Iraqi opposition conference in London reveals only their weakness and differences

Developing Just Leadership

Nasr Salem

Dhu al-Qa'dah 13, 1423 2003-01-16

Occupied Arab World

by Nasr Salem (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 22, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1423)

It was intended to be an extraordinary show of unity among Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s foes. But the Iraqi opposition’s conference in London last month ended up exposing the opposition for a faction-ridden quagmire having in common only a desire to be rid of Saddam. Delegates from a motley collection of Iraqi opposition groups, with scores of Iraqi independents, academics, intellectuals and activists of different stripes living in exile, all attended a stormy meeting in London from December 14 to 17. Originally the conference, which some called “an Iraqi loya jirga”, was scheduled as a two-day session (December 14 and 15), but it was extended because of disagreements about the composition of a “follow-up committee” that many observers believe will play a key role in filling the political vacuum in Iraq if Saddam can be removed.

At a press conference held on the morning of December 17, opposition leaders announced that all disagreements over the names and sectarian, ethnic and factional backgrounds of individuals sitting on the committee were resolved and that the body would be composed of 65 seats. But later in the day it transpired that the committee was being expanded to 75 seats. It is still not clear to whom the additional ten seats will go, but the mere fact that the committee was being expanded after it had been announced is a clear indication that all the talk of harmony and unity is hollow rhetoric. Even some whose names were listed as members of the committee have yet to accept membership. This is the case, for instance, of two seats allocated to the Islamic Party in Iraq, which boycotted the conference. The party is still debating whether or not to accept the seats.

One key sticking point was the role and powers of the follow-up committee. Some, especially Ahmad Chalabi of the US-supported Iraqi National Congress (INC), wanted a smaller committee, with an eye to using it as the basis for a post-Saddam government. Other groups regard such a government as premature and think that it amounts to the imposition of an outside political agenda on the Iraqi people. The formation of a large committee makes it too big to serve as a transitional government. Besides, it had been agreed that the committee will serve a consultative rather than an executive role.

Another sticking point was the representation of various religious and ethnic groups. Several Shi’ah Islamic groups were concerned about whether the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Ayatullah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, should take all the seats allocated to Shi’ah Islamic groups. But the predominance of SCIRI is natural: it is one of the best-organised opposition groupings, maintains a significant following and network of sympathisers in some quarters within Iraq itself, and enjoys strong regional (especially Iranian) support and a wide web of international connections.

The conference was trumpeted as an effort to draft a blueprint for the country’s political future. The final declaration conceives of post-Saddam Iraq as “a democratic, parliamentary, pluralist, federal [for all Iraq] state.” It also states that the “Islamic religion is one of the foundations of Iraqi state and the rules of Islamic shariah are a principal source of... legislation.” It reaffirms the commitment to prevent “chaos, blind revenge and any other form of lawlessness which may tend to prevail in the future environment of Iraq.” It also calls for the prohibition of “all the policies of sectarian discrimination” and accepts federalism as a solution to Iraq’s Kurdish question, thus conceding to Kurdish demands for some limited autonomy in northern Iraq to be continued.

While calling on “the international community to support the Iraqi people to become liberated from the dictatorial regime,” the statement rejects “occupation, internal or external military rule, external mandate and regional interference.” Despite this emphasis on rejecting foreign guardianship, opposition figures acknowledge that, as things stand, the transition to a post-Saddam Iraq is likely to be the outcome of a US-led military strike, and will therefore entail at least an initial period of foreign military occupation under a US-led coalition.

One interesting feature of the conference is that it marked the debut of a trend of so-called “intellectuals” (al-muthaqqafin). These are mainly Westernised academic and intellectual figures independent of the existing political groups. Many of them took part in the months-long deliberations of the Democratic Principles Working Group, which worked, under the aegis and guidance of the US state department and a host of American think-tanks, on drafting a report entitled “The Transition to Democracy in Iraq”—a voluminous document that served as the centrepiece of the conference’s deliberations. The “intellectuals,” who have in the past been largely on the sidelines, pushed for a greater role in the committee and seem poised to play a role in a future transitional government.

The idea of the conference germinated in August during meetings in Washington between senior US officials and representatives of six Iraqi groups: SCIRI; the two main Kurdish parties, Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which jointly administer large parts of northern Iraq outside the control of Baghdad; the Iraqi National Accord (INA) of Iyad ‘Allawi, which is comprised mainly of former Ba’athists; Chalabi’s INC; and the Constitutional Monarchist Movement, led by Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, a first cousin of the last Iraqi king, which wants to hold a referendum on the return of the Hashemite dynasty to Iraq.

After the announcement of the conference, each key opposition group tried to maximise its presence at the conference. The ‘Big Six’ tried to secure conference seats reserved for “independents,” wanting them for their own supporters. Chalabi even threatened to boycott the conference unless the INC’s representation was expanded from 100 to 300. He succeeded in this effort with direct intervention from Washington. Chalabi was concerned that a small representation for the INC would allow the “Group of Four,” a loose coalition comprised of the SCIRI, KDP, PUK and INA, to dominate the conference. He also pushed for the conference to set up a provisional government in exile, hoping that such a move would reinforce his efforts to secure a prominent position in any future government. Yet he had to drop this demand after his patrons in Washington made it clear that they “do not support the creation of a national assembly or a provisional government at this point.”

Chalabi is the darling of the ‘hawks’ in the US defence department (Pentagon), but is distrusted by the state department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), his former sponsor. He is considered the Pentagon’s point man in the Iraqi opposition. His cosy relationship with the Bush ‘hawks’ was highlighted recently by the Pentagon’s decision to deal with him as the only person responsible for nominating Iraqis for US military training.

The intense and bitter wrangling among the opposition groups prompted the US state department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council to send representatives to London, where most leaders of the key opposition groups live, to help iron out the differences. On October 11 US undersecretary of state Marc Grossman also wrote a toughly-worded memo to the ‘Big Six’, outlining America’s outlook on the conference. The memo said that the conference should be “a major public event to highlight the desire of Iraqis for freedom and liberty against Baath party rule.”

The memo laid out in specific terms Washington’s expectations from the conference. It affirmed that “those invited should sign up in advance to a set of principles regarding the future of Iraq, including the need for a democratic, multi-ethnic, unified Iraq without weapons of mass destruction and at peace with its neighbours.” Grossman went on to say that the conference would “put forward a vision of Iraq that will elicit support from all Iraqis and establish a steering committee with which the US can consult on a regular basis.”

The squabbling also led to repeated postponement of the conference. It was first scheduled to convene in Brussels, Belgium, in early September and then in late November. But the Brussels meeting never took off because of various rivalries and disagreements over its agenda and the number of delegates. Alarmed by the continued infighting, the US told opposition leaders that they must meet by December 10, two days after the UN deadline for Baghdad to give a full declaration of its weapons of mass destruction. Even then, last-minute squabbling delayed the conference until December 14.

During the conference, the ‘Big Six’ dominated the decision-making process, using various tactics to twist the arms of smaller groups and independents. While most delegates busied themselves with delivering speeches, largely full of bluster and empty hectoring, in the meeting halls of the London Metropole Hotel, the conference venue, the fourteenth floor of the hotel (where the leaders of the six groups took up residence during the gathering) became the centre where the main decisions, deals and compromises were made. Ihsan Abd al-’Aziz of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan expressed the anger in the ranks of the opposition at the strong-arm tactics used by the ‘Big Six’, when he told the BBC: “Everything is being cooked up behind closed doors upstairs.”

The follow-up committee is scheduled to meet in the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq on January 15. But the meeting may not be held because the opposition groups continue to be mired in the same sectarian, ethnic and political factionalism that have entangled them for decades.

Ultimately, instead of uniting the opposition and reconciling the many disagreements obstructing its effectiveness, the London conference perpetuated and institutionalised the differences. The arrangements agreed at the conference, and the intense bickering between various groups, seem more like a recipe for discord, rather than for harmony. This does not augur well for the Iraqi people: it suggests that the noxious clouds of civil strife loom on the horizons of post-Saddam Iraq.

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