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Iraq: Opposition Groups Struggle For Position At London Conference

Delegates from Iraqi opposition groups are continuing a meeting in London today in an attempt to create a political blueprint for their country in the event that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is ousted. The two-day conference had been scheduled to end yesterday but has been extended by at least one day amid disagreements rooted in ethnic, religious, and political rivalries.

Prague, 16 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Opponents of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein have been meeting in London since 14 December in an attempt to create a road map for the country's political future. More than 300 delegates from six opposition groups reportedly reached a tentative agreement yesterday on a final conference declaration.

But one contentious issue kept yesterday's talks going on into the early hours of this morning: the composition of a coordinating committee that would help unify the fractious opposition's rival ethnic, religious, and political groupings.

David Newton, the head of RFE/RL's Iraqi Service, has been monitoring developments. He said the task of simply bringing together the rival opposition groups for talks in London was difficult. "It's taken a lot of preparation to get everybody together. They said they did it themselves without too much U.S. help, but the U.S. has a great interest in this. Failure means, of course, a considerable propaganda victory for Saddam. Failure would constitute not being able to agree and breaking up in disarray," Newton said.

Newton said the extension of the weekend meetings into a third, previously unscheduled day today raises questions about whether yesterday's draft declaration will receive a favorable vote by the delegates. "The best outcome I think they could probably arrange now would be to paper over the disputes and keep [the final declaration] general -- maybe to even enlarge the [coordinating] committee a little more or delay the final action. They are doing that, in part, by having a big [coordinating] committee instead of a small executive committee. But everybody sees this as what their role will be and how important their role will be. So everybody wants more," Newton said.

Although reports during the weekend suggested that the coordinating committee could form the basis of a post-Hussein interim government for Iraq, Newton said the enlargement of the committee makes such a development unlikely. "This committee is too big for that. They would then have to form some kind of executive committee -- a smaller group of half a dozen to a dozen at the most. Some of these people could, then, I suppose, serve in a government. But there is no direct link between that [committee] and who would be in the transitional government," Newton said.

There are six main opposition groups at the London conference. The Iraqi National Congress, or INC, is funded by the United States and is nominally the umbrella organization of Iraqi groups that oppose Hussein's rule.

But the INC also has rivals within the opposition. One such group is the Tehran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. That group claims it is better organized than the INC and that it has a larger following within Iraq itself. It has a 70-member assembly that represents Islamist groups and scholars from Iraq's majority Shiite community.

SCIRI is also a key member of a loose opposition alliance rivaling the INC that is known as the Group of Four. Other members of the Group of Four include the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and former members of Hussein's ruling Baath Party.

Newton said each of the key opposition groups considers it vital to maximize its representation in the coordinating committee. "The problem is, of course, who, but also how many people of each group will be represented in this 40-to-50-person committee. Sunnis are afraid they are being aced out. The Iraqi National Congress is afraid it will be reduced to secondary status. The Shiia think they don't have enough, although they'll have more [representation] than they ever had before," Newton said.

Meanwhile, Newton said there are also emerging opposition figures who are independent from the existing political groups. "There are a couple of points people have been arguing about. And one which is legitimate now that [the possibility of military] action [against Iraq] seems more real is that independents who have been on the sidelines now want in. They don't just want the traditional parties making up the [coordinating] committee and then maybe the transitional government," Newton said.

Another issue under discussion in London is the question of federalism. Kurdish parties are intent on the creation of a federal Iraq that is comprised of one Arab state and one Kurdish state. But Newton said the idea is generally not acceptable to Arabs. "There's another question, and that is: How much does the Iraqi National Congress want this thing settled? Because they may feel that they'll be submerged in a larger group. The Iraqi National Congress has always claimed to be the umbrella group for everybody [in the opposition]. And the other groups, especially the Kurds, although they are officially in the INC, don't really consider themselves members," Newton said.

Hoshyar Zebar, director of the international bureau of the KDP, said many complex issues must be resolved before an interim administration can be established in a post-Hussein Iraq. He said a constitution must be considered for the interim period and that the legal system also must be reformed.

But for now, he said, the critical issue is for opposition delegates in London to agree on the membership of the coordinating committee so that other processes can move forward. "Our overriding interest now is to agree on the formation of this coordinating [committee] -- to be representative -- as the first step. And then we will decide on the other issues," Zebar said.

Nabeel Musawai, a leading member of the Iraqi National Congress, said it is essential for the credibility of the conference that the coordinating committee represent the wide-ranging views of rival opposition groups. "We want to reflect that any committee that comes out of this conference, it is all-inclusive, where people feel they are being represented [by, and] their views are reflected [by], the members of the committee," Musawai said.

In Baghdad, there has been a news blackout in the state media about the events in London. Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassen Ramadan is among the officials within Hussein's regime who say the London conference has no significance. "I pay no heed to the so-called Iraqi opposition and to elements, you know, in so many forums and places. Their current meeting in London is the same as those in New York and Washington before. These are the areas and locations of their meetings and sponsorship. I don't think that there is something new and important. Even such meetings are held in special and very difficult circumstances," Ramadan said.

Yesterday's draft declaration from London reportedly says the Iraqi opposition will refuse foreign guardianship and occupation of Iraq if Hussein is toppled. It also reportedly says that a post-Hussein Iraq must be allowed to produce as much oil as it can.

It calls for tens of thousands of Kurds who have been driven from their homes under Hussein's rule to have the right to return to their original cities and villages. The draft declaration also calls for Kurds who have been attacked by Hussein's regime to receive compensation.

Finally, the draft declaration reportedly recognizes that the largest religious group in Iraq, Shiite Muslims, have suffered from official discrimination and have been excluded from the political and social system under Hussein's rule.