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Iraq: U.S. Support Eroded As Exile Groups Feud (Part 2)

  • Charles Recknagel

The Iraqi exile opposition is set 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 any U.S-occupied Iraq. RFE/RL reports on the developments in a two-part series. Part 2 looks at why the U.S. administration's interest in the exile opposition movement has diminished.

Prague, 20 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Observers say that the frequent feuding among Iraqi exile opposition groups may have helped weaken the U.S. administration's interest in their leading any postwar transition.

Kamran al-Karadaghi, deputy director of Radio Free Iraq, said U.S. officials often reminded opposition leaders that if they could not unite they would be of little use to Washington. He said their inability to do so, despite U.S. pressure, may have directly contributed to Washington's waning interest in the movement.

"The opposition also must take responsibility and they should also blame themselves for that. Because it is true that they met in London [in December], they elected a so-called 'follow-up and coordination committee' -- but only after a lot of pressure from the United States, only after a lot of compromises, a lot of arguments among themselves. It is not a secret that the American [special] envoy, [Zalmay] Khalilzad, would sometimes tell them directly that, 'If you continue like this then we don't need you, you need us,'" al-Karadaghi said.

Al-Karadaghi says U.S. officials may also have decided that handing power to a divided opposition movement might compromise Washington's key postwar goal: a stable Iraqi state. The U.S. is concerned about the impact its intervention in Iraq might have on Baghdad's Arab neighbors, including Turkey and Iran, both of which fear any political instability in Iraq would endanger their security.

Iraqi sociologists say that the exile opposition is beset by deep cleavages that have made it very difficult for its various groups to work together. The cleavages include ethnic and religious splits as well as social, economic, and ideological differences.

The exile movement has sought, for example, to create a partnership between secular liberals in the umbrella Iraqi National Congress (INC) organization and secular nationalists in the Iraqi National Accord (INA). But the two groups are long-standing rivals because each appeals to a different segment of the Iraqi elite.

Isam al-Khafaji, formerly a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, says leaders of the INC are mainly people who owe their social, economic, or political rise to regimes prior to the fall of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958.

But he says the INA's leadership comes from the classes that rose with the overthrow of the monarchy, and especially with the ruling Ba'ath Party. Several key INA leaders were well-placed Ba'ath officials who lost their positions in purges and the party says it maintains strong contacts with disaffected Ba'ath officers in the military.

Another Iraqi sociologist, Falih Abdul Jabbar at the University of London, described the differences between the INC and INA by saying: "We have an ideological rift. The National Accord people are nationalists, they are 'etatists.' The INC people are antistate, in the sense that [they] understand liberal teachings [and they are] for a minimum government. They are on different sides ideologically, culturally. Some of the INC people were born in the West or their liberal thinking is anchored in real education and knowledge of liberal philosophy and experiences. Not so with the INA -- they are Ba'athis, nationalists deep down in their hearts. So it is a deep cleavage."

Just as there are differences among the secular opposition groups, there are also differences between them and exile Islamist groups.

Jabbar said that while secular leaders call for a Western-style Iraqi state, or even restoration of the monarchy, the Islamist leaders have often dubbed democracy a foreign system that is of no use to the country. "There are three Islamic groups, Shia groups, and one Sunni Arab Islamist group. All of them are antidemocrat. The only exception is a fraction of the Dawa party, which published a program saying that democracy is the only way out -- and they were kicked out of [their base in] Iran. [Beyond these groups,] there is a strong wing among the political clerics who endorse democracy and accept it. [But] we hear and see Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim saying, 'nationalism, patriotism, democracy -- these are Western, heathen concepts, we can't use them.'"

The most powerful exile Islamist leader is Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who heads the Iraqi Shi'ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq based in Tehran.

The group wages an intermittent guerilla war in southern Iraq against Baghdad and won the right at December's London conference to appoint all Shi'ite Islamic delegates to the opposition movement's 65-member coordination council. That assured its dominance of the Shia opposition movement at the expense of moderate Shi'ite Islamic democrats.

The Iraqi opposition movement has said that cleavages within it are a natural reflection of the diversity of Iraqi society. The INC umbrella organization also says its experience trying to forge unity between the groups well qualifies it to lead Iraq's transformation into a federal state with a parliamentary democracy.

Chalabi argued that point in an article this week in the U.S.-based "The Wall Street Journal" daily. He wrote, "Iraq is a diverse society and this multifaceted nature of the opposition is not its weakness -- it is our core strength on the road to democracy."

Washington and Chalabi agree that the road to a democratic, federal Iraq is the one both of them want to take. But after this week's angry criticisms of Washington's plans for a postwar Iraq, it looks highly unlikely that the exile opposition will be leading the way.

Instead, any U.S.-initiated Iraqi transition administration or consultative council could draw broadly on both returning exile leaders and currently lesser-known figures who never left the country. And the task of unifying them looks likely to fall not to the opposition, but to U.S. officials themselves.

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