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Iraqi Opposition Leaders Meet in Tehran

January 27, 2003

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ About a dozen Iraqi opposition leaders have quietly gathered in Iran ahead of a planned conference in northern Iraq on the future of their homeland after Saddam Hussein, according to Iraqi opposition officials.

``Ten top opposition leaders, along with a large delegation, have arrived in Iran to formulate plans for their entry into northern Iraq through Iranian territory,″ Dana Ahmad Majid of the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party told The Associated Press on Sunday. Iran, he said, was playing the role of a ``bridge,″ providing opposition groups with transit to Iraq.

The gathering of Iraqi opposition figures could suggest an increasing Iranian involvement in plans for Iraq’s future although Iranian newspapers, including state-run media, have remained tightlipped on the gathering. However, there also have been rifts between Iranian-based Iraqi opposition figures and more liberal U.S.-based dissidents.

Meeting in Iran could allow them to iron out some of those disputes _ chiefly over how much influence clerics should have in a post-Saddam Iraq _ before they would cross into northern Iraq for the conference now planned for mid-February.

Haj Abu Zeid, a leader of the largest Shiite Iraqi opposition group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said opposition meetings in Tehran have ``resulted in bringing the views closer and reducing differences″ ahead of the February conference.

Zeid did not elaborate on those differences or how they were being smoothed over, said Iraqi opposition groups were showing support to a reported Iranian offer to protect the groups on their way into northern Iraq.

Other senior council officials, speaking on condition of anonymity with The Associated Press in Cairo, said the liberals wanted to assure their leader, Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim, that they have no plan to try to undermine his influence among Shiite Iraqi dissidents. Al-Hakim was angered by remarks attributed to Brandeis University professor and prominent Iraqi dissident Kenan Makiya accusing Shiite clerics of trying to manipulate opposition efforts for a regime change.

Another Iraqi opposition official, speaking in Iran on condition of anonymity, said the visiting dissidents also were having talks with Iranian elite Revolutionary Guards and other officials about the developing Iraqi crisis. He did not elaborate.

A leading analyst familiar with Iran-Arab affairs said increasing Iranian involvement and reported secret Iran-U.S. cooperation on Iraq was one of the reasons for the postponement of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s visit to Tehran earlier this month.

``There is an increasing feeling in the Arab world that Iran is quietly increasing contacts with Iraqi opposition groups and secretly developing cooperation with Washington″ to topple Saddam’s regime,″ Sadeq Al-Husseini said.

Iran has said it would not shed any tears if Saddam was toppled, but at the same time that it was opposed to any U.S. unilateral military action to oust Saddam without U.N. backing.

Iran holds Saddam responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its soldiers and civilians in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, during which Saddam used poison gas against Iranian troops.

Meanwhile, Iran says it will accept a maximum of 200,000 Iraqi refugees on its soil if their lives were in danger. Interior Ministry official Ahmad Hosseini said Iran’s policy was to close its borders to a possible refugee influx in case of a war in Iraq.

``We can only facilitate settling of Iraqi refugees in camps just inside the Iraqi border,″ he told reporters Sunday. ``However, a maximum of 200,000 refugees would be allowed inside Iran’s borders only if their lives were in serious jeopardy.″

Hosseini also said Iran would remain committed to the 1951 Geneva Convention and will offer refugee status to Iraqi officials seeking asylum. He said a decision on top Iraqi leaders, if any, would come from Iran’s top leadership.

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