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Chicago Tribune: Iraqi exile groups try to find a voice
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Written by Webmaster on 10 Feb 2003 09:36:05:
Iraqi exile groups try to find a voice
Divide exists over ousting regime, what will follow
Conflict in Iraq
By Deborah Horan
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
Published February 9, 2003
Basel al-Harbi spends most evenings playing soccer in Chicago. But every chance the former Iraqi athlete gets, he flips between the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera and CNN to glean information about the U.S. troop buildup in the Persian Gulf region.
The prospect of war in Iraq fills him with a mixture of hope and anxiety, he said. He would like to see Saddam Hussein toppled; his dread is that thousands of Iraqis will die in the process. But mostly, he feels powerless to shape his country's future, like a teammate on the bench observing a game others play.
"I watch television all the time. Satellite. CNN. I can't be away from it," said the one-time professional soccer player. "I would love to wake up one day and see that there is no Saddam Hussein."
Across America, thousands of Iraqis echo variations of al-Harbi's sentiments after a week in which President Bush talked tough and Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke to the United Nations and shared intelligence data about Iraq's weapons programs.
Some accept war as a last resort, some oppose it under any condition, and some want the Iraqi people to oust Hussein without U.S. interference. But many seem worried about who might replace him.
Many also are aware that Powell's speech heightened the sense that their adopted nation was one step away from war. Al-Harbi, for one, said he found the evidence Powell presented to the UN Security Council on illegal weapons activities convincing.
"One hundred percent, yes," al-Harbi said. "Saddam might connect with Al Qaeda, yeah, I believe it could be. He might have trailers and move these weapons around. He would do that. He is evil.
"We are waiting for the American people to do this mission," he said.
Not all Iraqis agree.
"It wasn't compelling evidence," said Saad Marouf, chairman of the Chaldean Federation of America. "I don't think war is justified. I think we should give the inspection team another chance."
This varied community-in-exile is made up of Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, monarchists and Muslim fundamentalists, just to name a few. It represents nearly every ethnicity and political hue available in Iraq and under the right conditions could form the basis of a thriving democracy.
But so far, the divisions have produced mostly chaos among nearly 60 opposition groups, some of which consist of no more than half a dozen members. Most have scant resources and little following, analysts say.
For years, these groups have failed to get along, and the main beneficiary of their discord has been Hussein.
"Every two people who get together form an [opposition] group," said Osama Siblani, publisher and editor in chief of the Arab American News in Detroit. "They are weak. They lack leadership. They lack followers. They haven't proven that they deserve to rule."
With war looming, many of the opposition groups have tried to unify. In December, several of them met in London and created a 65-member advisory council to coordinate their efforts. The council may meet again in Kurdistan this month.
In addition, several Iraqis in exile have been meeting with State Department officials to develop a blueprint for a post-Hussein government.
But not every opposition group agreed to attend the London meeting, and some that did attend were not appointed to the advisory council or asked to join the State Department's nation-building efforts.
Middle East experts dismissed the panel as inconsequential.
"It was Shiites representing Shiites and Kurds representing Kurds," said Janice Terry, a professor of Middle East history at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. "No one was talking about representing Iraq."
Common goal is shared
Aiham Sammarae, one of the 65 representatives to the council from the secular Centrist Democratic Tendency, who lives in Oak Brook, said the opposition was united in its goal of creating democracy in Iraq and downplayed the divisions.
"Always they tell us to be united, but why should we be united?" he asked. "We have different agendas. This is normal in a democracy."
For Iraqis like al-Harbi, who are on the outside looking in, such divisions only magnify their sense of alienation.
"It's not clear what's happening, so it's not clear what my role should be," he said.
Such feelings are exacerbated by the splits in the Iraqi community in America, which is concentrated in a few large metropolitan areas. But different backgrounds, religions and routes to the U.S. have isolated one group from another and created different political points of view.
Chaldeans--Christians who speak Aramaic and claim descent from the time of Christ--are concentrated in Detroit and San Diego, with a smattering in Arizona, according to Martin Manna, a community leader.
Chaldeans settled in America in the 1950s and 1960s to escape religious persecution lingering from the Ottoman Empire. They were treated better by Hussein's secular Baathist regime, and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is Chaldean.
Though most in exile oppose the Iraqi leader, centuries of living as a minority have taught them not to make enemies.
"We don't want to [anger] Saddam Hussein or anyone else," said Manna, president of Chaldean Americans Reaching and Encouraging, an organization aiding 120,000 Chaldeans in the Detroit area.
"We want to continue to live in our ancestral homeland," he added.
The Chaldean community opposes deposing Hussein by force, Manna said. A U.S.-led ouster would only lead to chaos and strengthen extremists in the region, he said.
However, the Christian Assyrians, 80,000 of whom are concentrated in Chicago, say they support a U.S.-led war, even though some civilians might die.
"They are already dying under this government," said Hermiz Dawood of Skokie, a member of the Assyrian Universal Alliance Foundation. "They are dying slowly."
The Hezb a-Da'awa takes the opposite view. The secretive Islamist organization has every reason to want to overthrow Hussein. For years, it has been persecuted by his regime, which views the grass-roots Shiite group as a threat.
When the group's leader, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sader, was gunned down after Friday prayers in 1999 in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, Shiites accused government agents of pulling the trigger. Members say the regime has killed as many as 150,000 of their followers.
Yet they staunchly oppose U.S. intervention.
"This will mean U.S. hegemony in the region," said a Da'awa member in Ann Arbor, Mich., who gave his name only as Mohammed for fear of reprisals against his family in Iraq. "We do not want this."
Asaad Ali, an Iraqi nuclear scientist who fled Baghdad in 1995 and now lives in Naperville, said he thinks Hussein will resign.
"Saddam is a coward," Ali said. He once measured Hussein's body radioactivity during a scientific experiment in Iraq, Ali said. "He will flee the country and take his wives and children. This is my theory."
Filling leadership shoes
But then what? The question of who might replace Hussein after more than two decades in power hangs like a cloud over every Iraqi. Two years ago, the biggest contenders included Ahmed Chalabi, Adnan Pachachi and Nizar al-Khafraji.
Today, al-Khafraji, Hussein's former chief of staff, sits in a jail in Denmark awaiting trial on war crimes charges for his role in using chemical weapons against the Kurds.
Pachachi, leader of the Centrist Democratic Tendency and once touted as an Iraqi equivalent to the ousted Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah, is almost 80 and may be too old to rule, some Iraqis say.
And after nearly four decades in exile, Chalabi is considered out of touch with the people in Iraq, analysts say, and sullied by support from people in the Bush administration who are considered by many Arabs to be pro-Israel.
"That actually could do more harm," said Terry, the professor from Eastern Michigan University. "And he comes from a very, very wealthy family in a country where people say you should always be wary of opposition figures who wear Armani suits."
For now, a significant number of Iraqi exiles are working with the State Department's Future of Iraq Project in 16 technical committees to lay the groundwork for a transitional government; a 17th committee was approved last week.
Siblani, the newspaper editor, said such plans were nice, but he doubted that they would be implemented by a post-Hussein democracy. Instead, he said, the U.S. might be forced to install a figure similar to Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.
`Like fire and kerosene'
Iraq remains volatile, Siblani said, and in danger of splitting into three parts if Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south demand self-rule. He predicted the range of ideologies among Iraq's opposition would lead to an explosion.
"It's like fire and kerosene," he said.
For al-Harbi, the important thing is to see the U.S. follow through with whatever action it decides to take.
In 1991, he was one of thousands of Shiite Muslims in southern Iraq who rebelled against Hussein in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf war. For days, he rejoiced as the rebels liberated one village after another.
Then he watched in dismay as government forces retook each village following the decision by then-President George Bush not to topple Hussein. During the fighting, he helped carry wounded rebels to a nearby mosque for medical care. One friend died in the street.
Al-Harbi narrowly escaped by fleeing to Kuwait in a car driven by a cousin who was retired from the military but still had a badge that could get him past government checkpoints.
Al-Harbi landed with thousands of other routed rebels in the Safwan refugee camp.
From there, he went to camps in Saudi Arabia and began a three-year odyssey that ended with a green card and a new lease on life in the U.S.
Al-Harbi came to Chicago because that is where a friend he had met in the camps had gone. Soon after he arrived, he met other Shiite rebels who had shared his experience.
In 1998, they formed the Iraqi Uprising Coalition, which hopes to be the voice of the Shiite community shaping any future Iraqi government.
Lately, members have begun planning strategy and several recently left for Hungary, where up to 3,000 Iraqis will gather in coming weeks to train as translators and logistical support personnel for U.S. forces.
Young and battle-hardened, these men could play a significant role in any attempt to liberate Iraq's southern provinces, analysts say. They despise Hussein, know the people and the terrain, and have risked their lives once to liberate their land.
Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune
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