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Iraqi dissidents elect leadership committee

SALAHADDIN, Iraq—Iraqi dissidents on Thursday elected a six-man leadership committee, intensifying a fight against the Bush administration's plan to have a U.S. military governor run Iraq after Saddam Hussein's removal.

Delegates to an opposition conference in rebel Kurd-held northern Iraq tapped the six leaders as the only Iraqis who could negotiate with Washington on how the country would be run after a U.S.-led invasion, said opposition officials. A formal announcement was expected Friday.

"We will not agree or accept that the Americans will discuss the future of Iraq with anyone else," asserted Mudhar Shawkat, the leader of the Iraqi National Movement, one of the groups attending the meeting.

Shawkat said that the membership of the committee could be expanded to other opposition factions "at any time."

While the United States funds and consults closely with the main Iraqi dissident groups, the White House opposes the creation of any kind of opposition leadership body.

It believes that members of such a group, especially one that includes Iraqis who have lived in exile for years, would be regarded as American puppets, compromising their credibility.

U.S. officials say that the formation of any kind of leadership group should wait until after Saddam's removal so that Iraqis now under his rule could also participate.

If President Bush authorizes a war, he intends to appoint a U.S.-military administrator to run the country after the removal of Saddam while Iraqis draft a new constitution and organize an election.

Opposition leaders attending the conference reject that plan. They argue that a U.S. military governor would have to rely on an Iraqi bureaucracy and security forces filled with former Saddam loyalists, most of them members of the Sunni Arab minority.

The conferees, representing majority Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Kurds and other minorities, contend that there are thousands of qualified Iraqis inside and outside Iraq who were not affiliated with Saddam's Baath Party who could run a provisional administration until elections.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a special presidential envoy and senior White House official, attended the opening of the conference and a Thursday morning session. It was not known if he was on hand for the selection of the leadership committee. But opposition leaders had discussed the issue with him beforehand and heard no objections from him, said Shawkat.

Khalilzad was secluded in a guest house under Kurdish and U.S. guards near the conference hall, and could not be reached for comment.

The opposition conference opened on Wednesday in Salahaddin, a mountaintop town in an enclave that Saddam relinquished to minority Kurdish rebels in 1991. The conference is the first to be held by Iraqi dissidents on their native soil in a decade, and comes as tens of thousands of American and British forces assemble on Iraq's borders for a possible invasion.

Salahaddin is in a portion of the Kurd-controlled enclave protected from Iraqi regime attacks by a U.S.- and British-enforced no-fly zone. The growl of allied fighters could be heard in the thick clouds overhead throughout the day.

The six-member leadership committee was elected during a long closed-door session on Thursday evening.

"It was unanimous, without one dissenting voice, not one," said Shawkat, a member of a board that is running the conference. He said the committee was formed to press the case against a post-Saddam U.S. military administration. He said it was not intended as a government in exile.

"The Iraqi people want a leadership so that they have an official representative body to discuss, negotiate, argue with our partners and allies, the Americans, in regard to the future government of Iraq," he said.

Committee members include: Jalal Talabani, the head of the rebel Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; Masood Barzani, head of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party; Mohammad Bakir al Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a party based in Iran that represents Iraqi Shiite Arabs; and Ahmed Chalabi of the secular Iraqi National Congress, the main opposition umbrella group.


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