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Iraqi Opposition to Discuss Future Democratic Government - 2003-01-31

Iraqi opposition leaders say they plan to meet in northern Iraq's Kurdish-controlled region in late February to discuss a possible future leadership structure.

Iraqi opposition members say the meeting in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil could select people to prepare a future government for the country.

Many analysts have warned, Iraq could face conflict among its various religious and ethnic groups, if President Saddam Hussein is toppled. But one regional leader, Barham Salih of Sulaymania, disagrees. He told VOA, the opposition to President Hussein is united, both inside and outside the country, on key issues like maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity and establishing a federal multi-party, multi-ethnic democratic government.

Mr. Salih says Iraq's four-million Kurds in the north have been living an experiment in self-rule for the past 12 years. He says, they have set up a democracy that recognizes the rights of Turkomen and Assyrian minorities, which could serve as a model for the whole country.

"We want all to be treated as equal citizens of the state of Iraq," he said. "We want to be equal players in reshaping the politics of the whole of Iraq, but at the same time, enjoying a significant degree of regional self-government, which is very important to address the dimensions of the Kurdish national issue. But also, more importantly, in my opinion, to affirm the need of a democratic system of government that will never go wrong again."

But another member of the Iraqi opposition warns it will take time to build such a system. Riyadh al Yawar of the London-based Iraqi National Congress, said in Davos there are several important elements needed for Iraqi democracy to work.

"Freedom of speech, freedom of belief, of opinions," he said. "Shifting to democracy, maybe it won't be happening overnight, but definitely it will be a gradual process. There is a need for a transitional period, by the end of which, I am hoping, as all the other Iraqis hope, Iraq will be moving into a parliamentary system, constitutional democracy."

Mr. Yawar also warns that exiles like himself should not assume they will take charge in a liberated Iraq. He says, people who have stayed behind in the country endured great suffering, and will not want Iraqis from abroad to come back to govern them.

Gulf area analyst Shafeeq Ghabra, who is director of Kuwait University's Center for Strategic and Future Studies, told VOA he expects Iraq will have new leadership soon, either through war or the resignation of Saddam Hussein.

He says he expects to see new leadership in Iraq as early as March, when an Arab summit convenes in the Gulf state of Qatar.

"You most probably will have a new Iraqi president attending that summit, asking the Arab world to support Iraq in its rebuilding, and asking the Gulf countries to stand with it in its rebuilding," Shafeeq Ghabra said. "And slowly, this regime will have a lot of sympathy. It will gain a lot of sympathy, because it will also come in the context of sanctions are being lifted, Iraq is being rehabilitated, roads are being opened, rebuilding is going to start," he continued. "Iraq, with its wealth of oil, and energy and potential and capabilities of its people being so much isolated from the Arab world, and then slowly now going to be integrated in all other accounts."

Mr. Ghabra and other analysts say, new leadership in Iraq would be given a hero's welcome by other Arabs. Mr. Ghabra says, although Arabs certainly do not want to see the Iraqi people suffer through a war, no one will be sorry to see Saddam Hussein go.