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U.S. official enters northern Iraq to meet with opposition leaders

SALAHADDIN, Iraq—In a provocative thumb in the eye to Saddam Hussein, a U.S. presidential envoy entered rebel Kurd-held northern Iraq on Tuesday to confer with opposition leaders on how to govern the country after the dictator's removal.

The visit of Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, seemed intended to mock Saddam by demonstrating his inability to stop a lone unarmed U.S. official from crossing his border.

Khalilzad, an Afghan-born senior National Security Council official, crossed through the Khabur Gate border post with a small entourage of U.S. officials and security guards, said Iraqi opposition officials.

They were met by senior Kurdish officials, who sped them in a heavily guarded motorcade to Salahaddin, the mountaintop stronghold of Masood Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the opposition officials said.

Salahaddin is in a part of the Vermont-sized, Kurd-run enclave that is shielded from Iraqi air attacks by a U.S.- and British-enforced no-fly zone. Saddam relinquished control of the area after the zone was created in 1991.

Salahaddin is just more than 20 miles from the front line between Barzani's guerrillas and Saddam's troops, and well within Iraqi missile range.

Khalilzad's arrival cleared the way for Wednesday's opening of a conference in Salahaddin on how Iraq should be governed after Saddam's removal. The Islamic regime of neighboring Iran sent a delegation, but Turkey and moderate Arab governments declined to do so.

It would be the first meeting of leaders of Iraq's disparate religious, political and ethnic-based opposition parties on their native soil in a decade, and it comes amid a massive U.S. and British military buildup on Iraq's borders.

The Iraqi opposition leaders agreed at a conference in London in December that Iraq should become a parliamentary federation, but they were unable to decide how that should be achieved.

The meeting in northern Iraq has been repeatedly postponed by delays in Khalilzad's arrival and furious squabbling over a future Iraqi government in private meetings and satellite telephone conversations and on newspaper pages.

Opposition leaders object to a U.S. plan to have an American military governor run Iraq for up to two years after Saddam's removal.

They contend that the plan would leave senior Saddam loyalists in place and perpetuate the domination of minority Sunni Arabs over majority Shiite Arabs, as well as Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities.

Some opposition leaders argue that they should form a transitional administration that would run the country until elections can be held, with the help of tens of thousands of educated Iraqis currently living in Iraq or in exile.

The opposition, especially the Kurds, is livid with Washington for agreeing in principle to allow Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq as part of a deal for U.S. troops to use Turkish bases as invasion-staging areas.

Only hours before Khalilzad's arrival, the 105-member Kurdish Parliament unanimously approved a statement condemning the plan as "unacceptable" and calling on Washington and its allies "not to allow the Turkish army into Iraq."

The statement's language was considerably more restrained than the threats some Kurdish officials had made in recent days to attack Turkish forces.

After the vote, several senior Kurdish officials warned that a Turkish incursion would jeopardize the Kurds' cooperation with the U.S. military's plan to use their enclave to open a northern front against Saddam.

"We hope the Americans will take care of this issue, and they do not replace one dictator with another dictator," said Gen. Mam Rostam, military adviser to Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani. The PUK, along with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, controls the northern Kurd-held area.

Ankara says it must send tens of thousands of soldiers into the north behind invading U.S. forces to prevent the Iraqi Kurds from declaring independence.

Kurdish leaders have said repeatedly that they have no intention of declaring independence. They charge that Turkey is bent on regional domination and seizing the oil-rich territory around the Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Mosul.


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