al-Hussaini, an Iraqi exile in London who opposes American intervention and who stayed away from the weekend conference, Chalabi could rule for "maybe three or four days.... He can't move in the cities of Iraq - people will kill him with their hands."

The US also wants to see which Iraqis from inside the country might emerge as potential leaders, something that a prepackaged provisional government might stifle. Chalabi, for one, disparages this prospect. "Anyone who is active politically [against Hussein] is either in exile or dead," he asserts.

The conference, held in a central London hotel, brought together Iraqis of nearly every persuasion. Iraq's two main Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, attended, as did representatives of the country's majority Shiite community. They included Iran-based clerics who want to create an Islamist state and secular, westernized Shiites who oppose such a government. Defectors from Hussein's military attended, as did Iraqis who have had nothing to do with his rule.

President Bush's seeming determination to remove Hussein from power has brought a giddy sense of possibility to the Iraqi exile community - some 3 million people spread mainly across the Middle East, Europe, and North America. But a history of erratic American policy toward Iraq also makes these exiles wary.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the US armed Hussein during Iraq's bloody conflict with Iran. Following the Gulf War, the US encouraged Iraq's Shiites and Kurds to rise up against Hussein, and then failed to take steps to prevent his forces from killing thousands of rebels.

Ali Allawi, an investment-fund manager in London who was part of a brainstorming effort backed by the State Department, says he doesn't understand why President Bush seems to have a "thing" against Hussein. "I'm very pleased he does," Mr. Allawi added with a smile.

Not all the exiles at the conference favorably anticipated US military action against their common enemy. Hamid al-Bayati, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which represents a portion of Iraq's majority Shiite community, says, "We don't believe America should invade Iraq or attack Iraq."

The better prospect, in Mr. Bayati's view, would be for the US to enforce UN resolutions that enjoin Hussein from oppressing his people and thus pave the way for an Iraqi-led overthrow.

Those farthest from the country, including many exiles who live in Britain or the US, seemed to have spent a lot of time developing utopian visions for a democratic Iraq. The State Department's brainstorming effort, for instance, which yielded a 98-page "Report of the Democratic Principles Working Group on Iraq," was not exactly heralded as the dawning of the light. "This is purely an intellectual exercise," says Hoshyar Zibari, London representative of Mr. Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party.

The KDP and Mr. Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan administer the real-world universe of northern Iraq, where 3.8 million people already live more or less free of Hussein's tyranny, thanks to US and British protection. The Kurds at the conference seemed less interested in grand visions for the future and more interested in promoting the concept of federalism, which would preserve their autonomy in a country dominated by Arabs.

Many delegates saw the conference proceedings as a stage-managed validation for probable US military action. One delegate, Saad Rashid of Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, calls it an "American photo show" so the US can prove that "Iraqis back us against Saddam."

The exiles know they stand little chance of ridding Iraq of Hussein without US help, but they also realize American backing likely will become a liability when the regime falls. Charles Tripp, a British historian of Iraq, poses their challenge this way: "How do you establish your own authority and not appear as a client of the Americans?"

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