Divided exiles prepare to govern Iraq
CRUNCH time has come for Iraq’s warring opposition. After decades of squabbles that have at times degenerated into outright hostilities, some 60 disparate groups have at long last agreed to be in the same room together.
Arm-twisting by the Americans has resulted in a secret meeting in a London hotel this weekend at which they hope to put on a show of unity that will help them on the road to power.
The catalyst is the impending US-led invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. For the first time the opposition can realistically contemplate who should take over, courtesy of the Americans, and this weekend’s conference could go a long way to deciding which of them has any chance of participating in a new government and which will be left out.
Power-sharing will not come easy. Iraq’s religious and ethnic divisions are reflected in the ranks of the opposition, which consists of Shia Muslims from the south, northern Kurds, former generals accused of serious human rights violations when they served Saddam, and liberal middle-class intellectuals.
These are strange and uncomfortable bedfellows. The splits between the opposition groups are highlighted by the fact that one Kurdish group once invited in Saddam’s troops to massacre a rival Kurdish faction in a struggle for power in northern Iraq.
Divisions among the delegates have been so fierce that holding the conference at all is a victory. It was postponed repeatedly because of rows over who should attend and over the distribution of seats. It would never have happened if the US had not used its muscle.
However, Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a constitutional monarchist and first cousin of the last Iraqi king, said that the 300 to 350 delegates should be able to map out a general plan for Iraq’s future governance.
"We are the most optimistic we have ever been, and are preparing a future for the post-Saddam Iraq," Bin Hussein said.
"We are no more divided than many political parties in the United States or in the West. What unites us is our determination to overthrow this regime and establish democracy in Iraq."
The six groups at the unity meeting are the Constitutional Monarchist Movement, led by Bin Hussein, the Iraqi National Accord (INA); the Iraqi National Congress (INC); the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP); the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK); and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
There are fierce disagreements over what to do next. The Iraqi opposition leaders face a major challenge over the future role of the 400,000-strong army, which launched the Arab world’s first military coup, waged two wars against Iraq’s neighbours and is deeply entangled in Iraqi politics.
There are scores of former senior Iraqi army officers who have fled their country and want to return with major roles for themselves and the armed forces in a post-Saddam government. Most have contempt for the non-military opposition parties, and are urging the Iraqi military to overthrow Saddam.
Among those exiled officers lobbying for support is General Nizar al-Khazraji, the highest-ranking military figure to defect. Al-Khazraji says Saddam’s downfall can be achieved only through "a revolution triggered by the army and supported by the people inside Iraq".
But a paper drafted by a working group of liberal-minded dissidents harshly criticises the army for participating in military coups, crushing internal dissent and destroying the parliamentary system set up in Iraq following its independence from Britain in 1921.
It recommends a smaller force, wholesale discharges of army personnel and a new officer corps made up of senior officers sent into retirement by Saddam’s regime.
The draft 100-page document entitled ‘The Transition to Democracy in Iraq’ says those responsible for the worst human rights abuses should be made accountable, but also that wounds should be healed, perhaps through a "truth and reconciliation commission" like that in post-apartheid South Africa.
But the trickiest issue is whether ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’ should run a post-Saddam government.
The opposition groups meeting in London want Iraqis living outside Saddam’s control, consisting of four million Kurds and three million Iraqis in exile, to form the next government.
But many Iraqis in Baghdad do not trust the Kurds and tend to see opposition groups in Washington, London and elsewhere as being in league with foreign powers.
There is particular suspicion of the Kurds and their cherished dream of a separate homeland. The Kurds in northern Iraq already enjoy a charmed life in a semi-independent state, protected from Saddam’s tyranny by the US and Britain and economically tied to the West. They are reluctant to lose it.
At the extreme, Kurdish aspirations could result in a separate Kurdish state, which would mean the dismemberment of Iraq, and would cause consternation in Turkey and Iran which have their own troublesome Kurdish minorities.
In a move that the US found highly disconcerting, Iran last week hosted a meeting of the Iraqi opposition in Tehran.
Some of the groups have bad memories of each other. Six years ago, the KDP, under military pressure from the rival PUK and the INC, called on Saddam’s forces to intervene, leading to massacres of INC supporters in KDP-controlled areas of northern Iraq. Unsurprisingly, the leaders refused to be photographed together in Tehran.
Iran is in a strong position to mediate because of its influence among Iraqi Shias, who make up the majority of the Iraqi population, and among a section of ethnic Kurds.
But Tehran is a member of Bush’s "axis of evil", and its dmarche has set alarm bells ringing in Washington, which has its own agenda for Iraq. The US has been assiduously promoting Ahmed Chalabi, head of the INC, as Iraq’s version of Hamid Karzai, the man groomed by the US to take over in Afghanistan.
But Tehran has backed Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Assembly for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is a Shi-ite Islamist party.
Another Iraqi exile, Ahmed al-Haboubi, a former minister in the government overthrown by Saddam’s Baath party, is refusing to take part in the London conference.
"This is an American conference with an American agenda to serve American interests and objectives," al-Haboubi said. "Regime change should be done by Iraqis and for Iraqis."
He says the meeting is dominated by the large Kurdish and Shiite parties.
Washington itself is divided on whether to favour an interim US military administration in Iraq after Saddam has gone or whether to hand power to the opposition groups and risk chaos.
The US is also anxious not to alienate the Iraqi insiders. If insiders were to overthrow Saddam, "regime change" would be accomplished without the need for an invasion.
The leaders in waiting
AHMED CHALABI a wealthy Shi’ite Iraqi businessman, heads the Iraqi National Congress, the main opposition umbrella group. The INC is supported by the Pentagon and the US Congress, which favours an INC-led government-in-exile. But the state department and the CIA are less keen, and oppose the idea of a government-in-exile. One American diplomat described the INC as the "Mercedez-Benz-riding, fine-hotel-staying opposition". It has no power base in Iraq and is regarded with suspicion as being hostage to US policy.
AL-SHARIF ALI BIN AL-HUSSEIN, leads the Constitutional Monarchy Movement that seeks to restore the monarchy toppled in a 1958 coup. A first cousin of the last Iraqi king, Faisal, who was killed in a military coup that paved the way for Baath party rule, the 46-year-old investment banker has not been to Iraq since 1958. The monarchist party is one of the smallest opposition factions.
AYATOLLAH MOHAMMAD BAQER AL-HAKIM is leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq - the biggest Iraqi opposition group. He is the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Muhsin al-Hakim, who was the spiritual leader of the Shia in the period 1955-1970.
SCIRI has secret cells all over Iraq and has offices in London, Damascus, Geneva and Vienna. Its head office is in Iran, where there is a community of one million Iraqis. It has a military force, the Badr Corps, claiming a membership of thousands of former Iraqi officers and soldiers. SCIRI has had good relations with the Kurdish movements since Ayatollah Hakim’s father issued a fatwa forbidding Iraqi soldiers from fighting against the Kurds.
IYAD ALLAWI an Iraqi doctor from Baghdad, heads the Iraqi National Accord, which has its headquarters in London. Its members are primarily military and security officers who have defected from Iraq and who still have some influence over the military and security elites around Saddam.
INA’s prospects for success brightened in 1995 when Saddam’s son-in-law, Hussein Kamil al-Majid, architect of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programmes, defected to Jordan, indicating that Saddam’s grip on power was weakening.
However, Iraq’s intelligence services penetrated INA, and in June 1996 Baghdad arrested 100 military officers linked to the group and executed 30 others. Allawi claims that INA sympathisers continue to operate throughout Iraq.
MASOUD BARZANI, heads the Kurdistan Democratic party, which shares control of the Western-protected Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. In 1974 the KDP launched its first attacks against Iraq’s military. When US and Iranian help failed to materialise, Iraq forcibly resettled 600,000 Kurds from northern Iraq.
JALAL TALABANI has been the secretary general of the PUK since its founding in 1975. He led Kurdish resistance during the late 1970s from inside Iraq. He claims a membership of nearly 150,000. In 1994, the PUK’s agreement with the KDP collapsed in internecine fighting, and the present partition of Kurdistan resulted.
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