LONDON – Iraqi exiles ended a conference here on Tuesday in agreement on a committee they hope could replace Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad and plans to meet next in Saddam's backyard -- Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.
After a closed-door meeting following the official conclusion of the conference, organizers released a list of the 65 members of the committee.
The committee is to formulate unified policies and act as a conduit between Iraqi dissidents and the international community until Saddam's possible ouster and beyond. Many believe it could form the basis for a post-Saddam transitional government. Documents issued at the end of the conference suggested a three-man Sovereign Council to lead the transitional period. No candidates for the council were discussed publicly.
The closing session of the conference was marred by a walkout of delegates representing five Shiite groups, who said they were opposed to the apparent dominance of the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. In the end, the council got only eight of the 32 Shiite seats.
But dissident leaders and the U.S. envoy to the exiles, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the conference has offered new hope for Iraqis determined to change Saddam's three-decade-long rule of the embattled Arab country.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said: "The conference represents a strong statement of the aspirations of Iraqis -- inside Iraq and throughout the world -- for a better future. We support these aspirations and look forward to working together with all Iraqis to help achieve them."
Conference delegates and U.S. congressmen have expressed concern that a post-Saddam Iraq would descend into chaos. Chalabi said the London conference was sending a strong message to Washington that the Iraqi exiles could forge a united front.
The Shiite walkout indicates the sharp divides separating Iraqi Shiites, who represent 60 percent of Iraq's 22 million population and are split along conservative Islamic and liberal lines.
Massoud Barzani, head of the influential Kurdistan Democratic Party, said during a news conference that the meeting was a success in that it represented the majority of Iraqis.
But, "there are some other forces and people who have not joined us. These people have a long history of struggle against the dictatorship and we will continue our discussions with them."
He called for "tolerance, forgiveness" and putting Iraq's national interests first.
"We are for a new Iraq, an Iraq for all," Barzani said.
Intense lobbying over the form and membership of the crucial committee forced what was meant to be a three-day London conference to stretch out to five days.
Jalal Talabani, head of the key Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said the committee will not be dominated by specific interests but represent Iraq's diverse political landscape.
"We want Iraq to be free of sectarian and ethnic conflict, where all its people can participate (in Iraqi life) freely and democratically," Talabani said during a closing news conference Tuesday.
In an interview Tuesday with the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp., Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan condemned the dissidents for backing American plans to attack Iraq, but added that the exiles' agenda "did not concern Iraq."
The United States, which has threatened to topple Saddam for stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, helped organize the London conference.
After the conference opened Friday, delegates quickly found agreement on core issues -- that a transitional government should be formed to replace Saddam if he is toppled and that the president and some of his henchmen should face war crimes.
But consensus on who should shape Iraq's political future has been elusive, with each opposition faction wanting to be included in the crucial leadership committee.
Delegates to the conference, which was held in a posh hotel under tight security, also agreed on a list of 49 current Iraqi regime officials -- including Saddam and his two sons -- who should face trial for war crimes, and others who should be granted amnesty.