WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, put increasingly on the defensive about its refusal to intervene in Iraq's civil war, announced a series of talks with Iraqi dissidents yesterday while making clear that they can't expect tangible support.
The United States also kept its distance from France's call for the United Nations Security Council to respond to what a French official called the "brutal repression" of Kurdish and Shiite Muslim rebels.
Acknowledging the "appalling . . . tragic" bloodshed flowing from Iraq's suppression of internal rebellions, State Department spokeswoman Margaret D. Tutwiler asserted, "We have said 100,000 times it is up to the Iraqi people to decide their future leadership, not for outsiders."
U.S. officials stopped short of saying that Iraq had succeeded in quelling internal uprisings but noted that its forces now controlled all major cities in the south and were continuing to send reinforcements to the north, where they retained control of the vital oil city of Kirkuk and had forced most Kurdish forces into the mountains.
Ms. Tutwiler announced that John Kelly, assistant secretary of state for the Near East and South Asia, today would host the first of four meetings this week with Iraqi dissidents, including representatives of Kurds and Shiites, the two main groups that have been battling the Baghdad regime since the Persian Gulf war ended.
Today's meeting will include "six Iraqi Muslim intellectuals, both Sunnis and Shias," she said. "We will be meeting with Kurdish representatives later this week."
Some of the dissidents have asked to meet with Secretary of State James A. Baker III, but a senior department official said last night that such a meeting was still up in the air.
In the past, the United States has resisted meetings on a political level with Kurdish rebels, not wanting to appear to endorse any bid for a separate Kurdish state, although the senior official said the policy was not "ironclad."
But, asked what Mr. Kelly would tell the Iraqi opposition members, Ms. Tutwiler said: "He will be articulating America's policy concerning this situation, which I am sure is very well known, I would assume, to the individuals who are coming."
Yesterday's announcement followed repeated criticism, in newspaper commentary and elsewhere, of President Bush's decision to avoid becoming embroiled in Iraq's civil war despite his previous exhortation to Iraqis to overthrow President Saddam Hussein.
It came as the U.N. Security Council neared approval, expected today, on a tough, 21-page cease-fire resolution guaranteeing Kuwait's border with Iraq and requiring Baghdad to dismantle weapons of mass destruction and pay reparations out of its oil revenues.
The cease-fire resolution would allow U.S. and allied forces to withdraw from Iraq once Iraq accepts its terms and a border-monitoring force is installed in a 15-kilometer-wide buffer zone between Iraq and Kuwait.
With U.S. efforts focused on getting the resolution adopted, officials took a dismissive stance toward France's bid to enlist the Security Council in some kind of statement about Iraq's internal violence while not rejecting the French bid outright.
In private meetings yesterday with council members, France's U.N. representative, Jean-Marc Rochereau de la Sabliere, suggested either a declaration or a resolution condemning Iraq's repression of minorities.
Asked what the U.S. view would be of the Security Council taking up the issue, Ms. Tutwiler said, "I believe that all nations . . . of the coalition have all expressed how appalling this situation is, how tragic it is, how heart-wrenching it is, but that is quite different from any nation, including our own, [saying] that you're going to send in your armed forces to do something about it."
U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, in a statement issued through a spokesman, said yesterday that he was "gravely concerned about reports of heavy fighting and bloodshed in both northern and southern Iraq."
"He is particularly worried about the substantial increase in the number of Kurdish and Shiite refugees entering Iran and Turkey in the past few days," the spokesman added.
The U.N. chief received a letter Monday from Masoud Barzani, leader of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, and another yesterday from a Shiite leader, Hojatolislam Mohammed Baker al-Hakim, the spokesman said. "But the secretary-general decided on his own whether he would make an appeal or not."
Ms. Tutwiler, briefing reporters, sought to deflect any blame leveled at the United States for helping to trigger the Iraqi unrest that has brought widespread brutality and thousands of refugees, putting responsibility on "Saddam Hussein, with his policies of terror, with his policy of arrogance and total disregard for his population."
A senior U.S. official, while acknowledging the public's horror at events in Iraq, said President Bush would come under far worse criticism for suddenly prolonging a war that he had told the American people was over.