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Iraq's Exiles Wait, Maneuver

Various factions outside the country jockey for leadership in the event Hussein falls. But infighting among the groups worries many.

November 27, 2002|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — The man who would be king of Iraq holds court in a living room lined with plush tapestries and mementos of bygone grandeur.

Like other leaders of the Iraqi opposition in exile, Sharif Ali bin Hussein left his homeland decades ago. His family fled in 1958 after the military massacred his relatives, King Faisal II and Crown Prince Abdul-Ilah, and other members of a royal clan resented as colonial puppets of Britain. The memory of the bloody coup makes it hard to imagine the return of a king even if, as the opposition claims, the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein is on its last legs.

But the exiled Bin Hussein, head of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, has a trait in common with other potential leaders of a postwar Iraq. He dreams big.

"The monarchy ... is the most viable system to ensure the functioning of democracy," asserted the 46-year-old former investment banker.

If President Saddam Hussein falls one day in a battle for Baghdad, perhaps Bin Hussein and other leaders of the Iraqi opposition will realize their dream of building a democracy in their homeland.

But recently, they have been busy fighting a battle here in London. Among themselves.

Ever since they pledged in August to overcome longtime differences, the six main groups representing opponents of the Iraqi president have been trying to organize a landmark conference of exiles to plan for their country's future.

But renewed infighting forced several postponements, most recently of a planned gathering in Brussels this month. After U.S. diplomats, defense and national security officials mediated, the opposition groups said last week that they would meet next month in London.

The exiles want to declare a common mission and build a framework for a provisional government. But until they pull off a conference, the opposition forces will have failed a basic test of unity. This aggravates doubts about their effectiveness among critics, who say the opposition groups lack a base inside Iraq.

"Ninety percent of the people in Baghdad won't know their names," said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi-born academic at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank. "You cannot parachute leadership from outside. In Iraq, there is a state, there are institutions. It is not like the Taliban in Afghanistan, who were not really a government."

Despite the obstacles, the London-based activists lack neither experience nor outside clout. They have survived assassination attempts. They have run spy networks and guerrilla operations, albeit with mixed results. They have cultivated allies in the State Department, the Pentagon, Congress and the CIA, a web of shifting relationships that has created tensions among those branches of the government.

The Bush administration recently approved $92 million to provide combat training for Iraqi exiles, many to be drawn from lists provided by the Iraqi National Congress, or INC, the most prominent group. The opposition could be useful intermediaries for a U.S. government trying to build a postwar power structure in Iraq. The State Department has held workshops here with the groups to discuss tasks for a transition, such as democratization and justice reform.

But the stated U.S. commitment to bring democracy to Iraq could clash with the authoritarian traditions of the Middle East, analysts say. Most of Iraq's rulers have been soldiers or former soldiers who gained power by force. A glaring exception: Despite his uniforms and swagger, Saddam Hussein never served in the military. He rose to the top as a gunslinging political operative.

Any ruler of Iraq must confront ethnic, religious and tribal fault lines. The country is about 60% Shiite Muslim and 35% Sunni Muslim, but the latter dominate the political elite. The Sunnis fear that mostly Shiite southern Iraq is vulnerable to encroachment by Iran's Shiite fundamentalist government. Between 15% and 20% of Iraq's population are ethnic Kurds, who control a semiautonomous region in the north.

The composition and conflicts of the exile organizations reflect that mosaic. There are two Kurdish groups, an Islamic Shiite group and the Iraqi National Accord, which is headed by a Shiite and includes former military and political officials. This "Group of Four" has clashed with the INC, which is theoretically an umbrella coalition of the major players, and with the monarchist party. The latter two of the Group of Four are a mix of Shiites and Sunnis, many of them well-off and Western-educated.

Skeptics in Europe predict that Saddam Hussein's successor in a postwar scenario will not be a onetime exile, but rather a military strongman.

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