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Iraq: U.S. Officials Welcome Opposition Leaders In New York

High-ranking U.S. officials welcomed Iraqi opposition leaders at a weekend conference in New York devoted to developing a common strategy to replace Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan reports from the opening session.

New York, 1 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is calling on representatives from the diverse Iraqi opposition groups meeting in New York to pool their efforts to bring freedom to their country.

Representatives from key Iraqi opposition groups gathered in New York last weekend to attend the Iraqi Opposition Conference and National Assembly. The four-day conference has attracted over 300 delegates -- from England, Holland, Turkey, the United States, Iraqi-Kurdestan, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and other countries -- and represents the largest assembly of the Iraqi opposition in the past seven years.

The conference is organized by the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which is an umbrella organization of Kurdish, Shi'ite and leftist groups. Attending are the Amman-based Iraqi National Accord (INA), the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and many smaller groups. But conspicuous by their absence are the largest Shi'ite opposition grouping, the Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and several smaller Islamic or Marxist groups.

Dr. Salah A. Shaikhly, official spokesperson for the INC, explained his view of the significance of the event in opening remarks:

"We are gathered here this evening for an historic event. This is the largest and most inclusive gathering of Iraqi opposition leaders since 1992. By being here, by being here tonight, and throughout this weekend, you [and] we together are sending a single message to the world and to our brothers and sisters inside Iraq that there is a unified Iraqi opposition movement. That there is an alternative to Saddam Hussein."

Shaikhly said the conference aims to reaffirm the unity of the Iraqi opposition, to elect a central council for the expanding organization, and to nominate new leadership for the opposition to chart the way. It also seeks to establish a coordinating mechanism to advance existing opposition efforts both in and outside Iraq.

He added that he hoped the conference would be a symbol of hope that will encourage Iraqis to imagine a future where their country is free, prosperous, and at peace.

The obstacle to this vision is Saddam Hussein. But this does not discourage Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas. Speaking to the Iraqi opposition leaders, Brownback said:

"Let's put Saddam Hussein on notice here and now: The good people of Iraq want you out. We will not rest until we see Saddam Hussein removed."

Replacing Iraq, said Brownback, is important for the national security of the United States and of its allies in the Middle East.

Other U.S. officials called replacing Saddam a moral imperative. David J. Scheffer, Ambassador-at Large for War Crimes Issues at the U.S. State Department, cited Saddam's crimes against humanity - from using poison gas on Iraqi Kurds in Halajba in 1988 to committing war crimes against Coalition forces during the Gulf war in 1991.

"The United States government is determined to see this clique [group] of Iraqi criminals stripped of their power, and if possible, brought to justice. They should benefit from no contracts, no trade, no initiatives that would bestow any legitimacy on their criminal enterprise in Baghdad."

After the 1991 Gulf War, the United States pursued a policy of containment - an effort to restrict Iraq's access to normal international relationships and to erode Saddam Hussein's ambition through protracted frustration. The continuing UN sanctions against Iraq are an example of containment policy.

But Saddam Hussein remains in power and in recent years the United States has stepped up its efforts to encourage a regime change. Last year, the U.S. Congress passed the Iraqi Liberation Act, which authorizes -- but does not compel -- the U.S. administration to provide up to 97 million dollars to approved opposition groups.

The administration has since certified seven opposition groups as eligible to receive the aid because the groups are committed to creating a democratic government. But Washington has n-o-t implemented the act, as it awaits proof that Iraqi opposition groups can unify and that they represent a viable strategy for replacing Saddam's regime.

In the past unity has been elusive for the opposition, as shown by the fact that several groups are boycotting this weekend's proceedings or were denied travel visas. But that does not discourage Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

"Democracy's hard. And they've [the Iraqi opposition leaders] got to begin to think about (the following questions). How do you govern yourself? How do you enable the Shi'ia, the Sunni and the various Kurdish factions to live in a single country, with a single government, resolving their conflicts in peaceful fashions? It is not easy. And the presence of arguments - and there will be great disunity here, there will be many people that will disagree - the presence of arguments is an indication that people are free."

Kerry says that Iraq -- rich in both natural and intellectual resources -- has the potential to become a multi-ethnic Arab democracy. And he predicts this will happen sooner rather than later. He said he looks forward to attending next year's Iraqi opposition conference in Baghdad.