Iraqi exile leaders complained today that a U.S. plan to install a military governor for up to a year in postwar Iraq, as outlined by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, risks leaving in place an Iraqi administration dominated by the country's Sunni Muslim minority and veterans of President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
Leaders of the principal exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, said the administration plan, described by Khalilzad last week in Ankara, Turkey, seemed to reflect fears in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt that immediate democracy in Iraq could be destabilizing. The complaints also highlighted concern that the exiles' role in postwar Iraq could turn out to be less than they anticipated in months of lobbying against Hussein.
"I think it's a bad policy," said an Iraqi National Congress official, Kanan Makiya. "I think it's going to have the opposite effect that they want it to have." The group, which recently moved here in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq from its base in London, aspires to form a government in exile and exert influence in postwar Baghdad with the support of the United States.
Ahmed Chalabi, the expatriate Iraqi who heads the group, warned that the U.S. plan would leave Hussein's followers in charge even if Hussein were removed by a U.S. attack. Chalabi, who did not attend the meetings in Ankara but was briefed on them, said the U.S. plan envisions that only the top two officials at each Iraqi ministry would be removed and replaced by U.S. military officers.
"Power is being handed essentially on a platter to the second echelon of the Baath Party and the Iraqi officer corps," said Makiya, an adjunct professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. By leaving in place Hussein's "structure of power," Makiya said, the U.S. plan offers a leg up in eventual elections to the Sunni minority that has run Iraq for decades, even though a majority of Iraq's 23 million inhabitants follow the Shiite branch of Islam.
"I can see Saudi Arabia preferring this option over any other position," Makiya said, naming the country that regards itself as the protector of Islam's Sunni branch.
"What concerns us a lot is the perception of the Arab governments and their friends in Washington about the effect the example of Iraq will have on the future of the Arab world," Chalabi said.
Another opposition leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed. "The Shiites are not going to like this," he said.
But a Kurdish leader, also part of the anti-Hussein movement, put a softer face on what he acknowledged was a disappointing report from Khalilzad. "I want to keep an open mind about this news," said Barham Salih of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls a section of northern Iraq beyond the authority of Hussein. "The important thing is to get rid of this dictator."
Khalilzad, in his Ankara discussions, provided new details to the exile leaders of what the Bush administration has in mind for Iraq after the removal of Hussein. A U.S. military governor would rule the country for up to a year with the advice of an appointed "consultative council," they said they were told, while a judiciary committee would prepare a draft constitution and elections for a constituent assembly, which would debate, amend and adopt it.
The prospect of a U.S. military government presiding over Iraq's predominantly Muslim population has fueled concern among exiles and other critics. They point to the appeal of such voices as Osama bin Laden's in portraying the war as a campaign against Islam as opposed to President Bush's characterization of it as a war on terrorism. In addition, they complain, the emerging details of the U.S. plan raise questions about the extent of Washington's commitment to bringing Western-style democracy to Iraq as soon as Hussein is removed.
Administration regard for Iraqi opposition groups has declined markedly since U.S. officials publicly courted the fractious organizations as an alternative to Hussein's rule. Opposition officials acknowledged the sting of their dip in status. But the groups that claim to represent distinct constituencies -- Kurds on one side of the country and Shiites on the other -- have taken solace in the prospect of eventually asserting their power at the ballot box.
The groups include two Kurdish political bodies that have governed the rugged northern reaches of the country since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when U.S. and British warplanes began enforcing a "no-fly" zone that kept Hussein's forces at bay. Their militias, once considered a possible auxiliary to a U.S. invasion force, have more recently been regarded as a possible problem.
Turkey, a key U.S. ally with a sizable Kurdish population, fears that a war in neighboring Iraq would kindle Kurdish nationalism within its own borders. To help win permission to base U.S. ground forces and warplanes in Turkey, the Bush administration has told the Kurds to stand down when Turkey sends thousands of troops into Iraq, officially to seal the border against a refugee flow and provide humanitarian assistance.
Details of the planned Turkish incursion were spelled out in the Ankara meeting, the exile leaders here said. At the same time, they said, U.S. officials warned about Kurdish ambitions for establishing a federal-style postwar government, which Turkey openly opposes.
"They told the Kurds to be very, very careful and very realistic about federalism," Chalabi said.
In Iraq's southern third, a Shiite militia also poses a challenge to Pentagon planners. The force numbers perhaps 10,000 Iranian-backed irregulars loyal to Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
In an interview last week in Tehran, the Iranian capital, where the group is headquartered, the ayatollah complained that U.S. reluctance to share war plans has fed anxiety among Iraq's Shiite majority. Many Shiites answered a U.S. call to rise up against Hussein after the Gulf War only to be slaughtered by his forces.
"The people are suspecting the Americans' role because in 1991 they supported the Iraqi regime when it was killing nearly half a million in front of the Americans' eyes," Hakim said.
While the U.S. officials were explaining their postwar plan in Ankara, Chalabi was drumming up support among other exile groups for a provisional government that would draw on exiles and democrats who emerge within Iraq. He pitched the plan to Hakim in Tehran before traveling to Sulaymaniyah last week to confer with Kurdish leaders in preparation for an opposition conference scheduled for this month.
The conference, postponed three times, is to take place inside the Kurdish-controlled zone, but only miles from Hussein's forces. Officials expect Khalilzad to head the U.S. delegation, but Chalabi's group said the Bush administration has been reluctant to encourage the provisional government idea for fear it would complicate war planning.