Kanan Makiya participates in a meeting at the White House with Iraqi Dissidents

Iraqi dissidents reassured in a talk with Bush about the post-Hussein era
By Judith Miller, The New York Times (1/12/03)

President Bush told Iraqi opposition figures on Friday that he favored a sweeping transition to democracy in Iraq and a short military occupation after Saddam Hussein is out of power, according to Iraqis and others who attended the meeting.

The hourlong session in the Oval Office was Mr. Bush's first extensive meeting with Iraqi dissidents. Three dissidents attended, two of whom are closely associated with the Iraqi National Congress, the umbrella opposition group. Vice President Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, and other senior White House aides also took part.

None of the Iraqi participants were willing to discuss precisely what Mr. Bush said. But Kanan Makiya, a professor at Brandeis University and a leading Iraqi intellectual, said he was "deeply reassured" by what he called "the president's intense commitment to a genuinely democratic post-Saddam Iraq" and by Mr. Bush's determination to press forward not only with "removing Saddam from office, but reconstructing Iraq after a military conflict."

"Mr. Bush was clearly aware that Iraq was not Afghanistan, and that it has the human and financial resources needed to support democracy," Mr. Makiya said.

Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said Mr. Bush had told the group that "we haven't reached conclusions" about going to war. Mr. Fleischer said the session was "a chance to hear the thoughts of some experts and leading intellectuals" about the prospects for democracy in Iraq. "For the president, it was a great listening session," he said.

The Iraqi participants all said they had emphasized the importance of creating an Iraqi political partner for the United States before Mr. Hussein's ouster. "We argued that it would give the Iraqi people a pole around which they can rally during liberation," said Rend Francke, director of the Iraq Foundation, a group that promotes democracy for Iraq, who was also at the meeting.

Mr. Bush seemed concerned about how American soldiers might be received, a participant in the meeting said. The dissidents assured him that they would be greeted "with sweets and flowers," in the words of one of them.

Hatem Mukhlis, an Iraqi-American physician at the meeting, said that while Mr. Bush gave him the impression that he had not yet decided whether to go to war, "the president indicated that America's presence in Iraq after a conflict should not be long."

But it was also clear, two participants said, that the White House has still not decided what kind of Iraqi partner it wants during a war and after Mr. Hussein is no longer in power.

One person who attended said Mr. Bush had said more than once that Mr. Hussein must be disarmed and that the United States would ensure such an outcome.

Senior administration officials have recently stepped up contacts with the Iraqi opposition. Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls part of the no-flight zone in northern Iraq, and Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, have both met with Zalmay Khalilzad, Mr. Bush's special envoy to the opposition.

Mr. Chalabi said they had all agreed on the need for "close coordination to efforts to remove Saddam from power." He and Mr. Salih both said that Iraqi opposition representatives would meet in northern Iraq after Jan. 15 to designate a small group of opposition figures to help lead a transition to democracy once Saddam Hussein is gone.

They said the meeting would be held in Salahuddin, a former resort town 30 miles northeast of Erbil.

"This will be an in-your-face-Saddam gathering," Mr. Chalabi said in an interview. "We're meeting inside Iraq to show we are determined to participate in the overthrow of Saddam."

Opposition figures also said that Iraqi dissidents would begin receiving military training in Hungary on Jan. 12, but that precisely how such training would be financed was still being discussed.