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Iraq: Exile Groups To Meet Amid Waning U.S. Interest (Part 1)

  • Charles Recknagel

The Iraqi exile opposition is expected to have its first gathering on Iraqi soil this weekend as top leaders meet to discuss their hopes for a post-Saddam Hussein order. But the meeting is likely to be overshadowed by the opposition's frustration at being unable to win a key role for itself in Washington's plans for a U.S.-administered Iraq. RFE/RL reports on the developments in a two-part series. Part 1 looks at the Iraqi exile opposition's apparent exclusion from U.S. postwar planning.

Prague, 20 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's opposition movement hopes a much-delayed first meeting in northern Iraq this weekend will finally allow it to drop the label "exile" and build its image as a domestic alternative to the Baghdad regime.

The meeting, likely to last two to three days, is the first time the umbrella exile organization, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), has held a leadership conference on Iraqi soil.

The conference will bring together exile groups ranging from London-based liberal and nationalist parties with no armed forces to Tehran-based Shiite Islamic groups and Kurdish factions with substantial numbers of fighting men. The meeting will try to form a leadership council which the opposition hopes could take a central role in any postwar government.

Hoshiyar Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two main Kurdish factions, described preparations for the conference yesterday to reporters in Arbil, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq: "We have invested a great deal in the preparation and planning for the last couple of months to host this meeting here on Iraqi soil, to give the Iraqi opposition the opportunity to meet inside its country and to have more credibility and to speak with one voice to the outside world."

But the meeting takes place amid increasing doubts as to whether the United States will offer the exiled opposition anything like the key postwar role it hopes to play. Washington has said it plans to occupy Iraq after toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and indications are that the U.S. will do much of the early work administering the country itself.

Very few details are publicly known about just what kind of occupation government the U.S. is planning for Iraq. Leaks to the U.S. media from top officials suggest Washington envisions an 18-month military occupation in which an American commander would run the country in tandem with a civilian administration. It is not known whether the civilian administration would be appointed by the U.S. or the United Nations, or whether there would also be a transitional Iraqi government along the lines of that in Afghanistan.

This week, a top exile opposition figure strongly criticized Washington for what he said were plans to single-handedly run the country. Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the umbrella INC, in a letter published today in Britain's "The Daily Telegraph," said the opposition rejects "notions of foreign military government or United Nations administrations for Iraq." He said, "There must be no gap in the sovereignty over Iraq by Iraqis."

In another letter, published yesterday in the U.S. daily "The Wall Street Journal," Chalabi said Washington had told opposition leaders that U.S. occupation authorities would appoint a "consultative council" of Iraqis with nonexecutive powers. He also said American officials would staff the top three levels of Iraqi government ministries, with the rest of the structure remaining the same.

There has been no U.S. government reaction to Chalabi's description of Washington's plans.

Another well-known Iraqi opposition figure, academic Kanan Makiya, wrote a letter published yesterday in the British daily "The Observer" in which he accused Washington of quashing "the hopes of Iraqi democrats."

Makiya, a professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, said the U.S. plan, "as dictated to the Iraqi opposition in Ankara last week by a United States delegation...is guaranteed to turn that opposition from the close ally it has always been during the 1990s into an opponent of the United States on the streets of Baghdad the day after liberation."

U.S. President George W. Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer said today that there is a "misunderstanding" over U.S. plans for Iraq. But he did not specifically rule out the installation of a U.S. military ruler for the short term. Fleischer, responding to reporters pressing for details, said, "The future of Iraq will, of course, be decided by the Iraqi people...in the event there is military action, you can expect for every effort to be made to maintain the various infrastructures that are part of Iraq." He did not elaborate.

Analysts say that frustration is high among opposition leaders because they feel they are deliberately being left behind as Washington makes its final plans for a war that now could be just weeks away.

Kamran al-Karadaghi, deputy director of Radio Free Iraq, recently returned from northern Iraq, where he met with many opposition figures preparing for the meeting. He said the opposition leaders feel they only know the general outlines of Washington's plan and find no clear role for themselves in it. "They know in general -- the Americans have told them in general terms -- what will happen, how [U.S. forces] will topple the regime. But my impression from when I talk to the opposition groups is that they really have no clear idea what will be the role of the opposition in the military operations and maybe after the military operations."

Al-Karadaghi said the exile opposition groups had hoped both to take part in military operations to topple Hussein and to take full charge of the transitional period afterward, perhaps as opposition figures did in Afghanistan. "The opposition were hoping, especially the INC, that the United States would do the military part of toppling Saddam Hussein and help with controlling the situation militarily, but then the opposition themselves would take full charge of the transitional period."

He said this is why the INC supported establishing a government-in-exile when the opposition met in London in December, "but then the Americans clearly told them that there is no way to establish a government-in-exile in advance."

Another top opposition figure, Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- the other main Iraqi Kurdish faction -- told Radio Free Iraq recently that the meeting will not try to name a government-in-exile. Salih said it will only try to establish some committees and subcommittees to deal with various aspects of Iraq's future foreign and domestic policies, in hopes these can become the nucleus of a new government after Hussein is toppled.

Such a downsizing of expectations is in marked contrast to the Iraqi exiles' prospects when U.S. President George W. Bush took office two years ago. Many figures in the new administration strongly criticized former President Bill Clinton for ignoring the Iraqi opposition and giving it only a fraction of the some $97 million of aid authorized by the U.S. Congress under the Iraqi Liberation Act of 1998.

While the Clinton administration restricted opposition funding mostly to political organizing activities, the Bush administration has approved spending for radio and television broadcasts to Iraq and, most recently, military training for some 5,000 opposition volunteers.

But the Bush administration has also been divided over the ability of exile opposition groups to form a strong and unified movement, and the extent to which it represents people inside Iraq. Those differences were often reported to pit champions of the INC at the Pentagon against more skeptical officials at the U.S. State Department. If the differences still exist, they now appear to have been subordinated to a new U.S. strategy to lead Iraq's transition itself.

(Part 2 looks at why the U.S. administration's interest in the exile opposition movement has diminished.)

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