Following a meeting over the weekend near London, senior Iraqi military officers in exile are calling on the Iraqi Army to overthrow President Saddam Hussein. The exiled officers also say they want to work toward a transition to civilian rule in Iraq. RFE/RL looks at the officers' plans and how they fit into Washington's hopes for a regime change in Baghdad.
Prague, 15 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The approximately 70 exiled Iraqi military officers who met over the weekend at an undisclosed location near London left no doubts as to how they feel about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Wrapping up their three-day meeting yesterday, the group issued a statement calling on the Iraqi Army to overthrow Saddam by force. They also called on officers inside Iraq to defect immediately to the opposition and join it in planning a revolt.
But the exiled officers also underlined that they see any military revolt as just a step toward bringing civilian rule to the country. Shortly after the meeting, the elected head of the officers' new military council, Major General Tawfiq al-Yassiri, told reporters that, "We pledge to be at the service of the civilian opposition and to work to enshrine the rule of law in a federal, democratic Iraq."
The meeting of the officers comes as the latest effort among Iraqi opposition groups to define a role for themselves as Washington says it will take forceful action against Baghdad unless thorough arms inspections resume. After a meeting between the United Nations and Iraq on readmitting arms inspectors produced no results early this month, U.S. President George W. Bush said Washington will use "all tools" at its disposal to oust Saddam.
Ismail Zayer, a correspondent for the Arabic-language daily "Al-Hayat" in London, said the officers' meeting was intended to send not only a message to Iraq but also to Washington. He said the officers wanted to tell Washington that they have a clear program for Iraq that deserves U.S. support. "The officers noticed that for a long time, the United States, despite [the opposition] expressing a very clear vision that they are going to attack Saddam Hussein or do something, they never go into details about what program they are going to adopt in that operation and what kind of role the Iraqi people, military or civilian, will play," Zayer said. "That's why I believe one of the most important messages of this conference was the message for the Americans: to tell them that 'We are here, that we are open-minded, we welcome any kind of support, but we would like to put forth our vision about the future of Iraq.' And, of course, they expect some kind of answer from the United States."
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, as the meeting began on 12 July, that Washington welcomed the officers' efforts. "We do support this kind of broad-based conference of Iraqi military people. [We] think it's a useful tool in helping the Iraqi community move closer to the goal of a better future for the Iraqi people after Saddam Hussein," Boucher said.
Analysts say that the officers' meeting is intended to demonstrate that the Iraqi umbrella opposition movement, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), has close ties with exiled Iraqi military officers who keep in touch with fellow soldiers still in Iraq. The London meeting was arranged by the Iraqi National Coalition, which groups several small factions headed by former officers. The coalition is led by Yassiri, who is a close ally of INC head Ahmad Chalabi.
The meeting comes as the INC seeks to strengthen its image as overall coordinator of the Iraqi opposition despite rocky relations with some of the groups nominally under its umbrella. Those frictions have notably seen the largest armed Shiite opposition movement, the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), freeze its membership in the INC, saying that the INC is too closely tied to Washington. Other exile groups have also at times scaled down ties with the INC or temporarily frozen them over differences.
The INC has also had some recent tensions with Washington, its principal backer, over its financial procedures. When President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, he pledged to step up release of $97 million authorized by Congress to fund Iraqi opposition activities, but Washington has periodically delayed aid due to accounting disputes. The U.S. State Department has offered the group $8 million for the rest of this year.
The Iraqi exiled opposition hopes for a major role in any U.S. operation against Iraq and has called for Washington to provide it with military aid to train and equip fighters to attack Iraq. Under one opposition plan, the fighters would attack under U.S. air cover in expectation of gathering support from defecting troops.
But U.S. officials are reported to be debating what kind of role the opposition could best play, with some officials favoring the opposition taking an active part in military operations while others favor it playing only an adjunct role in a much larger U.S. military campaign.
Kenneth Pollack, a national-security expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, recently described some of the debate in Washington regarding the opposition in an interview with RFE/RL.
Speaking with RFE/RL's Iraqi Service deputy director Kamran al-Karadaghi, Pollack said that he feels the decision on whether or not to arm exiled Iraqi opposition groups should be left to the Pentagon. "Whether or not they should be armed, I think that that needs to be left to the Pentagon. [Pentagon officials] need to be the ones to decide whether it would be useful for them to have a full-scale contingent of armed Iraqi oppositionists moving in or whether they want them to be adjuncts to their own forces, to play more of a liaison role, to play more of an intelligence-gathering role," Pollack said. "For political reasons, I think that all of the Iraqi opposition forces have to be part of this process. But again, I think we have to leave it up to the Pentagon to decide whether or not they feel it necessary to have armed Iraqi opposition groups in addition to those already in Iraq and armed," Pollack added.
The armed groups already in Iraq include, in addition to the SCIRI, two Iraqi Kurdish factions in northern Iraq. They are the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
While the London meeting sought to emphasize unity between exiled military officers and political groups, there are some sharp divisions among exiled Iraqi officers over how to approach a regime change in Iraq.
Some of the top officers participating in the meeting included Major General Najib al-Salhi, who once led a mechanized division of the army, and Major General Saad Obeidi, who was in charge of psychological warfare under Saddam before defecting in 1986.
Notable by their absence, however, were Major General Wafiq al-Samarrai, once in charge of army intelligence, and General Nizar al-Khazraji, a former army chief of staff. Samarrai told a Kuwaiti daily on 14 July that he favors a coup d'etat to bring down Saddam -- a tactic rejected by the officers' meeting in London. They say that repeated military coups have destabilized Iraq since the overthrow of the country's Hashemite monarchy in 1958.
An unexpected participant at the meeting was Prince Hassan of Jordan, the uncle of the Jordanian ruler, King Abdullah. The presence of a member of the Hashemite royal house -- which after World War I was placed on the throne by Britain in both Jordan and Iraq -- surprised many observers because Jordan has frequently warned against military action against Baghdad.
Prince Hassan's presence may have boosted the hopes of Iraqi royalists, who are led by his cousin, Sharif Ali bin Hussein, the head of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement of Iraq. But Hassan told reporters he attended the meeting as a private individual and that the future of Iraq is "for the Iraqi people alone to decide."
Prince Hassan has held no pubic post in Jordan since being deposed in January 1999 as crown prince by the late King Hussein, who accused his brother of power grabbing and named his own eldest son Abdullah as heir instead.
The Jordanian government said it was surprised by Prince Hassan's attendance and said in an official statement on 13 July that Jordan "rejects any military solution against Iraq. The question of Jordan's role in any U.S. operations against Iraq has become extremely sensitive for Amman since American newspapers reported early this month that U.S. military planners are considering using bases in Jordan as part of a campaign targeting Baghdad. Amman has repeatedly denied it has been consulted regarding any such plans.
As the Iraqi officers met, some other key Arab, as well as Iranian, leaders also stressed their opposition to any U.S. campaign against Iraq. Arab League Secretary Amr Mussa, speaking in Amman yesterday, said the pan-Arab organization "cannot back any attack on Iraq or on any Arab country."
At the same time, the head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, speaking in Damascus, warned Iraqi opposition groups against what he called falling into an "American trap." He said that "while Saddam's regime does not represent the people, [we] completely reject American intervention which we would consider an aggression."
Talk of a U.S. campaign against Iraq has increased recently in the wake of a major U.S. daily's, "The New York Times," reporting that secret military documents present preliminary plans for war, which would include an attack by some 250,000 troops and hundreds of warplanes.
In the wake of the report, top U.S. officials have said that Washington has no immediate plans for a campaign against Iraq. But the U.S. president has repeated that "it's a stated policy of this government to have a regime change" in Baghdad.