- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 31, 2002

Key Iraqi opposition leaders said yesterday they want to hold a conference in Iraq, protected by U.S. jets, to prove to the Iraqi people that the group is serious about toppling Saddam Hussein.
"There is a preference to do this conference on Iraqi soil if certain security conditions are satisfied," Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, the official spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress, told United Press International.
Such a meeting would most likely be held in Northern Iraq, an area controlled by ethnic Kurds and protected by a U.S. no-fly zone.
The leadership of the Kurdish parties within the Iraqi opposition will not agree to such a conference until and unless the United States guarantees the safety of the participants, other opposition officials said.
In the past, Iraqi opposition figures have hinted that such a conference would be the ideal forum to announce an Iraqi government in exile.
"I want the conference to be somewhere in Northern Iraq because this sends a clear signal to the people of Iraq under Saddam," author and prominent Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya said in an interview.
Mr. Makiya will be participating next week in a State Department-sponsored conference in London on building democratic institutions for a post-Saddam administration in Baghdad.
Mr. Makiya said a transition political document will emerge at the London conference and he hopes it will lay the foundation for forming a government in exile when the opposition hosts its conference at a later date.
"Symbolically, a conference on Iraqi soil is very important because we plan to make crucial and historic decisions there on exactly what kind of transition we seek for Iraq," he said.
The idea to host the conference inside territory controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan was broached earlier this month at a meeting of opposition leaders in Washington.
No U.S. officials were present at the meeting. According to sources familiar with the discussions, some participants proposed hosting the conference just north of the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, which is located beneath the no-fly zone patrolled by U.S. and British fighter jets.
Another opposition leader, Mudhar Shawkat, said he had personally raised the proposal with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ryan Crocker.
"I told him many in the opposition want to host this conference on Iraqi soil," Mr. Shawkat said.
Mr. Crocker, according a State Department official, did not respond at the time.
The groups that favor a conference in Iraq include the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the major Kurdish parties; the Iraqi National Accord, a CIA-funded opposition group; the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iran-supported organization; the Constitutional Monarchy Movement; and the Iraqi National Congress, the U.S.-funded umbrella group that has included all five of the groups in the past.
One senior Kurdish official said his leadership would need the firmest security guarantees before agreeing to such a conference.
"Most of the Iraqi opposition groups are willing to have this conference in a free Iraq," this official said. "But understandably for them to be able to host this, they need the firmest security guarantees possible from the United States."
Opposition leaders fear Saddam will try to kill them all if they choose to meet in Iraq.

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