WASHINGTON — In talks with the six leading Iraqi opposition groups, the Bush administration Friday stepped up its efforts to outline a new political future for Iraq after a hoped-for ouster of President Saddam Hussein and pledged to "enhance" its work with the opposition.
The two-hour meeting was also designed to signal new unity--at least in public--both among the disparate array of opposition forces and within the Bush administration, U.S. officials said. The talks at the State Department were attended by a cross-section of top administration officials often seen as at odds with each other over Iraq strategy.
"We focused on the importance of coordination. We have coordination within the U.S. government," a senior administration official told reporters after the talks.
The official said the time had come for the Iraqi opposition to "engage more deeply and more prominently on a whole range of issues, both with each other, with the international community and Iraq's neighbors."
In turn, the United States pledged to "protect" the Iraqi opposition from oppression by Baghdad, although the senior official refused to spell out the American commitment.
He did say that if Hussein moved against ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq, as the Iraqi leader has done in the past, the United States would respond. The official did not elaborate.
U.S. officials clearly hope that this is a turning point in the other half of the Iraq campaign--forging a representative group of Iraqis to plan for the aftermath of any military operation and to step in and help once Hussein is gone.
Decades of squabbling among Iraq's rival ethnic and religious groups have prevented the creation of an effective opposition, a major factor in helping Hussein maintain control over a deeply divided population.
"We're at a point generally--and this was affirmed during the discussions--where a lot of momentum has built across the board, where things that were between difficult and impossible before at a variety of levels are now achievable and necessary," the senior administration official said.
The six opposition groups and the Bush administration now plan to intensify efforts to create a political alternative and widen the opposition base.
Washington will back a major conference of Iraqi dissidents, probably in Europe, within the next few weeks to develop practical plans for a political takeover, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
The conference could be similar to the U.S.-sponsored talks among Afghan opposition forces near Bonn last year to forge a united vision for a new government after the Taliban regime was toppled by a U.S.-led military alliance.
In separate briefings, the Iraqi opposition and U.S. officials said they had agreed on the principles for a new government in Baghdad.
"Our vision is for a democratic Iraq with a government that respects the rights of its citizens and the rule of law, no longer threatens its neighbors, renounces the development and possession of weapons of mass destruction, and maintains the territorial integrity of the country," State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said in a statement.
The administration is clearly hoping that a unified opposition can play a critical role in persuading reluctant allies to join the campaign against Hussein by making clear that Iraqis themselves, not just President Bush, are seeking to oust the Iraqi leader.
The opposition leaders, based in Britain, Iran and the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq, said the United States showed a new resolve during the session, at which Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman and Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith played host.
"We sense more seriousness and commitment" from the U.S. government to overthrow Hussein's regime, said Hamid Bayati, a senior official of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is based in Tehran.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell dropped in on the meeting and said, "Our shared goal is that the Iraqi people should be free," according to U.S. officials.
Vice President Dick Cheney is to have a videoconference with those at the meeting today from his vacation home in Wyoming. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice also are expected to meet them as talks continue into next week, Iraqi sources said.
Rumsfeld bristled Friday at the suggestion that political turmoil in Afghanistan augurs ill for a post-Hussein Iraq.
"Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing if Iraq were similar to Afghanistan, if a bad regime was thrown out, people were liberated, food could come in, borders could be opened, repression could stop, prisons could be opened?" Rumsfeld said.
Bush said Friday that he did not yet have a timeline for a U.S. campaign to oust the Iraqi leader, adding that he might not even make a decision by the end of the year.
The timing might be linked in part to the administration's ability to keep the opposition together--and on the same page about what comes next.
The Iraqi participants were Sharif Ali bin Hussein of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, Iyad Alawi of the Iraqi National Accord, Abdelaziz Hakim of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
The opposition summit came a day after House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) cautioned against rash action against Iraq, signaling the first rift within party ranks over Bush's top foreign policy priority.
Times staff writer John Hendren contributed to this report.