Iraqi Opposition Groups Mired in Internecine Warfare

The Iraqi opposition has been fighting more than 20 years to remove President Saddam Hussein, including fighting to get the United States to help out their effort.

With weapons inspectors on the ground testing Saddam's determination to avoid a war, the possibility of U.S. assistance is more tangible than ever.

But now, despite a recent high-profile joint meeting in Washington, the opposition is fighting not in unison against Saddam but against one another.

One example: Months of repeated "rescheduling" of a major opposition conference due to arguments over who should come, where it should be and when it should be held.

Right now, the meeting is scheduled to take place in London on Dec. 10 with active U.S. government participation.

"It's not to get into serious questions about the future of Iraq or the organization of a government-in-exile or even military actions, so you would think that you could pull together people on a vanilla kind of conference like this, but even there they're having trouble," said Amb. Edward Walker, former assistant secretary of state.

Walker suggests it's better for the United States to find out about the problems now and address from the beginning before depending on the opposition as a potential transition government if Saddam were removed.

One leading opposition official points out that dissonance among the groups like that demonstrated about the conference is "democratic" and doesn't undermine their common goal.

"The Iraqi opposition is united on two major issues — the overthrowing of Saddam and establishing a democratic, federalist, pluralistic system in Iraq," said Entifadh Qanbar, a member of the Iraqi National Congress.

Perhaps in an effort to encourage cooperation, top U.S. officials in the administration have gone so far as to send a welcome letter to a controversial anti-Saddam figure — Ayatollah Muhammad Bakir Al-Hakim. Supported by Iran, Al-Hakim is a Shi'ite Muslim, like 55 percent of Iraq, and his support for any future Iraqi government is considered crucial.

Washington is also courting opposition figures in the United States, including one well-known defector from the Iraqi army, Gen. Najib Al-Salhi. He has been mentioned many times in the media as a potential presidential candidate in a Saddam-free Iraq.

The general has noticeably ramped up his visibility in recent weeks, making network appearances and establishing a new office in downtown Washington.

Salhi's right-hand man insists this is not a presidential campaign, but merely an effort to raise issues other than the U.S. target of weapons of mass destruction.

"Saddam's regime on a daily basis kills hundreds if not thousands of Iraqis," Waria Al-Salhi of the Free Officers' Movement said.

But Walker warns exiled opposition leaders that they may not be able to ease right into new leadership roles once Saddam is ousted.

"There may be some of these people who may have a role to play in terms of developing support inside Iraq, but I would be more inclined to think that most of the new leadership is going to be homegrown and developed from within," he said. "It's going to be people who've been pulling their weight inside Iraq and taking the punishment all this time."

One thing all opposition figures with eventual presidential ambitions have in common is their dependence on the removal of Iraq's current president.

They don't agree with President Bush's suggestion that perhaps a cooperative Saddam could be considered a "changed regime." They want regime change to be full and complete and they want it now, insisting they will be ready for it.

Fox News' Teri Schultz contributed to this report.