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Iraqi Exiles Spar
Groups' disputes annoy, worry U.S.
By William Douglas
November 25, 2002
Washington - The Bush administration sees Iraq's opposition groups as an important part of the political future of a post-war Iraq but is growing annoyed and worried at what officials say is their penchant for bickering and settling scores.
As it campaigns for disarmament and "regime change" in Iraq, the administration is watching nervously as six exile groups spar over plans for a long-awaited conference meant to prepare for a democracy to follow the strongman government of President Saddam Hussein.
The delays have become a growing annoyance for U.S. officials and allies who fear that a war could begin before Washington has a workable plan on how to govern Iraq the day after the shooting ends.
"There is a degree of nervousness," an administration official said last week. "We're trying to get the parties back to the table and get them not to display their disagreements in public view."
Officials say the six groups' effort has stalled since August, when their leaders stood shoulder to shoulder outside the State Department and vowed to jointly convene a conference on Iraq's future.
The meeting was initially scheduled for September, postponed to Nov. 22 in Brussels and now is tentatively set for Dec. 10 in London. But administration officials and independent analysts say it may not come off because the exile groups appear mired in the same religious, ethnic and political factionalism that have entangled them for years.
"They have discredited themselves," said Leith Kubba, who oversees the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy and is working with some in the opposition movement to resolve their differences. "If there was goodwill toward them, it has dissipated. They are fighting over a conference. What if they had real power, bullets and a country?"
The groups the White House is dealing with are:
the Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella group of anti-Hussein organizations;
the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, rival groups that jointly rule northern Iraq, an area kept off-limits to Hussein by a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone;
the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, an Iranian-backed Shiite movement that is prominent in southern Iraq;
the National Accord, which is made up of hundreds of Iraqi military and intelligence officers who defected from Hussein's Baath [Renaissance] Party;
the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, a group that hopes to restore the Hashemite monarchy that ruled, with British backing, from 1921 until 1958.
Prospects for a successful conference started to fade this month, when Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi threatened to boycott it unless the number of conference delegates was increased, opposition and U.S. officials said. Chalabi's threat led U.S. officials to travel to London recently to forge a compromise that raised the delegate count from 200 to 300.
The mediators pressed the Iraqis to use the conference to commit themselves to broad principles - a disarmed, democratic Iraq based on a federalist structure with a multi-ethnic, multi-religious participation - and not to campaign to head a government in exile.
"We're looking for it [a conference] to provide legitimacy and strength to a new government, not strategies to create a government in exile," a State Department official said. "We don't want to lock ourselves in, in a way that would disenfranchise the people who are in Iraq."
But some U.S. officials and some of Chalabi's ethnic and religious foes believe he wants to steer the conference toward the creation of a provisional post-Hussein government with him in charge.
"If the people [in Iraq] like him and elect him, fine," said Ferhad Barzani, a Kurdistan Democratic Party representative in Washington. But Chalabi and his allies "are trying to force themselves on the Iraqi people, which is not acceptable to the Kurds and Arabs."
Officials of the Iraqi National Congress rebut accusations that Chalabi, 57, a Shiite Muslim and former banker who lives in London, is aggressively vying to be the new Iraqi leader. "He's not running for any position," said Zaab Sethna, an adviser to the group.
Suspicions among opposition groups intensified last week when Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi dissident close to Chalabi, gave media interviews outlining a written plan for a democratic Iraq. They said his presentation of the plan had been drawn up by the Democratic Principles Working Group, a project led by Makiya that the State Department has supported.
The group envisions a federal government with an executive branch and a legislature. Its plan calls for a demilitarized nation and war-crime trials for the top echelon in Hussein's government. But the plan has been rejected by ethnic Kurds, and some members of the Democratic Principles Working Group said Makiya's presentation of it reflected only his views, not those of all the intellectuals who helped put the document together.
The Iraqi exiles also have taken some shots at Washington. Makiya criticized U.S. intelligence officials for supporting groups he says are marginal, such as the Baathist Iraqi National Accord, at the expense of the Iraqi National Congress. "To assume that these parties are much more powerful than they really are is what worries me," he said. Organizations like the CIA are trying very hard to work with "let's say, Islamist parties, ex-Baathist parties" on the basis that they will be needed in the post-Saddam Iraq, he told National Public Radio. "I think that is short-sighted."
None of the opposition groups took kindly to recent reports that the administration was weighing putting Gen. Tommy Franks, head of U.S. Central Command, in charge of a transitional authority in Iraq if Hussein is removed, much as Gen. Douglas MacArthur oversaw Japan after World War II.
Barzani said U.S. officials hadn't broached the idea with his group. If they did, he would tell them that such a move "would be invading Iraq, not liberating it."
"What do you think? There is no Iraqi to rule Iraq?" he added. "We have many talented people in the Iraqi opposition. Why bring in somebody else?"
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.
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