Senior State Department and Pentagon officials Friday host a meeting of leaders of six Iraqi opposition groups. It is the most prominent event to date in an ongoing Bush administration effort to encourage the groups to work together.
The meeting being held at the State Department is the latest in a series of U.S. contacts with the Iraqi opposition aimed at encouraging cooperation among the disparate factions, and planning for the post-Saddam era in Iraq in line with the administration's stated goal of "regime change."
Those expected to attend include Ahmed Chalabi, head of the umbrella group the Iraqi National Congress, the INC, along with the leaders or representatives of two major Kurdish factions, and others including monarchist and Islamic opponents of Saddam Hussein.
The Congress in 1997 authorized nearly $100 million to support various INC activities. But the London-based group has been involved in a long-running dispute with the State Department over its accounting of U.S. funds, and officials in recent months been cultivating ties with the other groups invited to the meeting.
The gathering comes amid broad speculation about possible U.S. military action to oust Saddam Hussein, and follows a stern broadcast address by the Iraqi leader Wednesday night warning that any military force that attacked Iraq would "die in disgraceful failure."
White House officials said the Saddam speech did not alter President Bush's views on Iraq in any way, while State Department spokesman Philip Reeker dismissed it as "bluster."
"Saddam's comments are a bluster from an internationally-isolated dictator," he said, "demonstrative yet again that his regime shows no intention to live up to its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions. Those obligations are about disarmament. The President and the Secretary have been quite clear. We continue to leave all our options available regarding Iraq. Saddam Hussein's regime remains a serious threat to the Iraqi people, to the people of the region, to the neighbors of Iraq and to international peace and stability."
A White House spokesman reiterated that President Bush has not decided on any particular course of action with regard to Iraq and will consult with Congress and U.S. friends and allies "as we move forward."
At a Washington news conference Thursday, a spokesman for the INC, Sharif Ali, said he expects the opposition groups to speak with a united voice at the State Department meeting.
Mr. Ali said if the United States moved against Saddam, he did not foresee a need for prolonged military operations because he said, support for the Iraqi leader is evaporating in the army and elsewhere, and no one would defend him.