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Iraqi opposition strives to unite for post-Saddam rule (TELEGRAPH UK) Christina Lamb 12/15/02) Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2002/12/15/nirq315.xml&sSheet=/news/2002/12/15/ixnewstop.html DAILY TELEGRAPH DAILY TELEGRAPH Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
The biggest meeting of the Iraqi opposition for a decade began in a London hotel yesterday in an urgent effort to present a unified front capable of replacing Saddam Hussein.

About 315 delegates from 50 groups gathered at the Metropol Hilton, west London, surrounded by Christmas decorations and a bemused Japanese party on a "cultural highlights" tour.

With Baghdad now in their sights, the delegates to the two-day conference have an official agenda aimed at drawing up a declaration of democratic principles and selecting a co-ordinating committee of "free Iraqis" to act as a rallying point for their compatriots.

The real goal, however, is to transform their public image from a fractured group of bickering parties to a united and credible opposition front which could fill a power vacuum - rather than a United States military governor - should a US-led strike succeed in toppling Saddam.

"We live in a region where everyone wants power," said Fawzi Hariri, the head of foreign relations for the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two main Kurdish factions that share power in the autonomous north of Iraq. "We´ve come to understand that we can only have that and sustain a democratic system if we co-operate."

Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a monarchist who hopes to reclaim the throne once held by his father, insisted: "We´re no more divided than many political parties in the West. What unites us is our determination to overthrow Saddam."

Such claims are undermined by the level of bickering over who would attend the conference, which led to it being delayed several times.

Some groups have boycotted it, and not all of the participants are convinced that life in a post-Saddam Iraq will be better - in particular the Kurds, who fear the loss of their autonomy.

The conference took place only after the Iranians acted as a broker, bringing together three of the most powerful opposition leaders in Teheran last week.

The meeting involved Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a Pentagon-supported umbrella group; Mohammad Bakir Hakim, who leads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a mainly Shia group with Iranian backing and a large following in southern Iraq; and Massoud Barzani, the head of the KDP.

While they might have been galvanised into a show of unity by the prospect of imminent power, everyone is jostling for position behind the scenes.

"Now that they can sniff Baghdad, everyone is trying to stake their claim," said Samir David, from the Bet Nahrain Democratic Party, which represents the Assyrian Christians.

"We would prefer an American or British administration as they would at least guarantee our rights."

Although most of the delegates are exiles who have spent decades holding long and seemingly pointless discussions, they deny suggestions that the conference is unrepresentative.

Mr Hariri said: "Change can take place in Iraq only with the support of the people of Iraq. America might be able to remove Saddam but cannot establish stability without the help of the Iraqi opposition. Iraq is not Afghanistan. It´s a very sophisticated country with sophisticated people and they need their say."

The meeting began with a reading from the Koran, after which leaders of the six main opposition groups made speeches declaring themselves in favour of a federal democratic Iraq.

The conference was attended by 100 observers and more than 500 journalists. The person most observers wanted to see was Mr Chalabi, a former banker who clearly sees himself as president-in-waiting.

"The real action is not what is happening in the conference but in the small rooms in meetings between Chalabi and Barzani", said an INC official.

There was, however, no escaping the sense that the real decisions were being taken in Washington.

American pressure has ensured that the conference will not attempt to form a government in exile - something the US opposes for fear that it might deter Iraqis, particularly in the armed forces, from rising up against Saddam.

Many in the Pentagon are so disillusioned with the exiled opposition that they believe that any successor to Saddam will come from within the current regime.

"I had high hopes and low expectations but now even my hopes are low," said Faisal Istrabadhi, one of the delegates and a member of a leading aristocratic family in Iraq who now runs a law practice in Chicago.

He said many Iraqis felt betrayed by President Bush´s father, who called on them to rise up against Saddam at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, but then allowed the regime to crush the revolts by Shi´ites and Kurds.

"In 1991, the people of Baghdad were waiting to greet the American army as liberators but they didn´t come," he said.

"Since then, they´ve had 11 long years of sanctions and suppression. The Americans have no margin of error this time." Additional reporting by Adam Lusher (© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2002. 12/15/02)

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