- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

SALAHUDDIN, Iraq A prominent Iraqi opposition leader entered the Kurds' autonomous enclave in northern Iraq with the help of Iran and declared yesterday that he would stay there to battle Saddam Hussein's government.
"If we want to fight Saddam, we'll fight Saddam in Iraq," Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, said in an interview after returning to his homeland for the first time in nearly five years.
Mr. Chalabi said he returned to Iraq "to be on the stage" in the formation of a post-Saddam administration. He promised to work with Kurdish opposition groups to form a provisional government to rule after Saddam is gone.
Mr. Chalabi who enjoys support in the U.S. Congress but is a controversial figure within the fragmented opposition entered Iraq with four colleagues Thursday. They crossed the Iranian border at Hajj Omran after spending a week in Tehran meeting with Iranian political leaders and Iraqi opposition figures.
The five are part of a 65-member steering committee, set up during a conference in London last month. The committee is to meet the middle of this month in this enclave, which is protected by U.S. and British planes patrolling the northern no-fly zone.
The committee hopes to form the basis of a transitional government if the United States, which threatens to attack Iraq if Saddam does not give up banned weapons it is suspected of having, topples the Iraqi regime. The opposition members are to meet Feb. 15, according to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the western section of the autonomous region.
Mr. Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, based in London, has received millions of dollars from the United States for such projects as a satellite television channel tailored for Iraqi viewers.
The Iraqi National Congress officials said they informed Zalmay Khalilzad, an adviser to the Bush administration, that they were headed to northern Iraq before they left London for Iran eight days ago.
In the interview, however, Mr. Chalabi said the United States should not dominate the composition of any future government in Iraq.
"There must be no gap in the sovereignty of Iraqis over Iraq," he said. "People who have come to the idea of removing Saddam recently must understand that this fight has been going on for decades and has cost tens of thousands of lives. It's a major mistake to think you can sidestep the opposition."
Mr. Chalabi sidestepped questions about reports that the United States did not entirely trust the exiled opposition groups. "We're not an exile group because we're in Iraq now," he said.
The Iraqi National Congress tried to start a revolt against Saddam from inside the northern no-fly zone in the mid-1990s. The group blamed its failure on the U.S. government, which didn't provide support, believing it had no chance of succeeding.
The visit is Mr. Chalabi's first to Iraq since 1998, when he briefly visited the Kurdish-controlled city of Sulaimaniyah to meet with Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which governs the eastern section of the Kurdish autonomous zone.
Meanwhile, Iraq has started expelling families from a 20-mile border strip between the autonomous Kurdish north and the rest of Iraq, leading to speculation that Saddam is clearing a buffer zone to defend against a U.S. invasion from the north.
In the past 10 to 15 days, Baghdad was reported to have moved forces of the Mujahideen Khalq, a militant Iranian opposition group under Saddam's control, near the boundary with the Kurdish zone, said Rasool Razgai, a KDP official.
The Mujahideen Khalq denied that its fighters were stationed in northern Iraq or assisting Saddam's forces in any way. A spokesman for the group said it has not deployed its fighters in northern Iraq since 1990, when they withdrew southward on the eve of the Persian Gulf war.
Kurdish Ministry of Interior officials estimated that 50 Kurdish families living near the border zone have been expelled in the past two weeks.

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