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Fighting among Iraqi opposition groups complicating post-Hussein plans, officials say

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration's efforts to plan a post-Saddam Hussein government in Iraq are being complicated by infighting among rival Iraqi opposition groups and their patrons in the Bush administration, say opposition leaders and some U.S. officials.

As a result, the administration's efforts to chart a path to stable, democratic rule in Iraq after years of authoritarianism appear to be lagging far behind the Pentagon's preparations for a possible U.S.-led invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein. The issue has taken on greater urgency because of fears that Saddam will try to thwart a new round of U.N. weapons inspections, triggering U.S. military action.

The danger is that President Bush could unleash a U.S.-led invasion before his administration forges a blueprint for turning Iraq over to a new Iraqi leadership that could keep the country's religious and ethnic groups united.

"There is no unified voice from Washington saying `This is our policy, and this is what we want to do,' " said Rubar Sandi, president of the U.S.-Iraq Business Council, a Washington-based group that promotes post-Saddam U.S.-Iraq economic links.

The administration "is not united," complained Intifad Qanbar, the Washington representative of the Iraqi National Congress, or INC, the main opposition coalition.

He and other opposition activists said Bush should appoint an Iraq policy coordinator with the authority and seniority to end the squabbling within the administration and the Iraqi opposition.

Similar coordinators oversaw U.S. policies in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Opposition activists said the administration must also stop issuing conflicting messages about what it means by "regime change."

Sadoun al-Dulaimi, a former Iraqi general who defected in 1991, noted that Bush has said the United States wants to replace Saddam, but also has stated that Saddam's surrender of weapons of mass destruction would constitute regime change.

"This does not create full trust in American policy" among ordinary Iraqis, he said.

The dispute over Iraq policy within the administration pits the State Department and CIA against Vice President Dick Cheney's office and senior civilian Defense Department officials who are leading advocates of a U.S. invasion, according to U.S. officials and Iraqi opposition activists.

Officials in the Pentagon and Cheney's office are closely aligned with Ahmed Chalabi, the de facto head of the INC, who advocates the establishment of a provisional Iraqi government on Iraqi territory under U.S. protection.

Some opposition groups and many independent Iraqi opposition activists, while mistrustful of Chalabi, have nonetheless aligned themselves with his views.

But Chalabi, who is believed to see himself as a successor to Saddam, also is mistrusted by many State Department officials and the CIA and other key Iraqi opposition groups.

Chalabi's critics dispute his claim to having a major following in Iraq and oppose his plan for creating a government of Iraqi exiles, saying they would lack credibility among ordinary Iraqis and be seen as tools of the United States.

Other major opposition groups say the formation of a transitional government should be put off until Iraqis inside Iraq can help select and participate in one.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Pentagon and State Department officials in August agreed to try to bury their differences and launch a concerted effort to unite the Iraqi opposition.

Leaders of six major opposition groups were then brought to Washington and persuaded to hold a conference in Europe to decide on a post-Saddam transitional government and the future political system of Iraq.

After two delays, the conference was set for Nov. 22 in Brussels. But on Thursday, a coordinating committee was forced to postpone the meeting again because of a dispute over the allocation of seats and the agenda.

The Kurdish Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a group of former Iraqi officers and ruling party officials known as the Iraqi National Accord, and an Iran-backed group of Shiite Arabs from southern Iraq wanted the meeting closed and restricted to 180 delegates, mostly from their organizations.

Chalabi, some smaller parties and some independent activists protested, calling for an open conference of 350 oppositionists.

They contend that the other groups are authoritarian, do not represent a majority of Iraqis and are bent on dividing Iraq into political fiefdoms based on ethnicity and religion.

Opposition activists said the squabbling was further fueled when the Pentagon lined up behind Chalabi's position, while the State Department sought to stay out of the fray and let the opposition groups work out their differences.


(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.