By Craig S. SmithNew York Times
December 18, 2002
Iraqi opposition meeting ends with a call "for a democratic, federal, parliamentary government" in Iraq and a demand that the US let Iraqis take control the country if they drive Saddam from power. The group remained divided on several issues and some delegated left in anger because of the US's "cooking" of the conference. A meeting of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi enemies ended today with a nearly unified call for a democratic, federal, parliamentary government to replace their country's dictator and a demand that the United States allow Iraqis to take immediate control of the country if Mr. Hussein is driven from power.
But despite the rousing declaration and the naming of a 65-member follow-up committee, the delegates remained deeply divided and the constellation of six major groups that have long dominated the opposition was left largely unchanged.
"The conference was useful in showing unity of purpose," said Ayad Alawi, leader of one of the groups, the Iraqi National Accord, before adding that the conference's only real function was to garner publicity.
It marked the end of an eventful, if unpredictable, four days. The bodyguard of one tribal chieftain was arrested on Saturday for carrying a concealed weapon, while a bomb threat circulated quietly among the conference's security personnel. A handful of delegates, mostly Shiite Muslims, stormed out of the final session on Tuesday, shouting angrily that the conference had been "cooked" from the start by the United States.
The Bush administration had pushed for the meeting as part of a campaign to prove that viable Iraqi leaders exist to fill the void that would be left by destroying Mr. Hussein's government and that removing Mr. Hussein would not cause a civil war between rival groups.
American officials circulated a memo among senior opposition leaders weeks before the conference. According to opposition members, Washington wants the opposition to enhance its credibility without growing too independent, so that the United States controls Iraq's political future yet has a legitimizing Iraqi partner ready in the wings in case one is needed after any invasion.
There were American officials on hand to monitor the conference, cajoling its leaders in private to meet the goals set by Washington while ensuring that they did not overstep the American-drawn boundaries. At one point early Monday morning, the deputy assistant secretary of defense, William Luti, and the United States special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with deadlocked delegates from the six major groups, berating them for getting hung up on details that are not likely to matter in the long run, several delegates said.
The conference, part political convention and part public relations display, named a committee to represent the opposition in the international community as the possibility of war increases, one of the goals set by the United States.
"It's just large enough to be useless," said Kanan Makiya, a writer and independent delegate who had lobbied hard for a more focused team that could act as a transitional authority in the wake of Mr. Hussein's ouster.
Shiite Muslims got about half of the seats on the committee, with the largest share â€” at least 10 seats â€” going to the Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a conservative Shiite group that claims to have thousands of men under arms in Iran and Iraq.
The conference, which had been scheduled to end on Sunday, dragged into a fourth day as delegates haggled over the distribution of the Shiite Muslim seats and the supreme council's representatives consulted with their leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, in Tehran.
While the ayatollah himself is not on the committee, leaders of the five other major opposition groups are. The balance is made up mostly of independent activists or members of the some of opposition's myriad smaller groups.
A disapproving murmur rippled through the delegates when Wafiq Sumarahi's name was read among the final list of committee members. Mr. Sumarahi, the former head of Iraqi military intelligence, defected in 1994 and now lives in Europe.
Some delegates said the committee would meet on Jan. 15 in Erbil, the de facto capital of northern Iraq, and spoke hopefully of its forming the core of a provisional government if Mr. Hussein falls. Many more, though, said they doubted that the unwieldy body would ever exert any real power because the six most important opposition groups within it continue to maneuver independently.
"The people who are going to govern Iraq are in this room, but they won't necessarily be this committee," said Peter Galbraith, a professor at Washington's National War College and a longtime observer of the Iraqi opposition, who was a guest at the conference.
The opposition appeared united in its demand that the United States leave governance of a post-Hussein Iraq to Iraqis and rejected an American proposal to install a temporary United States military government. But several senior members of some of the largest groups said privately that such statements were largely political posturing because none of the opposition groups wants to be seen as an American patsy.
The groups have met before, in 1992 in northern Iraq and in 1999 in New York, but each time their fragile alliances have broken down, sometimes in bloodshed.
In private, the various groups continue to express ambivalence and mistrust of one another, and there is little reason to believe that the public union forged at this conference is more durable than those of the past â€” except that all crave the endorsement of the United States, which is expected to directly or indirectly dictate the makeup of any future government in Iraq.
The conference endorsed the outlines for governing Iraq during a transitional period, including the adoption of a federal system, the establishment of a transitional national assembly and a three-person sovereign council. The transitional period would last no longer than two years, during which time a new national constitution would be adopted and parliamentary elections held.
Underlying the conference's show of unity is growing tension between groups with a strong presence in Iraq â€” like the Kurds, who control the north or the Shiite Muslims in the south â€” and those based outside the country.
The Kurds and Shiite Muslims are more likely to be involved in any American military action or in keeping peace afterward, and emerge with strong claims to leadership roles alongside any credible Iraqi leaders who materialize from within the current government.
Groups outside the country are in a far weaker position. "It's normal," Mr. Alawi said, that to participate in the government you must have a presence in the country. "We have assets on the ground," he added.
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