DAVOS, Switzerland – Iraq's diverse cultural and religious communities could live together in a peaceful democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi opposition leaders insisted Tuesday.
"Never in the history of Iraq has there been any hostility on the personal level among the people," Adnan Pachachi, former Iraqi foreign minister, said. "Regimes have oppressed some areas or sections of the population but individuals didn't fight each other because of ethnic or sectarian differences."
Addressing the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, an exclusive Swiss Alpine resort, Pachachi added that political differences between Muslim groupings in Iraq are "negligible" and that society is basically secular anyway.
The eight leaders, from varying Iraqi opposition groups, said they hoped Saddam would leave Iraq without bloodshed.
"We call on all peace-loving people to put their weight behind pressure on Saddam to leave the country," said Ghassam Attiyah, editor-in-chief of the London-based Iraqi File.
He said he would be prepared to see Saddam go into exile without facing justice for atrocities committed in the country if that would prevent war.
But Barham Salih, prime minister of the autonomous regional government in the northern Kurdish area of the Iraq beyond Saddam's control, said that would be a decision for a future democratic government.
"All of us would like to spare Iraq further bloodshed, but none of us has the authority or the moral courage to speak for the Marsh Arabs" or other victims of Saddam's regime, he said.
If the United States and its allies attack Iraq, foreign forces likely would have to stay for some time, said Hoshyar Zebari, of the Kurdistan Democratic Party that shares control in the north.
"We perceive the transitional period to take about two years," he said. "As a principle, all the members of the opposition are against any military occupation ... but at the same time let's be realistic."
He said a U.S. military presence would be necessary to deter intervention from Iraq's neighbors and to maintain law and order until elections can be held.
"We are trying to organize ourselves to be a credible opposition so that we can run our country — not foreigners," he said. "We have tremendous human resources, a very well-educated population that could do the job."
Pachari added: "I am extremely optimistic about the future of Iraq and I believe that sooner or later the Iraqi people, after long years of suffering, will be able to forge a democratic system that will be acceptable to all."
Many analysts warn Iraq could face conflict between religious and ethnic groups if Saddam is toppled.
The Iraqi session came at the end of the six-day forum, which was built around the theme of restoring public confidence in business and public institutions but was dominated by talk of possible war in Iraq.
Conference highlights included Sunday's speech by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell calling on all nations to back U.S. efforts to force Iraq to disarm, and an address by Jordan's King Abdullah urging renewed U.S. effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Talks on the sidelines of the meeting made progress toward measures to ensure poor countries can afford vital medicines, an issue that is threatening to paralyze crucial negotiations at the World Trade Organization.
The gathering at this posh ski resort has been criticized by some activists as putting corporate profit ahead of improvements for the world's poorest people, although much discussion was about ways for developed countries to help poorer ones.
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel closed the forum urging participants to persevere in their efforts for a better world despite the dark clouds. "What should you take away?" he asked. "One word, hope."