- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

Ahmed Chalabi, longtime London-based Iraqi opposition leader, rode unexpectedly into Baghdad yesterday with more than 100 "Free Iraqi Forces" troops, strengthening his position in a swiftly developing race for power among disparate Iraqi factions.

Driving in a convoy of trucks and pickups laden with weapons and food, Mr. Chalabi and his U.S.-trained forces braved a blinding sandstorm in their push to reach Baghdad after years of exile and the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein and his Ba'athist regime.

Mr. Chalabi, the highly visible face of the umbrella Iraqi National Congress (INC), is one of several leading opposition figures, from exile groups and from within Iraq, expected to gather in the capital shortly to form an executive council to lead the nation.

That council - to be established outside the process begun under U.S. supervision on Tuesday - would work with American forces and civilian administration to rebuild the country, said INC spokesman Entifad Qanbar in a telephone interview from Doha, Qatar.

"I cannot wait to find the grave of my first cousin, who Saddam's men murdered in public 13 years ago," declared an emotional Aras Kareem, leader of the about 700-strong Free Iraqi Forces.

"It's my own city, which I love, where I was born, went to school, where I had so many friends, and so many were killed by Saddam's men. My first cousin, Ayid, who was my age, was shot in the head in front of his family."

"I want to help make it safe, remove the influence of the Ba'ath Party and bring about democracy," he said as he clambered aboard the last truck departing the southern city of Nasiriyah for the capital.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, two men identified as being close associates of the INC said at a news conference that they had been chosen to head the capital's interim government with the consent of U.S.-led coalition forces, Agence France-Presse reported.

Mohammed Mohsen Zubeidi and "General" Jaudat Obeidi said they had been selected by an assembly of officials and religious leaders to act as head of the city's provisional administration and mayor, respectively.

The INC representative in Qatar, however, said he had no knowledge of the appointments. "I know nothing about it," Mr. Qanbar said, adding that he knew Mr. Zubeidi but did not recognize Mr. Obeidi. "I know the INC is talking to them, [but] I don't know if they are acting on their own."U.S. Central Command forces based in Qatar also drew a blank. "I don't have anything on that," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Owens.

Taking his first steps in Baghdad since the monarchy was overthrown in 1958 and his family was forced to flee Iraq, Mr. Chalabi made clear he was there to stay.

"Our plans are to establish ourselves here, to set up an office and begin the work toward reconstructing democracy and civil society in Iraq," INC spokesman Zaab Sethna told Reuters news agency. "His first plan is to go see his old home and then start building democracy in Iraq," said Mr. Sethna, who traveled in Mr. Chalabi's convoy.

Within the next two weeks, Mr. Chalabi and other opposition figures are to convene the Iraqi Leadership Council, a continuation of a political process begun by the main exile opposition parties last year in London, then consolidated in northern Iraq in February.

The Iraqi Leadership Council, which will be open to opposition figures on the ground, includes the INC, the Iraqi National Accord (INA), the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and a Sunni representative.

The INC hopes that out of this meeting will emerge "some sort of executive party or council" of perhaps "one person but not more than three people" that would become part of a transitional government until general elections are held in the country, Mr. Qanbar said.

"It must be for Iraqis to decide the future government of our country. The Iraqi forces have been actively working together to liberate our country and are now working to create a democratic future for our country," Mr. Chalabi said in a statement.

The council meeting, the INC said, will run parallel to a U.S.-sponsored forum to be held in Baghdad, a continuation of a session held Tuesday in the ancient city of Ur, near Nasiriyah."It's a complementary process," said U.S.-based INC spokeswoman Riva Levinson. "One is a consultation of Americans and Iraqis, and one is a consultation of Iraqis amongst themselves. Both processes have to go forward."

But others said the process might not be so clear-cut.

"It is a very fluid situation in Iraq, and many are elbowing for the front row," said Saleh al-Shaikhly, a London-based Iraqi exile and president of the INA.

The Nasiriyah meeting brought together top U.S. officials, including President Bush's envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad; retired Lt. Gen Jay Garner, the Pentagon's pick to run the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance; exile opposition representatives; and local tribal and religious leaders.

Although the INC insists the council meeting will be independent of U.S. influence and has been trying to distance itself from accusations that it is too close to the Bush administration, Mr. al-Shaikhly said that as long as the United States is in charge of Iraq, it called the shots.

"Under the present circumstances, nothing can take place in Iraq without the United States giving its blessing," he said in a telephone interview.

Paul Martin contributed to this report from Nasiriyah, Iraq.

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