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U.S., Iraqi opposition feuding over post-Saddam plans

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq—New rifts between the Bush administration and the Iraqi opposition are threatening to derail U.S.-led planning for a smooth transition to democracy in Iraq after an invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

The feuding underscores the potential quagmire that awaits the tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers who would occupy a post-war Iraq to keep the country from being torn apart by regional, ethnic and sectarian tensions that Saddam has kept in check by force.

The U.S. soldiers could accomplish this task much more easily with support from the Iraqi opposition groups. Iraq has a history of violent resistance to foreign occupation. If the United States does not have support from key Iraqi groups, U.S. forces could get bogged down in the difficult task of establishing post-invasion order here.

Iraqi opposition leaders said they are dismayed by one U.S. idea to install an American military governor for up to one year after Saddam's removal. Several said that they would take to the streets against such an administration.

"People would be ill-advised to underestimate the sentiments of Iraqis for independence," said Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, the main opposition coalition.

Chalabi and his allies want the transition to take place under a provisional government that they and other opposition figures would form in Kurd-controlled northern Iraq. Seats would be left open for Iraqis now living under Saddam.

Opposition leaders said Zalmay Khalilzad, Bush's special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, spelled out new details of U.S. thinking on Iraq's transition to democracy during talks last week in Ankara, Turkey.

They said participants quoted Khalilzad as saying that a U.S. military governor would run Iraq for a year, aided by U.S. officers who would replace Saddam's ministers and deputy ministers.

A U.S.-chosen "consultative council" of Iraqis would advise the American commander, while a U.S.-selected "judicial council" would write a new constitution and prepare for elections.

Chalabi and author Kanan Makiya warned that the plan would leave Saddam's Baath Party in control of the government bureaucracy, which is dominated by Iraq's minority Sunni Muslims.

Makiya, an adjunct professor at Brandeis University, said he believes the plan is aimed at appeasing the authoritarian rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated Arab nations who fear the advent of democracy in Iraq.

Once the euphoria of Saddam's departure wears off, Iraq's majority Shiites, Kurds and others could grow angry with the United States as they began to associate it with Saddam's machinery of repression and Sunni domination, he said.

Opposition leaders stressed that they believe that there is still time to iron out the differences with the United States before a decision to invade.

But the problems have forced another postponement of a meeting of opposition leaders to try to nail down details of the post-Saddam transition government. The meeting was set for Monday in northern Iraq, but opposition leaders said it would not convene until at least Wednesday.

Opposition leaders also strongly object to an American plan to have large numbers of Turkish troops flow into the north behind a U.S.-led invasion force. The Turkish soldiers officially would be under U.S. command and in charge of helping refugees.

The plan is aimed at winning Turkey's agreement to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish bases to open a northern front against Saddam. The Turkish government worries that Iraqi Kurds could take advantage of a war to secede and enflame Kurdish separatism in Turkey. Iraqi Kurdish leaders have repeatedly said they will not secede from Iraq.

They believe Turkey seeks to dominate the region and would not withdraw its troops after Saddam is ousted. They also warn that Iran might get involved if it believed its interests in Iraq were compromised by the Turkish military presence.

In one sign of cooperation on Wednesday, two Kurdish leaders disclosed that their parties are discussing reuniting the separate halves of Kurd-dominated northern Iraq under a single administration.

Saddam relinquished control of the north after the establishment of a no-fly zone over the area after the 1991 Gulf War. The north has been divided between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party since a regional administration elected in 1992 collapsed in a 1994-98 civil war.

Other parties in northern Iraq would participate in the "national unity government," including those representing ethnic Turkoman and Assyrian minorities, said Barham Salih, the PUK prime minister, and Hoshiyar Zebari, a senior KDP member.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.