A number of key Iraqi opposition groups are due to hold a congress this weekend in New York. On the agenda are electing joint leaders and agreeing on a strategy for replacing the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports.
Prague, 29 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's diverse opposition movements will come together -- at least in part -- for a four-day meeting due to begin today in New York.
The meeting will bring together several key groups as part of a US-encouraged effort to build unity among them and develop a cohesive vision of how to install a democratic government in Baghdad.
Among the groups attending are the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which is an umbrella organization of Kurdish, Shi'ite and leftist groups, and the Amman-based Iraqi National Accord (INA). So are the two major Kurdish factions in northern Iraq: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Also present will be the London-based Movement for a Constitutional Monarchy and several smaller groups.
The meeting, which is organized by the INC, will be the first large-scale opposition congress in seven years. But it will fall short of its goal of gathering in the full spectrum of groups opposing Saddam Hussein. Notable for its absence will be the largest Shi'ite opposition grouping, the Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Also staying away will be the Shi'ite Al-Dawa group, the Iraqi Communist Party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi Democratic Union and the Socialist Party in Iraq.
A correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq who closely follows Iraqi opposition issues says that the SCIRI is boycotting the congress because the event is backed by Washington. But he says that the group will nevertheless be following events from afar with interest.
"As for the Islamic Supreme Council, they [have to] consider the Iranian position, we should not forget that the Islamic Supreme Council is based in Iran, and we all know that there are problems between the United States and Iran. But undoubtedly they are very interested in the outcome of this meeting, and I know that they have contacts with the groups who are participating in this meeting, although they don't want to admit it."
The Iraqi groups attending the congress hope it will demonstrate there is sufficient unity among them for Washington to step up aid for their efforts to replace Saddam Hussein. Those efforts have gotten substantial psychological boosts over recent years as Washington and London have encouraged opposition groups to work together.
The US Congress last year passed an Iraqi Liberation Act, which authorizes the US administration -- but does not compel it -- to provide up to $97 million to approved opposition groups for training and equipment, including military surplus.
The Clinton administration has since certified seven opposition groups as eligible to receive the aid because the groups are committed to creating a democratic government. These include the SCIRI, which has turned down its eligibility. But Washington has not implemented the act, as it awaits proof that Iraqi opposition groups can unify and that they represent a viable strategy for replacing Saddam's regime.
Rikaby says that hopes are high among opposition groups that the New York meeting will show Washington they are unified.
"One of the conditions to receive the American aid was [that the opposition groups must have] the will to cooperate with other groups and unify themselves. It is impossible to unify the whole opposition. We have so many groups with different ideologies, with different beliefs, with different political lines, but you do have a great number of the members of the opposition now in New York, and I think they represent in a way all ethnic and religious groups in Iraq. So, for many of the participants this meeting is a kind of test of the will of the United States -- whether it is serious to overthrow Saddam or not."
The INC has said it expects more than 300 delegates at the New York meeting and that the agenda will cover five main points. These include affirming the unity of the Iraqi opposition, electing a joint leadership, and establishing ways to advance opposition efforts in and outside Iraq. The delegates also hope to agree on a strategy for overthrowing Saddam's regime and building a shared vision for a free Iraq at peace with its neighbors.
Iraq's ruling Ba'ath party took power in a coup in 1968. Under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, Baghdad has used chemical weapons against its own citizens to suppress past Kurdish revolts in northern Iraq. It fought an eight-year war with Iran and occupied Kuwait, prompting the Gulf War. Since the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the United Nations has kept Iraq under crippling economic sanctions, which are to be lifted only after international arms inspectors certify that Baghdad has no more weapons of mass destruction.