Factionalism and ineffectiveness: the crisis of the Iraqi opposition

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Abul Fadl

Muharram 07, 1422 2001-04-01

Special Reports

by Abul Fadl (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 3, Muharram, 1422)

US secretary of state general Colin Powell’s tour of the Middle East in February has heralded a change in America’s policy on Iraq. In addition to “re-energizing” the sanctions regime, Washington will actively seek to overthrow Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. After years of waiting for destiny to intervene, Washington has signalled that it will get actively involved. To this end the new policy will channel financial and material support to the Iraqi opposition in the hope of creating a contra-style army capable of toppling the regime. But the new approach suffers from one serious shortcoming: the Iraqi opposition’s lack of effectiveness, cohesion and credibility.

In fact the Iraqi opposition has long been in a crisis that has left it impotent against the regime. One symptom of the crisis is that long years of painful struggle have failed to bring forward the regime’s end by a single hour. But the opposition’s thinking on the crisis has suffered from a combination of denial, self-deception, selective amnesia and political naivety. For instance, the opposition attributes its failure wholly to excessive repression by the regime. The problem with this analysis is that it reduces political processes merely to by-products of political despotism.

True, long years of Ba’athist tyranny have devastated civil society, obliterating links between opposition-groups and the citizenry. In a country ruled by terror, the construction of broad-based political organizations, mobilizing popular trends, organized effectively at every level, emerges as one of the first challenges to anti-Saddam activism. This became apparent in the 1991 post-Gulf war uprising, which took the opposition by surprise. Yet other factors are also moulding the Iraqi opposition’s crisis.

To begin with, the brutal repression has driven most opposition factions out of the country. Petty rivalries reign supreme among the opposition groups in exile. In light of the irreconcilable divisions and intractable controversies plaguing its ranks, the term “Iraqi opposition” implies a false unity in what is really several oppositions. The landscape of “the Iraqi opposition” is not one in which coherent political action can thrive, but rather a political quicksand where constantly shifting deals among myriad groups maintain the illusion of coordinated action but never address the fundamental task facing them.

The factionalism of the Iraqi opposition is in many ways rooted in the atomization of identity in Iraqi society. There is little or no sense of any over-arching identity that takes precedence over narrow ethnic, tribal, sectarian and regional identities. Major opposition groups have been incapable of generating the energy and vision necessary to break out of this impasse. Despite their declared political programmes, membership in and support of virtually all major opposition groups tends to coincide with communal boundaries.

But the failure of the opposition to break out of its parochial identifications does not rest simply on certain discrete policy choices. The Iraqi opposition in exile also lacks a first-rate leader around whom everyone else can rally. The leadership qualities of those currently leading the Iraqi opposition can at best be described as mediocre. Lacking an authoritative and universally respected figure with leadership skills, the opposition will continue to find itself drifting ever more deeply into the dangerous reaches of discord, chaos, and ineptitude.

The myriad Iraqi opposition groups are in theory unified in their ultimate objective: to overthrow the regime.Yet they have displayed an extraordinary failure to form coalitions of even broadly like-minded groups. A unifying umbrella organization that controls incapacitating disagreements has yet to appear. There is nothing wrong with having a choice of ideological orientations and political currents; in fact this very plurality might be a vital element in broadening the horizons of political discourse. The problem arises when differences of opinion and outlook dissipate energies and become impediments to effective political action.

Coalitions might help to resolve some of the problems that ensnare an opposition composed of a myriad of small groups. Under these conditions, a more unified and inclusive structure might allow not only clear thinking but also sustained political attention to the Herculean tasks involved in the struggle against the regime. But the fact is that differences separating even apparently like-minded groups have proven too deep to reconcile. The seemingly intractable disputes between two major Kurdish parties (the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and between two major Islamic groups (the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Da’awah Party) are a case in point.

The leadership vacuum and the crisis of identity have proven serious stumbling-blocks in all efforts to form lasting coalitions. But these failures combine with two related political and historical conditions to produce an atmosphere that has further obstructed cooperation between groups: brittle outreach structures and a culture of secrecy. Most major opposition groups are shadowy organizations shaped by an exclusivist ideology and an atmosphere of “terrorism from above” that is not amenable to open recruitment. This makes them useful for only a limited range of goals. Some opposition groups can best be described as quasi-political organizations, set up mostly to satisfy their founders’ personal ambition. Others play on the responsiveness of narrow segments of the Iraqi population to men who are perceived as having influence or wealth.

Understandably, secrecy is an important source of security and power in an environment of relentless repression. But in the case of the Iraqi opposition secrecy, which is used to prevent the flow of information, has paved the way for isolation and bred a culture of distrust. So secrecy has caused a breakdown of communication, and thus become a source of weakness instead of strength.

In many ways, several opposition groups and their leaders bear a striking resemblance to the regime they are supposed to be opposing, such as in their conspiratorial modus operandi. They also share with the regime such negative attributes as deception, a tendency to conceal facts, intolerance and a failure to admit mistakes, let alone redress them.

Although in the beginning opposition groups were popular because of their anti-authoritarian stance, their leaders’ inability to act in unison, their internal dissension and their lack of efficiency have led to widespread disenchantment even among Iraqi émigré communities. The various groups have had great difficulty in winning sustained support for issues that lack the immediate appeal of anti-Ba’athism, such as the nature of the post-Saddam state.

But whatever the full extent of these various factors in shaping the crisis of the Iraqi opposition, one of the most critical in eroding its credibility is its resort to rhetoric to mask its failure. The proliferation of revolutionary rhetoric without the ability to bring about revolutionary transformation has led to popular frustration and exacerbated the crisis.

The rhetoric of opposition in Iraq has always been uncompromising, but for the most part vacuous. The use of rhetoric has become a substitute for action. The absence of channels for dialogue has only compounded the difficulties. In some cases, reasoned debate has given way to obfuscation. Political debate often leads opposition groups to turn against each other with accusations of treason, betrayal and complicity in the regime’s plots and conspiracies. This venomous atmosphere has led many activists to withdraw and watch developments from a distance, partly to avoid tarnishing their prestige and sullying their names.

Recent reports, to the effect that the Bush administration intends to unleash the groups comprising the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in a guerrilla effort to topple the regime, expose another aspect of the crisis. Many opposition groups in exile have come to consider contacts with international and regional powers as substitutes for independent political action. Such an approach might be understandable in terms of seeking regional and international support; in the case of American support for the INC it reflects a realization that the opposition cannot do the job on its own. But the fact remains that no guerrilla effort can succeed without popular support, something that the INC conspicuously lacks.

Because of this, the prospects of a successful guerrilla effort led by the INC fail the realistic tests of historical experience. Even if an INC-led guerrilla movement were to succeed, its lack of an alternative leadership capable of preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq and the fragile unity of its people might well result in catastrophe. The experience of Afghanistan is a powerful example of a successful guerrilla effort that degenerated into a messy civil war in a fragmented society.

The Iraqi people have suffered too long from this government’s repression. They undoubtedly deserve better than to be terrorised as they have been for more than three decades. They also deserve a better opposition than the one that has failed them all these years.

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