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26 November 2001

A tale of 70 factions and 400 suits

Where is the opposition in Iraq? Pursuing its own vicious quarrels

By Said Aburish

President Bush, beware: if you really want to extend the Afghan war to Iraq, you should know that the nightmarish internal politics of Afghanistan are as nothing compared with those of Iraq. The Northern Alliance may not be a very palatable alternative to the Taliban, but it has a certain rough credibility. There is no equivalent in Iraq.

Over the two years I spent writing his biography (Saddam Hussein: the politics of revenge), I got to know Saddam’s opponents. They are such a corrupt, feckless and out-of-touch lot that they make the Butcher of Baghdad look good.

The four million Iraqi Kurds are divided into two tribes, the followers of Massoud Barazani (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and those of Jalal Talabani (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). Together, they occupy a large enclave in northern Iraq where they have conducted an on-and-off civil war for years. Barazani and Talabani disagree, often bloodily, over how to divide the money they get from the CIA, which pays them to keep Saddam off balance. They fight over the proceeds from smuggling goods, including oil, between Iraq and Turkey. And they compete for the bribes Saddam offers them.

Their hostility to each other keeps them from doing anything to bring down the Iraqi regime. In fact, they choose to forget that Saddam used chemical weapons against them, and shamelessly accept financial and military support from him. They even accept financial help from Iran.

Iraq’s Shi’as, 60 per cent of the population, are equally split. Some want an Iraq with close ties to Shi’a Iran; others insist they are Arabs and that, to succeed, they should depend on fellow Arabs, namely Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. A third group believes in co-operating with the US, and accordingly gets paid for it. The US and UK are reluctant to help the two Shi’a groups that command real followings inside Iraq, largely because Daawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq are Islamic fundamentalist.

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In addition to the Kurds and Shi’as, there are more than 70 other “opposition” parties. Some are made up of Saddam’s old cronies, people who turned against him after they lost their jobs. To make a living, they accept the backing of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They publish newspapers and magazines no one reads. They have no offices or followers. In private conversation, they admit that their cause is hopeless.

Other anti-Saddam parties are led by former Iraqi army officers; some are Saddam-appointed generals, people who rose through the ranks because of their loyalty to him, rather than any military competence. Their reasons for opposing him are also mostly personal – demotions or sackings.

The last anti-Saddam faction is made up of old politicians who left Iraq in the 1950s, when the monarchy was overthrown. Having lived abroad most of their lives, the leaders of these groups know very little about Iraq and its people. According to one of them, Saddam should not rule Iraq because he came from a poor background and “we don’t even know who his father is”. Another claims that Saddam is an undercover Mossad agent, part of “a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Iraq”.

These are the groups the United States is trying to unite under one command capable of toppling Saddam, as the Iraqi National Congress (INC). Over the past ten years, they have met in Vienna, Salahuddin in northern Iraq, at Windsor and, most notably, in New York in October 1999.

The participants frequently walk out during these meetings; the men quarrel over who got most of the $96m allocated by the US to Saddam’s opponents under the Iraq Liberation Act. One of the delegates at the New York meeting told me about the former INC chairman Ahmad Chalabi: “He takes more than his share, much more than his share, and I get nothing. Just look at the way he dresses. They say Saddam has 300 suits; well, this guy has 400.”

Last year, both Frank Ricciardone, the former head of the Iraq desk at the US State Department, and General Anthony Zinni, the former head of the US Central Command, stated that the Iraqi opposition to Saddam was incapable of toppling him. Yet now, with 11 September and the war on terror, Washington’s commitment to overthrow Saddam is growing stronger by the day. As a result, the United States is re-energising the idea that these groups can replace a regime which runs one of the most tightly organised security systems in the world.

But this is a fiction. Recently, I examined my notes of the lengthy interviews I conducted with 82 Iraqi opposition leaders. I began identifying those on my list whose thinking resembles Saddam’s. To my horror, I decided that 75 of the people I interviewed were men who would kill to achieve their goal.

Poor Iraq. Even if Saddam goes, Saddamism, corruption and violence are there to stay.

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