"This is a different concept," Sethna said. "Those who were trained in Hungary have been sent as individuals to military units to serve various liaison functions. We weren't part of that program. Many of us had volunteered to go to Hungary but didn't. We're a separate cohesive group." He said creation of the battalion had been "discussed at length" within the U.S. government and planning had been in the works for about two months. About half the soldiers, he said, come from inside Iraq.
"Some have military training, and others do not," said Riva Levinson, an INC consultant in Washington. "But they have a familiarity with Iraqi society and can be a bridge between coalition forces and the civilian population."
Just what role the INC will play in a post-Hussein Iraq has been a subject of considerable debate within the Bush administration. The interim authority is envisioned as a bridge to a new democratic government, but U.S. officials have not made clear how the members will be chosen or when. They have offered only general pledges to create a process that would allow for broad representation of Iraqs both inside and outside the country.
But arguments have persisted over specific exile leaders. In particular, some defense officials, along with senior Pentagon adviser Richard N. Perle and former CIA director R. James Woolsey, have a long-standing relationship with Chalabi. They say his experience outside Iraq and his longtime commitment to the overthrow of Hussein and to other administration goals in the Middle East make him well-suited to play a leading role.
Among several alternatives, the State Department has suggested that the INC and five other anti-Hussein organizations be designated as part of a "conference" of Iraqi leaders, with other leaders to be added as more of the country is brought under U.S. control. When the balance is right, the conference could name an interim authority.
Pace rejected the suggestion yesterday that the arrival of Chalabi's group in the south would give the INC an unfair advantage in the process of setting up a new government.
"The fact that they may be from one section of the population or another at this point in time on the battlefield is not significant," he said. "I'm comfortable that once we free Iraq and give it to the people in Iraq, that they will be able to decide for themselves who should be their leaders and who should not."
Chalabi issued his own statement from Nasiriyah. "The war of national liberation which Iraqis have waged for 30 years is now nearing its end," he said. "We call on the Iraqi people to join with us in removing the final remnants of Saddam's Baathist regime."
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz indicated yesterday that creation of the interim authority could take awhile, possibly more than six months. "Six months is what happened in northern Iraq," he said on "Fox News Sunday," referring to the time it took the Kurds to set up a territory after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "This is a more complicated situation. It will probably take more than that."
Staff writer Peter Slevin contributed to this report.