Uniting the opposition proving difficult
By Aliza Marcus, Globe Correspondent, 04/11/2003
UNITED NATIONS -- Administration officials scrambled yesterday to salvage a hastily announced meeting of opposition groups in Iraq slated for next week, as one key figure was killed and several others threatened not to attend.
No definitive date or place has yet been set for the meeting, and even lists of who might attend remain vague. Some administration officials conceded yesterday that it might be "too soon" to assemble such a gathering, as looting and disorder gripped cities occupied by coalition troops.
"It's just not set yet," US State Department Richard Boucher told reporters. Vice President Dick Cheney had said the meeting would take place tomorrow, but that date was later amended to next week. Opposition leaders said yesterday a tentative date of April 15 has been set.
Confusion over the session, intended to convene Iraqi exiles and internal critics of the regime for the first time to discuss their future, illustrates the immensely difficult task the Bush administration faces in helping Iraq choose a new government. The meeting is intended to be the first in a series of gatherings designed to help the Iraqis chose an interim authority that will take over from a US-run civil authority.
Relations have never been easy between Iraqi opposition groups, who themselves represent the wide-ranging mix of ethnic and religious groups that make up Iraq. Yet friction has mounted in recent days, as the moment of Saddam Hussein's demise grew near.
Some resent the Pentagon's backing for the Iraqi National Congress, the opposition group led by Ahmed Chalabi that was airlifted to Iraq last week by the US military. Others are angered by Pentagon efforts to spearhead Iraq's reconstruction, particularly the fact that former US General Jay Garner will head the US-run transitional civil authority in Iraq.
One major Shi'ite opposition group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, had announced it would boycott the session if it had anything to do with "the Garner group." Yesterday, its London representative, Hamid Al-Bayati, said the group may reconsider if the meeting is to be "an exchange of views about the Iraqi interim authority."
But he warned in a telephone interview: "There are concerns among Iraqis that Americans might impose their own people. We have to wait and see."
Similarly, Sami Al Maajoun, the exiled leader of the prominent Bani Hajeem Shi'ite tribes of southern Iraq, chose to return from talks in Washington this week after refusing to work with the Pentagon in its efforts to administer postwar Iraq.
"They wanted me to work with one group under conditions I could not agree to," said Al Maajoun in a phone interview from his home outside of London, in an oblique reference to Chalabi's group.
Then, violence in Najaf yesterday claimed the life of a leading Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Abdul Majid Al-Khoei , who had recently returned to Iraq. He was someone many had counted on to play a unifying role.
"We needed figures like that, who have suffered from Saddam's repression and were willing to take an active part in democratization," said David L. Phillips , a fellow at the New York based Council On Foreign Relations, who has been involved with the State Department's Future of Iraq project.
A Shi'ite presence is considered crucial to any possible Iraqi interim authority, as they make up an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's population yet have never wielded power.
The civil unrest now gripping Iraq is complicating another of the administration's key aims: swiftly identifying anti-Hussein leaders inside Iraq to provide something of an internal counter-balance to the organized opposition groups who have spent the last decade or more in exile.
But finding internal opponents of Saddam's is hardly easy. British troops chose Sheikh Muzahim Mustafa Kanan Tameemi , a high-ranking tribal leader who heads a Sunni tribe and one-time Ba'ath Party member to help them restore order to the southern city of Basra. But many local Shi'ite Muslims took to the streets in protest.
Analysts say it is also critical to include tribal leaders in the new government, since most of the exiled opposition leaders are unfamiliar with how society has functioned there in recent years, and many are unknown to a large part of the current Iraqi population.
At meetings last month in Washington for the Future of Iraq project, tribal leader Al Majooun urged that US forces work with Iraq's tribal leaders. Had they done so, he now says, much of the looting and random violence now erupting could have been contained.
"I have been advising them to work with us and they wouldn't listen," said Al Maajoun. "Now, just look at the television."