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US envoy's visit may spell out Kurds' postwar fate

The arrival of Zalmay Khalilzad in northern Iraq comes at a pivotal time for Kurdish leaders.

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A senior US diplomat has entered the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq to discuss the shape of a future Iraqi administration with opponents of President Saddam Hussein.

Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's envoy to the Iraqi opposition, was expected to arrive Tuesday in Salahuddin, the mountain resort headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the Western part of an autonomous zone protected by US and British warplanes.

Mr. Khalilzad's presence - on Iraqi soil, alongside members of the Iraqi opposition, and just as a US military buildup nears a state of readiness - provides further evidence of the Bush administration's determination to unseat Mr. Hussein.

But to the chagrin and dismay of some opposition members, the US has indicated in recent weeks that they will have a less-than-triumphant role in whatever administration the US prepares to replace the Iraqi dictator.

Rarely has an American diplomat been awaited with such a combination of frustration and neediness. Khalilzad was originally expected a week ago, but delays, attributed to snowstorms first in the US and then in Turkey, kept him away.

Politics may have slowed him down as well, since the US has been negotiating in recent days to finalize a deal on military cooperation with Turkey. Turkish and US officials may have wanted to conclude their agreement - which will likely include plans for Turkish troops to enter the Kurdish autonomous zone - before Khalilzad began his consultations here.

Unable to convene without the US envoy, the Iraqi opposition members have had to content themselves with "informal" meetings in which they have fretted over reports that the US, should it indeed go to war against Iraq and remove Hussein from power, will initially appoint a US general as the country's ruler. Such a system would largely sideline the Iraqi opposition, which has had visions of putting together a government-in-waiting that could take over after Hussein goes.

Most of the opposition - and particularly the Kurds - are also angry at the prospect of Turkish troops entering Iraqi territory. The Americans "owe it to the opposition to explain things," says an avowedly frustrated Kurdish official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Now as in the past, the opposition is contending with perceptions that it is irrelevant. "The opposition is a fabrication," says Abdullah Alyawi, a historian at Salahuddin University in Arbil."America itself will decide the future of Iraq."

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