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Iraqi Opposition Worried US May Try to Impose Post-War Leader - 2003-04-11

Iraqi opposition figures gathered in London say they are worried the United States may try to impose a leader on post-war Iraq.

The arrival of Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah is stirring up controversy within the exiled Iraqi community.

Mr. Chalabi is widely seen as the favored leader of the U.S. Defense Department, and he was transferred this week by the U.S. military to Nasiriyah along with 700 armed militants of his Iraqi National Congress.

The United States is trying to organize a meeting of Iraqi leaders from both inside and outside Iraq to be held in Nasiriyah. The gathering had been planned for Saturday, but exile officials say it has been put off at least until Tuesday.

In London Friday, some prominent Iraqi exiles told a news conference they will not accept any leadership imposed on them by the United States.

The president of the Washington-based Iraq National Group, Laith Kubbah, is concerned about the U.S. support for Mr. Chalabi.

"It sends the wrong signal to all political parties," said Mr. Kubbah. "If you allow one political group or leader to bring his own armed men to the theater, why don't you then allow it for others?" he asked. "This is the wrong message to be sent at this time. If anything, we would like to see politics in Iraq free of militias. We don't want to see elections under the guns of armed political parties."

Hamid al-Bayati, who represents the Supreme Council for Islamic Resistance in Iraq, the main Shi'ite Muslim opposition group, says the exiled Iraqis will have little power to stand up to demands from Washington.

"If the Americans want to sideline the Iraqi people, they can sideline us," he said. "We are part of the Iraqi people. We are one of the major opposition groups. The Shi'ite are the majority of Iraq.

There are two choices for the Americans, either to listen to the Iraqi people, to consider the makeup and the components of the Iraqi people, or to enforce things on the Iraqi people," he added.

Not all the Iraqi officials at the London meeting were critical of Mr. Chalabi. But Latif Rashid of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan emphasized that Mr. Chalabi is just one of many political leaders returning to Iraq.

"The task of a politician is to be with the people during a political crisis," he said. "We do not have only a political crisis, we have a military crisis. And our leaders are inside. PUK leaders are all inside. KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] leaders are all inside. Communist party leaders are all inside. A large number of Shi'ite religious leaders are inside. So it is not only Dr. Chalabi."

All three leaders at the news conference said they are still weighing their invitations from Washington to attend the Nasiriyah conference and they are awaiting more information about it.