- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

An all-hands gathering of Iraqi opposition forces set for later this month in Belgium has been postponed for a third time, dealing a blow to U.S. hopes of uniting exile groups fighting Saddam Hussein.

Representatives of the opposition factions gave conflicting reasons for the latest delay, but leading figures in the umbrella Iraqi National Congress (INC), the London-based group that is organizing the gathering, have clashed publicly in recent weeks over the scope of the agenda and the size of competing delegations.

A spokesman for the INC in London said disputes between organizers played a part in the cancellation of the Nov. 22-25 meeting, but other representatives were quoted by Agence France-Presse as blaming the delay on difficulties in getting visas for the hundreds of conference participants.

"It won't happen for at least two weeks," Hamid Bayati, a representative for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-based group that represents the country's majority Shi'ite Muslims, told the news service.

With military and diplomatic pressure on Saddam now in full swing, Bush administration officials have been plainly anxious to see the conference take place in the hope of rallying opposition within Iraq to the regime and smoothing the transition to a post-Saddam administration.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher took a low-key approach to the organizers' problems earlier this week, calling them the "normal political differences" to be expected from an "obviously important event."

"We expect those problems will be worked out in a fair and democratic way," he said.

In Baghdad, Iraqi officials sounded a new note of defiance just a day after Saddam agreed to a U.N. ultimatum to permit international weapons inspectors back into the country and to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq's leading newspaper, Babel, which is controlled by Saddam's eldest son, Uday, denied in an editorial that Iraq had any prohibited weapons and said Baghdad's cooperation should be rewarded with a lifting of economic sanctions on the country.

"Our allies and brothers should realize that the problem with the American administration and its ally Britain is not over," the paper warned in an editorial. "Perhaps it is resuming again."

The Bush administration has rejected any conditions on Iraq's compliance with the new U.N. resolution and has repeatedly warned that any attempt to evade the new mandate would lead to war. A U.N. technical advance team is expected in Baghdad on Monday, with the inspections themselves to begin within a week or two after that.

The divisions among the exile opposition groups reflect in part ethnic and religious differences within Iraq itself.

Ahmed Chalabi, a London-based Sunni banker and the chairman of the INC, and his allies have been feuding with Shi'ite and Iraqi Kurdish groups within the organization over who should attend the Brussels gathering. Mr. Chalabi has pressed for an expanded convention that would dilute the influence of the SCIRI and two Kurdish groups and embrace a plan for a provisional democratic government he had endorsed.

Mohammed Sabir, Washington representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two Kurdish parties within the INC and a delegate to the proposed convention, said the gathering was critical.

"It is an opportunity for us to speak with one voice, instead of the five or ten voices we have now," he said.

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