- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2003

A top Iraqi Kurdish leader yesterday said there are no divisions among the country's exiled opposition groups in their drive to oust Saddam Hussein, adding that critics have exaggerated the differences in a bid to undermine the campaign against Baghdad.

The postponement of a follow-up meeting to last month's landmark opposition conference in London raised new concerns that the perennially divided exiles had returned to their feuding ways.

But Barham Salih, a top official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two major Kurdish parties in the U.S.-backed opposition coalition, said in an interview that the meeting was put off for logistical reasons, not ideological differences.

"Sometimes I'm surprised by the standards that are placed on the Iraqi opposition to be unified," said Mr. Salih, who met with Vice President Richard B. Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice during a visit to Washington this week. "The bar of unity is set unfairly high for us."

The groups, which include the London-based Iraqi National Congress and a Shi'ite Arab militia based in Iran, "all agree on the goal of a democratic, united, federal government in Baghdad," Mr. Salih said.

"I'm afraid some people want to exaggerate our differences to prove an argument that the situation in Iraq cannot be improved by confronting Saddam," he said.

Mr. Salih said his greatest fear is that the U.S.-led effort against Saddam will stop short of victory once again, focusing on disarming Baghdad but not ensuring that Saddam and his supporters are ousted and democracy is firmly established in the country.

Iraq's weapons of mass destruction "are the symptom, but the disease is a dictatorship committed to aggression, to repression, to violence against its own people and its neighbors," he said.

He said he shares the concern of several U.S. officials that Iraq may be able to frustrate the current round of U.N. weapons inspections and slow the momentum for military action. He predicted that U.S. and international forces would have to confront Iraq repeatedly if the current regime survived.

Mr. Salih said the Bush administration has not directly asked longtime PUK leader Jalal Talabani to consider heading a post-Saddam Iraqi government, but he noted that the idea has been gaining currency, including among the majority Shi'ite Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs that would share power in a federal Iraq.

Kurds are Muslims but not Arabs.

Mr. Salih said the PUK leader was "reluctant to take any official position" in a new government, but he pointedly did not exclude the possibility that he might reconsider.

He noted that an Iraqi Kurdish leader in Baghdad would finesse many of the power-sharing questions posed by the two Arab communities, and also would be a powerful symbol of the often-rebellious Iraqi Kurdish community's commitment to an unified Iraq.

Iraq's neighbors Turkey, Syria and Iran all have expressed reservations about a U.S.-led military strike in part for fear it will revive Kurdish ambitions for a separate state in the region.

"It would be the ultimate affirmation of Iraq's territorial integrity to have a Kurd as president," he noted, but said speculation that a Talabani candidacy was in the works was "premature."

Mr. Salih said he was encouraged by talks this week with U.S. officials about the need for a political transformation of Iraq. He said talks this week also focused on new efforts by Baghdad to cut off trade in regions of Iraq controlled by the PUK and the rival Kurdish Democratic Party.

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