Hundreds of Iraqi dissidents plan to meet in London Saturday and Sunday to discuss how to govern Iraq if President Saddam Hussein is removed from power.
Iraqi opposition leaders say their conference will focus on preparing the country's transition from a military dictatorship under Saddam Hussein to a democratic federal state.
Organizers say the conference will bring together at least 300 delegates representing two Kurdish parties, an Iran-based Shiite Muslim group, a constitutional monarchist party and two umbrella organizations based in London.
An official of the Iraqi National Congress, Sam Chalabi, said the agenda will include discussion of an interim constitution. "It deals with reforms of certain key institutions such as civil-military relations and addressing the fact that the Iraqi military has participated in a number of coups over the last 50 years, the role of the intelligence-security apparatuses, how to reform those. To re-establish a judiciary and an effective parliamentary procedure and so on, to re-establish the independence of the judiciary," Mr. Chalabi said.
Another delegate, Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, stands next in line to the throne of Iraq if a constitutional monarchy were re-established. He says the democratic opposition needs to get organized quickly because a U.S.-led war in Iraq appears to be unavoidable.
"We had planned for many years that we would effect regime change in Iraq ourselves. But now Saddam Hussein has pushed the envelope so far that it would appear that the international community, under a U.N. mandate, will inevitably end up in a military conflict once again with Saddam Hussein," he said.
The chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the British parliament, Donald Anderson, said the Iraqi opposition is badly fractured. He told British radio the exiled opposition leaders and the U.S. military may find they have less support inside Iraq today than they had during the 1991 Gulf War.
"The idea that they would be viewed as liberators certainly would be backed by what happened in 1991, when the Shi'a in the south and the Kurds in the north rose and were not then supported. But now it is possibly different, and there could be far more resistance than the U.S. would like to think," Mr. Anderson said.
But Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein of the former Iraqi royal family rejects the criticism, and denies the opposition is out of touch with the realities inside Iraq. He claims to have identified military units that will not fight if there is a war, and says the information has been provided to the U.S. military.
"Our information from inside Iraq is that the Iraqi military forces will not resist or protect Saddam. And therefore part of the information flow that we are trying to provide is units that have contacted us that want to join in the revolution and we are trying to point out to the United States that they should not be attacked. And I think the United States has taken that on board," he said.
Among those keeping a close eye on the upcoming conference is U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, Middle East point man for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has met with conference organizers in London and is urging unity on fundamental issues.
"They are coming together on key principles. And I think that's what we have to look at. Here are the key principles. This has got to be a democracy ensuring of human rights, federalism. And I think you will see them continue to articulate what those specific items are," Senator Brownback said.
Other U.S. officials who have met with the Iraqi opposition in London during the past week include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and President Bush's special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.
However, the Iraqis and the Americans say Washington is not controlling the outcome of the conference, and they say the U.S. government is neither funding nor sponsoring the event.