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Iraqi opposition groups will hold first conference in Iraq in decade, Kurdish official says

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq—Iraqi opposition groups next month will hold their first conference on Iraqi soil in a decade, a senior Kurdish official said Tuesday.

The meeting in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq is going ahead even though the Bush administration refuses to beef up protection by U.S. aircraft and in spite of persisting discord within the opposition.

The meeting could offer a glimpse of a future democratic government in Iraq, or it could end up underscoring the difficulties of achieving that goal.

The gathering was called to continue the planning that began at a U.S.-sponsored conference in London last month for Iraq's transition to democratic rule should President Bush order an invasion to oust Saddam Hussein. It could hold enormous symbolic value by proving that opposition parties long divided by religion, ethnicity, ideologies, bloodletting and personal differences could unite under Saddam's nose.

However, the meeting has been postponed several times by bickering over the makeup of a group that would complete the blueprint for a political transition and by a demand that American aircraft step up enforcing a no-fly zone over northern Iraq while the meeting is under way.

"Of course, we already have the protection of the no-fly zone, but when you have such a conference, we have to have more protection," said Fouad Masum, a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two parties that control the Vermont-size safe haven in northern Iraq.

Judith Yaphe, a Persian Gulf expert at the National Defense University in Washington, predicted that the meeting might not even take place. Kurdish groups, particularly the Kurdistan Democratic Party, remain leery of antagonizing Saddam, she said.

"I cannot see them meeting in northern Iraq while Saddam is alive," Yaphe said.

Unless the opposition groups and Washington resolve these problems, the United States could find itself invading Iraq without a roadmap for replacing a decades-old political system built on iron-fisted authoritarianism and violence.

Last month's conference of more than 300 dissidents in London could agree only that Iraq should have a democratic and federal parliamentary government, and it endorsed a 65-member committee to work out further details.

The committee will meet Feb. 15 in the former resort of Salahuddin, Masum said. The gathering would come 10 years after dissident leaders convened in that town to forge an anti-Saddam coalition known as the Iraqi National Congress.

The conference is to choose smaller committees that will oversee planning for a post-Saddam political system, the distribution of humanitarian aid and relations among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups, Masum said.

He denied that disputes among the opposition groups had delayed the meeting, though he conceded that the makeup of the all-important political committee is still being negotiated. He said delegates also had had problems obtaining visas to cross into northern Iraq from Iran and Turkey.

Yaphe also noted that factions of the Iraqi opposition have begun receiving more backing from Iran, which she said was a sign that Tehran wanted to keep channels to Washington open.

"Iran is signaling the kind of cooperation ... that it signaled that it would do in Afghanistan," when it didn't oppose U.S. military operations there, she said.

A prominent opposition activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, attributed the meeting's repeated postponements to a fierce dispute over the makeup of the political committee.

He said the Bush administration and some opposition leaders were insisting that the committee include representatives of smaller opposition organizations. But the major dissident organizations—the two Kurdish parties, the INC, the Iraqi National Accord, Shiite Muslim guerrillas based in Iran and a royalist party—are trying to limit membership in the group, he charged.

He said the six wanted to turn the group into the core of a provisional government, which the Bush administration opposes. American officials think a provisional government that formed before Saddam's ouster would lack credibility among ordinary Iraqis, who would see it as a U.S. tool.

(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this story from Washington.)

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAQ OPPOSITION

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