Criticism of US plans unites Iraqi opposition leaders

Opposition forces appoint leadership at weekend meeting despite US resistance.

For much of the past decade, US officials have bemoaned the inability of Iraq's opposition groups to get it together in their struggle against President Saddam Hussein.

Now these groups are showing some of that long-missed unity - in part because they object to key elements of the US strategy for overthrowing Mr. Hussein and improving on his regime.

In a meeting this weekend at the mountain resort of Salahuddin in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, 54 members of an opposition coordinating committee elected a six-man leadership body, condemned a possible Turkish military role in a US-led invasion, and rejected the idea that a US general should rule their country immediately after Hussein's fall from power.

The US, meanwhile urges the opposition not to do anything that resembles creating a new government, wants Turkish involvement in a coalition, and has announced that an American general will indeed preside over Iraq, should the US go to war.

The opposition's boldest move was not just to name a leadership, but to declare it the core of a future Iraqi government. "The leadership will hold the responsibility to lead the work of the opposition and the Iraqi people in this stage and the next stage," said Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-backed group that represents at least part of Iraq's majority Shiite community.

A SCIRI member of the coordinating committee, Akram Al Hakim, says the leadership "could be a seed [that will] transform into a government in the future with the addition of some more elements from inside Iraq."

That sentiment may serve to ease one concern of US officials.

They have worried that the announcement of an opposition-only government-in-waiting might, to cite one scenario that imagines victory without war, sap the will of an Iraqi general to depose Hussein and establish a regime willing to move toward democracy and to renounce weapons of mass destruction.

President Bush's envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, congratulated the delegates on achieving "substantial success," but made no mention of their selection of a leadership, in a five-minute speech at the press conference.

Nor did he refer to US plans to install a US general as an interim ruler, something he had acknowledged to reporters two days earlier.

There seems little question that the opposition is setting itself up as the repository of Iraqi sovereignty and democratic aspirations. Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi told the reporters assembled Saturday that "today the people of Iraq have a chance to continue the sovereignty of Iraqis over Iraq during a process of change."

The statement released by the coordinating meeting says that "power should be transferred to the Iraqi people and their true representatives as soon as possible." It adds: "The Iraqi people would have the first and last word in deciding and managing the affairs of their country."

Mr. Chalabi said Mr. Khalilzad did not refer to US plans to have an American general administer Iraq in the wake of an invasion.

Discussion of a possible Turkish incursion into northern Iraq dominated the Salahuddin meeting and delayed its conclusion. Despite strong US support for Turkish membership in a coalition, the opposition declared in a final statement that "we reject any Turkish military intervention."

The issue may be moot. If the Turkish Parliament remains unwilling to allow the US to open a "northern front" against Iraq, it seems unlikely that the US will allow Turkey to participate in an invasion. The US has said it is opposed to any unilateral Turkish intervention in northern Iraq.

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