SALAHUDDIN, Iraq – The fragmented Iraqi opposition took a step toward unity Saturday and insisted they should be allowed to run the country's affairs if Saddam Hussein is ousted.
Despite many differences and lingering unsettled issues, the conference of 54 representatives of an opposition steering committee, appears to have established the groundwork for a post-Saddam Iraqi leadership.
"The Iraqi people should have the first and last word in deciding and managing the affairs of their country," their four-page joint statement declared.
The largely closed-door conference in the autonomous Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq began Wednesday after three days of informal meetings.
It ended with the establishment of a six-member leadership council and the issuing of a joint statement publicly affirmed by all four major opposition groups.
It said the six-member leadership as well as 14 specialized committees were set up by the conference "in order to prepare for liberation and to prevent the emergence of a political, administrative and security vacuum."
Zalmay Khalilzad, White House envoy to the opposition, told reporters after the conference, "I want to tell the Iraqi people that help is on its way."
"President Bush sent us here to reaffirm our commitment to a democratic, representative, broadbased future Iraqi government," Khalilzad said.
The U.S. envoy had addressed the opening session Wednesday, trying tried to allay opposition concerns about a planned U.S., military governorship for Iraq if Saddam is overthrown in a threatened war.
He insisted that such a military government would not last longer than necessary to stabilize the country.
The wording of the final statement, especially with regard to the possibility of Turkish military intervention in Iraq, caused much of the last-minute wrangling at the meeting.
One of the greatest fears of the Kurds is that neighboring Turkey will succeed in its plan to send thousands of troops into northern Iraq along with U.S. forces who would create a northern front if the United States carries through its threat to attack Iraq.
The Kurds fear a lengthy Turkish occupation that would crush the autonomy of their region, established after the 1991 Gulf War and protected from Saddam's forces by U.S. and British air patrols.
Turkey fears the Iraqi Kurds will declare an independent state, which could encourage Turkey's rebellious Kurds to demand the same rights.
As the leaders worked on their closing statement, a Turkish parliament vote that would have approved the deployment of 62,000 U.S. troops and thousands of Turkish troops, was declared void because the vote was not an absolute majority.
It was not immediately clear if the Turkish-U.S. plan could be revived. Some 200,000 U.S. troops, aircraft and ships are already in the Gulf Region, along with tens of thousands of U.S. troops and a Royal Navy battle group to back up the U.S. British threat to disarm Saddam by force.
The opposition's final, simple wording on the Turkish issue: "We reject Turkish military intervention," appeased Massoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party, which had wanted a strong statement opposing Turkish military action in Iraq whether or not it would come under the banner of a U.S.-led coalition to oust Saddam.