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CONFRONTATION WITH BAGHDAD

Diverse Opposition Groups Struggling to Pull Together

Activists: The exile community works to overcome deep religious, ethnic and tribal differences as hopes build for a new Iraq.

September 08, 2002|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — These are agitated times in the Iraqi community here.

Strategists gather in no-frills offices near Persian groceries and Islamic butcher shops, or in sleek cafes with views of Muslim women in black veils, full-length robes and high-heeled designer shoes entering Harrods department store.

The exiles talk about intrigues, their high hopes and the rumblings of war. They talk, at last, about action.

Ever since a landmark meeting with U.S. officials in Washington last month, leaders of half a dozen Iraqi opposition groups have been working to overcome conflicts rooted in their country's deep religious, ethnic and tribal differences. They have stepped up decade-old cloak-and-dagger operations: They are debriefing defectors and aiding guerrillas inside Iraq, and they claim to be infiltrating spies into the regime of Saddam Hussein.

They have sat down to define their role in the U.S.-led campaign to topple Hussein and bring democracy to Iraq once he is gone.

"Almost everyone is committed to democracy and a constitution--that is fundamental to our unity," said Nabeel Musawi of the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of opposition groups. "We are continuing to debate and that is a healthy thing. The debate should continue all the way to Baghdad. We are so diverse--Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds. We are as diverse as the American nation."

The opposition groups are organizing a conference of Iraqi exiles from around the world in Europe next month. They want to produce a manifesto outlining a democratic future for Iraq and a leadership committee to guide a post-Hussein political transition.

But some activists want to limit participants to no more than 100, while others insist that a truly inclusive event would include about 300. There is also infighting about a State Department program in which dissidents discuss issues such as justice, infrastructure and finances in a nascent Iraqi democracy. About 25 people took part in such a "working group" outside London last month, but a few leaders privately called it a waste of time.

The disputes are symptomatic of problems that lead some U.S. and British policymakers to conclude that the opposition is unreliable. Despite the exiles' exhilaration and speculation, triggered by an apparently imminent showdown with Hussein, critics say these mostly well-off, well-educated and Westernized exiles have limited clout in Iraq.

Like Afghanistan, Iraq has deep divisions that could tear the country apart if the current regime falls. Analysts say it is difficult to come up with a representative leadership council from among the exiles, much less a potential leader for a transition similar to Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan.

"None are ideal candidates," said Daniel Neep, head of Middle Eastern studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank here. "You are kind of importing a leadership."

There are an estimated 200,000 Iraqis in Britain, most of them in London. Their leaders say they wouldn't presume to create a provisional government now. They recognize that the leaders of the future could well emerge inside Iraq, according to Hamid Bayati, the London representative of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

"There may be people in Baghdad who are more qualified," Bayati said. "We are only doing political and media work outside Iraq. We would be disrespectful if we established a government in exile. We hope people inside will be major players."

Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, told Times editors and reporters that even if the Iraqi opposition unites, it might not be able to stay together.

"They will unite for the purpose of getting rid of Saddam, then they will fall apart afterwards over their own interests," he said.

Bayati's group represents the Shiite Muslim community, which dominates the south and accounts for about 60% of Iraq's 22 million people. The group's political and religious leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, lives in Iran.

Iran's government backs the group's military wing, called the Badr Brigade, which wages guerrilla war on the Iraqi armed forces. The council has put together a gory video of its actions, including a night raid on an Iraqi army outpost, a drive-by shooting attack on a ruling-party headquarters, and the attempted car-bomb assassination of a former Iraqi prime minister in 1999.

Neither the United States nor Iraq's Sunni Muslims want to see the Shiite organization dominate post-Hussein Iraq.

The organization's strong ties to Iran have ensured that the Islamic dissidents "have never been flavor of the month for the U.S. government," Neep said. Bayati said his group did not participate in last month's State Department conference because "we think Iraq should be dealt with by Iraqis. It will look as if America is trying to plan the future of Iraq."

The Shiite group urges the U.S. to refrain from an all-out invasion of Iraq.

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