Interview: Beyond Regime Change

Opposition leaders in Northern Iraq believe the US has moved closer towards supporting fundamental political regime changes, including de-Ba'athification.

Interview: Beyond Regime Change

Opposition leaders in Northern Iraq believe the US has moved closer towards supporting fundamental political regime changes, including de-Ba'athification.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Representatives of four US-backed Iraqi opposition parties and Iraqi independents sympathetic to them met this week in the liberated Kurdish area of northern Iraq to give structure and leadership to a 65-member Consultative Council elected last year by the so-called Group of Six - or G6. The meeting opened on Wednesday attended by a US government delegation led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the White House's "special envoy and ambassador-at-large for free Iraqis".

A key issue was the desire of many opposition figures for a provisional government, seen by them as the only way to avert an American occupation of Iraq or a takeover by remnants of President Saddam Hussein's Ba'thist regime. The United States is adamantly opposed to the declaration of such a government, fearing it will lessen opposition to Saddam within Iraq itself.

IWPR coodinating editor Julie Flint spoke to Kanan Makiya, author of “Republic of Fear: Saddam's Iraq”, professor of Middle East studies at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, and one of the delegates gathered within range of Saddam's guns just outside the liberated area.

Q: What does the meeting in Salahuddin say about the state of the Iraqi opposition today, on the eve of probable war against Saddam Hussein?

A: Fifty-three delegates out of an original 65 braved the elements, travel difficulties and the dangers of the area to come. I think that is very impressive. The Iraqi National Accord of Ayad Allawi and the Constitutional Monarchy Movement of Sharif Ali have stayed away unfortunately, but their places are being kept open. Prior to the opening, we had three days of "informal" talks among ourselves in Suleimaniyah. People used the occasion to air their views, to ventilate grievances and to criticize some of the bad practices of the London conference of August 2002 (when the G6 met to discuss Iraq's future in a post-Saddam period). Some people are saying this is the most transparent and candid conference the Iraqi opposition has ever had.

Q: When Saddam's forces crossed the 32nd parallel in 1996 and entered Erbil, targeting the leaders and the cadres of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), Massoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) broke ranks with the INC and a deep rift opened between these two key opposition players. How damaging to the opposition is that rift today?

A: Relations between Ahmad Chalabi and Massoud have been restored. The reconciliation started several months ago and has been cemented during our trip. Ahmad spoke very warmly of Massoud in his speech at the opening session of the conference today

Q: The United States has criticised reported opposition plans for a provisional government the minute war starts. Has this caused the opposition to modify its plans?

A: Neither the INC nor the coordinating committee of the conference plans to announce a provisional government. We are, however, talking through what it might look like in some detail. The United States is clearly and unambiguously against it.

Q: What relevance would a provisional government have for Iraqis inside Iraq?

A: The crucial relevance of a transitional government is that it would take us away from the paradigm of a military occupation and join the Iraqi opposition to the US enterprise at the hip, so to speak. At present there is no Iraqi partner for what the US is about to do. The US does not have the knowledge or experience of Iraq to pull this off without Iraqi participation. It cannot and should not work through Iraqi American amateurs with no real inside experience of the country, by-passing those elements of Iraqi society that have struggled for years and paid a heavy price in fighting Saddam.

Q: The US is embarking on a quasi-colonial enterprise in Iraq involving direct, physical conquest and occupation. Some senior US officials have recently had very harsh words for the Iraqi opposition. How great is US support for this meeting?

A: Before the arrival of the US delegation, I was worried about US support for this meeting of the opposition. I now realize that Turkish behaviour caused the US delegation real and quite remarkable problems getting here.

In the end, because the Turks would not let them through, the US delegation came without their whole "protection package", as it has been called - with barely a dozen security people. The Turks would not relent and let them in. US security is therefore essentially being provided by the KDP.

In spite of all these obstacles, the US delegation insisted on coming. That suggests seriousness. I am reassured. But there is nothing concrete yet in terms of defining the type of relationship that might emerge with the Americans. All that remains to be discussed.

Q: Many Arabs are calling Iraqi opposition leaders traitors because of their cooperation with a United States that espouses a clear and generally uncritical pro-Israeli agenda.

A: Arabs who call the Iraqi opposition traitors are themselves guilty of collaboration with tyranny and of silence over the gross violations that have been committed against the people of Iraq by their own leaders. I say they are guilty of perpetuating the war that Saddam Hussein has been waging on his own people since the installation of his fascist regime.

Q: There is mounting concern in the Arab world, and among Iraqis themselves, over US plans for the post-Saddam era. Many doubt the quality of a "democracy" imposed by an external superpower. Can Washington be influenced, at this late stage, by these small voices of protest?

A: I do not believe it a lost cause. Everything depends on their commitment to a real democratic and structural transformation of Iraq. If they stay this difficult course, they will change the face of the Middle East for the better.

I feel the criticism directed at Washington - by myself and Ahmad Chalabi - has had a big effect. In his opening remarks, Zalmay Khalilzad bent over backwards to emphasize America's commitment to democracy and compared what the US was about to do to in Iraq with what was done in post-war Germany and Japan. The US is now most reassuringly talking about de-Ba'athification, dismantling Saddam's repressive institutions and thorough-going democratisation. Washington's language has clearly changed. There is no more talk of "military government". In its place is American administration. In spite of American attempts to obstruct its emergence, a leadership was formed at this meeting.

Q: What is the mood among Kurds in the liberated area, knowing as they do Saddam's hatred of them, as opposition figures and foreign troops descend on them?

A: People are anxious and expectant at the same time. I keep getting asked if Saddam will attack Kurdistan with chemical weapons.

Q: How do you believe Saddam is going to fight this war?

A: He is going to dig in. He is going to try to draw US troops into cities and then do his worst. However I truly think the Iraqi army is not going to fight - or rather it will fight less than it did last time.

Q: Can the war be won without massive civilian casualties?

A: I suspect we will see fewer casualties than in the last war. The single greatest danger is Saddam's use of weapons of mass destruction against his own people. He would then attempt then to blame the US for the deaths.

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