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Waiting in the wings for Iraq's presidential office

Awad Nasser, one of Iraq's leading poets, says that now that the Iraqis are free they could all become friends of the United States. "The U.S. now has a wide choice," he says. "It should reward its old friends among the exiles without ignoring the 24 million Iraqis who can now become its friends."
Amir Taheri: Waiting in the wings for president's office
Amir Taheri, The Gulf News, 23-04-2003

London - With Saddam Hussain gone, a rush has begun for forming Iraq's future regime. This was the topic that dominated the "town-hall" meeting, held in an air-conditioned tent in the central Iraqi city of Nassiriya last Tuesday.

A wide variety of opposition parties, groups and personalities, almost all of them backed by this or that foreign power, are jockeying for position while the Bush administration plays its cards close to its chest.

The Iraqi opposition is often divided on the basis of ethnic or sectarian identities. But this is inexact. For example, one finds Shias in virtually all parties and groups. Even the Kurds are divided in two major parties and a dozen smaller groups while one finds Kurdish personalities and militants in predominantly Arab movements as well.

Leaving aside the Kurds, some experts divide the opposition into three categories: the moustaches, the beards, and the clean-shaven.

The moustaches include a number of former generals who hope to continue Iraq's tradition of being ruled by the army, albeit with some cosmetic changes to please the Americans.

The main moustache organisation is called The Free Officers' Movement (Zubat al-Ahrar), led by former General Najib Al Salhi who had for years commanded the Armoured Division of Saddam Hussain's Republican Guard. Salhi, now 50, lives near Washington and has many friends in the Pentagon. He is expected to arrive in Baghdad before the end of April.

Al Salhi says the reorganisation of the Iraqi army must become a priority of the U.S.-led coalition. "Today, Iraq is disarmed, weak and vulnerable," he told us. "This could be a temptation to some predatory neighbours to interfere in our affairs. Iraq needs an army for self defence."

Another leading "moustache" is former General Nizar Al Khazraji, who until recently lived in Denmark. Aged 64, Khazraji has the distinction of being the only one of five Iraqi Army Chiefs of Staff not to have been murdered by Saddam Hussain since his Baath Party seized power in 1968. (Khazraji escaped hours before being arrested by Saddam's Jihaz Khas, or special security in 1996).

Recently, Khazraji was the subject of a lawsuit brought against him by a number of Iraqi Kurdish families who claim he had had a role in the mass murder of Kurds in Halabja where chemical arms were used in 1988. Khazraji denies the charge.

Khazraji, a Sunni Muslim, is promoted by Saudi Arabia and Egypt which do not wish to see Iraq ruled by a Shia leader.

Syria promotes its own moustache in the person of the 70-year old ex-General Mustafa Al Naqib who once served as Iraq's Deputy Chief of Army Staff. Three other exiled generals, Tawfiq Al Yassiri, Fawzi Al Shamari and Mahdi Al Duweilami are also in the running, mostly with some encouragement from the United Kingdom and the smaller Arab states.

The beards category of the opposition is divided into four groups.

The largest is the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), a fundamentalist movement financed by Iran and headquartered in Tehran. Its leader is Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer Hakim Tabatabai who is related to many of Iran's ruling mullahs.

Hakim Tabatabai's group has a militia of some 10,000 men known as the Badr Brigade. Trained and armed by Iran, the brigade is waiting on the Iranian side of the border with Iraq for a signal to enter Iraq.

Speaking from Tehran, Hakim Tabatabai told us that he hopes to return to Iraq soon to "help reconstruct the national life." Hakim Tabatabai says his party does not want to turn Iraq into an Islamic Republic patterned on the one created by the mullahs in Iran.

"All we want for Iraq is a pluralist democracy," he told us. "We are ready to work with the U.S. and the UK and all other friendly governments to build a new Iraq where all citizens have a share in decision-making."

The next largest group of "beards" is represented by the Hezb Al Daawah Al Islamiyah (Party of the Islamic Call). Its most prominent leader is Ayatollah Mohammed Bahr Al Olum. The party is backed by Syria and some elements of the Iranian clergy.

The third group of "beards" is the Hizb Al Amal Al Islami (The Islamic Labour Party) led by Ayatollah Mohammed Taqi Mudarressi. With headquarters in Damascus, the party has garnered support among Shias in the Arab states of the Arabian Gulf.

The Shia political landscape, however, is changing by the day. With the traditional clergy now free to communicate with their community, it is possible that new groups may emerge inside Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali Mohammed Sistani, Iraq's leading Shia theologian, is currently engaged in a series of consultations to lend support to a new grouping of moderate Shia politicians inside Iraq.

In the clean-shaven category two groups now stand out. The first is the newly created Council of National Sovereignty led by former Foreign Minister Adnan Pachachi. The 80-year old former diplomat is supported by Britain, and the U.S. State Department.

A Sunni Muslim he is seen as an elder statesman who could reassure the Sunni ruling Úlite that is bound to lose its traditional power if and when Iraq becomes a democracy.

Pachachi who is also backed by the European Union will be in Washington next week to persuade the Bush administration to accept a "pluralist interim government" in Baghdad. Pachachi's position has been strengthened by a number of prominent Shia militants, notably Leith Kubbah, who rallied to him in April.

But the most powerful group among the "clean-shaven" at present is the Iraqi National Congress led by former banker Ahmad Chalabi. Backed by the Pentagon, the 54-year old Chalabi is as strongly hated by the CIA and the State Department in Washington.

Chalabi, who comes from a prominent Shia family of Basra, is the first of the exile opposition leaders to enter Iraq, at the head of a force of 1,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi fighters. His group has just seized control of the city of Diwaniyah in the Shia heartland. The Pentagon plans to allow his group to control a number of Shia cities, such as Kut, Al Imarah, and Ba'aquba that have not been affected by the war.

Chalabi insists that only his party could provide the "clean break" that Iraq needs if it is to become a model for democracy in the Arab world.

"Any half-way solution, any attempt at perpetuating the system in a new way will be a failure for President Bush's ambitious plan to bring democracy to the Arab Middle East," Chalabi says.

Another "clean shaven" group is the Movement for Constitut-ional Monarchy. This is led by Prince Ali bin Hussain Al Hashemi, a cousin of Jordan's King Abdallah II. The monarchists, however, include two other factions. Prince Al Hassan bin Talal, an uncle of the King of Jordan, and Prince Raad Ibn Zayd Al Hashemi, a cousin of Iraq's last monarch, King Faisal II, lead the two rival factions.

Prince Ali bin Hussain tells us that his movement will work for a referendum, maybe in two years, in which Iraqis will be asked whether or not they wish to return to the monarchic system which was overthrown by the 1958 military coup.

"We shall accept the result whatever it may be," he says. "All we want is a democratic system in which the will of the people prevails."

Yet another "clean shaven" group is the Iraqi National Alliance led by Dr. Iyad Al Allawi, a former Baathist dignitary who broke with Saddam Hussain after the invasion of Kuwait. Backed by the CIA and the State Department, as a counter force to Chalabi, Dr Al Allawi's group was the leader of an abortive coup attempt against Saddam in June 1996.

Apart from the above groups there are other organisations.

The Iraqi Communist Party, though divided into three factions, still has thousands of militants who could play a role far beyond their actual weight in a situation of post-war confusion and disorganisation.

Some dissidents of the Baath Party, led by Ismail Al Qaderi, are also trying to revive their organisation with support from Syria where a faction of the pan-Arab Baath has been in power since 1965.

The Kurds, who account for almost 20 per cent of Iraq's estimated population of 24 million, are dominated by two major parties: The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (PDK) led by Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani.

The PDK is closer to the traditional conservative parties while the PUK has adopted some leftist, pseudo-socialistic jargon. But the real difference between the two parties is caused by rival personal ambitions and local identities.

The PDK is close to esoteric Kurdish religious sects and enjoys widespread support among those who speak the northern dialect of Kurdish. The PUK is close to traditional Sunni Muslim Kurds speaking the southern dialect. It has also espoused pseudo-socialistic positions in the past.

There are, of course, also Shia Kurds, known as the Failiyah, who have always tried to assert their identity against the two main groups along with others such as the Yazidis and the Ahl Haq communities who, while speaking a form of Kurdish, do not regard themselves as Kurds.

Other ethnic groups, notably the Turkomans and the Assyrians and Chaldaeans also have their own parties.

The Iraqi Turkmen Movement, representing about one per cent of the population, is backed by Turkey and seeks a form of autonomy in the oil-rich regions of Mosul and Kirkuk.

What Washington may do is a mystery. Awad Nasser, one of Iraq's leading poets, says that now that the Iraqis are free they could all become friends of the United States.

"The U.S. now has a wide choice," he says. "It should reward its old friends among the exiles without ignoring the 24 million Iraqis who can now become its friends."

The Bush administration is plagued by a feud between the supporters of Pachachi and Chalabi. In recent days a new compromise formula has emerged.

Under this, Kanan Makiyah, one of Iraq's most admired intellectuals, would head the Iraqi Sovereignty Council while Pachachi becomes head of a Consultative Assembly, a transition parliament. Chalabi, for his part, would become head of an Executive Committee, a transitional Cabinet.

Makiyah largely inspired the 13-point charter approved at a meeting of Iraqi personalities in Nassiriya. The Naseriyah meeting was the first of a series designed to let Iraqis speak and, perhaps, learn the rules of the democratic dialogue. For the time being, however, it is retired U.S. General Jay Garner who will rule Iraq.

The writer, Iranian author and journalist, is based in Europe. E-mail:  amirtaheri@benadorassociates.com

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