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Iraq: SCIRI Refuses To Participate in Any U.S.-Chosen Advisory Council

Washington's plan to choose the members of an Iraqi advisory council has been publicly rejected by the best organized Shi'ite political group in the country. The rejection by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) raises the question of whether SCIRI is merely bargaining for a better representation in the U.S.-picked council or whether the shaky cooperation between Washington and the Tehran-backed group is now coming to an end.

Prague, 10 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) is the first group to say publicly that it will not participate in any Iraqi advisory council chosen by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CAP).

The provisional administration, headed by U.S. diplomat L. Paul Bremer, has said it could choose the members of an advisory council within six weeks as part of a limited power-sharing arrangement with Iraqi leaders.

The council, which may have some 30 members, would have no sovereign powers but would be able to advise the U.S.-led administration on economic and policy issues. It also would name key advisers to work closely with the coalition's own overseers of Iraq's ministries.

SCIRI said over the weekend that it rejects any U.S. plans to handpick the advisory council's membership. Spokesman Hamed Bayati told reporters in Baghdad that "we will not participate in an administration that would be appointed by Ambassador Bremer."

He also said the group still wants Washington to allow Iraq's leading political parties to organize a national conference that would itself choose the council's membership. That plan was originally endorsed by Bremer but later abandoned in favor of direct U.S. control of the selection process.

SCIRI's rejection raises the question of whether the group is merely bargaining for a better representation in any U.S.-picked council or whether the shaky cooperation between Washington and the Tehran-backed group may now be coming to an end.

Mowaffak al-Rubaie is an independent Shi'a activist in London and a coordinator of the Declaration of the Shi'a, which prior to the war expressed the common demands of many Shi'a groups for the post-Hussein era.

The analyst says that SCIRI has made a strategic decision to be part of the post-Hussein system in Iraq and that by rejecting the Washington plan it appears to be hoping to win greater veto power over who is selected.

"I don't think they wanted to be outside the process of democratization in Iraq," al-Rubaie said. "I think they want to be part and parcel of it, but a major player. The difference is over how major a player [SCIRI] will be."

Al-Rubaie says the reason for SCIRI's determination to remain inside the system is its conviction that it can use the democratic process in Iraq to successfully advance its aims. He says the group wants to first win majority representation for the Shi'a community, which makes up some 60 percent of the Iraqi population, then use its access to the Iraqi media and other institutions to persuade Iraqis to adopt a more Islamic system of government.

Bayati appeared to leave the door open for participation in the advisory council by saying SCIRI would accept an appointed council if the Iraqi parties, not Bremer, named its members. That suggested the group might back away from its previous insistence on a national conference if it still can have a strong voice in the appointment of the council members.

But if SCIRI's rejection of Washington's plan is a bargaining position, the stance is a risky one for the group to take. The showdown is likely to severely strain relations between the two sides.

Washington and SCIRI have long been suspicious of each other because SCIRI is closely linked to Tehran. The group was formed in 1980 by an Iraqi Shi'ite cleric, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who fled to Iran after being tortured by the Hussein regime for political activities. Its military wing, the Badr Brigade, was armed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and routinely launched crossborder guerrilla operations against Hussein's regime.

Washington and SCIRI agreed to work together to topple Hussein. SCIRI participated in prewar opposition conferences with U.S.-backed exile groups and is among the seven main Iraqi political parties U.S. officials have regularly met with since.

But the political cooperation has been against a backdrop of constant friction. Washington has accused Iran of seeking to influence events in Iraq through SCIRI, a charge Tehran denies. U.S. officials also have warned that they will not permit an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq.

At times, the confrontations have been forceful. The "Financial Times" reported last week that U.S. troops detained 20 members of the Badr Brigade in connection with at least one rocket attack on American soldiers. SCIRI spokesman Bayati said any accusations against the men were "false."

"Financial Times" correspondent Charles Clover recently told RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which broadcasts to Iran, that it is not clear why U.S. forces implicated the Badr Brigade in rocket attacks, which they usually attribute to elements loyal to Hussein. He says the main reason for suspicion appears to be what U.S. officials say are the group's continuing links to Iran.

"The reason we are saying they are backed by Iran is that they were formerly based in Iran and, I think, everybody agrees that they were and probably continue to be supported by Iran," Clover said.

The CAP has demanded that the Badr Brigade disarm. SCIRI has said it is turning its armed wing into a civilian political cadre. SCIRI officials also have said recently that they would favor Badr fighters becoming part of a new Iraqi national army. Some other armed Iraqi groups, including the U.S.-trained fighters of the secular Iraqi National Congress, are expected to become the nucleus for the new national force, but it is unclear if Washington would accept former Badr soldiers.

Analyst al-Rubaie says that even if relations between Washington and SCIRI were to break off over their current political crisis, it is unlikely the group would try to work entirely outside of the new U.S.-led order in Iraq.

He says that the most likely result of any breakdown in dialogue between the two sides would be attempts by SCIRI to mobilize street protests. Al-Rubaie says SCIRI's goal would be to demonstrate that Washington cannot afford to ignore it.

"I don't think [SCIRI] will resort to any sort of unconventional methods," al-Rubaie said. "Probably they will go for peaceful resistance. They may well use the street against the Americans but not through any sort of armed struggle, or anything like that at all. Basically, [these] people are jockeying for position in the future of Iraq."

SCIRI leader Hakim returned from exile in Iran to set up headquarters in the Iraqi holy city of Al-Najaf last month. Addressing rallies in predominantly Shi'ite southern Iraq upon his homecoming, he repeatedly demanded Iraq be governed by Iraqis alone.

He also called the U.S.-British occupation a danger to Iraqi national identity and said it must conclude as quickly as possible.