Bush meets dissidents on Iraq's future

Democracy commitment leaves them `reassured'

January 12, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

President Bush told Iraqi opposition figures Friday that he favored a sweeping transition to democracy in Iraq and a short military occupation after Saddam Hussein is out of power, according to Iraqis and others who attended the meeting.

The hourlong session in the Oval Office was Bush's first extensive meeting with Iraqi dissidents. Three dissidents attended, two of whom are closely associated with the Iraqi National Congress, the umbrella opposition group. Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other senior White House staff aides also took part.

None of the Iraqi participants were willing to discuss precisely what Bush said. But Kanan Makiya, a professor at Brandeis University and a leading Iraqi intellectual, said he was "deeply reassured" by what he called "the president's intense commitment to a genuinely democratic post-Saddam Iraq" and by Bush's determination to press forward not only with "removing Saddam from office, but reconstructing Iraq after a military conflict."

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush told the group that "we haven't reached conclusions" about going to war.

"For the president, it was a great listening session," he said.

The Iraqi participants all said they had stressed the importance of creating an Iraqi political partner for the United States before Hussein is removed. "We argued that it would give the Iraqi people a pole around which they can rally during liberation," said Rend Francke, director of the Iraq Foundation, who was also at the meeting.

Bush seemed concerned about how U.S. soldiers might be received, a participant in the meeting said. The dissidents assured him that they would be greeted "with sweets and flowers."

Hatem Mukhlis, an Iraqi-American physician at the meeting, said that "the president indicated that America's presence in Iraq after a conflict should not be long."

Two participants said that the White House has not decided what kind of Iraqi partner it would want after Hussein is no longer in power. Opposition representatives are to meet in northern Iraq after Wednesday to designate a small group to help lead a transition to democracy once Hussein is gone, Iraqi opposition leaders said.

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