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As U.S. and British troops fight their way toward Baghdad, Iraqi opposition groups eagerly await the dawn after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow.

While most exiles outside the country praise the war, some worry what will happen once the shooting ends.

The sense of expectation among the opposition is as electric as the shrieking cell phones and cable-news clamor in their headquarters.

“Definitely, optimism is there,” said Faisal Qaragholi, operations officer for the Iraqi National Congress, based in London. “Definitely we know there is no hard measure [against civilians], as President Bush has said, and we know that definitely America will help overthrow the regime.”

Civilian casualties and televised gore are troubling, Qaragholi said, but they don’t distract him from the dream of a democratic Iraq.

“War is war, and destruction is destruction,” he said. “We are sad to see that.”

The INC, an umbrella of exile groups united against Saddam, communicates daily with sources inside Iraq, telling them how the war is progressing and attempting to defuse regime propaganda. Iraqis, Qaragholi said, fear that the coalition will leave them in a lurch as it did during previous uprisings.

“It’s very vivid in their memory. … It will take slightly more time for people to see the reality that these forces will take Baghdad,” he said.

This time, coalition forces are reportedly telling Iraqis not to take to the streets.

A Shiite group that opposed a U.S.-led strike, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, looks forward to a new government but is also telling Iraqis not to take arms against Saddam. The group had sought Iraqi self-liberation instead of Western intervention, and boasts a force of between 4,000 and 12,000 troops in neighboring Iran.

“We told the Iraqi people to be neutral in this war and to stay put,” said Dr. Hamid al-Bayati, a spokesman for the group in London. He fears fiercer fighting is to come, particularly around Baghdad.

Both al-Bayati and Qaragholi are anxious to see civilian government after the war’s conclusion.

“We have some concerns that America might appoint a military commander,” al-Bayati said. “They might put the American Army in charge of Iraq. We might see a government that is just like a puppet.”

Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of the Tehran-based movement, has said Iraqis would fight any U.S. domination after Saddam Hussein is toppled.

Other leaders have said they have faith U.S. forces would leave as soon as possible.

Al-Bayati and other exiles also fear a new strongman, rather than democracy, could somehow succeed Saddam. The United States has promised to stop such a scenario.

Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, Kurds itch to open a thunderous new front alongside coalition armies.

“We want to participate as soon as possible in a northern front to help liberate the Iraqi people,” said Mohammed Maroof, the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s representative to Europe, speaking from Berlin.

That idea riles neighboring Turkey, which fears renewed uprisings among its own Kurds. U.S. officials have said that Kurdish forces should not take over oil-rich territory in Iraq, and that Kurdish leaders should actively discourage any Kurdish uprising in the north. However, the situation remains unsettled.

The plan for a coalition northern front was thought to have fallen through when Turkey refused use of its country as a staging point. But last week about 1,000 U.S. paratroops from the Vicenza, Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade landed in northern Iraq to secure an airfield. Weapons and tanks were to follow.

“The northern front is open, just not with the force envisioned,” said Nijyar Shemdin, the Kurdish Regional Government’s permanent representative to Washington. “There is [U.S.] cooperation with the Kurdish forces, and together they are setting up plans for certain operations, whether it be humanitarian or otherwise.”

The Kurds have run their own government in northern Iraq thanks to the refuge provided by U.S. and British planes through Operation Northern Watch. They claim an army of 60,000.

U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters in Qatar that the forces in the north would protect Kurds from attack, and could be used to stage strikes against Iraq. The move is also widely believed to be insurance against clashes between Turkey and the Kurds, though Brooks has declined comment.

When asked what role Kurds would play in a northern front, a Pentagon spokesman referred the question to U.S. Central Command in Qatar, which referred it to the State Department, which labeled the issue a military matter.

Whatever their role in the war, Kurdish officials said they have no plans to declare a sovereign Kurdistan. Shemdin said Kurds are just as eager to liberate southern Basra as they are to defend their northern homeland. They are resolved, he maintained, to live as Iraqis within a federal system.

“The Turks have nothing to fear,” he said.

Although the two factions fought bitterly in the 1990s, the KDP’s rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, agrees. Mohammed Sabir, director of the PUK’s offices in Washington, said Turkey would suffer alienation from Europe if it invades northern Iraq.

“It would be a very deep mistake,” Sabir said.

The Kurdish government also promises to stem any flow of refugees into Turkey.

“Nobody is going over the border,” Maroof said, calling northern Iraq the best example of democracy in the Middle East.

Maroof criticized Arabs who fear an independent Kurdistan, but not Turkish intervention.

“They say, ‘No, they are going to be the second Israel,’” Maroof said. “Now there’s no Arab on any level that’s saying no to Turkey.”

Both the KDP and the PUK are trying to publicly downplay their past conflict and focus instead on their common enemy. And they insist the U.S.-led coalition will lead them to a new Iraq.

Despite their differing tribes and tongues, it is a vaporous hope they, and other resistance groups, believe will solidify into triumphant reality.

“We are definitely optimistic about the end results,” the INC’s Qaragholi said.

“Iraqis will wake up very soon without any dictator sitting on their necks.”

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