SALAHUDDIN, Iraq -- Returning to his homeland for the first time in nearly five years, a prominent Iraqi opposition leader entered the Kurds' autonomous enclave with the help of Iran and declared Friday he would stay there to battle Saddam Hussein's government.
"If we want to fight Saddam, we'll fight Saddam in Iraq," Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Chalabi said he returned to Iraq "to be on the stage" in the formation of a post-Saddam administration. He promised to work with Kurdish opposition groups to form a provisional government to rule once Saddam is gone.
Chalabi, who enjoys support within the U.S. Congress but is a controversial figure within the fragmented opposition, entered Iraq with four colleagues on Thursday.
They crossed the Iranian border at Hajj Omran after spending a week in Tehran meeting with Iranian political leaders and Iraqi opposition figures.
The five are part of a 65-member steering committee, set up during a conference in London last month. The committee is to meet in mid-February in this enclave, which is protected by U.S. and British planes patrolling the northern "no-fly" zone.
The committee hopes to form the basis of a transitional government if the United States -- which threatens to attack Iraq if Saddam does not give up alleged banned weapons -- topples the Iraqi regime. The opposition members are to meet Feb. 15, according to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which controls the western section of the autonomous region.
Chalabi's links to Iran, which the Bush administration has designated as part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea, may cause concern among his conservative backers in Washington.
His Iraqi National Congress, based in London, has received millions of dollars from the United States for such projects as a satellite television channel tailored for Iraqi viewers.
The INC officials said they informed Zalmay Khalilzad, an adviser to the Bush administration, that they were headed to northern Iraq before they left London for Iran eight days ago.
In the interview, however, Chalabi said the United States should not dominate the composition of any future government in Iraq.
"There must be no gap in the sovereignty of Iraqis over Iraq," he said. "People who have come to the idea of removing Saddam recently must understand that this fight has been going on for decades and has cost tens of thousands of lives. It's a major mistake to think you can sidestep the opposition."
Chalabi sidestepped questions about reports that the United States did not entirely trust the exiled opposition groups.
"We're not an exile group because we're in Iraq now," he said. "It's difficult to call us exiles when we're in our own country working for freedom."
U.S. relations with the INC have been complicated by what State Department officials see as the group's financial mismanagement. Chalabi was convicted of fraud in a banking scandal in Jordan in 1989 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He fled the country before the trial began and has refused to return until the government agrees to reverse the conviction.
Furthermore, Iraq's opposition has long been split along ethnic and political lines and its history has been marked by infighting and betrayal. While Chalabi's congress is often portrayed as closest to the United States, it has never been fully accepted by U.S. administrations.
One INC official, speaking on condition of anonymity in London, described relations with Washington, especially the State Department, as "long, tangled and convoluted."
Chalabi, a Shiite Muslim from a wealthy family who fled Iraq in 1958, formed the Iraqi National Congress in 1992. He is an MIT graduate with a doctorate from the University of Chicago who has been active in anti-Saddam efforts since the early 1970s.
The Iraqi National Congress tried to start a revolt against Saddam from within the northern no-fly zone in the mid-1990s. The group blamed their failure on the U.S. government, which didn't provide support, believing they had no chance of succeeding.
The visit is Chalabi's first to Iraq since 1998, when he briefly visited the Kurdish-controlled city of Sulaimaniyah to meet with Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which governs the eastern section of the Kurdish autonomous zone.
More significantly, it marks the first time Chalabi has visited the western part of Kurdistan, controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, since August 1996. In that year, the leader of the KDP, Massoud Barzani, invited Saddam to help liberate the city during a war with the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
About 130 fighters from the Iraqi National Congress were killed in the fighting or executed thereafter.
Kanan Makiya, a Brandeis University professor and Iraqi opposition member, said the Iraqi National Congress and the Kurdistan Democratic Party have mended fences. "I believe a very genuine reconciliation has taken place," he said.
"It's not a tactical maneuver. The single most important thing is to bring the KDP back into the fold of Iraqi opposition politics," Makiya added. "Without them, we can't say we have a really representative government."