Iraq's exiled opposition is holding a much-delayed meeting in northern Iraq to highlight its demands for a key role in any post-Saddam Hussein administration. The meeting, attended by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, comes as the opposition increasingly says it is being sidelined by Washington's plans to set up an occupation government following any war with Baghdad.
Prague, 27 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The exiled Iraqi opposition is holding its first meeting this week on Iraqi soil as it attempts to carve out a key place for itself in any post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The gathering brings together leaders from almost all of the exiled opposition groups and special U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The proceedings began yesterday and are expected to last at least two days. They are taking place in a fortified compound near the city of Arbil, protected by Kurdish militiamen and U.S. diplomatic security personnel.
As the meeting began, Iraqi opposition leaders lost no time in expressing their key concerns to Khalilzad. The first is the mounting fear that the United States is sidelining them as it makes its own plans to set up an occupation government following any war with Baghdad. The exiled opposition had hoped to be the nucleus of any post-Hussein Iraqi administration.
Ahmad Chalabi, who heads the London-based, secular Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella group for the Iraqi opposition, told the meeting in opening remarks that Iraqis, not foreigners, must govern the country. "We welcome the U.S. as a liberator and call upon the U.S. to respect the Iraqi people and the sovereignty of the Iraqi people," Chalabi said.
He added that the opposition wants a partnership with Washington based on what he called mutual respect and mutual independence. "We want to build a long-standing partnership with the U.S. based on friendship and mutual respect and interests and on respect of mutual independence in making decisions. We want to be friends and partners with the U.S. in the world," Chalabi said. Khalilzad sought to reassure the opposition leaders that the United States has no desire to govern Iraq in the long term. But he said nothing to contradict strong signals from Washington that a U.S. military official will administer Iraq in the short run.
Leaks to the U.S. media from top officials suggest Washington envisions an 18-month military occupation in which a U.S. commander would run the country in close cooperation with a civilian administration. It is not known whether the civilian administration would be appointed by the United States or the United Nations or whether there would also be a transitional Iraqi government along the lines of that in Afghanistan.
While skirting the issue of Washington's immediate plans, Khalilzad did say that "the decision of who ultimately governs Iraq is a decision for the Iraqi people." "Iraqis should be free to choose their own [form of] government, be it parliamentary or presidential, and to choose the form of relationship between its center and the regions, including federalism," Khalilzad said.
But he added that the exiled Iraqi opposition alone might not be sufficiently representative of all the Iraqi people to form any new administration by itself. "Along with the great respect that we have for our friends in the Iraqi opposition, we also have a great respect and sympathy for the many Iraqis who have been suffering inside the country under the Saddam Hussein regime," Khalilzad said.
That may have been a signal that Washington will insist upon broadening any Iraqi role during the transition period to include political figures who have remained inside Iraq, as well as those who have opposed Hussein from abroad.
During the conference's opening day yesterday, Kurdish leaders called on Washington to ensure that Turkish forces do not enter Kurdish-held northern Iraq as part of any U.S.-led war with Baghdad.
The Kurds fear that to win Ankara's approval for using Turkey as a staging area for U.S. troops, Washington will agree to Turkish demands that Kurdish autonomy be sharply limited. Ankara fears that too much autonomy for Iraqi Kurds could incite its own restive Kurdish minority to demand similar rights.
Mas'ud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) -- one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish factions -- told the conference that "any regional intervention in the internal affairs of Iraq will cause instability." He added that, "We call on the United States to prevent any regional intervention in the internal affairs of Iraq."
Reuters later quoted Khalilzad as telling reporters that any Turkish troops entering the north of Iraq would be fully coordinated with the U.S.-led coalition and not acting independently.
Beyond sounding out Khalilzad regarding Washington's plans for a post-Hussein Iraq, the exiled opposition hopes during its meeting to name a leadership council to coordinate future activities.
The main opposition groups taking part in the meeting are the INC, the KDP, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- the other main Kurdish faction -- and the Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is a Shi'ite group.
Not attending are two other opposition groups: the monarchist Constitutional Monarchy Movement and the secular Iraqi National Accord, which has ties to disaffected members of Iraq's ruling Ba'ath Party in the military. No immediate reason for their absence has been given, but the Iraqi exiled opposition movement regularly splits over leadership disputes. These disputes hamper attempts to strengthen cooperation among its member groups.