Less than a month after declaring unity at a conference in London, the disparate and ever-squabbling Iraqi exile organizations are having trouble convening a second meeting and laying out a role for themselves in a future Iraq.
The exile forces had announced in London the formation of a 65-member "pre-transition council" and pledged to convene inside Iraq on Jan. 15. However, arguments over the role of the conference, the prospective leadership and venue have forced an indefinite postponement, opposition officials said.
As the clock ticks toward a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq and the destruction of President Saddam Hussein's rule, the lack of a cohesive strategy appears to be dooming any clear role for exile leaders. Reports from the United States indicate that the Bush administration is planning a military and civilian authority to run postwar Iraq for a time, with no decision on any role for the exiles.
"We have many things to discuss and problems to overcome," said Hakim Bayati, an official of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is based in Iran and claims to be the main representative of the majority Shiite Muslim population in Iraq.
"It is a struggle. We certainly won't meet by Jan. 15," lamented a Kurdish official, who asked that his name not be used.
The Bush administration last summer hand-selected six opposition groups to oversee a united anti-Hussein front: the Supreme Council, the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi National Accord, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and a minor monarchist group. However, they have been fractious, and different U.S. government agencies have supported different groups.
A Kurdish leader two weeks ago suggested that the next meeting be held in Turkey. The idea was meant to demonstrate that Turkey had nothing to fear from a new Iraq in which Kurds, a minority within Turkey as well as Iraq, would play a major role. But that idea was rejected, other Kurdish officials said. Turkey has yet to declare its role in the possible war and its public is concerned about a revival of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey.
The Supreme Council proposed holding the conference in Iran, its home base. Ahmed Chalabi, of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, opposed that idea. Chalabi's base of exile support is among progressive, secular Iraqis.
The venue debate masked deeper disputes, one opposition leader engaged in the talks said. Chalabi is coming under fire for permitting two former associates of Hussein to be part of the council. Shiites who oppose the fundamentalist tendencies of the Supreme Council complain that the Iranian-backed group has been given too large a voting bloc at the proposed conference.
Several Iraqis familiar with the talks said there is also disagreement over the formation of a steering committee, which opposition leaders consider the core of a future Iraqi government. "Picking a leadership is the main obstacle," one official said.