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US-Iraqi Opposition Talks Focus on Factions' Unity

The Bush administration convened leaders and senior delegates of six Iraqi opposition groups at the State Department Friday. U.S. officials said they talked about improving unity among the factions seeking the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Plans were announced for a broader meeting of the opposition to be held soon in Europe.

The more-than-two-hour meeting here was the most ambitious effort thus far by the Bush administration to try to unite the fractious Iraqi opposition, and get the groups to focus on preparing for the post-Saddam era.

The meeting brought together the leaders or senior representatives of the London-based umbrella organization the Iraqi National Congress, the INC, the two biggest Iraqi Kurd parties, and secular and religious groups including Iranian-based Iraqi Shiites.

A State Department spokesman said the talks were productive and focussed on coordinating the U.S. government's efforts on Iraq with those of the opposition.

Speaking for the Iraqis, Hamid al-Bayati of the Iranian-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said there is a consensus to replace what he termed "a regime of oppression" in Baghdad with a constitutional, parliamentary democracy. He said a broader political conference of the opposition will be held in the next few months in Europe.

"The forces of the opposition are united in their efforts to replace the dictatorship in our country. We have agreed to convene a meeting of the Iraqi opposition in consultation with all opposition elements, ensuring sufficient representation for all the Iraqi people and their political forces that are opposed to dictatorship," Hamid al-Bayati said.

Mr. Al-Bayati said the opposition groups requested U.S. protection from the Baghdad regime under post-Gulf War U.N. resolutions. A senior State Department official later reiterated the administration's intention to keep on enforcing the "no-fly" zones in the northern and southern parts of Iraq, and he said the U.S. side reaffirmed that if Saddam Hussein again moves against Kurds in the north, the United States "will respond."

The meeting was hosted by the third-ranking officials of the State and Defense departments though Secretary of State Colin Powell joined in briefly, saying, according to a U.S. official, that "our shared goal is that the Iraqi people should be free."

The Iraqi opposition figures are to be addressed at another Washington meeting Saturday by Vice-President Dick Cheney, who will speak to them by television hookup from his home in Wyoming.

The State Department meeting came amid wide speculation of possible U.S. military action to back up the administration's stated policy goal of "regime change" in Baghdad.

However, in a brief interview with the Associated Press at his vacation home in Texas, Mr. Bush said he has no timetable for deciding on a military strike against Iraq and a decision would "not necessarily" come this year.