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Last Updated:  Friday, 11 April, 2003, 20:32 GMT 21:32 UK
Talks set on Iraq's future
Mosaic of Saddam Hussein defaced by gunfire
Tensions have arisen over who might replace Saddam Hussein
Iraqi opposition leaders are to meet in the south of the country next Tuesday to begin discussions on the country's future, the United States has said.

The meeting will take place in Nasiriya, but no guest list has yet been announced.

"We expect this to be the first in a series of regional meetings that will provide a forum for Iraqis to discuss their vision of the future and their ideas regarding the Iraqi interim authority," said US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

White House special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad would chair the meeting, said Captain Frank Thorp, a spokesman at Central Command in Qatar.

"The majority of the people attending will be from inside Iraq and there will also be attendees from outside Iraq returning to their country," Captain Thorp said.

Divisions in Washington

The BBC's David Bamford says the whole world will be watching in the coming weeks to see whether the Americans confound the sceptics who believed they launched this war to either "colonise Iraq or put up a puppet regime".

US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz
Wolfowitz wants parallel ministries led by both the US and Iraq
The details of the envisaged administration have already been the subject of sharp divisions between the Pentagon and State Department.

Nasiriya is where the leader of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi, is based after being flown there by the Americans this week.

The fact that the conference will be held there is seen as favouring Mr Chalabi, the Pentagon's preferred candidate for the Iraqi leadership, says our correspondent Jon Leyne.

However, there has as yet been no confirmation that Mr Chalabi will attend.

Note of independence

On Thursday, Mr Chalabi sounded a note of independence from the US, saying there was no room for Washington in the interim administration of Iraq.

He said Iraqis should form the temporary government to run the country.

He added that he hoped to see free elections in the country within two years, following the creation of a constitution to be drafted by Iraqis, approved by a constituent assembly and put to a free public referendum.

Also on Thursday, US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the Pentagon envisaged the setting up of parallel ministries led by both the US and Iraq until an interim government could be established.

In the short term, he said he envisioned "a kind of series of town hall assemblies in different parts of the country, where the issues can get elevated by Iraqis, not by foreigners".

This idea was echoed by Mr Boucher, who said he hoped such regional meetings would "culminate in a nationwide conference that can be held in Baghdad in order to form the Iraqi interim authority."

The future of Iraq was also being discussed on Friday by the leaders of France, Germany and Russia as they met in Saint Petersburg.

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