US falls out with Iraqi opposition
America to run country as squabbling parties fail to agree strategy
Julian Borger in Washington, Michael Howard and Luke Harding in Irbil, Dan De Luce in Tehran
Friday February 21, 2003
The Bush administration is on a collision course with its closest allies in the Iraqi opposition over how the country should be run after the fall of Saddam Hussein, compounding the confusion now surrounding Washington's preparations for war.
Guardian interviews with four of the seven leading opposition figures have revealed the depth of the rift between Washington and several of the main parties claiming to represent the Iraqi people.
The split has overshadowed a much-delayed meeting in Irbil, northern Iraq, now slated for this weekend, which will bring together opposition leaders who have spent much of the past decade at loggerheads. It is hoped that the meeting will forge unity between the disparate groups.
But their temporary reconciliation has come too late for the United States, which has given up hope of unifying the Iraqi exiles, and opted to run the country itself in the aftermath of the war.
The Bush administration told opposition leaders at a meeting in Ankara earlier this month that it plans to install a transitional military governor and keep much of the existing Iraqi bureaucracy in place. The proposals have opened such a deep gulf between the US and its traditional allies in the Iraqi opposition - particularly the Iraqi National Council headed by Ahmad Chalabi - that a leading INC member has even raised the possibility of a revolt against the American occupation troops after the war is over.
The rift has also added to the uncertainty dogging US war plans, already on hold in the absence of an agreement from Turkey to provide bases for a northern front, and in the face of determined opposition in the UN security council.
Mr Chalabi is seeking to declare a provisional government when the war starts. The Chalabi plan, which has been seen by the Guardian, envisages the establishment of a leadership council, drawn from the 65 members of a steering committee appointed at an opposition conference in London in December.
At the onset of a US invasion, this new body would become "a leadership council of the transitional government of Iraq", which would oversee the preparation of a temporary constitution and assign an executive committee head to create the first post-Saddam cabinet. The plan lists the various ministries that would be created but fails to tackle the thorny issue of representation for the country's different ethnic and religious groups.
The plan has alienated some of Mr Chalabi's most enthusiastic backers in the Pentagon and in Congress, who fear the announcement of a provisional government made up of exiles would split anti-Saddam sentiment inside Iraq.
"People in this administration tried very hard to put the [INC-led] opposition into power," said Leith Kubba, a founder member of the INC who is now non-affiliated. "But after a total investment of $100m, they are saying look at the money spent and ask what do we have to work with? Is there a coherent front? The answer is no."
Zalmay Khalilzad, the White House "special envoy and ambassador-at-large for free Iraqis", only agreed to attend this weekend's rebel congress after its Kurdish hosts guaranteed there would be no declaration of a provisional government. "The Americans are coming," Hoshyar Zebari, of the Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP), said, suggesting a deal has been done.
The Kurds were ambivalent over the INC's plan, seeing the provisional government as a vehicle for Mr Chalabi's ambitions. "The trouble is it's all about Ahmad [Chalabi]," said one Kurdish official. "Who else do you think he has in mind for the head of the executive committee. He knows that if he enters Baghdad without this kind of deal, he'll not have the leverage he craves. There will be so many other exiled Iraqi technocrats returning that he'll just be one of the crowd."
Mr Khalilzad's arrival in Irbil has been postponed several times, apparently due to bad weather in Washington, but if and when he finally turns up he is likely to be given a cool reception. The INC is furious with him. The Kurds are anxious over reports that the US has promised Turkey that its troops will have free run in northern Iraq once the war starts.
And all sides suspect him of trying to undermine their clout by persuading other opposition leaders, including Ayad Alawi of the Iraqi National Accord, and Sharif Ali, the most prominent monarchist, not to attend.
The Guardian has learned that Mr Khalilzad is trying to arrange a rival meeting with 15 Iraqi opposition figures and exiles. Mr Chalabi has so far not been invited, but the meeting is expected to include independents like Adnan Pachachi, an 80-year-old former Iraqi foreign minister now living in Abu Dhabi.
Mr Khalilzad has recently been courting Mr Pachachi as a possible elder statesman to add legitimacy to the "advisory council" the US is hoping to set up as a complement to the post-war military administration. The day-to-day government would be left in the hands of the existing bureaucracy, made up of low-level Ba'ath party members.
The meeting in Irbil at least appears to have cemented the truce between the two rival Kurdish groups, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which spent half the past decade at war with each other. Both have repeated their commitment not to attempt to secede, but to respect the integrity of a federal Iraq.
Jalal Talabani, the PUK leader, pledged his party would play a role in a post-war central government, telling The Guardian "I think it is the duty of Kurds to play an important role in Baghdad for reshaping Iraq into a democratic, pluralist system."
The main Shi'ite movement, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has forged a temporary alliance with the PUK, and is attending the Irbil meeting but the Kurdish-Shi'ite axis is tenuous over the issue of federalism.
Mohamed Bakr al-Hakim, the SCIRI leader, said he is not prepared to accept a federal post-war Iraq. "Kurds want this kind of configuration but this matter should be left to Iraqis," he said.