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U.S. to host opposition meeting in Iraq

From Elise Labott

Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, in black, arrives Sunday in Nasiriya, Iraq.
Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, in black, arrives Sunday in Nasiriya, Iraq.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States plans to host a conference of Iraqi opposition leaders in that nation next week to discuss the creation of an interim Iraqi authority to replace Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials told CNN Tuesday.

The conference is tentatively scheduled April 15 in the southern Iraqi town of Nasiriya, they said.

Participants will include members of the Iraqi opposition "from both inside and outside the country," one administration official said, adding that President Bush's envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, would probably represent the United States.

One official said planning for the conference was in preliminary stages, with the United States currently "determining the guest list, talking to people, running them through the [CIA] vetting process to see who is really sympathetic to what we are trying to do."

Participation in the conference "will be very wide, broad-based and definitely reflecting Iraq's religious and ethnic diversity," he said.

A wide spectrum of Iraqi exiles will be invited. Iraqis inside the country who will be invited will be a "mixture of civilian and military leaders," he said.

The official said the meeting is seen as one in a series the United States hopes to hold with Iraqis, ultimately culminating in a bigger meeting in Baghdad, to be held in the not-so-distant future.

Potential leaders emerging

Although reports have circulated suggesting Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wants to name Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi as the head of an interim Iraqi authority, this official said the administration "wants to see who has support, who is popular and who the Iraqis coalesce around."

"We fully expect Ahmed to be part of an interim authority, and that is fine," this official said. "But we shouldn't anoint him and he shouldn't be the end-all, be-all. Let's at least have the appearance of democracy and giving people a voice."

Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi and Laith Kubba, an American Iraqi with the National Endowment for Democracy, are also expected to attend, the official said.

Rumsfeld denied Monday that he fashioned Chalabi as the leader of a post-Saddam government, but he said, "That sort of 'who's going to do what' is taking place, and my understanding is it's pretty well sorted through."

"Our view of an interim authority is something that's run, chosen by Iraqis, that it should be representative of all the groups in Iraq," Deputy State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Monday.

While the Bush administration has primarily been dealing with opposition members from the Iraqi exile community, administration officials told CNN several Iraqi citizens who could be potentially part of a future Iraqi government have come to the attention of coalition forces during the military campaign in Iraq.

"A lot of tribal leaders, sheiks and others have already identified themselves as studied folks," another senior administration official told CNN, explaining that these Iraqi citizens have been indicating they are sympathetic to U.S. goals of liberating Iraq.

Kanan Makiya, a member of the Iraqi National Congress, told an audience at a Washington think tank Tuesday that "people are emerging from cities" such as union and tribal leaders.

"They are right now joining in their liberation," he said of Iraqis inside the country.

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