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Last Updated:  Thursday, 27 February, 2003, 02:42 GMT
Saddam foes hear US plans

By Jim Muir
BBC correspondent in Salahuddin, northern Iraq

Kurdish fighters stand guard near the statue of a Kurdish poet at the gate of Erbil Castle
The conference is being held in northern Iraq which is controlled by the Iraqi Kurds
An American presidential envoy has been attending a meeting of the Iraqi opposition in Kurdish-held northern Iraq aimed at preparing the ground for the country's political future after the expected overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime.

The envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, reassured the opposition that the Americans would leave Iraq as soon as stability had been restored and a democratic government was in place.

He also had reassuring words about the possible entry of troops from neighbouring Turkey into northern Iraq, a prospect which has alarmed the opposition and especially the Kurds.

However, he did admit that a period of US military rule was envisaged after the eventual removal of Saddam Hussein.

Kurdish alarm

With a tough squad of US diplomatic guards mounting security around the building, the US envoy addressed the opening session of the Iraqi opposition gathering.

This could have been a difficult moment. The opposition has been deeply alarmed by Washington's adoption of a plan for a period of US military rule in the event of Saddam Hussein's overthrow.

The Kurds, who are part of the opposition but have been running their own affairs in northern Iraq for the past 12 years, have been even more alarmed by plans for Turkish forces to enter northern Iraq - not to fight the Iraqi army, but it seems, to pursue Turkey's own agenda.

On the first issue, Mr Khalilzad did not disguise the fact that military rule for a short period is the plan.

But he stressed repeatedly the United States' commitment to bringing about a democratic Iraqi Government as soon as possible and then leaving.

And he made it clear that before and during the transitional phase the coalition allies would work closely with the committees, or task forces, being set up by the opposition.

Critical issue

Some of the Iraqi delegates had reservations, especially the Shia Islamists, who are suspicious of what they call foreign occupation and domination.

But by and large what Mr Khalilzad had to say went down well.

In his speech he didn't mention the critical issue of the entry of Turkish troops, but at a press briefing afterwards he was emphatic that any Turkish troops would be part of the coalition forces and would leave when the latter did.

"Our position is abundantly clear," he stressed.

"I cannot make it clearer: no movement into Iraq, no movement by any power into Iraq unless it is fully coordinated with the coalition. Period. And withdrawal when the coalition withdraws."

But Mr Khalilzad admitted that the wider deal with Turkey, of which this is part, had not yet been completely finalised.

The Kurds remain deeply anxious on the subject, but the tension of recent days on this issue does seem to be easing.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Salahuddin
"The Kurds remain deeply anxious"


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