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U.S. military huddles with Kurds, Iraqi opposition

An Iraqi Kurdish fighter watches after coalition bombing of an area between Kohuk and Mosul in northern Iraq.
An Iraqi Kurdish fighter watches after coalition bombing of an area between Kohuk and Mosul in northern Iraq.

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CNN's Jane Arraf reports on the buildup of coalition troops in northern Iraq
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SULAIMANIYA, Iraq (CNN) -- High-level talks were under way Thursday between U.S. military commanders in northern Iraq, Kurdish political leaders and members of the Iraqi opposition as they explore the option of joining forces against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

The discussions focus on plans for a possible U.S.-coordinated popular uprising to push forces loyal to the Iraqi leader out of Kirkuk, according to Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga.

Barham Saleh, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's and prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government, said the Kurds are ready to play a major role in the effort.

"The stakes are very high," Saleh said. "We're telling our American friends: 'We can do it together. We can do Baghdad together. We can do Iraq together. We, the Iraqi people together with the American liberators and the British liberators, we can achieve the task of getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his terrorist allies.' "

Some Kurds said they believe coalition airstrikes have so degraded Iraqi forces that only terrorist elements are left to defend Saddam's regime.

In recent days, these intensive strikes bombarding front-line positions have pushed Iraqi troops back to perimeter locations around Mosul and Kirkuk, key cities near Iraq's northern oil fields.

The United States is eager to establish a northern front in Iraq as coalition forces advance on Baghdad from the south.

The Peshmerga militia recently assisted U.S. Special Forces as they overran a camp that intelligence had identified as a terrorist training facility. Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade landed at the Harir airfield near Bashur in northeastern Iraq in an early dawn drop a week ago.

The Islamic militant group Ansar al-Islam was running the facility there before the military action. Senior members of the Bush administration has cited the group as having links to al Qaeda, and the poison ricin is believed to have been produced there along with a number of other chemicals and poisons. Other intelligence agencies, however, dispute this position.

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