US postwar plan irks Iraqi opposition
By Geneive Abdo, Globe Correspondent, 02/20/2003
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, planning for a postwar Iraq, appears to have turned its back on former proteges in the opposition in favor of a US military government because of concerns the expatriate politicians lack democratic credentials and could open the country to Islamic influence from neighboring Iran.
Leaders in the Iraqi opposition, who have received funding and support from the United States for more than a decade, have yearned to head a provisional government in Baghdad to replace President Saddam Hussein. But the Bush administration has instead thrown its weight behind a Pentagon plan for a US-led military government, opposition and US officials said.
Some opposition leaders have denounced the plan as little more than a blueprint for military occupation and an unwelcome throwback to Britain's colonial rule over Iraq after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
To counter the US plan, an array of opposition groups will gather this week in Kurdish-held northern Iraq to create a leadership council they say should play a central role in a postwar Iraqi government.
Although Washington officials insist they are keeping all options open for a post-Hussein Iraq, there have been growing indications in recent weeks that opposition leaders have been taken out of the administration's plans.
In a meeting in Washington last Friday with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, five Iraqi opposition leaders expressed their concerns.
"We told him that we opposed a military government run by the United States. Iraqis won't accept this," said Emad Dhia, former president of the Iraqi Democratic Forum. "But Iraqis would love to see the US helping Iraqis run the country. This is where the military can help."
Washington is considering a plan which would install a US military governor to rule Iraq for one to two years, according to US and Iraqi officials. Americans would staff the top levels of Iraqi ministries, leaving the lower positions to Iraqi technocrats, such as those in the ruling Ba'ath Party. US officials also would appoint a committee of Iraqis to draft a constitution. There is still disagreement, however, over who would police the cities and villages -- Americans or Iraqis.
The differences over a future Iraq came to a head after the Bush administration began to distance itself this year from key opposition groups, including the Iraqi National Congress, to whom the United States has given millions of dollars and which had once appeared to be Washington's choice to form a new government, headed by INC leader Ahmad Chalabi.
Middle East specialists who attended meetings between administration officials and representatives from an array of opposition groups said the Iraqis often bickered with one another and displayed an alarming naivete over how to run a government.
The Bush administration feared that exiled opposition leaders might try to exclude Iraqis now working with Hussein's regime from having a key role in state affairs. There also were differences within the administration over which groups were more capable of leading a new government, said Iraqi participants in the discussions.
"They [the Iraqis] don't trust each other sitting across the table from one another," said one US analyst who attended the meetings. "So how can the United States trust them to run a new government in Baghdad?"
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Marc Grossman made it clear that a US military administration would assume immediate control, later handing over to an elected Iraqi government.
"Both we and the Iraqis we are meeting make the point that Iraqis on the outside will not control decisions that will ultimately have to be made by all Iraqis," Grossman said. "The Iraqi diaspora is a great resource, but not a substitute for what all Iraqis will need to do together to work toward democracy in their country. . . . And while we are listening to what the Iraqis are telling us, at the end of the day, the United States government will make its decisions based on what is in the national interest of the United States."
There are also concerns in Washington that the opposition, some of whose leaders are based in Tehran, were growing too close to Iran. The Islamic republic, a Shiite Muslim country, has historical ties to Shi'ites in southern Iraq and would welcome the chance to spread its influence in a country ruled by minority Sunni Muslims. Iranian officials also want a new government to be led by Iraqis they trust, rather than the US military, which they view as a strategic threat.
The increasing differences with the Bush administration had remained private until last weekend, when Kanan Makiya, an adviser to the Iraqi National Congress who has been in constant contact with US officials, wrote a scathing attack on the White House in the London Observer. Makiya said the United States had "dictated" its plan two weeks ago in meetings in Ankara, Turkey, which called for Americans to run Iraqi ministries and American soldiers to patrol Iraqi cities.
In his article, Makiya wrote: "The plan reverses a decade-long moral and financial commitment by the US to the Iraqi opposition and is guaranteed to turn that opposition from the close ally it has always been during the 1990s into an opponent of the United States on the streets of Baghdad the day after liberation."
Other exiled leaders who oppose Makiya and Chalabi say the INC's dispute with Washington has squandered a chance for all exiled Iraqis to play a key role in a post-Hussein state. "There is nothing democratic about the Iraqis meeting now in northern Iraq," said Hatem Mukhlis, who has met with President Bush to discuss the future of Iraq.
Mukhlis says he told Bush that Iraqis living in the country must take the lead in forming a state once stability is established, or there could be sectarian strife among Iraq's many ethnic groups. Many exiled Iraqi leaders have no support inside the country because they have not lived in Iraq for decades, he said.
Other opposition members say a US military government in Iraq could be a stabilizing force in the early days after an attack, but that the United States should take a more discreet role once security has been restored. "The US presence has to be subtle, not direct rule" said Feisal Al Istrabadi. "Look at the British mandate. There was a British adviser over every Iraqi ministry. People resented this then, and now the Middle East is far more radicalized then it was then."
Another concern is that the United States will allow too many members of Hussein's Ba'ath Party to remain in any new government.
"All of us are afraid the US will do what's easiest and that is what will cause less disruption to the system," said Rend Rahim Francke, executive director of the Iraq Foundation. "The debate between the Bush administration and some Iraqi exiles is the degree to which the Ba'athists are purged. Some in the Iraqi opposition want them to be purged completely, at least those who support Saddam Hussein's regime."