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U.S. Sidelines Exiles Who Were To Govern Iraq
Ex-Opposition Groups Called Disorganized

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Washington Post coverage from March-April 2003, including articles, videos, photos and opinion.

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By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 8, 2003; Page A22

BAGHDAD, June 7 -- Former Iraqi opposition leaders, many of whom were brought back from exile by the U.S. government with the expectation that they would run the country, have been largely sidelined by the U.S.-led occupation authority here, which views them as insufficiently representative and too disorganized to take charge.

In the six weeks after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces, leaders of seven political groups that had opposed former president Saddam Hussein acted with the swagger of a government in waiting. Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Pentagon-backed Iraqi National Congress, returned from London and ensconced himself with the help of his own militia in a private club in the capital's poshest neighborhood, where he received a procession of visitors who treated him with the deference due an incoming president. The chieftains of the two largest Kurdish parties traveled down to Baghdad from autonomous northern Iraq to hold court in large hotels surrounded by dozens of heavily armed guards. Other political leaders wooed people by touting their parties as key participants in a new government.

But as a scorching June heat envelops Baghdad, plans to cede power to the former opposition leaders have evaporated. Taking advantage of a recently passed U.N. Security Council resolution that gives the United States and Britain broad authority to run Iraq, the top U.S. civil administrator here, L. Paul Bremer III, said he intends to appoint Iraqis to a council that will advise him on policy decisions instead of endorsing the formation of a full interim government, which the former opposition leaders had hoped to lead. Bremer has promised that the council will include a spectrum of Iraqis and not be dominated by former exiles.

In a recent meeting with the seven leaders, Bremer told them they "don't represent the country," participants said. U.S. officials said he repeatedly asked the Iraqis to broaden their coalition to include women, Christians and tribal chiefs, but they failed to do so.

Rebuffed by Bremer, the former opposition leaders are quietly regrouping. One of the top two Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani, has left Baghdad. Chalabi's group moved out of the Mansour Hunting Club and into less prominent accommodations this week. His militia, the 700-member Free Iraq Forces, an American-trained contingent of paramilitary fighters, was disbanded last month on Bremer's order.

Representatives of the seven political organizations now devote much of their regular "leadership council" meetings to talking about how to regain political influence with the United States.

The decision not to hand over power to the former opposition leaders through a hastily formed transitional government, which U.S. officials here said was made by the White House, means the United States will occupy Iraq much longer than initially planned, acting as the ultimate authority for governing the country until a new constitution is authored, national elections held and a new government installed. One senior U.S. official here predicted that process could last two years or more.

"The idea that some in Washington had -- that we would come in here, set up the ministries, turn it all over to the seven and get out of Dodge in a few months -- was unrealistic," the official said.

"We gave them a chance," the official said. "We bankrolled some of them. But they just couldn't get their act together. It was amateur hour."

The initial backing of the exiles was a contentious issue within the Bush administration. Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress was championed by the Pentagon, which provided him with a liaison officer to the U.S. Central Command. Many in the State Department and the CIA, however, opposed support for Chalabi, arguing that he would not emerge as a national leader.

Some U.S. officials here said the decision to back away from the exiles was part of a broader restructuring of the U.S. postwar occupation strategy that included the deployment of more troops to stem looting and the replacement of the initial civil administrator, retired Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, with Bremer.

Some of the returning leaders were viewed with suspicion by Iraqis who never left the country. Signs denouncing Chalabi, a banker who had been living in London, appeared on walls almost as quickly as those posted by his supporters.

In addition, after living for years in the West, many found it difficult to adjust to the austere conditions in postwar Iraq. One top leader complained of getting diarrhea from drinking tap water. Others said they missed family they left behind in Britain and the United States.

Former opposition leaders argue that U.S. officials underestimated the difficulty in building support and party infrastructure in a country where, for 35 years, no political organization except for Hussein's Baath Party was allowed. "We all have extensive contacts, but there is a lot we are doing from scratch," said Entifadh Qanbar, a top official with the Iraqi National Congress.

Even so, party leaders contend that they have made significant inroads, signing up thousands of new members and opening scores of new offices. They also point to Chalabi's extensive discussions with tribal leaders and Muslim clerics, and to Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani's meeting on Thursday with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of the most senior Shiite Muslim clerics in Iraq.

"We share Mr. Bremer's belief in a broad, representative government," said Hoshyar Zebari, a top aide to Barzani.

Bremer's decision to rely on a council of 25 to 30 members instead of devolving power to a transitional government has riled many of the former opposition leaders, who say that the Bush administration has reneged on commitments to let them be in charge.

"This is a regression of what the U.S. had promised us," Qanbar said.

"We should not be sidelined," he said. "We should not be looked at as unrepresentative. In any democracy, there is no government that represents everybody."

In a last-ditch effort to influence the interim administration, the former opposition leaders have insisted that the participants be selected through a national assembly they would organize. Such a forum could give them a chance to ensure that the council was stacked with their members and allies.

Bremer, however, has rejected that request, insisting that it would take too long to convene an assembly and that it could be prone to manipulation by former Baathists and radical Islamic clerics.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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