Nation & World 7/1/02 After Saddam
Iraqi exiles jockey for American backing
BY MARK MAZZETTI
Dining on a pepperoni pizza washed down with countless cups of coffee at the Olive Garden in Falls Church, Va., Gen. Fawzi al-Shamari is a long way from where he wants to be. If he gets his wish, he will one day defeat Saddam Hussein's army on the Iraqi plains and lead his countrymen in the post-Saddam era. This might seem just a pipe dream for the head of the Iraqi Officers Movement, an organization of military exiles based in suburban Washington, yet Shamari isn't impressed by his rivals for the mantle of Great Liberator. "I once led 250,000 troops in battle," says the veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, who resembles a Middle Eastern Karl Malden. "Show me anyone else who has led more than five chickens."
Gen. Najib al-Salhi might be one such rival. In a twist reminiscent of Monty Python, he heads the Iraqi Free Officers Movement, another collection of military exiles in the Washington suburbs. Sounding like an American candidate on the New Hampshire stump, Salhi speaks of the "tough work ahead" and the "bond of trust with the Iraqi people." And, like any good politician, he comes armed with poll data. The former Republican Guard general netted the most votes in a recent online poll asking Iraqis their choice for a new leaderproof, he thinks, that he could be the right man for the job.
The American military campaign against Iraq may be months off, yet the campaign for political power among Iraq's fractious opposition is in full swing. Unlike in Afghanistan, where the shape of an interim government remained murky until after the Taliban was defeated, U.S. officials hope to have a clearer picture of post-Saddam Iraq before the bombs begin to fallif they fall. Consequently, officials at the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon are refereeing considerable maneuvering among Iraq's military, religious, and tribal leaders. In the words of Francis Brooke, "campaign manager" for Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, "the battle for Iraq is in Washington."
Think before you shoot. This battle will help shape the strategy that the Pentagon ultimately follows to pursue President Bush's declared goal of "regime change" in Iraq. "You've got to know what the mission is, and you've got to have a desired end state," says a senior Defense Department official. How much the war plan uses Iraqi opposition, whom the United States calls on to liberate Baghdad, and how many coalition forces might be needed for the assault all depend in part on whom the United States wants to see in power after the shooting stops. "You can't do this thing backasswards," says Whitley Bruner, a former CIA station chief in Iraq. "Until you have an idea about what you want the political outcome to be in Iraq, you cannot form a coherent military strategy."
Amid the quarreling among opposition groups, many agree on one issue: that an Iraqi provisional government should be in place before any military action against Iraq. The government could then elect a president to lead the nation in the ensuing power vacuum. Yet at several recent conferences about Iraq's political future, the discussions have often degenerated into squabbles among representatives from Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the Kurds, the military exiles, and others about what role each would have in the provisional government. "Everyone is talking about the percentage of power for their own group, and nobody is thinking of greater Iraq," complains Laith Kubba, an expert on Iraqi politics at the National Endowment for Democracy.
The process is further complicated by the egos of a handful of men who are making a play for Iraqi leadership. Says Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, "I think there are a lot of people out there whose political solution for Iraq is 'make me the leader.' " One man often accused of such self-promotion is Chalabi, who for a decade has been the most prominent face of the Iraqi opposition. His Iraqi National Congress has strong supporters among Republicans in Congress and at the Pentagon, and the London-based banker comes to Washington often to schmooze with top Bush administration officials.
ABC club. To his critics, however, Chalabi is more lobbyist than leader, someone whose support in Washington is far greater than it is in Baghdad. And he has made enemies at the CIA and the State Department, which say that Chalabi's organization is more of a cult of personality than the umbrella group for the Iraqi opposition that its charter promised. "It's become clear to us in the last year that the INC hasn't fulfilled this goal," says one U.S. official. "The INC has failed to gather people together."
Officially, Chalabi says he has no interest in political power. "I am not a candidate, nor am I seeking office," he tells U.S. News. Yet some in the U.S. government are not so sure, and consequently they are looking at what one analyst calls the "ABC club" (Anyone But Chalabi).
The State Department has been meeting with what outsiders are calling the "Group of Four," which includes the two main Kurdish parties, an Iranian-backed Shiite group, and the Iraqi National Accord. But groups are being added to the mix. For example, State is interested in funding a new group of Sunni leaders called the Iraqi National Movement. And U.S. officials are meeting with defectors from the military like Shamari, Salhi, and former Iraqi Chief of Staff Gen. Nizar al-Khazraji, in part to develop contacts within the Iraqi military who could turn against Saddam.
Working groups have been established among opposition leaders to look at topics such as healthcare, water and environment, transitional justice, media outreach, and security. Many Iraqi exiles are pushing for a provisional government ready to step in the morning after, yet State Department officials insist this is not the United States' intent. The challenge, says one, is "how do we shape the future Iraq without creating a government in exile. We're not going to declare a new leader."
At least publicly, many ethnic leaders of the Iraqi opposition say they will not take part in a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. They fear that siding with the United States will anger many inside the country and undermine their support after Saddam is deposed. Yet some experts believe that they will change their tune once an invasion seems imminent and the United States becomes kingmaker in the region. "All positions of the parties will change, because they will all have to find a place for themselves in a future Iraq," says Kamran al-Karadaghi, deputy director of Radio Free Iraq.
That might not matter, since some in the Pentagon are skeptical of how useful the opposition could be in a military operation. Specifically, many in the military doubt that the so-called Afghan modelusing U.S. air power and special operations forces to support indigenous fighterswould be sufficient to defeat those elements of the Iraqi Army that remain loyal to Saddam. As one senior military offi- cial puts it, "If we go with the Afghan model, I think we will be surprised and get whacked."
Nevertheless, some of the Iraqi generals are eager for a fight. Shamari has briefed retired Gen. Wayne Downing, the White House official in charge of developing an anti-Saddam strategy, on his plan for a guerrilla campaign inside Iraq. Shamari believes that with U.S. air power, opposition forces can carve out safe havens in strategic areas of Iraq, take control of the state-run media, and win over the support of the Iraqi people. And, since he is one of the senior Iraqi officers now in exile, he should lead the charge. But Salhi, who was once Shamari's protégé in the Iraqi military, dismisses such talk with a smile. "We are not in a war zone; it doesn't matter what rank you once were," he says. "We are all politicians now."