A senior US diplomat has entered the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq to discuss the shape of a future Iraqi administration with opponents of President Saddam Hussein.
Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's envoy to the Iraqi opposition, was expected to arrive Tuesday in Salahuddin, the mountain resort headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the Western part of an autonomous zone protected by US and British warplanes.
Mr. Khalilzad's presence - on Iraqi soil, alongside members of the Iraqi opposition, and just as a US military buildup nears a state of readiness - provides further evidence of the Bush administration's determination to unseat Mr. Hussein.
But to the chagrin and dismay of some opposition members, the US has indicated in recent weeks that they will have a less-than-triumphant role in whatever administration the US prepares to replace the Iraqi dictator.
Rarely has an American diplomat been awaited with such a combination of frustration and neediness. Khalilzad was originally expected a week ago, but delays, attributed to snowstorms first in the US and then in Turkey, kept him away.
Politics may have slowed him down as well, since the US has been negotiating in recent days to finalize a deal on military cooperation with Turkey. Turkish and US officials may have wanted to conclude their agreement - which will likely include plans for Turkish troops to enter the Kurdish autonomous zone - before Khalilzad began his consultations here.
Unable to convene without the US envoy, the Iraqi opposition members have had to content themselves with "informal" meetings in which they have fretted over reports that the US, should it indeed go to war against Iraq and remove Hussein from power, will initially appoint a US general as the country's ruler. Such a system would largely sideline the Iraqi opposition, which has had visions of putting together a government-in-waiting that could take over after Hussein goes.
Most of the opposition - and particularly the Kurds - are also angry at the prospect of Turkish troops entering Iraqi territory. The Americans "owe it to the opposition to explain things," says an avowedly frustrated Kurdish official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Now as in the past, the opposition is contending with perceptions that it is irrelevant. "The opposition is a fabrication," says Abdullah Alyawi, a historian at Salahuddin University in Arbil."America itself will decide the future of Iraq."
Although the opposition may be down, it is not entirely out. This meeting of the opposition follows one in London in December, where more than 300 delegates - from a phalanx of groups representing the diversity of Iraqi society - chose a coordinating committee to represent their interests. Former generals from Hussein's army, Shiite clerics, Kurdish guerrilla leaders, and Iraqis promoting liberal democracy made common cause, to support the US and to win a role for themselves in a new Iraqi government.
"Between then and now there has been a certain shift in [the US] position," says the Kurdish official. "We have heard about a military government - not only a military governor but also a political governor," he adds, referring to reports that the US will appoint an American statesman as an interim civilian ruler alongside Gen. Tommy Franks, who is expected to retain overall authority during and after a US invasion of Iraq.
Assuming the opposition meeting convenes today, the delegates expect to hear Khalilzad explain what the US has in mind, says Aiham Alsammarae, one of the 65 members of the coordinating committee. The second agenda item, to hear Mr. Alsammarae and others tell it, will be to reject any plan for US military rule. The delegates will say much the same thing about a Turkish military intervention.
"Iraqis will never let an American soldier be the ruler," says Sheikh Assar Feily, a member of the coordinating committee who represents the Kurdish Shiite community.
Not all the language here is quite so anti-American. "I like the American plan," says one delegate on condition of anonymity. "For 30 years we have tried to change the regime without any success. If Americans succeed, I will support them."
Once they have heard Khalilzad and had their say, the opposition will try to set up several committees to come up with proposals for a post-Hussein Iraq. Some delegates want to set up an overall leadership committee - perhaps headed by a non-political organizer - but the US may lobby against such a plan.
Alsammarae says some discussions have centered on what to call the organizer; "coordinator" and "secretary" have been suggested - anything to avoid the term "president." Some have joked that the job should be called "servant," Alsammarae says, so "no one will kill himself to be in that position."