Opponents of Hussein gather for conference

Congress members speak to Iraqi dissidents at New York City meeting


NEW YORK -- Even in exile, Iraq's fractious opposition groups have spent more time divided against one another than united against their common enemy, Saddam Hussein. But with the United States acting as midwife, more than 300 of their representatives converged on New York City over the weekend to try to forge a credible alternative to the present dictatorship in Baghdad.

"We know what they're against," a senior State Department official said. "The question is, what are they for? They have not been as clear on this message as they need to be."

The conference took place at the Sheraton New York hotel under the umbrella of the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of political organizations opposed to Hussein. Some came from inside Iraq but many more from exile. The coalition is recovering from a setback inflicted by Hussein's Republican Guards, who defeated its forces in northern Iraq in 1996.

The conference was financed with the last of $3 million that Congress gave for a series of meetings among Iraqi dissidents this year.

The first session took place in Britain in April. The funds came from $8 million allocated to support the Iraqi opposition in the current budget.

Last year, Congress authorized another $97 million in government goods and services to be drawn upon by Iraqi opponents of Hussein. This week, four Iraqi rebels, two of them Kurds, are attending a 10-day course in military-civilian relations at an Air Force base near Pensacola, Fla.

The administration has also offered Iraqi opposition groups surplus office supplies worth $2 million. U.S. officials do not rule out providing weapons later.

A U.S. presence was conspicuous at the conference, though the Iraqis conducted their animated debates in Arabic.

The conference opened Friday evening with an address by David Scheffer, the administration's ambassador at large for war crimes issues, who explained his plan for having Hussein indicted for crimes against humanity. It ends today with an address by Thomas Pickering, the undersecretary of state for political affairs.

The schedule was sprinkled with pep talks from members of Congress, who coupled pledges of support with pleas for the rival groups to start working with one another.

On Saturday, Sayyid Qadhim al Battat, a guerrilla leader who slipped out of southern Iraq on Oct. 10 to attend the conference, urged his fellow Iraqis to put aside their differences. Resplendent in a brown robe and white Arab headdress, Battat said that his troops were fighting "continuously" against Saddam and deserved to hear that the Iraqi opposition groups meeting in New York had solidified their ranks.

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