Three months after the Bush administration encouraged them to unite and create a common political platform for the future of their country, Iraq's exile factions are locked in an ethnic, religious and political power struggle.
Potentially important players are fighting tenaciously over rival agendas. One of the major factions, the Iraqi National Congress (INC), is also feuding with the State Department over $8 million in funding for propaganda, humanitarian and other programs it is supposed to oversee, State Department officials said. A much-heralded INC "information-gathering" operation inside Iraq has yet to get off the ground, the officials said, because of uncertainty in the Bush administration about the INC's ability to get and relay useful intelligence, as well as competing views within the Washington bureaucracy.
Also stalled are the preparations for a pan-opposition conference that was meant to project a vision for democratic rule if President Saddam Hussein is overthrown. The conference was originally scheduled for late September, but has been repeatedly postponed. The next possible date is Nov. 22, in Brussels, but the INC is threatening a boycott. The State Department plans to send a delegate to London soon to meet with opposition officials in an attempt to end the infighting that has blocked the conference, a department official said.
The arguing has put into doubt a role for Iraqi exiles in the country's future and presents a grim preview of problems for any U.S. occupation of Iraq.
Some of the disputes are based on ethnic suspicions and religious rivalries. During his decades in power, Hussein has tamped down such conflicts through repression. But by President Bush's reckoning, the new Iraq is supposed to resolve its problems within a democratic system.
The Bush administration officially recognizes six opposition organizations. One is the INC, an amalgam of anti-Hussein groups. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party represent the Kurdish population, based in northern Iraq. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI), an Iranian-based fundamentalist group, claims to represent the majority Shiite Muslim population. The Iraqi National Accord is composed of former army officers and defectors from Hussein's Baathist party. Also thrown into the mix is a monarchist party that embodies the aspirations of Sharif Ali bin Al Hussein, an exiled aristocrat, to restore the Hashemite throne to Iraq.
Bush also has authorized expansion of the opposition organizations to include groups representing other former military officers and Turkish, Assyrian and Christian minorities.
The INC leader, Ahmed Chalabi, may boycott the conference over the scope of its agenda, the number of delegates and the quotas given invited organizations. Chalabi had wanted the conference to endorse a provisional government, with him as its leader. He also wanted upwards of 300 delegates chosen partly on the basis of profession, gender and politics, not solely because of ethnicity or religion.
The Kurdish parties, SCIRI and the Iraqi National Accord combined to squash the provisional government idea and other Chalabi proposals, and to limit the conference to about 180 participants. Fundamentalist Shiite Muslim representatives would make up about 35 percent of the delegates, a quota that offended secular Iraqis such as Chalabi. The Kurds would make up 25 percent, Turks and Assyrians 10 percent. The remaining delegates would be Sunni Muslims, the group that has traditionally ruled Iraq.
Kanan Makiya, a prominent writer and critic of the Iraqi government, launched a fierce critique of the conference plans and called on Iraqi exiles to deluge the State Department with statements of protest. "Where are the independents? Where are the democrats? . . . Where is Iraq in such a travesty of democracy and fairness?" he asked.
"If the conference goes ahead as is, it will only further divide the Iraqi opposition, the opposite of its intended aims," said Siyamend Othman, an independent political observer.
Last week, Chalabi walked out of a meeting of conference organizers after SCIRI delegates criticized him for opposing the meeting. Kurdish officials involved insist the conference will go on as scheduled. "Calls for change are a minority opinion," said Latif Rashid, a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) representative in London. "There are just details that have to be worked out."
"The problem is just one person -- Chalabi," said Hoshyar Zibari, a top Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) official. "He doesn't want the conference to take place. He is fighting for his political life."
In the meantime, the PUK and KDP have made proposals that have upset their nominal opposition partners. The Kurdish parties plan to present a constitution for Iraq that would grant the Kurds autonomy in an expanded territory in the country's north. The city of Kirkuk is designated as the Kurdish capital. The central government would control only foreign affairs, the military and economic planning.
In effect, the Kurds want a federated Iraq divided between Arabs and Kurds. "This is a non-starter for the Arabs," said a SCIRI representative.
Turkey, one of Iraq's powerful neighbors, opposes anything that looks like a step toward Kurdish statehood and has been battling Kurdish nationalism within its own borders for decades. The Turks warned that if the Kurds occupy Kirkuk, a city surrounded by rich oil resources, they could face an invasion by Turkish troops. During a meeting last month in Ankara, the Turks asked Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who heads the U.S. Central Command that covers Iraq, not to use the Kurds in military action, Western diplomats said. The Kurds boast a militia of 50,000 troops and their leaders have expressed hope that an alliance with the United States would ensure an autonomous northern Iraq.
The infighting has discouraged U.S. officials. Although the Pentagon has tasked Chalabi with recruiting guides and logistics officers among Iraqis to help U.S. troops in any invasion, for instance, the program has yet to get underway.
The INC also had harbored hopes of getting funds to collect intelligence inside Iraq via the "information-gathering" scheme. Because of previous disagreements between the INC and the State Department, the program was passed to the Pentagon, which agreed to pay but then pulled back when Chalabi made the pledge public.