The toothless Iraqi opposition

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 13 07:22:29 MDT 2002


WSJ, August 13, 2002

ATTACKING IRAQ?
Iraqi Rebels' Discordant History
May Impede U.S. Plan for Hussein

Dissidents' Recent Meeting in New York Belies
Simmering Tensions Among Opposition Groups

By HUGH POPE
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

LONDON -- In an office around the corner from Harrods department store
here, Ahmad Chalabi plots against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, wrangles
with accountants from the U.S. State Department and squabbles with other
Iraqi opposition conspirators.

Head of the Iraqi National Congress and the country's best-known dissident,
the 57-year-old Mr. Chalabi has been trying since the early 1990s to have
his fractious coalition of opposition groups ready for the day when Mr.
Hussein fell from power. It hasn't been easy. The Iraqi leader played one
group off against another with threats, violence and bribes, eventually
forcing many of them to abandon bases near the country. In exile, the
dissidents fought for ascendancy and vied for U.S. support. They bickered
all the more when Mr. Chalabi's star intermittently rose in Washington and
when American money began to flow to opposition groups in recent years.

Not far away in London, Saad Jabr, leader of one of the oldest opposition
groups, the Free Iraq Council, says the INC "was created by the Americans
... to dismantle the opposition." Dilshad Miran, a London representative of
the powerful Kurdistan Democratic Party, thinks Mr. Chalabi has "never been
a team player. He has alienated many people with his words and wild ideas."

The tension among Iraq's opposition groups amounts to a significant
impediment as the Bush administration speaks more publicly about ousting
Mr. Hussein. Over the weekend, in a rare display of unity, six of the
leading opposition groups met in Washington with senior officials from the
State and Defense departments, including Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The
group also spoke by video hookup with Vice President Dick Cheney. The U.S.
officials pledged to support replacing Mr. Hussein with a democratic
government. The extensive consultation with the opposition leaders
indicated that they represented the makings of at least a transitional
government.

Far More Complex

But the reality is far more complex, fraught with a history of rivalries
and questions about the groups' effectiveness. "Proponents of regime-change
... underestimate Saddam's military and political resources, and exaggerate
the potential of the Iraqi exile opposition," says David Mack, vice
president of the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former American
diplomat who worked closely with Mr. Chalabi during the INC's birth in 1992.

In the Iraqi north, Kurdish factions can field perhaps 50,000 men, but the
Kurds have never ruled the rest of the country and have no ambition to do
so. What ambitions they might have, such as annexing arguably Kurdish towns
such as oil-rich Kirkuk, could rankle Turkey and other countries in the
region dealing with Kurdish nationalism.

The Tehran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or
SCIRI, claims several thousand armed men in Iran. Their London
representative, Hamid al-Bayati, says, "If there is a serious plan to get
rid of Saddam, we'll cooperate." But the group's army is heavily dominated
by Tehran and deployment would require a level of U.S.-Iranian trust and
cooperation that doesn't yet exist.

Opposition soldiers are only lightly armed. Even with U.S. air power, they
are no match for the Iraqi military. A popular uprising against Mr. Hussein
could tap the many ordinary Iraqis who own rifles and pistols, and are
linked by tribal loyalties. Many Iraqi opposition leaders base claims of
importance on their superior rank in tribal hierarchies.

But while they may long to be rid of Mr. Hussein, Iraqis have shown few
signs that they want to be unilaterally liberated by Americans, especially
without a clear vision for the country's future. Many opposition groups
have been outside Iraq for decades, and few have traction among brutalized
and depoliticized young Iraqis.

U.S. hostility to the Islamist regime in Tehran raises an obstacle to
smooth relations with strong opposition groups based in Iran. U.S. backing
for Israel makes Iraq's Arab Muslim majority suspicious of America. Several
Iraqi opposition groups are hesitant to commit to U.S. plans because of
Washington's past support for Mr. Hussein and withdrawal of support for
dissidents. Finally, cooperating with a U.S. offensive also could mean
participating in another round of massive destruction for a country that
has just about finished painfully rebuilding similar damage from the
Persian Gulf War.

Alphabet Soup

In the decade since the war, when Iraq's weakness and Washington's support
could have fostered a strong opposition force, the dissidents have remained
an alphabet soup of competing and discordant interest groups. Among the
dozen or so major Iraqi opposition groups, top players include the
Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK),
the Iraqi National Accord (INA) and the SCIRI.

There also are about 60 smaller dissident organizations, as well as
hundreds of individuals -- exiles, dissidents and traitors -- who work more
or less independently against Mr. Hussein from abroad. The most senior
military defector is Nizar al-Khazraji, a former Iraqi army chief of staff,
who now lives in Denmark and is being investigated for his role in the use
of poison gas against Kurdish rebels and civilians in the 1980s. More
typical is Ismail al-Qaderi, an Iraqi electrical engineer and a member of
the left-leaning, pro-Syrian wing of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party. He fled
Iraq during the 1970s and has hopped around the Middle East, been jailed in
a Persian Gulf sheikdom and has now found political asylum in London.

Many dissidents have suffered brutally at the hands of Mr. Hussein. The
Iraqi dictator learned ruthlessness when he was in charge of crushing
dissent before becoming president in 1979, and he has survived several coup
attempts since then. Ayad Allawi, secretary general of the INA, is a former
doctor who survived a machete attack by Iraqi agents in his London home in
1978. In just two days in 1983, the Iraqi regime killed 16 relatives in
Iraq of leading rebel Baqir al-Hakim, who is backed by Iran. When dissident
Gen. Najib al-Salihi, who lives in Virginia, seemed to be gaining U.S.
favor in 2000, he received a video of a female relative being raped by
Iraqi security agents. As U.S. threats against Baghdad have grown in recent
months, Iraqi satellite TV has aired footage of opponents' families still
in the country.

But shared persecution hasn't forged solidarity. Opposition groups have
launched venomous attacks on each other regularly, often triggered by
shifting U.S. favor. Mr. Chalabi has accused the INA of monopolizing the
heart and dollars of the Central Intelligence Agency, which was once a big
benefactor of his INC. Mr. Allawi has charged Mr. Chalabi with paying
journalists to write unfavorable stories about him -- something Mr. Chalabi
denies. Two splinter opposition outfits that both took the name Islamic
Action Group are bickering over who has the rights to it. A founding member
of the INC, Hani al-Fekaiki, summed up four decades of Iraqi opposition in
the title to his autobiographical book: "Dens of Defeat," published shortly
before his death in 1995.

Mr. Chalabi's personal history reflects the winding path of the opposition.
In early 1992, after the Persian Gulf War, Mr. Chalabi won U.S. support for
a drive to unify Iraqi opposition groups. He was the son of a prominent
family from the era of the Iraqi monarchy before 1958. He had a taste for
tweed jackets, a mathematics doctorate from the University of Chicago and a
keen feel for the U.S. political system.

That year, he helped organize a gathering in Salahuddin, a town just 250
miles north of Baghdad in the part of northern Iraq liberated during the
war and called Iraqi Kurdistan. The 200 delegates were an impressive
cross-section of Iraqi society: Islamists and secularists, Shia and Sunni
Muslims, Kurds and Arabs, communists and generals. A three-man presidency
was elected -- one Kurd, one Sunni Arab and one Shia Arab, each
representing one of Iraq's three main ethnic and religious communities. Mr.
Chalabi was chosen to head a 25-man executive committee.

The INC's ability to operate so close to Baghdad was dependent on the
Kurds, an ethnic population split into two main factions, the KDP and the
PUK, that were both members of the INC coalition. When the factions began
fighting over money and turf in 1994, Mr. Hussein moved quickly to fan the
competition, sending emissaries to both Kurdish groups with offers of trade
concessions and political favors.

Mr. Chalabi at first managed to avoid taking sides, and even negotiated
truces in which his INC platoons became respected peacekeepers. But
relations among the three groups soured in March 1995 when the KDP backed
out of an INC-led attack on Mr. Hussein's front lines at the last moment.

In August 1996, the KDP invited Mr. Hussein's army into Kurdistan to oust
rival PUK fighters from Arbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital. Mr. Hussein took
the opportunity to target INC safe houses and bases in the city, as well.
The Iraqis killed 50 of the several thousand INC fighters. A further 100
were captured and executed. The INC retreated to London and to the half of
Kurdistan controlled by the PUK -- only to be asked by the PUK to leave a
year later as Mr. Hussein ratcheted up pressure.

At Odds

The Iraqi Kurds have remained at odds with the INC on many issues,
including how to oust Mr. Hussein, since 1992, when the protection of
Western jet fighters and U.N. food supplies enabled them to establish a
relatively stable, autonomous government. For the same reason, both the KDP
and PUK have refused to join any assault on Baghdad this year without
U.S.-backed guarantees that they would maintain at least their present
degree of federal autonomy.

After Mr. Hussein's move against them in 1996, about 700 INC activists and
fighters were evacuated to the U.S., along with 6,000 pro-Western Iraqi
Kurds. INC headquarters moved to a warren of offices near Harrods. The same
year, the U.N. sanctions on Iraq were modified to allow Mr. Hussein to
trade the country's oil for food and services. He used the program to
bestow favors on neighboring states. In return, dissident groups charge,
countries such as such as Syria, Iran, Turkey and Jordan clamped down on
opposition activities inside their borders.

Turkey-Iraq trade soared, reaching about $1 billion last year from almost
nothing after the Gulf War, and Ankara restricted travel by Kurdish
dissidents over its border with Iraq. A Turkish official said there was no
quid pro quo. After Iraq opened an illicit oil pipeline to Syria, Damascus
opened discussions with Iraq on security cooperation. Two months ago it
closed down Iraqi opposition newspapers operating in Syria, including one
distributed by the INC. Syrian officials declined to comment.

Iraqi dissidents were also largely driven from Jordan, once Mr. Chalabi's
home, after the U.N. allowed Jordan to import from Iraq nearly all the
crude oil it needs at a discount, making Baghdad Jordan's biggest trading
partner. A Jordanian spokesman says, "An office for the Iraqi opposition
was shut down in Jordan because of accusations that Jordan was interfering
with Iraq's internal affairs."

Since 1996, the opposition has increasingly directed its energies toward
the U.S. Mr. Chalabi, whose biggest Washington backers include powerful
Republican senators such as Jesse Helms and top civilian Defense officials,
was a key lobbyist for passage of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998. The bill
gave the Defense Department $97 million to train and equip the Iraqi
opposition, and the State Department $43 million to fund opposition
activities. Funds, almost all from the State Department allotment, began
flowing to the INC in 1999.

In October of that year, the U.S. picked up the tab for a meeting of 350
opposition figures at the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan. Mr. Chalabi
maintained his seat on the INC's leadership council, but many opposition
groups decided to stay out of the INC framework after that. "After New
York, we thought the INC was finished. It is not our vehicle," says Mr. Allawi.

By early last year, Mr. Allawi's INA and the SCIRI were coordinating their
own meetings in London with the two Kurdish factions. In opposition
circles, the U.S. was viewed as anointing this bloc when it was invited to
meetings at the State and Defense departments in Washington earlier this
year. "The INC risks being marginalized," says Mr. Mack of the Middle East
Institute. Mr. Chalabi now deals with U.S. accountants sent to monitor the
expenditure of about $12 million that Congress doled out to the INC.

In May, the U.S. State Department took over from the INC the role of
coordinating among opposition groups. "There's a feeling we need to be at
the center of this," says Greg Sullivan, a department spokesman. Bringing
six main opposition groups together with the State and Defense departments
in Washington this month marked a new high point in these efforts at
coordination. The participants agreed on a larger conference, possibly next
month in Europe.

But while many dissidents welcome the U.S. leadership, some worry that the
intense U.S. involvement could taint the opposition as American lackeys and
spoil any chance of its gaining credibility in Iraq.

"Since 1991, everything has been going downhill for these groups," says
Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former intelligence chief for Saudi Arabia, who
paid for the very first opposition conclave in Beirut in 1991. "Every time
they meet, they tend to splinter more."




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