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