- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 27, 2003

SALAHUDDIN, Iraq A long-awaited conference of Iraqi opposition leaders opened yesterday with an envoy of President Bush pledging that the United States will be a partner in establishing democracy in a postwar Iraq.
"Some have said it's impossible for the Iraqi government to become a democracy," envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said at the opening session of a long-delayed conference of opposition groups meeting in Salahuddin, a Kurdish-run enclave in northern Iraq. "The United States government completely disagrees."
American officials have said they envisage a U.S.-run military government in Iraq for about two years in a transition to a democracy a plan that has angered even usually pro-American Kurds.
Many opposition members say the U.S. plans will lead to the employment of the existing bureaucracy, staffed by members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party, and will sideline longtime opponents of the Iraqi leader.
Mr. Khalilzad confirmed there would be a period of U.S. military rule, but insisted it would not last longer than necessary to stabilize the country.
"The U.S. has no desire to govern Iraq," he said. "The Iraqi people will govern their own affairs as soon as possible."
The U.S. military presence, Mr. Khalilzad said, "will not last one minute before the job is done nor one minute more than is necessary."
The envoy also tried to ease concerns about a Ba'ath-heavy bureaucracy. "No one wants Saddamism without Saddam," he said.
Mr. Khalilzad announced the creation of Iraqi-run task forces that would "immediately" begin working on Iraq's humanitarian, military, political, diplomatic and public affairs. Details of the task force aims were not available.
The Iraqi opposition figures meeting in an auditorium of the Kurdistan Democratic Party's mountaintop stronghold have vastly different ideological and political agendas.
Just before Mr. Khalilzad's address, Abdul Aziz Hakim, military leader of the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the main Shi'ite Islamic opposition group, warned delegates that "foreign domination" was one of the biggest threats to Iraq.
Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, also addressed the group, and had a message for the Americans: "We are your friends, but not your agents."
The Kurds have been generally sanguine about a U.S. military government in Baghdad as long as they are allowed to retain their autonomy in northern Iraq. But they are outraged by a plan to permit thousands of Turkish troops to enter and patrol the Kurdish enclave for "humanitarian purposes." Kurds and Turks share a history of mistrust and violence.
Mr. Khalilzad said at a news conference after the meeting that the United States would not allow Turks to enter northern Iraq unless they came as part of a coalition to oust Saddam.
They would have to leave, he said, when the rest of the coalition departs.
Mr. Chalabi and others suggested that the Kurds' fears were overblown. "The Turkey problem will be defused," he told reporters.


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