Iraq’s fractured opposition leaders taking part in a meeting here this weekend say they are ready to hammer out a detailed plan for an Iraq without Saddam Hussein. But the unpredictable result of a U.S. military campaign to topple the Iraqi leader and distrust of Washington among the more than 300 delegates could render the landmark gathering irrelevant.
Over the last six months, plans for a similar meeting have backfired twice over bickering between the six opposition groups meeting in London under the umbrella of the Iraqi National Congress.
Opposition leaders say the weekend meeting, taking place under tight security, aims to secure three goals: a common political declaration, a detailed vision for Iraq’s future without Saddam, and the formation of a coordinating committee to continue to smooth over remaining differences between the participants. The committee will also harmonize policies with foreign governments that support Saddam’s ouster, namely the United States.
The meeting will no doubt be declared a success, and many note that the fact it is happening at all is a significant step forward for the divided opposition. But in several interviews opposition figures and experts, while praising the coalition formed between the wide-ranging anti-Saddam groups, were circumspect about what would really happen if the Iraqi leader were toppled.
“The conference is valuable, but it’s not clear how directly relevant it will be to situation on the ground the day after (Saddam falls),” said Steven Simon, an Iraq expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Along with the Iraqi National Congress, five other opposition groups will take part: two Kurdish organizations based in northern Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party; the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, made up of Shiites from Iraq’s south; Iraq National Accord, which consists mainly of military defectors; and the Constitutional Monarchy Movement, led by a relative of Iraq’s last king.
There is no love lost between the opposition groups, who have fought as bitterly among themselves as with Saddam’s regime over the 25 years of the Iraqi leader’s rule. But with a U.S. war with Iraq apparently imminent — and a $100 million U.S. fund for anti-Saddam activities paying out — the opposition is at pains to show they are working together.
“We are diverse,” said Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, leader of the Constitutional Monarchy Movement and a cousin of Iraq’s last king, assassinated in 1958. “We have different views. We have different political parties and different outlooks. But we are united in our effort to overthrow the regime and establish democracy.”
In what appeared to be a carefully coordinated display of unity, other opposition leaders struck a similar chord — praising the coalition built despite months of bickering.
“We are going to reshape Iraq on the basis of democracy, human rights and full equality of citizenship,” said Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
While leaders seek to impress with their new rhetoric, divisions are still visible. At a mosque in north London this week about 60 Iraqi tribal groups in exile met alone to hammer out their own manifesto to push at the conference. Initially not invited to participate in the wider opposition meeting, the tribal leaders held up the conference for months while they negotiated for their inclusion.
If Washington follows through with its threat to topple Saddam, the tribal leaders say, they are ready to issue a call to arms to their followers to take back their villages and towns from the control of Saddam’s regime.
The heads of the primary opposition groups at the conference are also promoting their ability to assume leadership roles in a post-Saddam environment. At the meeting, they will establish a 45-member coordinating council to manage a common policy — a body which would then oversee the formation of a transitional government.
But U.S. officials say that, while they welcome the showing of unity, they are wary that the fragile alliance could quickly crumble over power squabbles in an Iraqi leadership vacuum. Also a problem, officials say privately, is that the opposition in exile has to contend with groups inside Iraq which will also want a say in a new government, including the powerful army.
Iraq expert Simon says the “unpredictability” of war could mean Iraq’s new government comes from within, not from without.
“The manner in which the war is fought and how quickly resistance collapses will determine how much of the existing structure of Iraqi government is sustained for some transitional period,” Simon said.
If Saddam’s army, sensing the end to the Iraqi leader’s regime, stages a palace coup, the Iraqi opposition in exile would have little hope replacing a new Iraqi military leadership formed before they get to Baghdad, Simon said.
Opposition leaders counter that their help will be crucial to any U.S. military action in Iraq. Speaking of the Iraqi military defectors who regularly cross into northern Iraq, a virtual safe-haven under U.S. and British protection, Kurdish leader Talabani said his inroads with the Iraqi military are in U.S. interests. Kurdish leaders, he said, have been “encouraging” defectors to stay within the Iraqi army, so when a U.S. invasion comes they will be well placed within Saddam’s armed forces to lead their troops to disobey the Iraqi leader.
Burned by U.S. promises before, however, opposition leaders say they, too, are skeptical of their would-be ally’s intentions.
“The United States has had three policies on Iraq: In the 1980s, they supported Saddam’s regime. Then they concentrated on containing the regime. Now Washington’s policy is to change the regime. We have been trying all the time to change the regime while American was changing its policy,” said Hazir Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a representative of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which saw thousands of its supporters slaughtered by Saddam’s forces after the CIA went back on a deal to support their post-Gulf War uprising that aimed to topple Saddam.
“God willing, the conference will not fail,” al-Hakim said. “The United States might abandon the Iraqi people again, or maybe not. God knows what the Americans will do,” he added.
MSNBC.com’s Preston Mendenhall is based in London.