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Iraq: Dozens Of Political Parties Emerging In Baghdad

  • Zamira Eshanova

Dozens of political parties and groups are vying for power in Iraq, as the country moves from three decades of one-party rule to a multiparty democracy. Former opposition parties are shifting their headquarters from places like London, Tehran, and the U.S., while new groups are emerging in Baghdad. RFE/RL's Zamira Eshanova is in the Iraqi capital. She takes a look at some of these groups and their goals.

Baghdad, 28 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Only three weeks since Saddam Hussein was removed from power, and more than 40 political parties and groups have emerged in Iraq.

Among the new arrivals, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), co-founded by Ahmad Chalabi as an umbrella organization for opposition groups in exile, has already made a strong showing. The INC occupies an impressive building of the Iraqi Hunting Club in Baghdad's prestigious Mansur neighborhood, once favored by top members of the former regime. Now, hundreds of the INC's camouflaged men, called the Free Iraqi Forces, stand at checkpoints around Baghdad.

Zaab Sethna, a Pakistani-born spokesman and a senior adviser to Ahmad Chalabi, says the INC has more than 2,000 militiamen and new members number in the thousands.

"You have two requirements to be a member of INC," Sethna said. "You have to be opposed to the Saddam Hussein regime and [you] have to be in favor of democracy."

Life in the hunting club compound these days is busy, with some INC members interviewing applicants to join their movement and their militia. The building is heavily guarded -- uniformed men make thorough searches of everyone coming in.

At the entrance, adorned by smiling pictures of Chalabi, two dozen men are waiting to fill in applications to join the INC. They believe Chalabi has the support of the U.S. government and they want to join the INC at the start to ensure getting a good job.

But some potential members are also hesitant about the movement and its intentions. Hashim, a photographer who has been trying to get an INC job without success for three days, says so far the INC is choosing only males with strong bodies. He says they are not differentiating between honest people and thieves.

"Since I have been coming to this party to ask them [for] a job, it seems to me that they are making false promises."

There are five more offices of the INC in Baghdad and all of them occupy impressive buildings and mansions left by members of the former regime.

One of the INC's neighbors is the headquarters of a well-known Shi'a group, the Society of Honorable Scholars of Najaf. While the INC office is crowded with jobseekers, there is quiet next door. Several men are sitting inside the dusty and unfurnished mansion. They say they occupied this and another villa in Baghdad without coordinating with the U.S. military, which is distributing buildings to new parties now.

Sheikh Abd-Jabbur Manhell, the head of the Baghdad office, sits behind the only piece of furniture in the entrance hall -- an empty desk. He is surrounded by portraits of Imam Ali, Imam Hussein, and several other respected religious leaders.

He says: "We won't rush to declare a Jihad against Americans; we'll wait and see if the U.S. sincerely wants a free and democratic Iraq. If it's up to the Iraqi people to choose their own government, I'm sure that up to 70 percent of the Iraqi population will want an Islamic state."

As he speaks, several dozen young men in a bus and several cars approach the office to coordinate a demonstration the next day in the city center. Abd-Jabbur points to the demonstration to prove to his statement.

But Dr. Hashim al-Hassani, one of the leading members of another grouping, the Islamic Party of Iraq, denies such a claim. The party occupies a hall of a half-destroyed building of the secret police. He believes that what Iraqis are looking for is democracy and freedom.

"What is an Islamic state going to do? You know, we are looking to establish certain goals and whoever establishes that goal for us, we don't care. We want freedom, we want Iraq to prosper, we want Iraqi resources distributed evenly among its people. We want a united Iraq."

There is a kind of solitude at the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two leading Iraqi Kurdish parties. Eight uniformed "peshmergas" (Kurdish fighters) stand guard in front of the former Ba'ath Party building. Inside the looted building, some PUK members are working on a green and white billboard that says: "Patriotic Union of Kurdistan work for a united, democratic..." The last word is missing.

The head of the party's Baghdad office, Adel Murad, says the missing word is "Iraq." He says the PUK is optimistic about the future of Iraq and a governing structure that favors autonomy in the north, where the Kurds mostly live.

"Now we (Kurdish groups) are strong because our area was liberated 12 years ago and we organized ourselves. So we came to Baghdad to do good things to our people, not alone but with Arabs and Shi'a, to rebuild the country."

While the groups represent very different constituencies and interests, all say that rebuilding Iraq is their major priority. And although they all say the Iraqi people must choose the new government, there is also a certain amount of shared anxiety that the U.S. -- and not the Iraqi people -- will still have the last word.

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