Iraqi exiles have opened a conference in London to make plans for their country's political transition if President Saddam Hussein is removed from power. The often-divided opposition is trying to form a united front.
The London conference has brought together a wide spectrum of Iraqi exiles, from Islamic clerics based in Iran to doctors who work in Britain and professors teaching in the United States.
There are many disagreements to work out, but delegates are stressing their common desire for a democratic, federal government to replace President Saddam Hussein.
The conference has strong U.S. backing, and there were representatives at the opening session from the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, the Defense Department and the National Security Council.
The conference has taken on urgency as many [of the 330] delegates expect a U.S.-led war is imminent to overthrow Saddam Hussein and destroy Iraq's suspected arsenal of mass destruction weapons.
Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress told delegates that Iraqis have been disappointed with past U.S. actions, but he thinks things are different now. "I regret to say the United States has let down the Iraqi people many times," he said. "But I am proud to say that President Bush has adopted fully the position of the Iraqi opposition."
But another speaker, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, cautioned delegates against letting foreigners meddle in a post-Hussein Iraq. He explained the challenge delegates face. "To take upon themselves the burdens of transition with formation of a coalition government which represents the Iraqi people, and its various political forces, and not to leave the door open to alternatives, false alternatives, or any intervention from foreign powers," he said.
One of the goals of the conference is to set up a coordinating committee from which Iraq's post-Hussein leadership could emerge. But so far, there is not even agreement on how many members should sit on the panel.
Kurdish leader Hoshyar Zebari explained the committee's purpose. "This committee will speak for the Iraqi opposition," he said. "It will represent the Iraqi opposition's interest, the Iraqi people's interest and for diplomatic outreach, also. And I am sure it will have some influence on what is going on inside because it will have some legitimacy coming out of this conference."
Not all of the Iraqi exile community is supporting the conference. About 50 protesters from the Workers' Communist Party of Iraq protested outside the hotel where the conference met. They shouted slogans accusing the United States of being more interested in Iraq's oil that its people.