Iraqi opposition groups have concluded a conference in New York aimed at uniting various exile factions in their efforts to bring down the Baghdad regime. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan reports on the highlights of the conference.
New York, 2 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The four-day Iraqi Opposition Conference has concluded in New York with pledges of unity among the opposition and promises of renewed U.S. support.
The conference -- attended by more than 300 people -- aimed to unify the divergent political opposition groups under a common plan of action against the Iraqi regime. Over half of the attendees came from inside of Iraq. The other half represented exiled opposition groups.
Salah Shaikhly, official spokesperson for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), explained that the conference served an important symbolic function:
"We hope that with our display of unity, we have given hope to the Iraqi people that their freedom is within their reach. Within the next few weeks we will be establishing a new structure to coordinate all aspects of our program of action. The main emphasis will definitely be on activities inside Iraq."
The conference, which ended Monday, also produced some concrete results. The Iraqi National Congress (INC) -- which incorporated over 100 new members at the conference -- elected seven leaders. In a majority vote, the leaders were chosen from various opposition groups, including the Iraqi National Accord, the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and several independent parties.
The INC also set up a streamlined decision-making structure -- a 65-member Central Council -- that will serve as a middle tier between the more than 400 general members and the seven leaders.
Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state for the United States, congratulated the opposition on its accomplishments and said he was amazed at the number of Iraqis who attended the meeting, some at great peril.
Pickering reaffirmed U.S. support for the Iraqi opposition mission and for the Iraqi people.
"My message to the Iraqi people today is that the United States hears you, and will actively support you not only until you are free, but also thereafter in rebuilding a new democratic Iraq."
He also outlined the United States' multifront program to support a democratic transition in Iraq, which include economic, military, diplomatic, legal, and political elements.
The strategic goal of the United States, said Pickering, was not only the removal of a tyrant. Rather, he said, the U.S. would work toward the full recovery and reintegration of Iraq into the family of nations.
For lasting change, Pickering said that political decisions must come from within Iraqi society. He said this is why the United States would not try to impose its own leadership on the opposition program, but would provide support from the sidelines.
"The United States believes that the national transition sought by Iraqis and their neighbors must come from within Iraq; yet, we also believe that the world must respond to the pleas of the Iraqi people for protection and for help."
Failed Iraqi military coups of 1991 and 1996 had left the Iraqi opposition in apparent disarray. Many Iraqis said at that time they felt betrayed by the U.S. government for not providing more active support.
But the Iraqi opposition leaders say they are now looking forward to a renewed relationship with the United States.
The U.S. Congress has passed the Iraq Liberation Act, providing $97 million non-lethal aid for Iraqi opposition groups.
Besides the monetary support, the United States is also working through the United Nations and other international bodies to weaken the Iraqi regime.
The Iraqi opposition says it hopes that this backing, combined with renewed political unity, will fuel a successful campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.