- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (UPI) — After more than a month of delay and intense negotiations with the United States, Iraqi opposition leaders are set to convene the first formal conference on Iraqi soil in more than 10 years on Wednesday.

The site of the meeting is Salahuddin, the Kurdish-controlled town where Iraq's disparate opposition met in October 1992 after the Gulf War to form a unified front under the banner of the Iraqi National Congress.

A statement from the INC says the meeting expects to "elect a leadership that will represent the Iraqi people through the next critical phase of the liberation of Iraq."

Earlier this month, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith told Congress that the United States planned for the short term to install a military government in Baghdad, if and when Saddam Hussein falls, but that this body would rely on a panel of Iraqis for counsel and advice.

The meeting in Salahuddin will be the first formal gathering of a new 65-seat opposition committee formed in December at a conference in London, partially paid for by the United States. Much of the opposition arrived in northern Iraq in January after meetings in Tehran with senior Iranian diplomats, military leaders, and intelligence officers.

A group supported by Iran, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq controls the largest single bloc on the new 65-seat committee.

The opposition is careful to say it won't be announcing a government in exile. Entifadh Qanbar, the INC's Washington representative, told United Press International on Tuesday: "The declaration of a government should be done once the liberation of the country starts."

He added that the announcement at this time of a government in exile would endanger the Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq, possibly inviting retaliation from Saddam.

The announcement of a government in exile, however, has also been a contentious topic of debate between the opposition and the White House. Two U.S. officials tell UPI that the President's envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, specifically told the Iraqi dissidents earlier this month not to announce an exile government at this time, citing concerns from Iraq's neighbors.

Turkey, whose parliament is expected to vote to give the United States permission to set up a base for more than 62,000 troops for six months, has specifically asked the United States to dismantle the Kurdish regional government and militias in northern Iraq when and if Saddam Hussein's government falls.

"We believe the future organization and structuring of Iraq is a matter for all the people of Iraq," Osman Faruk Logoglu, Turkey's ambassador to Washington told UPI Tuesday in an interview. "That means it has to be decided by all the major populations in Iraq, the Kurds, Turkmen, the Assyrians and others."

Khalilzad will lead the American delegation in Salahuddin.

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