LONDON, Dec. 14 — Opponents of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq opened a conference here today in hopes of forming a united front and planning for a transitional government that would prevent the United States from imposing its own vision on a post-Hussein Iraq.
While there is plenty of dissension among the conference's 330 delegates about how and when such a transitional government should be formed, a string of speakers from across the opposition's political spectrum expressed unanimity in their demand that the United States leave Iraq's political future to Iraqis.
In particular, the opposition rejects the prospect, floated by the Bush administration, of a military transitional government or of an Iraqi transitional team chosen by the Americans and under the supervision of an American military officer.
"We must not leave the door open for the imposition of external military rule or foreign control of Iraq's oil or the loss of Iraq's national sovereignty," said Abdelaziz al-Hakim. His brother, Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, is an Iran-based ayatollah who leads the main Shiite Muslim opposition group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The fractured and fractious opposition, whose various groups have enjoyed uneven and fitful support internationally, hopes to emerge from the two-day conference with an unassailable mandate to take over Iraq if the United States succeeds in ousting the Hussein government.
But there remain deep divisions in the opposition over when an Iraqi-nominated transitional team should be named.
One camp, led by an Iraqi businessman, Ahmed Chalabi, is pushing for a transitional team to be formed before any American-led invasion against Mr. Hussein's government. The team, according to Mr. Chalabi's view, would move to Iraq if Mr. Hussein was ousted and would immediately form a transitional government that would rule the country until a constitutional assembly and subsequent parliamentary elections could be held.
A competing bloc prefers to leave the formation of a transition team until Mr. Hussein is removed. That group consists of Kurds who already govern northern Iraq, former officials of Iraq's ruling Baath Party with ties to dissidents in the current Iraqi government and Shiite Muslims who have armed forces both in the country and in neighboring Iran.
Mr. Chalabi's backers worry that if a transitional team is not appointed in advance, the other groups, which have an armed presence in Iraq, would rush to fill the power vacuum in the wake of an attack, leaving Mr. Chalabi and others outside the country in a weakened position.
They also argue that by forming a transitional team before any move to remove Mr. Hussein, they would force the United States to give them a leading role in the governance of a post-Hussein Iraq.
"It would blunt a U.S. move to impose a transitional government of their own," one of Mr. Chalabi's supporters said after the conference's morning session. He noted that Iran, too, is worried about such a move by the United States.
A United States government official speaking on the sidelines of the conference. did little to dispel the opposition's fears.
He said that "where appropriate, Iraqis either inside the country or outside could play a role" in some sectors during a transitional period. He added, "Whether there should be some sort of Iraqi legitimizing role is something we're talking about, and we wouldn't exclude that, but we're still of the view that it's too early to discuss a provisional government."
While opposition members expressed wariness over America's intentions, they celebrated Iran as a longtime ally.
Mr. Hakim, the brother of the Tehran-based ayatollah, was the lead speaker at the conference, and Mr. Chalabi, who just returned from a meeting in Teheran with the ayatollah and a Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, pointedly thanked Iran in his remarks for its long support of the Iraqi opposition. He went on to say "Regretfully, the United States has let down the Iraqi people many times."
Mr. Chalabi welcomed the presence at the meeting of a United States envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, noting that Mr. Khalilzad, an Afghan-born scholar of Middle Eastern political and military affairs, was "a Muslim who comes from our own environment."
While the opposition speakers at the conference closed ranks against an American-imposed post-Hussein political solution for Iraq, they remain at odds over many points in their various visions of the future. Many speakers voiced support for dividing Iraq into a federation of states, but a retired Iraqi general, Hassan al-Naqib, warned that the opposition should not rush to settle on solutions before considering the wishes of Iraqis in the country.
Many Iraqis with ties to the Sunni Muslim minority that has historically ruled the country worry that a federal solution would empower the Shiite Muslim majority and the Kurds at their expense. Another point of contention is over the treatment of Baath Party officials in a post-Hussein Iraq. Some opposition figures favor what they call the de-Baathification of the country, likening such a process to the purge of Nazi officials in Germany after World War II.
The opposition conference is to continue on Sunday with delegates breaking into working groups that will draft a statement on the opposition's vision for the future of Iraq, a unified political manifesto and the principles under which a post-Hussein transitional government would be formed.
The conference is also expected to name a coordinating committee of around 50 people that will represent the opposition in future discussions with other countries and international groups.
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